The Grace of Janie
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I'm sitting here, enjoying a rainy morning. In the Land of the Tropics, rain is rarely gentle. It is a stormy, violent thing that slips up on us without much warning and washes away just as quickly as it comes. Tropical storms are full of lethal lightning, pounding thunder and dousing rains. But today, the rain is soft and warm and lovely; a pleasure to watch it fall from the heavens and bathe my backyard in its balmy gray light. 

It is for Janie. I know. 



The sky has opened up to commemorate her goodbye.




When we moved to the Land of the Tropics from the Midwest, we settled into a neighborhood that held a house with four kids. Those four kids instantly became our fast companions. There was someone for just about every age and since there were more of us than them, we shared obligingly.

The Libster, (not her real name, thankfully) was split between my sister Jean and me. And Boy, did we  have ourselves some silly, delicious times. Every single day of our childhood summers was spent together, most days turning into 24/7 sleepovers. Amazingly, we never tired of each other. From the Barbie marathons where we kept the soap opera story lines going for weeks at a time, leaving the mostly naked Barbies sprawled across our back porch to our daylong swimfests at the Country Club pool just around the block from our house.

The Libster would show up in the mornings, towel around her neck, ring the doorbell and say, "You ready?" And the three of us were off, to spend the day in the glorious Florida sunshine, swimming, playing rousing rounds of Marco Polo, and our favorite-a sordid, nameless game we'd made up.

We would swim up to total strangers, pretending to know them, saying things like, "Hi Sally! How've you been, Sally?" And of course, "Sally" would insist she didn't know us and she wasn't Sally and we'd be all, "Yes, Sally. I know it's you! Stop fooling around, Sally." We'd keep insisting, in a creepy, sort of serial-killerish way until Sally would realize it was in her best interest to just stop protesting and paddle away as fast as her swimming abilities allowed her to.


Man, I enjoyed that sort of disturbing fun so much. 

I don't think about my childhood without the thought of The Libster, front and center. 

And Lib, sorry about that shiner I gave you with my tennis racket. I was never too coordinated as a child and I wasn't counting on you being anywhere within miles of my wild, flailing serve.

There was also a boy my age, a quiet handsome boy. But as a child, since he wasn't into Barbies or creepily harassing strangers, he didn't hold much interest for me. He was best buds with my bros. They grew up playing basketball and doing whatever boys do. He and I both had our first children at the same time. His lovely wife and I bonded over morning sickness and crawling babies and teething and now our oldest children both attend the same college. 

Their son, a fabulous, gregarious young man is great with adults, in that, he can totally carry on conversations with people his parents' age without acting as if it is a completely forced, painful and awkward moment in his life. Here he is with his Grandma Janie and Grandpa Bill.


He's a stellar kid.

He just informed me this weekend that his latest accomplishment in college was to eat a 16 inch-3 pound sub. It took him a couple of hours and he was awarded a t-shirt for his strenuous, digestive work.

He told me he wanted to give us his cell number. He's got our back in case the Odawg needs any help or gets in trouble or whatnot.

I'll have to keep him in mind in case my 100 pound daughter (dripping wet) wants to enter any sub-eating contests.


Did I mention, what a stellar young man he is? Truly.

The baby of our neighbors' family, a boy, was much younger than the rest of us, but it didn't stop him from joining in on all the fun. He was so comfortable in our home, that at three, he never knocked, he just opened the door and strolled in, checking out the kitchen for any delicacies suitable for his three-year old palate. I'll never forget coming home from church one Sunday to the refrigerator wide open and this three-year-old meeting us at the door, chicken leg in hand. We remind him of this every time we're together these days. 


And then there was the oldest, girl, Mary. Even though she was the same age as my eldest brother, she was the one my mother would call to babysit. I'm sure in those days, my mother was worried about torture and capital punishments being doled out the minute she backed out the driveway, so Mary was a constant presence in our house.

