When she was 16 years old, Joanne left school to marry her boyfriend and start a family. She had grown up in a family with 12 brothers and sisters and said of that time, “We had nothing.” She plunged into a similar situation when she and her husband started their life together as teenage parents. As a young mother with three kids in five years, she rose daily at 4 a.m. to milk dairy cows no matter rain or shine, or lack of sleep or 20-below-zero wind chill in northern Wisconsin.
In talking to her about her life, it was never easy. Family dairy farming is a lot of hard work with little pay. Cows don’t wait to be milked and young children don’t wait to be fed and changed. Joanne was tough as nails, but even she had her limits. Once, after a particularly rough night of no sleep and an early morning of milking cows, her husband made a snarky remark about the disarray of the house and laundry. Incredulous, she stormed out and left him with the young children and all the work. She did not come back for a week. Joanne had no plan when she walked out. She just knew she was angry, exhausted and needed a break. The only thought she had was, “Hell, let him deal with it.”
With steam nearly pouring out of her ears, she drove away with a heavy foot on the pedal, knowing only one thing for certain: her own worth. This was the era before cell phones and no one knew where she was headed, least of all Joanne. She had no contact with her family, but after a week of cooling down, she walked silently back into the farm house.
No words were needed, as each spouse had achieved an “attitude adjustment” during their time apart. Both husband and wife had a new appreciation for the role they each played and how they needed to support each other, work together and acknowledge each other’s contribution to the family.
I met Joanne years after her kids were grown, but she told me this story and many others like it when I was a young mother facing exhaustion and feeling underappreciated. She delivered her stories matter of fact, without judgment about my family and I love her for that. There was always a clear message in each story. It’s OK to be frustrated and tired and everyone has a breaking point. Her folk-style wisdom also conveyed that time-outs are useful tools for adults, not just kids. She also demonstrated by her nearly 50-year marriage that relationships take constant effort and we all get angry at times. Your spouse is not perfect and neither are you, so figure out a way to make it work.
While Joanne lacks formal education, I always thought she was one of the smartest, wisest people I have ever known. She is a tremendous observer of human behavior and brings grace and good humor to tough situations.
Although I had not seen her in 13 years, last week we had a great visit. I got to see her in action in one of those challenging situations. She is now caring for her husband, who has had three strokes. When I visited, she told me her husband was depressed about being sidelined after working two jobs all his adult life. Carl loved to work hard and visit people, but now he has lost his speech, some mobility and is becoming increasing isolated.
There was not one hint of self-pity as she described the cards they were dealt. She finished up by telling me that while walking with Carl she exhorted him to, “Get moving faster or I’ll kick your arse!” Carl started laughing hysterically. She was helping him without humiliating this proud man and she had a smile on her face and a twinkle in her eye as she told the story. Everyone should be so lucky to have a Joanne in their life.
– Carol Lewis Gullstad, April 2, 2012
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