The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

In the entry hall of my home, in a place of honor, is a lovely, framed, hand-tinted photograph of my paternal great-aunt, Jeanetta (Jean) Hermione Shea. I found it rolled up and bound with a rubber band in the bottom drawer of her dresser when I flew to San Francisco to settle her affairs and clear out her apartment after her death at the age of 99 on Thursday May 28, 1997, the day before my 56th birthday. Written on the back of the rolled-up photograph, lightly, in pencil, were the words, “high school graduation.”  The portrait blesses my home.

Jean died while I was on a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her, which I had been doing every other week for months since she had been moved from her apartment to a hospice. We had said our goodbyes—several times, in fact. At the end of each visit, I would remind her that I loved her and knew that she loved me and that I would return to visit again in a couple of weeks. I also told her that if she felt like leaving before I returned, that was okay, too.

I accompanied her remains on a flight to Denver for interment alongside her mother. I returned to Los Angeles where, on Wednesday, June 4, 1997, a week and one day after Jean’s death, I was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer (PSA = 36; Biopsy: Gleason Score 3 + 4 = 7, Perianal Invasion (+)).

These two events, Jean’s death and the cancer diagnosis are inseparable in my mind and I have always found grace in the connection. I never think of the two events independent of each other.

Dr. Jay Stein, the urologist who diagnosed me that Wednesday told me I needed to be on his operating table on Friday for a prostatectomy.  I told him that was impossible. I had to fly to San Francisco to close my great-aunt’s apartment and settle her affairs. “You’re taking your life in your hands,” Doctor Stein said with, what seemed to me at the time, a complete lack of warmth or compassion. I never saw him again and I never had the surgery.

The necessity of taking care of Jean’s affairs forced me to pause and kept me from making an uneducated, fear-based decision to have the surgery. A month long study of prostate cancer, along with second, third and fourth opinions, tireless on-line detective work from my friend Joseph Kramer, and expert advice from a cancer researcher at Harvard, the brother of my old boss, convinced me that, given my PSA and Gleason Score, I was, without doubt, a poor candidate for the prostatectomy.

Not a day has gone by that I have not been certain that my Aunt Jean has watched over me throughout this 20 year adventure. I said as much to my primary care physician and dear friend, Jim Blechman, as I sat in his office a week or so after the diagnosis, and he replied, “She’s in the room with us right now.”

I have only vague memories of Jean from my childhood. She was my grandmother’s sister, considerably closer in age to my father, however, than she was to my grandmother. My father was raised by his paternal grandfather and had an uneasy relationship with his parents, especially his mother, so I knew very little about her side of the family. My grandmother had a brother, my great-uncle, Joe, who lived with his wife, Graham, her mother and her sisters in the Pingree family home in Durango, CO. Sometimes we visited them in the summer. Joe had taken over Graham’s family hardware business when his father-in-law died. The Pingree family had been early settlers in the area. Uncle Joe’s octogenarian mother-in-law sat at a card table, usually with a glass of whiskey in easy reach, and played non-stop solitaire while fully participating in the conversation. The household had a cowardly Great Dane named Cabaret who would take refuge under the coffee table when company arrived, forget where she was, stand up and turn the coffee table over. Mrs. Pingree repeatedly cautioned us not to put anything on the coffee table when Cabaret was hiding there.  The far end of their back yard was high on a hill and overlooked a drive-in movie theatre which kept my sisters and I entertained while the adults talked.

Jean, who never married (“the smartest thing I never did,” she was fond of saying), visited our home in Denver for an afternoon or evening every couple of years when she passed through on her vacation. More often than not she traveled by Greyhound Bus.

I didn’t really get to know Jean until the last twenty years of her life.

Shortly before my father retired, in the mid-1970’s, he invited me to join him and my mother in San Francisco for a convention which he referred to as “his last hurrah.” He said it would mean a great deal to him if I flew up and joined them. So I did.

Dad invited Jean to join us for brunch on Sunday following the close of the convention; he wasn’t sure she’d show up. He recalled inviting her to dinner one night when he was in San Francisco; she declined saying that although she’d love to join him, Thursday night was “her night in the bathroom and she needed to color her hair.” Dad may not have known and I only found out later that Jean lived in a four bedroom, one bathroom third-floor walk-up at 949 Jones Street, a block down from Grace Cathedral on one of the steeper streets in San Francisco.  For much of the more than 40 years she lived there, she shared the space with three other single career women. (Bathroom time, therefore, was precious.) She remained in that apartment, living independently until a few months before her death.

Jean did show up for the brunch dressed to the nines, wearing fox furs and a hat with a small veil. I have no idea what vintage her outfit was, but it was elegant. (When I went through her closets I found her clothes, mostly beautiful suits, carefully stored in department store garment bags; some of the bags were from stores that had closed at least two decades earlier). The furs are politically incorrect now, but at the time they seemed both exotic and glamorous. She was enchanting.