We two families, somewhere along the way, morphed into one blended neighborhood family, someone always at the others' house. Someone constantly watching over someone else. Someone always setting an extra plate or two at the dinner table. Someone always greeting the others at the door gnawing on a chicken leg.

Until our lives were interchangeable. Until one home was just the same as the other.

And through the bustle of four busy children stood a mother, a hard-working, good and kind mother, guiding those little beings through the world. An imposing job in itself, but for a part of life, Janie did it as a single mother. She worked full time as a nurse and the funny thing is, even though she must have been absent at times, I always remember her being there. I spent as much time in their household as I did my own and my memories are filled with her presence, talking to us, laughing with us, cooking for us.

There, always there.

It speaks volumes of the kind of mother she was, that Janie.

She liked to tell the story of when my baby sister was born. The six of us were shipped over to their house, while my parents went to the hospital.

I am sure anyone who is asked to watch six kids, thinks to themselves, "Dear God, what have I gotten myself into?" And I am certain that thought crossed Janie's mind, put into the position of having ten children under her roof. 

Just a few weeks ago, I heard her tell the story again. How, as we ate dinner together, grouped around her table, she was amazed at how well behaved and mannerly we all were. She said if you had walked into her house, you would have had no idea, ten children were there.

I'm guessing my brother Dennis must have been shipped off elsewhere.

No, I jest! I do. The big D is a wonderful man with a darling wife and two fabulous children. He is an upstanding individual in all aspects of life. It just goes to show that even the Hellions of the family, the ones who get F's in homeroom, (it's true) will eventually turn into men of gold. 

But, that glowing report, that story she told time and time again, was so Janie, always about the brightest moments, always about the lifting up. 

That positive outlook was always there, even through the tough times. And Janie's life had held more than her unfair share of tough, especially with four little lives dependent upon her to meet their every need. But, her hard days are not my story to tell, nor should they be even mentioned, because the bright moments overshone the dark ones. They are only mentioned because it speaks to her character, of who she was, a positive force in the life of those who loved her. 

The perfect example of her goodness, these four remarkable human beings who grew up to be shining examples of a mother's enduring love, dedication and tenacious work. The indomitable job of parenting, usually shared by two, for a good chunk of their childhood sat squarely on her strong, determined shoulders.


She excelled splendidly.

The story could have ended when we all grew up and away, occasionally bumping into one another, wondering, "Whatever happened to our friends, our neighbors of long ago? Whatever happened to Chicken Leg Boy?"

But, then there was this happenstance, this twist of fate.

My dad was one of nine. He was one of the oldest. His brother, my uncle, was born twenty odd years after my dad. That uncle grew up along side of me, more like another annoying brother than an uncle. I have never referred to him as my uncle. That would just be...weird.


My grandparents eventually followed us down to the tropics and brought my teenaged uncle with them, where they bought a house around the corner from us. My uncle became part of the roaming pack of teenagers who hung around on the manhole at the corner. 

Years later, he ran into Mary where they started talking about manholes and old times. 

After awhile they moved on from the conversation.

They married and had three daughters of their own and settled down into a life in our small tropical town. 



So, we neighborhood families, once again, were joined, but this time legally, this time for life.



Here is an example of our mingled crowd: My sister Jean, my mom and dad, Joy, Janie's daughter-in-law, and my "uncle" Neil with his mother-in-law, Janie, showing exactly what she thought of the neighborhood boy who married her daughter.

At all the usual celebrations, birthday, holidays, weddings, parties, we now gathered together with Janie and her crew. Janie, sparkling and full of fun. Janie who loved a good story and big laughter, who loved my parents, her life-long friends, who kept up on all our lives and now, our children's lives.

Janie with Bill constantly at her side. She'd met and married Bill, the love of her life, years ago. A kind and loving man, he replenished all her dark times with good. She loved to tell the story of the look on Bill's face when she told him she had four children. He stuck around and showed her that dreams oftentimes come true to the those who truly deserve it.


