My beloved grandmother passed away on 28 February. Following is the eulogy I delivered at her funeral on 5 March.
As we remember the bright and beautiful life of Mary Lucy Land Johnson—known by most as Lucy and known to me as Ma-Maw—it is important to note, up front, that her primary love language was baked goods. Pies, specifically. And cakes. Not many years ago, while she was battling cancer, in the course of an afternoon, she made twenty-two cranberry pies to give to friends and to the oncology nurses and staff at the hospital. Twenty-two pies! In a day. Her strawberry cake and her three-layer cream cheese pineapple cake were family staples. As you all probably know, Lucy was a true Southern woman who knew that one of the swiftest ways to love people was through food. And we can all confirm, she certainly made outstanding food. And more than that, she made her family and friends feel deeply loved and cared for throughout her life.
Lucy’s loving nature is what we will all remember her for. I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name another person who was as constantly brimming with hospitality and generosity as she was. Her sweet and incandescent smile, spreading over her high cheekbones and fabulously, miraculously youthful skin, will not soon fade from our collective memories.
Mary Lucy Land was born on April 26, 1931, to Clarice Fulcher Land and Harry Lynwood Land. She was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and though she lived most of her adult life in North Carolina, Virginia always held a very special place in her heart. When my husband and I were considering moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, she told me, “I prayed about it, and God told me that you should move to Virginia. It is, after all, God’s country.” She said in the secretive but confident voice of one who most likely had a direct line to God, which I believe she did.
She was raised on her grandparents’ farm in Amherst, Virginia, after her father died when she was 3. Her Aunt Mabel and Uncle Teap took care of her and one of her siblings while their mother supported the family—including Lucy and her older sister, Dot, and their two brothers, Elburn and Allan—by teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.
Lucy was a fun-loving and independent girl, and she used to delight my sisters and I with tales of her (admittedly minor) teenage rebellions. Her mother, a devout Baptist, forbade Lucy and her sister, Dot, from wearing any makeup, so Lucy would sneak a tube of red lipstick in the pocket of her dress and put it on while she walked to school and then be sure to remember to wipe it off on her walk home. Lucy was also tough and energetic, and she served as captain of her high school basketball team—a fact that always impressed us grandkids mightily.
After high school, she followed her sister Dot to Charlotte, North Carolina, where she took business classes and worked for an insurance company. In Charlotte, she and Dot lived with a fun-loving group of single women who called themselves “Girls’ Town.”
It was there in Charlotte that she met a tall, handsome young gentleman by the name of Edwin Rushing Johnson, or Pete, at St. John’s Baptist Church. Another suitor had asked Lucy on a date, but she turned him down, saying, “No way; you are too short.” But then she pointed to Pete across the room and said, “But he is tall enough!” Soon, Pete and Lucy started sitting together in the balcony during Sunday services. Pete was so nervous to be next to the lovely Lucy Land during church that he would gallantly hold the hymnal for her—but upside down. And then they could be found chatting at ice cream socials and so on. Pete and Lucy started dating, and he would take her out every weekend he was home from Wofford College.
On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 30 years and then were faithful members for another 30 years at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.
I won’t be able to make it to the end of this speech if I have to tell you about all of the ways that Pete and Lucy have demonstrated true love. So, suffice it to say, this was a marriage that we could all strive to emulate. The most significant lesson about love that I have learned from my grandparents is that there can be joy in sacrifice. They loved each other tirelessly, but they were always full of light and humor when they were together. Pete and Lucy were extremely generous with one another, but they also had a lot of FUN too. Watching them interact with and care for each other in these difficult past few years has been enough to break your heart but then heal it again—to realize that such a transcendental and holy love is actually possible on earth. All of their lives, Pete and Lucy were tender and kind to one another. Yes, I am sure they squabbled from time to time—they were not perfect, but I think they came pretty close to it.
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. They delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and I have to say, from my vantage point, Pete and Lucy did a pretty commendable job raising their children. Each one of them reflects their mother in a variety of ways. Betsy has Lucy’s fun, playful spirit and unflinching devotion to her family members; Teresa has Lucy’s deeply sacrificial nature and her tremendous gift of hospitality; and Rush has her gentleness and love of tradition and family values.
After the kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. They began attending First Baptist Church, where she volunteered with the church youth group and started the Fifth Sunday Luncheon. She also started working at the Cheer Shop at Stanly County Hospital, where she worked and volunteered for 25 years. Lucy also created and organized the hospital’s fundraising winter ball for years.
Pete and Lucy traveled all over the world together, often with Pete’s brother Joe and his wife, Suzanne. They especially loved Europe and visited France, Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, just to name a few. They even went to Morocco together, which I, for one, find very impressive. They took a cruise to Alaska and drove cross-country across Canada and the United States. During their cross-country treks, they would bring their famous giant white styrofoam coolers, and Lucy would carefully pack the coolers full of food and sandwiches to minimize the amount of time that they would have to stop.
