community, nostalgia, remembering, Uncategorized

Meeting Joanne

2023 marks fifty years since Joanne sat down across from me at my desk in the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin, smiled warmly at me, and said: “Do you golf?”

I answered: “I haven’t, but I could try.” I have never tried, in 50 years. But Joanne is still a good friend, to me, and to my husband, Jeff.

We were both Claims Representatives at the Social Security office in Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’d arrived at the office in June of 1973, after three months of training in the Minneapolis office. In March, I’d driven my red VW bug to Minneapolis while I received training, and now I was permanently assigned to Green Bay. When I came to the office, I was the first woman to work as a Claims Representative in that District, helping folks who were about to retire to complete their claim for benefits. Joanne would follow, a couple of months later. She’d been promoted from her job as a Service Representative. As a Service Representative, she’d helped folks with issues they had after they had begun to receive benefits: Retirement, Disability, Child’s Benefits. In the time I worked at Social Security, in the Green Bay office, at the office on the South Side of Milwaukee, and later, as a Field Representative out of the Waukesha office, I never ran into a person who performed the job better than Joanne. She read each of the papers that came across our desk each week, filing them in the proper place in her copy of the Social Security Manuel, the working details of implementing the Social Security Law. She was smart and competent, the hardest worker I knew.

We traveled together, driving to the Northeast, to Florida, to Washington, D.C., to Montreal and Quebec on our vacation times. We met one another’s friends. We lamented our lack of dates. We shared recipes. We took rides together on warm summer nights, ending up on the Eastern Shore of Green Bay, watching the sun set over the Bay. When I was able, I moved back to Milwaukee, and Joanne followed, not long after. She bought a little house and she spent her weekends and evenings working hard on that house. Joanne can do anything, in my estimation.

The contractor that helped her with one of her house projects told her that there was a nice, young, divorced man who lived in a house around the corner. He wanted them to meet. Sure enough, Rich and Joanne began to date, and after a couple of years, they married, in the spring of 1983. They moved into his little house in the neighborhood, and later, a larger house. In 2014, they moved into a home they’d built on a small lake in the county to the west of Milwaukee County. Joanne had accomplished her life long dream to live on the water.

I was in seminary when Joanne and Rich were married, and she stood up with me in my wedding to Jeff in Milwaukee in March of 1984. In later years, after I’d moved to California, she and my mother became good friends, baking and cooking together, enjoying one another. When my mother’s memory became bad and she needed help, Joanne visited her and answered her frantic phone calls, until we knew she had to move to be closer to me in California.

A few years ago – 2016 – I answered the phone in the kitchen on Labor Day, in the evening, when Jeff and I were about to go to bed. I heard Joanne’s voice then, and I heard something in it I hadn’t heard before. “Joanne?” I asked. And then again: “Joanne?” She told me that she and Rich had spent the day in Emergency at a local hospital. Rich had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that originates in the brain. By October 15 of that year, Rich was gone. Jeff and I made sure we cleared our calendars and made the trip to be at his Memorial. There, Joanne was surrounded by so many friends that she and Rich had made over the years, both Rich and Joanne folks who were important to the community in which they lived.

Joanne came to visit us in Oakland this past winter. She’d arrived from Wisconsin, hoping for some nice, sunny weather. Winter can be long and gray in the Midwest, and sadly, winter here was long and gray, also, one rain storm following another for days. But the conversation that started so long ago in Green Bay continued, and since Joanne was visiting, we explored some interesting places in the Bay Area.

Next week, Jeff and I will be flying to O’Hare Field in Chicago, where we’ll rent a car and drive to spend the first night of our trip with Joanne in her house on the water. We won’t run out of things to talk about, the three of us, and together, we’ll make sure we remember Rich, how he made us laugh, how he made Joanne laugh.