Joyce in 2009, doing tai chi on The Great Wall of China
My grandma died in July.
Her given name was Joyce, but I never called her that. Amma Jo mostly, sometimes Granny. Her husband, Donald, used to holler “YES JOYCE-ALD” through their house when it was crawling with friends and family over the holidays.
But I think my favorite moniker of hers will always be The Matriarch. With a sister, three daughters, and countless nieces and cousins, Joyce Wilson always sat at the head of the table. Even when my grandpa was still alive, I have no memory of even a joking reference to a patriarch—it was always her.
She was born in 1930 and didn’t get married until later in life. By that time, she could speak English, French, and Spanish fluently. She’d traveled all around the world, and she met my grandpa in a whirlwind romance on a Vespa in France.
I’ve grown up hearing stories of her adventures and exploits. For her 90th birthday in April of this year, we took turns sharing some of our favorite memories with her. People shared funny stories: “Granny, you took advantage of a card-shark nun!” said one niece, reminded of a particularly memorable stay at a hostel in France. We reflected on her words of wisdom and our love for the way she invested in relationships. At some point, one of my cousins started singing a family song, and from all across the country we Children of The Matriarch joined in—but it’s a lot harder to stay on beat over Zoom, and we quickly devolved into laughter.
Joyce wrote textbooks, taught college language classes, and lived in the Philippines supporting refugees and fending off giant spiders for years before I was born. She started going blind in her 60s, but that never stopped her from the adventures she aspired to. Since my birth 22 years ago, she’s learned to scuba dive, done tai chi on the Great Wall of China, been kayaking on the open ocean with her granddaughters, and gotten her ears pierced, among many other adventures. She was never someone you’d call risk-averse.
When I was in seventh grade, I acted as her “seeing-eye grandchild” on a two-week adventure back to New England, where she grew up. I remember tromping through the airport together, eating fresh lobster with extended family I’d never met before and trying mussels for the first time. She told me stories about her hometown in Connecticut, laughed with her old friends, and always encouraged me to try new things.
She raised three brilliant, capable daughters and has inspired and challenged me my whole life. She was one of the smartest women I’ve ever met, quick and bright and clever every day until the cancer reached her brain. When I thought I would go to school to be a teacher like her, she was excited. But when I decided on engineering instead and started being a vocal advocate for women in STEM, she, The Matriarch, was my champion.
Joyce was always generous and welcoming, inviting the “holiday homeless” to our family gatherings every year. From friends to neighbors to a random New Zealander my aunt met on a train (true story), she always made room for another seat at the table. She asked questions that showed how much she cared, cracked jokes, and was the wellspring of sass from which we daughters and granddaughters have learned our sarcasm.
Her given name was Joyce, and that name was given to me too, when I was born: Lillian Joyce Spackman. I hope that, along with her name, I will always carry some reflection of her in me: an echo of her fierce, kind, brilliant leadership, a picture of her gentleness, hospitality, and wisdom.
She was the woman who shaped our family, and my name will always remind me of my wonderful grandmother, The Matriarch.
Lillie grew up on a forty-acre hay farm in Central Oregon, making the trek to Michigan to study mechanical engineering and sustainability. After graduating in 2020, she moved to Rochester, NY, where her day job as an engineer for the local gas utility funds her outdoor adventures, love of books, various craft projects, and investment in her new community.