I was saddened when my mother told me that JoAnn Derry had passed away. She was 90. Her obituary described her as “a firecracker with grit and determination.” Yup. That was her, all right.
I met her in Sunday School at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Frederick, S.D., in 1968. I was misbehaving one day — hard to imagine, I suppose — when she threatened me with the most dire consequences. If I didn’t straighten up I would have to sit on her lap.
“That would be just fine,” I said cheerily, and that was it. She adored me from that day forward. JoAnn didn’t have a glamorous bone in her body and that overt flattery won her over. We were in love.
She loved telling that story.
She looked at first glance like a hundred other Nordic housewives, but her face was especially kind, freckled, and sun-scorched, with a smile — that’s what was special — that made you feel like everything was going to be just fine. She had a slight lisp that made her forever cute.
Her daughter, Kristie, was a classmate. She died 10 years ago from the ravages of diabetes, the heartbreak of a lifetime for JoAnn and Ted. Their only. When Ted died at 95 in August, I didn’t dare think it, but they were, as Forrest Gump would say, like peas and carrots. I was not surprised to learn that JoAnn so quickly followed him.
She met Ted in 1953 at a dance and was mortified to learn that he didn’t dance. They dated again on the Fourth of July, Ted and The Firecracker, and they were engaged in August.
She entertained the idea of sticking it out alone on the farm, but that fantasy quickly evaporated. Indeed, it was tough enough for her and her walker to manage the small senior apartment she took in Frederick. I’m glad I visited her there a couple of times because she moved to assisted living in Aberdeen, S.D., rather quickly after that. She was tough, but a realist about living alone at her age.
She had the same sharp and slightly naughty wit. Made me laugh, and my face hurt from smiling after those visits. I brought her flowers. She fed me baked treats.
Jack and Rayma Smith were there one day when I dropped in unannounced. JoAnn, adept on keyboards or accordion, any instrument, really, played with “Rae and the Ranch Hands” and the “Chicken Pluckers.” If you didn’t have Rae and the Ranch Hands play for your wedding dance, you weren’t officially married. I think that’s a real law.
As I look back, I remember that JoAnn was the first one I challenged about what I saw as a grade-schooler as contradictions in the Bible. I realize now it was the beginning of a spiritual search for me. I need resolution. Explanations.
You might say Christianity and I had a falling out. As I grew older, I read everything I could find on every religion. I meditated. It took years, but I saw the parallels between the religions, and I adopted my own truth. One commandment was enough: Be kind.
I joked with my mother once about being a heathen. “No, your church is the sun and the stars like my father’s was,” she said.
In spite of the prevalent meanness cloaked in the guise of religion these days, I’ve reconciled with the church because of the JoAnn Derrys of the world. The Christians I grew up with were simply good people doing good things. You can’t argue that.
It’s funny, too, that despite my aversion to pews, that I’ve always had a number of friends in the ministry. Maybe they’re trying to save a renegade. Maybe they see me as an ally who’s on the right side of things just often enough. Maybe a little of both.
JoAnn didn’t have an answer to the contradictions, nor did she need one. She had faith, which is much easier than needing explanations. Now, I’ve come full circle. The whys and the whats are less important to me as long as I’m around good people doing good things. Sometimes it takes the loss of someone dear to realize what connected you, what an impact they had.
Over the years, JoAnn and I made each other’s days when we’d see each other. It was like a holiday. Now, I bid you adieu, dear JoAnn.
We were in love.
© Tony Bender, 2023