Photo Credit: Pete McCommons
Her great friend Elizabeth Ireland organized a 90th birthday party for Susie Johnson in the same week that President Obama was first inaugurated, a proud moment for Mrs. Johnson.
Mrs. Susie Johnson died Saturday. Her husband Eldon, her sisters Arlene and Sonia, her brother-in-law Clarence and her surrogate son Andrew, along with many other friends and family members, preceded her. Susie’s love and her faith sustained her as she waited for her strong body to run down, which it finally did in her 97th year.
Mrs. Susie Johnson was a woman accustomed to work and to taking care of other people. She did not like lying in bed to be waited on by others, but she endured even that and now has gone to her reward, and what rejoicing there must be among those she has longed to see again.
Mrs. Johnson was born “down the country” in rural Taliaferro County, beyond Crawfordville. She grew up in a large, smart family centered on Level Hill Baptist Church, where they return for funerals and homecomings even though they dispersed widely and found success in New York City, Chicago, Detroit and other cities. Sonia and Arlene and Clarence are buried there. Susie will be buried here in Athens, alongside Eldon.
Susie Johnson came to Athens when she was 15, to stay with an aunt and begin her working life. She worked in UGA food service and for sororities and for some of Athens’ well known families in the usual capacities open to women of her race: cook, maid, nursemaid. She worked long hours for low wages, but she was accustomed to work and to living frugally. She owned her home and took care of it, saving her money for the repairs she knew would be needed.
My friend Andrew Davidson grew up here in Athens, and when he was a little boy Susie came to work for his family. Andy’s mother was a smart, energetic, creative woman, but she could be rough, too. Susie saw immediately that Andrew needed some help, and she enfolded him in her loving warmth. He used to say of her, “She saved my life.” Andy grew up and left Athens for New York and then Paris, where he remained until the end of his life. Meanwhile, he had introduced me to Susie and asked me to drop by to see her from time to time, since he couldn’t, except when he came back for his annual visits.
Thus did I become Susie’s stand-in surrogate son, with the privilege of hearing her stories and eating her fried chicken, corn muffins, macaroni and cheese and her caramel cake—and feeling her love that flowed from an inexhaustible fountain deep within her soul, enough there for everybody.
Love did not cloud Susie’s judgement, however. She told me about working for the white folks, those who respected her and those who didn’t. Susie respected herself, and she would not long tolerate someone who didn’t, regardless of their color. Her strength of mind and spirit was such that even though working in a menial job, she was the equal of all she met.
Susie didn’t fret about her own problems. Her faith and her strength would carry her through somehow. That left her free for the people who needed her, ready with a smile, a laugh, a prayer, a helping hand. She loved visiting with friends and family; she loved and served her church; she kept up with the news and with the Atlanta Braves.
Susie lived the life she was given, and she lived it fully and faithfully. She grew up during the Depression of the 1930s in the segregated South, and her opportunities were limited, but she prevailed. She rose above her circumstances to live a life of independence and respect. She remained true to herself and to her faith, and she immersed herself in the life around her, with its sadness and its humor. And throughout her 97 years on this earth she gave from her great store of inner strength to help other people. The world is a poorer place without her, but so many lives are richer from having felt her touch.
Susie Johnson looked life in the eye and did not flinch. She reminds us that we can do the same. It’s easy, unless we make it hard. Gamble Rogers sang, “You’ve got to start out like you can hold out, if you want to leave this earth alive.” I think that’s what Susie has done.