Playing with childhood friends was fun, but limited. The marbles master of the lot (not me) won most every game. Among top decisions made during our after school activities would be who played the cowboys and who would be the Indians. This week's episode was pretty much like all the rest.
Sitting at the feet of elders was very different. By the homespun accounts of their own lives, my mind's eye set curtain and stage for the events being told. Just as surely as I could see Roy Rogers on the silver screen on Saturday morning, in my mind, I could see a replay of an event of maybe seventy-five years ago as told to me by these 'old folks'.
Mind you, when I asked to be told a story, I was always told a true, first person account, never the funny or usual 'hearsay' tales bandied about through each generation.
Jeannie, unlike her mother, Granny Rollins, didn't have any noteworthy events in her life that would spellbind her young next door neighbor. Yet her life, taken as a whole was, to me, quite noteworthy. A saga with an undetermined hero. In the end, who was the victor? Did Jeannie conquer Fate or did Fate conquer Jeannie?
She was born a child of God. Her tenure here was for one purpose only, to be tried. She was to suffer through any and many trials as dispensed by her merciful heavenly Father, without question. Only 'living close,' praying without ceasing and remaining faithful to the end could assure her eternal joy. Her only alternative was to be scorched by the fires of hell forever and ever.
Living the life of a saint would not guarantee Jeannie a little parcel in gloryland. Was there a sin she had committed and forgotten about and then failed to confess? A tiny unremembered, unforgiven blemish could prevent her from walking through those gates of pearl.
She lived as close as she knew how but she could not know for a surety whether she would walk on streets of gold. Only on judgement day when she was called before the face of her God would she hear one of two verdicts, 'I know you not' or 'Jeannie, come home'.
Jeannie never talked to me about her past. I knew nothing of her early years. Another neighbor did tell me how well she remembered many a weekend night when Jeannie and her sister, Alma, would return home around two or three in the morning after gallivanting around town, presumably doing things only a loose woman would do. I was shocked to hear this. Surely this was long before she was saved and gave her heart to Jesus.
At about fifteen, I was downtown one Saturday shopping for blue jeans at JC Penny. I struck up a conversation with a sales clerk. He knew several people who lived in my little village. He knew Jeannie quite well. He had dated her for a period of time. I think there was talk of marriage but, for some reason, there never was a wedding.
She never did marry. As far as I know, the time spent with the sales clerk was her only serious affair. She never had any children. To my knowledge, she never held a public job. I don't think she ever traveled outside the little town she called home.
I was six when my family moved next door to Jeannie. She was maybe in her early to mid forties. A meek and very likable person, she spent a lot of time inside the house.
She had a few hobbies, all of which she had abandoned due to having very little use of her hands. Once she showed me a yo-yo patterned bed spread she had been working on earlier. It was beautiful, even in its half finished state. Little gathered circles of satin and net in every color of the rainbow adorned that unfinished work of art.
There is no doubt, had the spread been finished, it would have been carefully wrapped and stored away safely, there waiting for that special night when it would grace the wedding bed of Jeannie and her new husband. Some dreams do die. With hope gone, memories and mementos surrounding those dreams linger with us.
On nice days, Jeannie would venture as far as the front porch where she would take the fresh air while seated in the porch swing. She didn't get to the swing without a lot of effort and the aid of a crutch. She had developed a most cruel form of crippling arthritis. It would play host to every day and every hour of the rest of her life.
I welcomed those nice days. They offered a time for just Jeannie and me. A conversation inside would be overheard by her mother who was ever vigilant lest someone talk about 'worldly' things or use a word Jesus would find offensive.
It was not to last. As the arthritis continued to torment and cripple Jeannie's already frail body, her times spent in that swing grew less and less. Then, there came the day when she would never sit in that swing again.
Her activities in the house were limited. Her disease was evil, vicious and quick acting. It seemed such a short time till she was confined to bed. Except for a couple of hospital visits, she never left that bed for the next twenty-five years.
Though I did not share Jeannie's religious beliefs, during those years I witnessed within her, the strongest, the most unshakable faith I've ever seen. It did not waiver through many years of excruciating pain. But unlike the woman with the issue of blood, Jeannie's unshaken faith did not make her whole.
Until I grew up and moved away, I spent a lot of my free time seated at Jeannie's bedside. There was no TV, no air conditioning, not even a fan till in her last years when some charitable organization donated one. I'm sure it was seldom used as her mother would have considered it a waste of money to use the electricity to run it.
Her mother, Granny Rollins, had a few Christian records. No doubt they were sent to her by a preacher who had a weekly radio program. Once in a while, she would send the preacher two dollars to help with expenses and the preacher sent her the records in return. The preacher and his family had recorded the songs.
Granny had no way to play the records. There was a wind up Victrola in Alma's room but it couldn't be used to play the 45s the preacher had sent her. I took my little portable record player and played Granny's records for her. She was delighted.
