This is Jean Eileen:
I obviously never met her.
But I remember her because her sister, my grandmother Betty, made a special point when I was young to tell me about her and to connect her to me.
On Tuesday, I had the chance to connect her in the same way to my eldest daughter.
My daughter became a Spark this year. For those unfamiliar with the Girl Guide movement, that’s the program for girls 5-6 year’s old.
When you turn seven you become a Brownie. After that it’s Girl Guides, Pathfinders and so forth as part of a truly rich heritage of wonderful programming for girls and women.
When I was younger, Sparks didn’t exist. You started as a Brownie at age six (this sort of matters in a moment for context). Sometime in the past 20 years or so, they added Sparks for the even younger set.
Anyway, my eldest has thrived in the program and it is one of the highlights of her week.
This Tuesday, the troop was working on their “The World Around Me” keeper (that’s a badge) and the girls were asked to bring in something of their heritage. Examples were: pictures, a piece of clothing, a cultural piece that the girls know about and could use as part of a show and tell of their ancestry.
I knew it was the perfect moment to share Jean Eileen’s memory with my daughter.
We went to my jewelry box and got this:
And I told my daughter the story of the pin.
I told her about how I became a Brownie when I was six – the same age she is now. I explained there were no Sparks back then, so Brownies was the first step in the Guiding program.
I told her about when my Grandmother – my mother’s mother – came to visit us here in Canada from South Africa after I became a Brownie.
She brought me this pin.
She sat me down and she told me how the pin had belonged to her little sister Jean, who had also been a Brownie in England when they were children.
She talked about how much Jean had loved Brownies and how excited she was that I would now get to be a part of something her sister had loved so much.
She gave me the pin as she told me about how Jean Eileen had died at age seven of polio.
She talked about how much she missed and loved her sister and how she wanted me – her only granddaughter, who was now a Brownie – to have her sister’s pin.
At least, I’m pretty sure that’s sort of what might have been said. I was six, after all. In any event, that’s the sentiment I remember.
I don’t remember asking questions, although I’m sure I must have.
My daughter certainly did. She asked about polio and how someone her age died. I explained that medicine today is much better than medicine when Jean Eileen was a little girl and that there is now a vaccine for polio and that she’s been vaccinated – one of those needles she hates so much – and that prevents that illness.
I also explained that sharing her story – like I was doing, like she would do with her troop – was how you keep the memory of those you love alive.
I explained that my grandmother – her great-grandmother – had given me the pin because that was how she shared a bit of her sister with me. And now I was sharing that bit of her sister – her great-great aunt – with her.
We practiced the number of “greats” before “aunt”.
I explained that she was now the fourth generation of Guides in our family.
And so along with Jean Eileen’s pin, she also brought a picture of her grandmother as a Brownie in Africa:
And me as a Girl Guide here in Ottawa, Canada getting my All Round Cord:
I pinned the pin to her sash, explaining how this was an exception so she wouldn’t lose it, gave her the photos, and we headed to the meeting.
I explained to the leaders that she had a 1930s Brownie pin, that was very dear to me, and gave them an overview of story to prompt her if needed.
It was a hit with her troop. One of the parents who was staying for the meeting told me about how her mother had had polio and so she could answer any questions the girls might have about that.
I was told my daughter – Guiding generation four – did great.
I like to think my grandmother – wherever she is – is smiling. Another generation will remember her sister. Her voice lives on.