Whenever I went to visit Baba - Jean to many of you - I was always heartened by one thing. No matter how much her mind had slipped, she always recognized me. With my 6-year-old girl sitting right there on my lap, Baba would squeeze my hand and implore me to get married and start a family. But she always knew me, and she knew what was best for me, like many grandmothers do.
During one of my last visits she told me a story I had never heard before. You know, Alzheimer's is a funny thing. It plows under the garden of memories you've tended to all your life, but in the process it also digs up some long-buried tales that are astonishing.
When she was a little girl, a giant venomous snake escaped from the Bronx zoo. At the time she was living in a ground-floor apartment. So to save themselves, she and all the other people in her neighborhood fled to the upstairs apartments and slept on the fire escapes and balconies that night while the authorities hunted the reptile.
This story amazed me. Not that people thought they could save themselves from a snake by going up a flight of stairs, but that Baba could ever be afraid of anything. I just couldn't picture her afraid of something. Not a deadly venomous snake.
Not even a deadly venomous snake from the Bronx.
Jean Martin West was born in New York City in January 1913. Her mother was a local Irish beauty from the Upper East Side. Her Scotch-Irish father was a scholar and schoolteacher. When Jean was 5 her mother and both brothers died and she was left alone with her father. Despite the conventions of the time, Norman Martin was determined to raise her. After a few lonesome years, her Dad met and married Maude Clark, known to many of us as Nana. Her new mother was a warm, caring, Christian woman who directly influenced most of the family members here today. And she was long-lived; so me, my sisters and cousins came under her spell as well.
Jean and her sister, Marion, grew up in the Bronx and in Westchester County. In the summertime she and her family came to Crescent Beach in Niantic. Jean graduated from Columbia University's Business College, and in the late 1930s she worked for a Wall Street law firm. As the story in my family goes, in 1937 she helped arrange a social potluck dinner at the Asbury Methodist Church in Crestwood, New York. A young man, home from college at Amherst, ate her dessert and declared, "I'll marry the woman who can bake an apple pie like this!" The man was Joe West; they fell in love, and were married.
Baba, as I can attest, made a pretty mean apple pie.
Joe was a Midwesterner from Chicago with roots in New England. His ancestors were early settlers in New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. Joe graduated from Amherst and went to work for the Western Electric division of AT&T in New York City. By 1937 he and his two brothers owned a large sailboat. By the time they were married in 1938, Joe had turned the rather proper Jean into a sailor, complete with bare feet, rolled up men's blue jeans and a rope belt. It was perhaps the only time in her 89 years that her khaki skirts got a rest. The newlyweds lived in Crestwood and Bronxville. They built a beach cottage in Niantic to join their family and the Clarks every summer. Their son, Tom, was born in 1939; their daughter, Terry, in 1942.
By the end of World War II, Joe had begun the long climb up the corporate ladder of AT&T. In those days the corporate ladder meant relocating to new assignments. And relocate they did. Jean set up new households in Crestwood, N.Y.; Naperville, Ill., Lincoln Neb., Oklahoma City, Hinsdale, Ill., ...and finally back to New York. Jean's role as Joe's wife and corporate homemaker was her life's work. In every new town she took care of the children, joined a church, handled the necessary social life, and designed new gardens. She also directed Joe as he remodeled every house they purchased and decorated the end result.
After coming back to New York, Joe was promoted to the top-operating job in Western Electric. He and Jean traveled extensively in the United States and around the world. In Asia she collected antiques and developed an interest in bonsai plants studying more on each trip and bringing home to her gardens new inspiration.
When it was time to retire Jean and Joe came back to the Connecticut shore and purchased a beautiful International-style home in Old Lyme. They had a new career here; he in the town band and on the library board; she in the Duck River Garden Club. Years of gardening and arranging flowers had turned Jean into something of an expert. She became a lecturer and judge at the New York Botanical Garden.
Both Jean and Joe became active in this church. Jean became a deacon and later deacon emeritus. When Joe passed away in 1989, she founded the Memorial Music Fund and donated the two (add species) trees in the front lawn you walked by to enter the church.
People outside her circle of friends and family assumed that Jean lived in the shadow of her husband. But as all of us here know, Jean cast her own shadow that was just as long, sharply defined and sheltering as Joe's.
From her father, Jean got her stern, Calvinist sense of right and wrong and a firm attitude about medicine and health. From her stepmother, Nana, Jean learned a strong sense of community and social responsibility. Adding Joe West's set of high moral values, Jean became an old school New England puritan. She was certain about doing the right thing and didn't hesitate to announce her standards. She operated with moral black and white, there were never any moral ambiguities in Jean's view.
She could be difficult, she could be charming. She could be politely distant, she could be a best friend. She loved her husband completely for her entire life. She loved her children, taking pride in their accomplishments and sharing their joys. She dearly loved her grandchildren and helped them as kids and adults.
When I decided to become a writer - even worse, a journalist - it was Baba's financial help that ensured I could attend university and join the ranks of this low-paying profession. This little fact is particularly amazing given that Jean took a dim view of the liberal media and yet went out of her way to unleash another journalist on the world
Years later she saw in me something I hadn't fully recognized myself: the desire to build furniture - another low-paying profession. In the blink of an eye one day she gave me many of Joe's woodworking tools and sent me packing over the Appalachian mountains in a U-haul. I set up a shop on our back porch and began building simple benches and tables. Before I knew it I had combined my writing and woodworking and become an editor at a woodworking magazine where I am still so happy they could pay me in sand and I'd still show up for work each day. None of that would have happened without the guidance of Baba's hand.
Like I said before. She always knew me.
Jean's lessons to her grandchildren were always consistent. Her favorite phrases were, "Keep it Simple; Slow Down; Be Still and Listen." And it was Baba who taught us - through word and deed - the one thing we never got from school: Look each day right in the eye unflinchingly. Always speak your mind, but never trample over others in the process. In effect, be firm, but kind.
And that's how I will always remember her.
As a child I'm told Jean decided that Heaven was like a balcony where friends and relatives could socialize and watch the behavior of us below. If that's true, she has joined her beloved Nana and Joe and will be keeping a sharp eye on all of us while sporting what is certainly heaven's first khaki-colored halo. She is enjoying restored health and the quiet pride of a lifetime's accomplishment.
I am certain she will have a garden. Jean could make almost anything grow, which was one of her gifts. So it seems appropriate for me to close with a quote from Alfred Austin, who dies the same year she was born.
- Alfred Austin, 1835-1913