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.

Her towels, her house

A pair of colorful beach towels, folded so that they resemble books on a shelf, reside in my coat closet. I have left them there, undisturbed, for almost a year now. They belonged to my grandmother. She died a year ago today.

Oddly enough, I have strong memories of these towels. Ma-Maw would wrap us kids up in them when we’d dash into their house from the lake. We’d be shivering in the freezing house, dripping all over her floors in our Disney one-pieces, and she’d have a stack of these big beach towels by the door to fold us in.

The towels came into my possession when my mother gave me three framed prints from Japan that lived in my grandparents’ house.

Home, August 2016
One of the prints.

I had always loved these prints, as a child, because of my study of Japanese, and I was honored to receive them. To protect the frames in the car, Mom had wrapped them in these two towels.

When I unwrapped the prints, shortly after her funeral, I burst into tears in my dining room. Not because of the art but because of the towels. The towels smelled exactly like her. It was as if she was suddenly in the room next to me. My eyes still swim with tears when I remember this, which is strange, that the mere memory of a scent could produce such a strong reaction.

The towels don’t really smell like her anymore. Over the past year, they’ve absorbed our scent, whatever it is (probably a mix of old books and German shepherd dander), and lost hers. But if I bury my face in them, nose deep into the well-worn fibers, I can pick up the faintest hint of her.

I am not sentimental about objects. I throw everything away with gleeful fervor. But these towels, weird as they may be, may always live in my closet, untouched, unused.

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Me, in front of their house, in August 1995, apparently.

The last time we saw my grandparents’ house was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. All 10 of us grandkids went together, as a final pilgrimage to the house that we so adored.

We silently split up and wandered through the house, each of us taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved: And I remember how sad and somber it felt, because she was not there. The house itself seemed to wilt. There were mildewy patterns on the gingerbread trim. Even the shadows seemed gloomy. The things that were once cute—a concrete owl on the front porch, her numerous rabbit figurines—now were strange and sad.

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The last time we saw the house. March 2016.

“It was as if the house knew they weren’t living there anymore,” I told my mother, and she agreed. The house took on a grief of its own.

The house is sold now, and I am glad of it. Not only because of the needed income for my grandfather but because it would be horrible to keep thinking of it empty, without the two of them. The house needs a new life, just as we do.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of her. I don’t expect to. But it is comforting to remember her, in all of the ways that she resurfaces in my life.

Suffused

Heading to their first home in Spartanburg, SC; Sept. 1953
My grandparents, heading to their first home together (in Spartanburg, SC), September 1953.

I’m working on a project about my maternal grandparents’ love story right now, which basically means I’ve been spending a lot of time hunched over a scanner, weeping. This photo, in particular, just wrecks me. I can’t look at it for too long or I will summarily lose it. He is so handsome and casual, and she is so adorably plucky, perched there on the hitch between that proto-U-Haul and their car.

Why does old age have to be so cruel? I am absolutely crushed by the unfairness of it all.

I think about them, and my parents, night and day, without relief.

(Somewhat related: I’ve decided that I would like to die instantaneously, in a fiery car crash, when I am 75.)

In lighter news, we are constantly grateful for what marvelous friends we have and how much they love and support us and make us laugh and inspire us. This is the main reason we have no plans for leaving Charlottesville.

 

We are all falling

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, this June. Just because.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too—
all have this falling sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s always One whose gentle hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.

— Rilke

Unexpectedly, owing to my grandmother’s rapidly deteriorating state and a general lack of a contingency plan, my grandparents have moved in with my parents.

Mom called me yesterday to fill me in on everything. I feel weighed down and lost and helpless about it. Mom and Dad are so boundlessly generous and took them in with no hesitation or questions asked. Mom and Dad sleep upstairs in the guest room on the double bed now. We talked and teared up for a while, and I put down the phone and felt hollow and useless.

Predictably and gratefully, Kelsey called me some minutes later (presumably after Mom had filled her in), and then we talked about our joint feeling of uselessness and schemed about how we could be helpful at Thanksgiving. Kelsey is a source of compassionate comfort and strength in hard times. I am the eldest child, but even when I was young, I relied on Kelsey perhaps more than she ever relied on me. I still feel this way and look up to her in this essential, dependent manner. I am so thankful that she and Alex are so close by (it is worth noting what a marvel it is that she married someone as compassionate and kind as herself). When I think of them, I am filled with the conviction that I could turn to them in any form of need.

