Leora (Jo) was a life long resident of Southwestern Iowa, and was a member of the Council Bluffs community for the last 58 years. Leora was a stay at home mom who from time to time babysat other children to help make ends meet. Leora had a kind and nurturing soul, that influenced all the children she guided and cared for over the years. Leora’s smile, straight forward attitude, and say what’s on your mind nature will be forever missed.
Its been two years since Jo died. Its interesting how obituaries can sum up a person’s life so nicely in one short paragraph, yet still be so lacking in the loss and grief that we leave behind. This is a lovely paragraph. It gets right exactly who she was very succinctly. She was 94 when she died. She had a long, good life and was ready to go. There are obituaries like hers every day.
But for me, I felt like there should have been a banner headline on the front page of the Nonpareil.
End of an Era
All of Southwest Iowa should have shut down. People should have lined the streets. The MidAmerica Center should have been filled for her funeral. Its what happened a few days after her funeral when a police officer was tragically killed in the line of duty. Of course, I understood why it happened for him and not her. I understood why, after 94 years, only about 30 or so people were left to show up at her small memorial service. (and I also understood that it was her desire to keep the memorial service very low key and private.) But, this is how it felt for me.
It was a weird week for me to come back to Council Bluffs, Iowa for her funeral. I had not been back for 9 years. 2008 was the last time I saw her. We hugged when saying goodbye. Both of us not saying it but knowing it could be the last time we saw each other. It was. It was hard to get back for her funeral as I don’t drive, my family of origin had moved away years ago, and I didn’t even know how I was going to get to the small town of Glenwood for her funeral until thankfully, my sister drove up from Kansas to get me. I was staying with a very sweet aunt who was driving me around. It was rainy almost the entire time I was there. One of the most painful moments was when my aunt and uncle drove me by Jo’s house (already sold) and I realized I would never again run up those stairs to the porch and swing on the porch swing, or step inside and see the one constant of my life for 46 years, Jo.
Jo and I are not related. She was my babysitter from the time I was born until I was around 10. But I had a lifelong relationship with her and my friends coined the term “Lisa’s fake grandmother” for her. Some of my earliest memories are of her and at her house. I arguably spent more of my baby-toddler- and preschool years with her than with my mother. I remember calling her “mom” for many years, because she was a mom-type person and that’s what you called the women who took care of you.
I have a hundred little bits of memories of Jo’s house. “Going to Jo’s” was just something you did. I remember her reading books to me as I rocked in her lap. There was always coffee (with powdered coffee mate) sitting on the floor and we were not to bump it. I remember that during 2:00-3:00pm, you had to be quiet and rest because the soap opera “Another World” was on. I remember being sent down to the corner grocer, Beirshank’s, to get a few items for her and having an extra few cents for sixlets candy or in the summer, a freezy. I remember how she would say these expressions like “Well, shoot a blind bug!” I remember digging for worms in the backyard, staying out of her garden, and riding around the block on my big wheel. I remember how we would just hang out on the large front porch and random people in the neighborhood would come up and sit down and talk for awhile.
I could go on and on with these little memories. But I think why she remained in our lives even after we got too old to be babysat was mostly because of my mother. I think my mother valued Jo’s family as our bonus extended family as much as I did. We did not have strong relationships with our biological grandparents. My paternal grandmother was a Jehova’s Witness and we were not. I believe she was a kind, well intentioned woman who felt that she must expose us to as much of the JW religion as possible. Thus, the time we spent with her was not really all of that enjoyable for us and the religious differences caused tension in the relationships within the family. Mostly, I don’t think we saw her that often.
My mother was not close with her mother. There was a history of domestic abuse, poverty and alcoholism there. I know that some of my cousins saw a different side to my maternal grandmother and became close. My feelings are much more neutral. I recall being in the same room with my grandmother at family events, but have very few memories of any sort of personal interaction with her whatsoever. One of the only ones I have is when, at my uncle’s wedding, she came up to me and taped a bow from a wedding gift on my dress. Then she walked off. I kept that bow in a tin box for years. But that is one of the only memories I have of her interacting with me, personally.
So, Jo’s family became sort of my first notion of the concept of a “chosen family.” And I think my mother nurtured those bonds. When I was 11, Jo’s husband, Irvin, died suddenly. I remember going to her house that day and it was filled with people. I remember Jo getting up from the table and coming over and hugging my sister and I and saying, “Can you believe it, girls?” which instantly turned us into tears. At his funeral, we sat behind the curtain in the private family area and my dad was a pallbearer. I had been to other funerals, but it was my first big loss. Afterwards, Jo took on quite a few more children, and my mother would drive me over to her house on the weekends and in the summers to help take care of the kids and keep Jo company. I enjoyed helping with the kids and it was one of the first notions that maybe I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I also remember one of those weekend visits, Jo suddenly announced we were going to Glenwood to visit Irvin’s sister. We went and visited (and I remember playing with a little dog) and when we left, Jo said, “I just couldn’t walk in here alone. I had to wait till I had someone to go with me.” And (it was either Edith or Virginia?) said, “Kids make it all seem a little better.” I was glad I was able to do something to help.
At Jo’s funeral, I realized how much I had been involved in these people’s lives through Jo. As a kid, I remember going around to little towns like Glenwood and Red Oak on memorial day with Jo and putting flowers on graves and visiting relatives. I remember visiting one of her sisters farms and playing in a lake in the back yard with inter tubes. I became friends with a girl my age named Shanelle, whose mother was Donna, Jo’s niece. We visited often and took sewing to her house. Once, we swam in a huge horse trough that they had in their backyard and turned into a pool. Other visits were with the Palser family, another of her nieces. Her niece’s son, John was a baby that I “got” when I was seven. He started coming to Jo’s house for child care and I took care of him like he was my own baby doll. I saw him almost every day for probably his first 4 or 5 years. I know he doesn’t even remember me now, but I loved that kid.
