Chicago Guy

Jeannie Always Came In Singing

I knew she’d be there. The church service had started. The congregation had risen, turned to the correct page in the hymnal, lifted their voices to sing and just then the doors to the sanctuary opened, Jeannie, smiling as always came in singing. Didn’t need a hymnal. She already knew the words and the music. Jeannie came in singing. Found her place in the pew. And the most ancient of hymns became new.

Being greeted by Jeannie was like having one’s own private symphony. My Dad was her big brother. Family stories describe Jeannie as being somewhat like her mother. A grandmother gone before I arrived. Grandmother Edith, my Dad would tell me, didn’t see very well. So when she’d walk down the street, she’d sing out a “Hello!” to everyone she encountered. Jeannie greeted the world with that same joyous hello. But with Jeannie, ‘hello’ was just a start.

In time compressed to fractions of seconds, Jeannie’s hellos would wash over you like an orchestra building up to burst into the chorus of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ The music of her greeting in rainbow colors. A joy that left words far behind and spiraled up in harmony, in rhythm and song into places only music goes.

And this was just the part where she said hello.

When she greeted my Dad—they didn’t get to see each other all that often—they’d stop right in front of each other, toss back their heads, taking in the very full measure of each other, their smiles would unfold like golden summer mornings, and there’d be an almost primal humming of joy from Jeannie, exploding into a shared laughter from the both of them. This was a brother and a sister who could make the heavens sing with the sound of their greeting.

Jeannie, Uncle Don and Paul, Elinor and Blake, arrived in Chicago back around the same time I finished school and settled down to start growing up. Their screened in front porch became, through the years, a center of my world too.

Whatever the heartache, there was always that front porch. Living and dying. Becoming part of the fabric of the city. Love found, fumbled, lost then finally found for keeps. Across the golden summers, promising springs and orange and red splendored autumns; there was always that front porch. On that front porch, when Jeannie came in singing, everyone—and there are countless numbers of us who sat on that porch– everyone swirling in the Haider orbit had a touchstone to come home to, gather strength and go out and face the world again. Don’s laughter echoing down the shady street. Jeannie smiling, eyes bright, adding to whatever story was being told by anyone, making sure that the important parts would never be lost.

Don had worked for Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, served as Chicago’s Budget Director, then Professor at Northwestern, and became one of Chicago’s most respected voices. The go-to guy when you wanted integrity, intelligence and honesty.

Jeannie’s job was, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, “loving the world.” And no one ever did it better.

When your job is loving the world, what you do, is of course important. But tasks, titles or labels pale in the face of who you are. When your job is loving the world, you can somehow connect your healing heart and soaring soul to that which is inevitable, that which is eternal. That eternal song that plays just when you need it the most.

Like just the other day. We had stopped by the house to check in with Don. A bunch of us on that front porch. Telling stories. Remembering.

And that’s when it happened.

Don was telling the story. There was a lot of laughter. He had just about arrived at the best part of the story; when a shaft of sunbeams opened up from behind the clouds, and straight on direct into Don’s face. All of us saw it. His face lit up as if warmed by the light of ten thousand suns. All of us there that day saw it. And if you had been on that porch any other day, you know that you’d see that sunlight, feel that warmth as well as we did. Jeannie still loving the world.

Anther hymn, another story, another memory. That pain of missing her alongside of the warmth of that sun on your face too. Listen hard. She’s singing.

Jeannie always came in singing