Pete

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My beloved grandfather went to be with his wife, my dear Ma-Maw, on January 2. Following is the eulogy I gave for him at his memorial service.

It is a strange thing, to suddenly be without any grandparents, but I am so grateful for the ones I had and repeatedly comforted by my memories of them.

. . .

Pete Johnson was the only person I’ve ever heard of who successfully renamed himself as a child.

Kids ask to be called different things, and some nicknames stick for a few years, but I have yet to meet another person who chose a new name for himself as a child and then never went by another one.

When he was a little boy, he got in trouble for acting up in Sunday school. The teacher said, “Little boy, what’s your name?” He said, “My name is Pistol Pete.” She shook her head and said, “No, little boy, what’s your real name?” He answered again, “My name is Pistol Pete.” This happened a third time. “Little boy, what’s your name?” “My name is Pistol Pete,” he said, resolutely. “But… when my mother is mad, she calls me Edwin Rushing Johnson.”

From then on, until he died, everyone called him Pete. I never heard a single person call him Edwin.

This little anecdote could serve as an analogy for his character: Even when he was a small boy, he had a determination and clarity of mind that set him apart from his peers. Pete Johnson was a boy who knew who he wanted to be. And he grew up to be a remarkable man, a man I am proud and honored to have known as my grandfather.

. . .

Pete was a soft-spoken man, exceedingly gentle and patient. For most of our childhood, Da-Dan—as he was so named by us grandkids—was quiet. He would sit in his armchair and read the paper or a book of history, finish a jigsaw puzzle, or tend to the dishes as needed. But he didn’t say much. Then, in late 1999, he got cancer, lymphoma. And as he went through treatment and survived and his ring of hair gradually returned, it was as if the floodgates of speech had opened. He wouldn’t stop talking, telling stories and starting conversations. Once you touched on a topic he loved, he would just keep going, breathlessly, without pause. It was as if he was making up for lost time. This loquacious tendency continued up until his passing, and I think it surprised and delighted all of us.

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Listening to me talk about a book I got for Christmas (1994).

And it was a true pleasure to hear him talk. He was a gregarious and talented conversationalist and a memorable storyteller, just like all of his siblings. I won’t even attempt to replicate his soft and lovely Alabama accent. It was the kind of genteel Southern accent that seems increasingly rare. And he was a rare man.

In all my life, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was endlessly fair and good-natured. He never raised his voice or lost his temper. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never harsh. Never cynical. Never unkind.

He once told me a story about when he worked as a bag boy at a grocery store in Charlotte. He was the soul of politeness, even as a teenager, and he followed the rules. One day, an African-American woman came through the checkout line, and Pete said, yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am to her while bagging her groceries. His boss overheard him and rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you say ‘ma’am’ to her,” and probably something much worse. But, Da-Dan said, looking down at me, “Even though my boss told me that, I knew he was wrong. And so I kept saying it anyway.”

He had an obedient and compliant nature, but he knew when it was just and right to break the rules.

. . .

Edwin Rushing Johnson was born June 30, 1932, in Samson, Alabama, to Ralph and Delia Johnson. Pete was their third child, preceded by Lib and Buck, and followed by baby Joe. He grew up in Alabama and then, after graduating from Wofford College in South Carolina, returned to Charlotte to become a banker. It was in Charlotte that he met the love of his life, a Miss Lucy Land, at a church social. She had just rejected a date for being too short when she set her eyes on the lanky, dapper Pete Johnson, who was just the right height, according to her rigorous standards. He started sitting next to her in the pew during church and was so nervous that he held the hymnal upside down.

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Wedding day (September 5, 1953).

On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married here at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 42 years, and Pete served as the youth minister here. Later, they were faithful members for another several decades at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.

Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. From my vantage point, each of them carry on key qualities they inherited from their father: Betsy, or my Aunt B, shares his unwavering devotion to his family. My mom, Teresa, shares his deep sense of justice and clarity over right and wrong, and my Uncle Rush carries on his talent as a storyteller and his personal integrity. Pete and Lucy delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and in the 10 grandchildren that were to follow.

