Joan Hawley-McGrath, 84, and her son, Jeff Hawley (“of 58 years,” Jeff says), came to Unalaska’s Burma Road Chapel to record their story. Jeff, a StoryCorps alumnus, called us to schedule time so he could interview his Mother.
Arriving punctually for a change, Jeff pointed out that his mother was in town. I asked Joan how many wake-up calls Jeff needed in the morning before school. She cupped her left hand along the side of her face and boomed in a low and serious tone. “Jeff, this is your last call.” Both chuckled and made their way to seats by adjacent microphones.
Warm smiles, kind remarks and jokes continue through the microphone checks. Both have that immediate familiarity that stems from their genuine concern for whomever they might be in contact with. They are true listeners who place one at ease by their mere presence.
Joan describes her childhood home, where she eventually returned years later with her children after she separated from her first husband. “I would help Mom hand out sandwiches to hobos that came from the train.” Her description of the carefully made sandwich placed in a neatly folded wax paper pocket and into a brown bag vividly captures the generosity of her family that must have made a great impression on Joan, as she has obviously modeled the trait to her own children. Joan recalls a sign on the door, put there by the recipients of the generosity, that indicated her home was “a good place” that would help those who she called âhobos” – educated doctors and lawyers who had lost their jobs during the Depression. In reflection Joan mentions that those times were not so unlike today.
From outside the door I strain to listen to the phrase Joan made following recalling her father’s words of advice. He told her that there is something that any person she meets can do better than she could. He told her to focus on the good in people.
Jeff and Joan recall their love for Christmas. Joan managed to make Christmas special, surprising, and loving – “poor” or not. As a single mom with three children Joan recants the family motto: “It’s us four against the world.” They had each other, then and now. Being together as a family, enjoying the gift of each other’s company, is Christmas for Joan and Jeff.
“This is a very special Christmas in Alaska. I love you so much Jeff.”