Tale of Two Joans

In the 1940s, Joan was one of the more popular girls’ names. Today almost no one names their kid Joan.

Joan # 1

There’s a Joan on my morning bus. She’s about my age, originally from Newfoundland, single mum with a visually impaired child. Joan works in a seniors’ residence, a job most people would find very difficult, if not impossible to do. She sets up the dining room, serves meals; cleans up afterwards. Sometimes they move her to room care where she has to tidy and clean the resident’s rooms, do their laundry or run errands for them.

It’s hard physically and emotionally because the people she works with every day tend to die on a fairly regular basis.  And Joan works long hours without breaks, gets a very modest hourly salary, no benefits, no pension.

Yet Joan is always cheerful, full of chatter every morning about little things that happened the day before. She loves her job. And she seems generally happy with her life although she has very, very little and struggles to maintain a home for herself and her child and to provide for his special needs.

Whenever I think of Joan, I can’t help but think of another, very different Joan I knew once a long, long time ago.

Joan # 2

My parents and I immigrated to Canada when I was a toddler and they were both in their early 20s. We landed on a farm, working for this other Joan. She was a widow and ran a big farm with her adult son, Allen.

I have no idea how old she would have been, but she had white hair and her son seemed significantly older than my parents.

For some reason I was fascinated by Joan.  Joan had emigrated from England, when she got married and was the picture of the English countrywoman. So, first chance I got I trotted over to her house and knocked on her door.[1]

She let me in and I began snooping around her big old farm house. I’d never seen anything like it. Joan followed me around curiously and tried to talk to me, but of course I spoke no English.

Joan, being a no-nonsense type, soon got fed up with my wandering around her home touching stuff, so she gave me a dust cloth and showed me how to dust.  I guess she reckoned if I was going to walk around fondling her things I might as well clean them while I was at it.

I ran off to visit Joan whenever I could. Sometimes she had other chores for me; sometimes we’d sit in her parlour and listen to opera; sometimes she was reading and would plop me into one of her big chairs with one of the big, incomprehensible books from her big library and made it clear that I was to sit still with the book or I could leave. I sat.

I’d sit as still as possible in that parlour during reading or opera time and look around at all her photos and paintings and memorabilia – much of it wartime stuff. It was like a museum and art gallery in one.

Joan tried to teach me to play bridge and let me sit in sometimes when her ladies came over for tea and bridge.[2] I was allowed one of the beautiful china tea cups just like all the other ladies; and had my tea “very milky with several biscuits” and my own set of cards.

She also tried very hard to teach me English, but I never clued in that she was speaking an actual language. I just thought there was something wrong with her and that she was just babbling gibberish. When I finally when to school, at the ripe old age of seven, it suddenly all made sense. After that, it was easy. [3]

Once I could understand her, Joan told me stories about the war and her husband and how she, herself was a nurse in the war. She let me root through her library and her picture albums and talked about her paintings and let me play in her trunks of old clothes and toys and with her amazing collection of clip-on earrings.

Sometimes I was allowed to go on errands with her and sit in the front seat of her grey Volvo (which she replaced faithfully ever year with a new grey Volvo).

She helped me learn to read; she introduced me to a whole new world (literally and figuratively) of history, literature, art and culture.

She sorted out the school and the police when I was nabbed at 7 ½ for riding my bicycle down the middle of the road instead of on the side like I was taught my Elmer the Safety Elephant. They wanted to confiscate my bike for six weeks until they were sure I was clear on the rules. She got the sentence reduced to three weeks.[4]

And, one year, her grand-nephew, Charlie[5] came to spend the summer; so Joan was even indirectly responsible for my very first crush. Of course, he was around 16 and barely noticed I existed.

Mostly, I just helped Joan with chores around the house, dusting her beautiful things and chatting nonsense with her.

