Linda Jo Barnett was born in Lepanto, Arkansas on Christmas Eve, 1944. The fourth daughter of Bruce and Laura Ruth Barnett, she had three older sisters–Betty Jean, Peggy Jane, and Brenda Joan, the latter of which was born two years to the day earlier. They were born into a strong matriarchal construct of a family. Their mother Laura Ruth would have it no other way.
I knew Linda Jo, as Aunt Jo. She was my mom’s baby sister. The fact that her oldest daughter Joni was closest to my age of any of my cousins–combined with the fact that we lived in the same town, meant that we got plenty of time together. I think we were all enriched by it.
Linda Jo Barnett, became Linda Jo Bates, on April 3rd, 1963, marrying John Bates, in Dallas, Texas. They would spend nearly 40 years together, in good times and bad, in sickness and in health. The best of what they created together, ended up being named Joni and Judi, their two daughters, my cousins.
Aunt Jo died nearly ten years ago. She succumbed to breast cancer after a rudely abrupt six month journey. From the first diagnosis, to her death surrounded by those who loved her most, she never gave up her fight. It was a sad tragedy. She had so much life and wisdom in her. We all drew strength from her presence. We feel cheated that we didn’t get to share any more time with her. And we feel blessed for the time we did share.
For me, Aunt Jo was the source of many profound life lessons. Some of the beliefs and traditions I hold most dear, I remember first having conscious awareness of them, while being around her. From embracing family with joy and gusto, to being responsible and accountable for your own behavior, she set an example that few can match. She truly navigated life with a sense of purpose and self-assuredness that have proven, over nearly half a century of dealing with people, to be truly extraordinary.
At the top of the list of extraordinary attributes, Aunt Jo was the first “superstar” I ever knew. For me, she was the first person I saw who always seemed to know the right answer, always seemed to get the important things right. And she was the first person who clearly demonstrated that you didn’t need fame or societal recognition to be a “star.” It was liberating and life altering, knowing that you could be enormously important, without any need for fame or fortune. It was true during her lifetime, and arguably even more so now, that fame and widespread public recognition are no indicator of one’s character or worth.
In these days of mindless “tweets” and social network followership, I wonder how Aunt Jo might feel about these conventions. I suspect that she would see them for what they are—as tools. Tools are supposed to be used, for our convenience, to enable our own individual “pursuits of happiness.” They aren’t worthy of dominating our time and attention mindlessly, and especially if they do so at the expense of things that matter.
When we were kids, Aunt Jo was known to us nieces/nephews as a “no-nonsense” authoritarian. She was loving and she was fair, to be certain, but when she said no, we knew better than to quibble or question. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate her consistency and the rationale behind the boundaries that she set. She was principled. She wanted us to have fun and be happy, but not at the expense of our own safety and well-being. Fun matters and is worthwhile, but some things are more important–and self-preservation is chief among them.
Aunt Jo worked hard in her life. She was successful in everything she applied herself toward, by every measurable standard. She also ensured that those around her had abundant opportunity. She worked at nurturing and keeping a strong family. When her own mother Ruth, died in 1986, Jo was the one who would fill the vacuum. Despite being the youngest of four daughters/sisters, she was the one who had the ‘gravitas’ to take on the Matriarch role. She would host the Christmas and Thanksgiving gatherings with all the zeal we’d grown up enjoying. All of us would continue to gather like we always had. It was a constant…and it was a source of strength for most of us.
Upon Aunt Jo’s passing, the matriarch role hasn’t completely been filled yet. We all appreciate our family still, but we aren’t as unified as we once were about gatherings and our role therein. The family has grown in many directions since then. Us kids and cousins have all grown up. Most have families and kids of their own. Most of those kids are quickly becoming adults. We are all busy….and we are all “doing our own thing.”
As I moved from installation to installation across my Army career, I saw Aunt Jo fairly infrequently–maybe a couple of times a year, in a good year. During this period of my life, Aunt Jo became less ambiguous and more direct in our interactions. At some point during our day or two together, she would invariably make it a point of telling me, “we love you” and “we are very proud of you.”
Looking back on the time-period she was telling me these things, while I was in my 20s and 30s, I have subsequently realized that I didn’t have “the ears to hear” her message then. As I have grown older, and as my own nieces and nephews are reaching their 30s themselves, I remember Aunt Jo’s example. I get where she was coming from. I see the wisdom and maturity of her message. It still isn’t easy for me to be overtly direct and loving to those I care most about, but I understand the need nevertheless.
Life is unpredictable, time is often shorter than we’d like. And you never know what may come, what tragedy or crippling disease tomorrow might bring. Aunt Jo knew a fair amount about those things, since before her inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis, she had already endured a few years with multiple types of lupus, an autoimmune disorder. I think this ongoing adversity may have given her a greater sense for that which mattered most.
She knew that, despite its difficulties, life is good. And life in a strong, loving family is better. And doing your best to care and nurture those things, is the best thing we can do to make life good for those around us. So, go for it, without hesitation. For the handful of folks in this world who are comfortable with and actually WANT to be in your presence, embrace them, treasure them, and enjoy the time you have together, while you can. And if you are a leader, a person of responsibility in the group, embrace it and fulfill your role. Look folks in the eye, tell them you care, and expect the best of them too. The whole clan needs everybody’s best effort, so do your part. Aunt Jo lived these tenets better than the rest of us. She set the standard that the rest of us still try to attain.
To Aunt Jo I would say, we are who we are because of you. You were a magnificent role model. I believe you would be enormously proud of the mothers that your daughters have become. Joni and Judi have both inherited your strength and determination. They clearly have invested themselves in their children like you did. I would submit that they are still working on the effortless part that you seemed to exude though. And I know you would be even more proud of the people your grandkids are becoming. Liz, Colton and Emily are becoming all that they are supposed to be–because they are loved, nurtured and provided for, just like you wanted for them to be. We all miss you for certain but these kids are the ones who missed you the most. I hate it for them.
Your life was cut short, in fairly short order. Your passing was abrupt and difficult. And yet, I know I still draw strength from how you dealt with the adversity you faced. You lived your life with clear purpose and you invested in the people and things that mattered. Because I saw how you lived, I feel better equipped for whatever adversity I may face down the road. I know I don’t take growing old as a given. Better folks than me have gone before me, showing me how tough and short life can be. You did so with effortless grace and beauty.
With you, we always knew where you stood. You were exactly as you appeared–forthright, direct, and clear-minded. To my dying day, I can only hope to be just like that. Thank you for your good example. I look forward to seeing you on the other side. I loved you too….and was proud to be in your clan…even when I was too busy taking things for granted. May you rest in peace saving a big, comfortable place for the rest of us. JDPF