Every Good Gift: Joan Stevens Ferris
August 4, 2010
When Joan Stevens Ferris passed away this past Sunday night, she had a couple of bible passages marked in her devotional book by her bedside. The one I found striking was from the NT book of James 1.17, which says Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. I love that verse, because of its theology and imagery. I do have a strong sense that all the good things in my life are from God. Pat Summit, the accomplished coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols, liked to say, Some people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. Which is another way to say, some people think they deserve all the blessings that come to them, which we know is not so. I’m pretty sure Joan did not believe she had hit a triple, but knew her blessings and how good had come even out of less-than-perfect choices. All the good things in our lives I believe come from God, whom James calls “The Father of lights.” Isn’t that a lovely image?
The Message renders this passage this way: So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. God brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all God’s creatures. Rivers of light cascading down from the Father of lights. Perhaps this was the last passage Joan read before her death, before she rode up that river to meet the Father of lights. Loving the water as she did, I think it was a good passage for her to have handy to face her own death.
Tuesday afternoon I met with Mike & Wendy, Richard & Joanne Ferris, to listen to stories about Mike & Richard’s mother. With us was Sarah & Jennifer Ferris, two of Joan’s granddaughters, and I was struck by this thought: here are two remarkable young women: extremely bright, beautiful, very hard working, not perfect but finding their way and mostly on their own in a difficult and complex time—and these two young women are part of the good gifts that God gave to us via Joan. I could say the same about Zan and Nicci.
Most of you know the facts about Joan’s life: born in 1930 in Greensboro to Paul & Dorothy Stevens, she was raised as an only child until Lynn her sister came along when Joan was an adult. She was named for Joan Crawford, the famous actress, and wanted it pronounced the same way that Joan Crawford initially wanted her stage name said, as Jo-Anne. She went to Aycock Jr. High, where she won an award for her artwork, then to Greensboro Senior High School—now called Grimsley—where she graduated in 1947.
She studied nursing at East Carolina Teachers’ College, now ECU, a degree that she did not complete due to meeting and marrying Robert James Ferris. She raised her two sons, Richard and Mike, really on her own. She and her husband were separated when Mike was 10, and was never an involved father, and Robert died 5 years later in 1970 from diabetes. Her granddaughter, Nikki, did become a nurse, which was sort of a completion of Joan’s dream.
She worked Wesley Long for 23 years, mostly as a switchboard operator. She worked 3 jobs sometimes in order to provide for her 2 boys whom she loved dearly and deeply. She had a work ethic that would not quit, one that her sons observed and carry on to this day. For example, when the road were impassable due to snow, Joan would walk to work in the early morning in the dark and snow. It is completely clear where Mike gets his work ethic. Mike has on many occasions come to our church after a hard day’s work with his own company to assist us with flooding or carpet cleaning. His help has been invaluable and really beyond price.
Of course, he wasn’t always that responsible. Once when Mike was horsing around on top of the family shed, he fell off, and when he did he landed on a fencepost square in the chest. Joan was called, and she sped home—driving so fast in fact that the police pulled her over. When she told the policeman why she was speeding he lead her to her house. On the way Joan thought to herself, “What if I get there and Mike is alright? How will that look?” She said later, “Fortunately, Mike was still hurt when I arrived.” Truly funny words for a mother to say. The policeman gave Mike a silver bullet (something they don’t do anymore), which Mike has to this day.
Richard too had his moment growing up. One time when they were living right off of Wendover, Richard was about 14, maybe 15, he took the family car on a joyride on Wendover when one side of was unpaved and being worked on—so it was fairly obvious since no one else was driving on it. Police on the bridge on Westover saw Richard driving, and he was nabbed and brought home. When he arrived back, Joan was standing out in front. She didn’t beat him, but she wasn’t someone her boys wanted to disappoint. And she gave him the famous Evil Eye—another trait I notice that both Mike and Richard inherited.
