Aunt Johnnie with my cousin Lisa at our family reunion in 2011.
Aunt Johnnie with my cousin Lisa at our family reunion in 2011.

One is fortunate if they can look back on their life and know of at least one person who only brought them joy and who loved them unconditionally. A person for whom it can be said that the lives they touched are infinitely better for their mere existence. Tonight, I lost one such precious soul and heaven gained a true angel in the passing of my Aunt Johnnie Young. She was a gentle soul, selfless, never aspiring to be the star but a gracious supporting player in my rowdy extended family on Goat Pasture Road. We celebrate with certain joy that she has joined her husband, my Uncle Frank Young and her son Bobby, both recently passed, as well as her own parents and much of our extended family who have gone before her.

It cannot be underestimated the power of love on a single life. We must remember one does not have to be a mother or the central figure in a person’s life to have a profound impact. Aunt Johnnie exemplified that for me in leaps and bounds. When my own parents had gone off their rocker, my mother in some mean, psychotic state or my father numb and oblivious to the dysfunction choking our family. When her own husband could be heard yelling and cussing a quarter-mile up the road, having what we all called a “Young Fit”. When the men of my family were off on some rampage with guns and hunting dogs trailing some would be burglar through the words in a true “posse.” When you felt lost or that you were very small and significant Aunt Johnnie was there with a hug and a smile and her steady reassurance. She personified “normal” for me, a tremendous gift in a family of eccentrics and larger than life personalities.

So loved was she by all, I don’t believe anyone in my entire family ever uttered an unkind word about her. Aunt Johnnie made the special times of my childhood even more so. She played the piano, as did I. From the time I was a little girl, remember many Christmases sitting with her on the bench at the old upright piano and playing and singing Christmas carols together. She was a fabulous Southern cook who always seemed to have something simmering on the stove when we dropped by. She made incredible Persimmon Pudding, the persimmons freshly picked from a decrepit old tree in the side yard that I imagine my grandmother must have planted decades before. Delicious cakes and rich pies. She spoiled us with her cooking.

All babies loved her. I remember her taking my own son Brennen into her arms when he was small and fussy and how she could soothe him with her calm demeanor. She loved to read my writing about the family and my adventures since our move to the city and I always sent her copies of anything that was published, especially since my own mother was gone.

Aunt Johnnie was a “healer” and was well-known in our family for skills of “talking” the itch out of poison oak and the fire out of burns. Numerous times, as a child, I would be afflicted with poison oak or ivy that I had caught playing in the woods and Aunt Johnnie would lay her hands on me gently, rubbing them so softly back and forth, whispering barely audible words that no one could understand. I found what she did fascinating. When I went to visit her last month the day after her son died, she was unable to discuss her loss and so we talked about other things. I asked her about her “healing” work. She was supposed to have passed the gift down, but never did. It had to be a man, she said, and I could only think how all the men in that part of the family were too busy hunting or working or fixing things they never wanted to learn such gentle skills. I asked her where her gift had come from, because it was not something in her younger years that she would talk about. She told me it came from the Bible, from the belief that through God a person’s hands could be used for healing. I thought about that tonight as I sat beside her holding those hands that have grown so much smaller than mine over these fifty years.

She’s been in a nursing care facility for a little over a year, but I was fortunate to visit her when she was in better health not long after my Uncle Frank died. My sister and I sat in her warm kitchen which was never especially clean or tidy, given the old wood stove that heated the house and her shy, shaggy dog “Booger” lumbering around behind the furniture shedding dog hair. It was sunny and cozy that cold afternoon but the kitchen was filled with warmth and light, even in the aftermath of her loss.

She was strong in a way different from the men of the family. She outlived her oldest, my cousin Bobby, by little more than a month. How difficult it must have been to go on, for these few years and this past month, after losing two of the most important people in her life, but she did, with the same poise and grace that exemplified her entire life. Thank God for special aunts, for special people, for loving souls and gentle spirits. Thank God for my Aunt Johnnie! We celebrate her transition to another life and know she will continue to watch over us. We love you and we will miss you.

Love, Tootie