It was a Memorial Day like no other. Normally I would have attended my brother Joe’s annual picnic. Every year he and my sister-in-law Michele came from California to spend the summer at their cottage and this holiday picnic for family and at least a dozen of my friends began the good times. But not this year.
The pandemic would have reduced the crowd, but COVID-19 is not the reason there was no picnic. You see my brother Joe died last week from cancer. Though he was sick, the death was sudden—less than one day in hospice care. Thank God, he didn’t die alone in a hospital room, but was with his family in San Diego.
“There is no time like the old time, when you and I were young!” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr wrote. I’ve spent a lot of time since his death thinking about when we were young. Born only 18 months apart we spent a lot of time together as children. I could probably write a memoir just about growing up with my three brothers but this week the memories focused on Joe. The two of us making paper footballs in autumn and spending hours knocking chestnuts down from the trees on our block and storing them in boxes for God knows what? Holding him tightly on the sled as my dad raced us down the street and spun us wildly in circles. He was the marble game king of the neighborhood in years when marble skill was revered among children. Once my mother got so frustrated with the thousands of marbles that he had won in neighborhood games, marbles that rolled on the floor everywhere and took up precious cupboard space, that she carried the marbles to the front steps and spilled them down the stairs. From everywhere the kids came running, stuffing my brother’s hard-earned winnings into pockets and bags until they were gone. I remember standing on the sidewalk wailing out loud for him and his loss. But I should have saved my tears, by the end of the summer he won every marble back.
When I took a year leave of absence from the monastery in the 60s, it was my brother Joe who came to pick me up at the convent in Oil City where I had been teaching and drive me to my parent’s home in Erie. My friend Sister Joan Chittister was there when he arrived and “I was prepared to hate him,” she has since told me. She didn’t want me to leave, of course, and thought Joe would be gloating over my decision and act in a cavalier fashion. Instead, “he was so gentle and kind and loving toward you, walking right up and embracing you and saying, ‘it’ll be alright sis.’ I was totally unprepared for meeting this kind of sensitive young man and I fell in love with him on the spot,” Joan said. Her response was not unusual. Almost every woman he encountered fell in love with him on the spot.
Joe served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. In Erie, I was a leading religious voice against the War and I was the first local nun arrested protesting it. For a few years I, and the Benedictine Sisters, were reviled at local cocktail parties, in headlines and mean-spirited letters to the editor and radio talk shows. My parents were proud and protective of me during that time, but many of my aunts and uncles and cousins were extremely upset and felt I had embarrassed the family. When Joe arrived home on leave, he visited every member of our extended family and told them that I was right. “This war is an awful thing,” he explained, “and I’m very proud of what my sister is doing to try and stop it.” That’s my brother, Joe.
My brother Joe was Public Defender of Erie County for years and, when he moved to California, served as Public Defender Director in a San Diego branch. In other words, he gave his life to fighting the unjust legal system and fighting for those who were its victims. I still meet people in Erie whom he defended over thirty years ago who tell me how hard he worked for them and how respectful he was of their situation. My brother enjoyed driving and singing and golf and cooking. He was a loving and devoted husband, father, and grandfather.
He motorcycled across the county following his stint in the Navy and after he purchased the Erie home drove solo cross county two to four times a summer, singing aloud with CD’s of Luciano Pavoratti, Placido Domingo or Andrea Bocelli. When my dad died at 93, it was Joe, an avid and low-handicap golfer, who said to me, “Dad would be so happy if you took up golf again” and went out and bought me a set of clubs, jump-starting my golf career at the age of 63.
Joe was a gourmet cook who did all the meal preparations for his family and hosted countless outings that were legendary. I’m talking about organizing huge golf tournaments and then preparing and cooking the dinner for hundreds of participants and family in his back yard. But no matter how large or small the gathering, Joe had the grace of hospitality, of making every person feel welcome. A sister wrote to me after he died, “He was just a wonderful person and always made sure he reached out to make me feel comfortable amongst the crowd.”
Joe was a political animal and a die-hard Democrat who didn’t waste time with small talk whether he was sitting on a barstool, playing golf with the guys, or attending a party. Wherever Joe was, the subject centered on politics and he never flinched from a difficult confrontation or conversation. I so admired his courage, how unafraid he was to challenge Trump supporters, union busters, or racial innuendos. It cost him quite a few golf friends and party invitations.
Lots of obituaries say that the deceased was most of all a good mother or father. But believe me when I tell you he was the rarest of fathers. I won’t go into a lot of personal matters but suffice it to say he should be canonized as the Patron Saint for the Unconditional Love of Fatherhood.
In a Facebook tribute to his uncle, my nephew Justin wrote: “My Uncle Joe was a charming and clever guy who always saw the humor in any situation. In a family of rebels and rabble-rousers, he found a way to walk the line between fitting in and raising hell.
“Last autumn my Uncle Ed told me that Joe was the helmsman on the USS Leonard F. Mason when it picked up Neil Armstrong after his Gemini capsule came down in the middle of the Pacific after an orbital glitch. I never knew that before and it makes me wonder what else we don’t know about the forgotten pasts and untold stories of even the closest people in our lives.”
Justin’s advice is worth heeding and I’ve tried to capture some of the past, the stories, that Joe and I shared, lest they be forgotten or untold.
I had a small group of friends over this afternoon, all of them attendees of Joe and Michele’s Memorial Day barbeque. We all shed some tears and raised a toast to this dear man.
I love you, Joe. You are my brother and my oldest friend, a bond that spanned 75 years. “Idz z Bogiem” Go with God.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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