The first time I met Jo Edstrom, I liked her. And she liked me. Of course, I was ignorant of the fact that she had expectations of me, even at that early point in our relationship. She thought to herself, “Here’s a nice Catholic girl who will keep John in line.” I’m not sure how long she hung on to that false hope.
I imagine there are people who didn’t like Jo, but I never met one. She was just plain likable — lovable, really — and it wasn’t something she had to work on. It was a part of her essential fabric. Jo didn’t throw herself into civic action in a splashy way. She didn’t try to be all things to all people. If she had known about Facebook and Linked In, she wouldn’t have frantically worked to amass “friends.” But when you walked into her kitchen, there was always a pot of soup steaming on the stove to give to a family who was going through one of life’s trials. After her first stroke, she wanted one of us to drive her on her Meals on Wheels route, and we had to tell her to slow down for a while. Jo was a giving person.
Jo was who she was — kind, gentle, generous, and loving. She was also shy, quiet, and a homebody. Her happiest days were spent in her kitchen, or caring for her children and grandchildren. Before she married Harold Edstrom, Josephine Kjelland, daughter of a dentist and homemaker, briefly taught school. She confided in me once, “But I didn’t really like it much!” She met Harold in church, where she admired his ankles. (Really, Grandma?)
She was a woman not only of a different generation, but a different era. She didn’t pay the bills, take the car to be serviced, or mow the lawn. Shortly after Harold died, a plumber had to be called to fix a leak. I received a call in the middle of the morning at my office. It was Jo, whispering into the phone. “The plumber is here,” she said. “Am I supposed to tip him?”
I have to be careful to not give the idea that Jo was without a backbone, or considerable talents, wit, and intelligence. She had a quiet resolve that won her many battles, as I shortly discovered when I became a member of her family. Her sense of humor helped in many a tense situation.
John credited his mother for his writing talent. In another time, she could have been a writer herself, but it was a small circle that was treated to her witty prose in letters, her annual Christmas missive (that usually was mailed long after the trees and wreaths were taken down), and her papers for a study group she belonged to — the Ruskin Club.
She spent years on family genealogy, and presented each of her children with copies of photos and clippings about both the Mayflower and later immigrant branches of the family. She discovered a fabulous story about a forebear who, at the age of thirteen, ran away from home and signed on as a deck hand on a ship leaving for Africa — to transport slaves back to America, he soon found out. He never went to sea again.
Jo wouldn’t have gone to sea, either, preferring the climate in Winona to all others. But she married a born wanderer in Harold. Their honeymoon was spent in Mexico. This was 1938, and they drove from St. Paul to Mexico City! Memories of that adventure — and Harold’s urging and business interests — kept her going around the globe, but home was where her heart was. She couldn’t wait to return, always with little gifts for her grandchildren tucked into her suitcase.
Harold credited her with his decision to publish some of the musical arrangements he wrote for high school bands, leading to the founding of Hal Leonard Publishing. I always secretly thought that her saying, “Maybe you could make some money on those arrangements, Harold,” was less a sign of a hard-nosed business woman and more a sign that she was wondering how they would feed the hungry little mouths in their ever-growing family, which eventually numbered five kids.
She let the rest of the family take bows for their many musical accomplishments, but she was a versatile musician, as well. When Harold needed a drummer for the family band, it was Jo who picked up the sticks, without any prior experience! She could also cut a mean rug, and danced circles (literally!) around Harold.
Of all her talents, the one that endeared her to me most was her mastery of grandmothering. Jo knew how to play, something that eludes most of us as we age. She could spend hours playing dolls with the granddaughters. She outfitted her basement with more fun than a pre-school — doll house, doll beds, tiny high chair, sand box, trucks, games. Jo had an endless supply of hugs and kisses, a cupboard full of sugar cereal forbidden at home, a comfy lap, and always enough time to listen, console, or celebrate. Over the 46 years I’ve known Jo, I, like scores of others, have come to love her and value her as one of the great women in my life. After 102 years, living through two world wars, the Depression, enduring a bout with polio, having three failed pregnancies before having a baby to bring home, suffering the death of a child and grandchild, she deserves her eternal reward. Wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, mother-in-law, friend — she did it all with grace and dignity. That’s the way I will always remember her.