Original watercolor by Jim Welu, 1964. Author's collection.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Womans' History Month Tribute to My Sister

Jeanne Marie Holz Simmons


I was eleven years old and in sixth grade when Jeanne, the fourth of us five sisters was born. Holz’s Harem, Dad lovingly called us.

From the beginning, she was special. She had dimples; none of the rest of us did. Well, maybe Carolyn had a couple. She had a lovely long curly strawberry-blond pony tail that reached below her waist; the rest of us could barely coax our hair to grow to our shoulders.

She loved all animals, especially horses and dogs, while a few of us were afraid of dogs, including Sparky, our untrained Springer Spaniel who nipped whenever he had the chance.

I loved being the big sister and taking Jeanne and Ann, my two youngest sisters, on character-building adventures. One summer when they were about six and eight, I decided that they needed to experience the day hike to Catfish Creek that all hearty Dubuquers took. In helping them build up their confidence to face the unknown dangers of the wild, I nearly got us killed. Just after I pointed out the rattlesnakes sunning on the rocks, I lead them across the wooden train trestle at the very moment a train rounded the bend. There was only one escape. Quickly stepping on the railroad ties to reach the other side, we had to concentrate on not getting our feet caught in the spaces between. We jumped into the weeds and made it with racing hearts and inches to spare. I think I made Jeanne and Ann swear they would never tell anyone what happened that day, especially Mom and Dad.

We spent a lot of time together as a family, including memorable summer vacations at Lost Lake in northern Wisconsin.

I gave them their first Barbies, complete with the now valuable outfits.

I had Mom send them alone not by one, but by two trains to visit me in Rochester, Minnesota, where I worked at the time.

A few years later, I took them to the Peterson farm in western Iowa. They drove the tractor, fed the pigs, chased the kittens in the barn, rode the horses. And were horrified when, right before their eyes, Fern hacked off the head of the chicken she was going to prepare for supper.

Jeanne grew into a quietly beautiful young woman. She was generous with her concern and interest, always observing and listening, always giving the wisest advice. Throughout her life, Jeanne attracted and kept a wide circle of loyal friends.

She was also generous with her talents, whether it was her exquisite stitching, her wholesome cooking and baking, or her sage nursing advice. She offered comfort whenever we hurt, either physically or emotionally. She was never judgmental.

Jeanne was generous with her time. One of the best gifts she ever gave me was the time she arrived unannounced in my kitchen to help me prepare for a large dinner party. She proceeded to cut and mince and clean until everything was ready. Oh, and she volunteered to be our companion when my one-year-old daughter and I drove a huge rental truck cross country to move to Seattle. Later, she followed her four sisters to Seattle to live, work, marry, and raise her son.

Jeanne was an excellent seamstress and creator of cross-stitched gifts. She made dresses for her nieces’ infant daughters’ first birthdays and colorful quilts for her friends. She joined her sisters in creating the first two sisters’ quilts, winning the drawing for the first one. Her wedding present to her sister, Ann, was a beautiful bear claw quilt that she made entirely by herself.

She loved to cook and to bake and was committed to natural ingredients and healthy living long before they were trendy. She loved to garden, nurturing the plants selected with her niece, Emily, for her new garden design.

Jeanne loved the outdoors, whether it was camping at the ocean or at Lake Chelan's camp ground, cross country skiing, or biking. One of her first jobs was as a camp nurse at Camp Conestoga and not for one year but for three.

Jeanne was an avid Mariner’s baseball fan, taking her son to games whenever possible. She also loved taking him to Disneyland and Disney World and Yellowstone National Park, returning to each several times.

Jeanne was a skilled nurse much admired and honored by her colleagues in Seattle’s Swedish Hospital Special Care Nursery. There, you will find her portrait and a beautifully written tribute near the nurses’ station.

She loved babies, especially her own son, her nieces and nephews, and eventually their children. She would arrive at the hospital as soon as possible after birth to hold and gaze at the new arrivals and during many visits once they were home. Using her solid experience and education, she had ready tips for the new mothers in our families on infant care, nursing, and feeding.

Jeanne drew on her faith for strength and for ways to be the best person she knew how. She never announced her beliefs; you simply knew from her actions that she had a firm moral and spiritual core.

Jeanne faced her cancer and its many setbacks with uncommon courage and trust and hope even when the health care system failed her. Still, she carefully put all her affairs in order to ensure that her young son would have college as an option if, later, he should so choose.

Here are photos of two quilt blocks created by her four sisters for the first Quilt of Courage, sponsored by the International Myeloma Foundation.

You can see the whole quilt at: Multiple Myeloma: IMF's Multiple Myeloma Quilt of Courage 1

I think of Jeanne every day and miss her terribly. Her brief life touched us in ways she probably never realized. I know I didn’t tell her often enough how much she meant to me and to all of us. She is one of the few women I most wish to be like.

Click here to view a slideshow of Jeanne through the years. Just double click on the photo to see a larger view.