Those who knew my mother, would have called her a number of things: a wife, a mother, a business woman, a nut, a bohemian, beautiful, fun, a non-conformist, irresponsible, a character, crazy, an adult hippie and some things which are better left unsaid. All of these would have been correct. Most people who knew her just called her Joyce.
She was born Joyce Merriman Rees, after marriage, Joyce Ross, after divorce, Joyce Rhys, then Joyce Brenton and finally Joyce Gibbs. She was born in the hamlet of Usk, Washington on August 4, 1921. Her mother, Margaret Merriman Rees, said the old country doctor who came to the house for the delivery, put his feet up on the stove and said a number of times, “Baby’s not ready yet,” but Mom eventually came into the world.
Her father was Daniel Ivor Rees and she had a brother, James Ivor Rees. Eventually another brother, Sherrel Evans Rees, or Jerry, was added to the family.
Most of the stories Mom told about her youth centered around Lake Chelan, Washington. There she walked to school in the snow, uphill both ways. She loved to swim in Lake Chelan in the summer. When asked how she learned to swim, she said Jim tossed her into the lake, which was considered bottomless, so it was swim or drown. She swam and was a fine swimmer.
As a girl, she gazed longingly at the Campbell House, a resort in the town. She always wanted to go inside, but the family was very poor and not accustomed to the interior of such places.
Her father, Dan Rees was primarily a farmer. He had a problem with alcohol and would occasionally disappear for what the family would call a “toot.” They wouldn’t see him for several days, then he’d come home, humble, apologetic and repentant until the next toot. Dan’s father, George Rees, had the same problem. From what we know about addiction now, genetics gives a predisposition to such things.
Dan also had a temper and was old school. He had been with General Pershing chasing Pancho Villa before marrying. Mom said his belt came out with some frequency. When I was a child and complained about a spanking, Mom would say, “At least you didn’t get it with a belt.”
Her mother, Margaret worked as a nurse from time to time and would have been a good one. She was a fine mixture of nurturing, but not putting up with much funny business. She was a strong woman and held the family together.
The Rees family suffered greatly during the Great Depression. Our Dad would say that his family was better off than most during the Depression, Mom would simply say, “My family wasn’t.” Dad said, “We always had food on the table.” Mom would say, “We didn’t.” I never asked for details. When Mom would hear the Depression song, “Happy Days are Here Again,” she’d become upset and tell me that there were no happy days during the Great Depression.
In the 1930’s, the Rees family moved to the sunnier climate in California. Mom described going over the old Ridge Route from Bakersfield to San Fernando. That trip, which now takes just over an hour, took all-day and depending on the number of flat tires, sometimes two. Mom’s family settled in Huntington Beach. Mom loved being by the beach and didn’t miss walking to school in the snow, uphill both ways.
Eventually, the family made their way to Pasadena. Mom, Jim and Jerry went to Pasadena High School. Mom enjoyed her time there and made a lot of friends. Once, while ridding the bus to school, she looked out the window and saw Jerry smoking a cigarette. She was shocked. Jerry, of course, said he was holding it for someone! While in high school, Mom had a boyfriend named Red. She liked him a great deal. Red was killed in World War II. Dad thought if Red had lived, Mom would have married him.
Mom took classes at Pasadena City College.
When she was in her early 20’s, Mom worked as a receptionist for a doctor in Pasadena. There she met Dad. As Mom told the story, the doctor told her to go rub lineament on the chest of a patient who had a cold. Mom walked in and there was Dad with his shirt off. She claimed she had never seen a man with his shirt off and quickly said, “I think I hear the phone ringing.” Dad was immediately taken with her. She obviously liked his chest. The courtship lasted for about six months. They were married on July 12, 1942 in Reno. They started married life in Burbank.
Attraction is an interesting thing. Both Mom and Dad loved the movies. Dad had a thing for the actress Olivia DeHavilland. Mom could have been a double for the beautiful Olivia. Tall men with pencil moustaches were all the rage in the 30’s and early 40s. Dad tried to pattern himself after Ronald Coleman and William Powell. He was a handsome man. Did they love each other or each fall for an image? People get married for interesting reasons.
Dad had burned his leg badly when he was a boy, so he was 4-F in the World War II draft and could not join any branches of the service. Having lost Red, I’m sure Dad’s exemption was another appeal for Mom.
