Sunday, August 7, 2016

Always Special

Jean on vacation in Michigan, 1957
My mother was born in Detroit on the brink of the Great Depression. Her parents, Frank and Lily Sharley, met in the United States after emigrating from England. Jean and her elder brother, George, grew up in a house their father had built but couldn’t afford to finish once the darkness fell. You could see the tarpaper instead of siding. Frank found work as a hospital handyman. They had enough, but just barely.

You probably understand after hearing from Tom Johnson, my mom’s favorite boss ever, that Jean had a reporter’s ear for good stories and revealing details. She loved to tell people that her father, as a boy, once delivered a prescription to Buckingham Palace in the latter few years of Queen Victoria. Her mother’s family, from Lancashire, was about to sail for New York on the Titanic when the steamship company revoked their half-price tickets and resold them at full price to someone almost infinitely less lucky.

In her father’s case, a brush with greatness. In her mother’s, the touch of Providence. She loved her parents dearly, and their stories helped her understand, when life seemed grey, when poverty embarrassed her, that her life would always glitter in bright colors, that she would always be special.

With her mother, Lily
As a little girl, she went to church with her family and fell in love with the elegant language and cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.” It can’t really be said of Jean! She couldn’t afford to go to college, but the prayer book, her natural gifts as a writer, and her compassion and curiosity amounted to a graduate degree in journalism.

Her vocation, which is now undergoing sometimes heartbreaking change, provides its practitioners with constant brushes with greatness in the form of the events and people journalists cover. As for Providence, the church and prayer book worked their more customary magic with Jean as well. She never doubted the loving, saving grace of heaven -- not once. I have a million things to thank my mother for, none more important than an eternal if sometimes reckless optimism and an innate trust in God.

Greatness eluded her, however, at Redford Union High School in Detroit. As a freshman, she entered a contest to pick the new school fight song. The judges told her she would’ve won if she’d written the three verses they asked for instead of just two. As dementia overtook her at 89 or 90, this injustice, this outrage was one of the last things she forgot.

A 1950s fashion assignment
As a fashion writer for the Detroit Free Press, she traveled to New York for the fall shows. Audrey Hepburn, Renoir, the novelist Colette, and all beautiful people and things captivated her. Soon her editors wanted her working as a general assignment reporter. At the Free Press, the newsroom was male-only territory -- until Jean got there. One old-timer muttered that lace curtains on the windows would be next.

Her victories for women came before feminism had a name. Sometimes it was just a matter of making do. Covering a Tigers-Yankees game during 1961’s AL pennant race, she was barred from the Yankee Stadium press box. She put her portable typewriter on top of an overturned trashcan, found a chair, and made her deadline.

Jean’s writing was economical and lively, whimsical, smart, and fresh, occasionally sentimental but never mawkish – always the right word, never a word out of place. In 1965, Detroit civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo was murdered by a member of the Ku Klux Klan after the march from Selma to Montgomery. Jean visited the apartment Viola shared with her husband and children and described their small, neat bedroom and the family pictures, school books, and white-covered gold-leaf Bible that were arranged carefully on Viola’s desk. At the funeral in Detroit, Jean asked an African-American woman who didn’t know Viola why she was standing on the street in the rain, hoping to get into the church. “Because she died for me,” the woman said. These words ended Jean’s account of her city’s sad day in the next day’s paper.

She was a single working mother of a ten year old. Imagine how she felt when we received death threats after the Viola Liuzzo stories appeared. These callers deplored my mother’s sympathetic coverage of Viola’s murder and warned that they knew where I went to school. One evening, I noticed a police car by the curb outside our apartment. It came back the next night, and the next. My mother didn’t say why, because the last thing she ever wanted me or anyone to do was worry.

Harvey and Jean
But it was inevitable that I would worry, especially when my mother seemed lonely or sad. My father, Harvey, another brilliant newspaperperson, was the first love of Jean’s life. The only picture I have of them together, taken in the early 1950s, shows him in a blazer and tie, looking mischievously at the camera. Jean is sitting on the floor wearing a black cocktail dress and pearls, leaning on his knee and holding a drink, her happy face in profile, turned toward him.

While Harvey was an alcoholic, I don’t believe Jean ever uttered that word and his name in the same paragraph. The marriage essentially ended when I was two, though for the next ten years, Harvey came over for dinner almost every Saturday night. He sat at the end of the couch, drank martinis, smoked Chesterfields, laughed quietly at the conversation, and occasionally got up and went to the piano to massacre Beethoven sonatas.

In her office in Phoenix
In 1967, Jean and 12-year-old John headed to Phoenix so she could go to work on the Arizona Republic as women’s editor. Her brilliance as a journalist and her courage persisted. Her editor in Arizona was J. Edward Murray. Their publisher was Eugene Pulliam, uncle of a future vice president, Dan Quayle. One day, Mr. Pulliam told Mr. Murray that he had written an editorial in support of President Nixon’s actions in Vietnam and wanted it published on the front page. When Ed Murray told the owner of the newspaper that editorials went on the editorial page, Pulliam fired him. Learning of this during a meeting, Jean stood up and said, “A paper that has no room for Ed Murray has no room for me!” and walked out into 110 degrees of Phoenix unemployment – which didn’t last long, thanks to offers from the Timeses of New York and Los Angeles.

