Remembering Evelyn Johnson (1922-2018)

evelynEvelyn Ingeborg Johnson, 95, born Nov. 17, 1922, in Forestville, Conn. to Frederick L. Johnson, and Anna Paulina (Bengtson), died peacefully Friday, March 16, 2018, in her home at Harvest Hill in Lebanon, NH.  A celebration of Evelyn’s life was held at Our Savior on Friday, April 6th.  The Rev. Robert Wohlfort, Transitional Pastor, led the service.  Following reflections from Pastor Wohlfort, Evelyn’s hospice chaplain the Rev. Susan Langle, and Evelyn’s niece Lois Semrau.

I did not know Evelyn in her prime…and I heard about her of those years via apt clichés such as, “No shrinking violet was Evelyn,” and “No way was she a wallflower.”

24 hours after her death, I arrived here for the monthly men’s breakfast and the conversation was peppered with anecdotes and laughter and stories about this lovely woman:

-spirited and vocal time and presence at Church Council

-her energetic Spirit filled spirit

-her voice and fun filled manner in the choir

-her all around memorable presence

At the quilting group yesterday I learned of the coffee scoop around her neck from which she made the brew ”…that did pushups in the cup.”…an Army term.

Somehow, many years ago, she learned that a boy’s camp in Ossipee was to be sold and the Lutherans were interested.  So, she drove to the camp to check it out, was delighted with what she experienced and enjoyed Calumet on many occasions and contributed to its life and mission.

During my last visit with her I was pleasantly surprised to be with Evelyn who was freshly bathed, dressed in brightly colored pajamas and a plush robe…a stark contrast to her tiny form tucked into bed a few days earlier.

On her chair side table was a service bulletin from, I think, Augustana Lutheran Church in Houston.  The date was in the early 90s.  This opened a reminiscence that clued me in to a portion of her joyous work of consulting with congregations throughout the nation.  In Houston she was very proud of being a part of this congregation that was the first congregation of that city to integrate its membership with people of color.  Evelyn was absolutely clear that she and Augustana were simply following Jesus.

Simply following Jesus.  Somehow this story moved into a portion of her life that was tinged with palpable sorrow and great joy.  She was deeply in love, with a man, when she was young.  “It didn’t work out…I dated others but I could never be in love the way I was…so…Pastor, being single opened up life in a new way for me and I was able to travel and help others and I had a good life.”

Her sharing this two edged story was a sacred moment for me.  Her eyes were wet and sparkling.  We sat quietly for some time.  She broke the silence, saying something like, “I’m 95 and I do not know why I am living so long and what use I am to anyone.”  Silence again.  “Well, Evelyn, your sharing your remarkable life with me means a great deal to me and I know that you have deeply touched others.  I know that in being with and talking with Lois and Gail and Carl.”

She smiled that lovely smile of hers and nodded her head, saying, “Did you bring communion?”

Joseph Campbell was one of our world’s greatest authorities on the meaning of ancient and contemporary myths, stories and their power in individual lives and cultures.  I believe that one of his greatest contributions was his response to the frequent and vexing question, “What is the meaning and purpose of being alive?”  Dr. Campbell’s response, “Be alive…be fully alive.”  Jesus is reported to have said, “I come that you might have life and have it abundantly.”

In hearing about and experiencing Evelyn Ingeborg Johnson, I believe that she succeeded in being the best possible version of Evelyn that God wished her to be…fully alive…in God’s good Spirit following Jesus.

[Now, pastoral reflections from The Reverend Susan Langle, Evelyn’s hospice chaplain.]

 Evelyn Johnson – the Last of her Kind.

Evelyn Johnson thought of herself as the last of her kind.  She was the last of her generation in her family.  She was the keeper of some of her family treasures including her sister’s beautiful carved wooden chest, a collection of red wooden horses and a wall of family photos.  I often sat in her Dartmouth chair, presented on her retirement from her time as the hub of the Department of African American studies.  Beside her easy chair was a book of genealogy from a small village in Sweden tracing her family’s journey from that distant land to Connecticut.  She also had bibles and a Book of Lutheran Worship borrowed from this assembly.  I sang some of the old hymns from that book for her, but what she wanted to hear were some of the more modern songs we sing at our church.  She wanted to hear Kathy Eddy’s songs.  She wanted to sing with you.  Her desk overflowed with cards and letters and church bulletins from the many congregations across the country she encouraged in her missionary years.  Evelyn lived a connected life.

In her last days she was quiet and still.  After a lifetime of motion, of doing for others and going from place to place in the service of the Lutheran way of following Jesus, Evelyn came to a place of rest and quiet.  Carl and Lois spent days with her in peaceful quiet.  You brought her Swedish cookies, church news, and you sang with her.  You helped Evelyn maintain her connections even through her last days.    She died surrounded by tearful tender young women who cared for her at Harvest Hill.  They caught the courage and determination and gentle kindness that were the hallmarks of Evelyn Johnson’s life.  In her singleness her capacity to love was magnified, it was a cup of blessing that overflowed.

