By Louise Gartner Birkhead
June 2020

Jean was the popular one. She was very outgoing and she had naturally curly hair!

I have been thinking about her a lot and decided to write down some of my earliest memories of her for the family to read. It would be wonderful if you would keep retelling these stories. To me, they are part of the Gartner family legend.

Memories of 131 Fair Oaks Park

Growing up in Needham, we lived in a stucco house with a red tile roof on the corner of Fair Oaks Park and Great Plain Avenue. It was my grandfather’s house. I have very warm memories of everything that happened in that house while growing up with my two sisters Betty (who was the oldest) and Jean (who was in the middle).

Fair Oaks Park was known as one of nicest streets in suburban Boston, with two separated car lanes and a wide strip of grass and trees down the middle. Everything was close by. In elementary school, we just had to go two blocks down Great Plain. To get to the high school, we had to walk about a half mile up a big hill. Our Unitarian church and the stores were just a few blocks away.

The house had a big elegant stairway with huge wooden railings. There were lots of rooms upstairs. There was our parent’s room, Betty’s room, and a room for Grandpa (our mother’s father). Jean and I had twin beds in one room until she became a teenager. Then she decided she needed her own room and moved into a little room that had been the sewing room.

One of my first memories of Jean was when she would come home after school when she was in 1st and 2nd grade. She was so excited about going to school. We would go to our “sun room” in the back of the house and she would teach me everything she had learned that day. Dad had made a chalkboard with a large piece of plywood painted with a special kind of black paint. We propped it against the wall and it was taller than we were.

I mostly remember her teaching me the arithmetic. I was always very impressed with how smart she was! After she went on to become a teacher, I often thought about those days.

Jean had lots of friends – both boys and girls. There was a period when she was in 5th-7th grade that a group of boys would follow her home from school and then try to get into our house. Jean completely ignored them and wouldn’t let them in. But they would ring the doorbells on every door. They would even try to climb up the outside wall to the kitchen windows!

Of course, they only had the nerve to do this when Mother wasn’t home. When they saw her returning, they would finally run away. I don’t remember Betty being there when that was going on, but it sure scared me. Jean of course wasn’t scared at all. She thought it was kind of funny but she really wasn’t very interested. I thought she must have been flattered but she never said anything about it.

Jean talked and walked in her sleep, which I found disconcerting and scary. Mother would often have to come out and coax her back to bed.

Some stories I don’t remember because I was too little, but they are part of Gartner family lore. Here’s one of the classics:

One year, Jean had her birthday party at the house. She and her guests were sitting around the dining room table having ice cream and cake. When our father walked in the front door from work, he was greeted with the sight of Jean standing on top of the dining room table … throwing food to her guests. I imagine the laughing stopped abruptly.

I don’t know for sure what happened next, but I would guess he located our mother, who was probably in the kitchen, and they restored order. But here’s what I do know: he always had a touch of pride in his voice when recalling anything Jean ever did – even the mischievous things. Maybe especially the mischievous things!

Memories of Minot Beach

Every summer we would go to Grandpa’s place at Minot Beach in Scituate. It was a house facing the ocean that we called the Cottage. We would stay for three weeks. He divided the summer so that each of his three children and their kids got equal time there.

We also got to go to the Cottage on weekends in the spring and fall because our Dad did all the work of opening and closing the house for the winter. Grandpa liked to spend time with us. When we were with him, we would also keep house for him and drive him back and forth from the train station to catch the train to Boston for work.

There were three connected beaches along the shore: Sandy Beach, Pebbly Beach and Stoney Beach. Sandy Beach was the elegant one; it was like a resort with nice sand and water. The Cottage was between Pebbly and Stoney. There was a seawall between those two beaches, right in front of our house. There was a forested peninsula called the Glades that jutted out in the water towards Minot Light. It was bounded by granite rock, upon which we loved to play and climb.

Betty tells a Minot Beach story about how Mother would send the three of us out of the house in the morning. Betty was in charge but, as she recalls, it was Jean who always decided where the three of us would go and what we would do. Sometimes Jean would lead us to one of the beaches and sometimes we would go straight to the Glades.

Jean was the daredevil and Betty would follow but I was the scaredy-cat. There was a very high rock in the Glades that we used to walk to with a picnic lunch. After lunch, Jean and Betty would climb up to the top of the rock. I was too scared to do it. But they climbed all the way, every time.

Whenever we were at the Cottage, Dad would take us out on a boat to go fishing. Jean would catch fish after fish and Betty and I would complain and complain. None of us could figure it out – why did Jean catch all the fish? It was just how it was. Dad would even have us switch seats with Jean. But it didn’t make any difference. No matter where she sat in the boat, she caught fish after fish. It became a running joke.

