Wednesday, March 22, 2006
THE SCULPTOR'S SECOND WIFE
Jeanette Caouette Scriver Chase has died of rheumatoid arthritis and simple old age in a nursing home in Grants Pass, Oregon. She was Bob Scriver’s second wife, the one who helped him make the transition from music to sculpture. The relationships among former wives are unpredictable, dependent on individual personalities and the circumstances and times of the marriage. Bob was a problematic husband, one of those larger than life personalities who gets that way by sucking up the energy of everyone around him. I sometimes joked I would start a support group for the four of us who were formal wives and others who never quite made it to that status.
Bob’s first marriage was a catastrophe -- both persons too young, a shotgun wedding when neither was prepared for a child, and two families of origin who were not supportive. Maybe the two fathers were, but not the mothers.
Jeanette and I could not be more different and we were from entirely different eras, but Bob’s problem with us was the same: we were strong creative women who could propel him where he wanted to go, but he couldn’t quite control us and was sometimes afraid of us. So relating to him was sometimes ecstatic when it all balanced and then demonic when we were in pitched battles over who was in charge.
Jeanette was born in Morinville, Alberta, a little French-Canadian town north of Edmonton. She was the oldest and the first of her generation, very much cherished by a huge extended family. Her father ran a barbershop and pool hall and she was his favorite, so his patrons were also among her admirers. Her father’s family was easy-going, music-loving, full of jokes.
French-Canadian Alphonse/Gaston jokes (as remembered and told by Bob, who loved them.) The two are nailing shingles onto a roof. “Alphonse, why are you throwing half the nails away?” “I have to, Gaston. The heads are on the wrong ends.” “But Alphonse, those are for the other side of the roof!”
Alphonse and Gaston go fishing in a rented row boat. “Alphonse, this place is such a wonderful spot for fish. You better mark a big X on the side of the boat to show where it is.” “Gaston, don’t be stupid. We might not get the same boat next time!”
My favorite: Alphonse and Gaston are arranging to meet but concerned that they might miss each other. “Alphonse, if I get there first, I’ll make a blue mark on the wall.” “Right, Gaston. And if I get there first, I’ll rub it out.”
Jeanette’s mother’s family came to Alberta after some years in Argentina and were a different kind of French: thrifty, religious, careful in all ways. Jeanette’s mother never warmed to her but was absorbed in Helene, a very pretty little girl who sang and danced. There was a third daughter, whom Jeanette claimed as “hers.” But she died of rheumatic fever. The impact on the whole family was deep. And there was a son Maurice, born late, whom Jeanette also claimed. She loved to manage men, thought they were all boys who would go astray without a firm hand.
Even now, old ranchers and townsmen will remark to me that they were fond of Jeanette. She flirted with them all, danced with many while Bob played with his band, and they thought that Bob worked her too hard and didn’t appreciate her. She had a business making custom cowboy shirts and buckskin jackets. A woman contacted me recently because she had been cleaning out her closets and came across the buckskin jacket she had bought from Jeanette and saved because it was fringed and beaded by Blackfeet. The label in it gave Jeanette’s name and “Browning, Montana,” and Google offered one of my blog entries mentioning her.
Bob married Jeanette’s family to the extent that long after the divorce in 1959 we visited San Rafael (1967) and found Helene (the beautiful sister as opposed to Jeanette’s intelligent sister) and Maurice. These two sibs became the models for Bob’s small cluster of religious scuptures: first a commissioned corpus for a cross and two busts of Maurice (one expressionistic in character as Jesus and one severely classical as himself); then a Pieta when Bob’s daughter (about Maurice’s age) died; and finally a huge project that proposed a statue of Jesus on top of a pyramidal peace monument -- rather transparently intended to give peace to Bob Scriver. Helene and Maurice became Bob’s emotional center in his last years, not always comfortably since they could not make the world right for him, as he begged them to do.
Jeanette, on the other hand, “married” Bob’s first wife and his two children by her. Unable to have children herself, she dedicated herself to the two small and chubby kidlets and did her best to be their mother. (Their blood mother went on to have four more children with a second husband.) She stuck by the daughter until she died of colon cancer in 1967, but had a harder time with the son who also died of cancer.
At one time this sort of dynamic was hidden and considered embarrassing, but now I’ve seen the same patterns so many times in so many families, that I see no reason to hide them. Still, there were uniquenesses. It was the daughter’s death that had three wives sitting around a kitchen table, arguing amiably about who got stuck in the mud on a duck-hunting expedition and then, more seriously, what should be the fate of the daughter’s children.
Jeanette came back to Browning several times, briefly visiting the museum and signing the guest book. Bob always ran away and locked himself in his little house, as though she might tear strips off him. She brought her harmless and sweet husband, Norman, along with her. Bob never tried to make peace except while his daughter was dying.
So I went the other way. I came back often and hung around every chance I got. It took a while for Bob to stay in the shop when he saw me, but then he grew used to it and would come out to meet me, unexpectedly dumping a pet badger or bobcat into my arms.
When Bob died in 1999, I began to research for the biography of him he’d always asked me to write, but then interfered with so much that I couldn’t do it. When I called Helene DeVicq, she gave me Jeanette’s email address. It turned out that Jan Chase, as she was known then, had a computer that “her Norman” had given her as a “toy.” She had just returned to her house after a terrible bout of bad health.
When Norman died of cancer, Jan’s health also came apart. She fell and shattered a leg and rheumatoid arthritis twisted her hands. After operations that left her hallucinating for months from the anesthetics, she went into a nursing home, not expected to live. To pay bills she authorized someone to sell all her furniture, with some reservations. One thing NOT to be sold was the classic bust of Maurice, her brother, which her mother had owned. But it was sold to some stranger who had no idea what it was, offending Maurice to the heart. The computer was not sold. It’s value was recognized, while the sculpture was just a tschotske.
After a time Jeanette was moved to a care home where she began to recover and eventually was able to move back to her house. She bought a bed, a rocking chair, and a very few other things and engaged someone to come clean and otherwise help out. She had sold one of her paintings for enough money to pay a carpenter to build-in a breakfast nook. A food pantry operated out of her pool cabana. She was able to keyboard with one finger, pecking out telegraphy and forwarding all the awful stuff people constantly forward.
We corresponded almost two years before she declared it was too painful, that I’d made her look at things she’d resolved never to think of again, and that there was no point to it. She ripped a lot of photos out of her albums and sent them to me, including a photo of her cameras! (She was a professional-level photographer, either learning with Bob or teaching him.)
But anyway, I’d double-crossed her by repeating to her family some of the increasingly dangerous episodes in her health while she was alone. She thought she could control death and that it would be sudden. Instead, she died helpless in that nursing home in Oregon -- her cherished house sold to pay the bill.
I celebrate Jeanette’s drive to exist and prevail, her energy towards goals not always her own, and her determination to have things “right.” Before she asked me not to call anymore, I could hear her while on the phone directing the person making up her bed how to properly place the pillow and how far the topsheet should be folded over the blanket. She could no longer do it herself. She was a lesson and a caution. I hope she made Saint Peter spell her name properly when she got to the Pearly Gates. I have no doubt she was welcome.