She's gotten used to being both mother and father in the three years since her husband died, hauling her sons to birthday parties and Little League games, reminding them to say "please" and "thank you," encouraging them to take risks when they can.
She was being a mom that day, when she marched from the stands onto the field in the midst of her oldest son's baseball game. He was riding the bench again--an 11-year-old who didn't measure up in his coaches' eyes to his teammates on the field.
"Is he on this team or not?" Jeannie collared the coaches to ask, her voice rising, trembling with rage, loud enough for the other parents to hear. "If he's on this team, I want him off the bench and in the game--just like your son."
And his son and his son, she might have added, pointing out fathers in the stands.
"My son," she said, lowering her voice to a raspy whisper, "has already been kicked in the shins by life. He doesn't have a father. And I expect you--all of you--to make that up to him."
This is, you understand, a particularly hard time of year for kids like mine, like Jeannie's, kids without dads.
It's a time when they're held hostage by Father's Day hoopla, bombarded by images of life with dad as a perpetual series of inspirational moments and unbridled good times. A time when what they're missing looms large in the lives of their mothers, as well.
In school, they're busy making bookends and tie racks, designing sculptures and composing poems: "What my father means to me. . . ."
Called upon to write an inscription on her Father's Day card, my daughter sits and struggles for something to say. "Who're you making yours for?" a classmate asks, in a voice loud enough for others to hear. "Since you don't have a father."
"You can give it to an uncle," her teacher suggests, leaning in close enough to see tears fill my daughter's eyes. "Or your grandfather. Or a family friend."
Good advice, kindly conveyed--yet, I want to punch that teacher, slap that child, rush through the stores sweeping every Father's Day gift and display to the floor.
Instead, I go around with a lump in my throat, wishing there were some way to wipe this holiday from the calendar, some way to shield my daughters from the painful truth it represents, or at least make up for the loss they've endured.
Call it affirmative action for fatherless kids . . . the notion that any child unfortunate enough to lose a dad is entitled to some sort of compensation from the fathers of the world.
It's all Jeannie was asking at that baseball game: Don't let my child be forgotten, be lost in the shuffle; give him a chance to feel what your kids feel. He deserves that, and more, after what he's gone through.
There is only so much that a mother can do.
My children, if they could, would hide their loss from others' sight.
"My father's away on a business trip," one daughter tells friends who do not know the truth. She seeks to blend in, to be like everyone else.
Another drags out memories of a man she barely knew--a dad of mythic proportions, who drove a Porsche, ran a marathon, once chased down and wrestled a neighborhood thief. As if that could make reality match the fantasies she weaves.
I have my own way of coping, though it's as powerless as theirs to replace the missing piece of our lives.
Unlike my kids, I talk about their father to everyone I meet. But until Jeannie told me her baseball field tale, I never had been able to understand why.
While my children seek to make peace with their past, their mother seeks justice on their behalf. I've never been as brave as Jeannie--to blurt out the demand outright. But each year, as new sports seasons dawn, I introduce myself to coaches with this awkward monologue--part apology, part plea: "I know her dribbling's not the best. . . . Her father died when she was young, you know."
They never quite know how to react--they mumble words of sympathy, then ask that I get her to practice on time. My cheeks burn as I walk away. I feel stupid, humiliated. . . .
But I don't blame them. They're busy men--strangers to me--with jobs, kids of their own, sports teams to run. And what exactly do I want, anyway?
A village, maybe, to help raise my child.
A few days after her on-field outburst, the telephone rang at Jeannie's home. It was the father of a classmate from her son's school. Word of her tirade had traveled, it seemed.
He was taking his boy to the batting cage and wondered if her son might want to come along.
"Yes," she whispered. "Yes . . . thank you." When she hung up, she was choking back tears.
Sometimes it doesn't take a village. It just takes a dad. Even if it's someone else's dad.