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Eulogy – Jean Mae Flood | REnotated

Eulogy – Jean Mae Flood

  • Summer is over.  It has given way to fall and we know that with the cold soon it will be winter.  There will be other summers again, of course, but this past summer, like all the other summers before it, is now a collection of memories.  But like all memories, they stay with us, become a part of us, and keep coming back to us.  I imagine that during future summers is when I will be most reminded of my grandmother.  Summer will remind me of her, because if anyone has a season, then for me, summer was hers.

    The reason summer was so special was partly because of the job that she had.  Although she held other jobs in her life, the job she held the longest was the one she started around the time I was born and Donna was in the third grade, which was working in the Deiruff High School cafeteria.  This made her, as every school kid knows, a “lunch lady”; and it also meant that she, like the children she served, had off all summer long.  She enjoyed her work at Deiruff, especially getting to know the kids, and she always spoke very fondly of her co-workers.  Back in those days, “lunch ladies” didn’t just plop re-heated, per-packaged meals on your plate.  They actually cooked real food.  My grandmother and the other “girls” as she called them, would cook everything right there in the school’s kitchen.  They would peel bags and bags of potatoes all morning, cut fresh vegetables, cook whole turkeys, and make most other things from scratch as well.

    My grandmother worked hard in the Deiruff cafeteria, but once school let out for the year it was time to have fun; and my grandmother always knew how to have fun.  Summer was her playground; and everyone (family, friends, and neighbors) was always invited.  This often meant swimming in the pool my grandparents always had in their backyard on Hannover Avenue.  It was in that pool where she taught me how to swim; and beneath the big Chestnut tree where she helped my mom teach me how to use the potty.  Summer in those days of the late 60’s and the 1970’s was an endless stream of pool parties, picnics, and cookouts that could last well into the night.

    The other thing I remember about those summers was driving around in my grandmother’s car.  She always had a big car; and back in the 1970’s it was always a station wagon.  The car, like the summer itself, seemed to go on forever.  She’d sometimes take me shopping or running errands around Allentown.  I’d sit in the passenger seat; my head barely popping above the dashboard, my grandmother trailing her cigarette out the window, neither of us wearing any seat-belts (remember when no one wore seat-belts).  As a kid it was always a fun adventure driving around in Nana Flood’s car.

    In the summer I would also sometimes stay over at my grandparent’s house; and in the evenings they would sit on the front porch, since no one had any air conditioning back then, watching the cars go by on the avenue.  I would often slip inside to watch TV with Donna’s dog DR at my side.  They might get something from Stahley’s or maybe a pizza; and my grandparent’s would tell stories of what Allentown used to be like.  My grandmother especially liked to talk about how she’d get all dressed up to go shopping, putting on a dress, hat, and long white gloves, and then take the trolley up to Hamilton Street.  She might have lunch at Hess’s and then maybe decide to put something on layaway that she had seen at Adams.  When Hess’s and other downtown stores finally closed their doors and Hamilton Street was no longer what it once was, my grandmother mourned the loss as much as anyone in Allentown.

    Summer fun wasn’t just reserved for backyard pool parties, driving around, or talking on the porch; it also extended down to the shore as well.  For twenty-five years my grandmother always rented a condo for a weeklong vacation at the beach.  My grandfather, who only liked coming down for a couple of days at the end of the week, would always hand Donna and my mom an envelope of money before we left and would tell them to use it until it was gone.  Then Donna, Steve, Stevie and Shawn and my parents and I would all head with my grandmother usually to Ocean City, Maryland, but sometimes it was other places like Hilton Head or somewhere in Florida.

    Nana loved sitting by the pool or relaxing on the sand, but it was known that she didn’t ever hit the beach until after she had watched the Price is Right and got her daily fix of Bob Barker.  Once on the beach, she didn’t just take in the sun, Nan would jump right into the waves and surf on rafts in the ocean with the rest of us.  I can still picture her coming down the slide at the water park in Ocean City holding her nose as she made a big splash at the bottom and then popping right up just like a kid.

    She remained an avid swimmer most of her life, swimming not just in her backyard pool or the ocean, but also at the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown during the off season.  After my grandparents moved next door to her sister Janice and brother-in-law Don, she made frequent use of their pool, letting herself in with the key for those who knew where it was hidden.  She was often in the pool when Janice would come home from work during the summer.  “Come on in,” she’d say to Janice “the water’s great.”  Janice would then join her for a late afternoon swim and a chat.   

    Apparently all those years of swimming did her good, because otherwise she seemed to exist on sandwiches, chips and pretzels, and ice cream.  Even though she used to cooked big meals for my grandfather, whose love of home cooked food was legendary, my grandmother usually preferred a much simpler diet.  When my mom was young, my grandmother would give her money to buy a pint of ice cream and two bottles of Coke at Robert’s store on the avenue.  They’d cut the ice cream in half and then sit down and watch I Love Lucy together.  That was what my grandmother found enjoyable.  If you took her out to dinner, she’d always say she wasn’t hungry, probably because she was already thinking about the sandwich and ice cream she could have later on.

    Despite her less than ideal diet, until this past week, she hadn’t been to see a doctor in many years.  One of her common refrains when asked about doctors or hospitals was to wave her hand and say, “Ah! If you go there, they’re always going to find something.”  So she simply didn’t go; and that was that.  There were only a couple of times that I remember her ever relenting and allowing someone to take her to a doctor.  One time was when she came down with the London flu in the early 1970’s and was unable to walk; and the other time was in the 1980’s when she broke her leg after she tripped and fell carrying little Stevie down the stairs and was again unable to walk.  Both times she bounced back as though nothing had ever happened.

