Discover more from GODDAMN BUFFALO
Joyce and Me
Farewell Cousin, Fly Away
JOYCE DIED TODAY in a hospital in Daytona, Florida two hours after they removed the breathing tube and whatever else they use to keep a body going. Her kidneys had shut down and other organs too. Sepsis and a virtual coma after collapsing at home in Ormond Beach. I don’t yet know the cause but she laid there where she’d fallen for several days before an online friend called the police who broke in and found her, eyes open but unresponsive. My sister Mary, a retired nurse, flew immediately from Phoenix and stayed with her while she slipped away. Joyce was our only cousin on my father’s side, my childhood playmate in the ancient times, an equal presence my entire adult life. I’d like to share a few things only I might know to make her real for you.
Joyce was only a few months older than I am. We saw each other very seldom as adults —there’s a reason for that—but kept in touch throughout the years. Such a generous soul. When she finally collected her inheritance after her father died—he’d “locked it up” in a fearful arrangement that took years to get undone—she bought my late wife Kathy a brand-new Kawai baby grand piano... We’d just moved from Maryland to New Mexico after selling her old one and couldn’t afford a replacement. Joyce loved music, played piano and guitar herself, and wanted to help. Stunning when I think about it. Kathy named the Kawai “Black Pearl” and never let Joyce forget how grateful she was.
Joyce had something of a rough time after high school. Her father (my Uncle Bob), a well-regarded small town doctor, was a tyrant in his own home. The worst sin he could imagine was spending money. To cite just one example, he and Aunt Elsie bought their house in 1948 but Bob never let Elsie remodel the pre-war kitchen with no cabinets. (I was last there in the ‘70s. It was true and “Dr. Farr” was hardly poor.1) The second worst sin was the one Joyce committed when she came home for Christmas during her senior year of college and told him she was quitting her pre-med major.2 He exploded in a rage and kicked her out of the house in a blizzard on Christmas Eve, tossing her suitcase behind her into the snow. She never went back home again until he died.3
That’s why Joyce and I rarely saw each other as grown-ups and never again in Chestertown. After being disowned by her father, she moved to Florida and built a comfortable career as a clinical lab technologist. I ended up in Maryland myself again in ‘75 after moving from Austin to Maine, of all places, and giving up on that, taking advantage of my grandmother’s house in Chestertown being vacant for the summer. I soon fell in with a group of local artists, musicians, and weirdos and decided to stay. Kent County was a post-hippie paradise on the Eastern Shore back then—sailing, fishing, boating, cheap rent, peace and quiet. You wouldn’t believe how good it was.4 A year later I met Kathy who was teaching at the local college and also playing organ at Bob and Elsie’s church. It was Joyce’s mother who suggested I look up Kathy, in fact, telling me she’d recently gotten divorced “but I don’t think she’s seeing anyone.” Without that push from Elsie, I might never have discovered the love of my life.
Elsie died sometime in the late ‘90s, I believe. Joyce may have come back for the funeral which Kathy and I attended but I doubt it. I simply don’t remember. (If she had, she wouldn’t have spoken to her father.) The funeral was outdoors behind the church in nice warm weather with her mother in an open casket underneath a tent. What I remember most is Bob trying to crawl into the casket with her at the end. Crazed with grief, I suppose, although he’d treated Elsie quite terribly for a long time and I couldn’t imagine him ever missing anyone at all.
My father and Uncle Bob were brothers, obviously, both from Chestertown though Dad joined the Army Air Corps and Bob was there forever. That’s how I got to know Joyce before I even went to kindergarten. We played together all the time whenever I was there. Once after a violent thunderstorm we found a wet exhausted bat clinging to a tree trunk in the alley behind their house. She ran back inside to find an empty shoebox and I pried the bat down with a stick. We were so elated! The animal had recovered by then and hissed whenever we took the lid off, so we took him (?) to the house in triumph to show the grown-ups. They were not impressed and told us to put it back. I’ve never forgotten and don’t think Joyce did, though I never thought to ask her when I could have. That’s the way it always is. The greatest things we ever do go right back in the soup when we are gone so raise hell now or pout in heaven.
While we were still very young [see above], we were almost inseparable. Our parents let us sleep in the same bed once at Granny’s house but someone rolled a blanket up to put between us. My grandmother was a preacher’s daughter from darkest West Virginia and likely knew a thing or two about fitting cousins into a bed. We had a fine time sliding hands beneath the barrier to tickle each other and giggled all night long.
When I was still in third grade and living in Virginia, my Air Force father was transferred to Germany and we all went with him for four years overseas. When we came back to the States we moved to Texas for another four. I don’t remember seeing Joyce in all that time, but after Dad retired from the Air Force, he got a position flying for the Federal Aviation Agency out of what was still called Idlewild outside New York City. For the six weeks it took him to find a house to buy in Nassau County on Long Island, the rest of the family lived in Chestertown with Granny. (That comes up a lot, doesn’t it?5) During that time I went to Chestertown High School, literally across the street from our front door, and Joyce and I got to know each other again, this time as teenagers.
The best thing about Chestertown High—the only good thing, actually—was that the enrollment was so small, I had the same classmates all day long and Joyce was one of them. This smoothed over my anxiety at being “new” and gave me clout. Regrettably, most of the teachers were a joke. The elderly math teacher didn’t teach and neither did the biology teacher. We all had workbooks and proceeded at our own pace. For biology we never saw the fellow—also a coach I think—and had free rein in the lab. (Do not ever do this.) We blew up frogs in vacuum jars, set many things on fire, and threw the evidence out the windows. It was all hilarious though and Joyce was there.
I never saw her much after that and I am poorer for it. If she were here now I could ask if she remembers the frogs. I cried for her today and also for my sister Mary who had to authorize the comfort care and extubation. (Oh Lord, I know the drill.) She had a long-time partner, too, a woman named Jo whom I met once. Mary was in Joyce’s house to look for papers and told me that Jo’s ashes are on the mantlepiece…
Everybody misses someone if they’re lucky. See that someone misses you!
I could write a book about him but I won’t. Every instance of his imagined penury hurt people closest to him and himself. During the Depression people on the Eastern Shore thought sandy waterfront farms were all but worthless. Some of his patients, black folks especially, tried to sign deeds over to him as payment but he always refused. He could have died a king instead of someone people told stories about like how he always put plastic bags inside one another when buying fruit so he could get some “free” ones. It boggles the mind.
Whether he regarded her “only” earning a Bachelor of Science degree instead of pre-med a waste of his investment or was outraged that she wouldn’t be a doctor, who can say?
Some details of my cousin’s life are likely “off” for obvious reasons. If I learn differently from the obituary I’ll come back here and make some edits.
Granny could chop off a chicken’s head without a blink. Beneath the swearing and the drinking, our tough-guy old man was a momma’s boy.