Grace and kindness personified

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My very kind and beautiful  mother-in-law passed away on Monday following a brief illness.  It is hard to believe; we saw her just four weeks ago when we went back for a visit, and all of this is so unexpected and awful.  I want to pay tribute to her here, though I write this knowing that anything I write pales in comparison to the lovely soul she was.  But I am going to try.

If you spent even five minutes in Joan’s company, you could tell that she was a class act.  Even better, Joan was class plus kindness.  Even though she was beautiful and gracious and stylish and well-read and intelligent, she did not have a snobbish bone in her body.  She was warm and loving and humble and real.  I’ve known her for thirteen years, and I don’t think I have ever heard her say a bad word about anyone.

From the first time I met her, she welcomed me and made me feel so at home.  I’ve never been able to relate to mother-in-law jokes, not even in the slightest, because she was the polar opposite of the stereotypical overbearing force.  She was comforting, thoughtful, quietly encouraging.

Joan also wrote cards rather than emails, something that is increasingly rare these days.  It is hard to think that there will not be anymore of those, written in her neat cursive, in our mailbox.  They were always very newsy, full of information about what she and Bob were up to, which was usually a lot; she was very active in volunteer organizations of different kinds in the community, and her absence will be felt by more than just her family and close friends.  She was the epitome of a civic-minded person whose involvement was driven not by a need for personal accolades, but purely by a love of the community of Oneonta, New York, where she lived.

She was such a terrific grandmother, too, whether she was sending cards for the boys for holidays or playing endless rounds of tic-tac-toe with Matthew  (she lost with much better grace than her young grandson did).  When we visited them in New York he loved to play badminton with her, and it’s not every woman in her late seventies who can keep up with a kid’s boundless energy.  She loved the boys so much, and I am grateful for the memories we have:  for the photos of them sitting on either side of Grandma as she reads a bedtime story, for the times we rented boats and spent an afternoon enjoying the rocky wooded beauty of Otsego Lake, for the joy in her faces when she saw each of her young grandsons for the first time.

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I was looking around the house the other day and thinking about all of the gifts Joan has given me over the years.  There is the small pewter angel, the plaque saying “How Does Your Garden Grow?” (she knew I loved gardening), the Hummel figurine she gave us when Matthew was born, so many sweet and thoughtful things.

Then I thought about the best gift she gave me.  That gift is Scott.    So much of the person he is comes from his mom.  It’s a gift not just to me, but to everyone who knows him, who encounters the gentle strength that he learned in large part from her.  A great mother is a beautiful, powerful thing.

These past few days, the idea of the communion of saints has been such a comfort. When my friend Mary died, I got such solace from picturing her up in heaven, still her wonderful self, only healed from the illness that she suffered.  I feel the same way about Joan.  I have no doubt that she continues to care for and love us, only this time from a perch in heaven, where there is no such thing as illness and where her body and strength are restored to badminton-playing levels.

The other day, when I told the boys that Grandma Joan had died, Matthew wanted to know what she was doing now.  I told her she was arriving in heaven, and that people she loved were probably running out to greet her.  I like to picture her being welcomed by her parents and her brother Jerry, and other friends and family who went before her, so overjoyed to be with her again.

Those of us here will miss her terribly.  But somehow it helps to think of her still surrounded by love, by people who love her, and to know that her love reaches out to us still as we navigate this new world without her.

And these words help me, too:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone.”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says “There, she is gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout “Here she comes!” 

  — Henry Van Dyke

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I love you, Joan.  Thank you for everything.

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