The Best Mother I Ever Had Lived Next Door

Without my mother by choice, I got to be another blonde daughter of JoAnne.

The Best Mother I Ever Had Lived Next Door Courtesy Of Author

I was two when my family first moved into the house next door. I was too young to remember meeting her, but I've only ever known a life where JoAnne existed in it. She was the kind of next-door neighbor who would walk over food when one of us was sick, and walk me home if it was dark. I remember a lot of banana bread baked in tiny loaf pans on paper plates wrapped in colorful plastic wrap. I have drawers full of tiny loaf pans now.


JoAnne JoAnne | Courtesy of her daughter, Tracy

JoAnne baked cookies. She decorated for Christmas the way a child would. Christmas was her favorite holiday and I thought that’s what would be revealed if I could unzip her and peek inside as to what made her. I imagined lights and bows and frosting and sugar and songs and silly dances living within her.


She was dressed in sweatpants and visors. She wore clown costumes for the kids on Halloween. She cloaked herself in colorful shapes as if her purpose on earth was to bring color to all the rooms she entered. Her hair was dark and curly. She had two blonde daughters and I always thought this was one of the most interesting things about her. I didn’t know hair could do what hers did.

RELATED: I Found My Soul Mother On A Neighborhood App

I learned where potatoes came from in JoAnne’s yard. Reaching my tiny hand down deep into the cold dirt and finding those tubers waiting for me was my first magic trick. She knelt on the ground beside me, as happy and excited as I was. I still remember her beaming face under her visor. I still think of her every time I hold a potato.

Whenever it was someone’s birthday in our small town, JoAnne would spray paint a giant bedsheet to celebrate them and hang it at the end of her yard by the road. Lordy Lordy, Herb is Forty!, and the likes. She did it like it was her job and she never missed a person or a birthday. She is the reason why I never miss a person or a birthday.


If it was a pretty day with the sun doing its job correctly, I was forced to be outside and only outside. Never allowed indoors on a sunny day. Never being given directions as to where to go or what to do, just cast out from under the roof. I spent most of these days with Tracy, the youngest of JoAnne’s blonde daughters. We would run through the sprinkler in her yard, play house near the train tracks, and make mud cakes after the rain — Tracy talked me out of eating them when I thought they looked too much like chocolate. Not being allowed sweets in your home can make the child's brain play muddy tricks on you.

Author and Tracy in 1984 1984 | All photos of author and Tracy | All courtesy of Tracy

JoAnne had a dress-up chest just for play. I was allowed to open it and touch things in there. Nothing was off limits or out of reach at JoAnne’s house. There was a dress in there that Tracy and I could both get inside, no matter our age. More magic.


Kids in the same dress, six years apart 1986 | 1992

Whenever I was in a play at school, JoAnne would bring me a bouquet of Tootsie Pops. Never flowers. Flowers would die and didn’t taste good. Tootsie Pops are what a child would ask for if given the choice. JoAnne always knew how to make a child happy. I believe that was her job. When I moved away to college, she somehow would find out when I would be performing, and a box would arrive in my mailbox with a Tootsie Pop bouquet nestled inside. I carry on this tradition with my daughter and have passed it along to other mothers. I love the idea that JoAnne is still doing her job of making children happy.

RELATED: 6 Effective Ways To Raise A Happy Child


JoAnne was the crossing guard at my elementary school. I got to see her every morning and every afternoon. She wore a neon vest — another costume just for the kids — and would walk in silly ways and smile and wave to us. 

On Fridays, she would take a group of us to Carolina Cones for ice cream. I ordered my plain vanilla cup at the back of the line and she asked me if I wanted sprinkles. I’d never had sprinkles before. I didn’t think they were something I could have; I was told they were for decoration and absurd. I had sprinkles for the first time that Friday because of JoAnne. And because of JoAnne, my kids have always had the option of sprinkles — as many as they want.

