(Excerpt from my book, Pamela's Baby Rocking Chair. Also available as an e-book, wherever they are sold. Images and text (c) 2016 Stu Jenks.)
“Hello, I’m Stu Jenks and I’m Pamela Jenks’ brother,” I say into the answering machine, making a new outgoing massage.
“Pamela died yesterday at 5:30 p.m. Her funeral will be at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, here in Raleigh at 2 p.m., this Saturday. Please come if you can. Thanks again for loving my sister.”
Now, I need to work on Pamela’s eulogy again. I’m not have a very good go at it. Usually, I have no problem writing a nice eulogy for family members. I usually do a mix of sad yet touching truths along with a few jokes. But it’s hard to write something nice about Pamela Jenks.
My sister was a deadbeat spiteful alcoholic, who judged people harshly and felt entitled to more than her fair share. The nicest thing I can say is, ‘She loved dogs, liked Scotch, and lived to cross-stitch.’ The list of what she hated is too long to mention.
It’s sunset. I’m walking along a bike path that meanders beside Crabtree Creek just a mile from the house. Beautiful green colors in the trees. (I think they are called leafs. We don’t have this color green in the desert.) Pungent musky smells drift up from the creek. Water lazily laps its banks. Lovely.
Then it hits me: The eulogy I could give, but won’t. Honest and true and a hell of a good metaphor.
Pamela Jenks was born 140 years too late. She’s been quite happy living in Northern Virginia circa 1880.
The War of Northern Aggression has destroyed most of the family’s holding. Her father died ten years ago of his war wounds. Her mother moved out West to live near her son five years ago, in the little frontier town of Tucson, Arizona.
Mother was never quite right. Definitely not in her right mind now. Pamela chooses to live in the old ancestral home, outside of Alexandria. No one has done maintenance on the Old Home Place for twenty years. The fruit trees need pruning. The roof leaks and a raccoon now lives in the attic. Her brother in Tucson wires her money every so often, so she doesn’t starve, but she mostly lives on bread and whiskey. More booze than bread. She stitches in her high bedroom, late into the night. Neighbor children are scared of her. She has developed a liking to the word ‘cocksucker’ and uses it often in conversation. She hasn’t had a lover in 40 years. She rarely leaves the property.
One day a neighbor finds her half dead in her bed. They call the doc but by the time he arrives from town, she’s already dead. She dies at the age of 62.
I would love to tell that story at St. Mark’s on Saturday but I won’t. Pamela has planned her funeral down to the very last hymn. Maybe I’ll pass on a eulogy all together.
Maybe I’ll do this. I’ll just say to everyone at church:
“Pamela Jenks suffered a lot in her life and she isn’t suffering anymore.”
That’s good. That’ll do just fine.
Two hours later, my cellphone rings. It’s the Reverend White. She’s giving me an update on the plans for the service. Then she says...
“...and we don’t have time for a eulogy.”
“Really?” I say.
“We just don’t have time,” she says again.
That pisses me off.
If it was any other family member’s service, I would have said, “Reverend, make the fucking time,” cussing in homage to my sister, but I don’t. I just close my eyes, take a deep breath and connect up with my intuition. I know the answer before I even asked.
“Charlotte,” I say, pausing for affect, “That’s just fine. Do the service like Pamela wanted. You do the homily. I’ll just attend.”
I’m guessing the Reverend was both relieved I agree to not speak and surprised that I didn’t put up more of a fight.
I would have insisted to speak if I had nicer things to say.
The Eulogy of Pamela Jenks
Saturday, June 25, 2011
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
Raleigh, North Carolina
(This is an imaginary eulogy. I didn’t speak this at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church that day, yet I decided to write a very truthful speech, the day before, nonetheless. I thought I might be able to use it somewhere, like in a book or something.)
Pamela Jenks was born in Richmond, Virginia on June 1st, 1948. She died in Raleigh, North Carolina from metastatic breast cancer on June, 21st, 2011.