When the brunch ended, Dad asked me, since I lived on the West Coast, to look in on Jean “from time to time.” “She really doesn’t have anyone,” he said. Although I was not as aware of my intuitive sense as I am now, it seemed important to follow through on my father’s request.

At first I visited two or three times a year; as I time went passed, I increased my visits, and got to know, better than any surviving family member, what a remarkable, adventurous, and independent woman she was.

After I had been visiting Jean for about three years she finally invited me into her apartment. Her three roommates had long since moved on; the elder-revering Chinese family that bought Jean’s building subdivided the apartment for their family members, leaving Jean with a bedroom, sitting room, bathroom and kitchen. The furniture, what there was of it, was threadbare. It wouldn’t have surprised me to discover that Jean was still sleeping in the bed that was there when she moved in. Her one luxury seemed to be a current subscription to the large print edition of Reader’s Digest. Her favorite feature, she told me, was a vocabulary quiz called Word Power.

I jumped to the conclusion that Jean had been living off of her Social Security checks. I would find out some years later that I was very much mistaken.

I once told Jean that I thought she was “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve ever Met”, another popular feature in Reader’s Digest. She reached across the restaurant table, put her hand on top of mine and said, “There’s no need to flatter me, dear.” I wasn’t!

As soon as she graduated high school she left home to make her way in the world.

She lived in Washington, D. C. during World War Two and worked as an assistant to Meredith Willson (composer of The Music Man) while he headed the music division of the Armed Forces Radio Service.

I’m not sure how soon after the war Jean moved to San Francisco. Among the treasures I found when going through boxes of photographs and souvenirs was a ticket to Harry Truman’s inauguration in 1949.

Other treasures also included a tintype of my Great-Grandmother Shea;

an illustrated Sabbath School Scholar’s Bible (originally published in 1903) with rose petals, pressed between the pages of the psalms; Jesus Teach Me to Pray, a children’s prayer book published in 1909 and held together by rubber bands; Christmas cards from a Maryknoll Missionary in China; boxes of postcards, souvenirs of her extensive travels; an eyelash curler; and my favorite, a View-Master Stereoscope with nearly 100 reels of highlights from her trips, which included cruises to the Virgin Islands, Cuba and through the Panama Canal.

A few years after she had invited me in to her apartment, she asked me to accompany her to the bank to have my name registered as a co-signer on her safe deposit box. Before we opened the safe deposit box, she swore me to secrecy regarding its contents. “My birth certificate is in there,” she whispered. “Everybody thinks I’m ten years younger than I am and I like it that way.” She told me that when she had become eligible for social security, she had the check sent to her brother in Durango and forwarded to her in a plain envelope. “My age is nobody’s business and some of my roommates are nosy.” Jean continued to work full time until she was 80.

The birth certificate was the least of the surprises the safe deposit box revealed. In addition to a couple of thousand dollars in cash, (“It’s always wise to keep some liquidity—I lived through the Great Depression.”), a half dozen bank books, (“Banks only insure accounts up to $100,000. When one of my accounts reaches $100,000 I open a new account at another bank.”), and several stock certificates. “Right after I moved to San Francisco, my friend Bryce suggested that I invest a few dollars in AT & T.” Jean, it turns out, had saved more than half a million dollars. “I don’t enjoy spending money that much; I like growing it.”

When we were finished with the safe deposit box, Jean pulled a plastic grocery bag from her coat pocket and put a couple of hundred dollars in it. “I haven’t carried a pocket book since I retired—I had my purse snatched once, you know. No one expects an old lady to carry money in a grocery bag. It’s very safe.”

We went for lunch after we left the bank and, when I had regained my power of speech, I told her I hadn’t seen a will or trust in the box. “No,” she replied matter-of-factly, “I was going to ask Bryce to help me but I never got around to it. And he’s not so well these days.” She took a few more bites of food and said, “Could you look into that for me, dear?”

Remember, just a few hours before I had thought she was subsisting on Social Security.

I agreed to look into it. And the fun began.

Jean loved the idea of making bequests. By the time we met with an attorney she had made a list of all of her living relatives—all great-nieces and great-nephews (she had out-lived everyone from her own generation and from my father’s; all of her living friends, plus a half dozen charities (first on that list was the Maryknoll Missionaries.)

Before we met with the attorney, he sent me a list of things to bring to the appointment. At the top of the list was two forms of photo ID. The only identification Jean had was her birth certificate (which she wasn’t about to show anyone) and her social security card. Neither qualified as a photo ID. I told the attorney that I could attest to her identity. “Not if you are the executor or an heir.” Pretty much every living person who could attest to her identity was an heir except for her Chinese landlords who spoke almost no English. We ended up with a notarized letter from the manager of her bank and a notarized statement from a friend of mine to whom I introduced Jean over lunch.

After a couple of trips to San Francisco we finally had everything in order for the meeting with the attorney.

