Memories of a Lifetime

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In which I say good-bye to my mom

Or as Tom put it, The Book of Claudia, Chapter 1. (And thanks again, Tom, for reading this at the memorial).
Donna Joan Johnston Konicki. As Shakespeare said… a Rose by any other name…

And in her case, certainly the story worth the telling and remembering.

The story of a small girl of 7 or 8 who came home from school and announced to her family she would no longer answer to the name Donna. There was a girl in her class named Donna who Picked. Her. Nose. And she didn't want to be mistaken for HER! From then on, she declared, her name would be JoAn. And don't think a small child's will won't be followed. From then on, she simply refused to answer to Donna. Ignored anyone who called her Donna, even her parents. Unless and until they called her JoAn, they did not exist. (One can only imagine the closed-eye stare she must have given everyone.)

JoAn grew up in the East End of Dayton during the Great Depression – an experience that no doubt explains her habit of saving twist ties, rubber bands and magazines. She came of age in the Downtown Dayton of the War Years. Later she would tell stories of going downtown to the movies or shopping and working in the bargain basement of a now non-existent department store. Other stories of the hardships her parents endured to raise her and the rest of their children – Grandpa walking to work every day to save the nickel carfare so that on Sundays he could take his children out for ice cream, Grandma boiling chicken feet for soup. On the fourth of July they'd have feasts of fresh corn on the cob and fresh watermelon in the backyard. That was the entire meal. She always said they didn't know they were poor, because everyone was poor.

As the Depression eased and the War started, Grandma opened her home to GI's in need of a meal or just in need of the comforts of home. Uncle Gene would bring home his buddies and through that connection she met a young man from North Dayton whom she later married.

JoAn was born 18 months before the start of the Great Depression. She lived to see the start and finish of many Wars…WWII, The Cold War, the Korean War, Vietnam. Television was still in its infancy, a transatlantic flight was a novelty and computers, space flight and moon walks were the stuff of science fiction.

She turned 80 last year. We had a big celebration of her life. Everyone was asked to record their memories of Aunt Joan. In re-reading the stories from her nieces and nephews there is one central theme…laughter. Everyone remembers the laughter when she was around. Laughing for joy at being with her family – her siblings, her nieces and nephews and her children. Playing games. Reading. But mostly, the laughter.

People remember her creativity – the sewing and crafting, the knitting and crocheting. Nieces remember proudly wearing clothes she made for them. Nephews remember playing board games and Uno. But everyone remembers the laughter. She might have sometimes sounded like that silly dog in the cartoons when she laughed, but that didn't stop her. She just laughed harder when we pointed it out to her.

She loved to spend time with her sister, Virginia. She once told someone that visiting Virginia was like going to her own little cabin in the woods.

She never stopped missing her mother, her father and Tom, the brother who died in young adulthood. And she loved her baby brother Ned most of all.

The second half of her life was hard for her. After her husband died she had to make her way in a world she was unprepared to take on. That didn't stop her. When her own business failed, she went to work at Saint E's and ran their gift shop for many years. And as her children grew up and left the nest the laughter didn't come as easily to her, but still she managed to hang on to her sense of humor and her ability to see the absurdity in everyday situations. As she aged and life kept throwing her curveballs she began to lose that capacity. But still, when among family that old spark would light up her eyes and she'd enthusiastically join in whatever joking and story telling was going on around her.

We'll miss her. Our lives are all richer for having known her. She was our sister, our grandmother, our mother, our aunt and our friend. Rest in peace, little Joan, and know that someday we will see you again. And when we do, we'll be sure to call you Joan so you recognize us.


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