On the Saturday before Easter in 1969, I picked up the telephone and dialed the number for my Uncle Tony Couri’s house. At that time, I was 11 years old. I wanted to ask my cousin Gene Couri, who was the same age as I was, if his family was planning to go to our grandparents’ house for Easter. Gene and I shared the same grandparents, Tom and Effie Williams, and they had invited their children and grandchildren to join them for dinner on Easter Sunday.
Gene answered the phone with the greeting, “Couri’s Prison!” I was momentarily stunned by the way he answered the telephone and said, “Gene, does your mom know you answer the phone that way?” He responded, “Yeah, the warden knows and she told me to stop, but I’m not going to. I’m a prisoner in her home and all I’m doing is telling the truth when I call it Couri’s prison.”
I immediately identified with what Gene was saying. There were times when I felt the same way — like a prisoner in my parents’ home. After talking to Gene, I was tempted to start answering the telephone at my parents’ house the same way — “Williams’ Prison!” — but I knew better. My situation was worse than Gene’s because in addition to my mom being the warden, when it came to enforcing the rules of the Williams’ prison, my dad never hesitated to act. Gene didn’t have that problem. His dad wasn’t the disciplinarian mine was; he left that up to Gene’s mom.
I’ve written before about how I grew up in a family neighborhood. There were seven houses in the neighborhood, each of which was overseen by a warden. The dictionary defines a “warden” as “an official charged with special supervisory duties or with the enforcement of specified laws or regulations.”
The seven wardens who enforced the laws in the homes in the neighborhood were all traditional stay-at-home mothers. The seven wardens were my mom, Kathryn Williams; my grandmother, Effie Williams; my aunts, Marlene Miller, Pat Schelp, Mary Jo Williams, and Marie Ketcham; and my great aunt, Martha Joseph. Six of the wardens were of Lebanese descent. The seventh warden, Mary Jo Williams, was an American whose ancestors were Italian.
The six prisons that were operated by the Lebanese wardens were all run with iron fists. The seventh prison, the one overseen by my Aunt Mary Jo, was run like a country club prison.
In order to give you a glimpse of how the country club prison was run, I need to explain the three unique qualities that my Aunt Mary Jo possessed:
1. Loving – One of my Aunt Mary Jo’s greatest qualities was her love of people. She was always upbeat and enthusiastic. She accepted everyone and found reasons to like even those people who were difficult to get along with. She was warm and generous with her friends, which benefited her nieces and nephews because she always treated us as though we were her friends. She was fun to be around because she was spontaneous, optimistic, and unpredictable. She enjoyed being the center of attention and relished the excitement and drama that her nieces and nephews brought into her life.
2. Sensory – While a lot of people live their lives in the past or the future, Aunt Mary Jo lived her life in the present. She was down-to-earth and practical and made the most of every moment. Her approach to dealing with people was simple, straightforward, and honest. She was very observant and had the ability to sense when a person was in distress. Her reaction to those who were in need was always warm, upbeat, and affectionate. She enjoyed stimulating other people’s senses with her vivid descriptions of how something looked, tasted, or smelled. If she’d had her way, her life would have been a continual party, with her playing the role of the fun-loving host.
3. Empathetic – While most people are quick to judge others based on initial impressions, Aunt Mary Jo always reserved judgment about a person or a situation until she could find out more information. She often refused to pass judgment because she had the ability to empathize with others by imagining herself in their situation. Because of the importance she placed on her relationships, she took criticism personally. She hated conflict and always attempted to find peaceful solutions to problems that arose between people.
When I was in the fourth grade, my mom prohibited me and my brothers from watching the television show Batman because she thought it was too violent. As any reasonable boy would do, every Wednesday evening I escaped from my parents’ prison and went over to the country club prison to watch Batman with my cousin, Danny Williams. I think my Aunt Mary Jo knew about my mom’s prohibition, but she never said anything to me about it.
To this day I don’t know how my mom discovered that I was escaping every week to watch a show she had prohibited. I think she had spies strategically placed throughout the neighborhood. Anyway, when she found out about my violation of prison rules, she immediately sentenced me to home confinement (she grounded me) for an unreasonable period of time.
We liked watching TV at Aunt Mary Jo’s house because she had a color television. Her husband, Bill Williams, loved cars and electronic gadgets, so after color televisions became available, he bought one for their living room. At that time, the only other prison in the neighborhood that had a color television was the one occupied by my Uncle Bud and Aunt Martha Joseph. Uncle Bud owned a television repair shop, so it made sense that he was the first person in the neighborhood to buy a color television set.
The first prison in the neighborhood to have central air conditioning was my Aunt Mary Jo’s country club prison. She was the only warden in the neighborhood who felt sorry for us during the summer months. On extremely hot days, she would call out to us to come inside her house so we could cool down. Every time we took her up on her offer, she insisted on preparing cold drinks for us.
On April 16, 2013, at the age of 75, our beloved country club warden passed away. At the time of her death, she was surrounded by her six children and a handful of her closest friends. Her children delayed the visitation and funeral for several days to accommodate all the nieces and nephews who wanted to travel from out of state to Peoria so they could say goodbye to the aunt who always respected them for who they were.
When the news of her death finally sank in, I told Georgette that Aunt Mary Jo was the type of person who was supposed to live forever. But then I had to remind myself that we were all created to live forever. It’s hard to lose someone who really cared about you.
May she rest in peace.