I don’t know what their early married life was like, but it must not have been too bad. I came along in March, 1944. Dad was very responsible and the disciplinarian of the household. Mom was the nurturer. I was very close to her and related to her more than to Dad, who scared me. As a young boy, Mom would read to me and sing me to sleep. I knew she loved me and that I was important to her. I knew Dad loved me too, but he was different. Mom and I were both sensitive souls. I could discern her emotions and she mine. That ability to sense what others were feeling is one of the great gifts Mom gave me. Dad, being a strong male, was harder to read.
Margo came along two years later in April, 1946. I liked having a sister. We did a lot of things together, but I always felt Mom and Dad liked her better. Margo and I humorously argue over that to this day.
After we moved to the San Diego area, one of Mom’s most embarrassing moments occurred downtown. She fed Margo and me mushrooms for lunch before going to the bank. In the middle of the old fashioned bank (marble floors, high ceilings, very formal), with great flair, Margo regurgitated the mushrooms onto the marble floor. Mom was totally humiliated. Neither Margo nor I can stand mushrooms to this day. I don’t know who cleaned up the mess.
Mom and Dad’s early years seemed to be positive. Once, according to Dad, Mom said, “I’d live with you in a chicken coop.”
Due to Dad’s changing employment, we moved from San Diego to Laguna Beach, La Cresenta and then to Modesto within a year. Mom loved Laguna and wanted to stay. Dad was easily congested living by the ocean. He loved the desert.
After looking at property in Lancaster, Dad and Mom bought 40 acres on Prescott Road, just north of Modesto. There was an old Sears house on the property. When we moved in, Dad told Mom, “Here’s your chicken coop!” They fixed the house up and made it their own. They painted inside and out, bought antiques, planted gardens and a lawn. The house became a home. It was a fun place for Margo and me to grow up. We lived there from 1951 until 1960.
For as much as I loved the old place and roaming on 40 acres, Mom and Dad started to argue more and more. It was most often over the fact that Mom forgot to record checks she had written. It was a continuing problem. The arguments were shouting matches. Mom would try to hold her own, but Dad could be very intimidating. The arguments scared Margo and I.
However, there were many fun moments. A lot of friends would come by and there were often parties. My parents were very social. Several children of family friends have told me as adults that they loved our ranch and that it had a major influence on their lives. Mom’s warm personality was certainly a major part of that.
Mom was game. She worked for an employment agency in Modesto, but would help with ranch work on the weekends. Driving a tractor, picking walnuts or painting a wall were not beyond her. She loved to work in the flower garden and see things grow. She loved to cook and made great salads. She wasn’t afraid to get dirty.
The funniest story I have about Mom came when I was about 11 years old. We took a camping trip to Washington State with friends Jack and Lois Cramer. We had visited Seattle, then after sunset, set up camp on a lake just southeast Snoqualmie Pass. Early the next morning, Mom woke me up and said, “Come on, be my lookout, I’m going skinny dipping!” We walked down a dirt road about an eighth of a mile and found a run down dock. Mom stripped down and jumped in. Just as she hit the water, I heard a truck coming down the road. I told Mom to get out because someone was coming. Just as she, without a stitch on, climbed onto the dock, the truck came into view. The driver saw Mom and drove off of the road. I had handed Mom a towel and with all the dignity Mom could muster, she walked nobly by the truck, giving the driver, and his young son a look that said, “How dare you interrupt my swim!” I’m sure the naked lady of the lake was a topic of conversation in that family for many years.
In 1960, our family moved out of the chicken coop into a house we built on Albers Rd. about 10 miles east of Modesto. Dad and Mom had purchased 55 acres on the northeast corner of Albers and Yosemite Highway (Highway 132). It was the new house we had always hoped for, but dark clouds were gathering over our family.
Mom and I grew closer during this time and she continued as my confidant. Shortly after we moved there, Mom complained about Dad every time we talked alone together. I was worried for their relationship. Once Mom said, “I’ll just divorce your father. That’ll show him.” I told her that wouldn’t accomplish anything. She didn’t reply.
One afternoon, Mom and I were home alone. I answered the phone. A man with a deep voice asked for Mom. When I told her who it was, she told me it was a friend from New York she had met at a convention. I didn’t think anything of it.
In a happier interlude, Mom found a certain place on the north end of the property where she could pick mushrooms in season. Mom knew how to pick the non-poisons mushrooms, but Dad teased that she was trying to kill him. She almost did, but not with mushrooms.
Christmas, 1962, was one of the highlights of my young life. I was 18. My Rees grandparents were there as were all my first cousins on Mom’s side. Jim, Ginny, Diane and Peggy were there as well as Jerry’s family who had come down from Washington State. Jerry came with his wife, Helen, along with cousins Sherrel, Sue, Dan and Mike. I dearly loved everyone there.
