“I am so jealous of you,” I whispered across the church pew, back in the days when we could belt out Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee at the top of our off-key lungs without worrying about cross-pollinating covid.
Jack smiled, knowing exactly what I was talking about.
Every Sunday, I jockeyed for position in the back quarter of the right-hand side of the sanctuary, my ever-loving spouse always on my left so I could be closer to the Peters family on my right. Sometimes, when the whole gang was there, they’d take up two pews, one in front of the other. They could all fit in one, but my Christian spirit only spreads so thin. If I gave up my God-given right to my personal pew, I wouldn’t be able to make faces at Matthew sitting in the shadow of his maxi-me, gentle giant of a grandfather.
Karen and Jack grew up in Leonia. A teenage love story that lasted; they married young, reproduced early and raised two daughters with dueling personalities but similar senses of service. Kristen is a middle school teacher and mother of Madison and Matthew, a funny kid who looks, acts, and loves all things firefighter like my own son, Max, had at his age. Maryellen, is a New York City hospital nurse who fearlessly fought through the darkest days of the Covid virus. She, too, has a girl and a boy, Maesyn and Jackson. Kristen and Maryellen’s spouses are both firefighters, and one is also a police officer. Jack, a retired Leonia cop, was, among other things, a volunteer firefighter for 47 years. Both Karen and Jack have been active in our church and community their whole adult lives.
This is a family who knows the meaning of giving back, paying it forward, and doing the right thing.
And though being a cop, being a firefighter, being a pillar of the community, was a huge part of who Jack Peters was, that’s not who Jack was to me.
I wasn’t in his fraternity. I wasn’t his confidante. I wasn’t the girl whose pigtails he pulled in algebra class. But, I was his buddy.
We’d sit next to each other at church meetings when we both served as elders, he a little less irreverent than I. But, he knew how to keep things in perspective. In the midst of the most contentious of conversations, he’d give me a surreptitious nudge, directing my eyes to the phone he held on his lap, offering me live updates of the Mets games.
All the while, he was a die-hard Yankee fan.
For years, I watched that man with those four grandchildren of his, green envy oozing out of my pores, knowing that I would never have what he has. He lived a lifetime in Leonia and his children and grandchildren live one block and one town away. The four cousins, ranging from age 11 to 6, have no idea how lucky they are to be in such close proximity to each other, but more importantly, to their grandparents.
“Can’t make it, the kids are coming over,” I heard Jack say once or twice, or a hundred times since the oldest was born.
Jack, just three years older than I am, had the good fortune to become a grandfather back when I was still in the throes of raising my first go-round.
“I’m so jealous of you,” I whispered across the pew as my ever-zealous spouse elbow-jabbed me in the ribs and recited The Lord’s Prayer.
“There’s nothing better,” Jack said, pulling one of his blessings close.
Jack, on paper, was a perfect person. I’m wise enough to know that, in real life, there’s no such thing. But, he perfectly portrayed a person filled with compassion. Honor. Pride. Loyalty. And something we all need a little bit more of.
I adored Jack Peters.
And I will miss him terribly. But, in his death he left me the gift of hope. Hope that, like him, when I am blessed with my own little grandkiddies climbing on my lap, no matter what faux pas I’ve committed, no matter what words misspoken, no matter what actions incongruous, that those little faces will love me unconditionally, fully and forever, carrying a piece of my truest self courageously and confidently out into the world.