Getting to know JoAnn, today’s Living With Kids mom, over the last few weeks has been a real pleasure. It’s always fun for me when I get to share stories from readers who have a different perspective on life than I do. Usually, the families we feature are in the midst of raising small kids, but JoAnn is getting ready to send her adult kids out into the world, and she has so many wonderful and wise things to say. .JoAnn also recently and tragically lost her husband, and she is so incredibly vulnerable and honest about grief. It is a true honor to hear words. Welcome, JoAnn.
Hi, I am JoAnn Amicangelo. I have been a big fan of the “Living with Kids” feature at Design Mom for a long time, and I am beyond thrilled to be among all the great moms I’ve met here. Thank you for the opportunity, Gabrielle, and welcome to my world. I am a writer who is now blogging about family, relationships, Christian spirituality and grief at joannamicangelo.com. My career includes work as an advertising print production manager, church communications director, and freelance journalist and newsletter designer.
I still live where I was born and raised — Dearborn, Michigan. Located about 10 miles from Detroit’s city center, Dearborn is the hometown of automobile pioneer, Henry Ford, headquarters for Ford Motor Company, and the site of The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Its 94,000-plus residents are primarily of European (German, Polish, Irish and Italian) and Middle Eastern descent (Dearborn boasts the largest proportion of Arab Americans and largest Lebanese-American population in the United States.)
My daughters Emilie and Elise live with me. Emilie, 23, is in her last semester as a nursing student at Schoolcraft College and works as a scribe for an orthopedic surgeon. She has wanted to be a nurse since she was seven years old after enduring a long hospital stay, wanting to take care of people and help them get well like the nurses who took care of her. She loved watching surgeries on TV (while I covered my eyes) and has never wavered from her dream. She is gifted with compassion, a great sense of humor and is always up for a gathering of family and friends.
Elise is 20 and a psychology major/linguistics minor in her junior year at the University of Michigan. The field suits her as she enjoys analyzing behavior, discussing cultural trends and world views, and prefers thoughtful conversation with a few people rather than small talk in large crowds. She is an avid reader and has built her own library that begins in her closet and spills out into two bookcases in her room. She loves learning languages and enjoys her work as an administrator assistant at a counseling firm. They are opposites in many ways and yet the best of friends. I know you would love them both as soon as you met them.
My stepson, Joe, and his family live nearby and we enjoy getting together with them as often as we can. When my beautiful and energetic granddaughters, Gabrielle, 5, and Mia, almost 3, come bounding into the house and crash into me for hugs and kisses, it’s like heaven on earth. I am unashamedly proud to be their Nonna — that’s Italian for grandmother.
I became a widow on December 13, 2016, when my husband, Paul, lost his four-year battle with a rare lung cancer related to asbestos exposure. It is a day I replay in my mind repeatedly. Had I known he was going to die that day, I would have done so many things differently. I would have lay down next to him when he said he needed to rest in the late morning. I would have waited for two more hours to call the hospice nurse when he didn’t respond initially to my attempts to wake him up. Had I waited, I would have been able to talk with him alone before family and friends showed up in response to my SOS calls. I would have told him I loved him one more time.
We married when I was 35 and he was 46. It was my first and his second marriage. We were friends first, (which I highly recommend in a marriage partner), sharing a love for reading, writing, laughter and Jesus. Our romance was fueled by dozens of love letters expressing our longing to be together and the dreams we shared for our married life. We had our share of ups and downs in our nearly 30 years together, but we always managed to find our passion for each other again. Even after all those years, his voice, his smile, his touch could still make my heart skip a beat. I miss him dearly. We all do.
We bought our current home in the fall of 1999. We were living in an attached two-story duplex on the east side of Dearborn that I’d purchased before we were married. It was a sweet place to start our lives together and we had great neighbors, but we were outgrowing the space and we wanted to be closer to our church community on the west side of the city. We’d looked at a few homes that spring but couldn’t find any one that we agreed on.
