Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair

Abigail Hagler

© Copyright 2023 by Abigail Hagler

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay
Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay
My 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.

Regine 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.

She 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.

Nobody thought this 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.

Jeannie 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.

Jeannie 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 place.

But 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 the house.

A 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.

Years 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.

Some 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.

I 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.

Margaret 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 sister?

The 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.

My 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.

Things 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.

Strangely, in the mirror I sometimes, for a moment, see a faint likeness of Jeannie. There is something about the eyes.

I am a retired physician, now free to write down everything that has
been simmering inside for a long time.

My mother wrote many children's books - mostly poetry - so I grew up with her on the floor, longhand  writing away, even at midnight.  I wrote a few poems, too, mostly lame ones. Then  I went to medical school 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!

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