As a child growing up I remember when my Great Aunt Janette would visit from Florida. I don’t guess I really knew much about her when I was little, I only knew I liked her. She was fun and small, less than five feet tall, and that put her somewhere between me and the grown-ups. She didn’t come around very often, so when she did it was a real treat. I remember she hugged me very tightly, smiled all the time, and talked very loudly. When I grew up and she didn’t, I began to understand that she was different in some way. I learned that when she was very young a fever caused damage to her brain which left her in a perpetual childlike state. To me, that seemed a wonderful thing.
She took to my dad, and therefore to me…all of us really. In fact, I don’t know anyone that she didn’t take to. I remember teaching my kids how to brace for one of her hugs, so she wouldn’t knock them over. One of her favorite things to do was sit on the front porch in Clayton and swing. I would sit next to her and we would talk about anything and everything and nothing. She was more than honest in that childlike way that imparts simple wisdom unaware. Her eyes sparkled always, like she was lit up from the inside. She was perpetually joyful and ageless. Her memory for details was amazing. As far back as I can remember she looked the same. Shortly cropped hair. Tiny hands and feet. Her arms wrapped around my waist to give me hugs. A smile that lit up a room, and a personality to go with it. Spunky. A bundle of energy. They say dynamite comes in small packages, and she was evidence to the truth of that statement.
Janette died today at the age of 83. Being the youngest she is the last of the sisters to go. Though I didn’t see her often in the last years, it seems odd to think that she got old. I guess I just pictured her living forever young. It is hard for me to identify her impact on my life. I don’t think I would have connected my love for the mentally challenged with my love for Janette until this moment. Being a house parent several years ago for adults like her seemed a perfectly timed job opportunity, not a tribute to my aunt. Yet as I reflect on her life and how it touched mine I see that her influence runs deeper than I knew. I see now that my work with autistic, downs and other challenged children and adults most likely stemmed from my early memories of a four-foot tall fireball…named Janette. She taught me not to be afraid of people who were different than me. She taught me communication does not have to be hard, and that being respectful and kind leads to joy that cannot be stolen. She, and her lessons, will be missed.

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