When you’re a kid, there’s this concept of the “cool house” where everyone hangs out. I was fortunate as a teen growing up in Durango in that we had several such homes. Places where we could keep ourselves entertained in a what was, to many of my friends, a boring and sometimes downright hostile town.
For the most part, the parents at those houses were distant figures, keeping out of our way. Old before their time adults who didn’t know how to or care to interact with us at all as we undertook whatever activity we assigned to that particular home. We had the house for day-time parties and games, where the parents were often traveling, or where we could hunker down in the basement and play games when they were home. We had the house where we could listen to music late into the night and experiment with underage drinking in a relatively safe environment while the parents slept like the dead at the far end of the house.
And we had Eric’s house.
If we were going to camp out around a television and watch movies or read comic books, 95% of the time, it was going to be at Eric’s, tucked into the narrow den in what had at one point been a garage. The walls were covered with movie poster and a variety of geek artifacts abounded. It was here that we would have “Schlock Nights,” binging on 6-8 crappy genre movies in a row, all night long, fueled by Dr. Pepper and Doritos.
And no matter the time of night, if you had to go the bathroom, you’d wander through the living room and find Eric’s mom, Jan, watching TV or puttering around in her housecoat. She had a problem with her back, as I recall. That meant she slept in shifts rather than straight through the night.
Jan was something of an artist. And a sci-fi geek. And political. And unlike my other friend’s parents, she engaged with me. She didn’t talk down to me. I don’t remember if we had any long conversations, but we had innumerable small ones about all kinds of topics. One in particular, about the TV show The Prisoner when some network began re-broadcasting it, stuck with me particularly well for some reason. When I made my stage debut as Mr. Bumble in Oliver, she came to the show with Eric and proclaimed I was a better actor in that role than Harry Secombe. She even came to my first wedding. Jan was, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of my favorite adults.
She had a mysterious past. A single mom who raised her only son while teaching on the Navajo reservation before moving to Durango. Apparently she travelled around the world before that. If you told me today she’d been a spy, I’d likely believe you. I certainly have no reason to doubt that.
Eric and I remained in touch, despite living thousands of miles away. I would still ask about Jan, who moved down the street from him in Cleveland Heights over 20 years ago. I was aware her health was failing. None of us live forever, and she had always seemed a little too rare for this world. So I suppose I wasn’t too surprised to learn of her passing peacefully yesterday with her son at her side at the end.
The world is a grayer, more mundane place for her loss.
Jan showed me that it was possible to live life on your own terms. That being an adult didn’t mean you had to stop being weird. That encouraging creative passions and nurturing kindness might not make you rich, but it could give you so much more instead. She was an inspiration and I loved her.
And she’ll be missed.