I first met my future mother-in-law, Janis Clark Burhop, when I was five years old. She and Vern bought a home in Glenview in our neighborhood that belonged to the Palmers, good friends of my parents, and they came to a farewell party that the Palmers threw to say goodbye before moving - a party that included a giant inflatable pink elephant. The Palmers threw some pretty crazy parties.
The Burhops joined the Glenview Community Church, our family church as well, and Janis and my mother became friends who did good works together, mostly at Bargains Unlimited, a charity resale shop in Chicago. Bargains benefited the Infant Welfare Society, among others. Many family treasures disappeared to Bargains - in both our families, when something couldn't be found, we were pretty sure it went to Bargains. My Nancy Drews, Jeff's Mickey Mantle rookie card, all for a good cause. (We also got some treasures back, notably our Limoges oyster plates). She also delivered for Meals on Wheels up into her 90s, and I would tease her about the fact that she was older than most of the people she took meals to. In her case, age was truly a state of mind.
When I was in first grade, the bus stop was just a few doors from the Burhop's house, and Janis loved telling me, after I married her son, about how at about age six I had fallen on the way to catch the bus, and knocked on her door to ask her to brush me off, which she obligingly did. On May Day, I would hang a basket of wildflowers on her door, ring the bell and run away.
Janis was one of the "cool" moms, she drove a sports car - I remember her Porche - and she always looked wonderful. She was tiny - a 2 petite - but also a bundle of energy. She and Vern took up ice dancing around the same time Jeff took up ice hockey, and Vern would flood their back yard so Jeff and Jim could have pick up hockey games with neighbor kids, and they could practice their their ice dancing. They ended up as Senior Illinois Armature Champions - and Janis kept skating
Janis and Vern had moved from Wagner Rd. to another Glenview home with a swimming pool in the back yard, so when our kids were little, going to Grandma and Poppy's was always a happy excursion. Both our children learned to swim there, and were very popular among their peers, as they were always welcome to bring along a friend.
One of my biggest debts to Janis was her willingness to share her knowledge of cooking with me - especially fish cooking, but also teaching me how to make and can preserves. She loved the Evanston Farmers Market, and went there with us every Saturday for years, enjoying the hunt for the perfect strawberries, the tastiest peaches, the freshest greens. Growing up in Rantoul, Illinois, in a farming community (though her father was a lawyer who, for a while, worked with Clarence Darrow in Chicago), she knew her produce. Every week, Jeff would buy her a little bouquet of fresh flowers, something she loved when she could no longer walk around the market. The last time she went was the weekend of her hundredth birthday, and the farmers were glad to see her back, if only that once.
I've never known anyone else in my life who was such an eternal optimist - she was always up for almost anything. I took her to Seattle on a visit to our daughter, her only granddaughter, and she wanted to go whale watching, bird watching, hiking, she was up for anything, and she was 90. She did yoga every morning for as long as she could, and could touch her toes at 98. Of course, at 4'9" her toes weren't very far away.
When I asked Janis about her childhood, she talked about sitting around the radio, and the fun she had with her siblings, older sister Elizabeth and younger brother Henry. Living near the Rantoul air base, her father forbid her from talking to the military men, because the girls who hung out with them were considered "fast." Janis would never tell us - always with a twinkle in her eye - if she ever did "fraternize." She met Vern at the U of I, where she studied home economics and nutrition. He was the true love of her life, and the wonderful letters we found in her room, from when he was on a ship in the Pacific during WWII, have revealed a whole new level of their devotion to each other.
After Vern was diagnosed with brain cancer, at age 79, Janis vowed to take care of him herself, which she did to the very last. He died March 11, 1995 in their home, with Janis holding on to him until he was gone. She called hospice, and they took Vern away, and she sat there alone for over three hours, because she didn't want to wake us up.
Nine years ago, when I came back from South Africa really sick and needing surgery, Janis came to see me in the hospital, the concern etched across her face. When she left, she turned around at the door and said "You know I love you." And I said "I love you too." It was the first time, but not the last, that we told each other.
She was the final member of that generation in our family, now we are the oldest. She was our mother, our grandmother, our protector, our cheerleader, our buffer against the ills of the world. We shall miss her forever.