Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jean Lewis Scrapbook Story Part 1

Healthy baby Jean

A Truly Happy Childhood

This is part I of Jean's "scrapbook story," presenting her life before the tumor.  My goal is to have part II posted by July 1, 2014, and I probably will.  But it's been much harder to write than part 1: many details, still some tears, many difficult subjects to try to present with the right touch.

Disclaimer: The scrapbook story is intended as a whirlwind tour, and many important people and events are omitted. Please do not be offended if you are not included, my goal was to write something just long enough to give a sense of Jean's life. And of course many of my decisions on people, photos, and events were rather arbitrary.

-- µ

Jean was born on March 28, 1956, in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to parents who both had advanced degrees. Her mom Sylvia had a Master's degree in education. Her dad, John Lewis, Ph.D., was a chemical engineer, born into a poor, violent family, who had acquired an education by dint of his intellect and his scholarly disposition. John was revered for his deft, quiet wit, and his determination to give his own children the nourishing environment he had lacked as a boy. He and Sylvia would provide their daughters the same encouragement and opportunities that they provided their son.

By nature or nurture, Jean would inherit John's wit. Not the first person you'd notice at a party, but the one you'd remember longest, whose words would reverberate in your mind.

After Jean came Anne, then Ray
John and Sylvia had lost their first child to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and were extremely protective of Jean. But that did not stifle her spirits. She remembers camping trips; hunting for fossils with John; climbing trees; sneaking downstairs to watch Perry Mason, a show her parents thought best reserved for adults. 

While at Greenhills JHS, Jean made a vivid impression in her math class by memorizing several hundred digits of ∏. Jean convinced her friend Linda Hutchins to try "witchcraft," and the two chums cast spells to reveal their futures. 
Louise, René, and Jean
Jean also inspired Linda to dive into knitting, ice skating, and Morse code. Linda remembers young Jean fondly for her "infectious enthusiasm," a wonderful quality she carried with her to the very end.

At Huron High, Jean played flute in the marching band, started folk dancing, and 
At Huron High
was a top student. She made friends easily did not date much. She loved to read, and took French and Latin. To support athletics for girls, she also signed up to run cross-country, but did not practice because her main interest was band. Her friend Yao Louis remembers that when it came time for the meet, only she and Jean actually ran; the other girls, who'd had time to practice, all came up with excuses. Thereafter, Yao valued Jean for her daring and resilience, her ability to turn something intimidating into something fun and interesting.

College Days: Blossoming Out

Jean was invited to apply to Ivy League schools on the strength of her grades and test scores at Huron High, but she decided to go to college in her home
A confident, prepossessing
young woman
town. She entered the University of Michigan as an engineering major in 1974, thinking that she might follow in her dad's footsteps; she did share his interest in science and nature. But engineering didn't work out for her. In high school, she was always at the top of her class, and had not needed to ask her teachers for help. In college math and science classes, she had questions for her professors, but found that she was too reserved, or too proud, to ask them. She also felt socially isolated among the young engineers, and took a leave of absence after her freshman year.

She came back as a Russian Literature major one year later, moving into the Nakamura co-op where Yao was already staying. It was a happy decision, both intellectually and socially.

Jean never lost her
capacity for joy
Sailing with Yao and her
The University of Michigan was a center for Russian studies, and with her love for literature and gift for languages, Jean soon found a niche in the department. She found an outlet for her love of nature through hiking trips, especially on the Appalachian trail. And she made many new friends; had serious boyfriends; and became best friends with Yao, nurturing her through a personal tragedy and helping to rekindle her enthusiasm for life.
Jean worked part-time, first at restaurant jobs, then as a copy editor at one of U. of M.'s renowned journals,
On the trail
Mathematical Reviews. That work suited her well, weaving together the two major strands of her intellectual interests, science and language. She graduated from U. of M. with a BA in Russian Literature in 1984, and embarked on a career as a technical editor.

Jean Lewis, Technical Editor

The Jester at a URS Halloween party
Jean's career took off after she came to California in 1988 and moved into the engineer consulting world at URS. Not everything in that world was ideal: for example crazy hours, impossible deadlines, and insatiably demanding managers.  But she loved her colleagues, and thought of them as "smart people, making funny jokes all the time and talking about their new interests." 

What Jean did also had an intrinsic value. She worked on large, visible engineering projects, such as changes to airports and bridges, and the documents she edited were critical to describing those projects to technical and lay audiences. Renowned for being able to zero in on the sole typo in a crowded page, able to read the twentieth iteration of a technical document with the same fresh attention she bestowed on the first, Jean earned a niche of respect and accommodation in the corporate work
Part of the world's greatest get well card,
from Jean's URS colleagues after her brain tumor
surgery in 2011. The limerick by Pam Cory in the
upper left (There once was a lass from Ann Arbor…),
captures much of Jean in five breezy lines.
place. At the center of the process that creates the documents that guide the projects that shape the Bay Area, said niche was a better perch than many for looking out on the bustling world.

