Calling Her Blessed: Johnnia Duncan Holder

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As I am writing it’s Mother’s Day. This year marks the 20th year since my mother won the battle over cancer and went home. She’s victorious and happy–even blissful, and I would never will her back to the struggling lifestyle that I try to tackle every day. But, still, I miss her like crazy–even now, twenty years hence. The children of the Proverbs 31 woman rose up and called their mother blessed. I know my mother is blessed, especially now–with the Lord, but I don’t know how to call her blessed. As I look back over the chapter, though, I see some things that made the children of Proverbs 31 call their mom blessed. I wonder how, exactly, they called her blessed. Did they tell their friends about the way God worked through the good deeds of their mom? Did other people look at her children and say that those kids were a blessing to the Proverbs 31 woman? Did her children write posts about how blessed their childhoods were because of the mom that made sure they were getting the maternal care they needed both physically and spiritually? If so, where did they post these notes? I do not know exactly how her children called her blessed, but today is my attempt to call my Proverbs 31 mother “blessed”. One thing’s for sure. The ultimate blessings are in the place in which I fully believe my mother is cognizant, rejoicing and awaiting my coming. She is blessed, now, for sure.

The heart of my father trusted my mother, that she would do him good and not evil. I do not remember ever having the first inkling of an idea that my dad ever thought Mother was lying to him, that she might be having an affair or that she was tricking him into getting things her way. In fact, the whole idea of any of those things seems preposterous. My mother never asked me to lie to my father. In fact, she would have spanked me in the “spanking place” if she thought I had lied to him. Not only did he never doubt her honesty, but he trusted her judgment. He trusted my mother to clothe us, to buy Christmas gifts for all of us and the extended family, to buy the groceries and to stock the freezer. He did not have to be a micro-manager. He trusted her.

My mother sought wool and flax and worked willingly with her hands. Her candle did not go out by night. If I close my eyes, I can see her hands. They had a couple of little age spots on them. Her fingers were long and thin and she never had a manicure. They were hard working hands. She had a sign in the little bedroom that doubled as her sewing room that said, “Whoever dies with the most fabric wins.” She won. See, she really did seek wool and flax and polyester and cotton and rayon. She could make anything on that Singer and so she did. I remember coming home from school one day for several weeks in November to a lot of white fur all over the carpets and bedspreads. I wondered if she was having bunnies over to play every day while I was at school. That year on Christmas morning, there were three precious little white fake fur coats for my sisters and me.

I remember many summer mornings when I would awaken to find that she was already out in the hot sun. I would look out the back kitchen door and down the hill I would see her bent over in the butter pea patch. I would try and be quiet, because I knew if she saw me, I would either be picking with her or washing breakfast dishes in the kitchen. If I was ever bored, I did not say so. I knew better. No one in that house ate the bread of idleness.

We did eat well, though. My mother gave meat to her household and a portion to her maidens. I cannot remember ever going hungry. My mother knew what day the meat would be in the marked-down bin at the market and she was willing to get up very early to be there. We did not go out to eat often because that was expensive. Our favorite Sunday night place was called “Traveler’s Rest” and it averaged a full six dollars for our family of six to eat burgers there. But there was always plenty of food on the table at home and it was always delicious. My brother was allergic to chicken, so when we had chicken, we had a small dish of some other kind of meat for him. Everyone was considered and everyone counted. My mother did not carry a couple of dishes to the fellowship meal, either. She carried a huge meat casserole or a couple of fried chickens, several side dishes, some cornbread and a big cake or banana pudding. If my mother ever had a maiden, she would have had plenty to eat, too. And I can never remember one meal around that table when we did not bow our heads and thank the Lord for the food.

My mother considered her purchases and used them well. She was frugal. I actually remember her sending us through multiple lanes at the store, so we could each be a customer and take advantage of “one-per-customer” savings. I remember buying fabric from the remnant bins and canned goods from the dented bin. I remember making our own popsicles and culottes. (Does anybody remember those?) She saved and redeemed green stamps. She sold encyclopedias and she taught school in our little Christian school for our tuition and we all went to school together. She saved the remnants of bars of soap and Daddy melted them down and made big new multi-colored bars. Free outings included the library and window shopping trips. Our shoes came from a little hole-in-the-wall place called “Salvage Shoes,” but we loved going there! She made everything fun and there was no place the kids in her Sunday School class had rather be than in our yard. One of them said one day, “I love going to Johnnia’s. She’s got a gallon of kids!”

