Friday, February 15, 2008

Remembering Joan

We were teenagers when we met. She was dating Carroll’s younger brother, Leon, and accompanied him to their grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party.

“I’m so glad to meet you, Brenda,” Joan said, “I’ve heard so much about you!”

She was tiny, several inches shorter than me, in fact, and she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds. She had long brown hair and impish hazel eyes, fringed with the longest lashes I had ever seen. So long, she later told me, they batted against the lens of her glasses. Her tiny upswept glasses, with rhinestones in the corners.

What struck me most, though, was the aura of calmness which seemed to surround her. I felt tranquil just standing beside her.

I was shy back then, as was Joan, and we both felt a little uncomfortable among all those people we had never met. We enjoyed ourselves the entire evening, though; talking a mile a minute, joking, giggling. And when we parted, I felt I had known her all my life.

Leon and Joan dated for the next three years. Carroll and I finished college, moved to Chicago, where I made many new friends along the way. But I was never able to develop the rapport I had with Joan. Each time we got together, we just took up where we had left off.

One sweltering afternoon, as we were sprawled in the back seat of the car at a boring drag race, Carroll and Leon perched on the hood, Joan told me about her health problems. She had Rheumatic Fever twice, she said; once, when she was a child, and again as a teenager. It had affected her heart.

“But you’re okay now, aren’t you?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m just fine.”

In July, 1962, Carroll and I traveled to Southern Illinois for their wedding. It was held at Joan’s church in Sesser, and the reception was at her parents’ house. Joan decorated the house, made her own wedding dress, and her wedding cake, a perfect little three-tiered confection, topped with a miniature bride and groom.

I rushed to the dressing room as soon as we arrived at the church that day. She was standing at the mirror, all in white, her face rosy.

“Oh, Brenda, I’m so nervous,” she said, hugging me, “I hope I don’t start giggling.”

“I won’t look at you, if you don’t look at me,” I said.

When I snapped this picture, she was pursing her lips to keep from giggling. I was barely able to keep the camera focused; I was trying hard to control my giggling!

We were thrilled when Leon landed a job at General Electric in Bloomington. The newlyweds rented a small upstairs apartment in a house not far from us, so we were together three or four nights a week.

Carroll and Leon spent most of their time tinkering with our car or theirs, searching all over Bloomington/Normal for auto parts, or working on co-workers’ cars. Joan and I spent our time taking long walks through the neighborhood, looking at this house and that, planning the kinds of homes we would someday have, the furniture we would buy. How many children we would have.

Other times, we went to a new store in town, where everything was cheap. I just love K-Mart,” Joan said, “They have everything anybody could ever want!”

“I wish I didn’t have to work,” I said, as we examined a cheese slicer, something we didn’t know existed, “Then I would have time to cook and do all the things I want to do.”

Joan made a face at me through a large copper cookie cutter. “Oh, Brenda, it gets old,” she said, “If my doctor would let me work, I wouldn’t feel I had to clean house all the time!”

She kept their little apartment spic and span, cleaning the upholstery of the couch and chair each day, waxing and polishing the linoleum floors until they shone. The refrigerator, stove and sink were scrubbed and bleached each week, and she dusted every day. She was a very good cook, too; I loved her spaghetti. And she could pull a meal together in nothing flat, in her calm way, no matter what was going on around her.

She was also an excellent seamstress. When I bought an outfit and the skirt was too long, she whipped out her sewing kit. “I’ll hem it for you, Brenda,” she said, “You've been working all day.”

By the time 1963 rolled around, Joan and I were ecstatic. We were both pregnant. Her baby was due in June; mine in September.

Joan stayed with her parents in Southern Illinois the last couple of months of her pregnancy, so I planned our vacation around her due date. I wanted to be there when her baby was born.

When we arrived at the hospital, on June 20, 1963, Joan was already in the delivery room, and in no time at all, she had given birth to a lovely baby girl. Diana Joan Clinton weighed over seven pounds and was a fine, healthy baby, the doctor said. Leon arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter, and we all gathered in her hospital room to welcome mother and baby.

Joan resembled a tiny wilted flower when she was wheeled into her room. “It wasn’t so bad, Brenda,” she said, giving me a weak smile, “Really.”

On September 22, my little Suzanne arrived, and Leon, Joan and Diana paid us a visit a few days later.

“They’ll be playing together before we know it,” Joan said, cuddling Suzanne like a pro.

From my lap, Diana waved her chubby arms and legs, gazing at her mom. “I worry that I’m not doing everything right,” I said, “I took care of my brothers and sisters when they were little, but this is different.”

“I was that way, too, at first,” Joan said, “But everything will be just fine.”

We spent many fun times together as Suzanne and Diana grew up. While Carroll and Leon worked on cars and visited their friends, we spent our time together, with “the girls,” as we called our little daughters. We took them to the park, where they squirmed and giggled as we buckled them in the swings. We skimmed down the sliding board, holding them on our laps; we went to the petting zoo, where the girls fluctuated between flinching and grabbing. And Miller Park Zoo, where they screamed each time the lions roared. Many Sundays, we cooked dinner at our house or theirs, as the girls rode their tricycles, played with their dolls, or clattered through the house in our old high heels and dresses.

