We’d all been expecting the call when it came in mid-June. The Lady Jeanne, my grandmother, had not been well since Mother’s Day, and the doctors had expected Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Jeanne knew on the day of the diagnosis that she would go home, say goodbye to everyone she loved, and go to sleep for the last time. She was 83 years old and she didn’t have a bucket list, she said. She’d done everything she’d set out in life to do.
There’s never a time, when I’m bicycling down Peconic Bay Boulevard from Mattituck to Aquebogue, retracing the route of my youth, that I don’t stop along the South Jamesport stretch that backs up to the canal where Lady Jeanne Merkel raised her nine children and taught them all to love the water on a succession of nine motorboats. My Grandpa Joe, devoted to Lady Jeanne’s every dream, had named each boat after her. Down Morningside Avenue, I can still hear the sounds of the Merkel clan, marching arm-in-arm down the street on the way to another adventure — building forts in the farm fields, burying each other in the sand at the South Jamesport Beach, hitching a ride into Riverhead for an ice cream soda at Papa Nick’s.
Lady Jeanne came from a long line of pioneer women — French Canadians, some Abanaki Indians, with tough dispositions, accustomed to the cold, accustomed to hunger and accustomed to making their own path in the world. Not long before she died, my mother and I drove with her to the Abanaki Indian Reservation, at the junction of the Saint Lawrence and Saint Maurice rivers, just across the Saint Lawrence from Trois-Riviéres. It was Canada Day and we all celebrated Canada. Lady Jeanne danced her heart out for her ancestral tribal land.
Afterward, we wandered through the deserted streets of her family’s hometown of Sorel, looked out at the river, marveled that there seemed to be more churches than people in this hard-luck ghost town. It was a lonely place, but we all felt, somehow, that had circumstances been different we would have made a go of it there.
There’s something about my family’s spirit that draws them to the far east end of places, big-sea country. The farm fields and bay swells of Eastern Long Island suited Lady Jeanne just fine for years. She raised her family here. She kicked cancer’s butt in 1966, when she was 35 years old, with nine young children in her house. Grandpa Joe, who’d been an Navy medic who helped bandage up the soldiers coming home from World War II, took out her mastectomy stitches himself, holding his wife in his arms, weeping and contemplating the nearness of this life’s end.
Lady Jeanne opened up the Pine Tree Day Nursery on Roanoke Avenue that year, vowing her children would inherit a business if she got sick again. She didn’t.
By the early ’80s, Lady Jeanne had taken all the sustenance she could from the nursery that is the Peconic Bays. She was still dreaming of big sea country. Grandpa Joe took her up to Mount Desert Island, in Maine, where they started a campground and built a boat for their retirement years. All the Long Island Merkels would pile into campers and pickup trucks with caps on the beds and trek up to see them each summer.
At one point, I might have been only four, all the Merkels were by the seawall where the harbor in the center of Mount Desert Island spills out into the open ocean. It was dusk and I was one of the lucky ones to pile into a small dinghy with my uncles and my grandfather and head out to check the five lobster traps my grandfather kept in the harbor. I kept one eye always on the fires on shore, knowing the warmth of home was not far from the cold of the sea.
By the time I made my last trek up to Maine in June to say goodbye to Lady Jeanne’s memory, she’d moved so far up the coast that the folks at her funeral in Winter Harbor
called Downeast Maine the “southwest.” Her last years, after Grandpa Joe’s death, were spent among the desolate blueberry barrens and the craggy, lonely shores. But somehow, these places were not lonely places to her. By the time she was done with this world, she was known from the beaches of Great Guana Cay in the Bahamas to the cold port of Winter Harbor as “Dancing Jeanne.”
There’s something about having faced adversity and succeeded that makes every one of your laughs more real, every smile more genuine, every dance step a gesture of thanks for the short amount of time we have to walk on this earth.
“Enjoy every day of your life,” were the last words she said to me before she fell asleep that last time. I don’t know how to live up to her request, but, god willing, I still have the time to figure out how.