The Jeanne Tree

When my children—all grown up now––reminisce about going to Jeanne’s house at Christmastime, two things come up: the dollar presents they received and the dog hair in the macaroni and cheese.

You might not think that inexpensive gifts and dog hair make a love story, but they do.Consider this: to ensure Jeanne’s permanent status in our family, my eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth drew up adoption papers which she circulated to each of her six siblings. Everyone signed.

Consider this: to ensure Jeanne’s permanent status in our family, my eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth drew up adoption papers which she circulated to each of her six siblings. Everyone signed.

I met Jeanne McHenry in 1966 at Occidental Life Insurance in Los Angeles. I was a claims examiner; she was my supervisor. Her corrections to my EOBs (Explanation of Benefits) were composed in well-formed, aggressively slanted letters with long athletic tails and loops––the hand of an artist, one who used a fountain pen. My appreciation had the happy effect of distracting her from my errors. Our friendship began and continued through my family’s moves to Arizona and Washington State.

When her marriage broke up in 1984, she and her twelve-year-old daughter Wendy moved to Bellingham where we lived. She became a part of our family activities, lavishing affection and presents on our children.

At the beginning of every school year, she delivered individually labeled bags of school supplies—wide-lined paper, colored markers, glue sticks, erasers and #2 pencils. If she found half gallons of ice cream or past pull date cookies on sale, she dropped them off. When we went to the movies, she concealed candy bars and pop in her oversized purse because “Theater prices are outrageous.”

But: she did not hesitate to pull out her wallet when one of the kids was selling Girl Scout cookies or car wash tickets. She did not skimp on viola lessons for her daughter (who eventually earned a master’s in music and became a music teacher) or on expensive dog food for her three German Shepherds, Tasha, Jake and Bear.

Jeanne and Wendy spent most Thanksgivings with us. She arrived with three pots of food, swaddled with thick towels, and protected in a cardboard box. One pot contained oyster stuffing, another creamed onions, the third, applesauce. None of the children liked oyster stuffing or creamed onions, though all but the un-coachable youngest took polite helpings.

We all loved her hot applesauce, the air suffused with the scent of cinnamon as she entered. The taste varied according to the kind of apples scavenged. She maintained a gleaner’s eye while walking the neighborhood or out for a drive.

“Hi,” she’d say to the stranger opening the door. “I know you don’t know me, but I see that apples have fallen off your tree. Would you mind if I picked up some of them to use?”

Applesauce was standard at her pre-Christmas event, along with the boxed macaroni and cheese she knew the kids loved and didn’t get at home. Her version included cream added to the base and extra cheddar and jack cheeses, making it no longer a Kraft-recognizable concoction.

We were all excited to gather in her house across town, a modest two-bedroom, 1000-square foot craftsman. A freshly ironed decorative tablecloth hung low, concealing a door atop two sawhorses, the improvised dining table set with red plates and heavy glass goblets. Lacquered ebony napkin rings held cloth napkins.

After dinner, we sat on the floor around the tree. There were presents for all, but they came with a price: finding the answer to Jeanne’s question by locating the right decoration in the clustered mass of ornaments on her tall tree.

“Who is the person we honor at Christmastime? Hint: not Santa Claus.” “What sign shone over Bethlehem?” “Who came bearing gifts?”

When the Jesus, star, and Three Kings ornaments were successfully identified, Jeanne hugged the winner and handed over a present.

She shopped Good Will and Value Village, garage sales and remainder bins all year round, aiming to spend one dollar per present. She was remarkably successful with little pieces of jewelry, wallets, hair spray, toys, and her favorite, coupons from McDonalds.

In early 1995, Jeanne was diagnosed with breast cancer; she died in September of the same year. Jeanne, who had found solace in a local community church, didn’t want a fancy memorial. Wendy, Jeanne’s sister and niece, her friends from church and her job at a local bank, and all my family met at the edge of the bay for a short service of remembrance. We stood there on that windy day, hands in our pockets, extracting stories from our hearts and telling them in halting sentences, stories that symbolized many years of love.

As 1996 came to a close, I thought, what better way to honor our friend than to restore her tradition. So, for twenty years, we’ve hosted The Jeanne Tree, inviting extended family members, even though most of the grandchildren and many of the spouses did not know Jeanne. Disclaimer: I do not go to garage sales. I spend around $5 per present. I don’t serve macaroni and cheese at the Jeanne Tree, nor do I serve baked onions and oyster stuffing on holidays. There’s no seducing any of this generation of Lamberts into liking them.

I display Jeanne’s picture and say a few things about her. If sentimentality surfaces, one of my children gives me a nod and I stop, hoping that The Jeanne Tree demonstrates the values that she exhibited.

This year, although we established the date well in advance, two families of five were unable to come. Four others were iffy. With reluctance, we canceled The Jeanne Tree.

But only for a moment. I invented The Pop-Up Jeanne Tree, for this year only. On a visit to three sons and their families (9 grandchildren) in Logan and Park City, Utah. I carried with me a metal tree purchased by my daughter-in-law Leya, and outfitted by my wife Amory with small ornaments. From the time, I got there, my six-year-old granddaughter Harper asked, “When are we going to do The Jeanne Tree?” I asked questions, I hugged the winners. The grandchildren got presents.

Meanwhile, my two oldest daughters, Elizabeth and Deborah and her wife Leya—they live two hours away—wanted to come up on what would have been the Jeanne Tree weekend. “A relaxing time, girls only (which included our one-year-old granddaughter),” they said. “We’ll make lunch for you.”

They made lunch, then revealed that the day was in honor of Jeanne. They’d bought cloth napkins and a table runner at Good Will. They purchased a few roses and scrounged wild flowers and leaves in the neighborhood. We told Jeanne stories—how Jeanne tied a bike to the bumper of her car when she traveled so she’d have transportation if car trouble interrupted her journey, how she bought dollar bags of romance novels on the last day of the library book sale, and how we loved her laugh and her long brown hair, which she wore down to her waist…until the bank administration said it “wasn’t professional.”

Our conversation included references to dog hair, a memory that makes us all smile, but could never overshadow the canopy of love that characterized our decades with Jeanne.

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6 thoughts on “The Jeanne Tree

  1. I feel like I know Jeanne. Thanks for revealing her loving ways, the essence of love, caring, and joy. Her spirit lives on, now, for all of us.

    Like

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