She and her white-haired wonderboy, Bill (or "Big D") were in dad's choir and knew me from little girl-dom, when I was skipping about in knee socks and eyelet. They were constant, supportive (at times tenacious, when necessary) friends to our family, gave us the dear gift of their Colorado vacation home several times, treated us to fine meals, and offered their home as the ultimate choir party locale time and again. What's more, Jean kept me in hire through my high school years when I wrapped their Christmas gifts, a seemingly unending but really enjoyable task.
I remember finishing exams at school (what palpable relief, I still recall) and then being driven over to Hampton Avenue where I would hole up in one of the upstairs bedrooms for long afternoon and evening hours, surrounded by gigantic rolls of gorgeous papers, the finest ribbons and enclosure cards, little scraps of paper torn from a yellow legal pad that Jean had thoughtfully scribed in her pretty, super- loopy cursive (so I'd know what went to whom), and a CD player so I could play my stack and really get into the spirit of things.
I would only hole up in this bedroom, however, after I had fixed myself the most glorious Dagwood sort of sandwich from the fine fixins in her capacious refrigerator. She always had a Honeybaked Ham on hand for the holidays, the best homemade sweet-spicy mustard (among many, many other strange and wonderful condiments which lined the door), and.....pickled okra. What respectable Southern lady doesn't have pickled okra in her fridge? This is where I discovered my love for the stuff -- I think one time I may have nearly emptied one of her jars. (This is where I add that she was an enormously generous woman.) Add to that a ginger ale on ice in a kelly green, polka-dotted glass and I was all set to wrap.
My back ached at the end of those days but I had such fun, matching papers with people, choosing ribbon colors, fashioning ridiculously huge, effusive bows, writing the tags with my best script and her fountain pen, humming along to Amy Grant and Harry Connick, Jr. When the task was complete -- usually a three-day affair -- and all of the family gifts had been carried downstairs and placed prettily beneath her designer Christmas tree, I would receive a paycheck, the gift that I was to take and put under our family's tree, and a gift for myself. She was partner in a jewelry business and bestowed upon me several lovely baubles over the years. A gold bracelet, a pair of pearl earrings, and a charming little wooden, oval box with a pewter lid which I still have to this day.
In more recent years, when I would see her at her little grandbabies' (which she still called them even though they were a-ways on in their grade school years) Grandparents' Day or Christmas programs, she'd hug me fiercely, take my hand in her meticulously manicured one, and proceed to fawn. She'd tell me how beeeautiful I looked and what a perfect color it was I was wearing, or how gorrrrgeous my curly hair was, or how bright my skin was or how nice and "trim" I had become. She paid attention to these things, but bubbled over about a person's inward sweetness and beauty just as much as a pretty, upswept hairstyle. It was an honor to know and to be known by this fine woman, from childhood to womanhood.
Dad was involved in planning the music for her funeral which was on Monday afternoon. The weather was appropriately grey and drizzly, the sanctuary dim and cozy (as much as a gigantic, cavernous space can be "cozy"). Graceful and simple, white Casablanca lilies were the stage's only adornment. That usually uneasy space before the service began was filled with dad's simple, lovely, meandering piano playing (regardless of an unfortunate finger injury which has turned his left index finger into a thick club-like implement). Over dinner after the service, dad said that he hadn't yet spoken to Bill or the kids, but that his most heartfelt communication was through the music he offered. He didn't feel the need that day to use words, just the notes. Everyone who spoke during the service said something about Jean's love for music -- hymns, more specifically. Music was her joy; she surrounded herself with it, even to the very end when her small group members would come, stand by her bed and wrap her in harmony. The Hallelujah Chorus was sung by her beloved choir, quite powerfully, and ended the service. She'd have reveled in it.
Her bright and sparkling blue eyes, her easy laugh and sense of humor (which she had in spades in order to put up with Big D's shenanigans), her warmth and candor, her steel-strong love for her family, friends and church, they all collided in an explosion of color called Jean, and these qualities make her the woman we will miss so profoundly. Our comfort is that she is in the arms of her Jesus, and I imagine she's singing soprano with the angels and giving them a run for their money on the dance floor.