Our Auntie Jean died peacefully in her sleep on Friday, October 18. She enjoyed 93 well-lived years on this planet. She quietly left this world as she entered it, loved, and best described as a nice Irish Catholic girl from Saskatoon.
I feel compelled to tell some of her life stories and share what I learned from this woman. Don’t miss out on Auntie Jean’s life lessons; she gave us some good ones. Scroll down for the summary at the end of the post.
Forever an optimist, Auntie Jean remained a glass-half-full type of gal right until the end.
She believed that something good could be waiting for you around every corner, and she chose to make the most of wherever she landed.
One of her most important lessons was simply – enjoy your life and everyone in it – whether it is perfect or not.
The Making of a Bad Ass Woman
Auntie Jean loved an adventure. Over her lifetime, she travelled the world. In her twenties, she took off on a boat to camp across Europe. What a gutsy voyage for a young woman to take in the early 1950s. At 30, after the end of a love affair, she made her way from Saskatoon to Montreal to start a new life.
Nursing was Jean’s vocation and her calling. She was a “nurse’s nurse” and rose up the ranks in St. Mary’s hospital to become the Director of Nursing. In her mid-fifties, she made the bold move of cashing in her pension to start a business in Bellville, Ontario with her cousin Donna.
Jean left nursing on the top of her field and her terms. In her mid-fifties, she reinvented herself as co-owner and operator of the Copper Kettle tearoom. In her sixties, she returned to the wartime house in Saskatoon she left at 30, and lovingly cared for our Grandmother.
Auntie Jean was my first role model for a successful single career woman and she giggled when I described her that way. I’m not surprised. I don’t think Auntie Jean set out to be anything but happy in her life, and career success was a bonus.
While she did want to get married and have children, she didn’t get stuck on the fact it didn’t happen. She learned life didn’t always go as planned, and sometimes “happily ever after” can get derailed. She allowed her life to keep unfolding in unplanned ways and she always found the silver lining.
She did concede, cashing in her pension in her fifties was not the smartest financial move, but she stood by the decision. In her prime, she earned a lot of money, and she spent every penny. She was the type of woman who considered buying designer clothes a good investment.
I still hear her voice in my head when I am trying to justify buying something extravagant. Her answer is always yes.
I thought of Auntie Jean often as I created another version of a single Auntie Jane circa 1990. She represented a powerful example of a single woman who designed a rich and satisfying life.
When our family lived in Ottawa, we spent many weekends in her elegant Montreal apartment. To my young eyes, Jean’s life in Montreal reeked of glamour. She never left home without a full face of make-up, and she wore expensive jewelry on her long, perfectly manicured fingers.
Auntie Jean had an eclectic circle of friends and an active social life; she hosted sophisticated dinner parties and surrounded herself with art and beautiful things. She managed to escape all of the “spinster” clichés, and that is quite a feat for any woman – especially one born in 1926.
She embraced her large messy rowdy character-filled family and welcomed us all into her home and big city life. Family and friends were more important to her than any career success, or material thing.
What mattered most to Jean was her connection to the people in her life. How she showed up as a daughter, sister, aunt, cousin and friend is the greatest legacy of her life.
Everyone’s Favourite Aunt
Jean earned the title of everyone’s favourite aunt. And you didn’t have to be related to her to be taken under her wing. Whenever Auntie Jean showed up, she made you feel special, regardless of the chubby, awkward or gawky stage of childhood; you were trapped in at the time.
When we were kids, whenever she flew into town wearing her beautifully tailored, perfume scented clothes, you knew something exciting was about to happen – and it always did.
She loved giving gifts, eating out, having fun and making memories. She served us ginger ale in her Waterford crystal wine glasses and could make us believe it was champagne.
Auntie Jean remembered our birthdays and took us out on solo dates to celebrate. For kids from large families growing up in the sixties and seventies, this kind of individualized attention was rare and intoxicating.
On our birthday dates, we picked the place to eat and could order anything we wanted from the menu. After lunch, we took a trip to a store to choose our gift – pure magic.
Once on her radar, you were there for life. She became your greatest cheerleader and, yes, occasional pain in the ass. Born before “setting boundaries” was in fashion, and therapy was only for “legit” crazy people, Auntie Jean felt zero self-consciousness about bossing any of us around right up to the end.
