My Mom, Jo Anna "Jodi" Fouch, passed away on Christmas Eve, 2023. I thought I'd share the eulogy I wrote for her service, along with some photos of her over the years. Love you, Mom.
Most of you probably know I’m a writer. Words mean everything to me. They shape how I view the world. They help me cope with pain and loss. When I’m sad, or troubled about something, I write about it. So I’ve agonized over what I should say about Mom, and whether I’d actually be able to say it. How can I possibly come up with the right words to pay tribute to a life like hers, one so full of love and laughter, tragedy and triumph, warmth and wonder? It doesn’t seem possible. And frankly, it’s a lot of pressure. Mom was my biggest fan and my first and most important editor every time I wrote something. I don’t want to disappoint her.
But over these past few weeks, as my brother Todd and I cared for her and cried with her and sang with her, as we reminisced about all the wonderful times we’ve shared and the people we love, and then, after our terrible loss, as messages of sadness and condolence poured in from the hundreds of people whose lives she touched, one word in particular kept surfacing again and again.
When I think of my mother, I think of home.
Really, are there two more wonderful words in the English language than “Mom” and “home”?
In our family, certainly not.
For most our lives, home was Petersburg, where she and my father ran The Grant County Press, Dad as editor and Mom as the advertising manager who also wrote a weekly column called Stir Crazy, in which she shared recipes and her life with readers who came to think of her as family. I always wondered why readers cared about her trips to New York where I live or to Nitro where my brother lives, or about the foibles and adventures of her grandchildren, or about the husband she loved dearly but sometimes drove her nuts. (Like the time we went to a two-day country music festival and Dad, who may have had a few too many beers, shot an entire roll of film, not of the performers or us, but of women in tiny bikinis. I honestly thought Mom might strangle him.) I used to tease her that I turned to Stir Crazy to see if it was about me, and if it wasn’t, skipped directly to the sports page. She didn’t find that as amusing as I did.
No matter who or what she wrote about, readers loved it. I think they cared about those columns so deeply because Mom essentially welcomed them into her home. They could relate to her kindness and humor and frustrations. They, too, had precocious grandchildren, or spouses that vexed them. They, too, lost everything in the ’85 flood, or suffered family tragedies that shook them. And even though Mom sometimes complained about “running out of ideas for that stupid column,” she never did, and wrote it for nearly 30 years, winning a best columnist in West Virginia award in the process. She has notebook after notebook filled with Stir Crazy. Those columns are an archive of our lives, something we’ll all treasure, just one more gift she’s given us.
Her most precious gift, of course, was love. And nowhere did we feel that love more deeply than in Petersburg, and then in St. Albans, in homes she filled with warmth and joy. The kids absolutely LOVED going to Grandma’s. She and Granddaddy might have spoiled them a bit, which is every grandparent’s prerogative, of course. They had a playhouse built in their backyard in Petersburg, and I swear, you could have lived in that thing – all it needed was indoor plumbing. Each grandkid had their own bicycle in the storage building, Isaac tearing up and down the street in his fearless way, Ashlee and Abigail zipping around trying not to get run over by the boys, Tierra inevitably winding up in the flower bed or bouncing off of the Press van, and Tyler baffling Grandma and Granddaddy with tires that were always worn completely smooth. They solved that mystery when they happened to glance out one day to see him pedaling as furiously as he could, slamming on the brakes and sliding on the asphalt for about 10 feet. No wonder the tires were bare. They just laughed and bought new ones.
When Todd and I were kids, it was much the same. Our home in Monarch Heights was a neighborhood hub, the giant yard between us and the Smiths the perfect place to throw Frisbee, or to engage in epic baseball, football and kickball battles, or to play endless games of tag. The neighborhood kids would usually end up in our house where Mom had Kool-Aid and popsicles at the ready. As family friend Phyllis Cole put it in a text to me after Mom’s passing, “She provided a safe haven for all the many kids in Monarch Heights.”
That safe haven eventually extended all the way to the Bronx in New York City. Mom signed our family up for the Fresh Air Fund, a program in which inner city kids get to experience life in the country for two weeks in the summer. We wound up with Christopher Cruz, a charming, ornery, half-Black, half-Puerto Rican kid who taught us how to breakdance and flirt with girls and who we taught how to fish and to do flips off the town pool diving board. All very important skills. Chris ended up coming back to Petersburg every summer, even after he outgrew the Fresh Air program, because, and here’s that word again, Mom provided him with a home.
So many family members received the same treatment. My cousins Tami and Jamey were there all the time, the aunt they called “Nanny” like a second Mom, Jamey even living with us for a time. When my grandmother needed care toward the end of her life, she stayed with Mom and Dad, Mom attending to her every need. When Dad’s Aunt Frannie got sick, Mom welcomed her into her home as if she were her own blood and took care of her, too. Not everyone would do that, but it wouldn’t have even occurred to Mom to not take care of someone she loved. And Dad, of course, was the same. They were made for each other.
Mom and Dad were the perfect couple. Sure, they annoyed the hell out of each other sometimes – what married couple doesn’t? – but the fact that they managed to not only live together but work together, without a single stabbing incident, was truly remarkable. As Camille Howard, who now runs The Press and worked for them for years, texted me: “What always stood out to me was how much they loved and respected each other. Couples working together all day is usually no picnic for employees, but that was never the case. They made a good team.”
