She was everyone’s Mama Jo

Oh my,” she would sigh, as she leaned forward for a cup of coffee in her little kitchen.

“I have no idea, Melanie, no idea. What are you gonna’ do? What are you gonna’ do? Sometimes that’s just the way life is . . . you get through it, you think about it and then you move on.”

She’d smile through her thick glasses that sat on a well-earned rim of wrinkles.

Nearby lay the weight belt that she wore to work – it helped support her back during the long hours she spent at the care center in Neligh.

On this day, she didn’t have to go to work, which she said she appreciated.

“Oh, I tell ya’, I’m too damn old for this stuff,” she said, taking a sip of coffee as she referred to her job . . . to which she continued going even though she was getting on in years.

Mama Jo wasn’t a very big lady – tiny, in fact – so it always marveled me that she could even do the back breaking work of which nurses are required, when caring for the elderly and infirm.

But she didn’t waver, and returned day after day, year after year.

After all, she was self-sufficient and determined to support herself and daughter, Nicky.

I’ve known Mama Jo since I was a little girl. She was the petite yet strong lady who lived on the big ranch west of the rural St. John’s Church.

She had a bunch of kids that were already grown – when along came the delightful surprise of Nicky, who put a new light in her life.

Growing up, Mama Jo was a part of my life and many other kids in that area as she diligently taught catechism year after year.

She was a great friend of my mother’s – and a rock for her to lean on when she needed it the most. The two of them shared an understanding of what it’s like to be a tough woman who was yet soft enough to love and be loved.

And their daughters – Nicky and my sister, Nancy – were inseparable friends for as far back as I can remember.

Nicky was a part of my family, Nancy was a part of Jo’s. And the rest of us became inherited as well as we all navigated through life.

Mama Jo and Nicky eventually moved from the ranch to a little house in Elgin. There, they set up their new lives and we seemed to move right along with them. I don’t know how many nights Nancy would spend at that house – she was always welcome there, as were many other youngsters who considered Mama Jo to be their Mama Jo. Her door was always open and there was always a place for everyone.

I immensely appreciated the support that came from Mama Jo when Nancy died and shortly after when my mother passed. Even though Mama Jo certainly had emotions of her own about these two situations, she cared not only for Nicky’s grief but she also often handed me cups of coffee with a splash of knowledge as we discussed the hardships in life.

She certainly had her own . . . but she always pushed forward and kept going.

“Here’s the thing, Melanie,” she’d say, in her coarse and deep voice of wisdom. “If there’s not a damn thing you can do it, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. And that’s it. Get up, drink some coffee and get to it. And it will somehow all work itself out in the end.”

A few months ago, I wrote a column about the women who greatly affected me as a child. And Mama Jo was one of them. I wrote that she “believed all things were possible as long as you have a dollar in your pocket, coffee in your cup, a cigarette in your purse and a rosary in the car.”

When I learned that Mama Jo passed away, those words are the first that came to mind.

I remembered with fondness the nights I’d sit with Jo and Nicky in that kitchen and we’d talk about our troubles and triumphs, the peaks and the pits. She may have had some age on us, but she could still offer pertinent perspective about friends, men, work, kids and life in general.

When Nicky became my sister-in-law, by marrying my husband’s brother, the family ties with Mama Jo became permanent. I had the ongoing privilege of sitting down with her on occasion, to hash out the world’s woes and have a few laughs.

A few years ago, Mama Jo had a stroke and it impaired her ability to speak. That broke my heart because the woman loved to participate in what she often referred to as “coffee talk.” But Mama Jo was still in there – and her eyes were as vibrant as ever as she carried on conversations that may have sounded different, but were just as sincere.

I can still see her figure dwarfed in that giant, white car of hers . . . flying up the gravel road to St. John’s where she’d emerge with a casserole dish and a stack of books.

I can still see her sitting on a chair at City Limits in Elgin, where she’d drink a soda (Dr. Pepper products I think) and chat with her friends who worked there.

I can still see her in Nicky’s house as one of the kids had a birthday party and she’d exclaim “Well, for heaven’s sakes,” every time one of the young ones showed her a gift.

I can still remember those nights of sitting in that little kitchen in Elgin – when I was still wet behind the ears when it came to knowledge about life and love.

“Well, who knew?” she’d say. “Who knew? The thing here is, Melanie, it’s time to just buck up. Life’s not always fun, but that’s the way it is. I know, things aren’t always easy and people can be a real pain in the ass. But the thing to remember is we keep getting up morning after morning and somehow we live through it all. And in the end, I guess we realize it was all good.”

I guess we do realize that in the end it’s all good, that it was and it is. Mama Jo passed away with her many children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren around her. She was 80 years old, I was told . . . I never really knew her age because to me she was timeless.

She was certainly one of those people in life that you just won’t ever forget . . . because she was everyone’s Mama Jo.


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