I first met Ann in 1979 when she participated in a focus group in New York City sponsored by Butterick Publishing; she was one of a group assessing a proposal I developed for a new textbook. After that session, I liked her so much that when my next project involved her field of expertise, I promptly suggested to my boss that I spend a week with Ann in Oklahoma learning about childcare workers and daycare centers. Lucky for me, Ann said yes and we soon spent a week traveling the region, meeting her colleagues and friends, and, as a bonus, shopping the antique and thrift stores and eating, eating, eating (including the pickled okra). For those of you who know Ann, no surprise that this was high on her agenda (and mine, too) which is in some part one of the reasons I got along so well with her. That week-long visit was the beginning of a life-long friendship and when I first met her husband Jess. When I was introduced to the handsome, fun-loving sweetheart of a guy (who all those years ago swept Ann off her feet and out of Brooklyn), I remember thinking — this must be some guy. This guy got independent, strong-willed, family-oriented, Italian-to-her-bones Ann to move to the middle of the country where the only dark-complected folks like Ann were Native Americans.
“Well how-DEE!” he’d sing into the receiver, “How ARE you girl? And how’s that husband of yours and those twins?” and I’d be engaged in conversation reluctantly (at first), filling him in, before speaking to Ann. And as was Jesse’s way — he’d listen carefully, offer his down-home reassurances that whatever I was worried about would be fine, and then he’d start to tell me — you guessed it — a story.
Jess was a storyteller at heart which probably made him so good at the insurance business. Fundamentally he just wanted to connect with his fellow human beings on this planet through stories. Stories were his way of reaching out to touch someone. And that was how we connected. He wanted to tell you his stories and he wanted you to tell him yours. Years went by in this way — cards, occasional visits, phone conversations and Ann would be at a meeting, or at the store, or shopping and Jess would carry on. But in 2008, when I decided I wanted to surprise Ann for her birthday in March, Jesse and I were bound in a conspiracy, and oh, what fun he had.
For weeks we would have secret phone calls strategizing how to put one over on Ann. Jess would say, “Now why don’t we...” do this or that and I’d say, “No, that won’t work...what if she...?” and we’d plan to talk again and figure out more next time. All along Jesse kept saying, “Now if I don’t tell Ann SUM-ONE is coming, she’s going to KEEL-me.”
I tried to tell him that I didn’t want her to go on a cleaning frenzy; that I didn’t care about any mess; that I could just move whatever piles were on the guest room bed ---but he was adamant.
“She’s gonna KEEL-me if I don’t give her some notice.”
So, I became a decades-old friend they hadn’t seen in a lifetime, Barry Yellin who was coming to Oklahoma to visit his grandson and spend the night with his old buddy Jesse. (Just now I wanted to call Jess, to check with him about whether or not Barry was a friend from his back-East insurance days, but then I remembered I can’t call him; he’s gone.)
I swore Jess to secrecy, made him promise not to tell a soul because I was afraid he’d slip and over the course of the month of phone calls he was mixing up details and such. But when the time came., there he was to pick me up from the airport and to head on back to Chickasha and lo and behold, when he called out to Ann to “com’on out and say hell-lo to Barry!”
Ann took a look at me and went totally blank. Jess and I couldn’t stop laughing at her startled face, “Ann, it’s me!” I said, afraid she hadn’t recognized me, but from that moment on, we were all smiles. We had a lovely weekend and true to his word, Jesse hadn’t told a soul. Everyone I met was floored and amazed that Jesse hadn’t spilled the beans to anyone.
After I left that weekend, pleased to have pulled off the surprise and had such a terrific time, from that moment on, whenever I called Jess would sing out, “Well, HELL-lo BEAR-REE!” into the phone; it was our special joke and he spent the next year re-telling the saga of how we fooled Ann and surprised her.
Jesse O’Bar Jr was a stubborn cuss and when his health issues with his shoulders began to seriously worry Ann, I did my best to argue, plead, coax, and cajole him into seeing the doctor, consider the surgery and more, but he wouldn’t budge. When I saw him I was shocked at how tilted his head was and how limited his use of his arms seemed to be, but he was cheerful as ever and adamant as ever. He worried that “letting those doctors mess-around” was going to make things worse. Just as he’d adjusted to his retirement; adjusted to giving up golf; he’d adjusted to these physical limitations.
Selfishly, I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness his passing. I’m happy to keep the memories of that last visit to Chickasha to celebrate Ann.