. . .

After their own kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to sleepy little Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. Most of our happiest childhood memories involved the summer afternoons and early evenings spent on the lake with Da-Dan, whether he was at the helm of that old tank of a pontoon boat or standing on the dock with us, patiently teaching us how to fish.

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I think I can speak for all 10 of us grandkids when I say that their home in Norwood held a very special place in all of our hearts. Whether it was gathering around the fire Da-Dan built at Christmas or hunting for Easter eggs in their yard in the spring or jumping off the dock at their big Fourth of July party, many of our happiest memories were at their house.

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In March 2016, after Lucy’s, or Ma-Maw’s, memorial service in Albemarle, all 10 of us looked at each other, and said, “We have to go. We have to go back to the house one more time and say goodbye.” So, Matt, Emily, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, Hunter, Pete, Parker, Mary Elizabeth, and myself—along with spouses Ashli, Guion, and Alex—all jumped in our cars to take a final pilgrimage. And as we headed down that familiar route to 46411 Sapona Lane, my eyes filled with tears: with gratitude, for the many happy years we had spent there, and for the home away from home that our grandparents had created for us.

Someone had given us a key to their house, and we unlocked the front door and silently split up. It was this magical, hushed scene: Each of us wandered through the house, everyone taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved. It was as if we were giving the house its final rites, holding a silent farewell ceremony to a place that each of us would treasure in our hearts forever.

. . .

Da-Dan had a soothing, magical quality with children and animals. They were drawn to him. Perhaps it was his gentle and quiet nature, but he could tame the fussiest baby or the most cantankerous beast.

One of those beasts was this mean-spirited black cat, Punkin. (Note the pronunciation: It’s not “Pumpkin,” but Punkin, the Southern way—named by my cousin Matt, who found the kitten on Halloween.) Punkin was a dreadful killing machine, a primarily feral animal. I once watched him leap several feet in the air to swat a baby bluebird out of the sky in midflight and then bite off its head. He would scratch or snap at anyone who came near him. He’d upset Ma-Maw by dropping the corpses of little baby rabbits on the doorstep for her to find. But when Da-Dan was near? He transformed into the sweetest little lap kitty. No one else could come near him, but with Da-Dan? That spiteful cat would curl up peacefully in his lap and purr for hours and hours. Indeed, Punkin was Da-Dan’s constant companion as he recovered from chemo and radiation.

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As wild children, we were equally drawn to him: He was an incredibly patient grandparent. In all the years we 10 grandkids spent with him, being rowdy and whiny and dripping lakewater all over their oriental rugs or throwing his carefully cultivated gravel into the lake or shooting down the neighbor’s rafts with BB guns, he never once raised his voice at us, never lost his temper. In most of the old snapshots from our childhood, Da-Dan can be seen in a corner, holding a baby in his arms or opening a present for one of the kids with his little pocket knife. As my brother Sam wrote to him on his birthday, June 30, 2006, in a note my parents found saved in Da-Dan’s nightstand at The Pines: “You are a grandpa people dream of.”

Da-Dan was a great-grandfather as well, and as an enduring credit to his memory, both of his great-grandchildren bear his name: my cousin Matt and his wife Ashli’s son, Covin Edwin Pierce Kemo, born June 24, 2016, and my husband Guion’s and my son, Moses Edwin Pratt, born May 9, 2019.

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Meeting Moses (November 30, 2019).

Moses got to meet his great-grandfather just once, this past Thanksgiving. Da-Dan was brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and when he spotted Moses, his eyes lit up. He reached out his hands and held him confidently on his lap as we talked. It was a short moment, but a sweet and meaningful one.

