Joe was my stepfather, but he was so much more to me than just a substitute dad for when my biological dad wasn’t around. How does one go about writing a tribute story about someone they loved? I guess it’s by sharing my favorite memories of that person. This one is about my stepfather – Joe.
Joe was a traveling serviceman; he traveled around a small region and serviced packing machinery, mostly machines that packaged ice cream. My mom was working as a barmaid for a restaurant and so I guess that’s how they stumbled onto each other, one day while Joe was passing through Hamilton. She had us 4 and he had his 5 and they said to each other – hey, The Brady Bunch tv show is in need for a revamp, whatcha’ say we make our own?
And so….my earliest favorite memory of Joe is he, arms around my mom, her arms around him and those two lip locked, in love. It was clear to us kids that for whatever reason, those two had found each other and they were in love. When Mom and Joe were first married, (maybe a year afterwards), Joe’s mom came and stayed with us for a short time. I want to say it was for 2-4 weeks, but I’m not certain. I cannot remember her proper name right now but think it was Angie (Angelina). She was a Sicilian immigrant so Joe was first generation American. Angie’s English was a bit spotty, but her cooking – ah, it was even more spotty – spotty from the marinara sauce, that is. I absolutely freaking love, love, love marinara sauce!
Nine kids, with me as the oldest at the age of 12 or 13…and Food always came in a big pot (link). I guess that’s one of my next stronger memories – mealtime at two tables because one couldn’t handle us all. And of course there was the prequel to dinnertime; the grocery shopping. I went grocery shopping many times with my mom because we usually needed 2 shopping baskets to handle the 8-12 baskets of food…brown paper sacks of course, no plastic bags back then. I was good at keeping a high level track of how much money was in our grocery cart and could let Mom know when we were getting close to her budget amount.
One of my favorite earlier memories of Joe involved his love of stock car racing. For several years, Joe’s weekend pastime was driving a tiny little sprint car around a quarter mile circular track. These were the days before I could drive myself and so me and my girlfriend would often tag along. It was a fun, cheap date…loud and often times chilly in the evenings. We’d make the long drive home from Lawrenceburg to Overpeck, snuggled together, usually with a couple of siblings.
Joe’s racing contacts would come in handy a few years later when the transmission went out for my crappy Mustang – he scavenged up a replacement….only issue was the fact Reverse was in between 2nd & 4th. (It made for interesting driving). And then there was the time a few years later when I tried changing my spark plugs while the engine was still hot. Let me tell you kids, never, ever do that! Always wait for the engine to be completely cold. The plugs came out easily enough but once you remove them, the threading can have a tendency to be expanded. Cold plugs and expanded engine threading makes for an easy way to strip the threads.
Rather than totally freaking out, I called Joe. It was a weekend in the Fall. Joe came over immediately. We took one of the plugs and drove to the auto parts store where we purchased a tap. A tap is used to cut the female part of a threaded area. Joe carefully recut my plug area and the new plug then slipped in perfectly. I cannot tell you how appreciative I was other than to be able to recount this tale to you today. It made an impact on me – when my child needs immediate help, I try everything in my power to be there for them.
The stock car years overlapped with my siblings’ Mini Circus (FB link) years. One of the funnier Joe memories in those days involved a rambunctious young boxer (dog). I don’t recall where the boxer came from but we had it in our family for maybe only two weeks. It was the only time we ever tried our hand at a family dog. I think my parents felt 11 mouths were not enough to feed. One date night was a night of a Mini Circus performance at the local high school. We had no one to watch little Fido so Joe placed him in the basement with a long rope or chain. Unfortunately Fido could reach the stair landing where a vacuum cleaner sat. Let’s just say that Fido had vacuum for dinner that evening. I think that was the last we saw of Fido who soon went off to a better family.
I mention Mini Circus here because it was a good example of Joe’s willingness to step up to help. After Jim Smith, (Mini Circus founder), left for his new adventure, rather than dissolve the Circus, Joe stepped up along with a guy named Ted to co-lead the Circus. Together they were able to keep it going for several more years. Joe didn’t know a thing about acrobatics or gymnastics but he was a strong guy and a loving parent who saw a need and was willing to help out. It was important to the kids so it was important to him.
I guess this would bring me to my own travels with Joe. I accompanied Joe on two separate trips of his service travel. This was during my pot smoking summer. In his best parental way, he asked me to come along with him. His objective of course was to be a role model, to show me an example of what it’s like to be an adult. We traveled to a few of his Indiana clients, worked on ice cream packing machines, went out for dinner and spent the night sharing a motel room. My biggest takeaway during that time was that he cared; he didn’t spend the entire time lecturing me about the downhill slide to heroine or some such silly thing. No, we just spent time together….something my biological dad never really tried to do in my teenage years when I needed it most. It left a positive mark on me.
My favorite memories and times spent with Joe though, all happened as a young adult – the bowling years, written about in this story (link). I have nothing new here to add to those times, nothing that I haven’t already written about except to say that those few years represent for me very fond memories and much simpler times before I entered the world of corporate suit-wearing. I might just add here that Joe was once on a local show called Bowling for Dollars – his 15 minutes of fame.
After moving back to Ohio from Louisiana, Joe would join me and the boys every year for early morning Pork Festival breakfasts. I shared these memories here in this story (link). We’d laugh and talk and just enjoy the moments. I like to think he looked forward to these mornings as much as I did.
Much later in life, after we had our last child and had moved back to Ohio, I invited Joe to attend a little local fishing expedition with me and my two younger boys. I knew of a pond in Fairfield where the boys could fish without a need for a license. Joe had told me that he had never been fishing before. He got so excited when he saw the size of the fish and recognized the sport of trying to lure them to your bait. Mostly I think he saw an opportunity to try a new inexpensive activity, one that could also be very relaxing and could be done while on his work travels. As with everything Joe ever tried, he went into fishing with everything he had. He hit the garage sales, (and Tom’s Cigar Store – link), and picked up a couple poles and a tackle box and then carried his gear in his trunk on every business trip, always looking for an opportunity to relax at a local pond. He loved it!
Later as I became an adult, I learned through our conversations just how much he had grown to trust me and my judgment. In his final weeks, as he was facing death from the cancer eating away at his systems, he asked me to use his life insurance to help Mom get out of the old house they lived in. He also asked me to say a few words to each child after he was gone. He dictated and I jotted them down on a scrap of paper as he was sharing them with me and then I did as he had asked the evening after his funeral when it was just all us at the house.
I can honestly write here that not a month goes by where I don’t reflect upon Joe’s not being here and wishing he were. We’ll be somewhere or something will happen and I’ll stop and think to myself, oh Joe would like this. He knew how to laugh and always seemed to be looking on the bright side of things. I am not perfect, none of us are. We each are formed as a result of the complex meshing of our DNA, our environments and our experiences and a whole lot of luck. I was lucky to have Joe.
Joe died a few days past Easter in 1996. He was 60, my age today. Today, as I sit here recording this story in the blog website, I am laid up. I finally had to have my left knee replaced as a result of a softball accident 20 years earlier. They say that your health is always most important. I guess that statement resonates best when you don’t have good health. The pain I’m experiencing is often times the only thing I can focus on. When you are laid up, you have a lot of time to think and reflect…..so here’s my reflection this morning:
The best that any of us can do is to help those we love and to leave a positive mark in our wake. I’m trying.
I’m fortunate to be able to share my stories here with you today about Joe who was a huge part of all of our growing up on Prytania. We all miss you Joe