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Category Archives: Joan

Joan is my mother. Joe was my stepfather. They were married for thirteen months.


Dishes. They’re a constant, an endless stream: unload, set, dirty, rinse, load again. When the washer breaks down it’s chaos.

The cabinet where most of them go is right above the counter, so her kids stand on it to put them away. When they’re in a good mood they make up mottoes for themselves, cheerfully, shamelessly.

It’s adorable and it’s heartbreaking. Even her oldest, standing on the counter, is still two feet short of the ceiling. Why are they so small? Why does she have to have a job? How can they be unable to reach the cabinets, when he’s gone?


I hope you will forgive me this shift in person and mode. I find that at the moment I have no other voice.

My stepfather, Joseph Benjamin Wood, died in his sleep early Wednesday morning. He was the first person to submit his Master’s thesis in poetry at Eastern Kentucky University. Joe gave up such writing before he met my mother, but he never ceased to love words in economy: he chose them, as he chose all things, carefully and well.

I have been reading his books, his Thoreau and his Whitman, to find the words with which to say goodbye.


The only response to “I’m sorry” is “thank you,” because “I’m sorry” is such a flimsy response to death. So is a casserole, or a hug–do you really think that what she needs, right now, is another hug?

But of course such gifts are not really for the grieving.

This is the only appropriate gift for a widow: a minute of your life. A minute you would have spent breathing and loving, with your eyes open, warm. A minute from your long and many days, to bring your death that much closer, and let the two of them say goodbye.


Joe’s business card says “Joe Wood, Builder.”

The first house Joe built for himself was a refurbished two-room schoolhouse. I’ve seen it only in pictures. The second stands unfinished at Kelly Ridge, on land settled by his ancestors–built, after his first marriage ended, by a man intent on being single forever.

The third is my mother’s apartment in Richmond, which he finished a month ago, just in time for their first anniversary. It’s so beautiful. To walk into it is to know its beauty, and understand that one man built it perfectly, with his hands, for the woman he loved.


Hell, my mother has absently mentioned, is her husband’s visitation. It’s hours of standing when she wants to lie down, anywhere, forever. It’s a line out the door. It’s the endless upkeep of her bravest face while people, so many people, tell her exactly the same things.

Dante had Virgil when he walked into Hell for love. Orpheus failed to bring back Eurydice, and it cost him his mind.

How do you stay human when you have twice walked into Hell, guideless? How do you learn to be yourself again, when you have twice walked out, and your love stayed behind?


He struck out from home at sixteen alone, hitching, as he often did for the first half of his life. He dyed his forelocks white-blond (his little sister told us, the admiration still in her voice) and drove a muscle car, which got stolen. He loved water; he joined the Coast Guard.

He always returned to Kentucky. He was a son of Kentucky, and the Kellys who settled its Kelly Ridge.

His fishing buddy Jimmy described a bridge over the Kentucky River where Joe would go, on hot days. Eighty feet at least, he said, from the surface; and Joe dove.

Joe and Joan

He carried no life insurance; he scorned it as “betting on when you’re going to die.” He finally drew up a legal will, at her pleading, but it references a safety-deposit box at a bank that no longer exists.

Joe’s only system of organization was piles, and piles of piles. In the days following his death, she worked with a terrible dull urgency to bring order to it, to find what needed to be found. She’s still working. It must be done; it won’t be done soon.

What Joan has to do, now, is make sense of a life in pieces.