One time I took a plastic egg from the pretend kitchen at JoAnne’s house. I don’t know why I wanted it so badly, but I did, and I snuck it home. The woman living in my house found out about it and scolded me — made me go over and admit what I had done. I walked in heavy shame those 200 feet to JoAnne’s back door. I had crusty tears rehydrated by new ones by the time I reached the door. I hated that I could disappoint her. I told her what I did, head low. She lifted my chin and hugged me tighter than I’d ever been hugged before. I didn’t know what a hug was until this very moment. JoAnne told me it was OK and if I liked it so much, I could keep it. And next time if I wanted anything of hers, all I had to do was ask.

Kids hugging on slide 1984


JoAnne’s soul was pure and good. She was made of magic and sweetness and joy. She made me want to be a better person and I’m still sad I never got to say goodbye to her. 

I never got to tell her that she made me feel like a good kid worthy of a hug. And that’s why I spent so much time there. I think on some level she knew. She knew what I didn’t because I was too young to know that what I had under my roof was not love. What I had was obligation swirled with inconvenience and shame. If she was as magical in the most-good-witch of ways, then of course she knew. That’s why she stayed with me for my first potato. That’s why she winked at me when I crossed the street after her safe wave. That’s why she let me keep the plastic egg. 

That’s why she sprinkled my ice cream and my life with color. Her home was an escape from the cage that was my own. And I still dream of her house. Never my own. I remember all the details about the way her home smelled, how there was always ice cream in the freezer, how the kitchen stepped down into the living room, and the way she would lie on the couch when we all watched TV. I remember studying her on that couch instead of watching the show. So casually present and content. It felt like I was seeing a superhero without her suit.

RELATED: The 39 Best Ways To Make Kids Feel Loved, According To 39 Parenting Experts


I was living in L.A. when JoAnne died of cancer. I knew she was sick and I knew she couldn’t beat it. I was so angry that this could happen to someone so good and beautiful and important. The whole town was glittered with spray-painted sheets and signs and wishes and prayers and love for this woman who was all of our mother. The town mourned when she let go. And there’s a street named after her by the baseball field where I can’t be certain, but I am fairly sure she worked the concession stand as well.

Bedsheets, spray paint, glitter, cancer, superheroes, eggs, sprinkles, ice cream, neon, Tootsie Pops, and even flowers, potatoes, curly hair, sweatpants and visors, Halloween and Christmas — always Christmas — make me think of JoAnne. Being a mother makes me think of her and I know she’d be proud of me. The way she mothered me is how I mother my babies and I am so very grateful that she lived next door to me.

Last month I opened my microwave and it started rotating on its own. This had happened before and we all joked about how there was a ghost that lived in our microwave. I wrote something about it and shared it on Instagram, and I got a reply from Tracy. She said she had the same thing happen to her. She’d moved houses and had different microwaves, and it would still happen. 

No one else claimed to have a microwave ghost, so Tracy decided, through the same jest and playful magic that her mom always had, that it must be her mom. We both marveled and giggled through the thought. If it was only happening to the two of us, it had to be! I believed her. The little girl in me believed her too. Tracy and I became little again at that moment. We had play. We had magic.


Kids celebrating a birthday 1985

The adult me believed her because I wanted nothing more than to believe that her mother loved me like a daughter so much that she came back to haunt my kitchen. It makes me laugh, smile, and cry at the thought of such a thing. My whole family believes it too, because they know how much I loved that woman. We open the microwave with a: Hi, JoAnne! Thanks for the burrito, JoAnne! A little too hot on the soup there, JoAnne!

Kids and JoAnne building a snowman 1988


That woman is so magical that she’s still making everyday life just a little more fun for me. That’s what JoAnne was, a colorful brightener, a beautiful superhero protector clown angel fairy, the creator of holiday magic and fun, and the best mom in the world. And now thanks to my microwave, and a life without my mother by choice, I get to be another blonde daughter of JoAnne.

RELATED: Why My Mom Is A Real Mom — Even Though She Didn’t Give Birth To Me

Abbey Wade is a chef, writer, and past actor. She’s been running the website Everyday Champagne for 17 years.