A WOMAN OF HONOR
Jonita L. (Jay) Johnson
Memories, sweet and gentle - passionate and pure.
Memories, of a woman proud - beautiful and sure.
Memories of clean white sheets; rinsed in water blue.
Dried bright, blowin’ light, high in the Kansas heat.
Memories of kitchen smells lingering in the air;
Suspense, anticipation fillin’ every child’s head;
Fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni an’ cheese,
Hot buttered cornbread, and cold, sweet tea.
No one sits to eat at mama’s table without thanks to God.
Then later out on the porch,
Homemade ‘nilla ice cream, and fresh baked lemon pie.
No one is ever perfect we say; our humanness shows through.
But as I look back I see moving murals -
Memories of a woman who never gave up on me.
Memories that have a name; stored in the depth of my mind,
Memories that show up in the tender smile of her eyes.
My grandma, mama, my friend.
She was sitting at the piano, tears gently falling down Cinnamon colored cheeks, hair always in place. This beautiful lady coordinated in hats, tailored suit, purse, gloves and shoes - the lady was sharp/clean to the bone. She sat there playing and singing, back straight, eyes closed, and head lifted toward heaven singing, ‘I Trust in God, I know He cares for Me.’ I thought to myself, this surely must be what angels sound like.
It was 1955, and she was my grandmother. Secretly I wanted to be just like her. Of course I couldn’t say that out loud. She was so old, forty-three, and I was ten. This lady was tall, Black and proud, even before it was fashionable to be Black and proud. Originally she came from a small town in Iowa. She moved from the city life of street cars, cabs and busy streets, and the semblance of equality of Des Moines, Iowa - to another small town in Kansas; dirt streets, ditches with an occasional water moccasin hiding in ditches, dank and dark, or swinging from a tall walnut tree. The heat was extreme, and segregation was still openly practiced. But, mama took second for no one.
She didn’t march, wasn’t at the rally’s to give the Negro their rights. Mama lived. She wasn’t scared, wasn’t uppity, just secure. She knew who she was, and what she had to do to get me where I needed to go. Mama didn’t look down her nose at anyone, but her very presence demanded respect. God gave her a gift of love, and a talent to bring His love to all His people through music and song. She sang her way into the segregated white churches and some of the segregated white homes in this part of Kansas. Wherever she went she made a difference in the opinion that people had about Negroes as a race. She even opened up room for thought in some of our minds, that everyone White wasn’t a special demon sent to destroy the Negro. Mama taught people young and old to look at the person, not the race. She said, “You can’t forget wrongs that have been done, but remember, not everyone did it.” She would always say, “Trust God to guide your mind and heart to see the good and the bad of the individual. While you don’t ever stop thanking Him for where He’s brought us, don’t lose sight of how far you still have to go. Just be honest, and be the best.“ No, this small Kansas town in 1955 wasn’t ready for the likes of mama.
In so many ways I thought her life so mundane. Fixin’ breakfast, cleaning house, days for washing and days for ironing, days for picking vegetable, days for canning - over and over again, nothing really seemed to change – but the people. They sought her out, not for gossip, they knew she didn’t. They looked for her because they hurt. She was the preacher’s wife. She was a teacher, comforter, friend, and a lady who made the most wonderful music I ever heard.
We lived not far from the railroad tracks, and the men who road the rail would come looking for work to get food. I think our house had a reputation for good food, cause different ones would come often and say they heard about her cookin’. Anyway, I remember one day I came into the yard after school, and a man was sitting on the step by the door. He was minding his own business, but crying. Mama was practicing songs for the choir. He asked me real gentle, “Please let her finish?” We sat there together, he in tears and his own thoughts. Mama could always find something for them to do, even when we didn’t have much we shared. We were never completely without.
My grandma dried my tears, held me close when I was sick, sad or angry, and whooped by butt when I was out of line. She would even do the same for the teenage girl in church that found herself in unexpected trouble, or unsure about school, grades and family.
In this small town in, if a girl came up pregnant, she carried a reputation and so did her family. One more log to fuel the fire, as the old folks would say. With head held high, in 1961 mama brought me back from another school, another state with my own baby to finish school in Kansas. My family, through much sacrifice of love and time and more love, made it possible for me to raise my baby. She also gave me a bit of her wisdom and a stern warning, more like a ever present promise. Mama told me, “Everybody makes a mistake every now and then. But, if you want this baby, you will finish school, you will take care of your baby after your homework, and you will not have another one until you’re married and on you’re on your own.” She spoke and this granddaughter listened.
