Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet


Aunt Janet grew up in Manistique. As an adult, she lived in Wisconsin and Lower MI, but chose to end her days back here. 
When my Aunt Janet was a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a country singer. This was in the late 1950s, when country music, along with rock-n-roll, was skyrocketing. Teens daydreamed of being a singer or in a band the way previous generations fantasized about becoming movie stars. The Gould family was from Upper Michigan, which was as remote as the rural southern areas where up-and-coming country chanteuses like Loretta and Tammy came from, so this most likely fed my Aunt Janet's vivid imagination.

Patsy Cline was Aunt Janet's idol and perhaps role model!
My aunt's idol was Patsy Cline. She'd sing along with Patsy on the radio, which was her only chance to listen to the honky-tonk star. The family, with 13 children, one modest paycheck, and no indoor plumbing, certainly didn't have money for luxuries like phonographs and record albums. Lucky for Janet, Patsy was the number #1 female country singer at the time, so my aunt could hear her trademark bluesy twang on the radio all the time.

Aunt Janet whooping it up when she was around 40.
Patsy Cline won Janet's heart because she wholeheartedly empathized with the star's hard luck life story, gutsy determination and brassy charisma. Patsy wasn't like the other girl singers, all batting eyes and singing sweetly. Cline was a woman who swaggered and emoted as much as Elvis. Patsy Cline lived like a star should, dramatically and richly. Janet would read all the fan magazines about the stars, regarding it all as not just fact, but as a blueprint to fame and fortune. But Patsy was the one who touched Janet most, a feeling of kindred spirits.

The old Manistique High School.
My aunt filled her days by apathetically attending school and enthusiastically fighting off boys. Janet was petite but with a volatile figure and feline green eyes with flecks of yellow. She practically vibrated with restless energy that was not fulfilled by wrangling her younger siblings. Secretly, Janet felt there was a greater destiny for her and that she was just biding her time.

Janet's father, Bud, when he was not working at the railroad all the live long day, was often drinking at the bars all the live long night. On weekends, there would be live music at some of the road houses. Occasionally, if someone was decent enough, the band would graciously accompany the amateur through a song or two.

Grandma Alvera & Grandpa Bud posing against the snow banks!
Once Janet got wind of that, she daydreamed about singing with the band day and night. When that fantasy was not enough to satisfy her ego, Janet then determined to make it a reality. She knew all of Patsy's songs practically by heart, had a good voice, personality, and looks to boot. First, she tried to cajole, and when that did not work, cried to my Grandma Alvera for a new dress to wear. My Grandma was a softie underneath, but with a hard-working, hard-drinking railroad man for a husband, plus the surplus kids and shortage of indoor amenities, Alvera's hard, practical exterior prevailed. "Aw, quit your pissing and moaning!" was Grandma Alvera's pet putdown to all whiners.

Undeterred, Janet decided to just make do with her best school dress, but took particular care setting her dark blonde hair in curls, and trying to sneak a little mascara and lipstick past Grandma. She chose three of her favorite Patsy Cline songs to memorize: "Walking after Midnight," "Sweet Dreams," and of course, "Crazy." Which my Aunt Janet kind of was, but that's also why I loved her so much. After all, who else, amidst all that family chaos and squalor, decided that they just had to be a country singing superstar? One often reads of dire beginnings driving certain individuals to great heights, despite the odds. Janet had great energy, but did she have talent?

Manistique bars like the Jack Pine Lodge back in the day.
Janet had much better luck with Grandpa Bud, since she was one his favorites, probably because she was just as high-spirited—and hard-headed—as he was. He not only agreed to take her to the road house, but chatted up the band leader in advance, with his praise of her becoming more effusive with each beer.

When the big night arrived, Grandpa Bud brought home a corsage to make up for the lack of a new dress. Grandma Alvera just harrumphed, since he never brought her flowers. They headed off to town at dusk, with a festive feeling in the fall air that Friday night. Once there, Bud took her around, introducing her to his fellow bar cronies and the bartender, who all agreed she was a pretty little thing. Janet imagined that this must be what it was like to be a star, like Patsy, or even a movie star, like Marilyn or Liz at a premiere. While waiting for the band to show, Bud began drinking his beers, while Janet sipped her cherry Coke and quietly went over her songs.

Manistique had a few fancy bars. too!
Finally, the band arrived and methodically began setting up. When the moment presented itself, Bud took Janet over. The bandleader, a tough old bird, took one look at Janet and could see the mix of fear and excitement in her eyes. He immediately softened and told her she could sing one song, and if she did alright, could do a second. Fair enough, he asked? She was thrilled and nodded her agreement.

So, how did she do? Depends on which family member you ask. The Gould clan can be blunt, and at times rough. While family foibles and failures can get kicked around like a football, this musical chapter in the family history seldom receives an encore.

