Monday, December 1, 2014

Aunt Jean

Not In Vain - Emily Dickinson

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

I have come here today to say a few words about my Aunt Jean. Let me begin by acknowledging that some of you knew her as Mary Jean, but to me she was always Aunt Jean, so that’s how I will refer to her.

I feel I have to start by acknowledging that Jean’s life is not one that lends itself to an easy summary. If there was ever anyone who truly marched to her own drummer, it was Jean—a trait that is apparently genetic [significant look at Mark and Ian].

To someone on the outside looking in, it would be easy to assume that she had a difficult life, defined by a series of trying circumstances. She was a single mother at a time when that was uncommon. She suffered a couple of severe injuries at work that resulted in years of hearings and appeals on top of sometimes grueling and tedious medical treatment. Looking at her this way, it would be easy to miss the quiet courage and sheer persistence that it took to make her choices and continue her battles, and to overlook the ease and resilience with which she met each new challenge. She marched to her own drummer, but she also lived by her own values, and that is something to be respected.

First of all, it is impossible to talk about Jean without talking about her art. It was so much a part of who she was and how she interacted with the world. A simple brush or pencil in her hand was a magic wand—with a few deft strokes she could capture a moment or tell a story. When I was a child, I was frequently complimented on my artistic ability and told that I must have gotten my talent from my Aunt Jean. I took that as an enormous compliment, but it wasn’t until I got older that I understood just how good she really was. I took my first drawing and painting classes in high school, and quickly realized that I am what’s known as a “realist” or realistic painter—I pretty much paint or draw what I see. Jean was an impressionist—she painted with blobs and smears and light and colors, and when she was done, what she created was more beautiful—more true—than any photograph. I was humbled.

Please allow me a moment of artistic geekery here, but I also want to point out what a tricky medium that she mastered. Watercolors are delicate and require patience—you have to paint a little and wait for it to dry, then paint a little more and wait for it to dry—it is the art of painting in layers. Oil is the most forgiving medium. It takes a long time to dry, so there’s time to edit your work and get it juusstt right before you call it done (I prefer oils—I am an editor). For those of you who aren’t painters, what you need to know about acrylic paint is that dries almost instantly. There is no editing—you get it right, or you paint over it and start again. Jean preferred acrylics, working quickly and confidently to produce startling and amazing things. Acrylics sometimes get dismissed in some artistic circles, because if you don’t know what you’re doing, what you end up with is something flat and cartoonish. Jean’s works were anything but flat and they were far from cartoonish. They had dimension and light and movement, and the fact that she accomplished that with a medium like acrylic is just all the more remarkable.

When I was a kid, she gave the coolest gifts, because a lot of them came from her art stores! We had latch hook rug kits (remember those?), crewel and embroidery kits, kits to make leather bracelets and wallets and chokers (hey, it was the Seventies), and (my favorite) paint by number kits. I am, as I have mentioned, a realist, and my brother Wade is an engineer (he was even then), so we would sit with our kits and meticulously follow the instructions, staying carefully within the lines. When Aunt Jean painted with us, it was a completely different experience: She viewed the manufacturer’s printed pattern as a mere suggestion, and she took, shall we say, great liberties with the images on the board. Her paintings never looked like the ones on the box—they were always much better! And yet she used the same little plastic pots of paint that we did. It always amazed me.

But her artistry wasn’t restricted to two-dimensional painting. She was always trying—and mastering—different mediums and crafts. She delighted in any new technique or tool that came along: macramé and Modge-Podge, woodburning and leather working, beading and jewelry making. She crocheted baby blankets and booties, pillows and socks, delicate snowflakes and angels as well as colorful afghans and ponchos (again, Seventies). She painted ceramics and pottery, giving the pre-formed greenware details and colors that definitely were above and beyond what those simple forms suggested. And she loved to share what she made. Over the last fifty or so years, there are probably hundreds of babies all around Lynchburg who received, a sweater, layette, blanket, Christening cap, or framed announcement of their birth. They may not have never even met, but they still benefited from her handiwork.

Jean had an eye for beauty and a love of color, light, form, and arrangement that she brought to everything that she did. She always had a project going—usually several at once!—and was happy to show off what she was working on, but she was also always happy to drop everything and help you put together a wreath or a flower arrangement in a way that she made look effortless. She loved to work with other artists and crafters and had a great appreciation for things that were handmade.

That brings us, naturally, to her love of baking. Jean was a good cook, like her mother, but she was an excellent baker. She was always trying new recipes, making cookies and cakes and pies and cobblers, but also dips, Jello salads, and simply amazing cheese balls. Mom and I both have many recipes in our boxes that came from Jean, because Jean was always willing to try something new and share the results. She tested and happily passed along her successes, carefully noting where she had “improved” on a standard recipe to make it better. Her improvements were usually phenomenal, and we were all happy to be her guinea pigs.

