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Celebrating a centenarian: Mrs. Helen Johnson – A model of resilience

by Daphene Johnson —

Daphene Johnson (Courtesy photo)

One of the most esteemed ranks to which a person can ascend is centenarian, a distinct group of individuals blessed to reach the age of 100 years old.

Being a centenarian in 2020 means individuals born in 1920 or earlier. My mother, Helen Johnson, is in that company. She celebrated her 101st birthday June 11.

She and her peers have lived through the residual effects of slavery and racism, the Great Depression and the American Civil Rights Movement era. Now they are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic.

What has allowed these individuals to attain this milestone?

I surmise it is an unwavering faith in God, a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to make much out of little and, of great importance, a resilient spirit.

Resilience is the psychological quality that allows some people to be knocked down by the adversities of life and come back at least as strong.

Rather than letting difficulties, traumatic events or failure overcome them, highly resilient people find a way to change course, emotionally heal and continue moving toward their goals.

My mother developed the ability to “endure and go through,” not with a laissez-faire attitude, but with prayer, faith in God and a plan of action rooted and grounded in prayer.

I’ve often heard her say, “He didn’t promise us sunshine … did he? No, sometimes there will be rain but He did promise that he will be with us always! We must be able to endure the storms (trials and tribulations) of life and be encouraged by the ‘Good News!’”

Helen Johnson was born June 11, 1919 in Holcomb, Miss., a place she describes as “a little place between Greenwood and Grenada Mississippi.”

My grandmother, Malinda Williams, raised my mother and her brother, Odell Polk, largely on her own. Frank Woods, my mother’s father, only was in her life sporadically.

When my mother was quite young the family moved to Parkin, Ark., staying there for several years. After her mother died, she and her brother were sent to Memphis to live with an aunt and uncle, Weltha and Walter Williams.

Enrolled at Florida Street School, she completed the eighth grade, which was the norm for African-American children in the 1930s and 1940s.

Although she didn’t graduate high school or attend college, my mother has an impressive resume – Sunday school teacher, an extensive vocabulary, spelling with accuracy (even to this date), an exceptional memory (she can still recite one of her Easter speeches), profound orator, builder of cohesive relationships, a true Christian and prayer warrior.

For Helen Johnson and her husband, Edward Johnson Sr., a nurturing home was a collective endeavor. (Courtesy photo)

In concert with my late father, Edward Johnson Sr., my mother was intentional about creating a nurturing, loving environment for her children – Geraldine Haynes, Edward Johnson Jr., Sharlene Williams, Raymond Johnson and me, as well as for children in our neighborhood.

When her older children were young, she was a stay-at-home mother, working intermittently as the older children reached school age.

I can remember my mother taking my baby brother, Raymond, and I to a field where she chopped cotton. I don’t remember exactly where, but we had to ride a bus.

She later worked at a motel and then at a factory that subsequently awarded me a four-year scholarship to college.

As my brothers, sisters and I were growing up, mother taught Sunday school at Hill Chapter Missionary Baptist Church. After helping found Christian United Missionary Baptist Church, she taught Sunday school there until late into her 80s.

Active in several church ministries and in the community, mother received numerous awards and recognitions. In 2018, she was recognized as one of the oldest members at our original home church, Hill Chapel.

Mother believed in honoring our father as head of the home. He was present, involved, sensitive, nurturing, loving, caring and supporting to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She lovingly cared for him through an extended illness until his death in 1985.

During the family celebration of mother’s 101st birthday, she was lauded for the many gifts she has bestowed, including the gift of resiliency.

On that occasion, my siblings and I – individually and collectively – embraced these words of thanks:

“We thank her for the values she instilled in our family, values she has modeled all these years. We thank her for ensuring that we knew the importance of having a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“We thank her for teaching us the importance of prayer and how to pray. We thank her for covering us in prayer and for interceding on our behalves.

“We thank her for being a woman of faith. We thank her for her unconditional love. …”

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