You recently learned about my fabulous mom, Bette – and now I’d like to introduce you to her big sister, Joan. My Aunt Joan is a force of nature; a larger than life personality and a fighter. She and I have always had a unique connection; perhaps it was that I was named after her (Brenda Joan), but I think even if we had not been related I would have been drawn to her sassy smarts and unique style.
Case in point, back when Bo Derek and the movie “10” were the rage, my Aunt Joan went and had her hair styled in cornrows. And she wasn’t on vacation in Jamaica. And she ROCKED them.
Her daughter, Kimberly (who I still and always call “Kimmy”) is the youngest of her five children, and she jumped at the chance to nominate her mother as a Fabulous Lady. Here is her tribute, in her words (which I will salt and pepper with my two cents!):
One of the most amazing women I know is my Mom, Joan Shaw. Every boy at Vineland High School in South Jersey was in love with her; her piercing blue eyes and exotic good looks had modeling agents trying to recruit her. There was always something “Elizabeth Taylor-esque” about her, but it wasn’t just her beauty that dazzled. She played the piano like a virtuoso and sang like a bird, but what put her over the top was a sharp intellect that led to a generous college scholarship offer.
Nope. She turned her back on both of those opportunities when she met the love of her life, Gordon Shaw. In fact, they married soon after her high school graduation.
From that point on, she devoted herself to her husband and home…and a growing family. First Johnny, then Bruce, Eddie, Debbie and the baby, Kimmy – this was a house that was full of life and fun, in large part because Aunt Joan was so much fun.
Talk about chutzpah (and her ever-present optimism): In 1960, when Kimmy was six months old, Joan entered the Miss Vineland contest. That’s not a typo. MISS Vineland. And she won first runner-up! (They couldn’t have picked her to win, you know, being a mother of five and all…)
We Costello girls always loved to get together with the “Shaw Kids” – it was an instant party.
Six years later, her picture perfect life was about to unravel. Gordon fell ill – and it was cancer. At the very young age of 37 he passed away, leaving 32-year-old Joan with five children to raise. The oldest was 13; Kimmy was just six years old.
Says Kim: “Raising five young children by herself was never in her plans, but as a strong woman she succeeded in doing so and also adopted my little sister in 1975. She really had no experience in the working world except for a brief time at the telephone company, but being the optimistic woman that she is, applied and got the job as the first woman dispatcher at the Vineland Police Department in 1969. She then was sworn in as a special officer and proceeded to assist on raids where, as the only woman, was able to search the females being arrested.”
As if it wasn’t enough to raise now six children and working full-time at the police department, she became a foster parent, often bringing home children that were dropped off at the station and considered to be incorrigible. She tried (and succeeded in many cases) to give them the encouragement to become better, more productive individuals.
There are many who are not blood relatives that to this day call her “Mom Shaw.”
In 1981, much to her dismay, she was forced to apply for a position at the casinos to financially support her family. At about 1995, she retired from the casinos but “sitting home” was not in her vocabulary. She went back to school and became a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant). After once again succeeding at a new career, she was asked by her employer to seek certification as a med nurse (dispensing prescribed medicine to the residents.) She loved that job and even went back to her childhood and young adult years by playing the piano for the residents after dinner and leading a nightly sing along.
The music was always the old hymns from her youth; she even made song books for the residents who did not know the words. This job became emotionally overwhelming for her when her older residents started passing away, so she went to work for a nursing staffing agency until medical issues would not allow her to drive anymore. (Even after she lost her sight in one eye, she continued to drive back and forth. When a stroke took half of the sight in her other eye she decided that for her, and others on the road, driving was no longer an option. This was a hard transformation for her, since the inability to drive had taken her independence.)
She was so loved and appreciated by her employer that he would bring all the tools she needed to do her job from the house.
Aunt Joan is known for this phrase: God never gives you more than you can handle.
Kimmy adds: “Over the years, there have been many trials and tribulations that might have mentally and emotionally crippled other women, but none of the hard blows that life dealt her over the years have ever stopped her from being one of the most amazing, optimistic women I have had the honor to know – and the privilege to call Mom.”
On this, her 81st birthday, I honor my Aunt Joan – a fabulous lady who became tough by necessity, but who seems to become softer and kinder and more lovely with each passing year. Her effervescent optimism and fighting spirit inspire me to “live up” to the name Joan.
Feel free to chime in and love bomb the amazing Joan Shaw!