This is where I leave you: Joy Harris, community resident and partner of Anne Wood, died last month
KNOW & GO
What: Memorial service for Joy Harris
When: 1 p.m. on July 19
Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church on 235 Church Street, Grass Valley
Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas, became the space of an unlikely relationship.
It was the early ‘70s, and Anne Wood found herself in love. It happened, in fact, at first sight, which is something she never believed in — until it happened to her.
“I swear I fell in love with her the day I met her,” said Wood. “I just wanted to hear her talk.”
A year or so later Wood and Joy Harris found themselves before a priest and beside their friend at their Episcopal church. It was 7:30 p.m., candles were lit and a “commitment” ceremony began. But the priest didn’t notify anyone of the event, and there was no congregation to speak of. Such was the climate for gay couples.
“It was just the four of us and God,” said Wood.
Over four decades later the couple got to share a wonderful life together, said Wood. Earlier this month, one iteration of that relationship came to an end.
Joy Harris died in Grass Valley with family and loved ones at her ranch home on June 2.
FIGURING IT OUT
Long before they came to live in Nevada County, Harris and Wood were trying to navigate a world antagonistic to their lifestyle. They left Texas. Wood wanted to return to school. Harris suggested California, where her parents had relocated.
They moved to Santa Barbara, their relationship still a secret and their religious practices still intact.
“Jesus walks with me every single day,” said Wood.
Harris, who found much stimulation via intellectual conversations, began studying seminary at the Trinity Episcopal Church. The deacon sometimes struggled to keep up with her, said Wood, frequently unable to answer her questions.
Harris worked at Santa Barbara County Hospital before it closed, and climbed the ladder becoming director of a large health care institution.
But while they both were succeeding in their careers, Wood and Harris were constantly investing effort and attention into their relationship. They had an important rule: “Never go to sleep at night without settling the day’s problems and saying, ‘I love you,’” said Wood.
Communicating and negotiating problems, Wood admitted, was not her strong suit. Harris was a more effective speaker. To mitigate this, the couple would drive up the 101, and sit in a space they hadn’t been to beside the ocean. No matter the length of time, the two would sit with their discomfort, resolving the problem before returning home.
In 1987, Harris and Wood retired, and found a new home in Nevada County. Their Santa Barbara home sold before it officially entered the market, said Wood.
LIFE ON THE RANCH
The couple had three children total from separate marriages, two children together and 17 foster children over the years, said Wood.
One of those kids was Kristopher Bessen, Wood’s grandson, who admired his guardians’ intelligence and stern qualities — according to one child, Harris ran the ranch “like an air force base.” But she also facilitated his maturity and appreciation for nuance.
“She helped me to see the beauty in everything,” said Bessen. “To see the beauty in a cold wet, rainy day.”
Tom Bannister, who was adopted by Wood and Harris by age 10, agreed. He recalls being taught responsibility undergirded by unconditional love.
“They would not so much reprimand me,” said Bannister, “but let me know there would be consequences.”
The couple epitomized this approach when, at age 16, Bannister was left home alone and threw a party that got busted by the police. It was responsibility and the desire to be a better person, rather than fear, that was instilled in him.
“‘We’re not mad, Thomas, ‘we’re just upset,’” Harris and Wood had said to him.
Bannister and Bessen picked up some of these lessons seemingly through osmosis.
“I catch myself giving without thought,” said Bessen, “and doing without expecting something in return.”
TOGETHER THROUGH THE END
Alzheimer’s had taken a firm grip of Harris during her last four years, said Wood. Harris, who was a Vietnam Veteran on the Clark Air Base in The Philippines began having flashbacks, reengaging experiences she never previously spoke of, and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Likely in part due to the relived trauma, Harris became a bit bitter and mean, said Bannister.
“She wasn’t mad at us,” he said. “She was just frustrated with her mind going away.”
But the family, he said, was prepared to deal with her transgressions because, as a student of psychology, Harris had taught them how to treat Alzheimer’s’ patients. As such, the children stopped arguing with her if she “lost socks” that were on her feet. Instead, they engaged her in her reality.
Months before Harris died, some of her children returned to the ranch to be caregivers, assist Wood and just hold the space.
“I had three of our boys come to the ranch and they were here for the whole week, night and day around the clock until she died,” said Wood.
Bessent, who now lives on the ranch with his wife, helped bathe and change Harris’ clothes, making her as comfortable as possible.
“I was fortunate enough to be present and return and reciprocate,” he said.
Bannister often spent time walking around the property, glancing at the fences Harris helped him build, the horses they cared for together, the fields they roamed. The night she died, he strolled the land under a full moon.
“Every place on the property is a memory with her,” he said.
As Harris’ mind was starting to leave her on her final days, she was wrestling with much pain. A surge of levity erupted, however, when Harris was asked if she remembered anything about her children.
“‘I remember telling them that I could always whip their ass,’” she had said to the group.
On the precipice of death when Harris’ skin was breaking down, the family gave her a bath and gave her medicine that she took with her favorite ice cream, said Wood.
In her last five hours, with family members in the living room recalling stories of her life, Harris’ mood began to shift and she felt joy.
“I think she was just drawing in all the love that was surrounding her,” said Wood.
Today Harris’ partner, Wood, has her ashes. She had her children promise her that when she dies they will mix their remains together and spread it across the ranch.
“We promised each other 40 years ago,” said Wood, “I will never leave you.”
Contact Sam Corey at 530-477-4219 or at email@example.com.
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