by Carrie Kirk
If we're lucky, we all have an Aunt Lou in our family. She's that relation who has capable man hands. Her shoes are pragmatic. And what she lacks in delicate feminine wiles, she makes up for with her stoic and independent way of putting one foot in front of the other. An Aunt Lou is a quiet force to be reckoned with, a locomotive that just keeps chugging up life's arduous hill.
My friend Jan Johnson had an Aunt Lou. Hers lived in Indianapolis, was married to a prize fighter and had three children. But the prize fighter, long embarrassed by his imposing figure of a wife, left her and the kids when Aunt Lou was in her early thirties. She rallied though, finding a job as a seamstress at the now defunct L.S. Ayres department store, first downtown and then at the Glendale location. She raised her young daughters into adulthood. This was the person to whom her family could tether themselves too and weather any storm. Jan's Aunt Lou won the fight her husband had forfeited long ago.
I never met Aunt Lou, but I've known Jan for some years now. We met in the water and spent many dark mornings swimming up and down the outdoor Jordan Y pool during early morning swim practice at the Indy Aquatic Masters (previously Indy SwimFit).
Jan is that person who is immediately likeable. Petite with bright eyes and a cap of white hair, Jan laughs often and easily. She has the prettiest turn to her small ankles. Similar to her stroke, my friend seems to glide through her days and life's challenges, not getting hung up on the small stuff, executing a flawless flip turn (both literally and figuratively), not looking back with regrets that may weigh her down.
For a long time, swimming was Jan's go-to sport and passion. Of the various interests life offers up to us, Jan chose a healthy one. Early into her marriage to fellow master swimmer Brian, she began doing laps on her own. That was before the arrival of their two children, David and Laura.
Many swimmers agree that it can be a lonely sport. It's just you, the water and a view of the bottom of the pool, so when the original masters swim club was organized in Indianapolis, a community of swimmers was formed. And despite sharing a lane with others during practice, the sport remains pretty simple -- it's just you and the water, but now lane mates yuck it up, commiserate and encourage each other in between sets. Relationships are formed and bonds are made between a group of loner swimmers.
Along with gaining entry into this community of strong-shouldered friends, Jan ventured into open-water events. She swam Big Shoulders in Chicago, an event in St. Croix, one in Key West, and the appropriately named Swim the Suck, a 10-mile open-water swim through the Tennessee River Gorge.
"Swimming is a physical accomplishment. It requires endurance, and I love it for that," Jan explains.
She needed the water more than ever in 2006. Her father died, both of her brothers battled prostate cancer, with one winning and one losing, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Jan used swimming as a tool to gain strength during this time and measure her progress handling the weekly chemotherapy sessions.
"It provided normal to me," she says.
Seldom are we given the chance to discover not just one, but two things in life where we find both this type of refuge or "normalcy" along with our own talent and ability. But about three years ago, Jan did just that. She joined her sister on a shopping expedition in Carmel. They entered into the French Bleu Fine Art Gallery and met owner and artist Susan Mauck. She mentioned to them that a beginner's painting class she'd be teaching was starting up soon at the gallery. Intrigued, Jan signed up. Then she committed to attending week after week. Every Thursday evening she would lose herself for three hours in class.
"I got a lot of confidence from Susan," Jan says. "The fact that she encouraged me to not be a slave to the painting, to just paint loose helped me start painting."
Mauck has been wowed by Jan. "She has taken off in such a short period of time. Jan absorbs what I teach, and she is passionate about it," she says.
Last September 2014 Jan entered the Carmel on Canvas: Plein Air Paint Out, where she was awarded first prize in the non-professional division. Jan was tickled. She appreciates the validation she receives from Susan and those who see her paintings. "We're never too old to want it," she says.
Like Aunt Lou, sometimes we are passionate enough to survive the hardships of life and figure out how to do so. Other times we find a passion or two that allows us to course through life's challenges with grace and self-discovery like Jan. I say we're all lucky if we have an Aunt Lou in the family, but we're even luckier if there's a little Aunt Lou and Jan in us all.