ESSAY / JUST JOAN
Joan was my mother’s best friend in the late 70’s. My first memories of Joan are of her helping to bring my little brother, Aaron, into the world in the quiet of my parent’s bedroom on a May morning in 1979. The house was barely finished, and a pale blue sheet covered the picture window. I can remember us all counting, mom was breathing hard. I was perched on the edge of the bed rail in my t-shirt that had a picture of the Fonz across the chest. I was four years old.
My mom had had an unpleasant experience in the hospital having me, and had decided she would not have any more children, until she met Joan. Joan had given birth to her daughter at home, and was in the room on this May day, acting as a spirit guide for my mom. This particular day seemed totally natural and normal to me, and 28 years later, I had those two women with me in sprit as I brought my son into the world in my own home in California.
Joan’s world was magical. She introduced my mother to many things beyond home birthing. She made known the importance of growing your own clean food. She taught my mother macrobiotic cooking. It was Joan’s husband who introduced my mother to the craft of throwing pots. She was the kind of woman who did not use a razor, did not wear a bra, and did not answer to any rules other than her own.
In the early 80’s, Joan and her husband divorced. Over the next 15 years she had a small handful of marriages and important relationships to various women and men, and at a certain point she decided that she was done with all of that. She became single for good. One day she informed us that she had gone to the courthouse and legally changed her name to “Just Joan.” Really. Her driver’s license read Just Joan. It was amazing. As a young girl, this thing she did with her name impacted me deeply. The idea that you could just decide to be whomever you want to be, whenever you want, vibrates deeply within me still. Joan lived on the fringe. She was not down with societal norms, and the older she became, the more far out on the fray she ventured. She left the Midwest and went far north, and then settled in the Southwest where she would remain for the rest of her days.
When Joan came to visit, there was no warning. She would come blazing down the long, dusty road to our house in her ecru colored, egg shaped camper van that had a giant steer skull rigged up to the front roof panel. She had grown her thick, silver hair long. If flowed like a waterfall, but only in the back. The sides were shaved about a quarter inch from her scalp. She had some Native American blood flowing through her mostly Jewish veins, and she was channeling that. She wore only deer hide that she herself had skinned. She wore many feathers wrapped in strands of leather that hung from her body parts. Her camper was outfitted in wood and pelt. The walls were draped taught with many animal skins, and the bed was covered in the like. If I were to drive this vehicle now, they would definitely try to feature it in some on-trend design blog. The blog would photograph every single detail, leaving nothing to the imagination and print it with some text about the California Dream Van, #vanlife. But it was not the California Dream van. This was the Arizona Dream Van, and it would come into town with no warning, and no care of what you may already have slated for the week. Whatever it was, you could change the plans, or add her to them.
When I was in college, Joan and I would sneak outside during Christmas break and smoke weed. We smoked hers, because I would have never had the nerve to bring my own grass into my parent’s house. We would jam our feet into my dads boots and clomp around on the snow covered deck, while she would groan about how she couldn’t believe people could still live like this. “Like this” meant in the Midwest I think. Maybe it meant in a sub-freezing climate. Whatever it was, she didn’t like it much, and soon enough she would get in the van unannounced, and blaze on back to wherever she came from.
Years might pass until the next visit. You just never knew. Mom and Dad were hippies at one point, but they had quit partaking in the herb when I was three, and they were operating under fairly normal pretenses. They were very together people. Not loose, but controlled and organized. Joan was the opposite.
On a train home from New York last September, I got a phone call from my mother. She said, “Jess, we got the strangest call.” The call was from Joan’s son. Nate presented the following story. Joan had been visiting a friend Saturday afternoon. She was driving home when a flash flood came roaring down the arroyo. She and her car were lifted up on a river of water and debris. Joan’s car was found 2 days later. The surrounding area was covered with a blanket of mud and silt, three feet thick. They did not find Joan. It is presumed that her body lies beneath the mud. This news came as a great shock to everyone, but as time has passed, I have come to appreciate the beauty of it all.
I imagine her there, peaceful, among the deer and the birds who dove down to the depths along side her, forever encased with the pelts and feathers. She went out barreling down a wall of water, with no warning, just the way she lived. Powerful. Natural. Answering to no one.