But Janet indeed went on that night. At the end of the first set, the bandleader introduced the home girl to the locals, and they gave her a downhome boozy welcome. Janet chose "Walking after Midnight" because she figured if she got scared she could get by with sassy bravura that was the song's trademark. Janet climbed up on stage out from the dim, smoky clutter of tables and into the spotlight on stage. Looking out, the crowd seemed shadowy and distant, despite their raucous encouragement. The smoky haze created a curtain that put Janet a bit more at ease and she launched into her song. What the crowd saw was a wide-eyed girl in a modest school dress trying to appear confident and win them over. Her curls and makeup made her appear even more girlish, like a kewpie doll rather than a sultry singer. Janet gathered steam, like the little train that could, skirt swaying to the chorus and snapping her fingers to the beat. She must have done well enough, because at the end of the second set, Janet was called back upstage to sing one more tune. She sang "Crazy," her all-time favorite Patsy song. Her simple, sweet rendition won over the crowd of working class men, some out with their wives, and they responded back encouragingly as if she was their own daughter.

I'm sure this news saddened my Aunt Janet.
And Janet did go back onstage a few more times, to sing at a few more roadhouses. When the burning desire to become a singer was snuffed out, or by whom, is unclear. One sister pointed out that there was family chatter about the propriety of a father taking his teenage daughter around to get up and sing at taverns and roadhouses. Perhaps Grandpa Bud tired of having a daughter in tow, cramping his carousing style. Maybe Grandma felt like Cinderella to her own daughter, left behind and getting no help around the house. Janet’s dream probably came to a point where she had to take it to the next level, or walk away. Elvis, who also sang in school shows and honkytonks, went to Sun Records to record a song as a gift to his mother and the rest, as they say, is history. Janet never made that next step. She had energy, but did she have the drive and discipline, often cited as the mark of a true star? It seems not. Perhaps my aunt reached a point where she realized it was just a daydream and that she was lucky to have lived it out as long as she did. Whatever the circumstances, a star was not born. I wondered how Aunt Janet felt when Patsy Cline's own blazing star was extinguished in a plane crash just a few short years later.  

The show was over, but the desire for attention never stopped. I wondered if Janet's subsequent life as an adult seemed like a letdown in comparison to the dreams of her teen years. Her lifestyle was certainly easier. When Janet married Uncle Bob, she went from being dirt poor to a financially comfortable housewife. She loved spending money, showing off one of her prized possessions, a Thunderbird with bucket seats. She raised three children, instead of 13, like her mother. But emotionally, Janet seemed to have gotten short-changed in life. She refused certain family members’ suggestions to put her first-born, a severely retarded daughter, into a group home. Aunt Janet was always the hot-headed but ultimately likeable drama queen of the family. There always seemed to be fights, feuds, and flying four-letter words. Yet, there was often fun to be had and Janet was usually a straight shooter—even if she sometimes aimed low! But as time went on, it seemed like Janet had to endure more bad times than getting to enjoy life's rewards.

In the early years, Janet got through life's ups and downs by singing along to the jukebox at her favorite watering holes. Her middle years were stuck at her kitchen table, with a Miller's High Life and a menthol cigarette at the ready. Later, Janet’s great energy was made cartoonish by Parkinson's disease, all frenzied, uncontrolled movements. Her handicapped daughter’s death was a big blow, though she far exceeded her predicted life expectancy. Uncle Bob passed away in 2016, after a long sentence of early dementia, a quiet shadow of his former self.

Aunt Janet's home in its heyday.
Janet's illness made her haggard and thin, adding insult to injury of the normal course of aging. But the prettiest girl in her class gave up the ghost of vanity years ago. The dark blonde hair became snow white, her carefully penciled eyebrows a memory. For awhile, her feline eyes were still vivid, sometimes defiant in the face of following doctors or nurses’ orders… eventually, they just looked weary. By the time Janet entered her first nursing home, she could barely hold her head up; her final destination was home in Manistique. Occasionally, there were moments of her old spark, when Janet saw a relative’s grandchild or heard a funny family story. But by last Christmas, Janet’s spirits couldn’t be lifted anymore. Difficulty swallowing, much less smiling or talking, eventually took its toll. The long, tough path of Parkinson’s finally came to an end March 20, at age 72. I got to see her that night, one more time. All that was left to my aunt was a shell, but I was grateful she was comfortable. When my mother got the call later that Janet had passed, I was relieved that her suffering was over at last.

My Aunt Janet lived with Parkinson’s for over 20 years, but the quality of her life lessened at an alarming rate. My sweet dream for Aunt Janet is that she’s singing along with Patsy Cline now. I hope Janet is with family, laughing and carrying on, slapping her hands on the table in time to the music. No pissing and moaning. No more tears. No more pain, ever again.
Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet!


  1. A very moving tribute to your Aunt!!!
    Keep writing about the movies, but also write 'real life' stories as well. You have a great hidden talent that needs to be exposed. Right about all the wonderful people who were or are part of your life.

    1. Thanks, Lulu!
      My big goal is to write both real and reel life essays, but also write about how movies affected me during my life, especially early on. Check out "The King of TV 50" if you haven't already. Bill Kennedy was my first movie mentor, then Robert Osborne! Cheers, Rick