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Tribute to Jean and the Writing Group: The End of an Era

They probably weren’t all sitting around the table the first day I walked through the door of the library 15 years ago, but that’s how I remember it. I had seen an ad in the paper and then showed up with the hope of connecting with some like-minded people who enjoyed writing. There they were: Grace Hammond, Joan Shaw, Gene Ackley, Barbara Belknap, Joyce Engel, Fran Cassidy, John Hendricks. And Jean Miller. In some ways she seemed like the immutable center of the group, strong, capable, steady. She was always excited about her life even as she weathered the death of her husband and other losses she chose not to share. She seemed to live in the moment with unfailing optimism, and that inspired me.

She lived with her beloved dog Boots, who had come into her life when she was in her 80s. Most people in their 80s would not get another pet. But Jean didn’t hesitate and Boots adored her and went everywhere with her. She talked last summer about being away for a couple weeks in September, maybe to do a long hiking trip, but said she would be back by the end of the month. I looked forward to seeing her again before I migrated south for the winter.

And then I got the news— she was gone, just like that. When an 87-year-old person dies, it is not a tragedy. But what a loss. Jean still seemed to have decades of life ahead of her. I know that would be impossible, but she did seem invincible to me. For her to leave us so abruptly, it still shocks me.

Jean liked to write stories with a moral at the end, and she liked to punctuate them by saying, “True story!”

But Jean’s best true story was her own life, and I encouraged her many times to write those stories and publish them. How she and Dwight made a go of running a ski area as a young couple. Her husband’s crazy schemes that she seemed to both appreciate and also shrug off in a philosophical way. Her hiking adventures and the many mountains she had climbed, here in Colorado and around the world. I often thought—I guess we all have to get old, but that’s the way to do it.

We all grow old, become disabled, are faced with endings and losses. When I walked through the door that first day, I was the kid in the group. Now people look at me and I know what they see—I am now that “older” woman. Jean never seemed to care what people saw. She only seemed to care about what she did, what was possible, how she felt, who she loved.

This summer we had talked about mutual friends who had moved away, to be cared for by relatives in distant parts of the country. Jean was pragmatic.

“I’m glad my children have never pressured me to do that,” she said.

“Not that it would do any good.”

Jean was a mountain woman to her core—there was no place she would rather be.

I came initially for the writing, hoping to get some feedback, improving, sharing. But what kept me coming week after week over the last 15 years was the people, the honor I felt in their presence.

They were true pioneers in this mountain county: tough, resilient, aging with grace and dignity and good humor.

They were my role models, my surrogate cousins and aunts and uncles.

I will never stop missing them.