A Piece of My Soul

Barbara and her Harley

Barbara Joans, 1934-2023

I don’t remember my first meeting with Barbara Joans, but it was sometime in 1971 or 1972. We have been friends since then.

When I met her she was finishing her doctorate in anthropology. She was a perfect fit for that field—as the old saying goes, nothing human was alien to her. Nowadays so many Americans have become tribalists, closing our hearts and minds to those who disagree with us. Barbara could understand, respect, and even befriend people with vastly different ways of life and points of view.

Barbara was usually scrupulously honest, but had the courage and determination to do what was needed. When she was a poor grad student and single mother without financial support, she wheeled the baby carriage into a supermarket and shoplifted food.

A second lawbreaking episode—if you can call it that—was going to Washington to demonstrate against the Vietnam War. I don’t know what they charged her with, but she was arrested and held in jail for several days.

Barbara was a member of the National Organization for Women. When NOW wanted to hold conferences in New York City, she spoke to the principal of the junior high school her sons attended, and he let NOW use the auditorium for free. At the first conference, male reporters tried to bulldoze their way in, but the women fought back and managed to keep them out. One newsreel guy did barge in. Barbara and Rita Mae Brown snatched the tape from his camera, ran out of the building, and threw it down the nearest sewer.

When New York State allowed abortion but the rest of the country did not, Barbara opened her apartment to women who had traveled to the city for the procedure, giving them a safe place to stay.

She and her husband Ken were hospitable to friends as well, and I’m immensely grateful to them. In 1980 they let me bring the small children I was co-parenting to their home in Santa Cruz for a weekend visit, and never said a word while I changed the baby’s diaper in Ken’s favorite recliner. I only heard about the recliner decades later, when Barbara joked about it.

After my wife and I moved to Oregon, Barbara and Ken let us stay in their San Francisco apartment for two weeks at a time during our annual visits to the city—and let us bring the dog as well. They were equally welcome here, but I think they only came to Oregon once.

Barbara and Ken rode motorcycles. I told her it was a very dangerous activity. She replied that I was crazy for spending my vacations doing what she considered much more dangerous, solo backpacking in the wilderness. Although she was incurably heterosexual, in the 1990s Barbara rode with the Dykes on Bikes contingent at the head of the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Parade. Once she let me ride on the back of her bike in the parade. That was fine—they were going slow enough so I wasn’t afraid.

Two of the most important, irreplaceable gifts she gave me were sensible advice when I was having personal troubles, and critical comments on my writing. I would read a rough draft to her, and she would make suggestions. Invariably, her suggestions were right on the mark.

I miss her horribly. A piece of my soul is going into the ground with her.






4 Responses to A Piece of My Soul

  1. Mary Ann Aschenbrenner March 10, 2024 at 2:07 pm #

    I am so sorry for your loss and yet happy you had such a great friend.

  2. Mary McCarthy March 10, 2024 at 4:11 pm #

    Martha, I am so sorry someone as delightful as you describe Barbara to be is no longer on this plane. Hope she is riding her bike wherever she may be!

  3. Debra DeBondt March 11, 2024 at 8:45 am #

    Martha, I’m so very sorry for your loss. You have paid her a beautiful tribute with this piece.

  4. Connie O Byrne March 11, 2024 at 1:52 pm #

    oh Martha, there never are words when I want them. Really good friends are really hard to come by and I’m truly sorry you’ve had this one pass onto her next existence. She will always be a part of you, always.
    Connie Byrne

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