Have A Cup of Tea and Keep Going
I visited Jessie in her house in Lompoc on May 23, 2016. We talked about life and loss, the importance of family and writing, and the pleasures of gardening and a good cup of tea.
JFK: My name is Jessie Ann Stewart and I was Fabing and now I’m Koenig. I was born in Anadarko, Oklahoma. It’s just north of Fort Sill, originally a 19th century army post, and about fifty miles southwest of Oklahoma City. I was born January 9, 1929.
CCW: Is that where you spent your childhood?
JFK: Yes. I came to Lompoc when I was fifteen years old, in 1944.
CCW: Before we move on to Lompoc, let’s just focus for a minute on your childhood days in Oklahoma. Did you have any kind of a religious background?
JFK: No. I kinda went to the Baptist church off and on, the Methodist church off and on, when I was a kid.
CCW: What did your father do?
JFK: My dad was a jack of all trades and I guess you could say a master of none. We lived on a farm for a while. He was a chef, a fireman, a carpenter, and before my time, when my mother and dad first married, he was a policeman. He was a veteran of the First World War.
CCW: And your mom, did she just work in the house?
CCW: Did you have brothers and sisters?
JFK: There were six of us kids. I’m the only one left. My favorite sister died about fourteen years ago. We were really close. That hurt. I was lost. She lived in Oxnard, but she came up here, or I went down there, all the time. We traveled together. We used to talk all the time. Her name was Gala.
CCW: Oh. I’m so sorry. That’s rough. My sister died sixteen years ago, and I still miss her so much. How do you navigate through a loss like that? What helped you get through it?
JFK: Well, I have my kids. They were close to her too, so we all kinda kept together. But it was hard. It was really hard. And I lost a daughter about ten years ago. Alcohol. And a seventeen-year-old grandson about a month before my daughter. And then my son just passed away last month. He had cancer. Oh, that one really hurt. He had cancer about five years, and he kinda beat it, but it came back.
CCW: What was his name? And your daughter’s name?
JFK: He was Kimberly. Kim Fabing. All my children are Fabings. And my daughter was Ginger. Ginger Ann. She was a beautiful girl. Talented and everything. But the alcohol got her.
CCW: You’ve experienced a lot of painful loss. Oh, it must be so hard. But it looks like you just somehow put one foot in front of the other and keep going?
JFK: You have to. And I have other children. Anyway, with my son, he had been here, and we were gonna go out and have fish dinner somewhere with his wife, and he was joking around, laughing, planning a trip to Las Vegas. And then a month or two later, he died. I didn’t even know he was that sick. I thought he had it licked. He knew but he didn’t tell me. His kids knew. But nobody told me. It was a shock. He was sixty-one. That was a hard one for me.
CCW: Oh. I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how rough that would be. But it sounds like he wanted you to be happy and not to worry about him. I bet you have a lot of really good memories of time you had with him.
JFK: We were close.
CCW: Well, I know it’s not easy. I think about this stuff a lot. I think life in so many ways is about change and loss, and it takes a lot of resilience to keep on moving and not to get bogged down in sadness.
JFK: I see some people who never get over it. But you have to. You have to carry on. It takes a while, of course. And you never forget ‘em. I read this thing a few years ago, “People are only dead if they are forgotten.” That’s when they die, when they are forgotten. We don’t forget loved ones.
CCW: I guess you never stop feeling sad and missing them but you can’t let that sorrow become the dominant theme of your life.
JFK: And you always have your moments. Even with my sister gone so many years, I sometimes think, “What would we be doing now?” And then my second husband, he passed away. We were only married five months when he passed away. That was 1981. He was only fifty-two years old. He had an aneurysm.
CCW: You’ve weathered a lot of loss. Did your first husband pass away?
JFK: No, we were divorced in 1962, and he married again. He passed away a few years ago. That one hurt me because of my kids. We’d been divorced for about thirty-seven years when he died, but I felt bad for my kids. So that’s how it affected me.
CCW: You raised the kids on your own?
JFK: Well, I had child support and all that, and I had a lot of help from the Boys’ Club. I had eight boys and two girls. We lived right across the street from the Boys' Club.
CCW: So as a woman who has raised ten kids, gone through a lot of loss and challenging things, what advice would you give to a younger person who is trying to live life and figure it out?
