Real People Empty Nesting:

Joy Williamson, Nurturer Extraordinaire

By Robin Bonner

When Joy Williamson took a detour from her college studies to marry, she had no idea of the twists and turns her life would take. After her husband left her with four young children (the oldest 13 and the youngest a newborn), Joy thought her life was essentially over. How would she make it? She needed to support her family and always wanted to be a nurse—so despite all odds, she decided to pursue her dream. Always a mother, of course she could write stories about her own children finding their way in life. But, Joy has a story of her own, about a life that took her from being the mother of four to the med-surg unit of Kaiser Hospital, in San Diego, CA, to doing hospice home care. From raising her own children (and at one point “rescuing” her daughter and grandchild in Australia from a controlling husband/father), to working with the sick children and members of the surrounding community of a Mexican orphanage. As Joy will tell you, it’s important to "put your trust in God and roll with the punches."

EN: Joy, what was your childhood like? How many siblings do you have, and what did your parents do for a living? What were the highlights of your memories of life before beginning college?

JW: My father began a chicken ranch on Katella Ave., in Anaheim in the early 1940s (where Disneyland now stands). I helped gather, wash, and pack the eggs. Eventually, on weekends I would gather eggs—and at one point, we had 40,000 hens! Our family was very close, but we weren’t openly affectionate. I have one sister, and as kids, we fought a lot. (She is two years older.) Now, however, we are good friends.

EN: Tell about your young adulthood—how did you meet your husband?

JW: After high school, I graduated from Orange Coast Junior College with an associate’s degree. I was to go to UCLA School of Nursing in 1958, but I married instead. I met my husband on a blind date while still in high school. He was handsome, but other attributes were missing, which I didn't recognize until later.

EN: How did you come to study at Modesto Junior College and pursue your nursing career?

JW: When my husband left me, my sister and her husband helped us move from Apple Valley to Turlock, CA. My four children and I lived with them for a summer. I applied for welfare, and we got an apartment of our own. After two years of living on welfare, I knew I needed to find work. Despite my job search, though, nothing came my way. Then I saw a pamphlet advertising studies at the local junior college. I thought, if I can pass anatomy class, then I'll go on to nursing school.

I rode the bus to register. However, just as I arrived, the registrar closed her book and said, “The class is closed.” I stood and cried. (I was 36 years old.) A man behind me said, “Lady, just show up.” So, I showed up for the night section. There were 75 students for a class roster of 25. The instructor said, “If you're here and not registered, please do not return.” Next week, I returned to a class of 50. The instructor said once again, “If you're here and not registered, please do not return.” The following week, when I arrived for class, there were 35 students. The teacher said, “Okay, you all can stay.” Twenty-five students finished the class, and I was one of them. I received an “A” for the course.

Then came inorganic chemistry, also a night class. (My oldest daughter, now 15, stayed with her siblings while I took classes.) The teacher said, “If you haven't had algebra in the last five years, please don't return.” I had had algebra 20 years earlier. So, I re-studied the algebra as hard as I studied the chemistry and again received an “A.” I spent the following two years as a full-time student in nursing school.

EN: What was life like raising your children? When your marriage broke up, did you see it coming? How did you manage as a single mom?

JW: My marriage was not a good one. Although my father set us up with a chicken business just after the wedding, my husband neglected the work, so I tried to keep things together. I took the children out with me to gather eggs (we had two kids at that time). We moved every two years or so, trying our hand at a new business each time. At first, my husband would always excel, but then he would chase other women (sometimes more than one) and neglect the business. I thought if I loved him enough, all would work out. It didn’t.

In the meanwhile, the children and I had a lot of fun doing things together. When my husband finally left, I struggled. There was the welfare check, which covered food and medical expenses, but simple things (like toilet paper) were such a need. My sister let me clean her house for gasoline money. She also helped me out with necessities.

EN: How did you decide to pursue your dream of becoming a nurse? What about juggling going to school, working, and keeping heart and soul together at home while doing it?

JW: I wrote in my bible in 1972 that I would become a nurse, speak Spanish, and work in Mexico. I wanted desperately to be this person that I dreamed about. I had three children at this time and my marriage was very unhappy. Two years later, my husband left, and two years after that, I began nursing school on a full-time basis. I was able to manage it because I was on welfare and had a two-year-old at home. As for strength, I was and am a Christian, and I believe the Lord provided it. I remember getting up at 3 a.m., so I could study when the house was quiet. My oldest daughter, then in high school, helped me tremendously. She got the baby ready in the morning for the babysitter to pick her up.

How I found the babysitter is another story. The plan was for my sister to care for the baby. There was one hitch, though: She lived nowhere near the college. Then, one day, as I sat at my son’s baseball game, I found myself chatting with the woman next to me, and she seemed interested in my life. Her son was also on the baseball team. She asked who was going to watch the baby while I went to school. I explained our plan and its drawbacks. I never dreamed that she and her husband would come over the next day and say that God told them to take care of the baby for me. I was dumbfounded but saw this as of the work of the Lord, and I trusted that it would work out. I told her I wouldn’t be able to pay her. She said she didn’t expect any money. So, she babysat my daughter for three years without pay, and my family still visits her when in Turlock.