Dad had Jim dress up in a Santa Claus outfit to surprise the kids. When Jim came in through the back patio, our beloved German Shepherd dog, Mike, never having seen Santa Claus before, chased Jim up onto the roof. An alternate entrance through the front door was quickly arranged and Santa visited the excited young cousins.
Five weeks later, Mom’s father, Grandpa Rees died of a heart attack at age 72. The family gathered, Jerry, Helen and the kids made a return trip down from Washington and a beautiful funeral was held. Her father’s death seemed to take something out of Mom.
In the spring of 1963, I fell head over heels in love with a beautiful Mormon girl. I started to attend church with her. After we broke up, I found answers I had been pondering since Grandpa Rees’ funeral, so continued to attend church and became a convert. Most of my new found friends were going to BYU in the fall. After my first year of college at Modesto Junior College, Mom said to me, “How would you like to go to BYU this fall with your friends?” I was excited she would say that, but it was impossible on several fronts. However, things worked out and at the end of August, I was on my way to Provo.
I had breakfast with Mom and Margo the morning I left. Mom was very tearful. Although she could be emotional, I wondered why she was so exceptionally emotional. In early October, while at BYU, I found out. Mom called me and told me she was divorcing Dad. Obviously, she wanted to get me out of the way so I would not talk her out of it. Within a few weeks, she left for New York City and shared an apartment with Arnold Brenton, the man with the deep voice who had called Mom over a year earlier.
Why does a woman decide to leave her husband, children, extended family and friends? Was her life that bad? Dad could be difficult. Was he that difficult? At age 42, did she feel she was loosing her youth and needed a new adventure? Was she rational? Partly, Mom wanted to be Auntie Mame. Like Auntie Mame, she lived in Greenich Villiage. Those are difficult questions.
The consequences of the divorce were devastating to Dad, Margo and me. Margo’s life was thrown into chaos. Mom took her back to New York. My sister who was well known and well connected at high school went into a New York environment that we totally foreign to her. By the end of the semester, Margo was back in Modesto living with Grandma Rees.
I came home from college for Christmas having left a family and returned only to Dad and our friend, Bob Shephard. It was a bachelor existence and very depressing. I received an album by Barbara Streisand for Christmas. I kept on hearing Streisand sing “Happy Days are Here Again.” They weren’t. I was experiencing my own great depression.
A year to the day after we had had the wonderful family gathering, Dad Margo and I ate Chinese food alone at a restaurant. It was devastating.
Although Dad and I grew closer, Mom and I lost the closeness we had for 19 years. It never came back. Our relationship became very superficial.
One could be very bitter and harbor anger. I have no idea what was going on in Mom’s mind and with her emotions. As it is hard not to feel some resentment, it is also hard to judge. My parents’ divorce certainly helped my own marriage. I would never want my wife and children to go through what I went through.
In August, 1963, I made a trip to New York City. Mom and I did the Circle Tour, went to the World’s Fair and had a grand time. I saw the original cast in “Hello, Dolly.” Mom wanted to take me to “Funny Girl,” but it was sold out. While Mom wouldn’t discuss anything personal, she always knew how to have a good time. That visit changed my life and opened my mind to a world outside of Modesto, California and Provo, Utah. But Mom and I still did not connect like we had before.
For the next two years, Mom and I just wrote and talked on the phone. In October, 1965, I left on a two year mission for the church. After a year, I was serving in Biloxi, Mississippi and Mom visited me for 24 hours. We had a nice time, and as was her way, she completely immersed herself into what I was doing for the time she was there. Mom later wrote and told me she had married Arnold Brenton, but Margo says that never happened.
When I returned from my mission in 1967, Dad and I went to Washington DC to visit family friends, Jim and Edna Alexander. Mom came down from New York and we spent an afternoon with each other. Mom had the guts to stick her nose in some places she probably didn’t belong. We found ourselves in the Senate cloakroom where I shook hands with Senators Everett Dirkson and John Stennis and brushed shoulders with many others. We walked through Arlington Cemetery and I briefly felt a connectedness with her I hadn’t felt for a long time. That was the last time.
I went home for Christmas at the end of 1967. Mom had come to Modesto for Christmas. Who would I spend Christmas with, Mom or Dad? I was in the middle, wanting to make everyone happy. I found that was not possible. My loyalties were with Dad since he had always been there for me. It was a heart-wrenching situation. That situation was complicated when Dad married Maurine Chadwick in March, 1968. The next Christmas, Dad and Maurine expected me to spend Christmas with them. I’d be with them and Mom would call wanting me to come over. I’d be at Mom’s for an hour and Dad and Maurine were insistent that I return. It was impossible. After Brenda and I married, it became worse, because grandchildren became involved. No matter what we did someone was mad at us, usually everyone. Brenda wondered what she had gotten herself into!