JFK: For one thing, and it hit me too late, don’t let anybody control you. Stand up for what you believe, and don’t be embarrassed by it. I was embarrassed. Sometimes I would be embarrassed for others, and sometimes for myself. So I say, stand up for what you believe and don’t be afraid to say it. A lot of people are controlled and they don’t know it, even.
CCW: Do you think that’s something women, in particular, fall victim to?
JFK: Yes. I’ve seen that a lot. And not just from spouses. You can be controlled from somebody else. And sometimes you don’t realize it. I thought I was a nice person. I was trying to please. With my first husband, I didn’t know how he was controlling me until later.
CCW: I think sometimes we just don’t believe in ourselves enough.
JFK: I had no self-esteem. He put me down a lot. That’s what controlling people do. They put you down. They’re better than you. I just put up with it.
CCW: I think a lot of women will recognize this experience. I wonder: how did you finally snap out of it?
JFK: He left with another woman.
CCW: Yikes. Well, that’s a pretty clear message.
JFK: And it didn’t bother me at all! I felt relieved. And then I went on and raised my kids, and I had happy kids.
CCW: Sometimes you don’t even realize how bad things are until afterwards, and you wonder why you put up with it so long.
JFK: I was divorced for about seventeen years when I met Mr. Koenig. We were together five years but we were married for five months. We were in San Francisco, and that's where he died, suddenly, right on the street. The doctor said he was dead before he hit the sidewalk. Fast. But we had five good years. I think about him every day. There’s always something to remind you. I think, “Where would we be? What would we be doing?”
CCW: What’s an average day for you now?
JFK: Actually, some days are pretty boring. I do my gardening. I love to do garden work. And I do my house. I do puzzle books and solitary cards, play scrabble, and of course I read...
CCW: And do your kids come by and visit you?
JFK: Yes. Two of my sons. Anywhere from 8:30 to 12 they might stay. And my daughter-in-law came by yesterday, brought me some vegetables from her garden. My youngest son takes me to the garden center to buy plants for my yard. And grand-kids come to visit, although not too many of ‘em anymore. I’m happy. Whatever I can get, I take.
CCW: You look great. You seem young for your years.
JFK: When I had three kids, the doctor said having kids will keep you young. And I had ten.
CCW: What do you feel most proud of in your life?
JFK: My children. That’s the number one thing in my whole life. My family.
CCW: You came to Lompoc when you were fifteen. You came because your dad was transferred?
JFK: No. My mother and dad were divorced. My mother had a boyfriend that was in the army. She came here, and then my sisters and I came. That was in 1944.
CCW: Do you have any memories of Lompoc as it was then?
JFK: I remember seeing soldiers from Camp Cooke sometimes. My mother worked in a café right around the corner from the USO building on Walnut, and my sister worked at the snack counter, and we used to go in and watch movies with the soldier. The Salvation Army men and women looked after us. We didn’t really talk to the soliders, but I remember seeing them. And there were parades, the guys in uniforms with guns. The town was pretty small. Anadarko was small, but Lompoc was even smaller. I still like a small town. I’m not one for big cities.
CCW: Does Lompc still feel small to you?
JFK: Not so small as it was, but actually no matter what happens, Lompoc seems like a small town ‘cause time in this town just goes round and round, with so many constants and memories, so many relations and connections. My granddaughter met her husband here, and her husband was my best friend's grandson. My mother used to live in that little house right back there in the 1950's. It seems no matter how big this town gets, everyone's related in some way, and something about it doesn't change.
All my children were born here. I have a daughter in San Diego, a son in Santa Barbara, and one in Texas. The rest are right here. I’ve been very fortunate. I used to think I wanted to live in Santa Barbara, but I got over that. Lompoc is just a good place to be. I like it here. I like the atmosphere of the whole town. Like I said, everything kinda goes round and round, and no matter how many people come in, to me it’s still a small town.
CCW: Have you lived here straight through since 1944, or did you go away and come back?
JFK: With my second husband, we were gone about two years in Arizona and San Francisco. Then I came back.
CCW: What is your source of strength? What do you draw upon that helps you get through hard times.
JFK: I don’t know. I don’t really have a religious faith. But I get by. And I have a lot of appreciation. A lot of that.
CCW: Can you tell me about a turning point in your life when you had to make a big choice, and everything changed?
