Had she known that the time was coming, the call no one can refuse, she might have reconsidered the cherry cobbler.
She preferred a crisp because of the crunch and might have made a favorite recipe – apple crisp from The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook. She ran short of flour and sat down to write a grocery list for her husband, Billy, who was doing yardwork.
And then the thin space – that place in time where the edges between earth and heaven blur – opened up and JoAnn Rhodes Grose shimmered through.
She had left the cobbler almost ready to go into the oven, already preheated. The crust was dusted with sparkly red sanding sugar. Much like JoAnn. Sparkles everywhere.
“Cliché alert, but one that exists because of its inherent truth: Death is a part of life which will be news to some people in their 90s who hang on for every possible medical procedure, no matter how miserable their lives and those of the people attending them.
“I want to believe that we will meet again, maybe just as energies, not necessarily cherubim with wings and bare bottoms. There are mysteries and this is a basic one. You’re not going to know the details of this until after you’re – wait for it – dead!” JoAnn Grose from her ‘You Can’t Eat Ice Cream In the Shower’ blog
For the record, JoAnn died Feb. 7, 2023. Also for the record, chronologically she was 77 years old. She, for the most part, was not aware of her age. At the time of her death, she was in the final stages of planning a family trip to the Grand Canyon for which she stayed up all night hitting “refresh, refresh, refresh” until the lodge she wanted to stay in opened limited reservations online. She was also in the early stages of planning a trip to Iceland next spring for which she had already bought and returned several versions of outrageously puffy outerwear.
She left behind a neon pair of Fila sneakers she proudly displayed on a coffee table like the objet d’art she considered them to be, approximately 50 Master Gardener seed packets that Billy will now have to plant, untold recipe clippings tucked into nooks and crannies around the house, hundreds of books she actually read, and a legion of family and friends with broken hearts.
On the occasion of her 50th reunion at Warrior Run High School in 2012, here’s how she described herself in a commemorative yearbook:
“JoAnn Copeland Rhodes Rhetts Grose is a retired trapeze artist. She married each of Liz Taylor’s husbands after Liz was through with them except for Mike Todd (there would have been little point). She has 3 daughters (one still in college), 3 granddaughters and 2 grandsons, none of whom appreciate her as they should. Her husband is a retired dairy farmer who thinks there’s no point in responding to someone’s remark to you unless the first speaker’s hair is on fire. Along with her circus work, she wrote for newspapers for 30 years or so, loves to read, cook, ride her horse (also retired from the circus) and her bike (not at the same time, even with her circus background), garden and sing.”
Some of that is fabrication. But everyone reading it wondered if it might be true. That was part of her magic.
JoAnn was born July 23, 1945 and grew up with her younger sister, Jill, in Watsontown, PA. It wasn’t an easy childhood. Her parents were emotionally distant, a fact that JoAnn believed led to a lifelong sense of inadequacy and a battle to be comfortable with being her full self.
“I was large in a town, in a culture, that valued little and cute in girls. I might have been one or both before my 2nd birthday, but never after. I also loved to read and study and eagerly answered questions in class, and I never learned how to pretend I didn’t enjoy and value a life of the mind in an age when women were wives in pearls and nylons.
“My best friends were food books and movies. I’m still trying to add people to that short list.” – JoAnn Grose from her ‘You Can’t Eat Ice Cream In the Shower’ blog
She graduated from Warrior Run High School in 1962 and Bucknell University in 1967 with a degree in English and Theater. She married, became a mother twice over and worked as the film/theater critic for the Columbia (Maryland) Flyer. In 1978, she was awarded a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, an honor of which she was tremendously and justifiably proud.
JoAnn arrived with her two girls, Joanna and Alexandra, in Charlotte, N.C., in 1978. She was newly divorced and facing an unfamiliar landscape. She had to rent a house for the first time in her life, settle her children in school by herself and negotiate life as a single working mother. Like everything else, she did this with her typical panache – she was the only mom to insist neighborhood children call her by her first name.
She became the theater and movie critic for The Charlotte Observer and earned a well-deserved reputation as a shrewd judge of artistry or the lack thereof. She had a keen talent at recognizing both the best and worst in art and people, and called each out emphatically. She would talk to the screen in movie theaters, especially when offended by a particularly bad movie. She didn’t care that her commentary might be slightly irritating to those around her.
