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May DayWhat is The Plan for Action? This was the prevailing question in my mother-in-law’s life. She posed it so regularly that it has its own family abbreviation: “What’s The P for A?” In her last days, she whispered this question, still barreling toward to what was next and next.

In death as in life, one needed a plan, a script, a set of goals that kept you always moving forward. The New Age dichotomy of being versus doing wasn’t much of a quandary for Jane. In her worldview, there was no difference between the two. Being was doing. Until age and illness slowed her down, she was in perpetual motion, always working to achieve the next set of goals.

Staunchly independent, never wanting to be the center of attention or a bother to anyone, she was ready to check out, and she said so. On June 17, a week after her 88th birthday, Jane attained her goal.

Since then, our family has been trying to parse the totality of Jane’s life, which is not as easy as it sounds. She was disarmingly direct about almost everything but herself. Every ounce of her energy and attention went to family and friends.

Shaped by an era that valued selflessness and sacrifice, Jane was a study in decorum and reserve—the exact opposite of our selfie culture. To examine one’s navel, to tout one’s awesomeness, to publicize one’s achievements, to make a gratuitous display of one’s emotions, to grandstand publicly—all of this was gauche to Jane.

As a result of her tendencies, we know her mostly by her devotion and generosity toward us. Jane didn’t live a day without a plan. We can’t help but wonder what The Plan was before us.

Janes college daysIn search of a few mementos to share at her memorial service, my sister-in-law Anne found a box that retraced a few of her mother’s steps. Unpacking that box provided a glimpse of the woman our family called Gaga. Oh, yes, Gaga had a life before us.

Originally, I wrote a passage describing the treasures Anne discovered: a letter notifying Jane of a scholarship to Miami University; newspaper clippings announcing her coronation as queen of May Day at Miami University; old photos of Mr. Tall Dark & Handsome—presumably the man she almost married; a group picture of Jane with her field hockey teammates at Miami; and evidence of numerous college awards and leadership roles.

That passage became very long. I stopped there, realizing how much it would have horrified her. These events were largely unmentioned, tucked away in a box for decades because they no longer mattered to Jane. “She didn’t live in the past,” said one of her boys, explaining his mother’s unwillingness to share more of her story. The telling of it seemed to bore her, but it doesn’t have the same effect on us.

jerry and janeAs a daughter-in-law, I was forever coloring outside the lines with Jane, yet she did so much for me. For over 25 years, we found common ground through our mutual love for golf, music and her eldest son Jim. To get her story right, to say it in way that would be acceptable to her is the last thing I can do for her.

I usually apologize for lengthy posts. I won’t this time, although this is surely one of my longest. If you read on, I hope you’ll find something here to inspire your life.

Here’s what I know about Jane Dallas Hammon, born in June of 1928.

Around Jane’s sixth birthday, her father, James Emerson Dallas, a World War I veteran, died of tuberculosis. She had few memories of him other than visiting him at the sanitarium, where Jane and her older brother stood outside and watched their father waving at them from a window.

Losing a husband at such a young age was a blow, but Jane’s mother forged ahead as a single mom. Even during the Great Depression, they made the best of life. They played music, sports and cards, had picnics, parties and friends. They did all the things that happy families do. Jane took piano lessons, played baseball with her brother’s friends and learned to recognize wildflowers and trees by their proper names. She knew birds by their calls and their markings.

Janes Friends

With girlfriends, Jane is second from the right.

A precocious child who advanced to the second grade straight out of kindergarten, Jane graduated from high school in 1945 at the age of 16. That summer, she received a scholarship that sent her to Miami University, where she graduated in 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Every class has an inexhaustible girl, a rising star who is involved in everything. Jane was that girl. “I was always star struck by her,” said one of her contemporaries.

