Strong. Fragile. Determined. Unsure. Rooted. Growing.
Chapters is a Growing Legacy
Chapter One: Jeannie spent her early childhood surrounded by family and supported by her grandma. Early memories fill her like the summer watermelon she shared with her cousins at her grandma’s house. Sweet memories brimming with comfort like the cool of the grass beneath her feet on a hot summer day. Jeannie soaked in her grandma’s strength like a child lying on the drive basking in the summer sun.
In Jeannie’s family tree, Grandma was the roots and the trunk. She lost her husband early in life and raised all eleven of her kids by herself. According to Jeannie, “She did it all. She held the home and raised her kids.” She kept the family together and grounded them. She provided strength and stability. “Grandma was the heart of the family. She didn’t show much emotion, but she showed her love through food. We always had food,” Sweet remembrance smiling in Jeannie’s voice.
Loss came early for Jeannie. Yet, loss melded her identity and connection to her grandma. Her father died when she was three months old. Her mom pulled up roots and moved from Levelland to Friona to live with Grandma. Jeannie’s mom assumed the role of wage earner. Jeannie’s grandma became the caregiver for little Jeannie.
When asked how her grandma influenced her life, Jeannie pauses and reflects, “She was my Rock. She made me strong. She would tell me, ‘believe nothing is impossible. Jeannie, you can do anything. Don’t give up. You gotta be strong.’ She is why I am so Mexican, like…I’m straight-up Mexican.” As she boasts of her Hispanic heritage and the strength her grandma forged, hints of fragility whisper in her voice. “I remember I started getting in trouble in elementary school. Once I tried to sit in a chair and fell down. Everyone laughed and called me fat.”
Chapter Two: Soon after Jeannie’s elementary years, Jeannie’s mom met Curtis. They fell in love and married. At ten, Jeannie was uprooted from the stability of her grandma’s loved and replanted in Clovis. They lived on Willow Street. It was there she met two friends whose friendship would last into Jeannie’s adult life. These two friends “were there for me, but they just let me do what I wanted to do.” Jeannie adds almost as if to exonerate her two best friends from a darker period of her life.
“My teenhood got a little crazy,” Jeannie went on to explain. In Clovis, Jeannie’s mom worked at Cargill and didn’t get home until after 6:00 PM. Jeannie either found her way home or her best friend’s mom took care of her until Jeannie’s mom was able to leave work. Jeannie found herself with more time and freedom. “In Jr. High I got along with everyone. I started hanging around with a girl.” Consciously or unconsciously, Jeannie’s insecurity about her weight provided an inlet for her new friend. The girl “asked me if I wanted to lose weight.” The girl then “introduced me to a pill that would help me lose weight.” Soon Jeannie found herself in the principal’s office. She tried to explain her friend gave her to pill to lose weight. “It was speed,” shock still echoing in her voice twenty years later. Jeannie went from the principal’s office to “juvie” where her mom had to pick her up. Her mom was mad, but her mom’s anger didn’t seem to curb Jeannie’s path down trouble lane.
“I wanted to be in a gang. I wanted to be in the Fourth Street Gang.” Jeannie wanted to be in a gang so much she let six gang members beat her up. When her mom arrived home from work and saw her daughter’s black eyes, she questioned Jeannie. “I told my mom I fell down. She never knew what happened.”
Yet, Jeannie’s mom must have known Jeannie was heading down the wrong path, because at age 15, Jeannie’s family moved back to Friona. Jeannie was heartbroken about leaving her friends and her new “puppy love.” Yet, she was glad to be able to spend more time with her beloved grandma.
Chapter Three: "When we got back Grandma was real sick. She had congenital heart disease, diabetes and was on dialysis.” This time, Jeannie stepped in as her grandma’s caregiver. At school, Jeannie stayed out of trouble but struggled with math and English. At home, Jeannie chuckles, “My parents had me real controlled.” So for a while, things in Jeannie’s life got better. Until the day her stepfather died. “It was hard,” Jeannie remembers being either 16 or 17 years old. She was at home with her mom, stepdad and two little sisters when Curtis had a heart attack. “I remember looking in my mom’s eyes and her eyes were just in panic and fear. I remember not knowing what to do. I tried to help.” The ambulance came and resuscitated Jeannie’s stepdad long enough to get him to the hospital. Lost in the memory, Jeannie whispers, “The hospital couldn’t save him. I remember thinking, my sisters – they were going to be six – won’t have their daddy or the love they had.”
