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Tom Sawyer gave himself too much credit: painting a fence can be enormously satisfying. Once the semiotics of whitewashing are brought to bear, of course, such joys become less simple, but they are agnostic to the color of the paint. No child balks at a brush and an open can.

My stepfather once wrote that it’s easy to stay pure so long as one rides a bike. I think such purity is cosmetic, but no less valuable for that; I’ll take my absolution where I can get it. Sometimes that’s in the downhill breeze, and sometimes the eggshell coat it kisses.

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.


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’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.


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.