When I was in the second grade, my family moved from Bristow to Gypsy. I was shy, the youngest child of my family and therefore the one least prepared for new places and upheaval. I went to the small school and discovered there were only three other girls in my class, and Jan Donaldson was one of them.
I was impressed by even at that age, how confidently she carried herself and how friendly she was. I was a gawky kid laden with self-esteem issues in awe of a girl who seemed to be at the center of everything. In third and fourth grade I was tormented by a cruel teacher, and all I knew was my own pain and distress. When my family moved to Depew I did not see Jan again until our eighth grade year when she came to Depew.
She had not changed; she was still the smart, active, sociable girl she was back in Gypsy. She had no enemies in our class or in our school, popular from the first day she walked into the classroom. It was unthinkable to me that anyone would be at odds with her. All through high school, other girls might be petty or shallow or mean, but Jan was never that way.
She was consistently voted as an officer in our class and in many of the school clubs. She led our basketball team to championships, enthusiastic about school traditions and even made her own prom dress, as I recall. We all went to Rockaway Beach for the Senior Trip after graduation. When we returned to school and went our separate ways, it was the last time I saw her for many years.
Now and then I heard about reunions Depew held but I did not attend them. I finally decided to attend in 2012 and Jan made sure I got the application. My kids were grown so I was by myself when I pulled into town. I had no one close by I could stay with that weekend, so Jan and Erwin graciously invited me to stay with them at their place on Highway 48. We stayed up and talked long into the night.
Jan and I discovered we shared so many similarities in our lives – she also was a younger member of a large family; she had the same dread and fear of our third/fourth grade teacher; her father had the same weakness for alcohol as mine; she had the same kind of hero-worship for her older sister that I had of mine. I was astonished to learn she had the same sort of self-doubt as a teen, as I had. She always seemed so confident! I had no idea she grew up Catholic – of course not, Depew was not the sort of place to announce that you were anything but a Protestant – while as a teen I had been keenly curious about that faith. Had I only known, that was another thing we might have shared!
She suffered so many personal challenges and tribulations in the course of her life, caught in a bad early marriage, surviving a gunshot, losing beloved family members. But you would never know it when looking into those bright eyes or listening to that sweet Okie drawl. She would give you the shirt off her back and the last pie from her pantry. She and Erwin were as warm and generous as any pair of people I ever knew. She could spin a yarn with the best of them, utilizing her self-effacing charm to great effect. Erwin always gazed at her like a happy love-struck cowboy who could not believe his luck in winning her over. I returned to several class reunions, looking forward to their company. I always wound up helping her and Judy prepare for the reunion but it never seemed like work. It was like hanging out with a sister.
I cannot believe she is gone. I am still wishing the phone call I got from our mutual friend and former classmate Brenda was just a strange sad dream, that there was no car wreck to rob us of both Jan and Erwin.
I am not attending Jan’s Celebration of Life event this June largely because of the concern over Covid-19, but also so I can plausibly deny to myself that Jan Donaldson Christensen is dead. Oh, I know the truth; I am not delusional. Wishing does not bring anyone back.
But in my mind Jan is still there in Depew baking pies in the oven of her shop on Main Street, greeting visitors as if they are her closest friends, making all sorts of activity plans with Judy. Sometimes she is the small blonde-haired girl with a wide toothy grin, swinging from the maypole at Gypsy School, or a lithe teenager making a jumpshot in the Depew High gymnasium. In my mind Jan is still talking and laughing and breathing and LIVING. That’s the way I want to remember her.