Tom has spoken beautifully of Jean’s years at the Los Angeles Times, Christle equally so about their adventures. Christle and my mother’s other close friends – Bobbie and Ed Justice, Bette Gillespie, George Mair, Miv and Alfred Schaaf, Frank Wylie and Judy Babcock, Sister Jenny, so many others – were all gifts to her.

In 1978, Jean married that gracious gentleman Dick Lescoe, who lent her his three daughters, Linda, Donna, and Debbie. In retirement, with Tomasa’s help, Jean helped Debbie with her children, Stephanie and Ricky, and was a devoted grandmother to my children, Valerie and Lindsay, and to my wife Kathy’s children, Dan and Meaghan.

Jean at the LA Times
The most important thing to know about my mother is that she believed she was called to reflect God’s grace, make the world better, see ways forward that others couldn’t, and never stop striving, even unto exhaustion. She took in tenants for free and took Thanksgiving turkeys and green beans to Union Station here in Pasadena. She helped build the columbarium in this beautiful church where she and Dick will cohabitate. She sacrificed her comfort and security to take care of those she loved, especially her parents and then Dick when he was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. If you had a problem, she had an answer or an idea, and always an encouraging smile.

It made these gestures no less worthy or holy that Jean, even as she acted in love and justice, was observing and chronicling herself in the process. She was, after all, a reporter. She could have invented Facebook. I don’t know whether I’m curious or terrified about what might have happened if she had been healthy enough to establish an account. If my family and friends ever wonder why her son is a selfie junkie, now you know.

Jean could be stubborn. Tom has mentioned my time as an aide to Mr. Nixon. Jean and he were a formidable combination. They first met in Washington in 1985. She was in town to hear his talk to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, and he asked me to invite her up to his suite so he could say hello.

She told him that she had covered a stop he had made in upper Michigan during his reelection campaign in 1972. The record is abundantly clear that neither my mother nor the 37th president got anywhere near upper Michigan in 1972. But Jean held her ground. Looking around frantically, Nixon saw a large box of Godiva chocolates that the hotel had given him. Pat Nixon preferred See’s. So he had suggested I take them home to the mother of my children. In the face of Jean’s intransigence, he grabbed Marcia’s chocolates, handed them to my mother, and bolted from the room. Nixon was less flummoxed by Mao and Khrushchev.

With Elizabeth, May 2015
Jean’s willfulness and my immature frustration sometimes made our relationship difficult. But not so our last two years. Dementia is terrible. But for my mother, it was also a kind of gift. It took away her need to try so hard to help. For the first time in the 60 years I’d know her, she was content. In the home in Yorba Linda where Elizabeth and Linda took such good care of her, Jean sat in the garden with the sun on her face and arms without feeling that she should be doing something historic instead.

I told her the stories, since she’d forgotten it all. I told her about Harvey and Dick and her grandchildren and about my godfather, Louis Cook, another handsome newspaperman who had loved her desperately. Hearing it all again, brand new each time, she’d always smile, and her blue eyes would gleam. And on a sunny Saturday morning last October – because she loved Saturday mornings best of all – she slipped peacefully into glory.

A Celebration of the Life of Jean Taylor Lescoe was held on April 16, 2016 at my mother's home parish, All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. My fellow eulogists were Jean's friends Christle Balvin and former LA Times publisher Tom Johnson.

7 comments:

Doug da Dad said...

What a wonderful portrait you have painted with these loving words, Father John. I, too, was blessed to be influenced by strong women who blazed trails and will be forever grateful for that.

Bebe Bahnsen said...

That was a beautiful piece. I learned a lot about your family and loved your mother even more. I hope you will write more about your family. You and I have had Interssting lives but our fathers were not a big help. I

Bebe Bahnsen said...

That was a beautiful piece. I learned a lot about your family and loved your mother even more. I hope you will write more about your family. You and I have had Interssting lives but our fathers were not a big help. I

Fr. John said...

Thank you, Doug! Blessings

Fr. John said...

Thank you, cousin. True enough about our dads! I wish I'd known mine better. I don't know why, but he scared me a little, not because he was ever cruel. Quite the opposite. But for some reason I never knew what to say to him. I'm sure it had to do with all the secret-keeping in our family, mainly about his drinking. Did I ever send you a copy of the letter he wrote my mom in 1965 about our family? Blessings.

Belle Mears said...

You write so beautifully Father John. I loved reading your remembrances and was touched by your mention of The Book of Common Prayer.as some of the bones of your mother as wordsmith. As a girl I do remember it's effect and the dé·jà vu now that calms or soothes with elegant simplicity poetically. It must have moved into my psyche about the time of A Child's Garden of Verses or A.A. Milne. Sometimes the words there turn the bend to perfection. Now, more and more I feel the depth of that elegant trigger. It must have been so exciting for your mother to be engaged in the world of the reporter and then have as well, her dear ones at home who she was bringing home the bacon to, to love and nurture. Life has a way of rewarding our dreams if we persevere....and the comedy of how often we have such grand chances all at once while our world seems filled with other clamor......we get our dream job and then we still have the juggling act. It seems your mother did blaze the way by being herself. She kept on keeping on. I love your acknowledgement of her sustaining gift of God's promises being true and trustworthy. What greater gift than such love. And so it goes.....continuing. God's peace and joy Father John and Kathy.

Fr. John said...

Bless you, Belle!