Janette, Jamie, Rena, Ruth and Mother Martha

The younger Fleagle siblings with their mother, Martha Jane (Harner) Fleagle.

The younger Fleagle siblings with their mother, Martha Jane (Harner) Fleagle. Contrary to labeling on the back of the photograph, the young man is James, not Ben.

This photo, taken at the Colonial Park house, is of the younger Fleagle siblings as they repose with their mother on the grass “on grandmother’s side of the house”, as my Aunt Miriam confirmed. I guess she can tell because the house had two entrances at the front end, where her Uncle Ben lived, and one entrance at the back end, where her grandparents lived. Pictured from left are Janette, James, Rena, mother Martha Jane (Harner) Fleagle, and Ruth. On the back in pencil is written “Aunt Janette, Ruth, Uncle Ben,” but I checked with Miriam recently and she affirmed my conviction that the young man here is indeed “Jamie”, which is what the family called her father when he was young.

The fact that Martha and Rena are not identified makes me imagine several possible scenarios. Since both of these photos came to me in a big box of things that seem to have belonged to Rena, I at first thought maybe Rena wrote the names, and it stood to reason that if she did, then the fact that she included the words ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ meant she probably had labeled the photo for some one of her children or a niece or nephew. But how could she mistake James for Ben – to my lights, at least, her two brothers never looked similar at any point in their lives – and why would she omit her mother from the list? It makes more sense if Rena gave the photo to someone of a younger generation and that person later listed the photo’s subjects, because mistaking two uncles is a lot more likely than mistaking one’s own brothers, but again why would the recipient not include their grandmother? It’s passing strange. One answer might be that the photo was given to Rena by her mother, who did not see any reason to include herself or the person she was giving the photo to, and who might at an advanced age have simply written the name of one son even while thinking of the other – even young parents do things like that. But in that case, the words ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’ don’t make any sense. It’s one of those mysteries that will give future generations endless fun on winter nights pondering.

I’ve never known much about these sisters, even though after poring over so many old family photos in the last few years I’ve learned to recognize their young faces. But there is a story of Janette that the family likes to tell because it is so sad. I’ll tell it here because as far as I know I do not have any better photograph of Janette. Now that they’re all departed, I suppose it’s okay to say that I’ve heard it said numerous times that Janette, the youngest child, was everyone’s favorite.

I’ll digress to tell you why she was certainly my own favorite. She’s the only one of these Fleagle siblings that I ever had any communication with, and even then I never met her face to face. In 1980, upon the completion of my high school education here in Seattle (Bellevue), I was given a list of relatives back east to whom it would be appropriate for me to send invitations to the graduation ceremony, even though there was no expectation that any of them could attend. I didn’t know who Aunt Janette was, but I sent her the formal invitation with the fancy lettering. A while later, I received a card in the mail that had some congratulatory sentiment printed on it, and Aunt Janette, now in an assisted living facility and enfeebled by old age, had written a long, personal note that completely filled both halves of the inside of the card. But it was entirely illegible. Not a half-dozen words of it could I make out. Even now, I get choked up thinking of the care and thoughtfulness that went into that scribbled message, which no one on earth ever deciphered.

Janette fell in love when she was in college at Cornell. A young man named Worthly – his first name? his last? – came to Cornell from a coffee plantation in South Africa, and Janette and he formed – I think the phrase is ‘a strong attachment’. But he was called back to South Africa to manage the operation there, and even though, in versions of the story I have heard, he asked her to marry him and come with him, she believed it was her duty as the youngest daughter to stay and take care of her parents in their old age. I don’t know how it could have unfolded that she still had a choice about it at the moment when they stood close together on the pier as his ship was about to depart, perhaps with hands pressed together, assailed by who knows what admixture of fear and hope and sadness, but the story goes that despite his final request that she come with him now and be his bride, she reaffirmed her resolve to remain stateside for the nonce. It took all the fortitude she had. And so having extracted a promise from her that she would join him at some later time, he turned to go. And she stood and watched him go, and she said to him in her mind – and perhaps she even spoke the words aloud in hopes that they might fly and overtake him as the distance between them grew and filled with the din of gulls and ships’ horns and the sharp calls of the stevedores – “if you turn around and look back, I will go with you.” But he did not turn around and he did not look back. Her words, if they ever even left her lips, never reached him. And she never went to South Africa, for reasons maybe no one knows. Her father died in 1935, her mother not until 1948. And Aunt Janette, who everyone agreed always possessed an uncommon grace, lived out her days as a single woman, beloved of all who knew her but never finding a man who would capture her heart the way her South African Worthly did. She died in 1987 at the age of 94. Her given name, Martha Janette, held her mother’s entire given name within it.

I kept the card Janette sent me for decades, and I treasured the thought of her persevering to write all through it with her wobbly hand, this woman who had once so disastrously let circumstances prevent her from giving sufficient voice to the truth in her heart, then entrusting her message to the envelope, the envelope to the post. Even though I couldn’t read her words, her message rang out sweet and clear. – mdf

Image archive ID:
20161002-005_youngerFleaglesAndMartha

About the physical photograph:
Mounted on cardboard.
Written in pencil on back:
30 [or 50]
AUNT JANETTE
RUTH
UNCLE BEN

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