My grandmother, Bernice Hester Johnson, was a part of my life from the day I entered this world. She lived about a quarter of a mile from my parent’s house during many of my youthful formative years, and even when she lived elsewhere there were frequent visits.
So, I thought I knew her pretty well, but it was only after her death that I realized how much I didn’t know. I had never stopped to really think about that fact that she had lived 52 years before I was even born. I knew next to nothing of her formative years or how they shaped not just her, but also the rest of the family through her.
I knew that God and Family were her two great loves. After all, she was in church every time the doors were open and in addition to the obvious displays of love for her family members, she always insisted that everyone make plans for family reunions (and wasn’t afraid to send us on a guilt trip about the ones we didn’t attend).
However, I didn’t know about many of the circumstances of her life, and how they shaped her two great loves, until my cousin Karla McGuire gave a brief history of her life at the funeral.
I knew that she had grown up poor, but never thought too much about it. In my mind pretty much everybody in that era grew up poor, especially by today’s standards, so it all seemed relative. But when I learned that in addition to facing poverty, she lost her mother at the age of 6, I started to realize that there was a lot more to the story. She was the oldest child and suddenly became the de facto caregiver of a family of six (her father was busy earning a living for them and there were four younger children).
Her father built her a stool so she could reach the kitchen counter. On that stool she washed dishes and prepared food -- making the first of who knows how many batches of biscuits she cooked in her life. No wonder she impressed me with her cooking skills. By the time I was old enough to eat solid food, she had already cooked a couple zillion meals!
I happen to have a son who will turn 6 in a couple of weeks and while he has on occasion stood in a chair to help me mix up some pancake batter, I have a hard time picturing him taking over the bulk of the cooking duties. That helps me put my grandmother’s childhood in perspective.
I also didn’t know that after graduating from high school she put her own ambitions aside to help her younger siblings earn college degrees.
I also never fully appreciated the fact that as she was turning into the wonderful woman I would come to know and love, she was living through the Great Depression and two world wars.
When I was growing up the only thing I had to complain about was the fact that our TV antenna could only pick up two stations and my friends who lived up town had cable. (Thanks for not slapping me silly on the spot, Mom.)
There were other things I didn’t know, too. I didn’t think she even knew the difference between a basketball and a baseball, but she actually coached a high school basketball team when my aunt was a freshman. She also helped my aunt and my mom advance all the way to Chicago and become national 4-H champs. Talk about a diversity of talents – she had them!
There were also things that I did know about her, but never fully appreciated.
My uncle was in a terrible accident at the age of 13, which resulted in her having to care for him in a special way right up until the day her Alzheimer’s got so bad that she had to move into the nursing home. A second accident also landed him in a nursing home around the same time. He was on the other side of the state, but died the day after her funeral. We sort of think Grandma got to heaven and told the Lord that He needed to call him on up, too, so she could continue to take care of him.
When she was in her mid 40s, she adopted that uncle’s son and once again did a wonderful job of providing a loving, structured environment for a child to grow up in and become a decent, honest and honorable person.
Life and Love. Protection and Perseverance. … God and Family. What a legacy. May we live up to even half of it!