Saying Goodbye to Jimmy: Jim Burnett, Sr. (1937-2018)
By Pat Edwards
By the time I was born, Jimmy was 5 years old; in fact, the three of us siblings were each separated by 5 years. I was 5 years old when our sister, Barbara Jean, was born. (I call her B.J.) By the age of 5 years, Jimmy was busy playing with his cousin, Bob, and his other friends, so we were never close as kids. It seems that the older he got, the less we had in common with each other. So, my childhood memories of him are pretty minimal, sparse and scattered.
I do know, though, that his childhood was difficult. B.J.’s and my father—Jimmy’s stepfather—doted on us girls, but he never fully accepted Jimmy as his son. My mother tried to bridge the gap, and Jimmy was always included in all of the family activities—sledding in the snow, fishing and camping at Clear Lake, going to the car races in Salem, vacations to see family in Los Angeles—but when home with family, he became more and more of a loner, the older he got. By the time we moved to Airport Road in Lebanon, he was a teenager and when he was not in school, he spent hours during the summer months up in his favorite apple tree in the backyard where he had built a fort in its branches, sitting, reading, and eating Gravenstein apples. When B.J. or I wanted an apple, we asked him and he lowered a couple down by the bucket on a rope that he used as a dumbwaiter. During the rest of the year, he spent his time in his bedroom above the garage, away from the rest of the family, lying across his bed, reading, and instead of apples, he ate oranges. He loved fruit! Mama found the evidence—orange peelings—under the bed when she went to clean his room. For the most part, my memories of those times picture him as serious and sometimes angry.
I can remember that during his senior year, he was on the football team at Lebanon Union High School. During one game, he was tackled and hit his head, resulting in a concussion. That ended his football “career.”
It was that same fall that Daddy sold his International Harvester dealership in Lebanon, and we put our house on the market. I was halfway through my 6th grade year of school and Jimmy was in his senior year. Because my mother didn’t want to take him out of school for his last year, she arranged for him to live with friends until he graduated. The rest of us—our parents, B.J. and I—then moved to Phoenix, Arizona for the next 6 months where we finished our schooling for the year. When school was out, we then moved to Eureka, California where Jimmy stayed with us for a short while before he joined the U.S. Marines.
I didn’t know how traumatized Jimmy was by our move to Phoenix until visiting with him the week before he died. He revealed to us for the first time that he felt abandoned and very much unloved when we left Lebanon without him. The disclosure about broke my heart because when he told B.J. and me, the pain was evident in his eyes and his tears flowed.
Joining the Marines was not a good fit for our brother. It was too structured and too demanding for the free spirit he was becoming. When he and his good friend, Curt, visited us on “leave” for several days while we were still in Eureka, the little teeny-bopper that was me developed a big crush on Curt who, I am sure, must have squirmed every time I gave him a flirty smile. I remember the visit well. They arrived a day or two after the neighboring town of Fortuna and Humboldt County suffered a major flood in December 1955. We have photographs of us exploring the damage—washed out bridges and buildings.
We learned later that when he and Curt returned from their visit, they faced AWOL charges and disciplinary measures. (I’m not telling tales out of school. Jimmy never kept it a secret—in fact, I listened as he told the whole story to one of his friends who visited him that last week before his passing.)
After he left the Marines, I only remember occasional visits from him. The one notable one was after Mama, Daddy, B.J. and I moved back to Lebanon. We bought a strawberry and bean farm on Brewster Road. One day, Jimmy arrived, accompanied by a pretty young lady named Betty Lou Branchflower. He was living in Portland at the time, and so was she. They had just gotten engaged and he wanted to introduce her to the family. She was a city girl and wasn’t sure about the farm life we led, but B.J. and I got out our horses, Rocket and Rocky, and gave them rides around the farm.
During the next several years, they got a good start on their family—first J.R., who was born the day before my birthday; then Curt and Greg. Betty Lou would send us some of her favorite recipes in their Christmas cards. I still have several of those handwritten recipes that Mama always kept in her metal recipe box.
