By The Belle of Blowing Rock. July 14, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — I recently read an article surveying over two thousand people diagnosed with a terminal illness. The question asked; “What would you consider to be the one most important thing in life?” The resounding response was “relationships.”
I agree. Whether with a spouse, Mother Nature, co-workers, strangers, your pet… relationships remain constant in the chaos. Relationships connect us; they are the bonds that bind the world.
One of the most significant relationships of my life was with my Great Aunt Jean. Aunt Jean passed away last Wednesday, at the young age of 97. The moments of my recent visits with her are fresh in my mind and the memories that we shared from my childhood continue to play over and over. I maybe can’t remember what day it is, but I can recall a snapshot of a memory with her — just like it was yesterday.
One night she wet her pants from laughing too hard.
Aunt Jean considered herself to be a tomboy. Raised in a family of southern farmers, she loved nature to its core. She loved the land and its bounty. I remember her standing in her yard with a rake on a crisp fall day, at the age of 85, saying that she’d rather rake leaves than anything else in the world. She said it with such passion and conviction it had to be true.
Though she never traveled farther than the state of Louisiana, she was worldly. She was regal too, always tastefully dressed to the nines and with a penchant for fancy shoes.
She was trusting. She lived right. She gave heartfelt advice with a humorous twist. My girlfriends and I often ask ourselves in certain situations, “What Would Aunt Jean Do?” We say it so much that several years ago my girlfriend had towels monogrammed for us “WWAJD.”
I remember as a child, swinging a basket on the way down to the chicken houses behind her house, I said something like, “I can’t wait to get the eggs.” She quickly corrected me, you “gather” eggs, you don’t “get” them.”
She complained once about her neighbor’s white-faced bull that kept jumping the fence into her field of cows. While walking the property with her weeks later, a tiny white-faced calf presented itself. Jean’s laugh echoed magically across the lush, green acreage.
One night she wet her pants from laughing too hard while playing a game of Old Maid with me and my sister. She was elegantly shameless.
I poured out of my friend’s car into a puddle of tears, on Aunt Jean’s doorstep.
I recall us dressing up to watch the televised wedding of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. We watched the entire event, wearing hats and party dresses while we drank sweet tea and noshed on a big bowl of popcorn.
In my mid-thirties, I had a spinal fracture from a snow-mobile accident in Colorado. The accident occurred on a skiing trip, a trip that was a last ditch effort for my husband and I to save our marriage. He told me on the flight home that he wanted a divorce. The next day a girlfriend drove me to Monroe, where Jean lived. I poured out of my friend’s car into a puddle of tears, on Aunt Jean’s doorstep. I was emotionally spent and a bumbling mess and she was my salvation. She doted on me for seven straight days until my back (and heart) were somewhat healed.
And boy, did she love me with food! I called her a “food–pusher.” I would feel so full and Jean would insist that I eat more, as if I were going to dry up and blow away at any second. She’d make biscuits from scratch, plopping a perfectly scooped handful of Crisco into the well she made in the middle of a pile of flour.
Several times, she tried to teach me the art of making biscuits. After watching my attempts she sarcastically laughed and said that biscuit-making will certainly die-out with my generation. Sitting at her kitchen table, watching her effortlessly bake and cook everything that was good and southern was one of the favorite vantage points of my life.
All she wanted was my time. I wish now that I had given her those few precious moments.
Sadly and selfishly, in the past months I considered it almost a chore to visit Jean. She was forgetting all our funny inside jokes, and she wasn’t remembering people, places or things as she once did. She hated when I would get on my cellphone. I’d bite my lip, ignoring her as my patience grew so completely thin while I scrolled through my phone.
All she wanted was my time. My time!? I wish now I had given her those few precious moments that I so stubbornly didn’t want to give. How special I feel to have commanded the attention of such a woman.
Jean had a gift of making everyone that she encountered feel as if they were the most important person in the room – the only person in the room. Last night I read a letter she wrote to me when I was in college, in Atlanta in 1985.
“I was listening to Ray Charles on the radio singing ‘Georgia on my Mind’ and my heart got so lonely for you, I had to write,” she penned.