Two letters found in Jane’s Miami memorabilia paint an amusing picture of Gaga as a college coed: After a particularly busy quarter, a letter arrived from her mother, full of congratulations. It ends with a gentle nudge. With so many extracurricular activities behind her, perhaps Jane could apply herself to her studies more diligently.

In another letter, Jane was summoned to a meeting with residence hall leadership. The letter closes sternly: “Please be prompt.” Is it possible that our lively Gaga—always concerned with doing the right thing—had missed a curfew?

By 1948 Jane had made a name for herself at Miami University. That year, she was awarded the Neukom Trophy, established in 1911 by the Women’s Athletic Association of Miami University to recognize the outstanding junior woman. I wasn’t around at the time, but I am certain of one thing: any award given to a woman in college athletics in 1948 was kind of a Big Deal.

Afterwards, a letter arrived from her mother. “Dear Janie,” it begins. “I just want you to know, baby, that I am proud of you, and that I think you have done a fine job. It is most gratifying to know that one’s children are making a conscientious effort to make the most of their opportunities, and it makes me very happy. Your Daddy would have been very proud of you.”

The Hammons 1962 001Shortly after her graduation from college, friends introduced her to Jerry, and they married in 1951. After that, Jane was all about her family, all the time. Jerry started a medical practice in West Milton, Ohio, and Jane worked part-time as his accountant while they raised a family of four children. Their hard work was always punctuated by pleasure: card games and sports, tailgate parties and beach vacations with nine grandchildren they adored.

As far as anyone can tell, her reluctance to mine the past wasn’t born of sorrow or angst. It was as simple as this: Jane was a product of her time, beginning her life in the 1950s, when everything was always getting better. There was no reason to look back when the future was so bright. Looking forward became a lifelong habit.

In everything, she loved to win. When other people quit, Jane stayed. We saw this over and over, especially during Jerry’s lengthy illness, which required care 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Jane was tenacious and smart, confident and strong. She had no patience with immorality, disloyalty or questionable behavior of any kind. Her script didn’t permit these errors.

What, exactly, was the script that she followed?

I suspect we found part of it on a folded piece of paper inside her Miami box. It’s a poem written in 1925 by Elizabeth Furry for the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society. Knowing Jane, I wouldn’t be surprised if she memorized it, but it makes no difference whether she did or not—because she embodied it.

The Torch

The God of Great Endeavor gave me a torch to bear.
I lifted it high above me in the dark and murky air,
And straightway, with loud hosannas, the crowd proclaimed its light,
And followed me as I carried my torch through the starless night.
‘Til drunk with the people’s praises, and mad with vanity,
I forgot ’twas the torch that they followed,
And fancied they followed me.

Then slowly my arm grew weary upholding the shining load,
And my tired feet went stumbling over the dusty road,
And I fell—with the torch beneath me. In a moment the light was out,
When lo’ from the throng a stripling sprang forth and with a mighty shout,
Caught up the torch as it smoldered, and lifted it high and tall
‘Til, fanned by the winds of heaven, it fired the souls of all.

As I lay in the darkness, the feet of the trampling crowd
Passed over and far beyond me, its paeans proclaiming aloud,
And I learned in the deepening twilight, the glorious verity,
’Tis the torch that the people follow,
Whoever the bearer may be.

Jane had an elegant plan for her life—one that left its mark on us. We’re savers and investors, packrats and recyclers, athletes and musicians. We save our cottage cheese containers; we re-use our aluminum foil. (Or some of us do.) We love theatre, opera and classical music, although it’s unlikely that any of us will ever have her encyclopedic knowledge of it.

Gaga has passed the torch to us. Let the Plan for Action carry on.

P.S. For friends who are reading this for the first time, you can find Jane’s obituary at Kindred Funeral Home. Although it isn’t necessary, memorial contributions can be made to The Jerry L. and Jane D. Hammon Scholarship Fund at the Milton Union Alumni Association, P.O. Box 383, West Milton, Ohio, 45383.

Life is short. Wear the good stuff.