Joan Fredrickson - Eulogy by Mary Petrie

To say that I was a 'reader' as a child would be an understatement. The characters coming to life on the page were as real the people I saw every day - except the people in books were far more interesting. They lived in exotic places defined by misty forests, cavernous castles and windswept plains. These characters were women and girls: intrepid, curious, honest, fearless and generous of spirit. Not too surprisingly, I often misplaced my cousin Joan as one of these far-flung heroines. She was a mythic figure - the independent, utterly unconventional cousin who traveled the world, kept the company of soldiers, and knew even more about books than I did. Of course, as I grew to know Joan over the years, the real person replaced the icon. And the real Joan was even better than the myth.

Better--but more complicated. First, there was that unconventional life. Joan was born in 1926, an era in which being a housewife and mother wasn't an option but an unequivocal expectation. Imagine the courage it took to create another kind of life: Joan went to college and immediately began the work that would define her professional life- connecting books and people. She married briefly, yet unlike most women, continued to work, and after choosing to end her marriage she began the long leg of a professional life that would literally take her around the world. Working as a civilian librarian in the military, Joan travels took her to Korea, Japan, The Philippines, Australia, Egypt, Alaska, Germany and more. Much of this adventure she shared with her dearest friend, Blackie. Today, a flight to Japan is the stuff of ordinary business; divorce a given in contemporary culture. But these acts were nearly unimaginable to most young women during Joan's lifetime. The path out of an ordinary existence was something she had to forge quite consciously, with little assistance and few models for a young woman from a small Minnesota town.

Joan's interior life was just as purposeful. As much as I admired Joan for her travels and career, her inward journey took her an even greater distance and warrants, perhaps, even more admiration. Her disability carried singular physical and psychological challenges. In a spiritual autobiography she wrote in 2003, Joan acknowledges these complexities and contradictions, and, sometimes, pain. She writes "regarding my handicap, I reasoned that everyone has them - some like mine, were more obvious" and seeing herself as a child of God, she knew she was "a whole person, created by a loving God, and for that reason, worthy of being loved myself." This self-acceptance was hard-won and never uniform or consistent. Joan not only took herself to task for all of her perceived shortcomings, it is safe to say that she suffered - she suffered much anguish through her honest and unsparing self-reflection-but this was the anguish of the disciple, bent to the knee of God and asking for knowledge of His will. She honored that knowledge even when it was difficult. She ended her marriage, in part, because her husband refused to raise their children as Catholics. Her faith - even in times of sorrow and uncertainty - wasn't an abstraction but a foundation. Joan lived a studied and purposeful life. Certainly, this path was lit by her gifted intellect and curiosity. But the path was also alive with faith.

To me, Joan's relationships mirrored the one she had with God. She believed in his love. Did Joan receive God's love - feel this presence? I don't know. But I do know that Joan freely gave of herself- she loved without boundaries, definitions, rules and restrictions. In every community she entered, Joan became a central figure. When she was living in Virginia, she bought a townhouse - coincidentally? - across the street from a monastery owned by the Sisters of the Visitation and began a decade long, rich relationship with the sisters. Joan writes "I was inspired by their selfless lives, yet down-to-earth-attitudes - very much in the here and now. I knew I could learn from them." And she did. In her professional life, she cared deeply and genuinely for the military men and women she served, and in return, they cared for her and folded her in as one of their own. When she returned to Minnesota in the last years of her life, she was equally embraced by residents in her new parish and two living communities-- because Joan didn't just set up house, she joined in, got to know people, asked questions, she lent a hand - she loved. And there was no one she loved more than her niece, Chris. Chris and Susan returned that love and became Joan's closest family. Chris's lifelong relationship with her aunt Joan took a new turn. Without definition or convention-without words - Chris became Joan's daughter and ushered Joan through the journey of life's final years, months and in the end, hours. In a way, this wasn't a gift to Joan but an inevitability. The love Joan fought for and found in God, the love she gave so freely to others, was returned to her tenfold by Chris and Susan.

I recommend mourning Joan - not her life - a life worthy of celebration and joy -- but our loss. People courageous enough to enter the dark night of the soul and emerge are the better for their journey. Everyone around them is richer. Our task - if we're able -- is to emulate the wise men and women of this world. Joan was one of them. Let Joan's legacy be that we nurture in ourselves what we found in her: humor, grace, irreverence, courage, honesty, fortitude and love.

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