    And her independence (or shall we call it a certain Pennsylvania German stubbornness) didn’t just apply to doctors.  She was personally offended by even the suggestion that she might need help for anything or from anyone.  She was the one who always helped others; and she simply didn’t like it the other way around.  She also didn’t like people fussing over her.  In fact, if she knew we were all planning on coming here today, she’d probably say, “This is stupid!  I don’t need this!”  To which I’d say, “Too bad, you’re getting it anyway.”  To which she’d say again, “Ah!  I still think it’s stupid!”

    Her independence went right along with her non-judgmental nature.  She didn’t condone everything, there were rules of course, but she typically chose not to judge people, basically because she thought it was hypocritical.  This made her the kind of person who always had your back and would cover for you as long as you didn’t get too far out of line.

    When Donna and Steve where dating and Steve brought Donna home late after a night of partying, my grandmother would simply say, “Donna, just get in bed before your father comes home.”  She never once scolded me, even when I decided to hide all her cigarettes (about eight or ten cartons worth, her entire stash), because I had just found out in school that cigarettes were bad for you.  She was completely unfazed by it, even when I kept it going into the next day, which was about the time I finally realized she could just go out to buy more, if she hadn’t already.

    She’d even cover for people like her brother-in-law Mickey.  See Mickey, he liked to have an afternoon drink when he came to visit, so she’d let him pour himself a whiskey in a tall water glass.  When my grandfather came down ready to leave for his shift, he’d see the full glass on the counter and ask what it was.  My grandmother wouldn’t say a word as Mickey told my grandfather that it was actually vinegar that Jean was using for cooking.  My grandfather would lift the glass, smell it, and then without a word, he would proceed to pour it down the drain.  So she’d let you try to get away with things, but if you got caught, well now that was your problem and you’d have to deal with it.

    My grandmother expressed this non-judgmental nature, like many of things she did, in a way that didn’t draw attention to herself, which was a fundament part of her style.  Her innate reaction when hearing of someone else’s misfortune was not to pass judgment or to assign blame, but to have sympathy.  She was never one to say, “Well, serves them right”, like some people have a tendency to do.  She’d simply say, “Isn’t that a shame.”  This didn’t just extend to people she knew.

    As hard as it is to believe today, she actually would make sandwiches for strangers that came to her back porch door on the avenue asking for something to eat, even inviting them in to sit at her kitchen table.  She said at one point she figured word must be getting around, because of all the foot traffic she was getting.  She always referred to these people as “poor souls” or “lost souls”, but admitted to me that others often called people like that “bums”.  Maybe she thought she could get away with doing things like that, because her husband was a cop; or maybe she just did things like that, because she was Jean Flood; and Jean Flood pretty much did what she wanted or what she thought was right.

    Although she never really discussed politics, being independent and non-judgmental influenced her opinions about certain things that made her, I think, somewhat of a libertarian.  She understood that all those cigarettes were bad for her, but happily smoked her Chesterfields and Camels, so much so that when Stevie and Shawn were little they called her “Smokey” as though that was an obvious thing to call your grandmother (and it was).  She smoked from the age of fifteen (that’s since 1940 if you do the math) up until two weeks ago.

    To her smoking, like a lot of things, was a personal decision and people should be free to do what they want; but she also thought that people needed to take responsibility for the things they chose to do.  She never understood the logic of suing tobacco companies, always saying, “they didn’t force me to smoke, so why would I sue them.”  (She would have made a good lawyer for the tobacco industry.)  She even had opinions on the criminalization of drugs, because she had seen firsthand as a child what Prohibition had done.  It had made alcohol a crime, many people a criminal, and a few people, including a neighbor down the block, very rich.  She’d always say, “It’s just like drugs today.”  And when there was first talk of allowing gambling in Pennsylvania, she couldn’t understand why they didn’t immediately open a casino in downtown Allentown and help revive her beloved Hamilton Street.

    When I was grown and on my own, she’d still pull me aside occasionally and say, “Ronnie, if you ever need anything, you just let me know.”  I always knew if I ever did need her help, she would be there, no questions asked.  It’s hard to really quantify the value of that kind of unconditional love and support.  The security and reassurance it gives you, which becomes integrated with who you are and forms the foundation of your self-confidence.  Even if the help is never needed, to just know it’s there, gives one a profound sense of well-being.  It’s the ultimate, emotional, insurance policy.  That is what family at its best provides: security, reassurance, well-being, and self-confidence.  That is what my grandmother gave to me and to those closest to her.

    In recent years, we had started to say that my grandmother had nine lives, because we all could see that her body was failing her, but still she continued to soldier on without complaint.  Last week we saw the last of those lives; but through those nine lives she touched the lives of people in this room as well as countless others.  Her name will be carried on by her niece Linda Jean (my cousin) and by her great-granddaughter Ida Jean (my daughter).  And if we are fortunate, we might all carry with us a little of her spirit, which was defined by her instinct to care, rather than to judge, and by her quiet generosity that asked for nothing in return.

    Good-bye, Mother, Grandmother, Sister, Aunt, Cousin, and Friend.  Good-bye Nana.  We will not forget what your life meant to all of us; and we will try to learn from your example.

    14 November 2013