I’m probably not the person to write this, for I’m often honest to a fault. Then again, I may be just the right person for the job, for I know much of the history. I have compassion for my sister but I’m willing to tell the truth here, especially since Dad is dead, Mom’s dying of dementia in Tucson, and I’m Pamela’s only sibling. There is no one else in our family to speak. There is no one else in our family but me.
Some people her in attendance may take fault to what I’m getting ready to say, for it sully Pamela’s memory. But really? What positive memory is there to diminish? Most of you all here I’m guessing were friends who tolerated Pamela’s strong personality, vulgar words, selfish attitudes and lazy behaviors but tried to love her as an act of kindness. And that is greatly appreciated by me. But frankly having ‘pity friends’ is f’ed up, yet it say much more about Pamela then it does about any of you.
No, I’ll speak these words as a way of giving answers to some of the questions you all may have and my hope is simple. Once you know the truth about Pamela Jenks, I hope you will have even greater Christian compassion for her and her life.
Pamela was born sickly and was put in an incubator for weeks. She wasn’t touched at all for the first few weeks of her life. That alone will mess you up a little. But more so, she was born to a Jenks man and a Saum woman. That had more to do with it than anything else.
My mother and my father did a number on my sister.
Our father, Stuart Jenks, was an OK guy, I guess. Some of you here knew him. I have some of his sense of humor and a little of his sense of design, but I hold to none of his politics, nor any of his views on women. Stuart was the son of a judgmental alcoholic, Papa Edgar, and a very good woman, Mama Lillie. Edgar was a son of a bitch, a mean boss at the C and O Railroad and a jerk at home. My only uncle on my father’s side, Edgar Jr, became alcoholic himself but died sober. My dad was a daily drinker but he wasn’t mean or violent or really that unkind to me. He just didn’t really give a shit about his family. He should have stayed a bachelor, if you ask me.
As time progressed, Dad grew to loath his daughter. She was loud and spoiled and learned to say the word ‘Fuck’ as a teenager. Dad, needless to say, hated how she talked. But he wasn’t cruel to Pamela with words, but he didn’t like her very much and he showed his disdain by just shutting her out, barely talking to her, and just ignoring her. That was tough on Pamela, for she placed my father on a very high pedestal. When Stuart left Raleigh in mid 1980’s to retire to our summer home on the Rappanhanock River in Virginia, he allowed Pamela to live rent free in the house on Amherst Lane. He took out whatever furniture and tools and such that he wanted in Virginia and said goodbye to Pamela and to the house here in Raleigh. He allowed his wife to send Pamela some of his money now and again, and in later years, our mother Mary and then I, gave her a few hundred dollars a months so she didn’t starve.
Pamela worked for the Psychology Department at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for a while, for IBM, for an even shorter while, and for The Raleigh Art Gallery part time after that. Employment was not something Pamela Jenks felt she had an obligation to do. Frankly, she was a dead beat, playing on the fears of my mother and father that she would kill herself and/or drink herself to death.
Dad wanted to kick her out of the Raleigh house at some point, but Mary wouldn’t allow that. Mary couldn’t throw her only daughter out on the street, even though that just what they should have done, yet after a number of years of enabling their daughter, they realized that they needed to give her a bit of tough love, but then Stuart got cancer, died of cancer, then Mary got sick, then sicker, then I took over the finances, and so kicking Pamela to the curb became a low priority for me. Taking care of our mother in Tucson was way more important.
Which brings us to Mary Jenks.
Mary Saum was born into landed gentry in Northern Virginia in 1926. Earl Saum was a farmer and a banker and had land, money, and servants. He was also a violent alcoholic, forcing the family to watch often, him beating his son Courtney to an inch of his life in the front yard of the farm, with all the Saum girls crying from the porch. He did this a lot, I’m told. Single handedly, he screw up all three girls and his only son. Nice guy. Earl died of a heart attack in his early 50’s, a few years before Stuart and Mary even met. He was never spoken of in our house, even though Nannie, his widow, lived with us for the first ten years of my life and the first fifteen years of Pamela’s. Nannie lost all the money and all the property before I was born. My mother and father were kind enough to take her in. I have nothing bad to say about Nannie. She was the one family member who truly seemed to give a crap about Little Stu. Anyway, Earl Saum was never mention. I didn’t even know his name until I was twelve when we buried his widow.