They would bring the boys to see us about once or twice a year. The visits became less and less frequent as time went on, though, and we all but lost track of them. We pretty-much missed out on most of Joseph’s, Ginger’s, John’s and Erin’s childhoods, I’m afraid.
Sometime, during those years, Betty Lou asked us to begin calling her Heather. She decided to change her name and I respected her wish as I could, but she has always been “Betty Lou” in my heart to this day.
Later on, after Jim and I were married and living on our farm near Lorane, Curt and Greg came to stay with us. Curt was with us through some of his freshman year of high school and the following summer. During that time, he joined our kids’ 4-H group, raised a hog and showed it in the Lane County 4-H Fair. Greg joined him that summer and they both worked through haying season on our family’s hay crew—bucking hay, building muscles as well as character. I feel so blessed to have been able to spend that time with them.
After that, we only got together sporadically. They would frequently come down to attend our major family celebrations. I remember one get-together at our place when Joseph put on a skateboard demonstration for us out in the middle of Lorane Highway while some of us spotted the traffic for him.
It was several years later when email opened up new worlds to all of us. Much later, it became the means where Jimmy and I reconnected on a very meaningful period of our lives. By that time, Paul had come into our lives; Jimmy and Heather had divorced, and I lost track of him for several years. I found out later that he had traveled some pretty rocky roads during that time, but eventually he met Jonni and she became his ballast… his salvation.
We began chatting back and forth on email and reconnected. I was working at the University of Oregon at the time and he became interested in the work I was doing there with a group of neuroscientists. It was obvious how well-read he was… all of that reading he had done in that apple tree had borne fruit. His love of books led to a love of learning, of broadening his intellect and writing it down on paper and through emails. I knew that he had become interested in our Grandma “Zander” (Alexander)’s Unity faith and in learning more about it, he began forming his own faith and philosophy of life.
It’s my belief that he turned in this direction because he realized that he still retained a lot of anger from his childhood. I never knew that anger to ever come out physically. He bore most of it inside, known only to him. He turned to books and learning instead, I believe, to understand how to deal with it.
I didn’t understand a lot of what he wrote to me in those days. He was intellectually on a much higher plane than me as far as critical thinking was concerned. But, although we didn’t connect in that way, I did begin to feel I was finally getting to know my big brother on a personal level. There was a kindness that had always been there in adulthood, but it had blossomed into a gentleness and deep compassion for mankind. I admired and respected the work he did for his church and his faith.
When I became involved with the publishing of Groundwaters, a quarterly literary journal, after my retirement in 2004, I sent Jimmy some copies and he became excited about the possibilities it presented to local writers and poets. When the owner of Groundwaters decided to shut it down because of health issues, I mentioned to Jimmy that I and two others were wanting to take it over and keep it going. He immediately asked if he could be a part of it, as well. We welcomed his expertise in guiding us through the process of setting up a business model and later, the steps we needed to operate as a non-profit under the 501(c)3 umbrella that we were offered. He became our business manager. Later, he began submitting his own stories and essays for publication and soon proposed to write a column for each issue called the “Philosopher’s Corner” under the pen name of “Jimminy Cricket.” Our readers loved it. It was simple and non-judgmental. It offered a view of life as he saw it in a gentle, sweet way.
We and our two partners worked closely together on producing each issue—editing, critiquing and proofing them—until he developed the brain tumor that required surgery. After that, while it was healing, he was not able to formulate his thoughts well enough to put them on paper, but, he never lost his interest in the magazine. It had brought us close together and we cherished the chance we had been afforded to spend those precious years in getting to know each other.
I miss my brother and always will. Our last two visits before he passed were special to me. It was a time when we were able to really open up to each other and express the love we had. I wished him Godspeed then and I know that he is now in a place where he can bask in all of the love that he truly deserves.
Published in the 2019 Groundwaters Anthology