When Leon got a job in Belleville, and they relocated, I missed her terribly. But they visited us often, and we visited them each time we were in the area. Later, they moved to Sesser, Illinois and bought her childhood home.

“Well,” Joan laughed, “I’m back where I started!”

She seemed more fragile as the years went by, and I was worried.

“It’s just your imagination,” Carroll said. “She’s always been thin.”

I wanted to believe him: Maybe so; maybe it’s just me.

But one Sunday afternoon, I learned my worries were justified.

“I’ve got to have open heart surgery,” Joan said.

Cold fear slid over me.

“We’ll have to go to St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital in Chicago,” she said, “There aren’t any hospitals around here that do that kind of surgery.”

She gazed out the window where the girls were playing in the yard, chasing each other, falling, getting up and chasing each other again. “I’m not afraid of the surgery," she said, "I'm afraid I won’t be with Diana while she’s growing up."

“Oh, you’ll be here,” I said, “I know you will.”

The surgery was a success. Joan was soon back to her old self, and there were more good times and laughter. Through the years, though, there were more surgeries. And finally, a pacemaker.

“Can you hear it?” she said. We had just gotten back from shopping and were sitting in our living room.

“I can hear a soft ticking,” I said, “But only when we’re quiet.”

“Then I don’t guess I have to worry about it,” she said, laughing, “We’re never quiet!”

The next night, we were in deep discussion, as usual, when Joan suddenly turned to me, “Do you ever think about dying, Brenda?”

I could hear the girls’ voices in Suzanne’s bedroom, muffled, like crooning pigeons. They giggled every now then. From the family room, where Carroll and Leon were watching television, I heard Mary Tyler Moore. “Mr. Grant,” she said, “Oh, Mr. Graaant!”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“I keep saying the same prayer,” she said, “That I’ll live until Diana is grown.”

“You will,” I said, “I know you will.”

Then she laughed. “Yes,” she said, “I’ll be just fine!”

In 1979, Carroll and I went our separate ways, and after Suzanne and I relocated, I missed Joan terribly. She and Diana drove the hundred miles from Sesser to Paducah to visit, though, and it was just like old times. We talked and laughed, as always. The girls, teenagers now, spent their time in Suzanne’s room, music loud, giving us annoyed looks as they strolled by on their way to the kitchen for more Cokes and Doritos.

“You look great,” I said.

“I feel great!” Joan said.

It was in November, 1981, when we lost her. She died in her kitchen, where she was making lunch. It was sudden, they said; she didn’t suffer.

Her prayer was answered; she lived to see Diana turn 18. She was 39.

For a long time, I could not bear to think or talk about Joan. It hurt too much. But as the years go by, I’ve come to realize that memories are gifts to be treasured. Taken out every now and then and enjoyed. As long as we remember them, our loved ones are never really gone.

And so now I'm able to look back with pleasure at our times together; her smile, her kind and caring ways, her musical laughter, the animated look that slid over her face when she was excited. I know how deeply she loved Diana, how proud she would be of the lovely woman she has become. And I know how proud she would be of Tiffany and her two little ones, and what a wonderful grandmother and great-grandmother she would have been to them.

An aura of calmness and peace surrounds me, now, when I think of Joan; I feel her near. And I think she is.

Say not in grief that she is no more,
but say in thankfulness that she was.
A death is not the extinguishing of a light,
but the putting out of the lamp
because the dawn has come.



Angie said...

Your post really resonated with me. I am a Kentuckian and am very familiar with the areas you write about.

Thanks for sharing such a beautiful memory.

Anonymous said...

I cried, but in a good way. You moved me. What a storyteller you are.

Suz said...

Thank you for not only taking out these memories of yours to enjoy, but for sharing them with us.

If I weren't a crabby old cynical lawyer, I'd admit the moisture around my eyes right now is tears. Good tears. The kind you get when you've been walking around with your emotions in some kind of vapor lock and at last something gets past the barrier, reaches in and unlocks those feelings with a touch.

Diana said...

Thank you for sharing your memories of my Mother. She was an "Angel" and I miss her terribly!! Time does not ease the pain, but shows us how to cope. Thanks Aunt Brenda!

Leon said...

Brenda, thank you so much for bringing back some good memories for all of us in the family. You were actually very accurate in remembering details, a testimony to your excellent memory. That is a rare thing at our age. Joan weighed 102# for most of her adult life and she was 5'1" tall. When she was pregnant with Diana she got up to 115#. She wore size 4 shoes. They were so hard to find she bought every pair she could find. I loved your pictures. Now Diana wants me to write a bunch more about my time with her mother.

kimmi said...

Just popped in from another site. I like the feel of your blog and it's always nice to connect with another Kentucky writer.

Brenda said...

Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. It was a very hard one to write.

All words and pictures © 2008 Brenda G. Wooley