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Friday, December 14, 2018

Josie - a true friend

What makes a good friend? I’ve been thinking about that since I lost my pal Josie Bochek.

We buried her on December 1. In the days since then, I’ve come up with this true-friend list, all based on Josie:

(1)  Don’t be a yes-person.
(2)  Laugh together.
(3)  Make room for one more.
(4)  Stay in touch.
(5)  Celebrate often.
(6)  Share your passion.
(7)  Show your love.

Here are some of my memories of Josie's friendship, including a few photos that were on display at her funeral, followed by her grandson's beautiful eulogy. . . .

Josie was my next-door neighbor for a couple of years, and remained my friend for almost four decades. I met her in 1979, less than a year after my mother died. Josie was about my mother’s age, and I felt instantly at home with her. Like my mother, she grew up on a farm. And like Mum, her feet were planted firmly in the earth. 

Josie wrote this in January of 2000, to be unveiled after her death: "My wishes for the future of the world are: The terrorists go home and bomb their own country. Door Co. stays a bit rural. Health for all the family. A return to the family as we knew it and fewer divorces. More people taking their wedding vows seriously." (The part about the terrorists gave me a much-needed laugh at the funeral when I was a mess of tears and snot.)

When I moved next door to Josie on Ranch Road in Menomonee Falls, she walked over and introduced herself, then apologized for her messy willow that dropped slender boughs and leaves on my side yard. I laughed. When she saw that I couldn’t care less about willow schnibbles on my grass, it was the beginning of our friendship. Ours was a simple friendship composed of simple things, like her offering me room on her wash line when mine got too full of diapers and I ran out of room for towels.

We both lived in three-bedroom ranches, but mine held only two adults, two little boys, and a couple of cats. Josie’s house sheltered her, her husband Roger, Roger’s father (for a time), and five sons who ranged from about age nine to young adults. One daughter, Joanne, was married and lived in Sturgeon Bay. 

At Joanne's wedding, shortly before I met Josie and her family

Josie and Roger were Menomonee Falls residents, but their hearts remained in Door County, up north. They kept a farm there and commuted most weekends. I was amazed at their lifestyle: working in the city during the week, then on Fridays packing the kids in the station wagon and driving three hours to Door County, where they pulled on their farming shoes. I remember the year their crop was sunflowers; I'd never heard of such a thing. I relished Josie’s description of acres and acres of yellow blooms.

Laugh together . . . and don’t be a yes-person 

She never tried to “mother” me, any more than she mothered anyone else. I think, in fact, that she treated everyone the same: with total, and hilarious, honesty. She had an unfailing nonsense detector. If you told her about someone else’s nonsense, she’d laugh with you. If you spoke nonsense yourself, she’d laugh at you. She was a human equalizer. She’d add a one-liner (potent but never cruel), with maybe an “aina?” or a “hey?” at the end. Her eyes would twinkle and you’d find yourself agreeing with her and laughing at yourself.

Make room for one more

Yup, she was skinny.
A typical visit entailed first stepping over a couple of bodies on the floor (boys watching television). I’d say “Hi” to Grandpa who sat in an overstuffed chair, smoking a cigarette as always. A dog might run through as I’d proceed to the kitchen table, where I’d be joined by Josie and anyone else who happened by – other friends, her kids. There was always room for one more. Josie would make tea for us and we’d talk for a while. She learned things about me and I learned things about her, like how she absolutely hated being so very skinny when she was growing up. She'd make a crack about not having to worry about that anymore and we'd both laugh. Very welcoming, yes. Chaotic, yes. And for me, who’d grown up with four siblings, it all felt familiar and comforting.
Teenaged bride

Show your love

Mike and I eventually bought a little farm a short distance from Ranch Road. When we were packing to move there, Josie came over to visit. She held me and cried. I said, “Josie, we’ll only be four miles away!”

Eventually, Mike and I raised chickens. We were at a loss about how to butcher them. I knew who to ask. Josie gamely came over and walked Mike through the gruesome task.

Stay in touch . . . and share your passion

We both made the effort to stay in touch. She’d gather her grandchildren and I’d gather my children and we’d share a picnic at Village Park. She and Roger eventually sold the Menomonee Falls house and moved permanently back to the farm. She always invited us to the Valmy Thresheree, which she loved, and finally one year we attended. We loved it too. It’s a celebration of old farm ways through exhibits and demonstrations of antique implements and tractors. Both Josie and Roger volunteered at the Thresheree for years. Because of them, the Door County we came to know is a rural place far removed from the tourist destination known by thousands of summer visitors. Also because of Josie, I went to my first polka Mass.

Celebrate often

She’d host big parties in Door County, and we’d drive up and join in. She loved to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and went big, renting a hall, hiring a live bluegrass band – I think she just loved to see all her people together having fun. My son likes to quote Dave Berry who says, “There comes a time when you should stop expecting other people to make a big deal about your birthday. That time is: age 11.” Well, maybe we don’t need to get excited . . . but like Josie, l’ll take any excuse to get together and have fun! 

Josie and Roger at their 65th anniversary party

She sent me real letters on real paper from time to time. In one she sent a year or two ago, she related the story about working in her garden, then falling and not being able to get up again. That was alarming, and the start of my realizing she was getting old – a foreign concept when it came to Josie.

