Dr. Joe Christmas was our family doctor for a long time. He took care of three generations in the Joiner family, even helped some with the fourth.
In December of 1975, my wife, Jane, and I moved from Valdosta to Vienna. I began working with my cousin, Rooney Bowen, who owned the local Chevrolet dealership as well as funeral home. Dr. Joe was a close friend of Rooney’s. He came by the Chevy place on a regular basis.
Sometimes he stayed for only a few minutes. Other times he would prop his feet up on Rooney’s desk, light his pipe, and take a much-needed break. On those longer visits, I learned a lot from Dr. Joe, things I otherwise would never have known.
Jane and I had triplets in 1978, Erin, Seth, and Carrie. Dr. Joe told me there must be something in the water in Third District, the community where I grew up, that this was the second set. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had never heard anything about another threesome.
Many years earlier, Doc had delivered three babies that belonged to Joe Louis James and his wife, Otha Mae. One of the babies didn’t survive, so most folks thought they had twins. Joe Louis James lived just down the road from my childhood home, close enough I could see their house from our yard.
I was out at the farm one Saturday, having a cold drink at Joiner’s Store. Joe Louis James stopped in for an afternoon break. We decided the triple births might be attributed to sweet potatoes and oil sausage, two foods that we both had eaten in large quantities.
Doc strongly embraced our theory. On many occasions he would grin and ask, “Neil, are you still eating plenty of sweet potatoes and oil sausage?” I would tell him I had decided it was best to leave them alone. Doc would take a draw on his pipe and say, “Well, son, that’s probably for the best.” We laughed about it every time. It never stopped being funny to the two of us.
About once a month Dr. Joe would decide it was time to pull for Cokes. Everyone who worked at Rooney Bowen Chevrolet, plus anyone else who might be around, would put a dollar in the pot. We would then buy bottled Cokes out of the coin operated machine in the shop.
We looked on the bottoms to see where they were stamped. A giant map on the shop wall told us whose bottle had made the longest trip. The winner took all, maybe ten or fifteen dollars. Nobody really cared who won. We enjoyed Dr. Joe running the game. He enjoyed certifying the winner.
Doc told me a story about Mama Joiner that was new to me. She was my grandmother, as well as Rooney’s. In September of 1969, when I was almost seventeen, she suffered a severe heart attack. She was taken to Dooly Medical Center, but only lived a brief time. Dr. Joe was in the room with her, along with a nurse, whose name I’ve long forgotten.
They saw Mama Joiner take her last breath. The nurse then left the room and headed down the hall. She only made it a few feet and came frantically running back. She fell on her knees and shouted with great panic, “Lord have mercy, Dr. Joe, that woman is coming in the front door!”
It was my great aunt, Lilly Noble Dunaway, Mama Joiner’s twin sister. They were identical twins and both wore their gray hair in buns. To those of us who saw them regularly, it was easy to tell them apart. To that nurse, however, it seemed clear that Mama Joiner’s spirit was not yet ready to leave.
Rooney told me another story from that day, a very special story. The funeral homes provided emergency medical service in our area back then. The hearses doubled as ambulances. Rooney got the call to go to Mama Joiner’s house. When he got there, Dr. Joe was already on the scene.
Her heart attack was bad. There wasn’t much to do other than provide comfort. That’s what Dr. Joe was doing. He was lying on the bed beside Mama Joiner, propped up on a pillow with his arm around her. Mama Joiner loved Dr. Joe. He loved Mama Joiner. They both understood it was more about the man than the medicine.
When I think about Dr. Joe, a lot of memories easily bring a smile. But that one memory almost brings a tear. That’s when I wish that we could pull those Coke bottles one more time.