She stretched out her hand to the poor and reached out her hands to the needy. My mother sent shoes to the prison where a neighbor boy ended up after his mother left home and he turned to drugs. I remember frequent walks up the street to Mrs. Brackin’s house, when she was feeble, to carry food from our kitchen or garden. I remember how Mother cared for Kathleen and Chris and Patrick when their mother went a little crazy and left them. I remember a little girl we picked up for worship services. She lived in the basement of an old upholstery shop on the Pratt Highway. I remember she didn’t smell good, but she loved coming with us. I remember another man who often rode with our family to worship and two older women, too. I remember Mother finding a place in a Christian orphanage for some children up the street when their parents left them destitute. Most of all, I remember the years and tears and fears of her caring for my grandparents. I remember when that small sewing room was converted to a sick room for them. I remember Mother’s sacrifices of travel and time with my dad. I remember the crowded conditions and the worry about their health. I remember my mother’s attendance at their hospital beds and their death beds. I remember the agony she suffered when they left empty spaces after her years of care.

My mother made tapestries and coverings. She used quilting frames suspended from the ceiling. They made walking through the small living room next to impossible. She made at least four quilts and coverings for my babies’ nurseries. As I write, I have company up in my guest room and she is sleeping under one of those quilts. My mother was keenly interested in making all kinds of things. She embroidered and smocked and made dolls and aprons. She made sweatsuits and curtains, stuffed bears and potholders, purses and pajamas. We wore handmade dresses and coats and bonnets. We had the best halloween costumes and great parts in school plays because the teacher knew she could count on our costume designer. Christmas spilled out everywhere in our little house. We, in short, had it made. We had it all made by our mother.

She opened her mouth with wisdom and kindness. Time and space constrain me, but let me just say that profundity is when an adult can think back and still remember phrases and their intonations—phrases that were spoken forty-plus years ago. Things like:

“Cindy, if you read your Bible and find out that I have taught you something that’s not right, you do what the Bible says. Know that doing that is what will make me happy.”

“Cindy, people who make fun of you for doing the right thing are the same people who, really, deep down in their hearts, respect you for it. One day you will learn that.”

“Cindy, you had better be very careful about everything you do, because there are two little sisters who are watching every move you make and they want to be just like you.”

“Cindy, don’t ever let your boyfriend give you money. that’s just not respectable.”

My mother feared the Lord. I really believe this was the trump card that made all of the above so evident in her life. She had this amazing way of boiling all of the decisions of daily life down to the question, “What is most pleasing to God?” The question was pervasive and invasive, and we visited it and revisited it on a daily basis. Conviction took us to every service and to run the children’s bus program an hour before each service of the church. Conviction had her sew a gym uniform for me that met all the class standards but had extra length for modesty. Conviction had a class full of middle school girls learning about fearing the Lord. Conviction had her spending time with them outside the classroom in cook-outs in our yard and in flower-picking trips to make bouquets for girls who were leaving for college. Conviction had her opening up that worn-out Bible and showing us passages relevant to some raunchy attitude she was seeing in us or some discourteous remark made. If we weren’t careful, she was assigning us long passages to learn; passages that she deemed appropriate to help adjust our attitudes or demeanor (and we weren’t even home schoolers). The Bible was just like a giant magnet in the middle of the metal of our lives. It was the control, the draw, the reference point.

I cannot remember anyone ever commenting that my mother was charming. But many people of all ages filed by her casket in October of 1992 and commented that she was the best Bible teacher they had ever had. They cited that she had made the Bible come alive or that she had made even the outcast among them feel worthy. That night I was glad for the fulfillment of the prophetic proverb: Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that fears the Lord, she shall be praised.

This has been long. If you only could know how selective I have been, you would appreciate the post for its brevity. My mother was not perfect. She was often weakened by sin, but then strengthened by the power of His might. She struggled with evil, but overcame with prayer. She sometimes fainted, but was renewed by the Spirit. See, though she was larger than life to this little girl, she was only human. I had to grow up to know she wasn’t really perfect. And, just about the time I began to see her human-ness, the possibility that she had flaws, her mortal limitations, she went and put on immortality. My mother really is sinless now. She is perfect, flawless, completely invincible. I can truly call her blessed.

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