Given her dedication to the arts, it puzzled her editors one day when she proposed a multi-part series on raising a single dairy cow in Iredell County. She was interested in the time, effort and money it took to breed dairy cattle. Through the extension service, she found the Grose family. She spent months driving the 108-mile round trip documenting the birth and early days of a calf.
It turns out JoAnn was interested in more than cows. On April 23, 1988, she married the love of her life, Billy Grose, and began life on a dairy farm. There, in the countryside of Harmony, N.C., JoAnn and Billy raised third daughter Hannah.
You can measure JoAnn’s life by her work – as a theater and movie critic. But the best measure of her life was her unique personality. Her generosity. Her relentlessly curious nature. She collected gifts for her friends and family all her life, not to mark a specific event but to send randomly. She took up hobbies voraciously, later in life becoming both an amateur mixologist and learning the cello. She loved fiercely, especially her grandchildren: Joanna’s children, Adam, Ava, and Ashley, and Alexandra’s (and husband Tim’s) children, Morgan and Logan. And she was devoted to Hannah’s husband, Brooks.
She loved cooking and especially sharing. She volunteered at The Community Table, providing her homemade creations to those who couldn’t afford a meal. She hosted a freshman VMI cadet with Sunday dinners to take the edge off homesickness. She and Billy routinely invited her Lexington, Virginia, neighbors over for impromptu “wine o’clock” hors d’oeuvres on the front porch after they moved to the area in 2021. There was always a seat at JoAnn’s table and lucky were those fortunate enough to sit around it. The conversation was always thought provoking and the food as comforting as a handmade quilt.
She embraced color in all its forms – clothing, art objects and furniture. Sequins, all of them. Sprinkles, the more the better. She wore colorful tutus to exercise class. She reveled in her ruby red pair of cowboy boots. Effervescently curious, she found equal value in historic buildings, botanical gardens, a fiberglass dinosaur park and bird watching.
She loved unconditionally. Suffered fools not at all. And worked on eradicating all her devils – negative self-talk her cold parental upbringing as a child, and depression – with intensity.
“It’s OK to be me, a horrendously difficult lesson to learn at 77 years of age. And while I’m trying to let go of anger at inadequate parenting, I must still note that I was loved when I did well, when my grades were high or my piano-playing, amazing. Never just because.
“It’s OK to be me, no matter what my shape, my finances or my state of physical fitness.” JoAnn Grose from her ‘You Can’t Eat Ice Cream In the Shower’ blog
JoAnn overcame a lot, survived a lot and doubted herself more than she should have. But ultimately, the balance sheet tipped in her favor. She found joy in mountain landscapes, blooming flowers, newborn babies, fine art, the beauty of the written word and, most of all, her family and friends.
“I’m grateful that I was here this morning to enjoy a gorgeous day with low humidity and air like a good sherry. I’m grateful for friends and foods and flowers, even for Facebook because it enables me to keep up with all of those. I’m grateful that someone I really like is coming home to me in about another 10 minutes.
“So much. So undeserved. What we Christians know as grace, as trying to live life with a heart of humility. We didn’t earn these blessings. We’re not special. These riches are ours by the inexplicable, boundless grace of God.” JoAnn Grose from her ‘You Can’t Eat Ice Cream In the Shower’ blog
JoAnn’s friends, family, and community are invited to celebrate her life on Friday, April 14th in and around JoAnn’s adopted hometown of Lexington, Virginia. The celebration will begin with a service at Lexington Presbyterian Church (120 S Main St, Lexington, VA 24450) starting at 11 am. The service will be followed by a reception at Great Valley Farm Brewery and Winery (60 Great Valley Lane, Natural Bridge, VA 24578) at 12 pm. In honor of the color, sparkle, and vibrancy JoAnn brought to the world, we invite everyone to dress to the nines and skip the black (fun shoes also encouraged). Please let JoAnn’s family know if you plan to attend any part of her service at https://bit.ly/joanngrose
In lieu of flowers, remembrances in the form of donations to the Lexington Community Table would be appreciated: https://www.communitytablerockbridge.org/support
-written by JoAnn’s dear friend Catherine Mayhew with help from JoAnn’s daughters Alexandra and Hannah
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