Josie’s death at 84 years old came as a shock to me, and to her family. She baked a bunch of pies for Thanksgiving, took ill with an infection on Friday, and was gone by Monday. The funeral was a gathering of laughter, stories and tears. I can’t imagine the pain for Roger, after 66 years with his Josie. Everyone else seemed devastated too. At the gravesite, one great-granddaughter stood next to Roger, who sat hunched in his wheelchair. The great-granddaughter leaned her head against Roger’s shoulder and stroked his back with her small hand.

The name of the great-granddaughter is Josie.

Long may she laugh.

Josie the Silly

For Josie
By Gail, on the occasion of Josie’s 70th birthday

How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways...

I love thee when I eateth at thy table,
(However, I much prefereth the olden days

Before thou did starteth paying so much attention
to fats, calories and cholesterol.)

I love thee when I laugheth with thee,
Thou dost always have the sassiest humor I know
And thou still surpriseth me with thy wry comments...
No one is safe (not even thou nor I) when thy eyes twinkleth
And thy mouth maketh a comment followed by ‘ain’t it.’

I love thee when I watcheth thy birds with thee —
Thou art the only one I know who stretcheth a line
Just for a perch for thy little winged friends.

I love thee when I visiteth the threshing grounds,
Or when I listeneth to northwoods bluegrass music with thee
I loveth the way old times do fare golden in thy heart.

I love thee when thou sitteth amongst thy family,
Always one to laugheth and teaseth,
And I see thy humor multiplied in the family thou madest
With thy darling Roger (also known as ‘Father’).

How can it be, my lovely friend,
That thou marketh seventy years?
All I can say
Is that I love thee more
With every wrinkle and every year.

Eulogy for Josie

By her grandson Patrick Surfus,
and read at her funeral Mass

Grandma Josie was born in 1934 to Stanley and Doris Duncan in Webb Lake, WI. Anyone who received a Christmas card from Roger and Josie Bochek would have noticed her impeccable penmanship. At a young age, Josie wrote and read correspondence for her bedridden, blind grandmother. While caring for her, Josie taught herself to play the piano. As long as I can remember, there was and still is an organ in the living room at Grandma and Grandpa’s.

The farm was not doing well in Webb Lake. Josie’s aunt had found work at Martin Orchard in Door County. The farm was sold and the family moved to another small farm in Egg Harbor. This series of events is what brought Roger and Josie together. In 1953, Josie graduated from Sevastopol High School and she married Roger that summer.

One of my earliest memories of Grandma Josie was riding in the back of the green Ford pickup after visiting Toys R Us. She had just bought me a new toy and told me I’d better take care of it and thank Grandpa because he works hard for the family money. However the truth is, now that I’m older, I know she worked just as hard. Grandma raised six children and cared for Great Grandpa Rudolf in a three-bedroom home in Menomonee Falls. Weekends were not for enjoying a getaway in beautiful Door County like the rest of the traffic heading north; they were for running the family farm. Grandma could drive stick shift, run a hay baler, and back up a trailer as if it was second nature. Packing up six kids, driving from Milwaukee to Valmy, and cramming a weeks’ worth of fieldwork into a weekend probably made Monday morning look like a vacation.

Grandma Josie maintained three large gardens between two homes, and was rightfully proud of them. Endless canning and freezing from mid-summer through fall ensured the family would be affordably fed for another year. Grandma was the embodiment of homemaker, and made cooking look effortless. After a day of housework, helping in the fields, or tending the gardens, somehow when everyone came in, supper was on the table – every time. How it happened is still a mystery to me. Grandma made sure everyone around her was well fed. Obviously, it shows. Grandma, much like the rest of the family, had an acute sweet tooth. Dessert was usually on the menu as well. She may have received national accolades for her cherry pie, but there are a handful of people in this room that will always remember her peach pie baked in a cast iron skillet. She made it only once or twice a year when the peaches were just right.

Family was everything to Grandma and you could tell her anything. She was a great listener and for many years re-utilized her childhood scribe work, acting as a megaphone for Grandpa’s failed hearing. I do not have memories of long stories from Grandma. Usually when she spoke, it was short and to the point. She would tell you her quips were not rude, just honest observations - and no one was spared. I recall passing two gas stations across the street from each other; one had gas three cents higher. Grandma simply uttered, “Look at that crook.” When we ran out of pre-made pizzas at the brewery, she introduced herself to our manager with “Do you know my grandson owns this place?” She got her pizza. Grandma always got what she wanted because with all that she gave, who would dare not commit to her wishes?

Inevitably, time passes and people slow down. What were once essential traditions give way to new ones as families grow larger and farther apart. The dinners and gatherings become less frequent, smaller, or moved to different places with new and added faces. The fields found new tenants to till the soil. The reality of life on the family farm with third and fourth generations forging different paths begins to sink in. The machines grew quiet and the gardens got smaller. Even though the stove was not on as often as it was accustomed to, the liveliness of the gatherings continued as Josie watched the next generation running around the dining room table. Grandma took great joy in watching her ten great grandchildren bring new life to the party. I swear they literally made her eyes twinkle. Today we celebrate her life, her giving, and her story. Grandma Josie would want us to eat, drink, and be merry in her honor.

Some things never change.

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