I look forward to telling Moses all about his great-grandfather as he grows up. We pray that Moses will have his gentleness, his deep sense of honor and respect for others, his love of justice, his skill in storytelling, his quiet but abiding faith, his long-lasting devotion to his family, and his legendary patience.

. . .

But as much as Pete loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was never any question about his ultimate love: Lucy.

It was always and forever Lucy. Their delight in and affection for each other lasted their entire lives. They were sweet and devoted and loyal, as was fitting, but they also had a great deal of fun; they were constantly teasing each other and joking together. Watching a marriage unfold like that, a union full of such energy and devotion and humor, makes a lasting impression on a child. Even a small child could look at them, as we all did, and know that this was a relationship built on an unshakable foundation. Pete and Lucy created a full life side by side, raising their three children, looking after their 10 grandchildren, serving at church, opening their home to others, and traveling the world.

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When Ma-Maw died, at the end of February 2016, a good part of his spirit died with her. It was as if he didn’t know how to be anymore. How could he be a person without Lucy? They had been married for 62 years. When I reflect on their marriage, I feel that I am able, for the first time, to begin to understand that mystical phrase from Genesis, of a husband and wife being “one flesh.” Lucy was a part of him, and he was a part of her. They were indivisible. You could not have Pete without Lucy.

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Toward the end, when he was asked what he wanted or needed, he would only repeat two things: I want to go home. And I want to see Lucy.

And now, praise God, he has done both. We can celebrate and give thanks for that, just as we give thanks for the gift of Edwin Rushing Johnson’s good, long, and loving life.

Lucy

My beloved grandmother passed away on 28 February. Following is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral on 5 March.

Young LucyAs we remember the bright and beautiful life of Mary Lucy Land Johnson—known by most as Lucy and known to me as Ma-Maw—it is important to note, up front, that her primary love language was baked goods. Pies, specifically. And cakes. Not many years ago, while she was battling cancer, in the course of an afternoon, she made twenty-two cranberry pies to give to friends and to the oncology nurses and staff at the hospital. Twenty-two pies! In a day. Her strawberry cake and her three-layer cream cheese pineapple cake were family staples. As you all probably know, Lucy was a true Southern woman who knew that one of the swiftest ways to love people was through food. And we can all confirm, she certainly made outstanding food. And more than that, she made her family and friends feel deeply loved and cared for throughout her life.

Lucy’s loving nature is what we will all remember her for. I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name another person who was as constantly brimming with hospitality and generosity as she was. Her sweet and incandescent smile, spreading over her high cheekbones and fabulously, miraculously youthful skin, will not soon fade from our collective memories.

Mary Lucy Land was born on April 26, 1931, to Clarice Fulcher Land and Harry Lynwood Land. She was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and though she lived most of her adult life in North Carolina, Virginia always held a very special place in her heart. When my husband and I were considering moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, she told me, “I prayed about it, and God told me that you should move to Virginia. It is, after all, God’s country.” She said in the secretive but confident voice of one who most likely had a direct line to God, which I believe she did.

She was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Amherst, Virginia, after her father died when she was 3. Her Aunt Mabel and Uncle Teap took care of her and one of her siblings while their mother supported the family—including Lucy and her older sister, Dot, and their two brothers, Elburn and Allan—by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.

Lucy was a fun-loving and independent girl, and she used to delight my sisters and I with tales of her (admittedly minor) teenage rebellions. Her mother, a devout Baptist, forbade Lucy and her sister, Dot, from wearing any makeup, so Lucy would sneak a tube of red lipstick in the pocket of her dress and put it on while she walked to school and then be sure to remember to wipe it off on her walk home. Lucy was also tough and energetic, and she served as captain of her high school basketball team—a fact that always impressed us grandkids mightily.

After high school, she followed her sister Dot to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she took business classes and worked for an insurance company. In Charlotte, she and Dot lived with a fun-loving group of single women who called themselves “Girls’ Town.”

