I’ve heard people say that being with your family is the place where you can be your most complete self and for some, maybe that’s true. For me, I was blessed to have had an aunt who fit that bill and more.
|Jeanette Baker, left, with her
sister-in-law Harriett Pierce and
nephew Ed Pierce on Easter
Sunday 1955 in Rochester,
New York. COURTESY PHOTO
Her laugh was contagious and sort of built slowly to a crescendo that filled the room. And she was seldom without a comforting smile, which invited you to confide in her what was troubling you so she could offer some practical advice.
In all the years of being around her, I never heard Aunt Jeanette speak badly about anyone or anything. She was genuinely a positive person and that attitude persisted even after she suffered a stroke later in life, her husband died, and she was forced to move into her son’s home because of her declining health and mobility issues.
It could not have been harder for her as her son and his wife ran a daycare from their residence and she was constantly surrounded by dozens of children all under the age of 5. She put up with screaming, temper tantrums and a bevy of little people running in and out of her personal space, but she never frowned, raised her voice, or complained.
When I first started driving, I would make it a point to stop by the department store she worked at for a dose of her positivity. She always gave me a big hug and made it a point to tell me how proud she was of me and that I was studying journalism in college. She would remind me that her sister, Doris Laubscher, worked for a community newspaper for 35 years.
“The world needs story tellers,” she once told me. “And this is what you are meant to do with your life.”
It was uplifting to observe her positive interactions with her department store customers, no matter if she was selling bath towels or a set of glassware. She treated each customer like they were members of her own family and went out of her way to make them feel like they were the only shoppers in the store.
Even after I served in the U.S. Air Force, graduated from college, and started working for a newspaper in New Mexico, every Christmas season I would receive a card from her, updating me about her new grandchildren or great-grandchildren, and how she was doing. I looked forward to those Christmas cards each December because she never wavered in her support for me.
Every trip home that I made included a stop to see Aunt Jeanette. We’d sit for hours at the kitchen table reminiscing about days gone by and then l would always take her to Tom Wahl’s, a nearby restaurant for a ground-round hamburger, French fries, and a frosty mug of root beer. She talked about my paternal grandfather, who had died when I was 2, and told me interesting stories about her late husband, my uncle Bernie.
Of all my family members, Aunt Jeanette was truly someone who understood the complicated relationship I had with my mother and her advice to me usually was to overlook questionable comments that my mother would make. She said I needed to remember that my mother had experienced many difficult challenges in her life but that deep down, she was a good person.
Aunt Jeanette lived for at least five years on her own after Uncle Bernie died in 1995, but it became increasingly difficult to manage alone and that’s when her son, Bernie, Jr. and his wife, Lynda, brought her to their home to live with them.
I was living in Florida and working for a newspaper in November 2012 when I received word that Aunt Jeanette’s health had taken a turn for the worse and she was in the hospital. She passed away at age 89 in January 2013.
When I posted on Facebook about how saddened I was by my aunt’s loss, I received surprising encouragement from a classmate, Peggy Muhs, whose locker in eighth grade was right next to mine. Peggy sent me a Facebook message and told me that she admired my Aunt Jeanette too. It seems Jeanette was the best friend of Peggy’s mother, something I never knew, and she had been her mother’s maid of honor at her wedding.
I’ve heard people say that you can’t choose your family, but if I could, the ideal aunt for me would always be Jeanette Baker. Last December in going through a box of old holiday decorations, I found a Christmas card from her dated 2006. She mentioned how much she adored my wife, Nancy. What a better place the world would be if everyone could be just a little like her. <