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A Memoir of My Mother-in-Law on What Would Have Been Joan’s Birthday

July 12, 1989, Jim celebrates his 40th birthday. I know him, but not well. We are both employees at The Washington Post, he a Tech guy on the 7th floor, and me a Personnel gal on the 4th. We are still a few years away from both showing up at the same Texas-themed party thrown by a mutual friend on a Saturday night in nearby Arlington, Virginia. We have no idea at the start of that evening that we will bond over a favorite show, Who Am I This Time?

Anyone remember this? It was an American Playhouse production of a Kurt Vonnegut short story broadcast on PBS, starring Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon. Walken, a painfully shy hardware employee, totally transforms into whatever character he is playing in the local theatre production. This time around, it’s the sexy, brooding, brutish Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Sarandon plays Stella. Sparks fly off these two. Later that evening, shortly before I leave, Jim places his hat, a straw number that sort of looks like a cowboy hat, on my head, igniting a spark between us – that I hope still burns twenty-six years later.

In the present, on a sweltering late July afternoon in 2018, for some reason, I am drawn to pull a particular album off the book shelf, which turns out to be an album that Jim’s mother, (Joan – said like Joanne) made for him to celebrate his 40th birthday. On the first page there is this card under the Happy Birthday banner and balloon complete with trailing twine tail.

She writes:

Dear Jim,

Happy 40th Birthday! July 12, 1949 was indeed a day of unlimited joy and thanksgiving for Dad and me. And that joy has continued over the years. I’m as proud of you today as we were on your birth day. I love you so very much.

Blessings, Mom xo xo xo

She adds: May this album remind you of your ancestors and happy memories. And…may the next forty years bring happiness, good health and much love.

What a fabulous tribute! I turn the pages, 40 in all (was that intentional to match his age?), filled mostly with pictures, but also a few artifacts like Jim’s occasional letters home from college, and a postcard from his Army Reserve service at Fort Dix.

“Fort Dix is everything you said it was. Wish you were here. (Instead of me.)” Jim.

The last page is his drawing of a mutt from a magazine cover that caught Jim’s fancy circa 1960, when he is on the cusp of 11. Not bad, huh?

I miss Joan. She would be turning 92 today, the 28th of July, 2018.

Instead, she died suddenly on August 22, 2005, about five weeks after we moved to Florida from Washington, D.C. I was out house-hunting and returned to a message flashing on the answering machine and Jim’s youngest sister, telling us the awful news. It was totally unexpected.

Joan had just recently sold the long-lived in, well-loved in, well-tended house on Lansdowne Way in Silver Spring, and moved into a two-bedroom condo in a nearby retirement community. She had just painted the kitchen cabinets and was excited about putting her other personal, artistic touches on her new digs. Jim and I expected that Joan, a youthful and vibrant 79, would be the last to go among our three remaining parents.

She’d already survived a bout of breast cancer, a disease that had killed her mother when Joan was a teenager. And by the time I met her in the early 1990s, she’d already been a widow for over ten years, following the too-early death of Jim’s father from cancer in 1981 (shown here with Joan early in their relationship).

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, we boarded a plane out of Orlando and up to Silver Spring, Maryland, for her funeral.

Since she’s died, I’ve come to believe that Joan was one of those preternaturally optimistic people who really felt (and acted) like each day was a gift – and that she may not have expected to live as long as she did. At her funeral in 2005, I learned about this letter, which she wrote in 1991:

Dear Friends,

You must know that I’m not afraid of dying. The Lord has been so good and generous to me. My church, my family and my friends are the only things important and precious to me.

I had such a loving husband, have three children and two sons-in-law that I’m so proud of, and four wonderful grandchildren. I’m blessed.

I’ll be happy to be with Jesus and my beloved Bob.

                Together forever.

                It will be a great day!

 The church has been my rock and my salvation and my life has been built on it.


                                Joan Henze         

As I prepared remarks over the course of a sleepless night at the Crowne Plaza on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, to share at her funeral service the next day, I reflected on just how she had affected me.

Comfortable – that’s how I felt in her presence. She was one of those people who carry palpable, positive energy around them. You knew when she was in the room and you knew when she had been in the room. And, she was simply a great mother-in-law, supportive but non-intrusive, fully embracing me with a warm hug the minute she met me and on each subsequent visit. That’s what I remember – how she’d pull me in close to her body with that fierce hug.

