“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” –William Penn

I met Jeanette Gregg in Coquille, Oregon. Coquille is a small town hidden away in the coastal mountains. Its away from the highways and big cities, and away from the tourists and trends. There are no Starbucks, Wal-Marts, or Subways. In a way, Coquille serves as a time capsule of times gone by. In the 1970’s, they still celebrated each year with a parade the “Gay 90’s”. Coquille is a town where there is one of everything: one grocery, one library, one post office, and one bakery. You only come to Coquille if you are coming to Coquille.

Jeanette came from a small town in Michigan. She was a farm girl, and pretty average in most ways. Raised during the depression, she new the meaning of thrift. Darning socks, canning food, and providing for the family was just what you did. When WWII broke out, she did her best to be an asset to her country and her community. She enlisted as a nurse. However, with most “real” nurses away serving overseas or on bases in large cities. Small city hospitals used nurse cadets like Jeanette. Used is a good word.

Working 24-hour shifts, moving patients twice her size single handedly, the general pace of the city, and nursing school took a toll on her psyche, her “nerves”, and her back. She had a break down, dropped out, and felt ashamed…useless…hopeless.

Like most people she found validation in marriage. Unfortunately, she chose poorly. The man she married was a drunk and a gambler, and because of one unfortunate bet, Jeanette came home one evening with her three babies to find that every stick of furniture was taken from their home. That was it, she scraped up the $20 dollars and filed for divorce. Although, she knew the repercussions socially, her commitment to her family was more important.

Strike three. Failed at school. Failed at nursing. Failed at marriage. The scourge of being a “divorcee” in a small town of rural Michigan was the nail in the coffin. She had been forced to return home. There wasn’t anything else. The cold bitter winter of Michigan was approaching, and with no money, divorced, and with three children in tow; what was a woman to do but go home to her mother’s house—and bear yet another shame.

The children benefitted however from the life on the farm. Feeding chickens, pulling green beans, canning apples, and pulling taffy is fun for children. Of course there were the occasional scares and mishaps. There was the time Cherie grabbed the electric fence and couldn’t let go. She been stuck that way for about a half hour before someone found her. But generally, life on the farm especially in the house of a grandmother who always smelled of cinnamon was pleasing.

Jeanette however, settled and back on her feet, gave way to the societal pressure to be married, and followed a new husband out west to the Oregon Territory. Folks back in Michigan wondered if this modern day caravan might get stuck by arrows of the great plains Indians or the Pacific Northwest; thus was the provincial education of a small town and a society raised on westerns.

Oregon offered a fresh start and no one to answer to. The mistakes and failures of the past were at least not physically about and no longer constant reminders of who Jeanette was. She could remake herself and be whomever she wished. She became a mother, a cook, and a dental hygienist, trying all the while to live down the demons of her past and ignore the uncertainty of the future.

Then her husband died. Destitute again, but this time there wasn’t anywhere to run. No mother’s home to return to. This time she had to care for herself and her family. She had to believe in herself again. She made mistakes, she was harder on her kids than they needed at some points, and softer on them than was healthy at others. But, she never gave up. She may have failed her own expectations at some points; she may have given up on her dreams along the way. But she never gave up on her children.

She told me that she had a recurring nightmare that plagued her most of her life. “The house is on fire, and my kids, my babies are inside, and I can’t get them out.” At Jeanette’s center, a mother bear’s heart lived.

Soon however her “babies” had babies. And Jeanette grew into her perfect incarnation. Having learned from all the mistakes and successes of the past, the ability to redo or make amends for the preceding years with her grandchildren seemed the perfect way to redeem her past.

Where as the Jeanette of times past was impatient and demanding, “Grandma” Jeanette was the perfect incarnation of tolerance and self-restraint. She allowed the grandchildren to wiggle the flabby skin below her arms for hours on end as they contemplated the flaccid and drooping dermis. She would sit by the swimming pools edge and watch the adventurous children’s “tricks” over and over and never feinting delight, but extending love, lavish praise, and hearty approbation with each new somersault.

Crippled up as she was in her latter years, she still managed to walk, to read, and to better herself. She joined women’s leagues, clubs of compassion, and volunteered at the church. Her faith was unshaken, or perhaps more solidified by the events of her past. Although always quiet about her faith, she chose to live it with her life. She always ensured that her grandkids attended vacation bible school, and that it was fun, but she never talked about it in her home, nor was it ever forced.

She possessed an uncanny understanding of children and had great insight into how kids felt. When the communion plate at church was passed, or toasts were made with champagne, she empathized with the small children who were passed by. She always packed a few candies in her purse so that they too could have something during church or on special occasions. She was proactive rather than reactive when it came to things she believed in or felt strongly about.

Once while doing her grandsons washing, she found a pack of matches in the 8 year olds britches. Instead of yelling, scolding, or preaching about the dangers, she went to the library to get several books about burn victims, the kind with the hard-to-look-at glossy pictures. She and her grandson sat for 3 hours and went through the book, page-by-page, picture-by-picture, discussing and explaining the ramifications of bad choices. The boy never played with fire again…but it was because he chose not to, and not because he was punished or told not to.

She understood kids well enough to know that sweets and play were what they lived for. Digging in the dirt or the sand, climbing trees or rocks, and racing bikes or turtles— kids like to play…and she let them. Everyday, when her grandkids would visit, she would take them to play at the swimming pool, afterward she would treat them to any sweet they wanted at the town bakery. Jeanette with her coffee, and her grandson with his lemon Danish would sit at their table. The chrome coping of the laminate table, the stiff backed vinyl chairs, and wood paneling were Rockwelling in décor. The two were quite the pair, one in the first chapters, the other writing the epilogue, both in love with the other.

Yesterday, I went and had a lemon Danish at the bakery in Coquille. It had been 25 years since I sat across a Danish from Jeanette…my grandmother. But the memories of those times together and the lessons we both learned from each other have never left me. I sat and I celebrated the lemon Danish, I ate one for me and I had one for her. I miss her sometimes.

It took a lot of pain, heartache, and tumultuous situations for Jeanette to become love. But it is her demonstration of compassion, patience, and love for anyone that she gave so openly that serve as the greatest lasting legacy of a life well lived.

“I expect to pass through life but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” –William Penn

 

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