Jean Marshall Burnside was born on March 4th, 1928 in Butte, MT. She was 60 years older than me (and two months and six days), something we woule occasionally joke about. She met Richard T. Mayer in her late teens/early twenties and despite his tendency to pronounce her home town as “Butt”, consented to marry him and bear their three children.
They moved to Alaska back when it was still a territory instead of a state and had their third child, Richard Scott who would go on to adopt and do a terrible job raising me. Richard Sr. would build and create his own architecture business while Jean worked as a switchboard operator and full-time mom.
Jean had aspirations of becoming a nurse but dropped out of college to take care of her ailing mother and abusive step-father. She made up for this by watching Trauma: Life in the ER every time I was trying to eat.
Her two sisters would move to and live in Alaska as well, much younger and not quite as sweet, though they were both great women. Wanda, the closest to Jean, passed away of cancer less than five years before Jean herself passed. It affected her deeply.
My aunt Debbie was the first of Jean and Dick’s kids to have children, and would go on to have three in total. All boys, all with hard C/K names (Kevin, Kyle and Cody. Coincidentally, my mother would have three children as well. I was named Kenneth by Rick [middle and preferred name Jered, by my mom], but she also named my brother and sister Kameron and Kharli respectively. So many kkkkks). Debbie was married to a pilot, the first of two, and was living in Hawaii and Guam around then.
The formal name for grandmother in Hawaiin is kuku wahine but, in the Hawaiin language the letters ‘k’ and ‘t’ are often interchangeable. A common term for grandmother is ‘tutu’. My aunt co-opted it for her children and the tradition spread to me once I was born.
Anyway, Jean was a devoutly religious woman with traditional values. Upon arriving in Alaska, she joined up with a local Seventh Day Adventist chapter. At the time, it was one small communal building on 3rd Avenue that tried to spread word of their services via flyers and newspaper ads. Jean quickly befriended two women there who ended up being as close as sisters. They would attend a miniature club (in later years, Jean would own a tall a grandfather clock-looking case with a glass door. It had six or seven shelves in it. Each was a different room with dozens of carefully painted miniatures set up to make it look like a real home), weekly lunches and weekend excursions to a condo one of the ladies owned.
At the time, though, they were simply impressed that this woman would go door to door and offer baked goods to the people inside. She didn’t pester them about religion but simply made them aware of where their service was located. And the SDA chapter grew. It grew until they finally got a church on the hillside.
My grandmother didn’t force her beliefs on anyone. She accepted other religions, races and sexualities. She never blamed a person, but the circumstances. She would allow for grief and substance addiction and troubles at home before she would ever disparage a person for the way they acted, even if it was directed at her. She would ask to pray with people and often prayed for people, even if she knew they didn’t respect her belief or even believe in God at all.
My Grandmother would mark down birthdays on her calendar every year and she never forgot to call them and wish them a happy birthday. She had a lot of food allergies, but despite seldom being able to eat strawberries as a child, she was the purest soul I have ever met.
I was brought up in the church and was even a deacon. I reached an age, however, where I had questions that weren’t being answered and decided to go my own way. She respected my decision and prayed for and with me. When I found out about being adopted by the son that couldn’t stay sober unless he was in jail, I took it hard. Despite having a loving pair of parents in Jean and Dick, I felt worthless because I’d been abandoned by my biological father and my adopted father and mother couldn’t keep it together for me. I felt like a bastard, so I acted like one. I said and did horrible things. I moved out at 16 and moved back in at 18 and repeated that for years. Every time, she took me back and forgave me and loved me.
I went to New York when I was 19 for a concert. She fell down the stairs and broke her back. She developed a hump and had chronic pain until she died, but she always kept her cheer. Even though I knew there was no way I could have known it would happen, I felt devastated. She assured me she was fine. She always worried more about others than herself.
I moved to Los Angeles for a year and Seattle/Redmond for eight months. Somewhere in there, she and Dick moved into a home down in Washington, not far from Walla Walla. She kept in touch with written letters and phone calls I didn’t answer nearly as often as I should have. When I asked how she was, she would always respond, “Oh, I’m just old and moldy” which is disgusting but she always got a kick out of it.
In 2014, about a month after my godfather’s funeral, my uncle Dave called to tell me that Tutu had suffered a heart attack and the diagnosis was terrible. The next day, I got to speak with her for two minutes. She asked me if I was okay and insisted that despite the lack of blood relation, she had always loved me as her own. I told her I had written and put two books on sale and lied that they were selling well, that she didn’t have to worry about me anymore.
She died the next day.
At her service, they played a slideshow of pictures I had never seen before. Her as a child in a wagon, being pulled by a baby goat. Her newly-wed photos with Bompa. Her holding her first-born child.
The pews were packed full of people I hadn’t seen in a decade but who my grandmother never forgot. She was still calling from Washington, wishing happy birthdays and asking about everyone’s families. A microphone was passed around to share experiences.
I never knew how many people considered her a surrogate sister/mother/grandmother. I never knew how many people she pulled back from suicide, how many marriages she saved, how many people she raised money and awareness for. I almost cried listening to it, so powerful was the love in that room. I admit that it’s difficult to keep the tears away as I write this now.
I spoke last and mentioned how she had fostered me and forgiven me every transgression. How she was the closest thing to a real mother I had ever known, truly. I said, “In a church full of the devout, she was the closest to living and sharing and believing the Christian ideal than anyone”.
The pastor said, “Well, except Jesus himself.” Of course except Jesus himself. It’s sort of implied that Christ would be the embodiment of the belief named after him. Whatever.
Jean Marshall Burnside-Mayer, my grandmother, my Tutu, my mom. The woman who raised me in an eye of calm amidst a family ridden with substance abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse, lying, cheating and abandonment. The only person I’ve ever met who would sacrifice herself before intentionally harming even the worst person and who, on her literal death bed, was more concerned with letting others know they were loved. That woman is a far better woman than I have ever deserved.
I am far from a perfect man. I’m prone to anger and self-doubt and malice. I drink a little too much, I’m a little too libidinous. I have refrained from making a proper effort in some regards and crossed a line when I didn’t need to in others. I am flawed.
But everything good about me, I owe to her. And as imperfect as I may be, without her I would have been truly lost. I would have given up from the bullying and the insecurity and the hopelessness. I would have never embraced writing or loving or hope or seen myself as remotely talented. I owe her life itself, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything I can to make her proud. If there is a Heaven, Tutu’s in the VIP booth, popping bottles of apple juice. She really liked apple juice.