Family Friday: My Aunt, Jean Amerson Brookins, A Life Force

The Amersons are celebrating my Aunt Jeanie this weekend

My Amerson family is gathering this weekend in St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate the life of my Aunt Jeanie, who died on January 17, slipping away quietly in her sleep. My sister (in Colorado), and my daughter and I (in Florida) have been stayed by the pandemic from our mission to be with these people, our bedrock long before my father’s death.

Instead of traveling to their side, we will witness Saturday’s program on our computers. On Sunday, when my cousins continue the reunion in the beautiful lakeside home where Rog and Julie were married in 2018, we will have to settle for revisiting pictures of that happy occasion.

What we said when Jeanie left us

Here is some of what I wrote in January, along with other family remembrances, when we were all adrift in our sorrow.

A child of the prairie

Jeanie was a child of the South Dakota prairie, born at the family farm on a snowy day in early spring. The youngest of my father’s sisters, she was small, slender, blonde and cute, my Aunt Snooky wrote, and a positive force during “hard times.” She was also smart, absorbing everything from farming information to the lessons of the one-room schoolhouse, where she got straight As. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school class.

Left to right, Front: Snooky (holding Tiny), Jeanie, Elaine. Back: Clarice, Ma Bernice (my grandmother), Marie.

She was a beautiful life force who will be sorely missed.

My cousin Bob

A counter culture protester

Jeanie followed my father’s lead by attending Macalester College, paying for her year there by selling some sheep. She completed her studies in journalism and English at the University of Minnesota, where she met her husband Carl Brookins and became engaged in protests against the blacklisting of Pete Seeger. Her prairie liberalism led her through the Sixties counter culture movement.

I have a thousand Jeanie stories. I’m just so grateful to have experienced her wit, joy, love and pain. Everything was truth. She taught me about raw, full, truthful love. 

My cousin Laina

An exalted editor

Jeanie had a 32-year career at the Minnesota Historical Society and rose to become Director of the MHS Press, which she she drove to heights of academic excellence with her research, writing, and editing. Among the publications Jeanie oversaw was my father’s memoir of growing up in South Dakota, From the Hidewood.

A year ago, she carefully reviewed an early copy of my childhood memoir, giving me copious edits and an earful of very strong opinions about where I’d made poor choices in the draft. She (and Aunt Snooky, another wonderful wordsmith) helped it become a better book.

She was a life force, a sister who could harmonize, a friend, an intellectual wonder, a gifted individual.

My Aunt (Mavis) Snooky

A ready ear and all the time in the world

She and Carl discovered the pleasures of sailing in Lake Superior, Puget Sound, the Caribbean, and the Adriatic, and they traveled extensively after retirement. She became a devoted gardener, and her backyard was a favorite gathering spot for friends and family.

Jeanie and Carl flew in from the Twin Cities to my wedding in NYC and pulled my new husband into the family with one huge embrace. She waited for our visits to the Midwest with a warm welcome, a spare bedroom, and all the time in the world to listen to what we had to say.

Jean was a boon companion to her husband, a great mom, provider, and role model for her daughters, a home maker, a constant friend, a supporter of family and friends.

My Uncle Carl

This family is our strength.

Jeanie’s daughters, my cousins Shannon and Lissa
Jean Amerson Brookins

An Anniversary: JFK and My Parents

Sixty-six years ago today in Winona, my parents were married. Fify-five years ago in Dallas, President Kennedy was killed, just months after my sister and I had shaken his hand at the Ambassador’s Residence in Rome. We were in Washington, DC, on the final weekday of Dad’s transition from Press Attaché in Rome to Public Affairs Officer in Bogotá. 

The week came to a close. Dad had completed all of his meetings except with the Director, who he was scheduled to meet with after lunch. He picked up our air travel tickets, managing to get us all upgraded to First Class in the process, an unexpected treat. He wondered if he could parlay the travel into a kind of gift for Mom: it was their eleventh anniversary.

While Dad was finishing up at USIA, Mom, Susie and I had a tour of the White House. It was special to be in the place where our friend from Rome lived. I wondered if we’d see him, but Mom said that Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were on a trip.

The plan for the afternoon was picking up new school shoes for both of us girls. Italian shoes were really expensive and the selection was pretty limited at the PX in Naples. There was big department store a few blocks away, Hecht’s, bigger and nicer than Cim.

We got to Hecht’s a little after noon. Mom ushered Susie and me into one slice of the revolving door which spit us out in the makeup aisle. The store directory said the shoe department was down the escalator. Mom herded us forward, each of us in one of her hands. Down we went.

Rows of shoes pulled us off the escalator like a magnet. I had never seen so many varieties. In Italy, there was pretty much one style in one color for a whole season, which changed completely by the next. Here, there were heels and flats and boots in lots of different colors. We waded in alongside Mom.

“They shot the President!”

My head jerked up. A saleslady standing at the end of our aisle had her hand up to her mouth. The next few minutes were in slow motion as if somehow we were all under water. Grownups reached out for each other, their mouths twisted, but I could only hear the my heartbeat. Mom’s hand gripped my hand harder than I could ever remember, and she pulled us back up the escalator and through the revolving glass doors. My face felt hot against the cool air of the afternoon.

“What about the shoes?” I said.

“Yeah,” Susie said.

“Right now, we need to find Daddy,” Mom said.

All around us, people were stopped, talking with each other like friends. Mom steered us around the clusters. She was very good at this, Italian sidewalks being way more crowded. We were used to it too but there was a whole other energy around us today.

“What happened, Mom?” I said.

“Walk,” Mom said.

The news of Kennedy’s shooting had hit USIA even faster, and Dad’s meeting with the front office was cancelled. Dad was in our room when we got back to the hotel. The television was on. They said the President was dead. The television stayed on until dinnertime without any of those fun American commercials.

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I wrote this poem about meeting President Kennedy in Rome. I was nine. 

 

That night, we retraced our steps in the dark back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House shone bright in the night air. Just that morning, it was where my Man in the Purple Tie lived. It wasn’t any more. I kept one hand in my coat pocket, my fingers playing with the lint left from my cousins’ use; Mom had a grip on my other hand, the tips of her red nails firm against my palm. Susie danced at the end of Mom’s other arm, bouncing to keep warm. Dad’s hands were on our shoulders.

Mom and Dad’s anniversary was forgotten.

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