Stand Up with Jeanjeanie

Jean O’Keeffe and I share a fifty year-plus friendship, give or take a few more years….

In 1967, I lived in Burton-on-Trent with my husband-at-that-time, John Mathews and our three children, Ria – nearly five, Chow – three and a half and Dom – about six months. We lived in a grey, granite house, rented to us by Ind Coope Brewery and formerly the home of a Chief Constable. It felt as if a uniformed person still haunted it. The children coped with the house better than I did with my postnatal depression

When you used to hang nappies out on a cold morning, it was a good thing to have a long washing line in a long garden. You just couldn’t help but notice if someone else was doing the same thing at the same time, a few doors away.

Walking along the street with the children, a smile and a wave from the dark-haired woman who looked busy and, before long, a chance to feel at home in a family home very like my own. Early mornings, nappies and nappy buckets, feeds, fish fingers, chocolate cake, biscuits, toys and children’s laughter. We’d push our prams out together and look after each other’s bairns and, generally, find ways to stay sane in the expanding bubble of young motherhood.

Jean is a Yorkshire lass, which chimed well with my Geordie heritage and our love of the north. We are northerners. Burton-on-Trent was definitely in the south.

Ria, now almost fifty-seven, says Jean is “the twinkliest person I know”. What Jean does is tell it like it is. I soon got used to that and to appreciate its great value. We’d go for picnics on the mound near Tutbury Castle – a Royalist stronghold – and still holding on strongly. I remember an amazing occasion when we met Oliver Reed in Burton. He was coming to grace some boring midlands event in the town and Colin, Jean’s husband-at-the-time had got us some tickets to get in with the in-crowd. We mingled with the scrubbed-up-well and drank posh drinks, ate tiny snacks  – and waited.

A sudden hush, then Oliver was conjured  up – drifting quietly through the double doors. All eyes were on him, as he started his magic weaving motion round the room. He was like a genie, oozing warmth and charm. A tall, strong man, with twinkling blue eyes and dark hair, who held the whole room in the palm of his hand. Quite a presence! One that is forever associated with Jeanjeanie in my mind.

Jean is a writer, with a mercurial wit and a dancing sense of humour, easy to warm to and great to get up to mischief with. Her husband-at-the-time used to come home from his work as a journalist with migraines. These were new things to me. I’d never come across them before. Highly visible, because you could tell what was happening when you caught sight of the clothes which started at the foot of the stairs, as he undressed on his way to lie down in a darkened room. Colin and John, my husband-at-the-time, would eventually come to share their love of motor bikes and cars and be off on adventures of their own.

When my marriage broke up later and I was fighting a legal battle for the custody of my children, Colin and Jean were right there with me, standing at my side, supporting my case as a mother and helping me to move forward through those dark days and nights. I remember their anger when the judge felt it was ok for Ria and Chow to go to boarding schools with a guardian appointed while their father and stepmother were overseas. They fumed at his remarks that boarding school had served his own children well when he was doing his colonialist service in Sierra Leone. The Sixties was good for hippies and Beatles fans but not good for women and children.

The Seventies brought re-structuring and our paths diverged. I lived in South Benfleet, then Ellesmere Port with Dom and second husband Howard. Jean had moved north to Norton, near Stockton-on-Tees and their home there became a place of sanctuary for the times when I could have  my children with me – usually boarding school holidays. Christian was born in 1973 and he spent his first Christmas there – our children all so happy to be together. We share our children.

Later, when her marriage broke up, Jean moved to Dublin with her boys. In 1980, I took the Dun Laoghaire ferry from Holyhead and Jean met me off the boat. We spent a few days together and a friend of hers from Derry gave me a copy of Ulysses. Early one morning, Gary, Jean’s eldest son, let me borrow his bike and I rode into Greystones along familiar lanes. On the way up the hill into the town, I noticed blood trickling down the edge of the road. At the top I found a cow lying on the verge – dead – and bleeding into the grass. I knew some vehicle from the ferry had hit it in the night. I stood by a gate looking across the landscape I loved, but it wasn’t long before I turned around and peddled back. Ireland was a country where cows crossed the road and dogs lay down in the middle of the road at that time. The bloody innocence stayed with me always.

We paddled our way independently forward, Jean and I, probably watching the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of one another.