I met her at her apartment at 10 in the morning; she was smartly dressed and ready to go. As we were about to start down the stairs, Jean paused and said she needed a little something to calm her nerves. I followed her into the kitchen where she took a fifth of whiskey out of a chipped white enamel kitchen cabinet and put it on the table. She got a teacup from another cabinet and an ancient set of metal measuring spoons from a drawer. She sat down at the table and carefully measured a tablespoon of whiskey and put it into the teacup. “I only use this for medicinal purposes,” she said. “My doctor says that it’s fine.” The whiskey bottle had been opened but was covered with a light coat of dust which bore witness to the infrequency with which she used it. She held the teacup in both hands and slowly sipped the whiskey for the next half-hour. About fifteen minutes into this ritual, Jean looked up at me and said, “Where are my manners? Would you like a snort?” I declined saying that it was a little early in the day for me.

Aunt Jean – Jones St. San Francisco, CA

We sat in the lawyer’s office as he and an associate went over the documents for the trust and the will, the power of attorney, and the medical power of attorney. The associate was over-explaining the forms in a slightly condescending tone of voice. Jean interrupted him and said, “Get on with it. I’m old; I’m not slow.”

We stopped for lunch after we left the attorney’s office and Jean announced that this called for a toast and ordered an Old-Fashioned.

Jean lived for nearly five years after that and didn’t really start to slow down until about 18 months before she died.

We went for drives together, attended the theatre a couple of times, shared meals and, increasingly, I accompanied her to doctor’s appointments.

A couple of random memories:

Jean began to stoop more and more, became more dependent on a walker, and decided she needed a brace. We went to the doctor who referred us to an orthopedic corset store. The salesperson realized that the problem was that Jean, who was quite amply endowed, had stopped wearing a brassiere because she couldn’t reach around to hook it in the back. The salesperson outfitted her with a new bra that snapped in the front. Her posture restored, she sailed out of the store, nearly forgetting her walker.

Before I knew of her fortune, I surprised her with a new color TV set. God only knows how old the black and white set was. Jean was devoted to Wheel of Fortune, especially Vanna White, and was delighted to see Vanna’s outfits in color. She was equally thrilled when Vanna gave birth to a daughter in 1997 shortly before Jean’s death. “She already has a son. This is perfect.”

About Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinski scandal: You can’t help but like Bill Clinton,” (then she whispered conspiratorially and grinned), “He’s probably guilty but I still like him.”

In a conversation one day, Jean, who knew I worked in entertainment, asked if I liked, The Waltons. “Very much,” I replied. “I watch it every night after Wheel of Fortune,” she said, and I have a great idea for an episode. (At that time the show had been in syndication for at least ten years.) “If Grandpa Walton could have a frank and honest conversation with Mary Ellen about crack-cocaine, I think it could save a lot of lives.”

I once asked Jean, (again before I knew of her fortune), if I could treat her to a new pair of shoes. “I haven’t bought new shoes since I retired,” she said. “I get my shoes at the thrift store—they’re already broken in and much easier on my feet.”

I was in New York on business when I got the call that Jean had fallen out of bed and been taken to the hospital. I got the next flight to San Francisco, but not before calling the hospital and saying it was urgent that I speak with the attending doctor. “Before you consider any treatment, you must know that Jean lies about her age. She tells everyone she’s 89 years old when, in fact, she’s 99. Please don’t tell her I told you.” They connected me with Jean and I told her I was on my way and asked how she was doing. “Well,” she said, “I didn’t break anything. Thank God I have an ample seater.”

When I arrived at the hospital, the nurses stopped me to tell me how remarkable she was for 99. It turned out that they had wanted Jean to do physical therapy; it hurt so she said to the staff, “I’m 99 years old and I don’t have to do physical therapy if I don’t want to.”

Tests revealed that Jean had advanced bladder cancer. We moved her to a hospice. I visited her there two or three times. The last time I saw her she was reading Reader’s Digest and continuing to improve her vocabulary. She had also memorized her new phone number, the first new number she’d had in over 40 years. “I like to keep my mind sharp.”

I reminded her, as I often had, that she was an inspiration to me; that, like me she had lived her life as a single person, free and fully engaged—even in the last weeks of her life.

I arrived at the hospice shortly after Jean died. Her hospice nurse had waited to meet me. “How was she,” I asked. “A little after four, she rang her bell and I went in to check on her. ‘Is this going to take much longer?’ she asked. ‘I told her I didn’t think so.’  ‘Good,’ she said, ‘I’m ready.’ She took two more breaths and left.’”

Except that she has never left. I watched over her, cared for her and loved her, delighted in her company. I’m convinced she arranged her departure days before my cancer diagnosis so she would be free to guide and watch over me. Nothing can convince me otherwise. Her generous bequest gave me the resources to explore other, more effective, treatment options. I frequently pause at her portrait in the hallway and thank her.

4 thoughts on “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

  1. Jim, I am so happy I sat down to read this. My prayer is that we all stop and take the time to see and visit those we think we may not have time for. You reaching out blessed both you and Jean in such a deep profound way. I think we all need a Jean in our lives . Blessed are you . Love You Brother Joy, Yes, this is one of your best.

  2. Pingback: Mystery School: An Overview | Jim Curtan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s