It was never discussed between Mom and I, but Arnold Brenton was no more faithful to Mom than he had been to his wife. Mom decided it was time to return home to Modesto. All I was told was that she missed her family too much. I was very happy to have Arnold Brenton out of our lives. It was early 1970s.
Mom owned an employment agency when she left Dad. She sold it to one of her employees when she left. When she returned, she bought it back because it hadn’t turned a profit. Mom was convinced she could turn it around, but she soon had to close the doors.
The next decades of her life followed a pattern. Mom became a real estate broker. She was always looking for the “big deal” that would make her rich. She never became rich, but was usually taken advantage of, or took advantage of others. She borrowed money from family, friends and business associates. It was never paid back. Most people just wrote it off. Mom went from one real estate business to another. She didn’t last long anywhere.
In the process, Mom went through relationships with a succession of men. She was a beautiful woman and could make friends easily even as she grew older. When she was in her 60s, she developed a relationship with Harrison Gibbs. They were soon married. I read their vows at their wedding ceremony and everyone was very happy.
Mom and Harrison had some good years. They travelled and Harrison used Mom’s brokers license to sell houses in a large subdivision. I was offered a job working for Harrison, but turned it down. As the homes in the subdivision were mostly sold, Mom’s relationship with Harrison deteriorated. He made a small fortune from that subdivision. Mom never saw any of it. Soon Mom discovered Harrison was having an affair with one of his secretaries. They divorced.
The rest of Mom’s life was sad. She had burned her bridges, owed too many people too much money and eventually had no place to live. My sister, Margo, mercifully moved an old house onto a property she and Bob had in Oakdale. That’s where Mom lived for the rest of her life.
Mom visited our family for Christmas in 2001. She had come to see us for the last few Christmases. When she got off the plane in 2001, she told me she wasn’t feeling well.
On Christmas day, she played most the day with Hayden and Jackson, her great-grandsons. When the day was over, she was exhausted. The next day, Mom and I spent watching old movies on TV. We had a great time. As was her custom, she cried in the movies.
In the middle of the night that night, I thought I heard her crying. I got up and look around. Had I been dreaming? She was in the bathroom and I asked if she was okay. I didn’t receive an answer. I figured she had gone to sleep. I went back to bed.
In an uncanny turn of events, early the next morning, we received a call telling us Brenda’s mom, who was in a nursing home, had taken a turn for the worse. Mom was stretched out on our couch, where she slept. We decided to let her sleep while we tried to sort things out with Brenda’s mom.
About 10 AM, Mom walked into our bedroom. She looked at Brenda and me. She started talking gibberish. We instantly knew she was in big trouble. We walked her back to the couch. Brenda said, “We need to call 911.” I told her we’d help Mom up and take her to the car and to the ER. We tried to lift Mom up off the couch, but she had lost consciousness and we immediately called 911.
Mom was quickly taken to the ER. The doctor there informed me Mom had suffered a stroke. He said with some time and rehab, she would recover. Margo and Keeli came the next day. Mom was semi-conscious, but could write notes. The notes were upbeat and funny. After a few days, she wrote a note that stated “last note.” With her situation declining, the discouraged doctor suggested to a Hospice facility in Mesa.
Brenda and I visited her at that facility number of times, but she had been comatose for several days. On Monday night, January 6, 2002, we visited Mom. The head nurse said, “She could go on for days.” However, an Hispanic assistant nurse who could hardly speak English looked at Brenda then at me and said, “She will die very soon… tonight.” We took the advice of the head nurse and left the facility. We were not home five minutes and Hospice called saying Mom had just passed away. We returned quickly and my Mom, who had been so full of life, was without life.
Mom’s remains were cremated and placed in our closet at home with the remains of Dad’s second wife, Maurine. While alive, Mom and Maurine did not like each other, to say the least. I said having their cremated remains in same closet was bad karma!
Mom’s remains were placed in the family cemetery in Lodi, California. She is buried with her mother.
Mom divorced my Dad and ran off to New York to be with another man, leaving our family in shambles. As I look back, there is still pain. I have some peace now with the passage of years, but I still do not understand Mom. However, she is an important part of who I am. My confidence, security and love of life come from her. I love her and always will.