Closer than close.
Connie “C.S.” Conger Jenkins and Paula “P.J.” Conger McLean have always enjoyed being sisters. As they’ve matured into adulthood that bond has become decidedly and, at times, even eerily stronger.
Take the story behind the recent pooling of their talents to produce a successful children’s book, The Bears and the Baby.
McLean, the redhead and the author, resides in Barberton with her family; Jenkins, the blonde and the illustrator, lives with her family in Wadsworth.
The premise for the colorfully detailed book, McLean shared, was first planted some 26 years ago when she learned her sister — seven years her senior — was pregnant and she was about to become an aunt for the first time.
So a storyline about babies seemed a natural.
“Chocolate Truffles and Binkley Bear are two teddy bears that live in a toy store,” was how she described their sisterly collaboration. “They wonder if they will ever find a real home with a real family. When they are finally purchased by a kind lady and man, they think their wishes have come true. They are taken home to a sunny little room filled with teddy bears just like them.
“All is happy and calm until Binkley overhears a terrible rumor about something called a ‘baby’ that will be coming to live with them. The bears are in an uproar as things in the room start changing. When boxes are moved to the attic, they fear they might be next. Finally, fearing the worst, they hear a sound they have never heard before. Could this be the baby thing they have dreaded? Will they still be loved? Will they be able to live with this new little stranger in their room?”
As irresistible as the story is to children and adults alike, it might never have found its way into book form were it not for a confluence of near life-ending circumstances that snapped both sisters to now-or-never attention.
In April, 2009, Jenkins, driving on Johnson Road in Wadsworth, was involved in a collision that totaled her vehicle and almost ended her life.
“I had been at my sister’s house and I was heading home when a pickup truck crested the hill and went left of center,” Jenkins said. “I was hit head-on!”
She suffered a concussion, black eyes when her airbag deployed, and a cervical neck strain. The other driver — who was said to have suffered a diabetic blackout — also survived.
“So we got through that. And I still had my sister,” McLean recalled with a huge sigh of relief.
But come December, the sisters’ peace and calm would be shattered again. This time McLean was in the bull’s-eye.
“I got up that morning like any other day to go to the bank,” she said. “I was the only customer there when I heard the other teller say ‘Oh, no!’
“There was an armed gunman standing there … At that moment my life flashed before me … My young son who has asthma wanted to come with me but he was sick. I was so glad he hadn’t come with me.”
She continued, “I was thinking, ‘This is it. Right before Christmas. What are my kids going to do? I home school … Will they remember how much I love them?’ ”
During the time the gunman was inside the bank no other customers came in. Even though the tellers cooperated with him, doing everything he asked, he still sprayed chemicals in their faces and McLean’s. “One of the tellers really got it bad,” she recalled.
Because of the highly toxic nature of the chemicals, McLean will need to have her eyes closely monitored by her ophthalmologist for the rest of her life.
“The robbery — which according to the FBI only took nine minutes — gave me time to put my whole life in perspective and I realized in the emergency room due to the chemical burns the robber used, I had even more time to reflect on life … Thankfully, each of us came through our ordeals and we each feel blessed to have accomplished many of the things our bucket list contained. One of those being the publication of our book, The Bears and the Baby.”
While the idea was to be able to leave something tangible behind for their children, the writing and sketching turned out to be a good therapy for the sisters as well, as it helped them to refocus on the positive and life’s innocence.
Not only are the sisters busy promoting their book and collaborating on another, they’re also seeking fundraising opportunities that will allow them to showcase their book while helping other causes.
Recently they participated in a fundraiser to help Mansfield’s Richland Carrousel Park raise funds for new lighting for the pavilion housing the historic carousel, which opened in 1991 as the first, new hand-carved carousel to be built and operated in the U.S. since the 1930s.
They’ve also teamed up with Project Learn and done a plethora of other events.
Both feel good about turning something bad into something positive, giving back to the community. But more than that, they hope their book and others they plan to give birth to in the future will earn a special place on a child’s bookshelf.
Doesn’t get much better than that, except for the genuine praise each sister has for the unique talents the other was able to bring to the table to create such extraordinary characters.
The Bears and the Baby — which bears the sisters’ initials, P.J. McLean and C.S. Jenkins — is available through local bookstores or online retailers. For more information, please email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.