I am going to tell you a story.
This is a story about a man named Joe. It makes sense that I would tell this story to you today … because today is National Joe Day.
As in GI Joe, Regular Joe, Joe Cool, Hey Joe, Joe Lunchbox, Morning Joe, Cup of Joe, Average Joe, Joe Boxer and Joe Blow. And supposedly you can change your name to Joe for the day today.
According to Merriam-Webster, the first documented use of the term, Joe, was in 1846. Offshoots are Joe Blow, Average Joe, Ordinary Joe, Joe Lunch Bucket, Lucky Joe and Good Joe. Joe simply stands for the everyman, for the underdog or the common man.
But this story is not about a common man. Not even in the slightest. This is a story about a very special Joe.
I didn’t think I knew anyone named Joe. Except for the man who finds me projects to do from time to time … but that’s about it.
Then, as I mentioned this to a group of folks, one woman stepped up with a faraway look in her eyes … and said “My name is Jo … at least my middle name is Jo.”
So I figured that could count. After all, they didn’t specifically say that Joe had to be a male.
As I was getting ready to leave, she said “Did I ever tell you the story about why all my sons are named Joseph?”
And thus starts the story … of Joseph … or more accurately … Papa Josef.
A long time ago … in the early 1940’s … there was a young girl. I will call her Mary. Of course that is not her real name, but it will suffice.
Mary had lived a rather sad life for her first five years. With no parents to speak of, she was shuffled from home to home … finally ending up in a foster care system that was more utilitarian than nurturing. And as often happens, it bounced her around from home to home as well.
When a potential adoptive family would arise, papers were quickly drawn up to match the requirements specified.
“Oh, you want an Irish child? Well, for the right price … We have an Irish child … Mary … her parents were world travellers tragically killed while on a trip to …”
“Oh, you want a fine Christian child? Well, for the right price … We have a fine Christian child … Mary … her parents were missionaries, who were tragically …”
‘Oh, you want a good Jewish girl? Well, for the right price … We have a Jewish girl here … Mary … sad story. Her parents, both doctors, contracted …”
The Jewish family took her. But they had secrets of their own.
The new Mother was a cruel woman … given to harsh punishments and little affection. The new Father seemingly adopted Mary for the sole purpose of keeping his wife happy … and quiet. She was not much kinder to her husband than she was to her new child. And besides that, he had other things to do than be around the house with his nagging wife and new child.
But the agency was glad enough. One less child to place. One fewer mouth to feed. And the price had been right, after all.
The one thing the Father did do was give her a middle name. Up until that point she did not have one. At least not that she knew of.
“I am going to name her Jo … Mary Jo.” said the Father.
The Mother rolled her eyes … snorted through her nose … and said “Well, if you insist. It’ll make HIM happy at least.”
As days turned to weeks … and weeks to months … Mary began to wonder if there would ever be an end to the sadness in her life. No amount of effort was enough to please her new Mother. No grade was ever high enough to satisfy them. This never changed in all the years Mary Jo spent with these people.
But one day early on, a few months into her new life, there was a stirring in the house. Cleaning and cooking and preparing unlike any other day Mary had seen since she had arrived.
“We must get ready … Joe is coming” said her Mother.
“Yes, my Father is going to be here this afternoon … and I want you to behave, young lady.” said her Father.
With that, Mary was sent to her room to dress in her finest dress. The one she wore … nowhere. At least not yet. She had been given a box of finely repaired hand-me-downs from some distant cousins on her new Mothers side. Their contribution to “the cause”.
So she chose the light blue one that fit her the best … and dressed with great care. At least with as much care as a five-and-a-half-year-old could muster.
“Not good, but it will have to do I suppose” said the Mother.
Everyone stopped instantly at the sound of a loud knocking on the front door.
“I’ll get it” said the Father, rushing to open the door to their guest.
“Hello you two!” roared the man, a well chewed cigar hanging out of the corner of his mouth. “And who do we have here?”
“This is Mary JO … our new daughter” said the Mother. “Say Hello Mary JO.”
“Hello, Sir” the young voice trembled.
Mary Jo felt his face look down at her shaking form … the not-quite-handlebar mustache making her smile in spite of herself.
His face broke into a warm smile and his eyes crinkled as he said “Well, hello to you Mary JO. And you may call me Papa Josef.”
He walked over and gave her a huge bear hug … his coat smelling of smoke and bay rhum and some other scent she could not identify. In that instant, she knew that maybe not all the adults in the world were untrustworthy. Maybe Papa Josef could be trusted.
Somehow she just knew it.
Papa Josef came to visit more and more often … and Mary Jo learned that he was from the Old Country … wherever that was. They said Poland, but she didn’t know what that was either.
During the day he worked as a Tailor … making the fine coats like the ones he wore and the ones he made for fine ladies. He told her stories of the great women, and of far away places. And he even brought her little scraps of mink … which were used in some of the coats he made.
One day he arrived with a large box … with a large ribbon on the top … for her.
She opened it to see the most beautiful coat she had ever owned … complete with little mink cuffs and warm mink collar.
“For me?” she said.
“For you” he replied. “And now we must go out so I can show people what a wonderful granddaughter I have.”
This was almost more than Mary Jo could handle. She was rarely taken anywhere by her new parents, and never had anyone said they were proud of her … or wanted to show her off.
He took her on many trips after that.
They went to the little boarding house where he lived in so she could meet all his friends. She especially liked the transom above the door … which he would help her open with a long wooden handle. The smell of the wood is what she liked the best there. It had been built right after the San Francisco fire, about thirty years before.
They went to the market … where Papa Josef seemed to know everyone everywhere. Owners of the booth would give her and Papa Josef chunks of baloney and fresh bread as snacks. And Papa Josef would proudly introduce her to everyone.
Although this may seem like not a place to take a little girl, Mary Jo loved it … because she got to be out of the house … and with Papa Josef.
“I love you Papa Josef. When I grow up, I am going to name ALL of my little boys after you. I’ll name them Josef. All of them. I promise.” she said solemnly as only a six-year-old could.
He laughed loudly and said “Well, that might be a little difficult, but thank you so much for saying that. And I love you too, little one.”
At that point my friend paused and looked at me … tears in her eyes.
“You know I kept that promise” she said. “When my first son was born I fought with his father … and we settled on Joseph as my sons middle name”
I knew that to be the case, but never knew why.
“And years later, when I had my second son … with my second husband … we named him Josef … in honor of Papa Josef and all he had done to support me as a child. My first grandson is even named Justin Josef.”
She continued, “I always felt like he was proud of me. And I certainly did not feel that from those two people pretending to be parents.”
“He was the one person who liked me … who made me feel special … who made me feel pretty.” Mary said with tears running down her face. “I think he must be in Heaven now.”
I think he most certainly is.
A wonderful man who may or may not have known what was going on in the house.
A man who loved his adopted granddaughter, and let her know she was loved.
A man who may not have known the impact he had on one small girl.
Who remains grateful to this day.