Two months ago, my uncle, the one I don't call uncle, hosted a big shindig at my house for Mary's birthday.

It was a rockin', boisterous party with all of Mary's friends and of course, family- both of ours, there.

I was mingling with all the party guests when I was told my presence was requested in the wine cellar.

Curious, because my presence has never been requested in the wine cellar, I peeked into our small redwood room tentatively.

There stood my childhood. 

My neighborhood brothers and sisters, their husbands and wives, some of my siblings and of course Janie, all huddled together under the watchful eyes of the legions of wine bottles. My hubby was pouring which can always be a very dangerous thing, ask anyone of his many victims. His pour is so discreet, it never seems as if your glass is empty, so you continue to sip, thinking, "Gosh, I'm not even making a dent in this glass of wine." Until many refills later, you come to know the evil tactics of the Magic Pourer.

My hubby surreptitiously filled and for a good, long time we drank wine and laughed and relived a lifetime and were together, a family again. 

It was splendid.

Several partygoers took pictures of us from the window of the wine cellar, but I have yet to see any of those. I have a feeling, thanks to the Magic Pourer, many of the pics have been hidden away due to incriminating evidence. Ahem, nameless girl, you know of who I speak!


So, I only have this. Trust me it was a much bigger, boisterous crowd. This was just the beginning of the bacchanalia.

Janie looked a little thin to me at the party and her voice was a bit raspy and I asked her if she was feeling well. She was bright and cheery and said she'd had a little cold, but nothing she couldn't conquer and then she went on to happier things, shifting the focus away from her and onto the delightful memories of our shared past.

A good time was had by all in that wine cellar on that very special evening and Janie was there in the midst of the wine and the moments and the memories.

The next week she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer.


Six weeks later, she left this earth, flying away, most assuredly up to the Heavens, surrounded by angels. 

The Lord in his favorable blessings, chose to keep her from suffering through a long, painful battle. 

When my father died, one of my sisters shared with me, that in her grief, she turned to a friend and asked in utter sadness, "Why? Why my dad? He was so good. Why would someone so good be taken?"

My friend turned to her and said matter of factly, "Cause God don't want no losers up there, Honey!"

No truth could ever be clearer. Another shining star in the sky. 

Janie, I'm sure my Dad's got a spot reserved for you at his card table. 

We'll see you again, but until then, we will gather together in that wine cellar, with that darned Magic Pourer and toast to you and Dad over and over again, throughout these years together.

Because,we are a family, made that way by parents like no other. 

Godspeed Janie. We send all our love soaring up to the heavens to you, from your family, your neighborhood-blended, chicken leg eating, generations full, wine-drinking family back here on earth. We love you.

Today's Definite Download: Andrea Bocelli's "The Prayer." "I pray we'll find your light and hold it in our hearts when stars go out each night." For Janie.
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3 comments:

nicole said...

So, Tommy and I have just finished reading this incredible piece that honors and highlights Mom's memory. We laughed and we cried but ultimately, this story has brought us a sense of peace and happiness. You are an incredibly gifted writer and thank you for sharing. --Nicole and the Chicken Leg eating boy !!

becca said...

Joann, I just finished reading this and wow, I am just so thankful for everything I have! I always thought that when people talked about their family that there was something missing from theirs, but really it's just the fact that our family has something extra. I haven't figured it out yet and I'm not exactly sure thatI'll ever figure it out. When I read this it brought me laughter and it also brought me tears but most of all it brought me happiness because I know she lived a wonderful life and that she will always be remembered by so many people. She got to see everyone grow up and now she had seen their children grow to. thankyou for this Joann i don't know what we would without you.
-Becca- :)

David said...

Joann,
Libster and I read this together, and can't thank you enough for putting this together. I'm blessed to have married into such a fun loving family. Jane is missed, but your story will keep her in our lives for ever.
Thank you,
David

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