Sometimes Dad would take us out to the Glades to go fishing. We would sit on the huge rocks and cast our lines into the surf. But it was the same old thing. No matter where we were, no matter when it was, Jean would catch all the fish.

One time in Scituate, Jean drove Dad and Grandpa to the train station so they could commute to Boston. I went along for the ride. Jean had her license and at that time and I was just learning to drive. Since we had just rolled out of bed, we were still in our short nighties. After we dropped them off, Jean said to me “why don’t you drive home?”

I remember the road was very curvy and lined by huge rocks. I got really nervous and tried to stay away from the rocks and the oncoming cars. Unfortunately, I nicked an oncoming car. So, of course we had to get out of the car to talk to the other driver.

Fortunately, the guy’s car was hardly damaged at all. But because we were two teenage girls standing there in our nighties, the conversation was quite awkward. And of course, I didn’t have a license to show him. Jean may have showed her license, but I don’t know what good that would have done since I was driving. We were actually very concerned, but it quickly became obvious that the guy was quite uncomfortable in the situation. And who could blame him? We all eventually went on our way. Thank goodness.

I’m not sure Dad ever knew anything about it. I certainly didn’t tell him. I don’t know if Jean did or not. I was terrified, but since there was really no damage and no injury, that was the end of it. Except that I’ll never forget it!

Memories of High School

Jean never complained when Mother sent me off with her to birthday parties of Jean’s friends. I remember once I was actually invited, but usually Mother just made me go along. It sounds weird, but Jean never seemed to mind. I never really understood why I went to those parties, but luckily Jean didn’t care.

In high school, Jean had a date nearly every weekend. She never had a favorite. I would ask her which one she liked the best and she never had an answer. I think she just enjoyed them all. Betty and I watched with admiration.

One time her date took her into Boston. I don’t remember who it was, but he had a car and knew his way around the city. Knowing Jean, she was late getting home. The next day, Dad asked her where she went in Boston … and she had no idea where she had been.

Dad thought that was very funny, so he kept pressing her for details. What was she doing that she didn’t even know where they were?  Finally, she said maybe they didn’t go all the way into Boston after all. Of course, Dad kept up the inquisition. He never let her off the hook.  And we never found out. (She got away with more stuff that I wouldn’t have dared to try to do!)

One year, Jean dated Bill Whitney, the boy across the street. He was six feet tall and a football player on the high school team. Their date included a late-night “walk” on the golf course. After that date, Jean and Bill both broke out with bad cases of poison ivy … all over their bodies. You get the picture!

Our mother and Bill’s mother used to talk about them a lot. It was a mixture of pride and exasperation.

The Most Vivid Memory of All

Our bedroom was in the front of the house. It had dormer windows overlooking the tile roof above the front porch. The roof was very steeply sloped. Every spring, birds made nests on that roof. And every spring the rain would wash the nests off the roof and they would crash on the sidewalk below, breaking the eggs or killing the baby birds.

Well, one sunny afternoon in broad daylight, 13-year-old Jean decided to climb out of our window onto this steeply sloped tile roof. She got out there and walked around a bit as if she was on egg shells, delicately keeping her balance. It really wasn’t a good idea.

Lucky me – I was the only one home. I watched in horror. As you know by now, that was a common reaction to my adventures with Jean.

Once she got out there, for a second it looked like she was going to reach out and grab the branch of a big elm tree to try to swoop down to the ground – which was clearly impossible. But she didn’t, thank goodness. It would not have ended well if she did. She ended up sitting on the slope for quite a while, as I screamed at her, pleading with her to come back in.

Finally, miraculously, she came back inside. For some reason, she eventually decided she’d be better off. In retrospect, looking back at the fact that she decided not to grab the branch, I think she realized she had better get back in the house. As fast and as carefully as possible.

We never told anyone about her outing on the roof. We knew there would be a big fuss if we shared our story. So, we just went on with life.

Now, you may ask, why in the world would anyone do this? Well, I know why. She did it because she was a little bit devilish. She climbed out onto the roof because it was a devilish thing to do!

Just a few days before she died, Jean called me and asked if I remembered her doing that. Well jeez. Of course I remembered. How could I forget that?

Later that day, I told Gus that Jean had called me and asked me about the roof episode. I said that when I told Jean that, yes, I remembered the story, she had laid back on her pillows and smiled.

Gus asked how I could possibly know that she did that? After all, I couldn’t see her – we were talking on the phone.  I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m sure I’m right.

Jean had called me that day for one reason – just to make sure that the story would continue on as one of her proudest achievements.