My family tree program is called Legacy. On it, I have logged 44 men named Joseph "Joe" Pinette. One of them is my direct ancestor: my nana's father, whom I never knew, but whose life was made vivid to me through the storytellings of those who knew him well.
I met this Joe Pinette after I had attended a funeral for a different first cousin in 2003. I'd been conducting family tree research for three years, and was beginning to get to know Mom's generation over time. Joe Pinette was not at the funeral, but his wife and sister were. I will never forget the moment when they approached me after the service, both of them literally peering into my face, squinting--and then one of them exclaimed, "Now, she's a Pinette! Just look at the eyes!" We talked at the luncheon, and Joe's wife told me that he would be interested in my genealogy, and would be calling me.
His voice was gentle and manly all at once. There was an endearing catch to it, an occasional throat-clearing. The friendliness streamed right through the phone. He said that he had some information to share with me: Joe was the eldest of six siblings, and there had been eight others from his father's first marriage. Mom always had trouble relaying their names to me; now I was hearing it from the source. Did he ever have information for me! But quickly, my connection to Joe Pinette transcended mere data. In fact, it took my breath away.
We had something in common, Joe and I. Something strong as steel, invisibly massive, life-destroying and life-affirming all at once: We had both grown up in households where upheaval, alcohol, and shame reigned. We knew, deep in our souls, what it felt like to go to school and excel, forcing ourselves to behave in an upstanding and amiable way--while hiding a strange, distorted homelife that no one in our school worlds could possibly comprehend. We had both transcended. We had, in fact, soared. Our parents' marriages had blown apart, causing financial hardship and chaos; our fathers had been horrible drunks; and yet we completed higher education, we chose solid careers, and at the age of 25, we each married our soulmates.
Talking to Joe brought me to a place of level solace in my genealogy. It felt like a unified circle to meet someone of a completely different generation who knew, deep down, what it had taken to survive. And Joe, like me, retained immense fondness for all of his family members regardless of mistakes they had made or pain they'd caused--even for the small town that had stepped deftly, sometimes indifferently around his family's secrets.
Soon, we visited Millinocket together, that small town--my mom's hometown, too. We took a walk around a part of town called Tin Can Alley. This was where the poorest families lived, too many kids to feed properly, and in many cases with a dirt floor. This was where Joe grew up. He brought his street to life--told me about a family who'd lived across the street over there, others over here; showed me the low fence that had demarcated his world. Joe was not allowed to go past it as a little boy, so he stood at it and watched cars, other houses, other people, wondering. Behind him would have been a house with two toddlers and a baby...noise and conflict and worry. Here, he stood alone, a five-year-old already beyond his age in what he saw and knew.
We left that street and walked the half-block distance to the river that divides Millinocket. In Joe's youth, the Penobscot was not a clean river, as the paper mill discharged effluent into it routinely. There was undoubtedly a foul smell, and sometimes, unusual colors swirling in the ripples and current. Joe reminisced about goofing off, walking along the river with his pals as an older boy--and as he said that, we found ourselves standing underneath an old apple tree.
Joe looked up with a grin and saw ripened red apples hanging there. He joyfully reached up and plucked one and explained that for a hungry kid from Tin Can Alley, this tree was one of the best spots to visit. And then he ate the apple with a satisfied smile.
Joe was like a grandfather, father, uncle, and friend all in one. I knew instantly that I was loved by him, and he inspired that same devotion in me. This afternoon, his wife Gloria, who has been married to him for 52 years, since she was a girl of 18, called to let me know that Joe died a few hours ago.
My tears are sharp and insistently welling. You see, in the past 15 years, I have lost a grandfather, a father and mother, a treasured uncle, and a lifelong best friend, all of whom I am still grieving. And now, the man who helped me to sustain those feelings and connections has joined them...after giving me so much of himself. I can tell you that Joe knew how much he gave me emotionally, because that's the connection we had.
And my genealogy--that never-ending, joyful journey of discovery and familiarity--henceforth I dedicate to him.
God bless you, Joe, beyond the fence.