It seems I’ve been writing a lot about loss lately. These posts are not intended to be eulogies as much as acknowledgements of lives that matter to me. Tributes. The most recent death is Dad’s sister, Joanna Hunter Hathcock.
This one took our breath away with its suddenness. A reminder that life is short and you never know how much time you have left. That things rarely go as expected. A rude awaking, really…which smashes into our worlds without warning. A phone call. A shocked breath. Numbness. Disbelief. We are all still there. I know the tears and sadness are hovering close by, but our brains have not yet adjusted to this new reality.
My Aunt Joanna was around 13 years younger than my dad. I remember going to her house when we were kids. She had 3 boys, younger than us, but not by much. Our cousins. The only first cousins we have. We used to play with them at holidays and sometimes at my grandparents’ place on the beach at Anna Maria Island in Florida. And Joanna was always there, serving food to everyone.
I also remember at the beach she had deep olive skin, as runs in my dad’s family. Her hair was long and dark like a raven and wavy. When I was a little girl, I thought she was exotic and beautiful. She never saw herself that way though, and she ran from the camera every chance she got.
Therefore, the main pictures I have of her are all from when she was a child. When Dad and Mom starting going steady at 16 and 13, Joanna was around 3. Having a little sister so much younger made the protective big brother role all the more important. It was like having a built-in child when she would accompany them on dates. She and Mom got along then and when Joanna grew up they remained friends who both loved all things hospitality. Making a table beautiful with the food prepared upon it was a specialty. Making a room beautiful with color and just the right piece of furniture or painting was something at which they both excelled.
Parties and gatherings made them happy. I have a very distinct memory of Joanna peeling hundreds of boiled shrimp for my wedding reception to help out. She just laughed and kept peeling, in the HOT summer heat. I know she did much more than the shrimp…much much more, but that memory is like a snapshot of her in my brain. It shows her helping spirit and the joy she had when she was in her element…hot or not. If Dad has always been a fixer, then Joanna was always a helper. She and Mom were alike that way.
I also think she was one of the first women to get a minority business grant for women and other minorities to start their own companies. She went into the highway business with Dad and Granddaddy. What courage! That was a brave move! A group of family businesses and they all worked together to build them. Dad the type A bulldog, Granddaddy the quiet stoic one, and Joanna the colorful woman. They could not have been more different, but complimentary I think.
The big company Christmas party each year took an army to pull off…age appropriate presents for every child of an employee…a turkey for every family…Santa…raffles…bonus checks…and, of course, tables of food. Appreciation of the employees was at the top of the Christmas list and I know Joanna’s hand was in the mix. Melinda and I remember being invited to wrap the gifts for the kids and feeling like such grown-ups, because we knew more than Santa did about what they were getting.
After my grandfather died, Joanna and my dad became closer. That big brother-little sister bond continued. They talked regularly. And although the kids all grew up and lost touch, Dad and Joanna kept us informed. When she married Bill and they moved to the country house of her dreams in Dallas, Ga., we didn’t see them as often. We were all living our lives like people tend to do. We came together for weddings and funerals. I last saw her at my Uncle Jimmy’s funeral, where she filled us in on her children and grandchildren, all of whom she adored. She still looked exotic and beautiful to me, even with age, which truth be told, didn’t affect her like it seems effect the rest of us. She never looked old, which is why the phone call this week took us all by surprise.
I smile thinking of her running into Grandmommie’s arms and Granddaddy kissing her on the head. The three of them so happy to be reunited, but wondering why Dad didn’t arrive before her! Oh, to be a fly on the wall…if heaven had flies or walls. A glorious day for them all!
I have watched the strong women in my lineage live their lives to the end. Short or long goodbyes notwithstanding, they are goodbyes nonetheless. Hard. Sad. But also, hope filled. These women have lived inspired lives. And they were inspirational to those of us to whom the torch has been passed. We have big shoes to fill. It seems appropriate to me that, here in December at the holiday season, her death is bringing us all together for one more Christmas gathering in her memory.