Saying Goodbye

I feel like I can’t move onward and write about the holidays and launching into 2020 without writing a little bit about one of the biggest events in my life in 2019–my Granny’s final illness.

She struggled with her health off and on for a long time. When were at her house preparing for the memorial, we found some pictures from her 75th birthday, when we did a big event because Mom kept saying it might be her last. She lived to be 86, because she never put up with anyone telling her what to do.

65th birthday–a cruise in the Long Island Sound with a Billy Joel impersonator.

In between being really sick, she traveled a bunch, partied hard, and maintained friendships with people of all ages, all over the world. In her last decade or so, she discovered “Words with Friends” and she skipped sleeping so she could be up to trade turns with people in different timezones.

A month or so before she died, the hospital sent someone in to do a psych evaluation to determine whether she was still coherent enough to make decisions about her own health. They asked her what she was hoping to do next week. “I’m going to Atlantic City with a bunch of young guys!” she said, enthusiastically. The doctors shook their heads, made some notes, and assigned my mom and my uncle the responsibility of those important decisions. The hilarious thing was, she actually did have those exact plans, and there were “a bunch of young guys” who were awfully disappointed that she spent that wild weekend in the hospital instead of the casino. I think that’s the kind of story she would have told and retold, if it hadn’t been one of her last ones.

We had a small burial service in Winchester, where she wanted to be. Mom even found a bagpiper! But the big event was a month later, a memorial at the Yacht Club, a private club for boat owners (they were … liberal with the term “yacht”) that she was a member of for probably fifty years. It was perfect. She hated funerals and funeral homes. She wouldn’t even let anyone bring her Easter lilies because she associated them with graveside arrangements. The Yacht Club was a place where people remembered her and my grandfather, who passed in 1997. The staff there were helping with the catering, getting drinks and food for everyone, but also sharing stories about my grandparents and tearing up as other people shared. One of them even helped Alex and me find the rock, painted with a smiley face, that had their name on it. In the days before everything was digital, each member had a rock to mark their bar tab. Alex and I ordered the kids “Shirley Temples,” and they said, “Why do we have to drink this?” Nostalgia is lost on the young.

I didn’t get many pictures during the event–I was too busy keeping an eye on the kids and catching up with old friends and relatives. I’m sure that Granny would have liked it, though. She always loved a party.

The shape of the world is different without her. Christmas this year with Mom and Gary was very mellow. It was nice, but unfamiliar. Granny was always one to do holidays to an extreme, and she never understood our preference for things to do together over a big pile of presents.

I’m sad that she’s gone, and I miss her terribly. I keep reading something and thinking, “I should call Gran and tell her about that,” and I can’t. A typical experience, I think. But mostly I’m grateful. I’m grateful for her demanding that I, at three, tell her the President’s address before I got my cookie; and for the nights I stretched out on the V-bunk in her old one-engined cabin cruiser, under a sleeping bag covered with cats in red sneakers, which she got at Cheap John’s or the Op Shop watching her call out all the answers to Jeopardy! before anybody hit the buzzer; and for the critiques and encouragement she sent me on my writing when I was in high school; and for the toast she gave at my wedding; and for the time she got to spend with my children. Of my six grandparents, they only got to meet Granny and Grandma Betty, and I doubt they will remember Betty, they were so small when they saw her. But they’ll remember Granny, the one I was always the closest to, and I’m grateful for that.

In preparation for her memorial, my mom and I wrote the following eulogy. When she asked me to draft it, at first I didn’t want to. It was A Lot, and there were some sections of her life that I realized I didn’t know anything about. But I’m glad that I did it, I’m glad that I have this document where my mom and uncle filled in all the bits that I couldn’t remember or never knew.

This is a hard day for family and friends of Joan Samuels. We are here together to honor a truly remarkable individual. Without her in our day to day lives it will be hard. We will forever share memories of special moments. 

Remember the time…  

Who read more books than Joann? Who did more crosswords than Joann (and in pen!)? Who knew more obscure words that we were always afraid to challenge in a close game of Scrabble? Did she lead a full life? Yes she did! Did she have hard times and struggles? She had her share…maybe more than her share. But she faced those hard times and challenges with fierce determination… again and again. 

She was true to her roots, through and through a depression baby from Brooklyn, NY. Sheepshead Bay, to be exact. Joan came into the world on June 14th 1933. Her only sister Jackie was 4 years older. As the stories go, their childhood was hardship and survival along with joys and celebrations. It’s impossible to sum up a full life, well lived, in a few words.  Joann loved to tell stories, and every story spooled into another one. She defies editing. But we’ll try.