JFK: When I got divorced, with all those kids…that was scary. His wife didn’t want ‘em. And I did. I guess that was more or less like a new life for me.
And then of course with every death, things change.
CCW: Do you ever think about things you wish you had done differently?
JFK: Oh yeah. (laughs) I wish I could have done more for my children. And I should have been more involved in the town. I think about that some days…I didn’t do charity work, didn’t do this, didn’t do that. But that wasn’t me. I’m not that type of person. It used to bother me. I got over it. (laughs)
CCW: Sometimes it’s hard enough to just take care of your own life. You were pretty busy with ten kids. Was anyone in particular really kind to you?
JFK: My sister. She helped me a lot. Money-wise, support, friendliness, being loving, everything. My sister.
CCW: When have you felt most alone?
JFK: Sundays. Oh my gosh. Sundays. For me, it’s long and lonely. Sometimes kids come on Sundays, but if they don’t, I really feel lonely. You’d think I’d want time to myself, but it’s not that. Sundays are just lonely. They’re long and lonely. Most times I don’t really do anything on Sunday. Sometimes I work in the yard, but I don’t usually go anywhere on Sunday. I just stay home.
CCW: What is it about Sunday?
JFK: I don’t know. It’s always been like that for me. Ever since I can remember. As a kid, even. Sundays are just bad. Sometimes I get out on Sunday, but it’s rare. Most time, I’m home on Sunday.
CCW: Do you have any friends or neighbors who come by?
JFK: Sometimes. Margie, she’s my neighbor. She comes out and we talk over the fence, or something like that, once in a while. My daughters-in-law, a couple of ‘em.
CCW: Do you find as you’ve gotten older people don’t include you as much?
JFK: I’m invited to everything. Birthdays, graduations…I do all of that. But lately I don’t hear very well. I think people don’t want to be around me because I have to say “what? what? what?”
CCW: Have you thought about getting a hearing aid?
JFK: It’s expensive. But I think maybe no one wants to be around me ‘cause I don’t hear well. It takes too much work.
CCW: I think you have a point. As people get older, they require a little more patience and effort, and not everyone wants to do that.
JFK: If people speak clearly, I understand ‘em. But some people mutter. I just tune ‘em out. I give up.
CCW: And I imagine that’s a lonely feeling too. You feel like you’re not part of things.
JFK: Especially in a crowd. I don’t hear. Too many things going on. Or in a car. I sit in the back seat. I hear voices, but I can’t hear what they’re saying, so I feel out of it.
CCW: I’m glad we’re talking about this. I think it’s important for people to understand this and be a little more considerate and kind toward elders. Having a hearing impairment can really make it difficult for someone to feel connected to the world. I saw it with my mother. It can be very confusing, especially if there’s ambient noise. But if someone focuses on you and really tries to be clear, I think that helps a lot.
Okay...on a new subject, can you tell me about your garden?
JFK: I love to garden. My mother always had a garden when I was a kid. When I was raising my kids, we lived in housing, so we couldn’t have flowers. Finally they said, you can plant something, but you have to ask us if it's okay. My son planted carrots and flower between the houses and along the sidewalks.
CCW: What are you growing now?
JFK: I don’t have any vegetables, except for two tomato plants and a potato plant. I grow flowers. I can’t get all my favorites in, not enough space. But I’m out there every day, pestering the flowers.
CCW: It’s wonderful how much satisfaction we can get from growing flowers and tending the earth. Are there any trees that you’re fond of?
JFK: Oh, I love trees! I have four favorite trees, but I’ve never had them. I like a maple tree, with the big leaves that fall. I like a mimosa tree, a dogwood tree, and a weeping willow. I like a tree that weeps. I used to have one when I lived in Mission Hills. When I got my yard work done, I’d sit on my chair beneath that tree, and it was so peaceful.
I like most plants. But my favorite is a poppy. Those Shirley poppies. I got a bunch of ‘em out there. The red, the pink, the white. That’s my favorite. But I love blue flowers too. There’s not that many blue flowers, when you think about it.
CCW: What’s your earliest memory?
JFK: I was two years old, and my grandmother lived on the end of the block from us. I remember going down to her house, and I remember so much stuff about that house. I also remember my brother had his appendix out. My mother said, “You can’t possibly remember these things. You were only two years old.” But I do.
