My brother called me the other day while I was in the shower and thus unable to answer my phone, leaving me a message stating that he had some “shitty news” and asking me to call him back. I envisioned a dozen different doomsday scenarios for what he had to report, but when I spoke with him, none of those fears were realized. Rather, in typical fashion, the bad news was something completely unexpected– straight out of left field (but isn’t that always the case?). His news was that an old family friend had died, and he wanted to tell me over the phone before the information would inevitably (and impersonally) reach me through the grapevine via text or e-mail. I’m thankful that he did, because when a family member dies, that’s a loss you need to be able to share with someone on a much more intimate level. And Jane (or “Aunt Jane” as we called her) was family, goddammit.
Jane Hoogestraat (pronounced “Hogue-eh-straht”) was a poet and an English professor at Missouri State University. My father was on the search committee that originally hired her at MSU, and she would later become a close friend of both my parents (particularly my mother). Looking back, I’m proud to say that my brother and I had the privilege of spending some (but not enough) time in her company. Aunt Jane was one of the handful of genuine and truly decent human beings in this world with a heart almost as big as she was. She was a giant of a woman at over six feet tall, but that tall frame belied her soft-spoken and sincere personality. If you were to look up the word “staid” in the dictionary, it could easily read “see also: Jane Hoogestraat.”
Jane was an intelligent, quiet, and kind woman. While she may have battled a handful of personal demons (namely depression), she refused to allow her dark thoughts to cloud her eternal optimism. She believed in the goodness of others, often in spite of any meanness she may have been shown. She was a hard luck woman and was no stranger to experiencing hardship or being mistreated by those she put her faith and trust in, but that just seems to be par for the course when it comes to people with good hearts– the nicest folks are oftentimes the ones who are taken advantage of or trodden on the most. Life has a funny way of dealing the worst cards to those who have the best intentions, but Jane always chose to play the bad hands she was dealt rather than fold, and she did so with the same brand of optimism exhibited by Candide or Job. And she deserved better.
I have many fond memories of Aunt Jane. My favorite memory comes from the Christmas she chose to spend with me and my mother in Fayetteville, and how happy she was when we accompanied her to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the Christmas service. Jane had fully expected to attend the service alone, but we weren’t about to let that happen, and I know that it meant the world to her to have us there. During that same visit, Jane also played a small role as matchmaker in reuniting me with the woman I would eventually marry, and that is something for which I will always be grateful.
And I’ll never forget the time she asked me and my brother to house sit for her. “Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” she told us, and when we opened her fridge, it was stocked full of nothing but hummus and black beans– foodstuffs we would only ingest if we were literally starving to death (I believe we ate a lot of Hardee’s that week). That same week we witnessed Helga (one of her morbidly obese cats) nonchalantly watch a mouse run along the baseboard of the living room without batting so much as an eye. We were incredulous, and we let Helga know it. “You call yourself a cat?!?” we yelled, but the incredibly fat Helga just stared up at us, then glanced back at the mouse, and promptly laid her head back down.
I loved Jane’s house– it was an older home just down the street from the house I grew up in, so it always held an extra sense of familiarity to it. It was your typical English professor’s dwelling: small and modest with a couple of cats, close to campus, lots of books, and very little else in the way of material possessions with a few exceptions. Jane was particularly fond of her original set of turquoise FiestaWare, which we shared a meal or two on, and she was even more proud of her collection of black depression glass. My mother simply couldn’t understand Jane’s fascination with that ugly glass (“It’s hideous,” she would say. “I mean, it’s fucking BLACK!”). But my brother and I understood, because when you held that black glass up to a bright light, you could see the deep purple sheen shine through at its thinnest and most fragile parts, and I think that’s why Jane loved it so much. I believe Jane was one of those folks who appreciated the little bits of beauty hidden amongst the ugliness of the world, and I think that appreciation came by her honestly, as it’s a theme that shines through with the same subtle loveliness in her writing.
I’m one of a handful of human beings left who believes there are few things more important in this world than poetry, and I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Jane’s work. I’ve always enjoyed Jane’s poetry despite the fact that it runs contrary to the style of poems I’m typically drawn to. I’m a sucker for gritty poems about the human experience, full of passion and raw emotion, with the kind of profound volta that either punches you in the stomach or leaves you clutching your heart. Jane’s work is far more understated and pastoral– lots of topographical references and glimpses of nature with plenty of descriptive lines about flora and fauna, but almost always with the profound and human turn that transforms a poem into a poem. Her words are well-chosen and her lines are often eloquent and beautiful. You can get a glimpse of her work (as well as listen to her read one of her poems) by checking out this brief write-up PBS did on her by clicking here.
Jane was a strange and marvelous lady who carried herself with a special kind of stoicism. I didn’t know just how special that stoicism was until her death, when I learned that she had been quietly continuing to battle the cancer that most of us thought was in remission. She had many of us fooled as to the severity of her condition, and I myself had no idea how sick she was. She endured a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in her last year, and yet she didn’t see any point in complaining about it– she preferred to keep that information to herself, and I’m not sure that anybody had any clue as to the extent of what she was going through. She shouldn’t have had to shoulder that like she did, but that’s just the kind of person Aunt Jane was. And she deserved better.
I’ll leave you with one of Jane’s poems, as I think it wraps up this remembrance beautifully. “Near Red Lodge, Montana” is a poem not just representative of Jane’s poetic voice (with her fondness for the pastoral and her acute attention to detail), but also emblematic of her soul and how she always chose to acknowledge hope in the presence of despair. Oddly enough, it’s the final poem from her last publication, Border States, which won the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry. I regret (infinitely more so, now) that I wasn’t able to attend her last poetry reading, but my brother was there and he told me she received a standing ovation. And she deserved it.
Near Red Lodge, Montana
Are even the field stones charred, the rugged sienna clay
on the road, the white rocks along the creek bed,
are they darkened like snow in a late urban winter?
Can a part of the past be torched, just like that,
by a lightning strike that has you hanging up the phone
on a year, a summer, on the green fields leading in?
Here’s how it happened. Days earlier, near East Rosebud,
in isolated country behind Shepard Mountain
a lightning fork caught a tree, a patch of needles,
smoldered for days in its remoteness, then started
back drafting and blew, a fire that funneled the ravines,
jumped the smaller creeks, took out the grassy plains.
The sweet grasses lost in that fire, alfalfa, short grass,
buffalo, the trees, juniper, lodge pole, spruce, willow,
become only some residual sifting down from time to time,
ash of memory, dust of trivia, the unlabeled pictures
of the year … to whom was this year lost? Fire crews
will tell you they train to recognize what they can’t save.
And here’s how it comes back, when it does, new growth
from scorched earth. The fireweed spreads its roots,
then paintbrush or crocus. Spring snow cover melts away
over the first juniper seedlings, a start of mountain ash.
Lichen returns to a blackened trunk, spreads to the fragile base
of a lodgepole pine that has needed fire to seed.
Far from human fear or desire, the water rinses a little soot
from the edges of a still-charred rock, the kind a hiker
might pluck, polish like a talisman to carry home and hand
over, shyly, stupid and late, another one for your collection,
maybe for those rock gardens you’ve been designing,
dreaming of, from a little part of the world you used to know.