On one occasion, I took some of my records along with the player. That time, I set up the player in Jeannie's room and proceeded to play Grannie's Christian music. Then I played some of my music.
Honky Tonk was the first record I ever bought. It had such a good beat. I played it for Jeannie. She said, 'Oh Doug, that is such pretty music'. Granny was overhearing the music while seated near the cook stove in the kitchen. She saw that Jeannie was enjoying the music. She quickly admonished her for liking 'that ol worldly music'. I never played Honky Tonk for Jeannie again.
As years went by, I saw Jeannie's body become more and more twisted. In time, she couldn't open her hands and her long fingernails were cutting into the palms. I took manicure tools to shorten her nails.
Cutting her nails was an ordeal for both of us. It took a long time to lift each finger to a position where I could cut the nail. Each tiny movement caused her horrible pain. I drenched her palms with dilute peroxide because each time I lifted a finger there was the scent of rotting flesh.
Jeannie liked eggs. With her tiny government allotment, she would buy an occasional dozen. Granny was not about to share any of the eggs her chickens had laid. Granny had an old ice box sitting on the back porch but Jeannie was not allowed to keep her eggs there. Her sister Alma had a refrigerator in her room but Jeannie was not allowed to keep her eggs there, either. The coolest place in Jeannie's room was under her bed. That's where she kept her eggs.
Later, she received staples including powdered eggs from a government program. Granny did not know how to cook powdered eggs and Alma and her son were not interested.
While visiting with Jeannie, she mentioned the powdered eggs, saying she would like to taste them as she never had before. She asked if I knew how to cook them. I said, 'No, I never have', but if you want me to, I will try. She had just gotten out of the hospital and was going through a lot of pain. I wanted to do something for her. At least I could do this. I took the eggs next door to my house and cooked them according to instructions on the box.
I returned to Jeannie with a plate of hot scrambled eggs. I had added a pinch of salt and black pepper and drizzled a bit of melted butter over the eggs.
I had to feed her the eggs. She couldn't hold a fork in her hands. If she could have, she couldn't have raised her hand to her mouth. She said, 'Doug, reach over there under that paper on that little table and get me them false teeth. You'll have to wet them a little before you put them in my mouth. I did.
While putting the teeth into her mouth, I noticed she was having a lot of trouble getting them positioned properly. She said, 'I can't do much with these teeth. They ain't mine. They got my teeth mixed up with some man's when they was getting me ready to come home. They're way too big. Now they all I got.
I fed Jeannie her first few bites of the eggs. She said, 'Oh Doug, they are so good'. As I continued to feed her, I saw that the teeth were just moving around in her mouth. She was trying her best to keep them in place while she ate the eggs she thought tasted so good.
With those teeth flopping around in her mouth, I broke. I made some excuse about the heat and and the sweat on my face. I turned my head and wiped the tears on the shoulder of my shirt, hoping she wouldn't know I was crying.
I didn't live next door to Jeannie during her last years. They must have been horrible. Her pain was so bad, she once told me her doctor said he didn't know what to do and that he would give her anything she wanted. Her last years must have been much worse that when she was told that.
This woman never spoke evil of anyone nor did anyone harm during the many years I knew her. She was a kind and likable person. What earthly rewards should a person receive for being so good? Jeannie's rewards were twenty-five years of terrible pain and a twisted, helpless body.
While home for a visit, a neighbor told me that before Jeannie died, her knees had drawn to the point they were against her chin. There is no doubt in my mind that when her body was contorted into a small rigid ball, her faith was as strong as ever. She liked the story of Lot and how he prevailed over trials no one else could endure. I think Lot was her hero. And when she left this world, even in death, she too would be the victor, just like Lot.
I don't dwell on Jeannie's suffering. It would serve no purpose. I like best to remember our talks while on her front porch when there was a nice cool breeze stirring about. Or when her eyes lit up with pride as she showed me her unfinished but still beautiful yo-yo bed spread.
In the end, who was the victor? Did Jeannie conquer Fate or did Fate conquer Jeannie? I'm not sure about death and taxes. I am sure about mysteries. They will be with us always.
I dedicate this article to litter gitter. She and others have more than once suggested I write a book. While I don't feel I have the talent to write anything publishers would be eager to publish, the fact that she enjoys reading my humble offerings to ThriftyFun 'Does me right proud.'
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Thank you, Doug. I do enjoy reading your stories of old times. Brings back great memories that I have. When you mentioned cowboys and Indians, it reminded me of the days my cousin and I rode tobacco sticks and tied them to the post like horses. We had so much fun playing cowboys. We wore his guns and holsters and my grandmother was afraid we would grow up and shoot someone someday. I read all his comic books about The Lone Ranger, Hop A Long Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Those were some good old days. His parents were not poor like we were.
What a beautiful story, Doug. It brought me to tears. My feeling is Jeannie watches over you for all of the kindness you offered her.
Yes, you should write a book. Memoir? Essays? I think your works would touch many hearts.
Thank you for sharing!
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