My brother-in-law, whose uncle had built our house about 10 years before, told us that the house was up for sale and encouraged us to see it. I didn’t especially care for the location since it backed up to railroad tracks (believe it or not, our duplex did, too); but it had great curb appeal and the price was right at $164,000, so we decided to tour it.
We were immediately impressed with the open layout of this 1,300 square foot brick home with a large eat-in kitchen and three spacious bedrooms. It had a finished basement that doubled the square footage, a cedar closet and great storage options. While I surveyed the main floor, Paul headed to the lower level. We met at the back landing where he said, “We have to buy this house.” I couldn’t have agreed more. Then, we opened the back door to check out the yard and were pleasantly surprised to find a cozy Florida room, a deep yard with mature trees blocking the view of the tracks, and a three-car garage.
We knew this house would sell quickly, so we made a full price offer the next day and it was accepted. We had to work like crazy to get our duplex listed and ready for an open house in just seven days. That night we had four offers and accepted one for $2000 over our asking price of $85,000, netting us a profit of about $27,000 in nine years. Not a bad investment!
Despite my hesitation, the neighborhood turned out to be a good place to raise our family. The elementary and middle schools, park, swimming pool and library (sadly, both have since closed) and our church at the time are all within walking distance, and shops and restaurants are a short drive away. The girls made friends quickly and our house became the go-to place for hanging out or having gatherings with friends and family.
I had the best of both worlds at the time, working part-time from home while caring for the girls. I’d work in the basement office while they played just around the corner. I was close enough to hear what they were doing, and they were free to stop in for a hug or chat when they need to. They knew not to interrupt me while I was doing a phone interview “unless one of them was bleeding, choking or otherwise in distress.” Fortunately, they never had to! I loved overhearing their interactions with each other and the storylines they made up and acted out with friends.
In the nearly 20 years we’ve lived here, we’ve changed up every corner of the house and yard at least once. From larger projects, like updating the kitchen and replacing flooring twice and remodeling the basement, to the smaller jobs like putting a fresh coat of paint on the walls, we’ve invested a lot to make it our own.
My design style is mostly traditional, with a few estate sale antiques and refinished garage sale pieces mixed in. In recent years, I’ve tried to incorporate more contemporary pieces with cleaner lines and sharper angles, but I just can’t pull it off. When push comes to shove, I choose a more traditional look. And although shades of gray and stark whites were tempting me as I chose paint colors and furnishings, I stuck with my favorites deep reds, warm greens, classic camels, rich browns, and creamy whites.
Every renovation project we’ve done turned out to be so stressful for everyone, I’ve sworn off any more. But then, like childbirth, as time and the painful memories pass, I plunge right back in. That’s what happened the winter of 2016. With Paul in the middle of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and my 96-year-old father requiring more and more daily assistance, I gave the go-ahead to tackle the main floor. Nuts, I know.
On an unconscious level, I think I thought it would be easier to try to control the chaos of a renovation than to deal with the devastating reality that the cancer was out of control in Paul’s body. We now have a beautiful and functional new kitchen and other new finishes throughout, but they came at a great cost, financially, of course, but emotionally, as well. The chaos took a toll on Paul’s incredible patience, and I nearly lost my mind. If not for the love and care of family and friends, I think I’d still be curled up in a ball on my bed sobbing from sheer exhaustion and the weight of grief.
Dealing with his loss has meant feeling a roller coaster of emotions and shedding more tears than I thought possible. It’s learning to live with an ache that flares up at times to a 10 on the pain scale. I wake up thinking of him, listening for the sound of his breathing. I feel a little sorry for myself that now I make the morning coffee that he used to make just right. I reminisce about who I was with him, who we were as a couple. I rehearse the bigger things we experienced and all the mundane moments in between that, woven together, create a fabric that defined our lives.
