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Letters from GJoy

By ELIZABETH SCHAFER, Associate Editor

GJoy in her younger days. Courtesy photo.

I have this grandmother, this vibrant, eccentric, energetic, intelligent, beautiful, grandmother. Her name is Joy.  She writes me letters.  They used be the old-fashioned snail mail letters. Now, I just get those when someone dies, or at Christmas.  Email is the best form of communication with her these days.

I know I’m almost 30 and biased, but I have quite possibly THE coolest grandma in the world.  No one is blunter than she.  Her advice is usually the best around, and when it comes to cooking, she’ll blow your mind.  GJoy (Grandma Joy)  is 84.

Her letters usually consist of stories from her youth or younger years, maybe her recent travels and social outings, how family is doing, the contents of her fridge, or whatever comes in her head.  I have more than 40 of her letters, dating back to 1997.   Some of the letters are hilarious and have my friends and I in what I like to call a “cry laughing” state, and some of the letters are so profoundly emotional they have tear stains from previous readings.

Surviving a brain aneurysm, and a double mastectomy over 20 years ago, she refused to get any fake breasts or implants. Her scars make breast cancer smack you upside the head, making the disease terrifying and noble all at the same time.  Beyond beautiful is this woman.  I get my red hair from her. I consider her one of my best friends.  Being a person with not much of a filter on what comes out of my mouth, I can see she passed this trait on to me as well.

Outliving three husbands already, she informed me that she thinks she’s done with marriage because all the WWII vets are boring and humorless.  Her humor is what gets you.

Her pro and con lists aren’t pro and con at all. They are desires and needs.

I got an email from her this winter, informing me she had to get a library card down in Florida because her neighbors were boring her.

When Obama ran for President in 2008, she sent me hate mail news clippings, and when I had a boyfriend with dreadlocks, she sent me articles about those too.  GJoy voices her opinion.

The letters from the house she and my Papa lived in on the Chippewa River have a return address of Ritz on the River.

Rereading the letters now, 80 percent of them start with some phrase about how it’s been so long since the last time she wrote.  In chronological retrospect, it’s true, but when I have this giant stack of letters, it’s comical to read the same sentence over and over. GJoy says old-time awesome phrases like “Drat!” “Blast!” and “Yee Gads!”

Associate Editor Elizabeth Schafer and GJoy several years back. Courtesy photo.

She and her friend Priscilla once went to dinner at a “very nice restaurant” where they pretended and fooled people into believing they were fur models.  Take that, PETA!

She says it’s hard to feel young on the inside, and wake up and see an old woman in the mirror.

Following are some of my favorite topics and letters:

November 26, 2004
From the Ritz on the River
Her hearing suffers the most from age.

“Speaking of not hearing, well that is the understatement of the year! Can you imagine getting up each morning and putting in a hearing aid so that you can hear a human voice? Well, I couldn’t at your age but I have learned how.  And even though I don’t hear well at all it is better than not seeing.  I can still read, I can still drive, I can still garden and cook and still set the table correctly. … Life can be full of glitches but who cares—a cheerful face makes up for all and an I Love You makes everything right in everyone’s world.”

Most of the time she talks of food. She had a restaurant in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s in Mt. Pleasant called Joy B’s, a Dog ‘n’ Suds.  She will send recipes with  the letters and has recently begun a cookbook for all us grandkids.

Every recipe has its own story behind it.

July 17, 1999
“Ate turtle for the first time. It was very good.  It was very tender and fell off the little bones.  As you have probably heard, turtle is supposed to taste like seven or five or six different kinds of meat.  I thought it kinda tasted like roast pork.  Of course (Letta) served a tomato salad with it that had cucumbers in it.  I keep telling everyone that cucumbers are poison! Does anyone listen? NO! They keep serving me them. How do I know they are poison? MY DAD TOLD ME SO! So I had to carefully fish out the cucumbers and when no one was watching throw them under the table!”

On her vehicles:

July 2000
“Would you believe we bought our little Taurus two years ago tomorrow. This year I managed to put almost 27,000 miles on the little beastie! Do you think I will place high in the finals?  Maybe I need a scarf and a pair of goggles—your racing Grandma rides again!! Can’t you just see me at the stock car races in my revved up Taurus and my scarf and goggles and my Grandchildren in the stands waving flags that say, “Way to go Grandma!”…..I guess the heat is getting to me, life seems silly this morning. I believe that if you get up with a smile on your face, before long the world will smile right along with you.

On winter apparel:

January 22, 2005
“How my life has changed from when I was a little girl.  Now, no one wears long underwear that one had to change twice a week! No one wears long brown stockings.  I did note in stores that high tops are back in style.  I wonder if brown stockings will be next? Or how about little vests to attach the garters that will hold up the brown stockings?  Victoria’s Secret, here’s your chance to become famous. Vests made from flour sacks?”

November 9, 2008
Round Rock, Texas
“Someone should invent a blanket that reacts to temperature.  When it gets down to forty-five it would automatically cover you, so you don’t wake up freezing.  The solar is on to warm the pool.  However, last week when I went to check the temp the thermometer fell to the bottom of the pool.  I haven’t figured out how to read it from a distance of ten feet.”

A letter dated September 1999 discussed her volunteering experience with Hospice, which she did for years.  Both her first and second husbands ended up using Hospice in their final months.  She knew how important Hospice is to a community.  Her loyalty to all her husbands was beyond righteous.  The woman doesn’t stop.

After my grandfather, John Vowles Porterfield, died in 2007, she wrote a long awaited letter about the final days.

“It was a true effort to get dressed in the morning and an effort to stay up after eight at night.  It was only his desire to spend as much time with me as possible that kept him awake.”
“Grandpa died with me holding one hand.  I felt his last heartbeat and said my goodbyes. You know we had 30 years of bliss.  His last words to me two days before he died were, ‘you’re still quite a dish,’ and he meant it from the bottom of his heart. I can’t tell you more then … we loved! Oh!! How we loved!! And we were loved because we were surrounded by family that loved.”

What these letters have taught and what she continually teaches me still is that, life used to be simple, and you can’t take it too seriously.  Family is important and you should spend time with people who make you tick.  To make the most of everyday with a smile on your face, I have never seen her cross, NEVER.

Her relationship advice is simple too. “You know—if you are lucky—and if you work hard at it—you will find someone that is fun to be with every single minute of your lifetime.”  

GJoy and her granddaughter Elizabeth Schafer in more recent days. Courtesy photo.

She taught me the importance of school and books, to surround yourself with them. She taught me the importance of writing. She reminds multiple generations of the lost art form of letter writing.  The impact of the written word, directed to loved ones, putting your thoughts and memories down on paper.  Now that I am a mother, GJoy reminds me of how kids just become friends immediately with any other kid.

GJoy is like that — always on, always witty, always ready to listen.  She will meet you in the produce section one day and you’ll be having lunch with her the next. Most importantly, she teaches how a letter in the mail can brighten people’s days, and in my case, years.

Happy Mother’s Day, GJoy.
You are loved.


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