Lately, especially on rainy summer afternoons, I remember Joan _____. We met many years ago when members of the same church. I was almost immediately in thrall because of her spirit. Born in England, she married young and migrated to America with her husband. Her birth family life was less than comfy, physically or emotionally. Corporal punishment, so much more common in the first half of the twentieth century befitted the times in her childhood home. Joan, unable to read or write well because of dyslexia, was labelled as dull or retarded. She was anything but. Because the condition was not yet a recognized disability, she suffered it. Along with the difficulty it caused in her learning, was beratement from her father, from her teachers, from her classmates.
Marriage was an escape, at first. Her husband was a good enough provider, except when it came to affection. Jane and the two children came to expect very little in the way of warmth and family adhesion. When he began to drink, the marriage fell apart. She married once more, to a more sanguine fellow. During their relationship, Jane’s diagnosis with severe dyslexia shed light on much of the cause of her frustration and pain in her coming up. This woman who thought she was nothing found over intervals of learning and practicing that she could write and she could paint.
Joan was also an excellent gardener, and I promise you that unless you are English, you never had a better cup of tea than the one she made: served in traditional pots with cozies, warmed China teacups, lumps of sugar, and lemon or cream. If the weather was agreeable, we would sit of an afternoon in the floral haven of her yard. We drank tea, nibbled “biscuits,” and discussed life. Opinionated in her now established freedom from oppression, she made blunt declarations of her opinions. Even the most harsh was softened by the accent she never lost, for which all who knew her were grateful. She had music in her voice, though she claimed emphatically not to sing. No one tried to push her into choir; it would not have worked.
Early on in our visits, we shared poetry or short pieces of prose with one another. Joan’s particular favorite of her works was “Winter’s Dance.”
Autumn took a leaf to Winter.
It was red.
Would she share some wisdom?
Can you remember?
Did you hang on to ripened fruit,
Not feel the crackle start?
Winter shook her withered flesh,
Leaf rolled, brown and curled,
Twisted into rustling dance,
A bustled girl.
--Joan _____, 1980
This hopeful, yet honest, poem about old age and dying, has about it the quality of a children’s fairy tale. If I recall accurately, she was in her early sixties when she wrote it, many years before she passed in 2019. To me, at least, she appeared much younger, with skin of cream and pink carnation. She might have leapt from the pages of a children’s book, a fairy godmother or at least somebody’s magical aunt. There was about her a perpetual youth, as if she were making up for lost time. Her aches and pains slowed but did not stop her. Later, confined to an electric wheelchair because walking was excruciating, she eschewed complaints; they were anathema to her. Having passed through despair, depression, anger, and disappointment, she had chosen to cultivate her plucky side, her humor, her appreciation of people who noticed her with kindness and respect.
Joanie moved into an assisted living facility several hundred miles away. We kept in touch through another move, though with illness, and my relocation to another state, there was an extended lapse. In my concern I called the home, and learned that she had passed. What I wished to say could no longer be said.
In her last letter, Joan wrote of the many activities available to residents--and of how many she attended. She wrote about exercise and wheelchair dancing, and in a video, she showed the most expression of all the seated dancers. Among the numerous residents with whom she socialized, she cultivated several friends. I wondered much later if they drank Joan’s tea while they played table games.
Joan feels alive to me, the way someone does when so endeared that she is become an unshakable part of you. As I age, my admiration for this transcendent lady increases many a measure. A person is a hero when, despite disappointments and pain, the force of her personality causes one to forget everything but her presence; Joanie’s was full of story and good will, mirth, and faith.
Though I never saw her in her wheelchair, I imagine her rising above it, hovering so subtly one would notice only by peering sharply at the wee space between Joan’s bottom and the seat cushion. I miss Joan, and only two regrets have I about knowing her. One is that we did not have more time together, and the second is that more of her did not rub off on me. Who knows? Perhaps I will be blessed with another go. In case, I do have one quite lovely teapot that will do.
*Her last name is omitted to ensure her memory and her family’s privacy. Over the long years, I may have lost the accuracy of some facts and details. However, the essence of the story is ethical and true.