“Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
The same block that claimed Katie and Ellie as inhabitants also housed the couple who were in my parent’s social set. Jean and John had two boys, ten years apart, one of whom was somewhat my social peer. He was a quiet, artistic leaning spirit who later became a graphic artist, but it wasn’t Stuart that I was drawn to; it was Jean. She became my first friend of a different age, and one of the most important. I was approaching seven-years-old, still under the spell of Katie and cushion of Ellie.
Jean was a tall woman, very slender, and would have been called ‘handsome’ by her parent’s generation. She was always beautifully groomed, but not flashy. Hers was a classic look, and she usually wore skirts with cashmere cardigans, buttoned down. Later, it would be slacks and those sweaters, but during most of my childhood, my memory is of tweed skirts and soft sweaters.
Jean owned a set of Oz books that she had been given as a child, and most had the date of the gift written in; the early 1920’s as a whole. Somehow, I learned that she read those books to Stuart on a regular basis, and either was sent to join the party by my mother or showed some initiative of my own. Regardless, I found myself sitting next to Jean, Stuart on the other side, being introduced to a world of Oz that far exceeded what the world knew from the very first book, “The Wizard of Oz”. There are fourteen Oz books that Frank L. Baum wrote, with many written by Ruth Plumly Thompson, but it was many of those first ‘real’ Oz books that I heard, nestled next to Jean, transported by the adventures of Ozma, the Patchwork Girl, and all the colorful, magical characters that inhabited the world that Baum created.
Jean was the first adult who showed an interest in me as a person. She asked me questions about what I thought (not much of anything), what I’d been doing that day (again, not an impressive show) and generally asked my opinion about various subjects throughout our visits. She did this with Stuart also, and I learned much later in life, with all the kids in the neighborhood who wandered into her house. Though, I was the only one outside of Stuart that had the Oz sessions.
As I grew older, Jean remained in my life. By this time, my parents were divorced but Jean and my mother were very close, and I would often see her and her husband John at the home of my mother and stepfather. John was a taciturn banker who’d often played silent games of chess with my father when they were neighbors, and once my mother moved and remarried, wasn’t a good match for my social stepfather. But the two women still spent a lot of time together apart from their spouses, so Jean was one of the few females in my life besides my mother I had a relationship with. I had no aunts, two very strange uncles I never saw, and of course, no sisters.
My parent’s divorce and my mother’s remarriage were a big adjustment in many ways, and I was to have a complicated relationship with my stepfather, a man who’d chosen my mother but wasn’t thrilled with the rest of the package. We had moved to an island some distance from that old neighborhood, and of course I wasn’t driving at that point, so time with Jean was far too limited.
By this point, Jean, a true intellectual with great warmth, would discuss books, films, political happenings and general topics of the day when she would see me. She still seemed amazingly interested in my opinion, and that was a powerful magnet. Even at thirteen and fourteen, I yearned to return to my childhood spot at Jean’ side, listening to her beautiful voice applying significant acting talent, opening the door to Oz.
During one particularly difficult period of adjustment after my mother’s marriage, my stepfather began a subtle, passive aggressive campaign, sending me the clear message that I was a burden and a bother. When my stepfather had been courting my mother, he’d been charming and inclusive, acting as if I was a wonderful add-on to the prize of my mother. I was entranced and exited; here was a father who wanted a daughter like me. His own daughter didn’t live in the area and I had only met her once, so my role as the newly crowned, if not princess, then delight of the household, was available. It was seductive and exhilarating and did not last longer than the first year after he moved into our house.
My stepfather was not a particularly clever man, so I have to believe he behaved this way by way of his subconscious. He had begun messaging me by expelling heavy sighs when as I entered a room, interrupting any contributions I tried to make to a conversation or regarding me with such disdain when I attempted to join in with him and my mother, I was usually prompted to turn around and retreat. I was devastated by the change in his approach and attitude towards me, and my mother wasn’t able to offer comfort. Rather, she kept telling me I was “too sensitive” – a refrain I would hear for the rest of my life.
One afternoon, he added biting criticism about an opinion I’d offered, so unkind and blatant I couldn’t ignore the intent. Aching with unhappiness and unable to go to my mother for solace, I left the home of my stepfather. The door didn’t slam behind me; I was still too timid to stand up for myself. I walked to the house of a girl I knew slightly from the school bus and knocked on the door. The girl, Linda, who had the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen, straight out of a Breck commercial, answered, perplexed.
“Can I use your phone?” I asked. Linda was puzzled; we’d barely spoken in all the years I rode the bus with her, but allowed me in the house. These were the days when families only had one phone, so it was bit of a bold request. I called the number I’d memorized for years. “Jean, I want to come visit you. Right now.” There was a pause on the other end of the phone.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Roy (*name has been changed) is being – “ and I broke down in tears. Jean then instructed me to hand the phone to Linda’s father, somehow arranging to order a taxi for a sum that would not be insignificant.
I arrived at Jean’ house, she paid the taxi and I fell into her arms, sobbing with all the angst a pre-adolescent could muster. She called my mother and arranged for me to spend the night, returning me the next morning. I recall her pulling my mother aside as I walked down to my room, leaden in my return, softly explaining my version of the situation.
My stepfather was a bit kinder after my dramatic journey, and Jean remained a beacon of hope and escape for me. Once I could drive, and for the rest of my adult life, I visited and phoned her. At one point, she gave me her collection of Oz books, one of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received. Clearly, my attachment to the books and what they represented was evident, and I’m sure Stuart didn’t mind.
I often return to the books and re-read them. I still enjoy the writing and the stories, but it’s the genesis of my introduction to that world that makes the visitation meaningful.
John died in his sixties and Jean remained alone for years. Then, in her late seventies and early eighties, she met a wonderful man and they married. She was giddy in love, glowing with her good fortune, and he seemed to recognize the treasure he’d found in return. At their wedding, I, like a protective aunt, pulled the gentleman aside.
“You’d better take good care of Jean,” I instructed sternly.
“I plan on it,” he kindly answered.
Those few years of marriage so late in life, before Jean passed away, were very happy for her. She got the partner she deserved, even if it was for too brief a time.
Jean’s impact on my life was monumental, and her friendship deeply meaningful. She taught me many things, including the value of having a friend from another generation. I would have a couple of those in my life, and now I am the ‘elder’, but she was the first. I miss her still, many years after her death, as does everyone who knew and loved her. I am hoping she bequeathed me more than the Oz world. I like to believe that her legacy of grace and kindness in friendship is something I have extended to the children I taught and those of the generation after me I’ve noticed needing someone in the corner, always interested in what they might have to say.
Next Week: Annette, A Mysterious Girl
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