Memorial services are not my idea of a good time. But a life well-lived is cause to celebrate.
Mae Carol Johnson grew up in the 1930s in Columbus, Ga., a beloved child of the segregated South with three strikes against her odds for a brighter future: She was poor, black and female.
For some reason – possibly the example set by an adoring grandmother, who was a midwife and prayer warrior of absolute faith – Mae never worried much about odds. She finished college and married a young soldier. In 1954, they moved to California’s Monterey Peninsula, where Mae took the only job she could find, working in the laundry at Fort Ord.
Ten years later, she was a divorced single mother with six young children to raise alone.
“I don’t know how she did it,” said her son Ron. “She worked all day, went to school at night and took care of us kids. Somehow, she got it all done.”
Mae earned a teaching credential and began her career in education as a substitute teacher, then worked her way up the ranks as a counselor and administrator to become the first female principal at Monterey High School.
My husband, now deceased, was then a teacher and coach at the school. Usually a man of few words, he had plenty to say about the new principal – all good.
When I met her, I saw why. She told me she adored him because every day when she left school, his car was the only one still in the parking lot.
I said he adored her because of her smile. She gave that smile to me with one of her hugs (when Mae hugged you, you knew you had been hugged), and with that, we were “best” friends.
Far more than my husband’s boss or my children’s high school principal, Mae would be, for me, a role model, a fount of wisdom, laughter and grace.
We spent very little time together. I was busy with my life, and she was busy changing the world. Some people are like that. You don’t need a lot of their time. You just need to watch them. I watched her from afar and loved her all the more.
When my husband died of cancer, Mae called in tears to say that her heart was broken. She said other things, too, fine words that helped me to heal.
The last time I saw her was a few years ago. We met for lunch with another friend, ate fried calamari and laughed. She promised to try to visit me and my new husband at our home in Las Vegas. And, in return, she made me promise to finish a book I’d been stalling on.
That is who she was. She set a high bar, demanded your best and somehow tricked you into believing you could do it.
News of her death last month brought to mind the words she had said after my husband died: “Our loss is heaven’s gain.”
At her memorial service, I sat listening with hundreds of others – family, friends, former teachers and students – as a series of dignitaries recounted her many accomplishments.
I wish you could’ve heard them. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described Mae’s story as an example of the American dream, and said the true measure of her life was in the difference that she made.
Others spoke of her dignity, her “toughness,” her unfailing sense of peace. But speakers and listeners alike, with “amens” and nodding smiles and bursts of applause, testified to her love.
Then her son Ron said this: His mother loved all people, but she had a gift for making ordinary people feel important.
I can testify to that. I’m one of the ordinary people she made feel important. We didn’t know each other well, Mae and I, but we were surely “best” friends.
In her 82 years, Mae Johnson touched countless lives. She made a difference. That’s the legacy of a good life and a gifted teacher. I suspect we were all blessed to be her “best” friends.
No matter. She liked me best.