If you have not ever received unsolicited advice or critique on your life choices from Jean, well, you were not part of the club. If you were in her “bad books,” you knew it (or at least everyone else in the family did 😊).
But what a small price to pay for everything you gained by membership in her tribe. She never quit on anyone, and that was her strength and weakness. She was the original ride or die gal – right to the end.
Auntie Jean’s memory started to fade, but she did not lose her sense of humour. I used to joke with her that whenever I called her, we repeated the same conversation.
I never minded because the conversation on repeat was always such a pleasant one. Our conversations revolved around how much she loved us and all the ways we made her proud.
She sincerely appreciated the support from her nieces and nephews, and especially (and deservedly) our brother Dan. Dan was Jean’s trusted advisor, loyal “minder” and faithful “fixer” until her last breath.
And in the end, all Jean wanted to express was gratitude for her blessed life.
My way of honouring Auntie Jean is giving her one last chance to be the boss, and tell us all what we should do with our lives.
Auntie Jean would get the joke, but she would also want you to sit down and take notes – seriously.
Jean Mahoney was a woman who knew how to live, love, enjoy the ride, and occasionally nurse a good resentment.
And thank God for that flaw, or she’d have burdened us with the impossible task of following in the footsteps of a Saint.
Life Lessons from Auntie Jean
Welcome everyone into your home. Be kind to strangers. Do not be a snob. Be hospitable. Always make room for one more around your table. And don’t make a big fuss about it.
Be a good host. Learn to cook a few signature dishes then relax. Food tastes better when your guests are hungry. Set a beautiful table and use real napkins. Be gracious. Good conversation is everything. Use your good china – always.
Christmas is as magical in a cramped wartime house as a mansion if you have a well-set table, festive lighting, lots of delicious food, and the right people. Increased square footage does not guarantee a better party.
Manners matter. Ask to be excused before you leave the table. Escort guests to the door. Do not go into someone’s purse without permission.
You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. When the doorbell rings –smile – no fighting in front of guests.
You are allowed to talk about politics and religion at the dinner table. And other family members too. Get mad, get over it. Or not. Forgive others because you will need to be forgiven also.
Cheer for the underdog. Share what you have. Give away what you do not need while it is still in good condition. Invite everyone to the party.
Make your house a home that children want to visit. Make sure kids feel seen in your presence. Let them drink soda pop out of your crystal glasses. Say everything is replaceable, and mean it. Make kids believe in magic, and that anything is possible – they will not forget it (we did not).
Keep some things in your life private. Do not tell your nosy family everything. Of course, they will judge you. And talk about you. People love to gossip. And so do you.
Embrace whatever comes your way in life and do not get stuck on what doesn’t. Accept people are complicated and do not shy away from their messiness. Do not poke at them either. Some things are best unsaid.
Show up even when you do not feel like it. People will notice. Go to the party, to the funeral and visit that friend in the hospital. Take the trip. Read books. Say yes to adventures of all kinds.
Find a faith that works. Expect to have doubts, because thinking people do. Believe in God, or something bigger than you. Be unrealistically optimistic that things will work out (because they do).
Hold on to your old friends and welcome new ones. Friends can become family and the more, the merrier.
Do not forget about the people you love or stop talking about them after they are gone. Love does not die. Sharing memories keeps people alive in our hearts.
Know what is going on in the world and stay curious. Hold strong opinions and lots of them. Be willing to take a stand and be right – or wrong. Do not brag or apologize too much for your flaws – both traits will make you a bore.
Dream big and take a risk. Make some dumb mistakes. Count your blessings, and for heaven’s sake, do not leave your house without putting on lipstick. Make a meal a celebration that lasts for hours and do not forget dessert.
And yes, buy the dress, the painting, the plane ticket, the expensive coffee, and do not be cheap. Pick up the tab, buy the gift, the treat, give compliments, and help someone who needs it, even when it is inconvenient because it usually is when it matters.
Say yes to senseless, ordinary joys. Laugh a lot. Be brave and ridiculously optimistic.
Share your life with others – good times and bad, highs and lows, the best of yourself and the worst. Auntie Jean is watching, and she will approve if you do.