EN: What were your first empty-nesting experiences like, as your oldest child left home? Tell us about your part in her marital “adventures.”

JW: My first “empty-nesting” experience was when I left my oldest daughter at college, in Riverside, CA. She had attended school in San Diego (near where we lived) for two years but wanted to get farther away from home. I had leaned on her heavily over the years, and I think she just needed a break—to be free of my dependence on her. In fact, as I dropped her off, I sensed that she'd never return home to live. I sat in the parking lot and cried my eyes out.

I called her in a few days and she told me she had met the man of her dreams and wanted to get married—immediately! He was a registrar at the college; she met him the first day. He waited several hours for her to return to her dorm that night, and they talked. She said she did not recall seeing him at registration, but he remembered her. He brought her flowers, candy, and presents over the next few weeks.

I went to meet this man. He was a few years her senior. He was Iranian and good looking. He said he was not Muslim and that his family didn't practice any particular religion. He said he himself was a devout Christian. I insisted they come to San Diego and counsel with my pastor, and they did. My pastor interviewed the boyfriend said he seemed honest about his life. They were married six months later, on campus. Many years later, my daughter told me she knew she had made a mistake that night. Evidently, on their wedding night, her husband wasn't paying any attention to her, so she began to work a puzzle. He grabbed the puzzle, threw it across the room, and said she should be paying attention to him.

They both graduated from Riverside Baptist College. Over the next several years, they moved around a lot, living with me for about 6 months, then in Germany, Iran (3 times), Ireland, Canada, and Australia. For about 5 years, I didn't know where they were. I thought they were living in Iran permanently and I would never see them again. Eventually, my son-in-law forbade my daughter to contact me. He said I was evil and would interfere. She said he told her that she was mentally unstable and accused her of not being a good wife.

Then there seemed to be a change. My daughter contacted me from Germany and said her husband wanted me to rent a time-share in Switzerland so we could visit together. I was making enough money to now afford this trip. I did so, but a few days before my departure, I received a call that the family had moved to Ireland. I had already booked my trip, so I decided to go to Germany alone (and I have always been so glad I took the time for that beautiful journey). Before returning to the States, I bought a round trip ticket to Ireland and planned to visit for a few days. While I was there, my son-in-law suggested that we buy property together there and open a “bed and breakfast.” We looked at property. Then one evening, we were sitting talking, and he attacked me verbally. He said I was evil and he could see why my husband had left me. I knew then that we would not buy property together.

In fact, before I left, my daughter and I got a moment alone in a public restroom. Her husband was standing right outside. She kept flushing the toilets to drown out our conversation, and she admitted that her marriage was horrible. (If her husband verbally abused me, I asked her, what was he doing to her?) She wanted to get out of her marriage. I returned home, and they moved to Australia. We corresponded the next two years by e-mail.

Then, one of the professors at the university (also Iranian) e-mailed me as well, saying I should come and help my daughter—that she was in danger of being murdered by her husband. My daughter was a computer lab technician at the University in Melbourne and could e-mail me without detection. She asked me to help her and my grandson (11 by then) to return home with me. I had already been planning a visit to Australia.

I arrived for a month-long visit, knowing I would be helping them escape. My son-in-law was suspicious and wouldn't leave us alone together. I was determined to see Australia, though, which we did. When it came time for us to leave the country, my daughter said she needed to make a withdrawal from their bank accounts. (She had earned a good salary over the years and would need money to get established, but of course her husband “controlled the purse strings.”) My son-in-law-didn't want to let us go, but I said I needed gifts for my grandson and thus needed to go into the city. He kept the boy, and we traveled by train to the bank. After much red tape, the clerk gave my daughter vouchers for $50,000, which we were able to cash.

On the way home, I noticed how pale she was. “What’s wrong?” I asked. She said her husband would see that she had taken money out of the accounts. At the airline ticket office, the clerk said there were plenty of seats left on a flight out of the country the next day. My daughter phoned her boss and asked him to call her husband into work the following afternoon. (He worked in the same computer lab, to “keep an eye on her.”) Her boss had told her that any time she needed help, she just needed to ask. He had witnessed her husband forcing my daughter to sit in the hall with her son while her husband was working, and if she was working, the husband sat in the hall and watched her. He accused her of “showing her teeth to the men.”

I kept that money strapped to my body at all times. I became short of breath and had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day, my daughter was afraid the bank had sent a receipt in the mail. She said she couldn't go out and look in the mailbox (her husband wouldn't allow it). So, I went and looked while he was in the shower. No mail yet. When he came out, he went to the mailbox and brought in the mail. I was playing scrabble with my grandson, and he said, “Nana can't you spell anything but CAT?” Little did he know!

A letter from the bank was on top. My daughter was able to slip the letter behind the buffet table. My son-in-law asked, “Where is the note from the bank?” She said, “I don't know. You will be late for work. Look when you get home.” As soon as he left, she called a co-worker, asking her to let her know when her husband arrived at work. We locked all the windows and doors and my daughter began to look for their passports. (Her husband changed the hiding place every few days.) Thank God the passports were not moved the previous day. I started to cry, and she called a taxi.