The loss of her stepfather was compounded the following year by the death of her precious grandma. “It was my senior year. My cousin came to my home ec. class and said, ‘Hey! It’s your grandma.” Jeannie wasn’t worried. When she left the house that morning, her grandma told her she felt good. “She was happy and better than she had been in a while.” When Jeannie arrived at the house, she found her grandma lying on the floor. Her family stared at Jeannie. “I kept thinking she fell down and why wouldn’t anyone wake Grandma up.” Finally, someone said, “Jeannie, I am sorry.” Eventually, Jeannie understood her grandma suffered a heart attack. “I didn’t want to leave the house. It was so hard. It was one of the greatest impacts of my life.” Jeannie sniffles and continues, “I had to let go, because God teaches us to let go, but I didn’t know to listen to God and pray.” Returning to today, Jeannie stakes her claim of God’s goodness. “Now I know God never left my side, even when I was bad, somehow He worked everything out for me.”
Chapter Four: Jeannie never returned to high school after that. She struck out on her own and at nineteen she found herself married. “The marriage was good for a few months,” she says painting the words with optimism. After a few months, the good wore off. Her new husband learned to control Jeannie with mental intimidation and physical violence. For four years she suffered alone. It was then she received one of her greatest gifts, her son, Gabriel. Now she no longer suffered alone, her son suffered with her. “I knew what it was like to grow up without a dad. I didn’t want my son to grow up without a dad,” the inner struggle still playing out in her voice. “My husband would hit me and my son would try and get in the middle of it to protect me. He was only two. It was hard.” The safety of her son won out in the end. "My husband went to visit his family in Mexico and I got out. I just packed up everything and left,” Jeannie announces, closing the book on that chapter in her life.
At 26, Jeannie found herself a single mother. She supported her little family by working at Cargill. She did the best she could to make ends meet and then she met Jose. They dated for a year before they moved to Amarillo. Life in a new town was happy and hard, chummy and challenging. “We lived in a little trailer house by the water tower,” she reminisces. “I transferred to Tyson.” Mixed with the sweetness of a new start was the challenge of simply surviving. Jeannie recalls things were rocky for a while. “My hours were cut. Jose wasn’t getting work. There were times we didn’t have food. I remember going to churches for handouts. It was hard.”
Chapter Five: Jeannie and Jose not only survived, eventually, they began to thrive. In 2009, they left the shrinking trailer house and moved into a house in the San Jacinto neighborhood. Jeannie enrolled Gabriel in the local elementary, San Jacinto Elementary. The school offered GED classes for the parents, so Jeannie signed up and “a lot of things changed. Things started changing for the good.”
Soon a daughter was on the way; Madeline would make them a family of four. Jeannie began participating in the First Presbyterian Church’s Friends and Neighbors Program. (Formerly known as The Neighbor – Navigator Program.) It was there she met her FPC Neighbors: Anita, Bryan, Casey, and Rita. “That’s when I met God,” Jeannie recalls. “I started getting part of God’s life, getting to know Him personally, getting to know His thoughts. Things changed. I was surrounded by people who loved me and cared for me, even the times we didn’t have anything, God was there. We had new friends. They supported us, [Jose and I, our relationship, our eventual] marriage, our finances. They supported us by being there, by a good talk. They supported the idea that out there is good people.”
From that point, Jeannie’s life was catapulted from one change to another. She climbed from one accomplishment to the next, from one dream to a greater one. She married the love of her life, Jose, on May 12, 2012, “the happiest day of [her] life.” She received her GED, May 31, 2013. She began working at a local convenience store as an associate. Soon she earned a promotion to Assistant Manager. She started college and, in 2021, she aims to finish her associates in business.