Jo’s children, Roger and Carol were like rock stars to us. Roger had this long hair and was an artist. He painted this psychedelic mural in Jo’s basement that was in a room with a black light. I liked to turn on the black light and make that mural scare the crap out of me. It looked so creepy! Once, Roger and his wife, took my sister and I to his house on a secret mission to take pictures of us as a gift for our mom. We took some inside shots, but then we went outside and he took pictures of my sister and I throwing snow on each other. It was a lot of fun. He made a mosaic of pictures for my parents, and they hung it up on our wall for years. I’m sure my dad or sister still have those pictures somewhere.
Carol was so beautiful and glamorous. I thought she looked like Cher. I was jealous of my sister who got to be a flower girl in her wedding. Her husband at the time, Jim, always did magic tricks. We would sometimes go to their house to visit in Oakland, Iowa. It was the coolest house. It had three buildings, and a fountain on the patio and the upstairs had all of these little nooks and crannies to hide in. One of the buildings was a game room and had pool tables and foos ball and stuff. They also had a music room with an organ with all of these buttons to play. They were always kind to us and were lots of fun. My mom hired Carol one summer when I was about 12 to hang out with me, because I think she felt bad that I was all alone in the house over the summer. Carol and I would go to movies and different places. I remember going to see E.T. with her and also to Peony Park. I was at a really awkward age and was probably a pain to put up with, but she did.
My mom understood a child’s need to have other adults in their lives than just immediate family. Jo was always the “back up” parent. Both literally, like when my parents went out of town, and figuratively. My parents didn’t fight a lot, but once they fought about something and I got it in my head that they were going to divorce. I called Jo and said my parents were going to divorce. She listened to me, then said something about how everyone fights and she doubted they were going to divorce and to just let it go. When my sister became upset because a classmate’s mother died, I remember her being very worried that our parents would die, too. After trying to reassure her that my parents were not likely to die soon, Jo finally threw up her hands and said, “well, if they do, I’ll take care of you.” During my teenage years, we had moved to Omaha. There was a sign near our house that said “Council Bluffs – 17 miles.” To me, that sign meant it was 17 miles to Jo’s house. This didn’t seem that far to me. I figured if I ever needed to run away, I could go 17 miles and make it to Jo’s house. (As if that wouldn’t have been the first place my parents would have looked.) I never ran away, but Jo was my back-up plan.
Except I did sort of run away later on. In 1993, I had a very weird summer. I just got my first guide dog where I met my (now husband) Nik. He was from Sweden, living in Canada, and when I tried to figure out whether I could live in Canada, they rejected me because of my disabilities. Then, I had a bad kidney infection and ended up in the hospital. Then, I found out my university was refusing to let me student teach, even though I had good grades and good practicum reviews. Then, I lost my summer job at a Head Start preschool because someone’s parent didn’t like dogs. I felt defeated. It was all this discrimination socked at me at once. I called Jo one day and said, is it okay if I just show up and stay at your house for awhile? She said, “yes, when?” I said, “in about 2 hours or so.” She didn’t bat and eye. I took a greyhound and a cab and slept on her couch and walked around for a week. Then I went back to school, cut my losses with Nik and Head Start, and worked on getting a student teaching placement myself. It was a needed respite so I could get back in the fight.
Jo had a way of being sympathetic without pity; understanding but without accepting any drama or nonsense. She once had a friend named Opal who would call her and talk incessantly. Sometimes she would motion for us to call her and act like we were hurt or needed her so she could get off the phone. I asked her why she talked to her if she always wanted to get off the phone. She said that “Opal needs someone to listen to her but not put up with her drama.” That pretty much describes Jo. She would listen to you and be understanding, but she would cut you off if you couldn’t get over yourself or your problems and just tell you to get on with it.
Over time, as I moved on with college and my own life. I saw less and less of Jo and her family. But I would call her often and I would always get all the updates on the grandkids and neighbors and family members. At the funeral, I talked briefly with her four grandchildren and wondered if they knew that Jo gave me regular updates on their lives for the past 40+ years. “Is it ok that I know all about you?” But now, all the sudden, I no longer will.
The day after the funeral, I found myself in Lincoln, Nebraska on a Sunday. On Monday I had some work meetings and was going to visit friends. On this day I was going to just hang out and walk around my alma mater. But it was cold and pouring down rain, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I just laid there all day, surrounded by some pictures that Roger had given us at the memorial service. I had fits of crying and laughing. I tried to write something like this, but mostly I just laid there in a daze. At some point, I had a little Eureka moment. I realized that Jo was one of the very few people in my life where I was just “Lisa.” I was not the Deafblind one, or the needy one, or the perpetual baby of the family, or the radical one, I just was who I was.
Over the last few years, it became really hard for me to deal with the phone with my hearing loss. And Jo was one of those older people who never really embraced the internet. It became a difficult thing to communicate with her, especially as she got older and sicker. Roger was a great help to me in this area as he would take my emails to her and read them. And he made a video of her for me where the first thing she said was the one thing I always knew. “Girls, you know I love you.”
Whether biological or not, the bonds we choose for ourselves and love unconditionally are the strongest. Grieving is having lost the direction to put that love that still exists. So we have memorials and plant trees and write long tributes. And we try to appreciate and perhaps carry on the gifts we were given that are still ours.
Leora had a kind and nurturing soul, that influenced all the children she guided and cared for over the years. Leora’s smile, straight forward attitude, and say what’s on your mind nature will be forever missed.