His curly brown ringlets were prized by our mother until he was about four. “Who is that little girl with you?” our grandfather would ask me, knowing he could rile me. “He’s not a girl. That’s my little brother!” I defended every single time. No one would pick on my little brother.
His soft brown eyes reflected his goodness as well as his mischievousness. Many a girl envied his long eyelashes. His smile turned to laughter easily.
He was the fourth of six children, the second of four sons. I was the second daughter, 16 months older than him. We were close to each other, not only in age.
In the preschool years we played in the sandbox together for hours, sifting sand, building mounds that were intended to end up like castles but usually didn’t, or digging to the bottom to make roads on which to push our toy cars and trucks.
He loved playing army and I preferred playing “boy” games. “I want a Fort Apache” or “I want army men” or “I want this special toy gun” were many of his requests to Santa as a boy. “I’m the Yankees,” Jeff would declare, making me the confederates. We would play for hours with those plastic molded soldiers, some with guns poised from their shoulders, others in the lying position as snipers. We would line them up or hide them in strategic positions. Taking careful aim and staying behind our designated throwing line, we would use marbles or some small items to take turns tossing toward the soldiers. If they were knocked over they were dead. If you hit them but they didn’t fall, they were alive. A sniper would have to be moved out of position or rolled over to be considered dead. Having snipers was a good thing. And finding something to use as an obstacle to shield your soldier such as a chair or table leg was a bonus. “Ka-ching I got him!” Jeff would yell. He usually used some sort of sound effect as one of the soldiers was hit. It didn’t really matter whose men were all dead first because we would just reset them and start over.
Sometimes when we were outside we’d play army with the neighborhood kids, mostly boys. “You can be the nurse,” they would tell me. Jeff would defend me telling them to let me be a soldier too. Getting dirty alongside my brother was so cool. Rolling on the ground when I was “wounded” was fun. Grass stains and dirty knees didn’t bother either of us.
Sometimes we would go to “The Meadows” to play during the day. “Watch out for hobos,” he would tell me. Although I had never seen one, somehow Jeff knew they were there. “Don’t get too close to the train when it goes by or you will get sucked underneath it,” was another warning from him. How did he know all these things? We would catch crabs underneath rocks in the stream by the railroad tracks and then do our best to provide water from the stream and rocks and grass to keep them alive in the bucket we put them in at home. Somehow our efforts never paid off.
One summer Jeff and our older brother, Wes, found a dog. Figuring they wouldn’t be allowed to keep it if they took it home, they hid it in a neighboring garage. Back and forth they went several times a day to feed and play with the dog. After a couple days, I was let in on the secret and sworn not to tell. We were all sad when someone in the neighborhood noticed what we were doing and the dog was taken away.
“Someday I’ll live on a farm,” Jeff said over and over through the years. I always imagined Jeff being married to a really sweet woman, having a bunch of children and lots of animals on that farm. Although that never happened, Jeff did own a couple of horses and/or ponies when he was a teenager. He boarded them at a nearby farm. One summer day he rode his horse right to our house in the city, riding down the middle of the city streets.
Jeff liked to fish. It could be at Lake Glacier as a kid, in a boat with Dad or Grandpa, or in the Mahoning River near his duplex when he was an adult. It was at the Mahoning River while fishing that Jeff rescued his dog, Coal Bucket. Someone was drowning pups rather than find homes for them when Jeff came upon him. No way was that going to happen with Jeff around! He took the last black fur ball home with him and the two of them remained a pair. Coal Bucket didn’t live much longer after Jeff died.
Jeff didn’t ruffle easily. He didn’t seem to hold grudges either. Jeff just did what Jeff wanted to do at the moment, a free spirit. Sometimes he didn’t think about the consequences of his actions, but when he had to pay for them he knew he had it coming. He could laugh about those consequences, rather than begrudging the person or law official who “caught him in the act.”
Jeff is one of the reasons I participate in Relay for Life. Jeff died of cancer at age 44. When his time was up, he didn’t moan and groan. He accepted it. He joked with us the night before. It was another chapter in his life. Jeff was comfortable with death as he was with many other things in life.
Jeff, you are a special person to me, always have been. I miss your jokes, your stories, and all the incidents you were involved in, good and bad. Thank you for being such a good brother. Thanks for all you taught me in life. Thank you for your help from Heaven. Our lives on earth are far from perfect but as a brother, you were perfect.
Happy Birthday Jeff!