So here we are.
Jane Henson passed away yesterday after a long battle with cancer. She was an artist, a puppeteer, a proud mother and grandmother, but she is known to most people as the widow of Jim Henson. One of her largest ventures was creating - and supporting - the Jim Henson Legacy, a nonprofit organization that celebrates and raises awareness of Jim’s life and work as an individual artist. The Legacy is quite dear to me for many reasons, including the fact that my husband is its current president (which makes me its unofficial first lady).
When I think of Jane, I think mostly of a mom. I know that this puts me on dangerous ground, in the wake of all the controversy surrounding the New York Times’ obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill last week, the one that led with She made a mean beef stroganoff, that rankled so many people.
Granted, Jane wasn’t a rocket scientist, but she had a fascinating career nonetheless, and trust me, I know this. I know that Jane was the first female Muppet Performer, and that she was a brilliant visual artist and sculptor. I know that she was instrumental in Jim Henson’s early successes, and I know that long after she stopped puppeteering, she continued to seek out and nurture new talent, holding puppetry workshops for fresh-faced googly-eyed idiots like me. I have no idea if she made a signature casserole dish.
But when I say that I think of Jane mostly as a mom, I don’t mean to downplay her career at all. And I don’t think of her as simply a mother to her five children, or as a grandmother of eight, or even as a surrogate mom to me (which I can’t really say that she was). I think of Jane as the grand matriarch of everyone who’d ever worked for or with the Jim Henson Company in any capacity. She was the Muppet Mom.
She clearly took great joy in the events that united the family of Muppet performers, builders, directors, producers, crew, writers, and staff. When she created the Jim Henson Legacy in 1993, she didn’t just make it possible for there to be exhibits and screenings of Jim’s work across the country and around the world... because the Legacy often hosted in-house screenings, celebrations, reunions and yes, memorial services, she also gave a touchstone to every current and former Henson employee.
Sure, there are plenty of opportunities for this group to connect online, but there is something so much more special and visceral about raising a glass and breaking bread (or, in the Legacy’s case, crackers and crudite and cookies) with real, live people with whom you have a deeply shared connection and shared love. It makes the heart happy to sit in a dark room and watch your inspirations flicker large on a screen... but the heart soars when you share that experience with others, when you all laugh and cry simultaneously. That was my joy in attending a Legacy event, and that was thanks to the entire Legacy gang, certainly, but mostly thanks to Jane.
Those events that the Legacy hosted were almost always attended by Jane, and the room always received her with the casual warmth of a mum and the solemn respect of a materfamilias. I will admit that I really only truly felt like I was a Muppet Performer once Jane described me as one. It’s probable that I am not the only one who felt this way. She was there when the Muppets were created, and she was the closest I would ever get to meeting Jim.
Lest you think I am boiling this woman’s worth to nothing more than motherhood (both literal and figurative), I will also offer this:
She was incredibly talented, but she was almost reluctant to admit to my husband that she’d built some of those first Muppets, and preferred to tell her stories through the lens of Jim’s work. When I finally saw some of her sculptures a few years ago, I was gobsmacked by them.
She was fascinating. Willard Scott has had a open crush on her since they worked together at WRC-TV in Washington, DC, but she was always unflappable and classy when it came up. And I always sensed there was more to her than met the eye.
She was highly opinionated. You did not want to disagree with her. I will not expound on that.
She was funny, too. Yesterday, my husband tweeted this:
Jane Henson was a very funny woman. On seeing the Adele Stamp Student Union at U of MD: "I knew her before she was a building."— Craig Shemin (@CraigShemin) April 2, 2013
Suffice it to say that my soul is weary from saying goodbye to so many loved ones in our Muppet Family in the past twelve months. This goodbye will be just as sad, but also very different, because Jane won’t be there.
In traditional large families, there is always that one person - usually a grandmother - whose strudel or stroganoff binds and beckons the sons and daughters and distant cousins, and it’s never the same once she passes away. Jane might never have made a mean beef stroganoff, but thankfully, what she brought into the lives of our Muppet family will last forever. No, it won’t be the same now that she’s gone, but the “family” will stay together. That much is certain.
And it’s thanks in no small part to Jane.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.