She was not my mother. Jean Germann had three smart and beautiful daughters, one five months older than me, the other two bookending my younger brother. Still, Jean was a huge influence during my childhood. To borrow a cliche, she was from “the village” who raised me.
Earlier this week, Jean left this world for the proverbial better place. After family greeted her, I think my mom may have been among Jean’s friends at the head of the receiving line. Our families were intertwined for several generations, and Mom and Jean had a beautiful friendship. Jean was one year, less four days. older than Mom. They often celebrated their spring birthdays with a special meal or party.
Our two families have a history, unlike any other in my life. We went to church together, as did her paternal grandparents and my maternal grandparents. We attended the same school, K-12. Our fathers participated in Purdue alumni events, Lions Club, and men’s activities at church. Our mothers were in the same book club and women’s activities at church. We spent time together as families when we were younger. (Going to church together didn’t mean we waved at each other once or twice a month on Sunday mornings. It meant Sunday School, Saturday School (confirmation class), Vacation Bible School, St. John’s Players (theatre troupe), Mother-Daughter banquets, Fish Frys, Rally Day, church camp, Walther League, singing with the Reformation 450 choir. Church was the center of everything.)
Both families moved back to my mother’s and Jean’s husband’s hometown months apart in 1957. My lifelong friend, Gail, was born early in that year. My parents moved back to mom’s hometown in June 1957, weeks before I was born. My father tells of an evening he and mom visited the Germann’s South Whitley apartment, probably for visiting or a game of cards. The baby, Gail, was fussing and fidgety. I wouldn’t arrive until late July, so Dad had no experience with babies.
Dad smarted off, “Doesn’t that child have a bedtime?”
He would soon get his comeuppance when his baby was colicky. There are a thousand funny stories like that. And while I have no record of what was said, I can just hear Jean, throwing her head back in a hearty laugh and commenting to Dad when his firstborn behaved, well, like a baby!
A significant memory for me that no one else may remember is going to see “Mary Poppins” in Fort Wayne on Palm Sunday 1965. For those who aren’t from the Midwest, Palm Sunday 1965 featured hundreds of tornados and many deaths, particularly in north-central Indiana. From my childish perspective, I remember meeting the Germanns in front of the theatre (probably the Jefferson), and the girls had new matching plaid tennis shoes. (My mom only let me have plain colored shoes. I was envious and mad. I was seven.) The movie, of course, was memorable and remained a favorite (don’t much like the sequel.) But the ride home was also significant, and I wonder if it was for the Germann family, traveling west in their green station wagon on Indiana highway 14. The sky was the color of mustard with a streak of purple. South Whitley was spared, but many Indiana towns had terrible damage.
We were always welcome in the Germann’s home, a comfortable two-story brick house from the early 20th century. The house features a wide and spacious screened front porch, a place to talk or read. Mom and Jean would trade off on watching each other’s children, so my brother and I spent much time there. The Germann family was more athletic than my family, so there was usually an outdoor activity involved. Jean was the cornerstone of most activities, and what I respected so much about her was her ability to include everyone. Compared to her thin, athletic daughters, I was uncoordinated and asthmatic. But that didn’t matter. She always encouraged me. I spent hours with the family, sometimes going camping with them. Often on weekends, we would go to one of the lakes in Warsaw for an afternoon, or later to the Germann’s A-Frame on Loon Lake.
Gail and I remained friends, though, as we arrived at high school, our interests diverged, and we made different friends. She went to Valpo, traveled around the world on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with her aunt, uncle, and cousins, and married a Purdue grad who farms in Whitley County. Gail and Pat have two wonderful children. I went to Ball State, moved to Florida, married another Ball State grad and moved back to Indiana where we raised our son. She studied biology. I studied journalism and history.
Remarkably, we’ve written letters, and in old-fashioned parlance, have been pen-pals, since our twenties. Today, when we speak or write, I feel like we haven’t communicated for ten minutes. There’s that much history, that much love, lovely ties that bind us together.
There’s something that Gail didn’t know about my relationship with her mother, that I only told her last week when we spoke about her mother passing. Jean had been a teacher like my own mother and had an interest in the arts. I started writing poetry and little stories about age ten, typed on my mom’s manual Royal typewriter. Not very much of it was any good. Maybe there were threads of promise in the hundreds of typewritten pages I produced. Who knows? At some point, I was too embarrassed to share with my mother.
Jean, who always asked me about myself and made me feel special, inquired about my interests. While she may have regretted putting a toe in that deep water, I never knew that. Until I was probably fourteen or fifteen, I shared — er, deluged her with — my poems and stories in notebooks. And she commented on them, critiqued me, giving encouragement and instruction. Can you imagine what this meant to me? Can you imagine what this still means to me? I wish I still had the notebooks. I destroyed them when I went to college. (The same people who screamed when I threw all my newspaper clips away last year are likely apoplectic by now. In both cases, there were hundreds and hundreds.)
Every child needs people outside their home who believe they are special, or who make them feel that way. Jean was not the only one for me, but she was the most special one to me. I’ve tried to encourage others in my life, based on the wonderful example I saw in Jean and so many others.
In a different world, we might call her a social influencer. A person of faith, Jean was a woman who made a massive difference in the world. She sustained a long-term marriage to her husband, Al. Together, they raised three children who are lovely human beings who also contribute to the world. Jean enjoyed a litany of abilities, which she shared. She taught in parochial and public schools and worked at a public-school library for two decades. She coached tennis and encouraged many other players. Jean had a great sense of humor, which could occasionally be wry. She was a friend of many, including my mother, and I know she was warmly welcomed by those who preceded her. Jean was a precious person who, despite the overwhelming tasks of her own busy life, reached out to an awkward child who wasn’t quite sure of her gifts.
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