None of the Jenks kids born to Edgar and Lillie Jenks were close, nor were the children of Earl and Nannie Saum. As soon as they could, all of my aunts and uncles and my parents got far away from their parents and siblings. I have two cousins who I just learned their names this year.
Much sadness and great shame comes from being raised by alcoholic and violent people. You are taught as a kid, by alcoholic and addicted parents, to see the world as an unsafe place, to not talk about your feelings to others, to not trust others, nor even trust what you think, what you feel, and what you perceive ss real, valid and honest. Children of Alcoholics tend to be caretakers, or loners, or addicts and alcoholics themselves. It leaves a wound that seeps for a very long time.
Those were the lessons taught to Pamela and I by Stuart and Mary. Our parents didn’t mean to screw us up. Again, they were not cruel. But even though they did their best they could, they did a pretty shitty job. Then didn’t mean to fuck us up. They just did.
Through my own recovery from addiction, a lot of therapy and the Grace of God, I’m pretty OK now. Odd, yes, but not that weird. OK, I am pretty weird, but in a funny way, not a harmful way. Mostly. Feel free to laugh.
I know who I am, I love people a lot, I have my place in this world where I make a small difference, I hope, and I can give and receive love. I do have my father’s tempter and my mother’s chattiness but I try to keep those in check. But this eulogy isn’t about me. It’s about Pamela Jenks.
Pamela never really had a chance. Or maybe we just enabled the crap out of her. But here is what I want you to hear.
Stuart never really wanted kids but he had them anyway. He didn’t know how to father nor really wanted to. He just wanted to work on his cars and watch a little TV.
And Mary? Mom messed with my sister’s head for so many years. Pamela didn’t know where she ended and where Mom began. Mom had servants as a child and decided that’s what she wanted from her daughter and her son too. I got wise to this pretty and loaded up an old Chevy and left North Carolina for Arizona soon after college. But Pamela got stuck here. She was cute when she was young but really not that pretty as an adult, and with that loud voice of hers, my sister scared men away. And if Mary Jenks had her way (and she usually did), Mom would have Pamela at her beck and call, 24/7/365.
The house on Amherst Lane appears like a freebie to Pamela, a home she lived in alone for over 20 years, rent free, but it wasn’t. Pamela paid a terrible price for decades before she became someone who could barely work for a living. Hell, Pamela could hardly buy groceries without causing a scene in the store.
And all of us here, at St. Mark’s today, know these traits of my sister: vulgar when she didn’t need to be, selfish when it was out of place, judgmental seemingly all the time, and unpredictable in a not fun-fun way.
But understand where Pamela came from. Most if not all of her personal power was stripped from her by a narcissistic mother and a disinterested father. She sought approval and never got any.
And when I, the cute Buddha baby arrived when she was five, she hated me because I got some love, some approval, and some power. But she never did.
Pamela and I were never close. She made it clear very early that she would just as soon not ever see my cute little face. Around age 10, I figured out my sister was kind of nuts and gave her a wide berth. We exchanged Christmas gifts later in life and talked a few times a year on the phone but that was about it.
That is, until I moved Mary Jenks out to live near me, in Tucson, in 2008.
Many of you here too, know my mother.
Long story short, Mary developed a fast growing dementia soon after she arrived in Arizona. She has been in a wheelchair, unable to walk and hardly able to feed herself since the fall of 2008. She knows who I am and can still talk a bit but the selfish, self-centered mother that I knew has now been replaced by a petulant four-year-old girl who tries to manipulate me. Yet Mary lives for the kiss on her forehead from her son a few times a week. We sold the old home place in Virginia to pay for her care. That money is just about gone now.