Speaking of small mammals, it is also impossible to talk about Jean and not mention her love of animals. From the time she was a little girl with her beloved Cocker Spaniel Nippy she was surrounded by pets. When she lived in an apartment and couldn’t have a dog or a cat, she had a parakeet named Mike that she taught how to talk. But once she and Mark moved back to Lynchburg and back in with her mom, she got Suzie, a sweet little dog who had to learn to share her life with a lot of cats. Jean was the person who would stop on the side of the highway to pick up a stray dog or cat and get them to the vet or to a shelter (or, occasionally, simply to her house, where they settled right in). She had a long succession of cats and they all lived the spoiled, decadent lives that every cat seems to think it is entitled to, a tradition that Mark and Ian seem to have carried on! Jean would ignore Grandma’s rants about “feeding her food to those dang cats” while she silently swiped a leftover chicken thigh to shred for them.

And she wasn’t content to simply feed her own cats. She maintained outdoor dishes of food as well in order to feed any strays that might be in the area. The rest of us may have suspected that the neighbor’s pets were simply finding a way to sneak a late night snack or that the local possum and raccoon populations had discovered an unexpected bounty, but Jean didn't care. She just wanted to make sure that everyone got fed. And she didn’t just feed those strays, she took care of them. I know of at least one occasion when a neighbor got angry because they found out that their cat, who had been missing for a few days, had been trapped and taken to the vet and neutered. Hey, if you weren’t going to be a responsible pet owner, she’d do it for you!

That love and caring for the less fortunate also played out in her work at the Training Center. The Training School was not the first job that Jean ever held—she talked fondly of her days working for the telephone company when she lived in Arlington—but it certainly became a defining space in her life. For those of you who don’t know the details, Jean worked in a ward with men who had been labeled for one reason or another as “difficult” patients. Some had a history of violence, some were suicidal, all had some sort of “behavior problem,” but Jean loved them, and they loved her. She took care of these men that had been cast aside by their families, society, and even the institution that housed them, and they listened to her. I’m sure that her calm, unruffled nature certainly helped, but I have to think that they appreciated that she was willing to meet them where they were and treat them with kindness and dignity. Even after she was injured by one of her patients, she didn’t blame him and it didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for working with “her boys.”

Eventually, Jean found a way to take it a step further and bring beauty into their lives, as well: She brought her art to work with her. She looked around her ward and saw how bland, featureless, and colorless it was, so she got permission to bring her paints and brushes, and on her own time began to paint murals on the walls. Some of them were permanent decorations, but some of them she would change up, painting Easter baskets and bunnies, Santa Claus, or Jack-O-Lanterns as the seasons dictated. Her murals were so successful and so well-loved that she was asked to paint other wards as well.

After her leg was re-injured by another patient, she finally had to leave the Training Center and take care of her own health. At the time she was injured, Jean was overweight and had other health problems and had never shown much interest in physical activity, so when the doctor told her that the only way to keep from losing her leg was to begin a strenuous—almost daily—routine of physical therapy, exercise, and massage therapy, I think he expected that he would sooner or later be amputating that leg. Much to his surprise, she began her therapy immediately and took it quite seriously. It was while attending a water aerobics class at the Y (a low-impact form of exercise that her therapist recommended) that she had a life-changing experience: She found the Senior Women’s Swim Team.

Jean maintained all of her prescribed therapy appointments, but added the Swim Team practices and meets to her schedule. This opened up a new world to her—new friends to hang out with, the opportunity to travel out of town to attend swim meets, the chance to explore new cities and new areas. Suddenly, instead of art store gifts, I started to get cool new earrings from craftspeople all up and down the Eastern Seaboard as Jean indulged our shared love of funky jewelry. It was clear that in addition to a shared interest in swimming, Jean also found friends to share her love of painting and flowers and crafts and people, and it was fun to hear her stories of their triumphs and exploits. The team brought a great deal of joy to her life.

You may have noticed that the word “joy” keeps coming up, and I don’t think that’s an accident. Jean certainly had her challenges, but Jean’s life was not a sad or miserable or depressing one. She had a way of looking for the beauty around her, and if she couldn’t find it, she made it. Jean reveled in her art, but she always colored outside of the lines, and what she created was far better than anything the lines could imagine. Jean took in strays, whether they were animals or people and always kept a sharp eye out for the underdog. She loved her family-- especially Mark, and most especially her grandsons-- and demonstrated that with her actions, if not her words. In her quiet way, she brought calm and beauty into a lot of lives. 

Those who march to their own drummers sometimes frustrate the rest of the band, who can’t understand why just don’t just follow the routine, but the world would be a far less interesting place without them.

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