On one of their favorite trips, they took the Orient Express across Europe with Joe and Suzanne and Pete’s eldest sister, Lib. It was Lucy’s birthday, and Pete had told the chef that she loved chocolate and raspberries. The chef brought out a giant silver platter with this enormous chocolate mousse and raspberry confection, and they all ate it so quickly that everyone felt queasy afterward. But Lucy maintained it was all worth it.
Lucy was an excellent seamstress throughout her life. She’d create Easter dresses for the girls, without patterns sometimes, and if you ever had a need for homemade drapes or quilts or fancy bedskirts, Lucy was your girl. She loved arts and crafts; whatever was in vogue, Lucy was crafting it.
She also had a powerful obsession with rabbits. She started collecting rabbit figurines and bunny paraphernalia in adulthood, and over the decades, she amassed a remarkable collection. When I was a little girl, I was looking for something to do while at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and so I decided to catalog all of the rabbits. I went from room to room with a pad of paper and counted all of the rabbits, and after about an hour, I had my grand total: 425 rabbits. Yes. In one house.
She loved shoes and frequently lamented her extremely narrow feet. She also loved putting together the perfect outfit. An “outfit” was an important sartorial construct for Lucy, and I loved that about her. Clothes were a carefully selected uniform, which communicated how much she cared about being with people and social events; she picked out the perfect lavender blouse to go with the white slacks and topped it off with her favorite bird’s nest brooch, and then she was ready for society. I don’t have to tell you that she always looked fabulous.
Lucy also probably singlehandedly kept her local Hallmark store in business. I think this may have been one of the only things that she and Da-Dan ever quarrelled about: how much money she spent on greeting cards. She loved the art of the emotionally perfect greeting card. Every year, at every birthday and holiday, we’d all get carefully chosen cards, each one with a sweet and personalized message from Ma-Maw and pertinent phrases meticulously underlined.
I would like to say that you have not known truly unconditional love on this earth unless you either (a) own a dog or (b) are one of Lucy Johnson’s grandchildren. Fellow grandkids, isn’t it remarkable to note that, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we have never, ever done anything wrong? According to her, we are sinless! We used to joke that Ma-Maw could have ended the Iraq war if we had told her that Saddam Hussein had insulted one of her grandkids; she would have taken care of him swiftly.
She adored her children and doted on her 10 grandchildren: From Betsy, Matt came first, and then from Betsy and Jeff, Emily; from my parents, Teresa and Jak, there’s me, Kelsey, Grace, and Sam; and then from Rush and Cindi, Hunter, Pete, Parker, and Mary Elizabeth. If you ever visited Pete and Lucy in Norwood, you may have seen what we called “the Grandkids’ Shrine.” It was a big round table in the formal living room that had dozens of photos of the 10 grandkids at every stage of life. Although I can attest that we grandkids are all far from flawless, in Ma-Maw’s eyes, we were never anything but perfect.
One of Lucy’s many gifts was making people in her life feel special and cherished, especially on their birthdays and on holidays.
She loved celebrating holidays and had an impressive store of decorations for her house at every major event. At Valentine’s Day, there were chocolates and hearts; at Easter, there were elegant baskets for everyone filled with candy and gifts, and a dainty “Easter tree” that we’d help her decorate with tiny, fragile egg and bunny ornaments; they hosted their famous annual Fourth of July gathering at the lake, and we kids would spend hours in the water and then everyone would gather to eat at tables on their wraparound porch. And then Christmas—Christmas was her magnum opus. She pulled out all the stops for Christmas. There was an immaculately decorated tree, seasonal food (a birthday cake for Jesus; Ruby Red grapefruit juice, sausage & egg casserole, and English muffins for breakfast; beef tenderloin for dinner), and piles and piles of presents. My brother Sam always liked to say that Christmas lived at Ma-Maw and Da-Dan’s house, and that was in large part due to Ma-Maw working her holiday magic.
For many years, when we grandkids were young, Ma-Maw and Da-Dan would have us stay with them for a weekend on our birthdays. We looked forward to those visits so much; we were treated like little kings and queens. We got to go shopping with Ma-Maw; she’d dress us girls up and curl our hair; and then we’d play by the lake or go fishing with Da-Dan. We were served unlimited cake and cartoons, and we never wanted to go home at the end of the weekend. She loved playing with us and talking to us about our interests. I think she saved every little scribble and drawing that we ever made at her house. She was perpetually involved in our lives—sending us cards and letters and care packages when we were away at school—and coming to see us whenever we came back into town.
And she was never one to pass up a good time with her family; on a memorable day many years ago, we even convinced her to play street hockey with the grandkids. She ended up getting checked by a feisty granddaughter (I won’t name names) but popped right up and was very brave and cheerful about the whole incident, despite the fact that she chipped a tooth and had a black eye. In typical Ma-Maw fashion, while she was being nursed on the sofa, she suddenly sprang up and said, “Oh, but I have to go make the coleslaw!”
We who have been fortunate enough to know Lucy Johnson will continue to reflect her in our lives. A person cannot help but be radically changed by receiving that kind of unconditional love. She will not soon fade from our memories, and I pray that we can honor her by showing each other even just a fraction of the kind of love and hospitality that she lavished on us. We all remember her with grateful and humble hearts.