Monday, January 25, 2021

Shelbylynn Jennings 1937-2021

My mother died last night, at just past 9:00 p.m.

Almost the first thought I had was how glad I am she lived to see Trump defeated. She hated him so much -- more even than I did.

My mother married young, and had three children before she was 24 years old. She had a fourth, my brother Ben, when she was 37, and in her second year of college. 

She went to work at an insurance company straight out of high school, living with four roommate in a two bedroom apartment. She used to tell me that right before payday, when they ran out of food, they would hunt through couch cushions and take back refundable soda bottles, anything to raise enough money that they could each have a hamburger from the drive-in across the street.

And they all went to parties together, in the big city of Fort Wayne. She was doing that when she met my father, who was three years younger than she was --19 to her 21 -- and in the last year of his two-year engineering degree.

They met at a party. This was a story my mother loved to tell. There was a woman she didn't know there, from the South, who kept asking where Bill Jennings was, because he was bringing the beer. My mother had started drinking cocktails before he arrived, and when he appeared, with a case of beer on his shoulder, she was a little drunk. She pointed her finger at him and said, in a terrible Southern accent, "I know yew -- Yore Bill Jennings!"

My dad was a snack at 19, and they started dating right away. They got married three months later, when he graduated and took a job with Boeing, working on developing metals for the space program. His family sold used cars and trailers, and they gave my parents a tiny pink trailer at cost, which Boeing shipped from Indiana to Renton, Washington, where the plant he worked at was located.

My parents drove there, crossing Illinois and Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana and a bit of Idaho. It was 1958, and all along the way as they drove through the high plains, they kept seeing signs for Little America, the fanciest hotel and restaurant and truck stop they could imagine. My father promised my mother they would stop there, but when they came to it, it was early in the day -- too early, he said, and wouldn't stop. She ragged him about this for the next 60 years.

Little America, Wyoming, 1960

The trailer park was filled with other people who worked at Boeing, and their young wives -- most of them pregnant. My parents joined bowling leagues; my mother pushed us (my older brother, me, my younger brother) in a stroller up to the grocery, and my father carpooled so she could have their one car once a week to go do laundry. My earliest of memories are of the nursery at the bowling alley, and how much I loved going to do laundry, since my mother always bought us candy from the machines there. I loved chocolate babies the best -- like jelly babies, but made of a chocolate nougat sort of thing.

I remember also my father left for work before dawn, at five a.m., and my mother would go back to sleep after he left, so my older brother, Scott, and I -- before my little brother was born -- were on our own. We knew how to turn on the TV, and Scott could cook. Well, he could make ketchup sandwiches on white bread. These were the most delicious thing I had ever eaten.

My mother took us to the library, and read to us. She let us roam the trailer park in the way parents did back then -- I had complete freedom to go find my friends to play with, or go to the playground at one end of the trailer park, even though I was only three years old.  I remember picking blackberries in the woods behind our trailer, and that night having a nightmare about a ghost chasing me through the woods. I remember falling down and skinning my hand, and how she swooped me up and crooned, patting my back until I stopped crying -- the safest I think I have ever felt.

When I was three, and my older brother five, and Michael the baby two, my father was transferred to the plant in Michoud (outside of New Orleans). Once again, Boeing moved the trailer. 

We lived in a trailer park under a bridge in Gentilly, near the Folgers Coffee plant. I would wake up smelling coffee being ground and roasted every morning. That was the Christmas it snowed in New Orleans. We had Christmas dinner with some friends my parents made -- my mother made friends wherever she went -- and I was dressed in a fancy dress and patent leather shoes (my mother loved dressing her only girl, and it was a big disappointment to her when I turned out to be so butch later on), so I *almost* didn't get to go out and play in the snow. But they found some boots for me, ones the two boys in that family had outgrown, and this began my lifelong love of snow.

The next year my parents bought a house in Metairie. (I surmise the transfer came with a raise.) I was four, and made friends with another four year old, two houses down. She had teenage brothers, and told me she knew the worst bad word.

We were riding her trike. She pedaled and I stood on the back and pushed along with my foot. "So what," I said, "so do I: shit."

  "No," she said, and stopped pedaling to whisper it in my ear. "It's fuck."

We'd just come up on my house again. This subdivision was so new the sidewalk were blinding white and all the trees were saplings. My mother was planting her front yard garden, and I yelled across the lawn at her: "Mommy! Fuck isn't a bad word, is it?"

She sat back on her heels and gave me that look. "It's the worst word in the world," she said, "and you should never say it again."

I was very impressed. The worst word in the world! I didn't say it again until I was about sixteen. Then I never stopped. In fact, I taught her to say it just as freely.

My parents made friends -- my mother made friends wherever she went -- and played bridge, had barbeques, joined the swim club, which was right next to our house, so that as we grew up we could go swimming whenever we wanted. We got a puppy, Oscar, when the neighbor's dog had puppies. We had cats, but they disappeared during Hurricane Betsy, which hit the year after we moved into the house.