She was lonely in the last year of her life. And I would harness my power to make her feel less lonely as often and as best I could. She’d say, “Imagine if everyone you have ever known and loved was gone.”
Yet, she was also one of the strongest, most positive people I knew and would often turn the conversation to strength and sunshine.
She loved her cat, “Boots.” The night before her funeral, I stayed with Boots. Boots had been alone in her house for a week and though I’m allergic to cats, I knew Jean would want me to keep Boots company. Boots was agitated and would not leave Jean’s favorite chair. Something was amiss and Boots knew it — Mama wasn’t coming home.
I know with everything that I am that Aunt Jean sent me that double rainbow. It was her “sign.”
I later sat with Boots on the kitchen floor and as if Jean were speaking the words right out of my mouth. I held Boots’ little head in my hands and through tears I said, “Boots, sometimes we get lonely, very lonely and it’s sad, but you’ve got to be strong, alone, okay? You’ve got to hold this. It’s going to be okay.”
I don’t think Boots knew what the hell I was saying, but I did.
In the last couple of years, Jean and I had conversations about death and dying. She told me on several occasions that she didn’t believe in stories about dead people watching from above.
“I’m not going to be able to see what you’re doing,” she’d snap. “I don’t want to see what you’re doing!”
I would argue, “You’d better, because if you do go first I need you to tell me it’s okay, you’re okay and that it’s wonderful up there.”
She’d quip in response, “Well, if I can, I’ll send you a sign.”
The day after Jean’s funeral I drove to my girlfriend’s house on Lake Norman to attend a fundraiser for the Lake Norman Humane Society. We traveled to the party by boat and her neighbors joined us.
On the way back from the party I sat alone at the bow of the boat. Numb from mango margaritas, the boat moved my body in a rhythm as it chopped through the wake. The smell of the cool lake water was intoxicating. All the little noises had become one. I was soaking it all in when the neighbor tapped my shoulder and pointed to the left. I looked and saw the most gorgeous rainbow forming before my very eyes. I grabbed my phone and took one picture, my phone died (which I found odd because I had a good charge when we left the docks of the party.) The rainbow grew more vibrant and longer in length. The word “double” drifted up from a passenger in the boat and I saw the second rainbow.
That rainbow became the most spectacular sight I have ever seen; spanning the entire lake, every color defined, with a mirrored shadow. I heard another muffled call from a passenger, “Wow! It’s following us!”
With those words, the tears fell fast and hard; joyous tears that made my breath skip and my heart ache. I stared straight ahead, not wanting anyone to see but assured that if my teardrops hit anyone they would only think it was a splash from the small wake we were powering through.
As we pulled up to my friends’ dock and the rainbow faded into the dusk, I felt an unexplainable peace about Jean, about death. I know with everything that I am, that Jean sent me that rainbow. It was her “sign.” She sent it just for me (as she would want me to believe.)
Jean Catherine Clontz Crook grew up in the hardest of times: war, the Great Depression, a house fire and untimely family deaths. One would say she had a right to feel less fortunate, but nothing could be further from the truth. She possessed a unique power. She saw joy in the ordinary and she lived with intention and attention.
What mattered most to Aunt Jean were relationships. Relationships formed from moments where she gave more than 100 per cent. They were relationships that made her one of the richest people I know.
Twenty some years ago, Aunt Jean gave me this poem that she cut out from one of her Readers Digest magazines. I read it often. It reminds me to be and feel grateful for everything in my life. The one thing I am most grateful for is the relationship I had with my precious Aunt Jean.
GOD GIVE ME JOY
God give me joy in the common things:
In the dawn that lures, the eve that sings.
In the new grass sparkling after rain,
In the late wind’s wild and weird refrain;
In the springtime’s spacious field of gold,
In the precious light by winter doled.
God give me joy in the love of friends,
In their dear home as summer ends;
In the songs of children, unrestrained;
In the sober wisdom age has gained.
God give me joy in the tasks that press,
In the memories that burn and bless;
In the thought that life has love to spend,
In the faith that God’s at journey’s end.
God give me hope for each day that springs,
God give me joy in the common things.
Thomas Curtis Clark