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

Family Friday: How My Aunts and Uncle Tether Me to My Father

Kristen Martin’s recent essay in The New York Times Magazine shared how her aunts kept her father from disappearing after his death by telling her all about him. That experience resonated for me.

My aunts and uncle also tether me back to my father, Robert C. Amerson. Next Thursday, it’ll be 15 years since he died in his sleep, barely a week after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I felt his sudden absence as a physical electric shock in my wrists, and the black hole where he had been seemed to expand across my entire existence. But the loving redemption of Dad’s siblings poured in to begin to restore some ground under my feet.

Dad was the eldest son in a family of six siblings. When he died first, their grief was mingled with stories of how much their big brother had meant to them.

He was always been there for us, since we were little kids skipping across the prairie to Plainview District #41 school. He went on to high school in the big town of Clear Lake [1950 population 1,105], paving the way for us girls to follow.

My Aunt Snooky, Mavis Voigt

But he was also a goofy teenager. Just yesterday, my Aunt Elaine read to me what 14-year old Bob wrote in her 1939 autograph book.

Young Bob and his accordion

When you get married and live in New York, be a lady and eat with a fork.

Bob Amerson

And there were more stories about the teenager.

Even then, he had the intellectual curiosity and artistic talent that marked the rest of his life. How many people do you know that would carve an eagle out of a bar of Ivory soap or draw wonderful pictures on the back of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Or trade a cow for an accordion?

Mavis Voigt

Dad’s sense of adventure emerged early and carried through his life. Before leaving South Dakota, Snooky recalled, her brother learned how to fly an airplane. His youngest sister, my Aunt Jeanie, recalled trips she’d enjoyed with Dad.

And what fun I had with Bob on a West Coast trip, just the two of us, taking turns driving, talking about old times, singing as we drove.

Jeanie Brookins

Singing was part of every family reunion out on the South Dakota plains.

He knew all the words to the old songs that we learned from a clear-channel radio station in Texas, including Carter Family songs, cowboy songs, songs of loss and disasters. Family song-fests were heartfelt and spontaneous and helped sisters and brothers build strong ties.

Mavis Voigt
Snooky, Elaine, Dad, Terry, and Jeanie doing what they loved.

Perhaps the stories that continue to resonate the most have to do with Dad’s interest in his family.

He always had a way of making me feel special, even though I know he treated me just like he treated the other “kids.”

Jeanie Brookins

Bob was interested in us, asking about our accomplishments, our adventures, and our plans, and giving us support in all endeavors.

Mavis Voigt

I miss having your parents around the planet. Wonderful inspirational folks … the last few years we seemed to hit some sweet spots that makes me feel grateful.

Richard Terry Amerson

Dad never lost his love for the South Dakota of his youth, where his siblings gathered the summer after his death to merge his ashes with the waters of the Hidewood Creek, releasing him travel the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and join the Gulf Stream in one last adventure.

Up until the pandemic, I’d never missed a year of returning to see my Amerson relatives. Sometimes, it was to mourn the loss of another sibling: Aunt Marie in 2009, Aunt Clarice in 2016. Aunt Jeanie passed just a month ago. I treasured them and am glad I was a good correspondent during their lives. With each loss, what Aunt Snooky wrote in 2006 still resonates.

Yes, he was the foundation of our family. Yes, that foundation is shaken by his death. But he left us a wonderful legacy. He taught us how to live with enthusiasm, then showed us how to die with dignity. He will be part of our lives forever.

Mavis Voigt
Marie, Elaine, Clarice, Jeanie, Snooky, and Bernice (Grandma) Amerson