Jan DeGaetani, July 10, 1933

Oh my. I’ve never been good at birthdays. I gave up a long time ago. My sister makes an annual calendar with photographs; she’s never sent one to me. I’m not mad. I think she knows I’ll forget all the dates anyway.

My husband’s aunt has for over 30 years mailed me a birthday card. She calls every year on the day to sing me Happy Birthday.

Today, my iPhone calendar daily reports whose birthday it is. For awhile now, I’ve noticed repetitions for the same day, or consecutively. At least once every day, someone’s birthday shows at 112th or 116th or 96th.  I don’t know how to shut that whole thing down, just stop the birthday madness. [I’m not too good at the phone technology either.]

And so, I miss what would have been Jan’s 84th birthday, yesterday, July 10, 2017. I am reminded because of some emails I received and John Kramar’s annual tweet.

In case you missed it, here’s some writing from the book about her childhood (and you can read more here):

Everybody knew Earl D. Ruetz had wanted a son.  Perhaps that’s why he and his young wife Eleanor tried so many times. Both born in 1903 and raised in Pennsylvania, Earl and Cora Eleanor Hayman married in 1927 after Earl’s graduation from Law school and settled in northeastern Ohio. They rented a one-room apartment over a garage in rural Stark County between Massillon and Canton. The kitchen hung off the back. They paid nine dollars a month. It was the depression, and although Earl had started his own practice, money was scarce and neighbors couldn’t afford lawyers. Their little circle of friends—all lawyers and judges— in the worst of times, fronted money to each other for baby food.

Their first child, Vera, was born in January 1929. Louanne came along three years later.  She wasn’t a boy either and became known throughout town as Scotty. Janice (nicknamed Jannie) came a year and a half later, on July 10, 1933, the same date of her mother’s birth, this   first elemental connection a harbinger of their life-long devotion to one another.

Jan DeGaetani Birthday

This is a page from a scrapbook Jan’s mother Eleanor made for her. You can see from where Jan inherits that fabulous sense of humor.

By the time fourth daughter came, Earl was the local bank’s attorney and had moved his family into a small two-bedroom house in Stark County.  Born Nadine, Earl called his last child “Pete” for the rest of her life.

It seems Earl made peace with his brood of girls, and he and Eleanor made a loving home in the tiny house and backyard where they spent many happy hours playing together.

Jan DeGaetani in Massillon, OH

Jan, “about 9”. From scrapbook her mother made for her.

The girls grew as did Earl’s practice, reputation, and presence in the tight knit community. Clients, unable to pay in cash for Earl’s services, bartered, and often dropped whole chickens at the door.

One day, the year Jannie Ruetz was five, Earl came home and said, “I just bought us a new house. We can go see it.”

63 Prospect Street was built in 1906 in the heart of the grandest neighborhood in Massillon where no house was like any other. Here the girls’ neighbors would be people of prominence, industrialists, bankers, and humanitarians who helped fugitive slaves. Five Oaks, a veritable castle, the grandest of them all, was at the other end of their block. It housed the town’s Woman’s Club and had once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Popular American actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, also Ohio natives, frequently visited their aunt and family at 74 Prospect right down the street.

Jan DeGaetani childhood home

63 Prospect Street (now 225 Fourth Street, N.E.) Massillon, OH. A famed Heritage home named to the National Register of Historic Districts.

Massillon jeweler Albert “Bert” Coleman built the mausoleum-like tan brick Colonial Revival where Jannie would spend the rest of her young life. The fourteen-room house included four bathrooms, bay windows, and a wide front porch and entrance flanked by double Ionic columns. Even now, it stands austere, solid, serious, befitting a young professional such as Earl Ruetz and the social status his post assumed.

“It’s a castle!” Vera says Jannie exclaimed, as she leapt from their car and ran up the several steps at the sidewalk.


Warm water lapped at the tub’s edge.  Her little hands like china, like the porcelain surrounding her, splashing. Flimsy lace curtains fluttered at the window. Droplets of warm water gathered on black and white diamond tiles. She heard muffled sounds below. Her mother, sisters, the soft thud of one of them dropping a book.

“Are you washed in the blood…” her voice, a reedy strain, echoing. “Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?” Singing as she slapped the flat water, she raised her cloth to her face, scrubbing up and down hard several times. “Are your garments spotless?” The hymn asked as her crystal blue eyes grazed the ceiling. Waiting for response.

Below her, the thin strain of singing reached the kitchen where her mother Eleanor added flour to her dough. My Jannie. She wiped her dusty hands on her apron, picked up her rolling pin. In the living room, Scotty and Vera chatted loudly.

 There is a sense of peace at 63 Prospect Street at dusk. The fat light fills the kitchen at the back of the house, a room all its own, not like the galley in their previous home in Stark County, or the appendage off the garage one-room apartment where, at the depression’s eclipse, all her girls, one after another, came screaming into this life.  Here, Eleanor has room to move, to expand, to inhabit and fill all her family’s needs.

Janice Ruetz is five years old and has just had her bath. Her father will come through the front door any moment.

            “Keep going, darling,” her mother says to no one, not looking up from the crust she’s rolling at the counter.

            Humming, Jannie softly, evenly, descends the wide stairs, heads to the Library where her sisters are already pulling at one section of the bookshelves lining the wall.

            “You’re not supposed to do that!” She says abruptly at the doorway. “Daddy’s coming!” Vera and Scotty reveal the opening behind the shelf and begin stepping through it.

            “No he isn’t. Not yet!” hissed Scotty in her younger sister’s direction. And, “Get in here with us!!”

It was mostly a way to keep Jannie from telling on them more than their desire to hide with her, and maybe Jannie knew it somewhere deep down, but not on the surface; her sisters’ urging, a sweet call. Still, she didn’t want to rouse her father’s disappointment or worse, anger. Earl had forbidden the girls to ever play in the secret hideaway.

“Come on, Goody Two Shoes,” Vera chided, practically pulling her into the cramped and stuffy space behind them.  Like Jannie, Vera, age nine, Scotty (Louanne’s nickname), eight, and baby Petey all had coal black hair, thick and wavy. The three girls stood in the closet-like space and said nothing. It was the closest they’d get to their own catacombs like those of Five Oaks, the castle at the other end of the block. Stories told of a train that once ran beneath it holding cargo of escaped Negroes. Jannie tried very hard to even her breathing and stay very still so as to not touch her sisters’ hands or sleeves.  Her disobedience thrilled her, and she prayed she would not be found out. They were ghosts in the dark. 


Happy Birthday, Jan. We miss you. We’ve missed you for a long time.


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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