Chapter Six: While working and going to school, juggling being a wife and mom of two, Jeannie found out she was pregnant. She and Jose wanted another baby and were delighted. Yet, four months into the pregnancy, the doctor’s discovered Elijah Cruz Lira’s heart was not growing. He had a congenital heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot. Reliving the shock of the news, “I started crying and bawling and bawling. But I had hope. I prayed and prayed.” She had faith that God would and heal Elijah’s heart. “I went again [to the doctor] and there was no change,” Jeannie acknowledges this time she fought fear. She couldn’t imagine living without her child. “I was afraid it was my fault. I feared losing my child.” She admits. “That fear went away when a friend of mine told me to read the story of Job.” Jeannie also admits to not being a reader. “I don’t like reading, but I started reading the Book of Job [in the Bible] and read until I finished it.”
“I had also started going to a church I always passed by.” At Generation Next Worship Center, she reconnected with her friend, Anita. Anita was a member of Gen. Next and at one-time coordinator of the Friends and Neighbors Program. “She is a good friend with a good heart. I started praying a lot and started having contact with God. Anita would remind me, ‘God is there. He is right there beside you.’ I started to have that feeling.”
Five months passed quickly, and the time came for Elijah’s birth. Needing to be near Children's Hospital, Jeannie traveled to Dallas in the days before the birth. “I was big. My back hurt. I couldn’t sleep. But I remember staying calm,” Jeannie recalls. On the day of Elijah’s birth, she remembers Elijah’s first cries and the ray of hope that came with his strong wail.
“Then they had to move us to Children’s Hospital because he had loose valves.” Two days later, Children’s scheduled Elijah for surgery. “A simple surgery they told me.” Jeannie still ponders how “an artificial vein to keep oxygen going to his liver, his kidneys and his pulmones [lungs]” could be simple. “He did good. He got out in seven days and we came home,” the relief still evident in her voice.
Jeannie came home hoping and praying the surgery would last at least two years. It didn’t and six months later Elijah's baby pink skin was increasingly baby blue. His oxygen levels bobbed between 79 and 84. A return trip to Dallas was required sooner than the momma’s prayers petitioned or her heart wanted. “I was already going to church and they prayed over us before we left for Dallas. I could feel God’s presence, and the prayers gave me comfort.”
Jeannie’s mind drifts to Elijah’s surgery and recovery. Her mind transports her back to Children’s in Dallas to the uncertainty and peace of that moment. “I was calmer. I knew God. I remember when they brought Elijah out. He looked like a two-year-old. He was so swollen. I remember sitting with him in his room holding his hand and talking to God. I remember talking to God and I started getting emotional and I felt something on my hand. I know this sounds crazy, but if anyone knows God it won’t. I started talking to God. He was there. I could feel Him holding my hand. I just started crying and saying, ‘Thank You God for being here.’” Jeannie returns to the present, tears in her voice. “Who wouldn’t want to feel God? I always want to feel Him and His faithfulness and His love.”
Elijah’s surgery was a success, and Jeannie and Elijah returned home to their family. Jeannie lists the options for his future. “One: everything stays good and there is not a next surgery. Two: The doctors have to replace his valve with an artificial valve. After that, he won’t have to have another surgery unless his valve starts leaking when he is a teenager. Then he will have to have another surgery.” Jeannie is, of course praying and hoping for the first option.
Chapter Seven: Today, life is sweet, yet not without struggles. Jeannie still attends Generation Next. She prays her children will fall in love with Jesus. “Madeline dances and knows a lot of songs, Christian songs. Stuff I didn’t do. I want her to know God, knowing Him at a young age will help her overcome.”
Looking to the future, Jeannie’s dreams are growing. She wants to be used by God. She is planning on being baptized at Generation Next. For her San Jacinto community, she wants “everyone to love and help each other, for there to be less judging.” The legacy she wants to leave is simple and yet complex. “I want to leave an impact of helping the next generation, of helping our kids. I want to be remembered as someone who helped the community of San Jacinto.”
Yet, even with her eyes focused on the future the doubts of the past whisper. “God has a plan for me. He put things and people in my life for a reason.” Her grandma's voice echoes in Jeannie's. “Many times I gave up and I had to remind myself, ‘Be strong. Know and believe nothing is impossible. You can do anything.’ I have to remind myself: I have gone through losing my grandma, getting into trouble, being in a bad relationship, living in poverty for a little bit, but after overcoming all of that if I gave up I would be such a fool.”
Jeannie: Strong. Fragile. Determined. Unsure. Rooted. Growing - but by the grace of God, not a fool.