Joe Mayhew may have departed the world in June, but he was still a presence at
Chicon 2000 a few months later. There was a wake for him there, and the reading of
his name, at the Hugo Awards Ceremony, as the winner of the Fan Artist Hugo Award
was an emotional moment for all of us there. It's likely Joe's presence will
continue in fandom, and not only from the amount of artwork he's done that's still
to be published. Joe's influence on other fans was as large as he was, as the
following article shows.
What can you say about a man who saw the funny side of dying from Mad Cow Disease?
For starters, you probably can't say as much as he would have said. People wouldn't stand for it, coming from someone else. If Joe'd been standing next to me at his funeral, though, I would have heard some one-liners that never could have come from anyone but him. And it was only after we lost Joe that I started to know why.
I'd known Joe in fandom for several years. Probably ten or more -- sometimes the beginnings of things aren't obvious. What I seem to remember is looking at a pile of his illos and realizing that Joe had a viewpoint that I really liked. He looked at things I saw every day and saw ways of twisting them just enough to make them off-kilter. In addition to that, it seemed that a room with Joe in it had more potential for fun. To some, it seemed that Joe was full of himself, and maybe he was, but he couldn't have been that much fun to be around without understanding the people he was with, and finding what made them laugh.
While Joe was still sick, I wondered whether he was wearing himself out supplying art. My reply came on May 26, when Joe's friend Elspeth Kovar wrote to me:
"Kip, in answer to your remark about his work, no, I don't think that cartooning wore him out. Joe creates cartoons the way trees create leaves; it is part of his nature and he's delighted when they bring pleasure to others. His latest work can be seen in the Chicon progress report and is full of his usual sly humour. He has won one Hugo for best fan artist and is nominated again this year. His writing, which has been published in several magazines -- I've forgotten at the moment which ones, and perhaps someone else can supply the names -- has attracted less notice, to his regret. He has also reviewed science fiction, most notably in The Washington Post, and was the librarian responsible for science fiction at the Library of Congress until his retirement. He gives unstintingly of his time and creativity to fandom, and specifically to a number of conventions."
Seems odd now to see someone writing about Joe in the present tense. I still catch myself saying, "he carves these canes..."
"He can be stubborn, acrimonious, rude and arrogant. At least once I had to consciously and deliberately repress the urge to leap across a table and strangle him; the knowledge that I probably couldn't fit my hands around his neck helped. At the same time he has an incredible mind, full of a vast and deep range of knowledge. He is a wonderful talker and storyteller, richly humourous, and, as you reminded me, a warm and generous person. I have a full file of email from people saying how much he has done for them, how much they have enjoyed his company, which I will print out and take to read to him when I next visit. It is a pity that more people have seen his faults than his many attributes but even I, who love and respect him, know that his faults were often in the forefront. I ask that people try to do the same as I am doing, to overlook his failings and remember and celebrate the person he is at heart. I am sorry, for him and for them, that more people don't know that person."
That's the man I remember. His certainty could be maddening. One of the earliest memories I have is him driving someone else I knew to tears on an obscure point that was in her area of expertise and not his.
For me, Joe was a fountain of encouragement. He would ask to see my artwork faster than I could thrust it on him, and sometimes quoted my old punch lines back at me. And he was always carving something, and I'd ask him the same questions each time, and he'd explain again what sort of push knife I needed, and demonstrate the basic stroke. And it only took about eight years, but I did get a knife kind of like the one he had. I still don't have the dedication he showed, though. He was a one-man sawdust factory wherever he went, and I'm told that he loved carving in bed and had declared himself the world's largest mammal to sleep in wood shavings.
We lost Joe a little at a time. He was weaker at each convention I saw him at, and this spring I started hearing that he was in the hospital. Diabetes, stroke, something else... no one was sure, but he was slipping. The last theory I heard was that Joe was taken out by a rare form of Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease -- a relative of the 'mad cow' sickness that flared up a while back. According to Bill Mayhew, his brother, Joe's last word was "moo."
So, Cathy and I drove up to the funeral to pay our respects. I looked around for a coffin, and discovered that Joe's cremated remains were in a sort of cannister. Despite the fact that my father, a church organist, has played hundreds of funerals, I'd never been to one before. Once again, Joe broadened my horizons. I watched the proceedings with the interest of a novice, and hoped I was comporting myself properly.
Two of Joe's canes were at the altar, along with a cheery self-portrait. One of the canes was a sinuous abstract form, carved nearly hollow. The other a very narrative cane that he made for his storytelling brother Bill, with overlapping forms topped by a long-tailed bear, with little characters below it like a bearded bard, and a little egg with a beak just starting to poke out, with the words 'ONCE UPON A TIME' calligraphed below, wrapping around the stick several times. I didn't notice until Bill pointed it out to me that there was a band around the bottom containing 'BEOWULF' in carven runes.
We listened to harp music: appropriately, Joe requested it. The priest delivered a service that gave proper credit for his accomplishments. He stumbled on some of the words: 'fanzine', 'worldcon', and one or two others. Here I learned for the first time some of the details of Joe's spiritual quest. Seminary? Joe?? Yes, it's true. Hmmm. 'Reverend Mayhew'. 'Father Joe'. Alas, in Joe's phrase, he "flunked obedience school" and went into the secular world.
When the service was done, we went downstairs to the rectory where food filled the table and people filled the room. On the far wall from where we sat down (and were quickly hemmed in) were tributes and a large collection of photos. I looked at these for some time, as many of them showed a Joe Mayhew I'd never seen. Here was Joe the actor, decked out in Shakespearean regalia. There was Joe the seminary student. There was `60s Joe, with short hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a shaved chin. We talked, ate, talked some more, looked at pictures, and marveled at how little we had known this man.
A couple of months later, we journeyed up to Beltsville to talk to Bill and Maren Mayhew, and to take pictures of as many of Joe's carvings as I could. Bill let me pick out a cane from a small number that were going to different people, and when he found that I'm planning on trying woodcarving, he let me have three cane blanks that Joe had prepared but hadn't gotten to the fun part yet. I've taken a couple of tentative whacks at one of them, but so far have nothing to brag about.
I had had my own personal memorial for Joe the day before the funeral. Our classical radio station has a request show on Friday, and I had it in mind to hear something in Joe's honor. I stewed over it for a bit, then made a snap decision to call in and ask for the final, uncompleted, fugue from Bach's "Art of Fugue." I asked the host to pick one out that didn't try and finish the piece, and he obliged with an orchestral arrangement I hadn't heard before.
As it played along, I began to get into the piece more and more, with melodic lines threading through one another and building to grander and greater heights. Then I started dreading the final part where the music simply ends, in the middle of a bar, where the composer died. I stated thinking about Bach, who had probably written the whole fugue in his mind, including the part no other human has ever heard, but at the end his failing eyesight kept him from writing all the notes down. As I listened, I heard Bach's musical signature -- the 'B-A-C-H' theme, which he wove into this fugue -- and it reminded me again of Joe, and his invertible 'MayheW' signature, and other admirable bits of visual and thematic cleverness that Joe was so good at, and gave that extra lift to his work. The difference between a smile and an endearing smile.
Seconds later, the music up and ended, and the silence hit me like a wall, and Joe was dead, just like that. It was one thing to read the words that said he was gone, but when that music stopped, I knew it inside, and I closed my eyes there at work and missed him.
Title illustration by Kip Williams