But since Mary has been out in Tucson with me, Pamela has actually been nice to me for the first time in my and her life. True, I did continue the tradition for sending her a few hundred bucks a month, to keep her in tuna and booze, and I’m sure that helped her mood toward her brother, but I have to admit, I’ve enjoyed Pamela liking me. It’s new and fun and filled with stories.
I know each of you in this congregation have Pamela Jenks stories. You know you do.
Here are just a few of mine.
After Pamela was diagnosed with late stage breast cancer in the Spring of 2011, I came back to Raleigh for a number of days, to take her to her radiation treatments, get my name on her bank accounts, check out the condition of the house (which was still owned by our mother), and get a general lay of the land. I went to Pamela’s church, this church, and meet a few new people and saw some old people I hadn’t seen since I was 18. (I especially enjoyed seeing you, Art Warner. You haven’t changed a bit.) Anyway, the house was a challenge as were the banks (Pamela and I found a little common ground. A great dislike for her IBM Coastal Credit Union. What ever works.) But being around Pamela, with her loud voice, her perpetually anxiety, and her extremely judgmental words felt like I was strapped to the bow of a ship in tall stormy seas, with the sirens of the ocean screaming in my face.
Pamela expressed, at some point, she would like to have a good steak before she died. I thought, sure. Why not?
After being seated at the very posh place in North Hills, the waiter said, “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Jenks.”
“Thank you,” I said, “but I’m her brother and she is my sister.”
And at that moment, in her dog-barking voice, so everyone could hear, Pamela yelled:
“We Jenks aren’t into INCEST! No! No! INCEST isn’t our thing! Ha, ha, ha, ha. No, we Jenks don’t do INCEST!”
I heard the words INCEST echo off the steakhouse walls. I felt the eyes of the rich upon us. I was only slightly embarrassed. This wasn’t my first Pamela Jenks rodeo. But I did think, ‘This is going to be a very long dinner,’ and it was.
And I could tell more stories, but one’s enough.
Pamela did have a few fine qualities. She was a very good cross-stitcher. She was a good cook and she loved the beagles she had over the years. She was a Democrat and voted all her life, yet sadly she had too much Southern landed gentry in her to really feel comfortable around people with more melanin in the skin than her. But she wasn’t really a racist. She just disliked everybody.
But she did like some things. Not many but a few. One of those was St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Unlike her brother who is an odd mix of Buddhist and Anglican beliefs, she believed in the Risen Christ and the community of The Church. She gave some of her time and what money she had to this church. And you, the people of St. Mark’s, came and helped my sister in her final days and weeks, and for that, I am truly grateful. I know it wasn’t easy, given that I’m sure Pamela told you exactly how she wanted you to give your love, but you did it anyway. You came. You helped. Thank you. Thank you so very much.
So from a distant brother like myself, it seems like a wasted life, with only her resentments and her booze to keep her company, and perhaps, a few very tolerate friends who are here with us today.
So rather than just give a eulogy of ‘She loved Christ, she loved Art, she loved dogs.’, forgive me this very blunt assessment of why Pamela lived and died in a lonely, moldy, old house, all by herself, with no one to tenderly touch her in the middle of the night.
She was damaged, not beyond repair, but she was never fixed, never made right, never made whole. She did the best she could, but she didn’t do a very good job at living. But she wasn’t afraid to die. Maybe a little but not very much. She believe in The Life Everlasting and The Kingdom To Come.
Let’s hope. No, let’s pray that Heaven gives her just what she needs. The Eternal Light and Love of God, and maybe a beagle puppy or two.
And also, say a prayer for all the angels and archangels in Heaven, for Pamela Jenks is coming to town. They won’t know what hit them.
I love you, Pamela.
I miss you, Pamela.
I feel your presence today and it feels good.
Truly, rest in peace, my sweet sister.