Inspired by an interview I read with an author, I am keeping a five-year diary (designed by Tamara Shopshin). It is very interesting to me to note the limited phrases and sentences that come to mind, at the end of the day, that I consider necessary to record.

Patrick’s wedding and Mother’s Day in NC

We spent the weekend in NC to celebrate Patrick’s wedding and Mother’s Day. It was so lovely to be with everyone; I only regret that the time seemed to fly by. Requisite photo dump!

Rehearsal dinner and wedding festivities

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Sexy sister & bro.
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Jak loves to ruin photo ops.
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Us. Playing along.
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Paul (best man), Mom, and Patrick (groom).
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Backup bridesmaids.
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#truelove
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Sisters ready to go.
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Mom surveys the landscape.
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Bro!
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Sisters, redux.

Family time

Kelsey loves dog wrangling.
Kelsey loves dog wrangling.
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Ma-Maw and Grace.

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With Cousin Emz.
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Sam and MM.
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Da-Dan is the best.
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Wry husband.
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Eden getting some fetching lessons from Juju.
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And Pyrrha gets some love from Emily.
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Finally, hot grandma on Jak’s new toy.

Monday Snax

Long weekends are such a gift! Yesterday, we had the pleasure of joining Andrew and Tara at her family’s farm in Rapidan, Virginia. We played with the beautiful Leah, swam in the pool, and planned our future farm commune. A lovely afternoon, and some more photos on Flickr.

Sweet baby Leah and her mama.
Andrew in the perfect pool.
One of the dozens of breathtaking farms in Keswick. We live in the prettiest countryside.

Oh, and happy Independence Day and a BIG welcome home to Grace, who has finally returned from her world travels! Hallelujah! We get to go see her this weekend and I CANNOT WAIT.

A lot of Snax with a lot of juicy watermelon wedges:

Miss USA: Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools? THIS is the greatest thing I have seen on the Interwebs in months. Tears fell from my eyes. You can’t write this stuff. After you watch that, please also enjoy Mackenzie Fegan & Co.’s hilarious response. (The Daily What and Got a Girl Crush)

When You’re the Breadwinner in the Family. The dynamics of the American family are shifting. Many newly married women I know are out-earning their husbands and yet it’s still a touchy subject. One of my all-time favorite bloggers has a beautiful and honest post about her own experience as her family’s primary source of income. (Sweet Fine Day)

The High Line. A mile-long urban park in New York. What a cool idea; looks like a great place to bike, run, or walk a few dogs. Jenna, from the Sweet Fine Day post above, has some pictures of her visit there with her family at the end of post. (Wolf Eyebrows)

From When Grandma and Grandpa Davis Came to Visit. If you’ve talked to me lately, you know that I’m not into childbearing ANY time soon. And yet I can’t help but melt when I see pictures of grandparents and their fresh grandbabies. Something about that interaction always gets me. (Rockstar Diaries)

America’s Progressive Catholics: Another Side of the Church. It’s not all anti-abortion rallies here. An interesting perspective on the small but growing group of Catholic Democrats. (The Atlantic: Politics)

Top Metros for Same-Sex Couples with Children. Do the results surprise you? They surprise me. Way to go, RTP! (The Atlantic: National)

Palin vs. Bachmann: A Poem-off. The stirring words of the Tea Party’s leading ladies, converted to poesy. (The Book Bench)

What America Looks Like: Variations on the Swimming Pool. A collection of photographs of the various forms of the pool around the country. Some are weird and jovial, others decrepit and haunting. (The Atlantic: National)

The Five Food Groups. Amen. (Little Brown Pen)

Lobsters Don’t Age. Um, hey, God? That’s weird. Why? (Broken Secrets)

Kari Herer. Dark, lush photos of beautiful bouquets. Can never get enough. (Design Sponge)

Better Book Title for Wuthering Heights. Truth! I’ve always thought that about this book, too. (Better Book Titles)

The 20 Most-Watched TED Talks. Will be adding these to my list of things to watch when I feel like killing time productively on the Interwebs. (TED blog)