When the man we shared – Jeannine’s brother, my husband – choked out a description early this morning of her final moments last night, our tears made a gully of the 900 miles between us. Into that salty stream waded a confession: But we were going to write a book together.
“John, didja hear that?” Mike mouthed to his brother, eager to relay a new fact about the woman who had sistered them for decades. “Maggie and Jeannine were going to write a book together!”
It was a joke, really, one so long-standing it could have played on Broadway. My sister-in-law, the firstborn in a closely woven family of seven chidren, had only gotten as far as the title: Seven Layer Cake.
“I have all kinds of family stories, Maggie,” she plotted one year at our annual Family Camp, dissecting her famous peanut butter fudge into neat squares. “And the perfect title. You just need to write the book!”
“About this half-baked family?” I said, grinning. “I’ll have to change all the names, including yours. So what’s going into the first layer?”
Some in-laws are outliers, sure as shootin’. But not the women who have married into the Rowe family. My husband’s four sisters accepted me Day One as another sister. I never had to exhibit Good-Enough status. It was granted automatically.
Even after forty years of having my photo hanging in the Rowgues’ Gallery, it still seems too good to be true. Plain, shy, and overly self-conscious when I met them in the 70’s, the Rowe family awed me a bit. Funny, gregarious, and giving, they were constantly joking about new love interests having to muster approval before being allowed into The Family.
It was all bluster and banter, though, as the much-discussed gauntlet never appeared. Somehow every new family member got an A for acceptance without a test ever being given.
And the leader of the pack? Jeannine, of course, the feisty firstborn. First to attend college. First to get a graduate degree. First to try every new craft the culture coughed up.
She loved her daughters fiercely. Their husbands too. And the grandchildren? Her NOLA brood: Natalie Jean and Timothy James. Rebekah Lindsay and Bennett Winston. And the Pittsburgh tribe: Shana and Mathieu. Gracie and Isaac.
A teacher by trade, Jeannine never stopped learning. With more sense than the rest of us, she moved south to a coastal community years ago. She loved the shore, adored the new friends she made in her photography club and computer classes. Was crazy about Downton Abbey.
I can only imagine the expression on her face last night when she stepped onto that other shore. A lifelong photojournalist and scrapbooker (“Why didn’t I bring my camera to the ER?!” she joked), she was drawn to vibrant colors, intense fragrances, and diverse people. I can hear her now: Somebody fetch me a camera. It is gorgeous up here!
You were always one to travel, Jeannine – always the first for new experiences. But we weren’t ready to let you be the first one to go.
Your brother, my pastor, spoke to me tonight from the Psalms. He walked me through John 11. When Jesus learned that Lazarus died, he did what we’ve been doing. He wept. Someone said it plain this week: Jesus knew more than anyone that we can’t glory in the Resurrection without grieving the Crucifixion.
And that’s what our family has walked through this Holy Week: a wild, howling, tearing away of one who has been part of us for so long we can’t imagine life without her.
It’s not true that Nene’s heart stopped beating last night, we insist. A heart that big? A love that strong?
And then I saw it on a message board today: Jeannine’s oldest granddaughter said it true. “Nana, I would not have the bravery to be in DC were it not for your fierce cosmopolitan traveler’s heart instilled in me. I would not have the strength to be an opinionated woman pursuing my dreams without having seen you first to be the smart, funny, cultured woman I aspired to be. I would not be who I am today without you, and for that I am forever grateful.”
Jeannine, you have not gone away. You have only gone before. Somehow you simply outran us in the quick race Home.
But Natalie reminds us that you’re still here in her dramatic flair. Your love for all things NOLA lives on in Timothy. Bekah’s fashion sense and Bennett’s keen intelligence? There you are. Shana’s love for books, Mathieu’s ease with people, you again. Gracie and Isaac? Oh you are all over those two.
Your family is living in the shadow of the crucifixion this week. Tomorrow’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
And you know what, Jeannine? That book we were joshing about? We can still make it happen.
Because your stories live on in Karen and Brad, in Sara and Greg, and in those eight amazing grandchildren.
And cross my heart, I’ll keep my vow and change all the names.
Because remember what Lady Mary said to Lady Edith? We are sisters, and sisters have secrets.
And because you and your siblings six are so woven together you are Seven Layers Still.