Grief is a redefining work. I gave the gift of being kind and patient to myself in the first year without him. We survived all the first holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. It’s a new year, and I’m still pushing myself to move forward and re-write my future whether I like it or not. One day at a time, by the grace of God, I tell myself.
At this end of the parenting process, with my girls all grown up and soon to be on their own, I’m not sure how we managed to end up with such gems. They are both smart and accomplished, responsible and helpful, independent and thoughtful. We’ve had our share of teachable moments and heated discussions. There were times when Paul had to reel one of them in or I had to push the other out to face the unknown, but Paul and I delighted in watching them grow. And, they actually enjoyed being with us – even through those difficult teen years, which really weren’t that difficult. I can only thank God for the wisdom and love he gave us to raise them to be who they are today.
My relationship with them has shifted a bit since they became adults. We share a friendship now that gives me much comfort and encourages me. They have my back and often offer me their wisdom when I’m struggling with decisions or next steps. Who could ask for more?
But there is more. I have a talented and strong daughter-in-law that makes being a grandmother so easy. Karysa has encouraged my involvement in my granddaughters’ lives from day one and lets me babysit as often as I like. It’s been fun to watch Karysa and Joe’s parenting skills develop and to see the pride and joy on their faces as the girls charm us with their sweet faces and funny antics. Being the stepmom in this family, I don’t take it for granted one minute what a gift I have in my relationship with all of them.
If a young mom asked for parenting advice, I’d say be the parent. I cringe when I hear a woman say she wants to be her child’s friend. Set boundaries, establish consequences and follow through as consistently as you can. Persevere with the end in mind — producing a responsible and productive adult who does her share to contribute to the good of society. You won’t succeed by letting them do whatever they want, nor by doing everything for them. Don’t feel you have to entertain them; encourage their creativity instead. Don’t hover and overprotect them. Give them room to grow into their unique selves. Let them fail so they can learn. Teach them practical life skills, good manners and enduring values.
I’m grateful that my girls have a healthy mix of memories of their time growing up in this house. They talk about pajama parties, family holiday parties, and parties with church families. They mention being piled up with us on our king-size bed watching the only small television I allowed on the main floor. They remember our regular trips to the library, their dad teaching them to read before kindergarten, playing all afternoon at the pool in the summer, and dance classes and recitals.
These and many others are offset by memories of Emilie being terrified by my threats to “get the wooden spoon” when she refused to listen to me (which by the way resulted in a soft tap on the backside), and Elise being grounded or her phone taken away for being disagreeable or smarting back. They also remember being embarrassed by having older parents, including the time Emilie’s classmate thought Paul was her grandfather. Our older age may have been uncomfortable for the girls, but I think it gave us both a perspective that led to their becoming the strong and sensible young women they are today.
From where I sit in my living room as I write this, I can see our family photos gracing the piano top. So many moments captured against the backdrop of this house. There are projects still left undone, and it won’t win any design awards, but it’s been a wonderful place to live with the ones I love.
Thank you, JoAnn! What a lovely home. And how lucky we are to get to learn from you. I love how JoAnn confidently knows what she likes design-wise, and that she sticks to the colors and patterns that she loves and that make her happy. That is the essence of making your home your own.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking to read about JoAnn’s grief and how she is dealing with it. I am sure most of us have been touched by loss in some way, but I imagine the loss of a spouse or partner is a unique and challenging kind of pain. When she said “Grief is a redefining work.” that rang so true. When you lose someone you love, you are constantly negotiating and redefining what is “normal” because in some ways, nothing will ever be normal again.
Thank you again, JoAnn for sharing so openly and honestly what you are going through. In Italian Amicangelo means “a friend to angels” and I am sure that JoAnn has many angels, both seen and unseen, who surround and support her.
You can visit JoAnn at her blog here. Photo credit to Raelynn. You can see her work on Instagram. Living With Kids is edited by Josh Bingham — you can follow him on Instagram. Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, gay parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.