In the late ’50s my mother was engaged to a man named Jerry Leadingham. Through Jerry, Mom met Jan Leadingham who was married to Jerry’s brother Jack.
Jerry and Mom didn’t work out (the engagement ended by mutual agreement) and Mom went on to marry my dad Ron. But that didn’t end her friendship with Jan.
Over the years, Jack & Jan and Ron & Joanne had many fun times together – usually involving a deck of cards and a highball. Back when everyone smoked, Jan could be found at the card table, a Tiparillo in her hand.
Jan was a dedicated nurse and worked at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City for most of her career. It was through her that my best friend Amy and I got our jobs as candy stripers at Kaiser back in the ’70s. The McGraths (that was my maiden name) and Leadinghams vacationed together over the years including a memorable time in Yosemite when a bear pounded on our cabin door trying to get in. Though frightened beyond measure, we roared with laughter as my mother ran through the cabin reciting the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary, perhaps to ward off the wayward bruin.
In 1977, when my mom and I got the call that my father had dropped dead in a parking lot, it was Jan who she immediately telephoned. I can’t tell you how fast Jan was there – it seemed like minutes though she was at least 15 miles away.
When Jan’s marriage ended, she and Mom became even closer. My parents had bought a condo in Pt. Hueneme in 1974 and Mom and Jan would head up there regularly, a pair of friends in tow to make a foursome for marathon pinochle games. Neither ever remarried which seemed to suit them just fine.
In 1996, Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer that metastasized to the brain. Within four months she was gone. Though Jan made sure to come to the hospital, it was obvious that seeing her best friend suffer was painful to her as well.
Not surprising, my contact with Jan dwindled once Mom passed. When my sister visited from the east coast, we would make sure to all get together for brunch. Though I’d swear to myself that I needed to see more of Jan, time got away from me and I never made it.
Over the years, her health deteriorated and she eventually moved to West Virginia to be with her daughter Ann. Stricken with dementia and Parkinson’s, Jan died last year. This past weekend Ann and her brother John had a memorial in Sherman Oaks for their mom.
I had a chance to take the microphone during the service to offer some words to the assembled about my relationship with Jan. I thought I had it planned out what I would say – how Jan was my mom’s best friend, that I had fond memories of her with a highball (7 and 7 for her, a Manhattan for my mom), how her jokes were epically stupid (“Did you hear about the three holes in the ground? Well, well, well.”).
I was not prepared for what actually happened.
I choked up. Not due to stage fright, but because of the enormity of who this woman was that was so important to my mom, to me and to my sister growing up. All I was able to squeak out was that I knew my mother’s passing left a hole in Jan’s heart and how great the heavenly reunion was of these two best friends.
So, to Jan I raise a 7 and 7, grateful for my mother’s best friend who was there for the toughest times and for some of the best.
Well, well, well.