When I was nine, my parents bought their own farm and we moved away. I was probably sad, but I was above all resilient, so the first thing I did was find myself a new old lady.  This one was a spinster school teacher with a dark little house in the country. It took some convincing to persuade her that it would be fun for her to have me hanging around. But, I eventually wore her down.  We had a good few years together; but it wasn’t quite the same and that’s a story for another time.

Her name was Gladys.


 [1] I could only have been about five, but we were in the middle of nowhere and people weren’t as paranoid about letting their kids run loose as they are today.)

[2] Of course I had no idea what I was doing and didn’t really “play”.

[3] I was fluent in four months – not that I was any kind of genius or anything; it just goes to show how quickly kids can learn stuff. There were lots of immigrant kids back then and they all picked up the language within a few months.

[4] My parents didn’t speak enough English to be much help

[5] Years later when I was about 17, I was hitchhiking and this older guy picked me up in a grey Volvo. We got to talking and he told me he was visiting his great-aunt on her farm for the summer. Right away I knew and asked him if his name was Charlie. He was astonished; and though I tried to remind him who I was, he didn’t really remember. Joan was still going strong he said and I sent along my regards. I’m happy to report that Charlie had grown up to become a pencil-necked geek

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And no post would be complete this week without a pathetic plea for votes in the Canadian Blog Awards. Yes, XUP is nominated in the Best New Blog category. And thank you, by the way, to whoever nominated me. It sounds trite, but it really is an honour just to be nominated. Of course, it would be an even greater honour to win. So if you haven’t had a chance to vote yet, please click on any of these links, check out all the fabulous new blogs and then click on mine. Thank you.

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27 responses to “Tale of Two Joans

  1. The only aunt I have still alive is Joan. Approximately 90 because a lady never ells her age. Out of over 50 cousins though not a single Joan in my generation and none that I know of in the next. Maybe they are on the endagered species list.

  2. What a lovely story! My former-boss-now-my-secretary is called Joan and she is quite a character too. I wonder if there is something in the name?

  3. Nat – German

    Bandobras – My daughter’s piano teacher is also named Joan and I used to work with a Joan in Halifax. The Halifax Joan was also very nice.

    LGS – Thank you. Yes, very different, but very interesting.

    Loth – WHAT? She was your boss and now she’s your secretary? How the heck did that happen? And how does she feel about this switcheroo??

    Dr. Monkey – Are you with immigration? It was Germany. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it before, actually. Will you look at me differently now?

    Lynn – Thanks. I like to do something different once in a while. You should look around for a Joan to get to know. As I said to Bandobras I know 2 others as well.

  4. what a great story! as a trained archivist, i love love love little snapshots like this of people’s lives. written/oral history is so important.

    i can just picture you insisting your friendship on unassuming little old ladies 🙂

  5. My husband’s first language was German too. And he learned English the way you describe, just from being around kids in Canada who spoke it. His mother was pregnant with him when he got here and he is therefore a first generation Canadian by a matter of months. She however spoke no English and so it wasn’t until he started interacting with other local kids that he started learning English. They were a little isolated when they got here (that was 1956).

    My mother’s sister was born in 1929 and was the middle child of three girls. Her name is Joan and she resembles your Joans in many ways. Maybe there IS something about the name.

  6. I just loved this post A-L. I don’t know any Joans but I was always fascinated by the lady who lived across the street, and my great aunt and grandmother. I think children can be drawn to older ladies more because they have time for them and are not afraid to have tea in a tiny cup.

  7. Germany is my Motherland, Norway is my Fatherland, but via 2 generations, so I guess I am just American.

    ANYWAY! I love your Joan stories. I have a nice aunt named Joan, a nice colleague named Joan and a great friend named Joanie!!

  8. Those are wonderful stories, XUP. I wish I knew some Joans.

    My family immigrated to Canada when I was 4. In fact, we arrived in Sault Ste. Marie on my fourth birthday. Language wasn’t a problem, though, since we came from the UK.

    Was Joan’s farm in Nova Scotia?