CCW: What did your grandmother's house look like? Do you remember any physical details of that house?
JFK: This was early 1930s. We lived at the end of the block. It had a barbed wire fence. Nowadays we call it a cul-de-sac, I guess. There was a cotton gin back behind us. The house, when you walked in, it had a divider, between the dining room and my mother’s wash pot out in the backyard.
CCW: Did she have one of those washboards?
JFK: Oh yeah, we always had a washboard. And she hung the laundry on a line. I still like the smell of laundry on a line.
Then we moved out to the country, a big house, and I remember my brother sticking his tongue onto a hatchet one freezing cold day, and he couldn’t get it loose. My dad drove a school bus in those days.
CCW: Do you remember playing with your sister when you were little?
JFK: Oh, my sister and I were best buddies. The rest of the kids ignored us. They were older. My sister was about three years younger. We played paper dolls, and cards, and Chinese checkers, and just run around in the countryside.
CCW: Did you make your own paper dolls?
JFK: No, they come out of the Sunday paper, they had one called Jane Arden. And Campbell’s soup labels had little people and we’d cut ‘em out and call ‘em paper dolls, and we fought over those. And we’d draw lines on the ground for a house. Just take a stick and draw the rooms. In the barn there was a concrete corner, and we had that for our play house. We didn’t have that many animals. Two horses, two cows. So that was our playhouse in the barn.
We had fun. I remember jumping on the bed when my parents weren’t there. My sister would get in one corner, I’d get in the other corner, and we’d come out boxing. (laughs) We had a good time doin’ that, ‘cause we weren’t supposed to jump on the bed. So when they were gone to town, we’d come out boxing, fall down, and have some fun.
I have good childhood memories. My mother and father divorced when I was thirteen.
CCW: Was that a shock? Or did you know they weren’t getting along?
JFK: I didn’t know. My mother and father never said an unkind word to each other. They never fought in front of us. I don’t know if they did in private, but I never heard them say a cross word to each other. My sister said she hadn’t either.
I remember my oldest brother said, “Who do you want to live with? Mommy or Daddy?” I didn’t know. I never gave him an answer. But it was my mom.
Divorce wasn’t that common as it is now. I was embarrassed. My best girlfriend, I didn’t even tell her. My sister went with me to their house and she told their mother.
CCW: When you got divorced, did you feel like, oh no…now my kids have to go through this?
JFK: No…it was not a happy home. He was never happy, so I was never happy. I tried to do what I could for our kids. When he left, we were happy. They said they had a happy childhood.
CCW: So that’s different.
JFK: I just sometimes feel like I didn’t do enough for them, but the one that passed away last month, he said, “Mom, I had a really happy childhood.” That made me feel good.
And of course I had the Boys’ Club. That helped me a lot. If it weren’t for the Boys’ Club, I don’t know. All those boys. They were good kids.
My boys were over there all the time. It was like right across the street. They were always there. I knew where they were. My kids play real good pool! (laughs) They had a pool table, basketball, games, and things like that. They went to Disneyland. They did a lot of different things. The Girls’ Club was way across town, but they didn’t have that for a while. Jim Howard was the director at the Boys’ Club, and everybody loved him. I remember him more than anybody. He had a boy about the same age as one of my kids.
CCW: Speaking about things in Lompoc, my colleague Kam Jacoby are working on a book about the bars of Lompoc. Did you ever go to any of those places?
JFK: Oh yeah. I was free. We went to Jasper's. Everybody went to Jasper's. I guess they still do. I haven’t been there for years. And there was one right next door, C & B. Charlie and Barbara, I knew them. I used to go in there. And there was one called The Surf Club. That was a fun place to go.
CCW: Do you remember any colorful characters that used to hang around in there?
JFK: Well, my girlfriend. She was pretty colorful. (laughs) We had a lot of fun. We laughed. I didn’t have that during my marriage. So we went out. There were about four or five of us girlfriends. I did that for a few years, and then I met my husband and I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t miss it. After he passed away, I went a few times with my girlfriends, but I thought, “It’s not the same. I don’t even wanna be here.” Those days were gone.
I was talking to a friend the other day about Jaspers. He'd been there recently and he said, “It’s not the same.” I said, “We’re not the same.” We were young then. It’s a whole different crowd now.
