Joan is a study in contrasts. She is always impeccably dressed, with a smile on her face and often some of her legendary fudge sauce or cookies to gift in her hand.
At first glance, no one would suspect that this woman who is sweetness personified had survived two divorces (later re-marrying her second husband), the kidnapping of one son, and the tragic death of another.
My first introduction to Joan was someone telling me that she went skydiving to celebrate her 80th birthday. After that, I just had to get to know this kindred spirit who was instantly my hero! I knew Joan must be a pretty brave woman to take such a risk, but after hearing her story (and picking my jaw off the floor a few times), I realized that jumping out of a plane was easy compared to some of the challenges she’s faced in her life.
Joan was born at the beginning of the Great Depression, in her grandparents’ farmhouse in Indiana. Both of her parents worked, so she and her older brother spent their days at their grandparents’ house.
Her childhood memories are full of serving others however she could. She recalls, “We were just always helping!” They would bring in firewood and pump water. When her grandma’s friends would come over for a quilting bee, Joan would sit under the quilt frame and push up the needles for the ladies. She even held the cows’ tails while her grandpa milked them, so he wouldn’t get smacked.
Joan insists, “It wasn’t work. It was helping.” She advises, “Parents need to take the time to teach their children how to do the things they’re capable of doing.”
Joan adored spending her days at the farm, but her home in the city was quite different. It was dark and cramped, and she vividly recalls the rag man hollering for women to buy or sell him their rags. After Joan was molested by a neighbor boy, her family moved to a big, two-storey house in the country.
She missed her time with her grandparents, but her mom was able to work at the general store across the road, and her dad continued to drive a Greyhound bus. Joan was in school by then, but she helped with the family’s garden and took care of the chickens.
Joan married her high school sweetheart, Richard, when she was 18. He made a lot of money, bought them a 6500 square foot house, and even bought Joan a red convertible to drive. They were happily married with two grown sons.
But it wasn’t enough for him. Richard had an affair with a woman in Mexico while on a work assignment. Joan tried to salvage their marriage. They even had another son. When Richard’s company moved them to Puerto Rico, Joan thought the worst was behind them. And then he became involved with his secretary. After 25 years of marriage, he looked at Joan and said, “I don’t love you anymore. I want you to go home to Indiana and live.”
Joan, by then pregnant with their daughter, Annie, returned to Indiana with their son, Chris. She struggled to make ends meet, even making pillows to sell in order to pay the phone bill. She told herself, “I’m just not ever gonna give up.”
Over the next two years, she and her best friend did things together all the time. When her friend died of cancer, Joan pitied her friend’s husband, Joseph Konnad. She admits, “I didn’t love him at first. I felt sorry for him with eight kids, and six at home…I was divorced with two little ones, and we got married.”
Not long into their marriage, Joan’s first husband came unexpectedly to their house, grabbed their four-year-old son, Chris, and took him away. Joan says, “I can still see him carrying Chris away like a football and yelling over his shoulder, ‘I’ll be back to get her!’ He never did come back for Annie.
Rather than pressing charges, Joan thought about everyone involved in the situation before reacting. She knew her husband and stepchildren “never really took to Chris,” so she granted her ex-husband custody in the hopes that Chris would be happier there. It was the best decision she could have made. After years of regrets and wondering if she’d made the right decision, just last year Chris assured her, “Dad didn’t kidnap me. He rescued me.” Before that moment, Joan had no idea just how unhappy her son had been.
Despite her desire to help Joe and his kids, she felt like she was little more than a servant in her own home for fifteen years. She explains, “My husband was dictatorial. Finally, God poked me and said, ‘you can do better than being someone’s servant.'” She gathered her courage and divorced him, moving herself and Annie into an apartment.
One month after the divorce was final, Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time. She fought it successfully and is still cancer-free. Then her older son’s business went under, and he could no longer pay her rent. The very next day, a friend called to ask her to live in their house while they served a two-year church mission. All those years of helping others had added up, and when she most needed help, it was there.
Over the years, Joan served a mission herself and started a successful house-cleaning business. Periodically, Joe would call, and they would write letters once in a while. After five years apart, he asked, “Why don’t we get married again?” Joan knew they had both changed. She replied, “Okay, BUT… I’m not gonna be the same mousy little wife,” and he said, “That’s okay. I still want you.”
Joan knows that not all husbands are capable of changing, but, at least for Joe, her leaving was a wakeup call to help him change. She says that being in a marriage like theirs and feeling controlled “damages your self-esteem and self-worth. Leaving doesn’t mean you have to be apart forever, but you deserve a good life.”
They got remarried and were together another fifteen years before his death a few years ago. Their second marriage was completely different than their first. They treasured each other, and they traveled throughout the world, making enough memories for a lifetime. He also helped her mourn the loss of her son, when he was killed in a car accident while on a business trip to India.
As with every challenge life has thrown at Joan, she responds by forgetting herself and helping others. After her husband’s death, she moved into a condo. She has a 92-year-old neighbor, and Joan says, “I just try every way I know how to brighten her life.”
And she doesn’t stop with her neighbor. Her personal motto is, “Do all you can while you can, because you don’t know how long you can.” She brings treats to families with young children, and she hosts a monthly dinner with friends that are filled with stories and laughter. She takes cookies to her UPS man so often, that she now gets the family discount! She smiles happily and reflects, “When the day comes that I can’t do those things, I hope the Lord will take me home.”
Despite all the hardships she has faced over the years, Joan simply says, “Life is what it is.” She isn’t the least bit jaded. Instead, just as her grandparents taught her to do as a little girl, she seeks out someone to help. And she always finds them.