There was a lot to like about Joan: her dedication to family, her helping out with a family business, the way her grandkids adored her and sought out her company for vacations, the huge number of volunteer hours she gave to the Lutheran church up the street, and her lifelong friendships, including with her bestie, with whom she’d recently completed a road trip across the USA. Joan had game.

But, here’s what I remember most about Joan: her sense of humor. And, here’s what I love most about her son: his sense of humor. If we’re lucky, our parents set the right tone for our lives.

At her funeral, I said that when I first heard the news, I felt like a bright light in the world had gone out, but I suspected that was my sorrow talking, and that her luminosity could not be extinguished, and would live on and expressed through her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, friends, and the many, many lives she had touched. And since she left this mortal plane, her grandchildren have begat even more kids: four boys, three girls and a baby boy due in January.

So, I pause today, to say, “Happy Birthday, Joan.” And, to tell her too that I hope that I am contributing to Jim’s second forty years in those categories she noted as important to her: health, happiness and much love. But, I suspect she knows all this.

Reader’s Invite: I would love to hear any comments this post evoked in you. What are your legacies from loved ones no longer here?   


12 thoughts on “A Memoir of My Mother-in-Law on What Would Have Been Joan’s Birthday”

  1. What a lovely tribute to Joan! She was an amazing woman; the time I spent with her was not long but she made a huge impression on me all the same. She was warm and funny, realistic and kind. Her life was undergirded by a strength and love for God that colored everything and made it beautiful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Well, thanks Sarah! It is so great to hear from you and hear your perspective as another in-law. You’ve really captured her essence here in your words: warm and funny, realistic and kind and undergirded by a strength and love for God. Seems like she honed in on what is really important in life. We sure do enjoy hearing from the West Coast Fords. Lots of love and good cheer.

  2. Wow, what a great tribute to Mom! Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her and how she influenced our lives. She was such an example of unconditional love, style, grace and wisdom – and always with a sense of humor. I work each day to be the wife, sister, mother and friend that she was. Thank you for sharing your memories. We are all blessed to have such a loving family. Janet

    1. Thanks, Janet! So nice to hear from you. I see so much of your mother in you (especially a generosity of spirit). I was just thinking about how much you always delight(ed) in your kids and now grandkids – and that wonderful sense of humor that threads through the entire family. Thanks for commenting; I was a little nervous about posting (getting it right, you know, personal and yet still respectful). I think of your mother every time I put on a pair of gold-hooped earrings that were hers – I wear them often and love carrying her energy with me.

  3. As always Beth, you have a great gift of allowing a stranger to experience intimate knowledge of a subject, this time being Jim’s mom. Through your words I felt happy just reading what a wonderful person she was. Your favorite cousin

    1. Hey Debbie, What a wonderful response! I bet you share many, if not all, of Joan’s traits. I could/can always feel your great love for Chip, and see it too with you how you shower the next generation in your family with your affection and care. I definitely lost out on something by not being a mother. I feel more regret about that as I age – maybe that’s inevitable as I feel that thin veil between mortality/immortality. It’s funny too, just how large Joan’s presence is looming in my consciousness this year. I so appreciate you reading the piece and commenting. Back at you favorite cousin. xoxo

    1. Thanks, Claudia. And thanks for reading and commenting. There’s something about those Mamas a friend of mine recently wrote mourning the death of her own. I appreciated spending the time reflecting on just what Joan means to me.

  4. Tears are in action at the conclusion of this warm and loving tribute to Jims mom. I believe I only met her once – at your wedding- so don’t have a lot of experience with her. But i know Jim and I don’t think children just evolve without strong influence from a mom. Another fine piece Beth. And what a sweet birthday gift to Jim. Happy Birthday to all!

    1. Thanks, Nedra. I always look forward to your comments – and your faithful reading and support of my writing is invaluable. Couldn’t do it without you! Joan was something – I was fortunate to move in her orbit for a time. We all were.

  5. Beth, this is such a heartfelt tribute to your mother-in-law. Your description of her suggests she transcended the stereotype of evil step-mother and the she was truly a bright light for everyone who knew her.

    1. Thanks, Judy. I’d have stories wouldn’t I if she’d been the evil mother-in-law? I’m sure that would have made for great copy. Did you see that doc about Nora Ephron on HBO – Everything is Copy? She was one ballsy dame – not sure I have that Ephron courage. But, I digress. I am very grateful that you read this post and commented on it. Appreciate it!

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