The bartender at Jasper's was named Andy. He was a jolly guy, kind of heavyset. He used to work for Knudsen’s dairy company when I first knew him. Then he became a bartender. He thought he’d make me a good drink. I couldn’t drink that drink. He thought he’d do me a favor.
CCW: I think Jasper’s is known for that.
JFK: I couldn’t drink it. Too strong. It was rum and Coke.
CCW: More rum than Coke?
JFK: I couldn’t drink it.
CCW: What about this other place, C and B?
JFK: That was a big place. I knew a lot of people in there, and the bands, I was always friends with the band. It was right near Jasper’s. It’s been a restaurant a couple of times since then but it’s closed now. They played music, there was a dance floor.
CCW: So you’d go into these places and you’d feel comfortable. People knew you.
JFK: Oh yeah. The band knew me, they’d play my music. They were really nice guys.
CCW: Looking back on things now, what do you think is most important in life? What do you value most?
JFK: My health. I had a kidney out a few years ago, almost died there. It made me think about my health. I hardly ever went to the doctor, never really gave it a thought. Now I know I am very fortunate. I have my aches and pains, but I'm healthy.
CCW: How would you like to be remembered?
JFK: As being a good person, I guess. Being helpful to some people.
CCW: What is it that makes you feel hopeful?
JFK: I don't know.The way things are going, it doesn’t look too good for the young kids. I feel sorry for ‘em! I just take one day at a time, actually. I don’t think too much about the future. I don’t have much future. I feel like there’s nothing I look forward to. It’s just one day at a time for me.
CCW: Is that because of the season of life you’re in, being in your 80s?
JFK: I’m here today but I don’t know about tomorrow.
CCW: In a way that’s really wise. You appreciate the present.
JFK: I don’t dwell on my health. I don't moan all day long. I always get up between four and six every morning. Sometimes I say, I feel sick. I don’t want to get out of bed. So I tell myself, “Get out of bed. You’re not sick!” And I get up. Don’t make yourself sick by saying you’re sick. Say “I’m okay. I’m well. I’m gonna get up in the morning and do this and do that. My plans for the day…”
CCW: I think that’s good wisdom for someone reading this interview: don’t talk yourself into being down. Talk yourself up!
JFK: I write poetry and little stories and stuff too.
CCW: Really?! You write poems? I didn’t know you that.
JFK: I’ve written about two hundred poems. They’re not bein’ printed, but I write 'em. I wanted to join a poetry club once, but I was too shy to read 'em out loud. I have this notebook filled with my writing.
CCW: I think that’s awesome. You add that so casually, but I think it’s really important that you write. Writing keeps you sane. It helps you process things…right?
JFK: I was just working on one about my son.
JFK: And here's one called "Society Gals":
CCW: I see you've written a lot of thoughts about tea. Can we read a few?
JFK: Tea may not solve all your problems, but it is a solace to the heart. A pot of tea can help you with daily ills. Is a pot of tea mind over matter, or...? If you feel sad and lonely, a pot of tea can console you to happy thoughts, even if you don't have a scone... When your loved one is gone, tea is the next best love. Tea by the fireplace on a rainy day. Go to a tea house and feel the friendliness with others. I love a tea house that feels like home.
CCW: Did you ever find a tea house that felt like home?
JFK: Penelope’s. I used to go in there. I went there for years. They had the white wicker set, and they had a fireplace, and there were all these women in there. I used to take my granddaughters in there, my sister, my daughters-in-law. It closed, that was sad, ‘cause we don’t have a tea house now. I go to the coffee shop, but it’s not the same as a tea house.
CCW: I think it's wonderful that you keep this journal.
JFK: When I have a thought, I write it down. I wrote one about liars called "The Little Book of Lies." It's just about why people lie. I don't like lies. I've been hurt by lies. So I don't lie, and I don't like lies.
CCW: That's good advice too. Be truthful.
JFK: Yes. I don't mind the little white lies. But lies that can hurt people? I don't like that.
CCW: You've just shared plenty of wisdom with us, like the fact that poetry can be your friend and writing can help you think through even the sad things that happen. And that you shouldn't tell lies that can be hurtful to people. And it's helpful and comforting to sit down and have some tea. You know a lot more than you think you do. You're wiser than you realize.