IN MEMORY OF JO
The eulogy I would have delivered for my mother-in-law but for COVID
How does one encapsulate and summarize any life in a few words, particularly the life of a force of nature like Jo Falcone? The truth is, you can’t. All you can do is try to paint a picture of her life with words. Those who knew Jo will be able to take that picture and fill in their own colors and hues, patterns and shapes. Those who never had the actual pleasure of meeting Jo and spending time with her, will just have to listen to the picture and imagine.
The beautiful, informative and proud obituary penned by her 10 grandchildren disclosed the groundbreaking accomplishments and accolades of Jo as she simply went about her calling of making a difference in the community she loved, and the world around her. What stands out is that Jo never did anything for recognition. She did things because she saw there was a need, and she knew how to marshal the resources to meet that need. I have always remarked how so many people think they cannot change the world, and that I disagree with them. We meet hundreds of people every day in our lives, and how we interact with those people makes a difference and changes the world around us. Jo intuitively understood this. If people were hungry, she fed them. If people needed clothes, she clothed them. If a local community group needed new uniforms for their drum and bugle corps, she provided them. She felt that White Plains needed a thoroughfare named after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so she set those wheels in motion. So many times Jo answered the call. People often talk about doing. She didn’t talk about it, she just did it without any thought of notoriety or fanfare.
I first met Jo in July 1974 when I started dating her oldest daughter, AnnaMarie “Annie”. My first encounter with Annie’s parents was on August 8, 1974. It was an auspicious occasion. Not because I was meeting the people who would become my in-laws 11 years later, but it was the night that President Nixon resigned. I grew up in a rather left-leaning home with a father who was a psychologist, and a mother who was (and is) an abstract artist and thinker. I called my parents’ friends by their first names, and there was always conversations and discussions about deep things, and the Yankees. That evening, as Nixon appeared on television with his upper lip sweating, I picked out my afro, donned my farmer jeans, and left my parents’ home where there was an atmosphere of positivity and walked the mile to Annie’s home. As Annie introduced me to her parents, I called them by their first names, and we sat down in their den to watch the events unfold on T.V. I noted to myself that the atmosphere was somewhat resigned, and I inquired as to whether they were Republicans. You see, I had never met a Republican. It was an interesting experience.
Jo and Joe welcomed me into their home. Any reservations they had they kept to themselves, and they probably thought I would just go away at some point. But, I didn’t. From the first time I held Annie’s hand I knew I was home. So, I stayed, and I respected their home, and, over time, I came to realize that I didn’t just find my soulmate, but I got a second set of parents, brothers and a sister, grandparents and a whole slew of cousins. Not a bad bargain, if I do say so myself.
Of course, all of this meant that I got to attend the University of Jo for free, up close and personal. What is interesting, in retrospect, is that I am a doer. Growing up I was involved in student government from elementary school through high school. In college I was an R.A. As an adult I have been heavily involved and invested in my community. I have done all of this not for any recognition, but because I have seen needs and I have tried to fill them. Sound familiar? Yup, for years now I have known that I am following in my mother-in-law’s (Jo’s) footsteps, and I am incredibly proud of that. It is true that from time to time we would jab at each other from opposite ends of the political spectrum like two heavyweights sparring but underlying that was love and mutual respect. She was always supportive of me and encouraged me to do more, to run for office, to run for the Board of Education, to become a Rotarian, etc. And, it was Jo who nominated me for the Westchester County Senior Citizens Hall of Fame, and I got inducted.
One of the things I deeply respected about Jo was that she was not a Zelig, not a chameleon. Jo was always comfortable being who she was in whatever setting she found herself. In a room full of liberal Democrats, she was herself. Not in your face about it, but you knew where she stood, and she garnered respect. At her wake on January 8, 2022, as I conversed with Westchester County Executive George Latimer, he said that the world needed more Jo Falcones. He knew her a long time. He said that they would have conversations. Sometimes they would agree on things, sometimes not, but there was always mutual respect, and he knew that her heart was always about the people she sought to help. He said that we could use more of that in today’s polarized climate. I reflected on that. Regardless of how Jo may have labeled herself, she was open to people regardless of color, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, etc. To her, people were just people.
More than anything, Jo loved her family. The most important thing to her was that her family (her kids and their kids) got together as often as possible despite the fact that some live in New York, some in Colorado and some in California. I was incredibly privileged to be part of that clan and those events. The gatherings were filled with love, food, music (big family jam sessions) and fun, lots and lots of fun. The by-product of all this is that despite the miles between them, and the age differences (they currently range from 19 to 33), the grandchildren are like a team. They love one another deeply, communicate constantly and see each other whenever possible. When one of them is in a relationship, the cousins feel that acceptance into the group is the litmus test for the new person. They are very protective of one another.
In the days that followed Jo’s passing, 5 of the 10 grandchildren were in town, and 5 could not come in. So, they did the next best thing. They FaceTimed frequently, including a 6 ½ hour session on the day of the wake. The evening before Jo passed, the 10 of them had a 3-hour session. During that session they held space for one another. They first checked in with each grandchild as to how they were feeling, what they had heard, what they knew, and how they were observing the impact on their parent who was Jo’s child. Then, they each shared their last conversation with Jo. Finally, they told stories. Some of the stories were somber, but most were hilarious; an expression of the unbounded love and joy they have shared since their birth because they happened to be the grandchildren of Jo and Joe.
As I gave thought before writing this, I realized that while the world is in awe of Jo’s legacy and all that she accomplished, that was not the legacy that she was striving for. Her living legacy is her kids (which include Rob, Linda’s husband, and I) and their kids. Jo and Joe will continue to live on in us/them because of the lessons, priorities and morals they laid down, and because of the warm blanket of love that binds us and surrounds us. We have already planned the next family gathering, and we can’t wait. And those of us who are now the older generation will know that the youngsters will keep it going because it’s part of their DNA, and it is beautifully intoxicating.
I will honor Jo every day of my life, as I always have, just by being accepting, engaged, involved and doing without any desire for notoriety. And I, along with AnnaMarie, Joey, Michael, Linda, Rob, Nicole, Ben, Brianna, Alexa, Michael, RJ, Michael, Kyle, Christopher and Danielle, will carry Jo’s legacy forward to other places and people, and to new generations who will cherish her memory. Rest in peace Mom, thank you for everything.