Ten years ago, in October of 2011, I agreed to drive my grandma JoJo to Camp Bethel for the Northern Area Virlina District Women’s Fellowship Fall Rally. I wrote about the day back then, which is the only way I remember that what I thought was going to be a breakfast meeting with my grandma actually turned into a delightful day-long excursion as chauffeur to three of my favorite older ladies, who bickered and bantered and cackled all the way there and back, telling me stories of Pearl Harbor and meeting their husbands at illicit card games.
The presentation at the meeting was about Brethren Volunteer Service, and someone asked for a show of hands of those who’d done BVS before. I raised my hand along with just a couple of other women, and the emcee directed the ladies to see one of us – Judy or Carol or “whoever that girl was in the back” – to hear more BVS stories.
JoJo, standing up on her way to the restroom at the back of the room, raised her hand and shouted out, happily interrupting the program:
“Now, I want you all to know, that is my granddaughter, Dana Beth Cassell!!”
This was, I admit, slightly embarrassing for me, especially because at the time, I was interviewing to be a pastor here in the district. Having your grandmother interrupt a meeting to make sure everyone in the room knows your name is not exactly the most professional way to network.
But it was not embarrassing for JoJo. It was all joy.
JoJo grew up in a single parent household in the 1930s and 1940s. Her father left when she was tiny, and her mother, Junia, moved the two of them back home from Ohio to Virginia, where they had family to lean on. It’s not easy to be a single parent today, so I can only imagine what it was like back then. Junia and JoJo moved all the time. JoJo moved from one relative’s house to another, some of whom treated her well and others of whom decidedly did not. She attended FIVE (maybe?) different elementary schools across the city of Roanoke.
In the midst of all that change, it was the church and the library that became enduring places of refuge for JoJo: she was baptized at age 8 and remained a dedicated, involved matriarch of First Church of the Brethren for all her life. Until recently, she was still in charge of the prayer chain emails. She was a lifelong patron at the Melrose Branch of the Roanoke City Library, and her beloved librarians there left really gracious condolences on her online obituary. I am a grateful heir of her love for the church and her love of reading, and I’m pretty sure that having one’s favorite librarians sharing condolences at your death is now one of my #lifegoals.
JoJo didn’t talk a whole lot about the trauma of growing up the way she did – shuffled around from one house to the next, changing addresses and schools and never quite sure if she’d be welcomed or sent away when she showed up on someone’s doorstep. She didn’t talk a whole lot about it, but somewhere along the line, she decided to live HER life differently.
She married Bobby – a living, breathing definition of stability – and, as if by sheer force of will, she engineered a family so close-knit that when I graduated from seminary, the entire lot of them showed up in Atlanta wearing matching t-shirts out on the town & thought absolutely nothing of it.
JoJo and Bobby SHOWED UP for people. They didn’t talk about how or why they did that, they didn’t write blog posts or preach sermons about the importance of showing up, they just DID IT. I would be hard pressed to remember a childhood softball game or swim meet or awards ceremony that my grandparents didn’t attend. When I came home from Illinois in 2009 to have some major surgery, I walked into the hospital pre-surgery waiting room at 5am and there they were, waiting on me, showing up for me in the awful parts as well as the good ones.
Family was really important to JoJo, but her persistence in showing up with and for people wasn’t limited to her blood relations. She knew firsthand that sometimes the most important kinds of care and stability come from outside family circles, and insisted on showing up for her own family AND for anyone who needed someone to show up for them.
She wanted people to know that they were cared for and wanted and welcome, and she cared about people by learning to know them. JoJo had a huge intellectual capacity, but she didn’t use that capacity studying philosophy or theology or esoteric ways of understanding the world: she applied the whole of her intelligence to PEOPLE. My sister, Leah, remembers that JoJo knew every golfer, tennis, football, baseball, and basketball player on the TV at any given time – just like everyone she saw in person, too! She could trace your family lineage back to the fourth generation, and she remembered the surgery you had five years ago and the struggle your mom was having when she last talked to you. She wanted to KNOW you, to learn all about you. Because she wanted you to know that you were important, loved, and known, that somebody had your back, that someone was in your corner.
JoJo was not always nice. She inherited the Bostwick temper, the same temper that hobbled her own mother, her aunts and uncles, too. Her temper hurt people, and she knew it, and she regretted it. Once, Bobby had to go into the hospital for some surgery, and I told him beforehand not to worry, that I would be spending the night with JoJo and watch out for her, unless, of course, she got mad at me. “Well,” Bobby said, “she gets mad at lots of people. But she gets over it.”
JoJo never mastered her temper – its fire probably singed several of us here, today. But I’m convinced that it was that same fire that gave her the wherewithal to live the life she lived: to carve out a space for joy and delight for herself, to commit to showing up for people she loved in ways that she struggled to access when she was young.
JoJo was a sway-er. Some of her grandchildren have inherited this habit, swaying back and forth on our feet whenever we’re waiting in line or singing in church. Leah reminded me that JoJo didn’t just sway alone, but would also come up behind us, with her arms draped over our shoulders, singing or humming a hymn, and swaying side to side.
“Which is,” Leah says, “how I will continue to feel her with me, even now, having my back, sharing side eye glances with me and swaying to the song of life.”
It’s a chaotic, confusing time in our world. There is plenty of anger and violence and trauma – all of which JoJo knew, firsthand. I had the gift of living here, on earth, with JoJo as my grandma, in my corner, on my side, announcing my beloved presence anywhere and everywhere she got the chance. JoJo taught me a lot, including the utterly vital necessity of being someone who shows up for people, someone who has peoples’ backs; that not only is there is no other way for us to survive, but that this is also a surefire straight line to unspeakable joy.