Joan had many loves in her life. She loved to play bridge and did the crossword completely every day (except Sunday). She loved to read: Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson. This love of reading is something that she shared with her daughter-in-law Joanne. They also shared an old blue hat that they regifted to each other, back and forth, for years, on various (always surprising) occasions. She loved to crochet and to do needlepoint. She loved birds, all kinds, but she hated groundhogs. Even when she was advanced in age Joan could be found with a broom in her garden threatening the groundhogs. She liked deer, but didn’t cotton to them eating her flowers and garden. She knew how to recognize good gifts from God.
She loved to cook, which fit in well with the rest of her family who apparently loved to enjoy her cooking. Lemon meringue pie, sausage biscuit gravy, blackberry cobbler with blackberries from her own bushes. She loved to cook at Christmas especially, taking pride in making all the dishes herself. And she loved to eat out at her favorite resturant, Longhorn. How can you not love a woman whose favorite restaurant is Longhorn Steaks?
She was probably happiest when she was with her family, especially when they were at Long Beach together. This is where she has requested for her ashes to be spread. She planned for that family beach time together carefully, laying out her clothes a month ahead of time. She bought a beach toy for every child. She sailed their Hobie Cat, and fished in the surf. Wendy remembers when Joanne was driving Jennifer to the beach when Jennifer was only 6. So anxious was the child to get to the beach that she bugged Joanne all the way there, “When are we going to get there? I want to go to the big water, Grandma.” And Jennifer didn’t let Joan even stop to use the restroom. Through her life, Jennifer would love to get up early in the morning when they were at the coast, to walk the beach with her grandmother and collect shells.
And Joan loved the company of Johnny Hargrove; they were together from 1979 to his death due to cancer in 2007. They enjoyed a wonderful life together, gardening, bird watching, cooking, making Brunswick stew, and surf fishing along the North Carolina coast she loved so much. They use to love dancing at the Elks Club together too.
Joan was a good friend, and had good friends; she knew how to be a friend. Surely this is one of the best things we can say about her. One of her closest friends is Dealie, who was her cohort for many years. Her next door neighbors, Debbie & Scott, were truly good neighbors to her: they checked on her regularly, brought up her mail, and her trash cans too. Scott told Wendy once that Joan was the best woman he’d ever met, in part because she raised her sons with such incredible values and they turned out to be such fine men. She knew how to be friends with her family too. She bought Sarah & Jennifer their Easter dresses; she rewarded them monetarily for their many good grades; she attended both of their baptisms at our church and some of their city swim meets.
In her own dresses, she preferred bright colors to go with her tan: yellow, orange, coral. This probably is what allowed her to be a huge fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who in their first seasons wore bright orange and white, called the Dreamsicle uniforms. She also loved the Carolina Panthers, and her sons took her to a game a year, usually the annual one against the Bucs. What other 80-year-old woman loves NFL football, and how can you not adore her for this? She had her dark side to be sure: she loved Duke basketball, which is only the ignoble thing I know about her. But all of these loves are good indicators of how fully engaged she was with life and her family and friends.
Very near the end, when she was in the hospital dying with an oxygen mask on, the nurse asked her name, which she gave, her address, which also gave, and her age—to which she said dryly, “A lot.” This dry sense of humor was with her to the end, and to be able to laugh and joke at the end of one’s life is yet another of her great gifts to us. Because, let’s be honest, in people like Joan Stevens Ferris, we experience great love: deep love for creation (in gardens and birds and beaches, the exception being groundhogs); incredible love for the work of our hands (in cooking, and faithfulness to jobs and needlepoint); amazing love for friends (like Dealie and Johnny, Debbie & Scott and many of you); and the most profound love of all for her family. What I think I like best about her life is this: Joan made the best of imperfect choices. She knew how to accept life as it is and make it better. She was a forward-looking person that did not rehearse hardships from the past—and she tried to pass this key trait to her sons and grandchildren. All of her traits, especially this type of passion with which she loved those around her, are good gifts from God, from the Father of Lights, who loves us all beyond all words, and in whose presence Joan now stands and shines.