It was there in Charlotte that she met a tall, handsome young gentleman by the name of Edwin Rushing Johnson, or Pete, at St. John’s Baptist Church. Another suitor had asked Lucy on a date, but she turned him down, saying, “No way; you are too short.” But then she pointed to Pete across the room and said, “But he is tall enough!” Soon, Pete and Lucy started sitting together in the balcony during Sunday services. Pete was so nervous to be next to the lovely Lucy Land during church that he would gallantly hold the hymnal for her—but upside down. And then they could be found chatting at ice cream socials and so on. Pete and Lucy started dating, and he would take her out every weekend he was home from Wofford College.

On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 30 years and then were faithful members for another 30 years at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.

covermaybeI won’t be able to make it to the end of this speech if I have to tell you about all of the ways that Pete and Lucy have demonstrated true love. So, suffice it to say, this was a marriage that we could all strive to emulate. The most significant lesson about love that I have learned from my grandparents is that there can be joy in sacrifice. They loved each other tirelessly, but they were always full of light and humor when they were together. Pete and Lucy were extremely generous with one another, but they also had a lot of FUN too. Watching them interact with and care for each other in these difficult past few years has been enough to break your heart but then heal it again—to realize that such a transcendental and holy love is actually possible on earth.  All of their lives, Pete and Lucy were tender and kind to one another. Yes, I am sure they squabbled from time to time—they were not perfect, but I think they came pretty close to it.

Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. They delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and I have to say, from my vantage point, Pete and Lucy did a pretty commendable job raising their children. Each one of them reflects their mother in a variety of ways. Betsy has Lucy’s fun, playful spirit and unflinching devotion to her family members; Teresa has Lucy’s deeply sacrificial nature and her tremendous gift of hospitality; and Rush has her gentleness and love of tradition and family values.

Pete and Lucy with baby Mary Elizabeth (Betsy)After the kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. They began attending First Baptist Church, where she volunteered with the church youth group and started the Fifth Sunday Luncheon. She also started working at the Cheer Shop at Stanly County Hospital, where she worked and volunteered for 25 years. Lucy also created and organized the hospital’s fundraising winter ball for years.

Pete and Lucy traveled all over the world together, often with Pete’s brother Joe and his wife, Suzanne. They especially loved Europe and visited France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, just to name a few. They even went to Morocco together, which I, for one, find very impressive. They took a cruise to Alaska and drove cross-country across Canada and the United States. During their cross-country treks, they would bring their famous giant white styrofoam coolers, and Lucy would carefully pack the coolers full of food and sandwiches to minimize the amount of time that they would have to stop.

On one of their favorite trips, they took the Orient Express across Europe with Joe and Suzanne and Pete’s eldest sister, Lib. It was Lucy’s birthday, and Pete had told the chef that she loved chocolate and raspberries. The chef brought out a giant silver platter with this enormous chocolate mousse and raspberry confection, and they all ate it so quickly that everyone felt queasy afterward. But Lucy maintained it was all worth it.

Lucy was an excellent seamstress throughout her life. She’d create Easter dresses for the girls, without patterns sometimes, and if you ever had a need for homemade drapes or quilts or fancy bedskirts, Lucy was your girl. She loved arts and crafts; whatever was in vogue, Lucy was crafting it.

She also had a powerful obsession with rabbits. She started collecting rabbit figurines and bunny paraphernalia in adulthood, and over the decades, she amassed a remarkable collection. When I was a little girl, I was looking for something to do while at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and so I decided to catalog all of the rabbits. I went from room to room with a pad of paper and counted all of the rabbits, and after about an hour, I had my grand total: 425 rabbits. Yes. In one house.

She loved shoes and frequently lamented her extremely narrow feet. She also loved putting together the perfect outfit. An “outfit” was an important sartorial construct for Lucy, and I loved that about her. Clothes were a carefully selected uniform, which communicated how much she cared about being with people and social events; she picked out the perfect lavender blouse to go with the white slacks and topped it off with her favorite bird’s nest brooch, and then she was ready for society. I don’t have to tell you that she always looked fabulous.