I remember that hurricane -- my father watching the banana trees bend and batter in the storm winds, and my mother putting us to bed in the closet in the den, the only place with no windows.

The house was wonderful, by the way -- a willow tree out back, which I spent a lot of time climbing, and out behind it a vast tract of land which we called the "woods" and where we ran wild. Every kid needs a wild space, I think, there were so many kids then. We ran in packs, playing tag and climbing trees and making up dramatic stories about our Barbie dolls. 

My mother read us books, and took us to the library, and gave us crayons and clay and paintboxes. She took us swimming every day in the summer, and to the zoo and art museum in the city. (Metairie is about ten miles out of New Orleans proper.) She arranged for me to have art lessons. She taught us how to ride bikes. One of my early memories is standing on a chair beside her while she baked oatmeal cookies, "helping."

When I was seven and my older brother eight, he was diagnosed with Type-I diabetes. Since her father had just died of that disease the year before, she took it hard. But she rallied, and taught him to give himself shots, and monitor his blood sugar, and never stopped him from doing whatever he wanted to do: boy scouts, sports, it didn't matter. She encouraged it.

When I was eleven, she started college, planning to get an education degree. The three of us were latchkey kids then, staying by ourselves until she got home or my father did, usually well past six. I started cooking dinners, and I remember also climbing the tree in our front yard and watching down the street for her car, longing for her to come home. She made friends there -- of course she did, she made friends everywhere -- and once in a while, for a treat, she would take me to classes with her, and we would hang out with those friends.

In her junior year she became pregnant with my youngest brother, Ben, which delayed her progress. Then my father was transferred to Kansas, where we lived for about nine months, so her degree was delayed even more.

My father quit Boeing at that point and took a job at Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, in part so he could move us back to New Orleans. Both he and my mother missed the city and their friends. My mother graduated two years later, but before that, when I was fifteen, she took me to see The Man of La Mancha put on by the university's drama department. It was the first live play I'd ever seen, and (no exaggeration) changed my life.

She went to work for the New Orleans Public Schools, teaching in Desire Project school for $8000/year. Even in 1976, that wasn't much money, and in her second year on the job, the teacher's union went on strike. My mother walked the picket line. They were out for months, as I recall, but won the strike -- their salaries increased threefold, and they won other concessions.

I raised Ben while she worked, which honestly I loved. I've always liked kids, and he was a good one. Still is. I couldn't drive yet, but I mastered the bus system, and hauled him all over the city, to malls and the zoo and the local park.

As I grew older, we clashed. I guess most adolescents and their parents do. But she supported me in every choice I made -- when I transferred from my first school in Ruston to the University of New Orleans; when I went off to graduate school in Arkansas; when I got a job in Idaho. When she came to visit, she would buy me groceries, to make sure I had enough to eat. And after I had the kid, whenever I asked for help, she got on a plane. She babysat the kid when he was sick and I was in my first months at my tenure track position; she sent money when we needed it; she and my dad took the kid for trips and to stay every summer.

Every time I got sick -- when I had cancer, when I had my shoulders operated on, when I had kidney stones the first time -- she got on a plane and came to take care of me. This was when I was thirty and forty years old. (I had my own kid by then. I understood why.)

And when I needed advice, she was who I called. 

When my brother Michael died, at only 52, it broke her heart. She never stopped talking about him, or missing him.

Mike, age five

But through everything, she was the happiest woman I've known. I suffer from anxiety and depression, as does the kid; she was never depressed a day in her life. "I get sad," she told me when we were talking about this once, "but not sad."

Well into her eighties, her friends were still coming to play bridge, and calling her up to chat every day. Her best friend, Becky, lived across the Ponchartrain Bridge, and they would drive back and forth to have lunch with each other at least once a week. Becky was the last person she responded to -- almost waking up -- before she died.

I don't know what we'll do without her. "Who will I call up to for advice?" her sister told me, right before she died. Which, same.

But I'm not worried about her.  Wherever she is, I know she's happy. And I know she's making friends.

ETA: See also this, from my beloved nephew


nicoleandmaggie said...

Beautiful tribute to a wonderful woman. I'm so sorry.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This is a beautiful tribute to your mom. May her memory be a blessing to all who knew her.

Anonymous said...

I'm so sorry for your loss.

This is such a beautiful tribute to your mother.

tonkelu said...

Sending all the hugs and love. I'm so sorry.

tonkelu said...

Sending all the hugs and love. I'm so sorry.

Bardiac said...

I'll echo the others: this is a beautiful eulogy. Your Mom sounds so wonderful, and you make me feel like I know her, like she's one of the neighbors I grew up with.

I'm sorry for your loss. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I'm sorry to hear she's gone. May her memory be a blessing.

saramacdavis said...

Beautiful tribute to your Mom. You and I have a lot in common so I feel I understand your experiences so much that even though I didn't know your Mom, I've lost something too!

White Elephant Trainer said...

This is so beautiful Kelly. Wonderful memories! Thank you for sharing the history. May she rest in peace and joy knowing she has left behind a great legacy in her children.