Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair
Copyright 2023 by Abigail Hagler
Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay
mother had three younger sisters: Regine, Margaret and Rita, in
descending order of age. And a brother, too, Jeremy. Because she had
helped raise and watch them grow she knew and loved each one. She
wanted me to know and love them, too, but that was not to be.
was called Jeannie, and the aunts frequently hummed the song when she
was around. For her, the name Regine was too autocratic. She was a
delicate, fair little woman. Her prettiness was simple too - two
pale blue eyes a bit too close together, light brown wavy hair, fair
skin with delicate pinkness in the right place. Her lips were thin,
but the frequent, engaging smile on them made that not matter. She
sometimes had a twinkle in her eyes, but this disappeared, as did the
smile, in time. She was shy, but when she looked, she looked
intimately, and her glance lingered. She could be very appealing.
was married to a big wonderful man. He spent most of his time, at
least when I was at their house, crocheting in his living room chair
- dresses for dolls, as well as other useful things. He was proud of
his work and showed it to me, explaining all the intricacies and
interesting turns of his crochet hooks. He was always cheerful, and
never minded being interrupted by us. He had rheumatic heart disease
as a child, and the grownups all said it damaged his heart enough to
keep him from most activity. As a child, instead of playing and
roughhousing, he learned to crochet.
odd. He was warm and friendly, good at answering questions. To this
day I bristle when I try to tell the story of my crocheting uncle and
see people begin to smirk. He also had a job at the phone company
which required little activity and he was able to drive to it. But it
was the crocheting that fascinated.
had two boys and brought them over to play when the younger one grew
old enough. It was sometimes fun, but the older one saw himself as
the leader, and predictably favored his little brother if there was a
tie or dispute. He was tall and his boy muscles were starting to
appear. These play times were never carefree, solid fun, though I
tried hard to get it right.
spent those hours chatting with my mother and after a while would
come to collect her boys. For a bit she would sit near me and tell me
how she wished she had a little girl, so she could enjoy dressing me
up and playing girl games. I listened politely, smiled and nodded,
but was not delighted. I sensed that were I hers I would be suffering
more dresses and white gloves and politeness than were already in
something was wrong with Jeannie. My mother told me that when they
were young she was afraid to leave home, or go visit anybody. So the
siblings put her in their red wagon and pulled her with them,
wherever they went to play. She tolerated this well, and it became a
feature of their young childhood. For my mother this memory may have
had a certain charm, but I knew my aunt as an adult. Sometimes, when
visiting at her house, she took me to a front window and pointed to a
house up and across the street. “These people are watching
me,” she said. “They watch me through that window with
a telescope.” I was only about seven when she confided this,
but had doubts that anything she did would be interesting enough to
prompt anyone to bother with telescope spying. She brought this up
again one or two more times; usually with a faint squinting of her
eyelids, a tiny nod, and tight lips. I was pretty sure she was
mistaken, but I nodded too and kept my glance, feigning interest, on
few years later my mother, sister and I moved to New York, and I did
not see Jean for quite a while. She was afraid to fly, and was
afraid of elevators. She had also become widowed. Perhaps this
diminished her in ways.
later after college, I joined the Peace Corps. At that time they ran
security checks on volunteer applicants. Jean was one of the
relatives they found to interview, and she made much of having “the
FBI” in the house. Whoever they were, she was terrified, and at
first refused to let them in. Later she relished the event, and spun
it into long conversations. I suspected she blamed me for the
initial shock, but from then on she reveled in the interesting story
she had to tell.
ears later I went to medical school. My mother, by then frail and
limited by significant arthritis, asked if I would to go visit Jean.
She would have gone herself, but traveling had become hard. She
pleaded with me to go. She loved her sisters so much, and felt that
a once-removed connection would be better than none.
did not want to go. I needed quiet and rest during my week off, but
my mother persisted. I went, and stayed with Jean two or three days.
She seemed happy to have me, fixed meals, chattered, and asked a few
questions about school. She did not quite know what to ask, so I
helped by rambling on. She enjoyed this. While I was there she
presumed I would want to visit her sister Margaret, who was close by
and not doing well.
had been the nightmare of my childhood. Many days, many weeks, for
years, she chased me around our shared bedroom, while exhorting me to
admit that I loved her more than I loved my mother. I could not
understand this. Mother and Margaret always seemed happy together.
She never caught me during these chases - I would dart out of the
circle and down to the living room where I knew the chase would end.
But what if she had caught me? When we moved to New York I felt the
most profound relief to be away from this woman. What did she really
want? Her piercing black eyes seemed really to pierce. What would
she have done to me, told me, had I let her catch me, had I said -
just to quiet her - “Yes, I love you more!” In reality I
feared her more and more each day and could not reveal her actions to
my mother for fear of hurting my mother’s feelings. She loved
Margaret so much. She should not have. Did she really know her
last person I ever wanted to see again was Margaret, so I told Jean I
was too exhausted from school. The prospect of being with staggered
me and I begged off the visit. Suddenly, Jean was furious, and
berated me for what felt like a long time. Her face was no longer
sweet and pretty. There was spittle. She stopped, and restarted.
When night came, I got to bed, and she let me sleep. By morning she
had calmed, but revived the harangue. Defeated, I went to visit
Margaret. She was in a home, incapacitated by severe Parkinson’s
Disease, and spoke incessantly, but I understood not a word.. So I
talked to her. I asked questions, I pretended to understand her
impaired speech. I showed what I hoped looked like kindness to her.
Yet Jean’s last words to me were “You are just a snitty
doctor!” This, after the childhood years of her gazing at me
dreamily, wishing I were her little girl. Finally, my flight time
approached. I got a cab to the airport, relieved beyond imagination to
be getting away.
mother, the oldest of five, still saw her all siblings as persistent
children, and intuited something in Jean that deserved compassion. I
deserved compassion too, but I had not yet told her about the torture
Margaret had put me through. I had not wanted to make that tiresome
and difficult trip. But in my mother’s eyes I was young, with
a future before me, whereas Jean, Margaret and Rita, the long, old
companions of her childhood, whom she knew and loved well before I
was on this earth, deserved compassion more. She did not side with
them, but understood them in a way which for just that moment put me
second. And Jean was in a way helpless, and my mother could not
leave that fragility ignored.
deteriorated. Jean developed dementia. Her youngest son was able to
manage and assure care for her, but she lived long in what seemed to
be misery for herself and all around her. How hard it was to think of
the simple, soft face, and love, of her young mother years turning
into harshness, and then to the relentless hell of a ruined mind.
Though she had been difficult for me I still remember her small,
subtle smile, pretty, pale eyes, and the hope that shone from them.
That hope blossomed as her boys grew. But with time all else left,
crowded out by wrinkles and suspicions.
in the mirror I sometimes, for a moment, see a faint likeness of
Jeannie. There is something about the eyes.
am a retired physician, now free to write down everything that has been simmering inside for a long time.
mother wrote many children's books - mostly poetry - so I grew up with
her on the floor, longhand writing away, even at midnight.
a few poems, too, mostly lame ones. Then I went to
where lame poems were of no use. A bit later I started writing
more seriously, and had a few pieces in medical journals. I had
a quirky bunch of relatives, good material for memoirs. I write
some poetry too. Both are a clear improvement over earlier
attempts. Having retired, I have time to write almost every day.
Even the bad stuff is better than my early attempts!
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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