I can remember Jean coming to visit us in Oldham when Hinnie was born in 1984 and her joy when she saw the new babe. “Is she ours?” she asked with joy. Our children had grown and we both worked in vulnerable communities and started and completed studies we’d missed in our youth. We were both with new partners, Jean with Dougie Steel and me with John Cook.  Jean was in York and I was in Manchester.

In the winter of 2010, after lots of looking, I found her and we met again. It was as if no time had passed and there had been no pain in our journeys.

I drove up to Hebden Bridge, parked the car near the ducks, got out – and there was Jean, waiting for me! I had conjured her up and found one of my most precious pieces in the jigsaw of life. We had a coffee, talked non-stop and asked someone to take a photo of us. Jean pointed to a house high on one of the Hebden Bridge hills – an old school house I think, where she lived with Dougie. She told me she was teaching at Sheffield Hallam and about the Readers’ group she ran. Ant, Jean’s middle son, was teaching Art in Todmorden she said – and living in Mytholmroyd, not far away. Ben, her youngest, was away living in or near Bath and she loved going down there to see him. Gary was still in the northwest and she was seeing him regularly.

In March 2011, Jean got in touch because she was worrying whether Chow was safe. A new submarine had got itself into difficulties in the Kyle of Lochalsh. I explained to her that Chow wasn’t directly involved – but also told her I was in Peckham, south London, with Dom. Our son had just been diagnosed with aggressive rectal cancer. 2011 was the hardest year of my life. All the hard times I had ever known were simply rehearsals for what John and I faced throughout 2011. Dom  came home to live with us in May.

Hearing the consultant tell our son that he had within one year to live and then leaving us alone to gather ourselves and try to grasp the fact was hard, but listening to Dom’s question to me “What did she just say to me?” and having to answer him was of another dimension.

We set up a ‘Reasons to be Cheerful’ list. When he had his heart attack in June 2011, I remember how cold the emergency A & E space felt as I sat with him in the early hours until he was taken by ambulance to a specialist unit in south Manchester. I remember the courage of his sisters and brothers at the time – and the dedicated visits they made to him.

Jeanjeanie was always there for me. We wrote letters now and again and I have all the emails she sent. The chemotherapy and radiotherapy visits were regular, with Dom lying in the back of the car on pillows on the journey to and from hospital. We had a last holiday in August 2011.   “Now is the time to take that holiday”, the consultant had told us. So, north. It had to be north. Dumfries and Galloway – with its hills, its woods and its night skies – was such a comfort.

In October 2011, our grandson Eric was born. Dom lived long enough to wonder at him and watch him. He loved children.

He died on November 6th 2011.

I remember Jean in her red dress at the funeral. I remembered Dom’s colour poem as a child, which ended “Red is the brightest and best colour of all.”

Our opportunities to be together dwindled after I had a kidney removed in 2013 and it took a while to recover. Jean mentioned tripping and falling and forgetfulness in her emails and that she had been diagnosed with a kind of epilepsy, which was interfering with her teaching and travelling. We were both growing old, doing too much and young in our heads. We swapped recipes and snippets of news about what we were up to or about the children. She was hoping to be able to move house and seemed very busy and occupied with it all.

Dougie’s message in May of this year about Jean’s fall and diagnosis of dementia was such a blow, but nothing compared to the blow to her boys. I could feel the depth of their pain. It’s so hard to be once-removed from the caring and closeness. I had lived through that with my children and Dom.

There is nothing can come between Jeanjeanie and me. “I love you dearly Leigh”, she would say or write to me and that is always with me. She knows she is loved dearly in return. It breaks my heart to leave her after a visit.

Our hearts were lifted so much when Ant and his partner Aga  came for a cuppa with us recently. He brought two silverpoint drawings for us and we got to know each other a bit. So like his twinkly Mum.

Ria went to Dublin and brought Jean back a little leprechaun. She loved his red hair!  Hinnie, our daughter, came with us with her four year old  Ella to see Jean, (who hadn’t seen Ella since she was a babe). It was such a joyful meeting. They talked about elephants and chocolate pennies.

Jean and I are forever young. It’s not our favourite song, but we have a song we agreed would be our ‘Help!’ song…

Wichita Lineman

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My dear readers, I live in Manchester, England and would like to share my thoughts of significant people, places and events in my life through this blog. I'm growing old disgracefully in my 74th year, living in a bubble of love blown by my precious friends and family and floating about like Johnnie McGory.

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