Lucy also probably singlehandedly kept her local Hallmark store in business. I think this may have been one of the only things that she and Da-Dan ever quarrelled about: how much money she spent on greeting cards. She loved the art of the emotionally perfect greeting card. Every year, at every birthday and holiday, we’d all get carefully chosen cards, each one with a sweet and personalized message from Ma-Maw and pertinent phrases meticulously underlined.

MM and Sam, boatingI would like to say that you have not known truly unconditional love on this earth unless you either (a) own a dog or (b) are one of Lucy Johnson’s grandchildren. Fellow grandkids, isn’t it remarkable to note that, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we have never, ever done anything wrong? According to her, we are sinless! We used to joke that Ma-Maw could have ended the Iraq war if we had told her that Saddam Hussein had insulted one of her grandkids; she would have taken care of him swiftly.

She adored her children and doted on her 10 grandchildren: From Betsy, Matt came first, and then from Betsy and Jeff, Emily; from my parents, Teresa and Jak, there’s me, Kelsey, Grace, and Sam; and then from Rush and Cindi, Hunter, Pete, Parker, and Mary Elizabeth. If you ever visited Pete and Lucy in Norwood, you may have seen what we called “the Grandkids’ Shrine.” It was a big round table in the formal living room that had dozens of photos of the 10 grandkids at every stage of life. Although I can attest that we grandkids are all far from flawless, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we were never anything but perfect.

One of Lucy’s many gifts was making people in her life feel special and cherished, especially on their birthdays and on holidays.

Grandparents through Grace's lensShe loved celebrating holidays and had an impressive store of decorations for her house at every major event. At Valentine’s Day, there were chocolates and hearts; at Easter, there were elegant baskets for everyone filled with candy and gifts, and a dainty “Easter tree” that we’d help her decorate with tiny, fragile egg and bunny ornaments; they hosted their famous annual Fourth of July gathering at the lake, and we kids would spend hours in the water and then everyone would gather to eat at tables on their wraparound porch. And then Christmas—Christmas was her magnum opus. She pulled out all the stops for Christmas. There was an immaculately decorated tree, seasonal food (a birthday cake for Jesus; Ruby Red grapefruit juice, sausage & egg casserole, and English muffins for breakfast; beef tenderloin for dinner), and piles and piles of presents. My brother Sam always liked to say that Christmas lived at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and that was in large part due to Ma-Maw working her holiday magic.

For many years, when we grandkids were young, Ma-Maw and Da-Dan would have us stay with them for a weekend on our birthdays. We looked forward to those visits so much; we were treated like little kings and queens. We got to go shopping with Ma-Maw; she’d dress us girls up and curl our hair; and then we’d play by the lake or go fishing with Da-Dan. We were served unlimited cake and cartoons, and we never wanted to go home at the end of the weekend. She loved playing with us and talking to us about our interests. I think she saved every little scribble and drawing that we ever made at her house. She was perpetually involved in our lives—sending us cards and letters and care packages when we were away at school—and coming to see us whenever we came back into town.

Grandparents through Grace's lensAnd she was never one to pass up a good time with her family; on a memorable day many years ago, we even convinced her to play street hockey with the grandkids. She ended up getting checked by a feisty granddaughter (I won’t name names) but popped right up and was very brave and cheerful about the whole incident, despite the fact that she chipped a tooth and had a black eye. In typical Ma-Maw fashion, while she was being nursed on the sofa, she suddenly sprang up and said, “Oh, but I have to go make the coleslaw!”

We who have been fortunate enough to know Lucy Johnson will continue to reflect her in our lives. A person cannot help but be radically changed by receiving that kind of unconditional love. She will not soon fade from our memories, and I pray that we can honor her by showing each other even just a fraction of the kind of love and hospitality that she lavished on us. We all remember her with grateful and humble hearts.