By Fred Bultman
The June 10 obituary for 98-year-old Jeanette Johnson included just a short sentence about “the impact of this little woman’s life … upon her community.”
I personally did not have the privilege of enjoying that impact until Mrs Johnson’s 10th decade – and here’s the story:
When I retired to my ancestral county of Newaygo back in 2013, I soon found myself asked to join the rotation of volunteers who lead the Sunday afternoon Christian worship in the Activities Room of the Medical Care Facility east of Fremont. There was a particular need for a volunteer available on holiday weekends, so that became my regular assignment.
It was also difficult for the volunteer schedulers to find pianists available for those holiday weekends. And so it happened, on the Christmas weekend of 2015, that I was facing the possibility of depending on my own aging and quivering vocal cords to lead the carol singing without musical instrument support.
A staff person, recognizing the gravity of the crisis, soon volunteered to try to find MCF resident Mrs Johnson to bail us out. The search was successful, and that’s when I first met nonagenarian Jeanette Johnson.
She did need assistance to get around, and to get situated on the piano bench. But when I attempted to give her a list of song numbers to choose from, Mrs Johnson replied that she probably knew them all, and anyway her eyesight was no longer much help for reading music from the songbook. “Just tell me the song, and how many verses, and I’ll do my best.”
Her best was amazing. There was unexpected energy from this “little woman” in her playing the exuberant songs; there was reverential and soothing comfort in the quieter hymns; and throughout, I also noticed that her piano playing seemed always to be in direct dialogue with her fellow residents.
There was another constant I could expect in talking with Mrs Johnson after worship: she remained absolutely insistent that she and I were distant relatives. Although I have found over the past 7 years that I do indeed have Newaygo County relatives I had never known, Jeanette Johnson and I were never actually able to come up with such a connection.
The last time Mrs Johnson’s skills came to my rescue was on Independence Day weekend in 2018. By then, she was sometimes coming to the Activities Room in a wheelchair, and always wearing dark glasses. After the time of hymn-singing, I brought my short message, which I had planned to end with the story of how a Pennsylvania minister’s daughter had come to write the lyrics of a certain song.
About halfway through my story, I slowly became aware that from the piano behind me were coming the ultra-pianissimo notes of “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”. Mrs Johnson had somehow recognized where my story was leading, and had quietly and without assistance made her way from her chair to the piano bench, and begun her soft supportive rendition of “America the Beautiful”.
The volume of her playing slowly grew with just the right timing to coordinate with the end of my story-telling. When that happened, I was wise enough to seize the moment to have the residents move directly into the singing of that patriotic hymn. The energy from both pianist and mostly elderly singers was truly inspiring.
Afterwards, some residents’ family members who had also been present complimented me on how well the pianist and I had planned and rehearsed “that thing with ‘America the Beautiful’.” I’m not sure I was successful in convincing them that all the credit should go to nonagenarian Jeanette Johnson.
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