Her colleagues esteemed her highly. Deme, with an, international reputation as a soil
A visit from engineering colleagues while at the hospice:
Deme on left, Maria and Susie on right
scientist, insisted on having Jean edit his reports. They came in a steady stream when she was at the hospice, paying tribute, sitting by the bed, talking about old times, and just holding her hand when she could no longer talk. The last gesture she made to a visitor was a high-five with Deme, acknowledging the painstaking, important, and satisfying work they had accomplished together.

Mid-Life Romance

March 21, 1998
We were married in 1998 on the first day of spring. We had met folk dancing, had a passionate romance, and we were still trying romantic kisses when Jean was in the hospice.

One of our staple jokes was that we were really the same person: we both disdained conflict; had niches in the technical world; thought of ourselves as quiet, bookish, offbeat. But we came to this common ground by very different routes.

Before me, Jean had two long-term relationships that didn't quite work out, and I'd had a disastrous first marriage. My dad Charlie Pico was a street artist/carny; he made sure he would be the first person anybody would notice at a party, and would likely have the gathering laughing uproariously. He died in 1990, three years before John, but the dads might not have known what to make of each other had they lived to come to our wedding.

Languorously happy on our honeymoon
But we did not waste time comparing John and Charlie, or dissecting past relationships. We were too busy. We moved in together the day after the wedding, one week before leaving on a month-long honeymoon in Israel; we were so tired that for two days after we got there, that we fell asleep wherever we went. After we recovered, and then for much of the next three years, we devoted ourselves to racing the biological clock, trying to have children of our own. But the best we could do by our own efforts was one miscarriage. Two years of fertility treatment resulted in two more miscarriages with implanted embryos. But we found other ways to have fun.

For example, by crossing that threshold of middle-class respectability, home
The Happy Couple by Tom Kennedy,
an artist who often worked with my dad
ownership.  Jean, an avid gardener, wanted a blank canvass: a large, ugly backyard she could transform with her creations. The Victorian cottage we found on Wood St was charming, but the backyard was too small to hold even the fifty potted roses we brought with us. Then we bought an overgrown parcel in back of the cottage, called “the orchard” in the neighborhood. Jean had her dream house.

Moments from a Marriage

Jean was a volunteer research editor for a magazine called Rosamundi, devoted to preserving old and wild roses. In 2014, they published a special edition called Wild and Untamed, including an essay by Jean called My Healing Garden, describing how 
May 2010, Portrait of the gardener in a 
gentle hurry, a bit of her effulgent front 
yard garden creation in the background
she tended her preservation rose gardens in the orchard after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Next to her by-line is a photo (shown on right) taken as she was dashing off to a Rosamundi meeting, bouquet in her backpack, coffee mug in hand. It was such a devastatingly characteristic moment I'd asked her to pause -- not pose -- and be captured for posterity.

The roses in a preservation garden are endangered, and growing one successfully puts it one step further from the threat of extinction. In gardening, Jean found a way to create beauty, while doing her bit to save the planet at the same time.  She was very good at finding creative solutions to problems with real-world constraints, like limited time.

Other moments glowing in loving memory: the way she read and wrote in bed, to the delight of our cats, who would try to curl up on her keyboardbringing blog post drafts into the bedroom for her to edit, getting them back with a smile
We enjoyed
that made the red ink feel like
In the orchard
kindness; then repeat, as the red ink dwindled and disappearedthe way she would leap out of bed and get ready for her day, so quietly I wouldn't hear her, then appear before me saying "I was just planning what I was going to wear"the time we were Darwin's Primeval Soup (me, Earth as soup can) and Emergent Life (she, evolving life forms) for a Halloween partygiving lessons at our garden parties on making Ukrainian Easter eggs (pysanky) -- dip the eggs in a series of dyes going from lighter to darker, each time adding more wax to mask of the area you don't want coloredgiving away our last twenties, before we left on vacation, to a stranger who told her a hard 
With Felix and Zola
luck storyin a supermarket parking lot, returning our shopping cart by riding it like a scooter; not showing off, just the joy of the girl bubbling up in the life of the woman.

A dozen + 1 of her Ukrainian Easter eggs

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this Matt. I just knew a slice of Jean and it's nice to learn more about her. I think of her every time I water and prune my roses (that she would tend them much better than I do!).