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This is a better year?

By Charlie Haeffner

Odessa, New York, Jan. 3, 2021 -- First I lost a crown. It came out of my mouth in classic fashion, while I was eating a sticky peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Then I snagged a fingernail; nothing major, but temporarily painful.

Then one of my kitchen lights died -- an odd bulb that Walmart didn’t carry, so I had to wait until I could reach a more comprehensive store.

Then I ran into some technical difficulties with my computer -- the one that I use to run The Odessa File. I straightened it out all right, but nothing sets me off like computer ills; I am poorly equipped manually and emotionally to handle that stress.

And that was just in the first two days of the New Year. I knew I’d been putting too much hope on any year that wasn’t 2020.

And then, on the third day, I received word that a beloved aunt -- my last living aunt, Jean Schumaker -- had died. It was not unexpected; she was, after all, 98 years old. But the death of a loved one -- someone I had known all my life -- shook me to the core.

I was already on shaky ground, but with this news it felt like that ground was now opening up to swallow me whole. Perhaps perversely, I hoped so, as the tears welled and my breath caught.

“Damn,” I said.

Jean had been having problems -- with a fall, a heart attack and a positive covid test, all in the past week -- so something was bound to give. But as her daughter Anne said in an email notifying me of her mother's passing, this was both a sad occasion and a happy one, for Jean had lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” and was moving on to the next adventure.

She was the last of the Bennett girls -- a trio of Auburn, New York charmers, the oldest of which was my mother, Eleanor. Jean was next, and then the effervescent Betty. Both Mom and Betty passed away years ago, but Jean continued on, healthy for years but finally leaving her longtime walk-up apartment in Auburn when she was about 90, moving to an assisted living facility in that city’s downtown.

All three had been married, my Mom and Jean once each, to the loves of their lives. Betty was married twice. All were housewives in the traditional American 1950s sense of the word, raising families. Mom had three boys, Jean two boys and a girl, and Betty a boy and three girls.

The Bennett girls had a brother, the baby of the family, Bob. Their mother died delivering him, way back in 1931; their father, a popular Auburn physician, died in 1942 at the age of 49, the victim of a stroke. Like his sisters, Bob ended up a family man, with two daughters and a son. He divorced, remarried, and died before his sisters.

All of their kids -- me and my cousins -- were quite close growing up, not in a geographical sense, but getting together nearly annually and thoroughly enjoying one another ... to the extent that I actually fell in love with one of Betty’s girls when I was 15. My mother tsked tsked me, and said it was a good thing we didn’t live any closer. We resided in Michigan, while Betty’s family lived in Massachusetts, summering in New Hampshire.

My worst winter growing up was when I got really sick about the time my family was heading east from our home in Birmingham, Michigan, to visit Aunt Jean’s family in Syracuse. I was left behind in the care of a kindly neighbor couple, and so missed what I figured was a great adventure, for in my absence Syracuse had received three feet of snow -- an amount I had never seen, and which I thought must be most marvelous, perfect for building icy forts. I regret missing that trip to this day.

Jean was married to a great guy, Uncle Jack. I don’t recall what he did for a living, but it was undoubtedly something brilliant -- engineering maybe. He was very smart, very personable, and, alas, dead long before what I thought should be his time. I seem to recall talk of diabetes; in any event, I was no more than a young adult -- 23 -- when he died in 1972 at the age of 50.

I remember Jean taking it well; I also recall a wake at their Syracuse home that was a celebration of sorts -- the first wake I'd been to. Any other deaths of relatives or acquaintances -- mercifully few at that point in my young life -- had been somber affairs. I thought Jean and her children such strong people for their brave faces. No, it was more than being brave; it was a sign of profound love.

Nobody, I decided, had more class or was more wholesome than my Aunt Jean.

She was also the family genealogist, digging through old records for years, compiling charts of our family tree. The Bennett clan, for instance, had in its lineage other family names such as Havens, Morse, Griffin and St. John. Supposedly we were descended from, among others, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who invented the Morse Code. There was apparently a Native American in there somewhere, but all in all it seems as though the extended Bennett clan was pretty much New York State-settled after emigrating from the British Isles. The Haeffners, on the other hand, had a German background.

(I notice in her compiled genealogy that one ancestor on the Bennett side, Rachel Freer Hood, was married at 16 in 1802 and gave birth to her first child the next year -- early unions and early motherhood being quite common back in a day that lacked every modern convenience that we know. Children were essential in an agrarian society that depended on offspring as part of the workforce. Parenthetically, Rachel lived a full life, to 83.)

But that’s ancient history. What is more recent, and thus painful, is the passing of someone who was always part of my life. We were not in close touch in recent years -- not at all, I think, since the pandemic struck -- but she was never far from my conscious thoughts.

Now, with that e-mail note from her daughter, I am grappling with the fact that she is gone. Since she lived “longer than she thought or wanted,” as Anne put it, I celebrate her passing, but I do so with tears in my eyes. God bless you and keep you, Jean.

After mourning, I will turn again to the days and weeks and months ahead, but right now -- at the outset of this new year -- I have an unsettled feeling.

It's a feeling that 2021 should not, cannot continue this way -- not if it intends to improve on the year just passed.


Photo in text: Jean and Jack Schumaker on their wedding day in 1945.


The Odessa File 2021
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869