Joan Amann aka Joann Samuels was born in Brooklyn in the Sheepshead Bay area in 1933. She was a depression baby, and the experience of growing up during that time in history stayed with her throughout her life. The stories of hardship and survival as well as joy and triumph encapsulated her essence. She came from a somewhat fractured family when it wasn’t the norm. She and her sister Jackie fended for themselves for a lot of their childhood and teen years. She told a story about cooking “mickies” in a makeshift fire pit in the street, she swore nothing in this world ever tasted better than those burnt potatoes. She told hilarious stories of her sister diving for coins off the pier and basically running amok in the streets. She was the “good” child and Jackie was “bad” one, but they complimented and supported each other through many of life’s trials and tribulations. 

Living in New York as a child, she had family in the entertainment business. Because of this, Joann had access to cultural experiences that were beyond most children of her class. When her grandfather staged managed the “Streets of Paris” exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair, she tagged along to work with him–and met the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, and Gypsy Rose Lee (who was, she claimed, topless at the time). A treasured family picture is one of her grandmother in her Vaudeville Sword Dancer costume. 

When she was a teenager, she started to spend more time out on Long Island, finding a respite from city life. She spent time with her grandparents and adopted her best friend’s parents as her own. Marion and Frank took her in and she loved them immeasurably.

As a young woman, when all the soldiers were returning from Korea, she met and married Ben Werner. They had two children together, William, (whom we call Tim) and Wendy. She moved briefly to Georgia for Ben’s college studies. While Joann didn’t fit in well in the south, the experience gave her stories she shared for the rest of her life, most famously how she met John F. Kennedy before he was president, and how she paid her black maid more than the other ladies paid theirs and was socially ostracized for it. She actually couldn’t wrap her mind around having any kind of maid service to start with, so the whole experience was perplexing to her.

She had survived a bout of tuberculosis at age 18 and relapsed two more times. She was sent to a sanitarium in Saranac Lake where she spent a year each relapse having experimental treatments and making lifelong friends there. While it was a difficult time of her life she always had her feisty spirit and tough nature to not only survive but thrive.

Joann spent several years making her way through a hard life as a single mother. She did her best for Wendy and Tim, working several jobs to keep them fed and clothed. Throughout the difficulty of having to work so hard, she still managed to have a lot of fun: dating, parties, parades, the beach, and friends who stood beside her, sometimes providing a roof over her head, no matter what. 

She met and married Donald Samuels and started a new life with him. Don was single-handedly building a house in Stony Brook. She appreciated his skills and determination. Along with this new marriage came a large focus on boating life. Active members of the Power Squadron, they participated in many memorable cruises, as well as participating in educational classes. Joann was one of the first women to take the difficult engine maintenance course. They used to “put in” each spring on a mooring and waited many years to get a slip space at the town dock. When they got to “I” Dock, that was IT! Joann was home and became a near permanent fixture all season. They enjoyed going out trolling for blues and tying up in the Cove. Joann was happiest when she was on the dock, always offering food, drink and help to anyone walking by. After a while they traded in the cruiser for a house boat and then she barely saw her house. It was just a place to do laundry and restock the boat.

Another important part of their life was being members of the Moose Club and was always trying to get everyone to join because if you were a member, anywhere you traveled you could find a friendly face and a cheap drink.

Throughout her life, Joann valued education. Although her education took a backseat in the early part of her life, when she was forty, she decided she wanted to get a college degree. After all, she would say later, she was as smart as most of the people she knew who had gone to college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature, and was immensely proud of this accomplishment.

Joann could run the board at Trivial Pursuit, shouted out the answers to Jeopardy every night, and did the crossword puzzle daily. She was a master at Scrabble, and could tell you every two-letter word in the English language. She was a voracious reader, and expected everyone else to be, too. If you didn’t have a good answer when she asked what you’d been reading lately, she’d give you a hard time. She instilled this love of learning in her children and grandchildren, all of whom are notable for their curiosity about all kinds of subjects. She sent the grandkids a dollar for every A on their report cards, demanded that they answer trivia questions before they could have their “one for each hand” cookies, and bragged excessively about their science fair awards and published essays.

Travel is its own education, and Joann loved to go to new places. She visited Ireland four times, kissing the Blarney Stone and buying sweaters in the Aran Islands. When Wendy and Tim had the opportunity to spend a year traveling around the world as teenagers, she sent them with her blessing and a promise to keep Wendy up to date on American soap operas by airmail. She couldn’t stand to have a Christmas without her kids, so she made the trip with her ex-father-in-law across the pond to be with them in England.

She made the trek often to visit Wendy in a shack up a dirt road in West Virginia, and even though the shower was a bucket on the porch and you had to put on your boots to go to the toilet, she kept coming back, braving the inconveniences to make lifelong friends among the back-to-the-land hippies.. 

