Jean for President

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it, your position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance.

Tao de Ching – translation by Stephen Mitchell

In my experience, if you ask for inspiration, you will receive. Be sure to set the stage. Or better yet, don’t set the stage, just make sure that you are not in a distracted state of mind while going about the business of the day. Deny those whirligigs a’twirling.

Breathe deeply. Smile. Center yourself. And, go forth with calmness. Likely the insight will materialize not as you dreamed it might, but as you recognize it in the actions of another.

Case in point – I am privileged to be a member of an old fashion bookclub called the Cosmopolitan Club. I say old fashion because 115 years ago a local teacher (current day sensitivity would define her as an activist) addressed concerns for community women by rallying a group whose sole purpose was as stated in Article II of the bylaws: “The object of the Club shall be for the intellectual improvement of its members.” Very little of consequence has changed in the present day.

Lifetimes later when I received my invitation, the club members had aged into their 7th, 8th, and 9th decades. As a sixty something, I was referred to as a young member. The rules involved regular attendance, hosting the group one year and presenting a non-fiction book topic the next year.

Curated minutes in-toto sadly do not reflect the richness of life as the club world turn-eth. Still the lot of women who I have come to know are not ones to rest on superficiality. Rather they are engaged with the order of new knowledge and shared humanity. A good many were educators and relished the integrity of approaches never before considered.

Jean Harlan was one such person. This year her memory was feted by Maury County with a bridge named in her honor. She was the first woman in the county to be bestowed in such a manner. I was asked to call upon her memory for the first club meeting of the calendar year.

In preparation, I made plans to huddle with the bookends of her brood of four, the oldest (Ed) and youngest (Patrick) who are now ages 68 and 56.

We met at a downtown coffee shop. “No coffee for us,” they said upon arrival. A farming legacy and no coffee? I was stunned. They advised no time for coffee; there was work to do. What little awareness I found that I held even though I had considered the Harlan family since I was twelve years old.

I interviewed their mother for the local paper in 2011, mostly relaying details that were pleasant and ready for prime time. Naturally Jean shared with me the sparkly moments that we all are influenced to seek. In her case, a strong agricultural heritage, committed parents, 4-H accolades, meeting Edward Harlan at the Farm Bureau social and square dance, completing a proud family home place built by a prominent builder, expertise in poultry and the loveliest of attentive children. Even so, I knew she had overcome a stout trial or two, and I was curious to hear how behind the scenes she had played the cards dealt to her. I could use such vade mecum (manual) for my own heartbreaks.

Overtime I’ve found that at best, obituaries can be a shared history of how it can be done; a story to evoke the higher road. Perhaps even a reminder call to empathy and a prompt to emulate a particular virtue that quells the pitiful self serving whimper.

Recent studies have found that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges. A unifying narrative can only help. Psychologists at Emory University reported their findings: “The more children knew about their family’s history (ups and downs), the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self esteem and the more successfully they believed their family functioned.”

This theory was put through the paces when Jean’s husband died in the flourish of life at age 46. Their four children stretched in life experience from the Columbia State Community College to Baker Elementary School. They had recently taken a large loan out from the bank for the farm which included a dairy, herds of hogs, sheep, horses, beef cattle along with row crops and tobacco.

The children had no idea how ill their father was until he was suddenly hospitalized. It was only when a relative suggested that they might get going with seasonal duties that they knew what was in store.

“We all just knew what to do and did it,” the brothers said in chorus. Jean got the idea that she needed to take on more of an earning role and went back to school to get her teaching degree. She taught for one year. “We were miserable,” said Ed. They needed the sort of nutrients that could sustain the physical and emotional. The lynchpin was three square meals a day via Jean from farm to the four burner electric to the ever spreading table.

After one year, they got together and told her if she would come home and take care of them, they would take care of her, and that is what happened.

His mother shined in particular for Patrick because with all her responsibilities, she cared for others who were in a struggle. Folks not at their best were important to her. “She was always looking-in on people,” he offered.

Uncommon to note, the brothers remarked that she never registered emotionally in the extreme, either responding in the high or low. She managed calmness and displayed even temperedness no matter what the circumstance.

Equanimity still comes to my mind. We begin with our personal experiences and then observe others’ paths and expand from there. In my study of Buddhism, equanimity refers to a state of mental balance and even mindedness that involves maintaining inner calm and steadiness regardless of the external circumstances.

With that share, Ed then leaned in and said that he and a group of friends often discuss who has made a difference in the community. “One day,” he said a friend suggested, “Jean Harlan. She led from the back row.”

Take that to the bank.

Magic Pumpkin Pie

Al (middle son) and Jennings Harlan’s daughter Ann Corley asked her grandmother Jean to write down her recipes. Jean did just that in her own hand, personal copies were printed for family members. Jean described herself in the dedication as one who “enjoys cooking for her family using simple ingredients – many are grown on our farm.”

In Jean’s later years, Patrick helped her grow cushaws and countless families visited their pumpkin patch. She became well known to Maury County children as the Pumpkin Lady. Below…. tada – her recipe for pumpkin pie! Happy Thanksgiving plans.

1 9 inch pastry shell unbaked
2 cup canned or cooked pumpkin
1 15 ounce can Eagle Brand Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 egg
1/2 teas salt
3/4 teas cinnamon
1/2 teas nutmeg
1/2 teas ginger

Combine pumpkin, milk, egg, salt and spices. Blend until smooth. Pour mixture into unbaked pastry shell. Bake in 375 degree oven for 50 to 55 minutes or until done.

Top with whipped cream.