The Mad Hugger’s lifelong pursuit of happiness
There’s no doubt she’s going to give me an earful about this.
When the center of attention, she’d prefer it to be among family and friends … and not in the black-and-white-and read-all-over reach of what she lovingly called “the poosnaper.”
I’ve barely 50 words in and I already can hear her voice in my head, can see the sparkle in her eyes and the easy smile — all of which would instill just a wee bit of guilt for taking time out from “more important things” to make such a public display of affection.
Then, and only then, would come the hug. Strong and sincere, the sort of embrace that had no use for such folderol as time.
The Mad Hugger, I called her … an endearment that allowed us each just enough space through humor to avoid slip past the guarded nature of personality.
The hug was our wink, our nod, and (as she was wont to say) our “adieu, sayonara, adios amigos” until next we met.
Now you might think there could be no way in Heaven or Earth that a 98-year-old force of nature, who late last month crossed over to the next plane of existence, could gently chastise me that such a love letter as this found itself on doorsteps across the Rogue Valley.
You might think that … but you’d be mistaken. Or, more likely, you never had the pleasure, the honor, of having JaneAnn Henderson be a part of your life.
She knows. Trust me.
Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and seems the appropriate moment to speak of a woman that was the embodiment of life, liberty and (especially) the pursuit of happiness.
When her 95th birthday was celebrated back in 2017, the dozens upon dozens of attendees were given a compilation of 95 stories from her life to marvel at and enjoy. The prevailing thought among the guests was that JaneAnn would have to live to 200 just to scratch the surface of what made her special.
She would tell of her days as a young music student, barely into double-digits, riding street cars and buses with her cello to the city to take lessons.
The drivers all knew her name, and her routine … as did, she said, every police officer on every street corner along her way.
Before you knew it, the listener would hear of her 20 years with the Rogue Valley Symphony, or taking master’s classes with famed musicians and composers — whose names you could barely pronounce, never mind attempt to spell.
After her family, it was music that was her passion. Cello and piano and singing; classical (needed groceries were compiled on a Chopin Liszt) to opera to pop songs she always was surprised to find herself singing.
This matriarch of a huge and loving extended family could find herself playing classical piano on a TV show in Japan, or mouthing along to the lyrics of every number when a touring company of “Spamalot” played the Craterian.
I know she did that … because I was sitting next to her.
She’d built her own home with her husband John in California, left college at Berkeley to enlist in the Marines during World War II — a quilt in her honor, was made by one of her legion of friends, was hung in the Nation Museum of the Marine Corps — and taught multiple grades in a two-room rural schoolhouse.
An archaic California rule at first kept her from teaching until the district superintendent cleared the way by asking John to step down from the School Board to avoid a conflict of interest.
JaneAnn, the superintendent said, was more valuable in the classroom.
It wasn’t until she had moved to Ashland that she came into our lives — when she wasn’t busy with the RVSO or the Siskiyou Singers or the Daedalus Project or the costume shop at OSF, or Habitat for Humanity, the Ashland Food Bank, the Women’s Health Center or various religious or literacy efforts.
And the others I’ve forgotten to mention.
“The only constant is change” was her affirmation, a nudge to embrace life and seek out the good, even when those changes were difficult to fathom — which reminds me, you didn’t want get her going on politics.
Well into her 70s and 80s, you simply couldn’t slow her down.
Her later-life partner and world-traveling companion, Reiny Sundeen, didn’t even try. We’d been having coffee with Reiny for several years — first at the Grizzly Peak coffee shop, then at Rogue Valley Roasting Co. — when he softly asked if he could bring his “lady friend” to join us.
“I think the two of you would get along,” he offered.
And from that moment , if truth be told, we not only got along ... we never shut up. As our significant others quietly enjoyed their morning brew, JaneAnn and I were off with our mouths running — we gabbed and kibitzed, gossiped and howled at the moon, and indulged in our mutual addiction to wordplay.
If she was one to meditate (if she could sit still long enough), she said her chant would be “Ohwah … Tagu … Siam.”
Try it, she said, with an innocence in her voice and a mischievous glint in the corner of her eyes. I knew better, but it hasn’t stopped me from paying it forward.
Over cursed time, we had adopted each other, each visit sealed with the warmth of one of those hugs. As even as the later years wound down her internal clock, the stories and smiles would be shared.
Her voice in the back of my head is telling me to wrap this up, but it’s simply beyond my desire or abilities. Instead, I’ll quote from the obituary her family lovingly prepared, calling her “a wonderful role model and example of how to be human.”
Adieu, sayonara, adios, amiga. I’ve saved a hug for next we meet.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org