  9. I loved this story too…laughed out loud at your attempt to convince Gladys that she would really enjoy having a little girl hanging around.

  10. Great post. I love the old names. I almost named my daughter Maude but thought it might be an unfortunate choice reminding people of Bea Arthur if she turned out to be as big as her father. She didn’t (so far) and I still really love the name. I know a couple Joan’s – they are all friends of my Mum or Mother-in-law.

  11. Those are lovely stories of both Joans. I didn’t realize you had immigrated to Canada.

    You’re a good writer. I voted for you. 🙂

  12. Meanie – Yes, I was a pretty persuasive kid. I only wish I’d had some photos to add to the story, but we don’t have a single one of Joan — isn’t that odd?

    Julia – There was Joan Crawford who kind of put a damper on the name. Maybe that’s what killed its popularity?? I’m always amazed at how quickly children can pick up a language. If only we retained that capacity as we got older…sigh…

    Savanvleck – I don’t know what it is. I still like old ladies. I’m looking forward to being one.

    CP – Thanks. Everybody should know a Joan or two

    Missy – How lucky you are to know so many Joans. That’s the Joansiest thing I hear today!! Ha ha

    Robin – Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

    Alison – No, I only lived in Nova Scotia for 9 years just recently. We came straight to Niagara — which is where Joan’s farm was.

    Deb – She was kind of a crusty old Grade 2 teacher and the last thing she probably wanted at the end of the day is some kid in her house. But I just jabbered her ear off and made her laugh and was nice to her cat, so bit by bit she warmed up to me. Kids at school hated her because they thought she was a witch and they couldn’t believe I was friends with her.

    Melanie – (that’s an old name, too!) Maude would have been okay — who remembers Bea Arthur except old people now anywaY? I gave my daughter a nice simple old fashioned name, too.

    Jo – Thanks. It’s nice to have couple of languages that are completely innate like that

  13. This is a lovely post. Now both of these unique Joans are immortalized forever! (I don’t know any Joans which is clearly a shame for me since the general consensus here seems to be that all Joans rock.)

    And say what you will, I still think it’s borderline superhero-ish that you learned English in four months. I’m thankful you did…I would be kind of lost here if this blog was in German!

  14. The only people named Joan that come to mind are various characters in old movies and Joan of Arc of course.

    That’s a delightful story. I never got to know or hang around my neighbors. Some of my neighbors knew me at my previous house from when I was a baby, and I felt bad for not knowing their names as they said hello to me and asked me how I was on occasion. I have a neighbor across the hall now whom I see on the bus-ride home once in awhile. I actually do make conversation with him but I don’t think either of us recall the other’s name.

    Where did you move from and what language did you speak beforehand? Do you still remember how to speak it?

  15. Lesley – immortalized forever?? Holy cats — do you mean I have to keep this blog for all eternity? And speaking of which did you see my previous post where you and your girls are immortalized forever?

    Aziza – Ya, I was young in the olden days when people talked to their neighbours all the time. I came from Germany and yes, I am still pretty fluent. I can speak, comprehend, read and write on a basic level — nothing too technical. When I spend a week or so in Germany or with Germans though, I even dream in German.

  16. Oh I had a gang of old ladie too! Our neighbours up the stairs, mother and daughter- old and older. I probably hung about with them a little too much. They took me up to Glasgow to wave at the Queen on her Jubilee year. My Dad (anti monarchist) was not impressed, but hey, I got to skip school. I’ve a photo of the three of us somewhere of that day in Glasgow with me holding a monkey.

    Haven’t thought about them in years!

  17. MisssyM – I hope it was a real monkey. None of my old ladies ever had monkies — just cats and dogs and budgerigars!!

    Dr. M – Who’s Barb?

  18. I love your Joan stories. I’ve never known a Joan. There was Blanche, an older secretary at my mom’s work who taught me how to cross stitch and always offered me the nastiest raspberry candies from a metal tin (i always took one so as not to be rude, but they were painful to eat).

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