Joann was one of those people who never met a stranger. Her house was filled with people coming and going, earning it the nickname “The Pass,” for everyone who passed through. She took in strays–dogs, cats, and people–and helped them find their way in the world. She had an expansive definition of family, sometimes fumbling to try to explain a complicated corner of the family tree and then saying, “It doesn’t matter, they’re your cousin.” 

Joann started a home daycare in the mid-sixties. Her babysitting kids weren’t just clients, but an extension of her family. She gave them birthday parties, taught them, played with them, took them on trips, kept them towing the line with time-outs in the “brown chair,” and she loved them. She kept in touch with some of them for their entire lives and was always proud of their accomplishments. 

She created family that was as much a part of her life as her blood relatives wherever she went. She had her babysitting families, her Yacht Club family, her Moose family, her West Virginia family and was beginning to work on her Winchester family. She was  always asking and wanting to know what was going on with the folks she had met in Winchester but time ran out. Maybe that is partly why she decided to be buried here. 

On I Dock, where her cabin cruiser, Pleasure Island, rested for decades, her boat was the place to assemble at cocktail hour for a beer, a snack, swan-feeding, and a game. She knew everyone on the dock, and they all had an open invitation to her afternoon gathering–although she was big on manners, so you’d better holler, “Permission to come aboard?” before stepping onto the boat. A self-described “party animal,” she was all in on whatever theme the hosts proposed: wearing silly hats, playing bizarre games, trying strange foods. She loved to have a good time, and her definition of “a good time” was broad. She loved all holidays and was over the top on decorating, buying gifts,and providing the party! Christmas trees, Halloween candy apples, Easter egg trees, St. Patrick’s Day green and her very own holiday, June 14th, Flag Day!

Joann loved a good joke. Some of her favorite stories were about jokes people pulled on her. One time, she’d bought some asparagus plants from a guy who promised they’d yield in the first year. Her former father-in-law (a green grocer) came over in the dead of night and swapped them out for his mature plants. When she saw them the next morning, she told everyone she knew–she felt like Jack when he saw his beanstalk. She was good-natured about it when the prank was revealed, and told that story every time anyone mentioned asparagus for the next fifty years.

She loved children, even if she often told them they should be seen and not heard. Her boat was always stocked with crayons, coloring books, and kid-sized fishing poles and crab nets. Her house on Quaker Path had a dedicated playroom full of toys she’d picked up at yard sales or the Op Shop. She liked showing kids how to do practical things, like baiting a fishing hook or crocheting an afghan. As soon as she became a grandmother, she insisted that all kids call her “Granny.” She connected with certain kids more than others, asking after them regularly: “How’s my friend James? How’s Baby Alice?” She knew kids as individuals, a rare and special quality in adults. She modeled and encouraged friendships across generations, sending her granddaughter to go for walks with her elderly neighbor, Dr. Ilona, and inviting the young guys who kept their boat in the slip next to hers to come over and chat.

Joann wasn’t perfect, by any means. She could hold a fierce grudge for years. Lots of her favorite stories embarrassed the people in them–and she kept telling them. She could be difficult and exacting–but this is also what made her a survivor. She beat TB, pancreatitis, numerous surgeries, several bouts of cancer and a hard knock life with a lot of loss and love. She was a single parent in a time when that was a rarity, and raised her kids to be good people. She was stubborn–but that’s the same as determined.

Joann was a presence, a force to be reckoned with.

Meta

Aili Written by:

6 Comments

  1. January 4, 2020
    Reply

    Lovely, Aili. I was riveted by the story of Granny’s life. Gives me lots to think about as a grandma writing about the experience of being a grandparent. I see her in your joyful spirit and your children’s deep curiosity.

    • Aili
      January 4, 2020
      Reply

      Thank you so much! Grandparents are important. I can’t wait to read your book.

  2. Jean Whalen Kennedy.
    January 4, 2020
    Reply

    What a wonderful tribute to my friend of more than 70 years. It was very touching and so true.I will always think of her with a smile. May she rest in peace.
    She is missed by so many .

    • Aili
      January 4, 2020
      Reply

      She sure is. I know how she valued your friendship and I’m so glad you were part of her life. In the photos I found at her house, there are ones of you and (I think?) your kids at the beach in the 1950s. When I get them scanned, I’ll pass them to you.

  3. Carol Ertz
    January 5, 2020
    Reply

    Beautiful tribute to your grandmother.
    Prayers to all of you ❤️

  4. January 6, 2020
    Reply

    I feel so blessed to have known Joan for 30 years. She was a force, an entertainer, a confidant and a friend. A void that can’t be filled.

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