Archived Opinion

‘What took you so damn long, Joyce?’

‘What took you so damn long, Joyce?’

It was the shortest funeral service I’ll likely ever attend. And though there were tears and somber conversations, there were also a lot of happy, smiling people. And for good reason.

Joyce Jones — Aunt Joyce to me — passed away March 22 at 91 years old. Her husband, Uncle Robert, also 91, had died on March 4. Took her 18 days to be reunited with her man, the guy she had been married to for 74 years. A perfectly fitting end to one hell of a life together. What’s not to like about that?

While I was growing up, I spent a lot of time around Uncle Robert and Aunt Joyce. They weren’t really my aunt and uncle, but this is the South. My mother’s sister, Aunt Marie, married Robert’s brother, Wilton. They were extended family, but those distinctions didn’t really matter to any of us. They were aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and dear friends. 

These were the people whose lives my mom and her best friend Aunt Wanda and Aunt Marie would recount during visits home as we sat around my our kitchen table. The matriarchs would fill us in on all the happenings and make sure to ask enough questions so our story could also be passed along to the rest of the clan. We would laugh or cry or just talk as we caught up on boyfriends, girlfriends, weddings, divorces, jobs, children, moves and all the other intricate, weblike strands of information that connect big families.

Robert and Joyce sat on a perch atop the clan. My mother loved and respected them so much. In a family where failed marriages and divorces were all-too-plentiful — my mother was married three times — she admired their stability and their children, the life and family they built together. As my brothers and I gathered for the funeral, we knew she would be happy that we all three made it. 

Uncle Robert was a boxer, a stock car driver, a musician and one of those “men’s men” who was both charming and gruff. He was an accomplished singer and musician, having played in bands most of his life. What a voice, a baritone that wooed whomever was in earshot.

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She was a lot like him, both tough and sentimental. At family get-togethers, my mom always insisted I “go sit with Aunt Joyce and talk to her for a few minutes.” It was like paying homage, although she and Uncle Robert were as down-to-earth as anyone you’d ever met. 

My fondest memories of them are from their place at the North Carolina coast in Swansboro. Uncle Robert was a fisherman, raised near New Bern and one of those people who knew every inch of the inlets and sounds where he spent so much time. He was barrel-chested and strong, and I can picture him with no shirt, a baseball hat on and a cigarette in his mouth. The last time he took Lori and I out on his boat, he wasn’t interested in fishing as much as talking about the water and the tides and what fish you would catch in certain places and at what times of the year. It was more a tribute to a place that held his heart.

When we would bring the boat in, Aunt Joyce would feed us. Fresh fish and other country fare, my favorite being her fried cornbread. I can taste it right now.

As the years passed and I left Fayetteville, I saw them less and less. My mom got rid of her place in Swansboro years before she died, and so those visits ended.

But the memories are alive, and will be for as long as I’m breathing. As a kid I didn’t “get” the love affair between the two of them, the shared life, the day-in-and-day-out highs and lows that come with spending such a long life together. My mother did, and I know now that’s why she admired them both so much. 

Many of us have heard those stories, the love affairs of two people so intertwined with each other that there is no reason for going on after one dies. And so I heard it from their three children, each of them having endured the death of both parents in less than a month. Uncle Robert and Aunt Joyce were cremated, and their ashes will be mixed and scattered together.

Marguerite told my brother that the time between Robert’s passing and Joyce’s passing was probably the longest they’d been apart in those 74 years.

Standing in the food line at church after the service, I told their son, Cackie, how sorry I was for the loss. Through puffy, tear-filled eyes he just smiled at me. 

“You can’t make this kind of ending up,” I said to him.

“I can hear daddy now, Scott,” he said, the smile growing. “‘What took you so damn long, Joyce? I been waiting 18 days.’”

That wait is over. RIP.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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