Allie Johnson was born 100 years ago today in a very rural part of Middle Tennessee. Her birthplace was near Center Hill Lake, only the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t build Center Hill Dam and create that lake until 1948, 30 years after she was born in 1918.
While Allie was her name, she was always Granny to me. She married Layron Hudson and they had three children–one of whom is my mother, a middle child, just like me.
When Granny died in October 2014, just three months shy of turning 96, the honor of eulogizing her was mine. And in honor of today being the 100th anniversary of her birth, I will share with you here some of what I shared on the occasion of her death.
Granny was one of eight children in her family. She played basketball in high school, but that’s as far as her education went. She did what her peers did: married young and became a mother early. She had a toddler son, a baby girl and was expecting her third child when her husband was killed in a traffic crash near Nashville, where they lived at the time.
She moved back where she grew up, into a house on her father’s farm, had her last child–my aunt, and shortly thereafter began looking for work so she could repay her parents for her house and land. Which she did. With no husband and three small children, she became a working single mother before the term was invented.
Until her babies were a little older, Granny earned money cooking for workmen building Center Hill Dam. They ate well, I assure you.
Eventually, she found a factory job where her sister-in-law worked. Because she had no car and her brother and sister-in-law also lived next door, she rode to work with them every day, and she paid her brother a little something every week for her transportation.
She operated a steam press in the factory all day, then came home to cook and care for her children at night.
For all the tough breaks life gave her, my first and last memories of her–and all of those in-between–are of as sweet, gentle and kindly a grandmother as a Hallmark movie could portray.
Years later, she was able to retire from the factory and I got to spend good bits of time with her in the summer and on weekends. She always made me feel she was proud of me, including as the entertainment when she, her parents–my great-grandparents–and other family sat in a circle of lawn chairs to solve the world’s problems while watching cars go by on the Smithville Highway.
I was an early reader, and she loved to hand the day’s junk mail to me, a 6- or 7-year-old, and have me read aloud from Encyclopedia Brittanica or Burpee Seed mailers. If nothing impressive came in the mail, she’d ask me to sing for her and the grownups. Which I did. “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” was a crowd favorite.
Granny is the reason I love fried chicken, fried sweet potatoes and fried green tomatoes. There are none better than she cooked.
I was in high school when she stunned me with her insight into boys. She would ask about my romantic life and offer her advice. I appreciated her kindness but thought she couldn’t possibly know about how boys “are now,” so long since she had dated. Until once when I took her advice and saw that she was exactly right.
And when it came to very important, super-secret stuff, Granny was more than a confidant. She was a vault. I talked with her about things I couldn’t talk about with anyone else, and she never, ever mentioned a word to others.
She was just as discreet when it came to lending money.
The summer after I graduated high school and was to go to college in the fall, I took a job as a shipping clerk in the same factory where she once worked. I had to pay my way through college, and I believed I had to start with a college-level wardrobe upgrade. Friends and I would drive 75 miles to Nashville to shop, but the timing of my paycheck didn’t always coincide with our shopping trips. I asked Granny for an extra $100 here and there, promising to pay her back out of my next check. She cheerfully lent me the money, and I cheerfully repaid her. And only she and I knew of the transactions.
Granny re-married late in life, so late that the marriage was abbreviated by her second husband’s death in his 80s.
She could have a funny way with words. As in, she sometimes used words that sounded enough like the intended that you knew what she meant, but you had to smile to yourself. Like “ointments” when she was talking about ornaments. Or “chimley” for chimney. “Ball rings” for earrings. “The mainest thing.” And with her accent, she could get more syllables out of words “than Carter’s got liver pills.” My favorite was her expression for shock and awe: “They Great I Ay-um!”
Granny also was known for a lack of filter–not mean or even unpleasant, just for expressing what was on her mind in a guileless way. She once said to a friend of my mother’s who had lost some weight, “I’ll tell you what: You’re just not as big as you used to be.”
I got my turn, too.
In the five or so last years of her life that were spent in a nursing home, she had increasing trouble recalling names and sometimes even recognizing faces.
Bill and I were visiting once, when he pressed her about who I was. She studied my face and said, “Why, that’s Gina!” I had only a moment to bask in the glow of being recognized when Granny patted my arm, looked me sweetly in the eyes and said, “You know, you’ve gotten just fleshy enough to be pretty.”
She wasn’t educated, famous or important to the world.
But when time came for her last ride down the Smithville Highway to her final resting place, the cemetery at Johnson Chapel Baptist Church–founded by her ancestors near Center Hill Lake–she was honored by people who didn’t know her. The old-school custom of stopping or pulling onto the shoulder of the road for a passing funeral procession is still observed in my hometown of Sparta. Following the hearse through town and down the highway, I smiled through tears at the sight of cars stopping for my sweet Granny, and I thought of how humbled she would have been by that paying of respect.
On Tuesday, I’ll remember her the way I do every year on January 1, about which one of her many superstitions caused her to say, “Whatever you do on New Year’s Day, you’ll do all year long.”
Toward a healthy, happy and prosperous new year, she never wanted to be sick, sad, angry or hungry on the first day of the year. I know it’s just superstition, but because of her, I always seek to have a good time and be with people I care about on New Year’s Day.
That’s what Granny would want me to do all year long.