Joan F. Robertson, 1936-2012
Posted on March 18, 2013
Most families have at least one eccentric, someone whose habits, appearance or lifestyle depart from the conventional. In my family it was my sister, Joanie.
She wasn’t eccentric in a bad way. In many ways, she was a remarkable person. She went halves with me on my first guitar. When my parents couldn’t afford it, she paid to have my teeth straightened. Though her own vision was fine, she learned to read braille to teach it to the blind. She prepared meals for the homeless. Most of her charitable works she kept to herself. When she died, most of the family knew nothing about them.
At her funeral, the thing that struck me most was how normal all of her friends looked – stylish, contemporary women living in the here and now. Joanie lived, to the extent she could, in a world of her own making.
If you happened to see her at one of her hangouts — Albertsons at 16th and State, Arnie’s Beauty Salon or the Elks Rehabilitation Hospital, where she worked almost until her dying day at age 75, you’d have remembered her. Her hair was a ’60s bouffant lacquered into submission with copious amounts of hair spray. Her makeup in her later years: vintage Sophia Loren. Her unfailing attire: black, low-heeled slip-ons; black, polyester slacks and a billowing, brightly colored print blouse.
Her habits didn’t die hard; they didn’t die at all. She drove her cars until they expired of old age, literally. When one ended its requisite decades of service with a repair bill exceeding the value of the car itself, she mourned. Then she bought a newer car and proceeded to drive it till its wheels fell off. She drove for nearly 60 years, and in all that time I remember her having four cars. If one hadn’t been totaled, it would have been three.
Long after color television sets had become the norm, she defiantly stayed with a black and white. The telephone in her kitchen was a bakelite Bell with a dial, dating to at least the 1950s and possibly to Alexander Graham Bell himself.
“Why should I get a new phone?” she would huff. “This one works perfectly fine!”
She could huff with the best of them and was particularly hair-triggered with our mother. They regularly got into arguments over such profound matters as whether the trim paint on our old house was pink or salmon. The spats would escalate until, in a terminal huff, Joanie would deliver one of her trademark epithets – “Oh, my aching foot!” or “Gadfrey Agnes!” – grab her cavernous black purse and storm out of the house.
The flip side was that she could be infectiously cheerful. She loved to retell stories about funny things that occurred years ago, laughing as much as when they actually happened. It made everyone else laugh along with her, no matter how many times we’d already heard the story. It was those times, I think, when I loved her best.
She was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. She had a nursing degree but worked at a clerical job beneath her training or encyclopedic knowledge for the simple reason that she didn’t want to make a change, even if it meant moving up.
Change of any kind she abhorred, resisted, railed against. She took the same route to work every day, went shopping on the same day at the same store every week, lived in the same house with the same furniture for half a century. Her clothing and hairstyle didn’t change from the time she was a teenager. She had a standing hair appointment at the same time on the same day at the same place every week. While the rest of the family traveled, she stayed home. Including the family vacations of our youth, I can think of four times when she left Idaho, and rarely the city limits of Boise.
Her five-room home was the one she and her husband purchased as newlyweds and where they were living when both of their sons were born. It was painted gray, a color that didn’t change throughout her tenure there. If his tenure had been longer, there might have been changes. They divorced when the boys were small.
He remarried; she didn’t. She raised their sons alone, remaining on good terms with both of them for life. If you know a single parent or are one, you know what a feat that is. She’d have done anything for her boys. Family and her faith were everything to her. She was an unreconstructed, old-school Catholic who believed that the church had taken a wrong turn at the Vatican II Council, which decreed that mass would be said in the vernacular, and that the true faith was that kept alive by a handful of itinerant priests who said it in Latin and otherwise clung to the old ways. Years passed without a visit from one of these increasingly aged and idiosyncratic men, but she continued to pray her rosary and read from her dog-eared prayerbook almost to her dying day. At its heart, Vatican II was her old nemesis: change.
Our extended family had a tradition of getting together for Sunday dinners. The hosts rotated weekly, from Joanie to our parents to my wife and me. One of the many things my sister did well was cook. Her baked-ham dinners and pineapple upside down cakes were universal crowd pleasers. She had an unsettling predilection, however, for trying new recipes gleaned from women’s magazines. Most had at least an even chance of backfiring. And over time, the strain of the mandatory Sunday dinners took its toll. They consumed a big part of the weekend that could have been devoted to other things and were resented by those who had to cancel other plans, mainly me. In time I would come to regret that.
The get-togethers ended abruptly with a family rift that never entirely healed, the cause of which is best left unsaid. All families have things they don’t talk about; that’s ours. It’s enough to say that for the last nine years of her life, we rarely saw my sister. We invited her repeatedly for Christmas and Thanksgiving, but the response invariably was silence. The chasm was too great for her to cross.
She was ten years older than me and as much a second mother as a sister when we were growing up. She was my only sibling, and it was important to win her approval.
The night before her older son was born, she came to hear my band play for a prom at Boise High School. We used to joke that it was climbing the gym bleachers that brought Kevin into the world. That night was the first and one of the few times she ever heard us play, and I wanted desperately for her to say we’d done well. The truth, however, was that to her we most likely were unbearable. She was Lawrence Welk and Rodgers & Hammerstein; we were the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield. She never said we were bad, but she almost never said we were good. Though I didn’t expect her to like our music, the withheld praise stung a little. It was she, after all, who had started me down that road with a pawnshop guitar.
Did I mention that she was actually my half-sister? My parents didn’t, either, until I was 16. Mom dropped the bomb casually on her way out the door to work one morning.
“Did you know that your father and I were both married before?” she asked, which was a little like asking whether I knew the house had been struck by a tsunami.
“Well, we were,” she continued. “That man who brings a Christmas present for Joanie every year is her father. Any questions?”
Only a hundred or so, none of which was ever asked. My folks only discussed their past lives on rare occasions when they thought circumstances demanded it, and then briefly and in tones that said “don’t ask.” They’d both been dead for years before I learned some of their secrets.
Different fathers went a long way toward explaining why Joanie and I were so different. Physically, we looked nothing alike. And our tastes and temperaments were entirely different.
I liked John Lennon; she liked the Lennon Sisters.
She was a homebody; I was and still am smitten by the desire to see the world. She often asked when I returned from a trip to some distant place what it was like. She was interested in the world, just not in seeing it.
While she kept her home looking almost exactly the same for half a century, seldom changing or replacing anything unless it broke or wore out, I was continually buying different houses, moving, remodeling, changing. And with every change made during what I came to think of as the lost years, I wondered what she would think of it.
She was the last member of the family I grew up with, and losing the last relative you shared your childhood with is a game changer. In a flash, you appreciate more than ever how mortal you are, how little time you truly have left. You also realize that no matter what you do, none of the people who once meant everything are left to impress.
Do we ever fully outgrow our childhoods? I’m a father of three and grandfather of four. I’ve traveled the world, written books, retired from a job I loved, made a bit of a name for myself. I’m a big boy now. And I’m still, and always will be, looking for approval from my big sister.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in the Idaho Statesman’s Life section. For readers who don’t take the Statesman, it is posted on this free blog, www.woodwardblog.com, the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.