Mom and Dad provided an amazing example –first for Todd and Heather, and then me and Geovanny – of what it takes to make a loving marriage and an equal, supportive partnership. And Mom, who sometimes had a challenging relationship with her own mother-in-law, who didn’t think anyone was good enough for her baby boy, treated Heather and Geovanny as if they were her own daughters. Again, she always made them feel at home, never once unwelcome or uncomfortable. Geovanny likes to tell the story about how she and Mom first met. Her idiot boyfriend – that would be me – decided it would be a brilliant idea, even though she and my mother had never met, to buy us tickets for an off-Broadway production called “Naked Boys Singing.” The show’s exactly what it sounds like, and Geovanny sat next to her future mother-in-law for two-and-a-half hours as a bunch of naked men pranced around in all their glory singing and dancing about 20 feet from us. Mom wasn’t fazed in the slightest. In fact, she thought it was hilarious, as did my wife, so there was an instant rapport between them, an instant ease and comfort level. I am, however, pretty sure Mom left that particular show out of the next week’s Stir Crazy.
All this being said, Mom wasn’t perfect. She could be cranky sometimes. God forbid you got her talking about the people taking the parking spots in front of her house, or the neighbor’s tree that deposited leaves and acorns all over her porch and yard. And she and I learned to never, EVER discuss politics. She could be stubborn as hell – which seems to be a genetic defect in our family. In other words, she was human, as we all are. But oh what a human she was – a loving, kind, generous-to-a-fault, sometimes pain-in-the-butt human who loved Elvis more than anyone on the face of the earth, who lost her freaking mind every Christmas with gifts and decorating, who cheered on the Mountaineers even when they were getting the crap beat out of them, and who loved and defended West Virginia until the very end.
In fact, that’s one more instance of the word “home” cropping up these past few weeks. It’s in a song that you all know and love – just about every West Virginian does. And Mom loved it the very first time she heard it, when the three of us were living in Germany where Dad was stationed in the Army. One night in 1971, when she was picking Dad up from the barracks in Bamberg, he came out to find her sobbing in the car with me asleep in the back seat. “What in the world is wrong?” he asked.
When Mom managed to catch her breath, she told him she’d just heard a new song on U.S. Armed Forces Radio, one with a soaring voice singing, “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong,” and what was wrong was that she was dreadfully, heartachingly homesick for West Virginia. Imagine being stuck for two years in a country where you don’t speak the language, a thousand miles from everyone and everything you love, and you hear your state’s name with the lyrics “radio reminds me of my home far way.” No wonder she was inconsolable
Ever since then, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has been a huge part of our lives. She even made it her ringtone and never tired of it, even when it scared the daylights out of us because she had her phone turned up so loud. These past few months, she heard it over and over, family and friends calling to tell her how sorry they were, to say how much they loved her and how much she’s meant to them. Aunt Rae called every single day because she said, “I need to hear my baby sister’s voice.” Uncle Danny called like clockwork, trying his best not to cry. The grandkids she so adored, all of them grown up now, talked to her all the time, Todd’s kids having the advantage of being able to run over and give Grandma a hug any time they wanted. Heather and Geovanny made sure their second mother knew important she was to them. There was her best friend Vicky, whom she grew up with in Arthurdale. Her cousin Marion, like another sister. Jamey and Tami, wanting to hear their Nanny’s voice. Tami’s kids, Kathleen and Robbie. Friends Joe and Steph, and J., and Phyllis, and Sonnee, and Sherry, and Mary Ann, on and on.
Every day, every call, every ring … “Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong…” Love, love and more love.
As you all know, Mom had cancer, which is truly a dreadful disease. But the one small allowance cancer does provide is time. There’s time for goodbyes, for letting the people you love know it, for reminiscing and laughing and crying together. In our family, there was time for music, all of us singing to Elvis, and to the Christmas carols that played as we decorated her house with her multiple trees, dozens of Santas and enough lights for the astronauts in the space station to see a mysterious glow emanating from St. Albans.
There was also time to let final wishes be known. And Mom did that. She wanted simplicity for her service. She wanted what would make our lives easiest. She wanted, in her words, “to be done with it,” which is fine. We all understood. And we wouldn’t think of defying her wishes.
But she did make one specific request. At whatever sort of memorial service we were going to have, after the tributes have been paid, memories shared and tears shed, and before goodbyes are said and everyone returns to their own lives, she wanted a song played. I’m sure you can guess which one. When I asked why, she said, “Because everyone will say, ‘That’s Jodi, and they’ll smile.’ ”
She’s right, of course. I know when “Take Me Home, Country Roads” plays here shortly, each of us will smile and sing along. After all, just about every person here undoubtedly knows every single word. And when I hear it, I’ll think about that word again, home, the one featured so prominently in the title and lyrics. And when I think about Mom’s final journey tomorrow to Petersburg, winding her way through the beautiful West Virginia mountains that she loved so dearly, and how she’ll once again be with Dad, and Granny, and so many others she loved, I can’t help but feel peace.
In the end, those country roads will take her through what really is almost heaven, to the place where she belongs.
Those country roads will take her home.