We were on our way. At the airport, we learned that the flight from Melbourne to Sydney was full, and we had to wait until the last call to be able to confirm our seating. Two seats were available. Then at the last minute, a seat was found for me, too. I was afraid that security would stop us in Sydney (my son-in-law still had time to notify the authorities that we were kidnapping my grandson), but when we got into the air there, we were free. I commented to my grandson, “You must be so sad to leave your father!” He said, “I feel like a bird let out of a cage.” (His father had kept him isolated from other people; his mother home-schooled him.) After our arrival in California, my daughter had to fight the urge to return to her husband. She received some counseling and was told that her husband probably suffered from a personality disorder that included paranoia, and this seemed to help.

EN: How did you become involved with Cristo por Su Mundo Orphanage? How long ago was that, and how has the relationship evolved over time?

JW: When I retired in 2000, I immediately went on a medical mission to Thailand. On the flight over, I sat next to a doctor who had heard the story about my desire to work in Mexico. He said, “I know where you need to go.” So, I began to ride with him monthly (a two-day trip) to the Cristo por Su Mundo (Foundation for His Ministry) Orphanage, in Vicente Guerrero, Baja, Mexico. He’s a pediatrician and treats the children of the community. That was the beginning. I traveled with him for a year on those monthly visits and worked as a nurse in the clinic. Then, I began to want to stay longer, so I stayed a month at a time, then two months. Housing is available on the grounds for volunteer staff.

Two years ago, I began to visit patients in their homes. I was a hospice home-care nurse for 12 years—it is my passion. Wound care is my specialty, and I see patients who are mainly bed bound and have open pressure sores. One of my patients is a 20-year drug addict. When I am present, he follows my guidelines, but when I’m not, he goes about his day not remembering what he should do (an ongoing pattern). Over time, though, this young man has made a commitment to follow the Bible, which he believes is the inspired word of God. He is enrolled at the Bible school on the orphanage grounds. For two years now, he hasn't returned to drugs. He now has full use of his arms and is able to change his position.

All three of my “Bible notes” have now come true: I am a nurse and an intermediate Spanish speaker, and I work in Mexico.

EN: Where are your children in their lives now? How much are you involved with them?

JN: My oldest daughter (50) lives in Fresno. She recently remarried and acquired two stepchildren (having divorced her first husband following her escape from Australia). She says her dreams are now complete, as she always wanted other children. She works at Fresno State University as a grant and budget manager for the Office of Community Development.

My oldest son (46) lived in Fresno while his children were growing up. His wife divorced him recently, and he now resides in Kentucky. His kids lived mostly with him this past year. Currently, he is an adjuster for Farmers Insurance and a member of the Catastrophe (CAT) Corps. (CAT adjusters move into an area that has experienced a natural disaster and handle the claims personally. They stay until all claims are recorded, which may take several months.)

My third child, a daughter (44), lives near me. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia while in high school. Having ended a traumatic marriage, she now lives alone. Today, she is doing well and has been able to get off many of her medications, which had causing horrific side effects. She is an artist and recently sold one of her drawings to Scrubs & Co. (a medical uniform manufacturer). Her designs portray cats having a summer barbecue (grilling, skipping, lying in the hammock, playing ball, etc.). Cute!

My youngest child, a daughter (36), lives nearby with her husband and six of their kids. (When they married, he had three kids and she had two, then they had two together.) I help with these children almost weekly when I am in town. She is a Mary Kay consultant. Her husband manages an AMC theater.

I am very involved with all the families. As you have read, there have been many problems, and the outcomes have not always been the best. I can say that my Lord has given me the strength to continue and always be there for my family.

EN: How many grandchildren/step-grandchildren do you have? Tell us about your relationship with them and in what way you are a part of their lives and they a part of yours.

JW: I have 12 grandchildren: 7 natural and 5 through marriage. One grandson has been living with me for four years now, while attending college. He and another grandson accompanied me on a road trip to Sedona, AZ, a few years ago. We had a great time! Four grandkids live in Fresno, CA (about five hours north). I visit them two or three times a year. I am just getting to know two of the step-grandkids who live there. I see the six kids (ages 3–17) who live near me, in the San Diego area, several times a week. The younger ones are here more often. One step-granddaughter traveled to Palm Springs, CA, with me for a week, and three of the grandkids from Fresno met us there. I have taken several of the boys on backpacking trips for a week in the Sierra Nevadas. Last summer, I took two grandkids to Lake Henshaw, CA, for a week, and another grandson met us there. I’m really enjoying grandparenting!

EN: What advice can you give to new empty nesters?

JW: Regarding the children, I encourage all readers—especially empty nesters—to keep your opinions to yourself unless asked. (I don't always follow my own advice!) Listen a lot. Forgo some of the things you want to do in order to spend time at ball games, and so on. Keep busy doing something, whether it’s volunteering or keeping in touch with people by phone or e-mail. Explore your spirituality—get involved with God.

Robin Bonner is editor of Empty Nest. For more about Robin, see About Us.

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