Sunday, October 6, 2019
12:30 PM to 1:30 PM EDT
Central Refomed Church
Sunday, October 6, 2019
1:30 PM EDT
Central Reformed Church
10 College Ave NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Life Story / Obituary
There is no doubt that Janet Tonsmeire lived a life richly blessed with many warm memories that touched the hearts of many. A doting wife, devoted sister, and special aunt, her family meant the world to her. She was charming and chatty but also had some eccentricities that could occasionally cause her relatives to roll their eyes. Independent and stubborn, she did things her way. She will be deeply missed and warmly remembered by all who knew and loved her.
The Roaring Twenties was a period of jazz music, the automobile boom, as well as large-scale industrial growth which brought about significant changes during this era. During a time in history that was filled with feelings of freedom and independence, John and Sena (Poelstra) De Graaf welcomed at home their newborn baby girl, Janet Helene, on February 1, 1925, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Janet was born sandwiched between her two older sisters and followed by a younger brother and two younger sisters; making her third oldest of the six De Graaf children. As the third girl of six children she would tell you about life as a middle child and what it was like to be the girl your parents were really hoping after two girls was going to be a boy.
The family shared their home on Lafayette Street on the northeast side in a house built by her father, who worked as a furniture maker. A skilled craftsman he also built homes for other family members nearby. At the age of eighteen years old, Janet’s father passed away leaving her, her mother, and her siblings, challenged with surviving during tough economic times. Janet, now working, helped to support the family. These years brought them closer together and many of the skills they used to survive Janet utilized throughout her life. Thrift that began of necessity never left her, including her staunch belief, oft repeated, that recycling plastic bags and similar economies had led to her success in life. It also explained a lifelong affinity for leftovers. The consensus was she kept them a bit too long.
Janet attended local schools and graduated from Creston High School. Fresh from school, she joined her sister at Michigan Bell Telephone Company where she worked a variety of positions. Typical of the times when many women were taking over positions held by men who were off fighting in WWII, Janet became accustomed to climbing ladders of interior framework at Ma Bell to solder connections for new lines. Due to the nature of her work, Janet wore pants at work. Pants were uncustomary for women of her time, so Ma Bell expected that she would wear a dress to work and would change once she arrived for duty or when coming and going for lunch. The men who were still on the job had not wanted to train her and her fellow females and instead tried to give them feather dusters to occupy themselves on the ladders. When men returned from the war, they wanted their jobs back and she was transferred to the acquisitions department. She later moved to planning where phone lines would be installed and took on supervisory responsibilities, but she knew what a glass ceiling was. Janet also earned free telephone service for the rest of her life which came in quite handy in keeping in close touch with her large family over the years.
Janet’s hard work and ability to save her income during her years at Michigan Bell afforded her many opportunities. She was able to purchase lakefront property on the north shore in Grand Haven which was quite an accomplishment for a single woman. While walking on Monroe Street one evening, a gentleman named John Van Alten offered her a ride and the rest was history! The happy couple joined in marriage and settled into their home in Jenison. During their nearly twenty-five years together, they built a beautiful cottage on the property in Grand Haven which became a favorite gathering space for the entire family each summer. She wasn’t much of a swimmer (plus it ruined your hairdo), but Janet was a lovely host who found great joy in sharing the scenic view as well as countless potlucks over the years. Her nieces and nephews fondly remember their time spent playing on the beach and climbing the sand dunes as well as her warm welcome to them at the door of the cottage.. She attended many of their special events and talked to them like they were adults. They were fascinated with what seemed to them to be her jet set lifestyle as she was known to always hold a sense of fashion, distinctive hairstyles, and was well-traveled. Janet in turn enjoyed listening to their adventures and sharing family stories with them over many evening sunsets at the lake.
Socially active, the Van Altens enjoyed meeting up with the “Birthday Group” from her work as well as inviting family to their home where Janet was a lively hostess. They were members at Central Reformed Church which remained her church home throughout her life. Janet enjoyed the time she spent at home, often tending to her many plants in the garden room of their home and watching the birds. She could knit so fast her hands were a whirl and she made afghans for each member of the relation that wanted them. She started with a stock pattern of a rooster but agreed to special requests that led to afghans themed with orcas, cats, semi-trucks, and tractors, all successful. Janet and John also enjoyed many trips to Florida and spent weeks there each winter season with a lifelong group of friends. The Van Altens later moved to a home on Cedar Ridge NE. Sadly John passed away shortly thereafter in 1976.
Several years later, her neighbor, Ernie Tonsmeire became a widower and his conversations with her after losing his wife led to love. Great companions for one another, Ernie encouraged her sense of adventure and they eventually eloped to be married in his hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Ernie took on the role of cook and co-host when they entertained and would answer the phone with a twinkle and a “Hello, this is Ernest the butler…” Fond lovers of travel, they visited many special places around the world and settled in Jupiter, Florida for each and every winter. During this time she continued working the phone lines which helped her keeping in touch with family members back home. By 2006, she and Ernie moved into Heather Hills so that he could receive more care. By 2010, he passed away but Janet decided to stay although she was still quite independent. . She lived independently until her death and enjoyed the good company of her friends at Heather Hills. “We’re all deaf as doornails,” she said, “but we understand each other.” Still, the loss of husbands and friends and her increased difficulty leaving her home for holidays and family events left her occasionally lonely. “Getting old is not all it is cracked up to be,” she cautioned, adding “and once you do there is no going back.” The phone remained her lifeline.
Janet was a career woman years before it was commonplace and lived a life span that many others are not so lucky to experience. Over the years, she stayed up on current events in order to connect with others. Janet had her opinions but was not overbearing in conversation about her view of politics or religion and enjoyed conversing about a wide range of topics over the years. She continued to call people until an hour before she suffered a stroke while waiting to join her friends for supper. . Surrounded by her loving family, Janet took her last breath three days later. Her family will always remember the times she loved to share with them at the cottage, her faithful attendance at family events, her work to keep the family connected through phone calls, and her special empathy to newcomers who joined her tight knit relatives, for whom she was the usual welcome wagon, a role she played with relish, a sense of mission, and her usual sparkling charm. The conversation was always more interesting when she was a part.
Janet H. Tonsmeire (VanAlten, nee De Graaf), age 94, of Grand Rapids, passed away September 27, 2019. She was preceded in death by her first husband, John VanAlten; her second husband, Ernest Tonsmeire; and sisters; Mary Eisen and Jean Roozee. Janet is survived by her brother, John (Aleida) De Graaf; sisters, Esther Feenstra and Marilyn (Al) Bratt; many nieces and nephews; stepdaughters Judith (Michael) Williams and Joan Zuzick; as well as step-grandchildren and great-grandchildren.