My grandma never turned her back on hurting people. People, especially women realized she was genuine. Mama didn’t just speak about how much she cared. She showed it. Mama would pick kids up for church, and go out of her way to make sure they had milk and donuts before they came to spend all morning at Sunday school and church. Sometimes she would comb and brush their hair. Mama welcomed people into her home and the church no matter who they were or what they did. She took special time with mothers who were trying to do right by their children; keeping them in church and active in clean activities so they wouldn’t be so prone to repeat grown folks mistakes. She was a sounding board to many women in our community judged as questionable. Mama even took care of a few women who got down on their sickbed; women filled with open hate and jealousy for her. Women so stubborn, who refused to let this stupidity pass until they were about ready to die. Why is kindness so hard to understand or accept? She could’ve talked real bad about them or turned her back in their time of need. But, mama believed in loving people into the truth of God’s kingdom.
One day, I was feeling like I was the lowest thing on God’s earth, and just the way she cupped my face and told me I was just as good as anyone alive, made me believe I could do anything. To this day I can feel the strength, authority and love in her hands while they encircled my face. My grandma refused to allow me to go to any backdoors for service. If businesses wouldn’t serve me because of the color of my skin, but would take my money, I couldn’t go to the backdoor, side-door or window. Definitely I couldn’t spend her money inside stores where I couldn’t try on clothes or hats before we brought them; just because my skin was Black. She said her money spent like everyone’s, and it didn’t have to be spent in this town. Shopping trips to Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas were so much fun. We shopped and ate in some of the biggest stores and restaurants I’d ever seen. Most of the things we bought, the local stores didn’t have them anyway.
No one looked or dressed like me, between our trips and my real mama in Minnesota (Different story, same strength). I remember my grandma going to the best clothes store in town (with me in tow) asking to see the manager or owner. Early when we came to Kansas, she clarified in person if this particular store had a policy of not serving Negro’s. Wow, did that leave him a little red and stumbling for words. He explained none of the Negro’s ever came into the store. He sort of became a personal buyer for mama, usually finding something very tailored, very special for a special lady.
The whole town wasn’t segregated, but enough of it was. Grown folk would try to keep conversation from the kids. But the violence, the hate, the looks, the whispers or the outright, “Negra, git out my way,” was enough to keep hate and distrust alive in our increasingly suspicious minds. Memories ugly, memories good refuse to die.
My grandma, my teacher taught me priceless lessons in experiencing people as they are. There were just a few times I saw mama angry. But one day I shall never forget. I come home from school with my left hand almost double its size. I’m left-handed, and was in fourth grade. The teacher didn’t think this was the right hand to use, so she hit my hand, many times that day to teach me to use my right hand. When mama, Sis. Simmons, as she was known in the Negro community, (Mrs. Simmons in the white), came back to the school, this teacher was very surprised. My teacher started to tell Frieda what she believed, and was instantly corrected as to what my grandmother’s name was. Then she started to tell mama how and why she hit my hand so many times. Mama sent me out of the room to wait in the hall. Over the protest of my teacher mama shut the door. I could vaguely hear mama’s voice, and it sure didn’t sound like angels singing, but like a roaring lion protecting her cub. I never got hit again, nothing ever happened to mama for being uppity or out of place, so I know God was watching over her REAL GOOD.
Music being a major part of mama’s life, our choir was always well received. She went on to establish a Men’ Chorus. Men came to practice once every other week from as far
as eighty miles. These men, under mama’s direction shined, and were known all over Kansas - The New Hope Baptist Church Men’s Choir.
Today, at ninety-two this young lady lives in Minnesota. She’s still praying, still teaching, and singing the praises and truths of Jesus Christ. Mama is one who has followed the dictates of Christ to go into the highways and byways, and preach the gospel. The songs she sang then and now; she still lives.
If there are people who have never read the Bible, but want to see in the flesh a living example of Christian love, they’d be blessed to meet her. In her living, she continues to allow the love of Jesus Christ to flow through her. Mama still teaches Missionary, plays piano during Sunday school, visits the sick, reform schools, jails, and wherever she’s called to go.
My Grandmother, now a great, a great-great grandma is the very example of this song –
“My living Shall Not Be in Vain.”
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