I received this note from one of the many of us who was touched by our sister.  She wrote:

When I first met Evelyn, it was almost 10 years ago this fall. She had driven to church, to participate in Lutheran World Relief quilting and came directly from Camp Calumet, where she had been volunteering to help Calumet get their newsletters processed and in the mail. (That’s a good 2 hour drive from Hanover!) Evelyn had quite a fondness for Calumet and visited the property before it was officially Calumet. She was frugal, faithful, had a good sense of humor. Sometimes Evelyn would start a story or recollection and it would meander around quite a bit and then she’d tie it all together coming back to her original point — always amazing me that it all connected. She was an all-around lovely person and I’m fortunate that I got to spend time with her. You might say that I had quite a fondness for her.

Actually I think Evelyn was NOT the last of her kind.  Her kind were the women and their brothers who went to the empty tomb.  Her kind were sent back with hands full, and precious gifts, and Good News to tell.  Her kind, their kind, our kind, remind the world that we live in sure and certain hope of Resurrection.

Evelyn Johnson was a quiet Apostle.  We are invited by our Risen Lord to join her in singing Alleluias, and mending the world.  Amen.

[Reflection’s from Evelyn’s nice, Lois .]

When hospice became involved in my aunt’s care, I was asked by a couple of people to tell them about my aunt. It’s the same story I told my friends. In the late 50’s early 60’s Evelyn worked in the first integrated Lutheran church in Texas.  She was taking some kids to a Youth Conference in San Antonio. There was one black girl in the group. She was not allowed to sit with them on the train, so the group went with her to the car where she could sit. When they stopped for lunch the 6 of them sat in a booth at a restaurant. The waitress wouldn’t look at them. She told them she couldn’t serve them and brought them into the kitchen where all the cooks were black. They were given bag lunches. The train conductor told them at the next stop the transport terminal could not segregate so they could eat together there. When they finally arrived in San Antonio, this girl could not stay at the hotel where the whites stayed and the whites could not stay where the blacks stayed. The group was not going to separate so they all went and stayed at the YMCA. The VIP’s from the conference took turns eating with their group at the Y.

When my aunt first told me this story I was quite surprised to say the least. I never, ever thought of my aunt this way.

The aunt I remember is the one who wrote lengthy Christmas letters each year; the one who would only use cream in her coffee and real butter on her bread. The one who wrote you a letter and told you when she was coming for a visit and hoped she could stay with you. The aunt who stayed with us for a couple of months when I was about 5 and I needed to keep quiet at times and my brother slept in the den. I remember the aunt who made jellies and maple syrup, drove a red rambler station wagon and taking what seemed to be the longest ride ever in it with her. I remember the aunt who sold things at the Randolph Center farmers market and driving Volvos and actually going to Sweden to buy one. I remember the aunt at many family gatherings from Vermont to New Jersey. The aunt I remembered kept just about everything, made Swedish meatballs and apple meatloaf.

When Evelyn fell during the winter several years ago at her mobile home and broke her hip it took her a couple of hours to drag herself up the steps and into her home to the phone to call for help. I still don’t know how she did that. A few years later she fell again and bruised her hip and needed time for rehab. We managed to talk her into finding a place to stay for the rest of the winter. That place was Harvest Hill. She came to like it there and decided to stay.

Now it was time to move her in and clean out her garage, mobile home, lean to and the shed. I won’t even begin to say this was a small task. Over the next few years, several people helped Evelyn go through everything she had. When my husband Bill and I went to help I’m thankful he had the patience of a saint because I did not. He enjoyed finding interesting articles, books and letters. She seemed to have a story for everything she had.

Evelyn and I had the chance to see each other a lot after she moved into Harvest Hill since I only live 90 minutes away and I retired a few years ago. Ancestry was a good topic we shared and she had so many pictures and stories about family. We chatted about her times in Luther League, living in Minnesota, Texas, and Kansas to name a few. She traveled through all lower 48 states working for Lutheran churches most of the time. Just about a year ago I was with her and we were going through old pictures and figuring out who some of the people were and how old they were. I found a couple of scrapbooks I had never seen before. One of the scrapbooks was about Evelyn living in CA as a mission worker. I did not know this story. She drove to CA alone and spent 12 months there and lived in about 14 places. She canvassed the areas trying to help establish or increase church members for the Lutheran churches. In this scrapbook she had pictures and addresses of the homes and people she lived with. We had a wonderful time finding some of those houses on my iPad and seeing what they looked like today.

Another album showed her trip to Europe, again as a missionary. She was with several other people this time and was able to take a side trip to see some of her relatives in Sweden. They were also in Germany with photos of places that had been bombed. More stories I did not know.

It was this same week that I found some newspaper articles about a father and son building their own homes from stone. The father was a stonemason from Sweden and moved to Rockford, Illinois. She says oh that’s a cousin! After some research and a close DNA match on, I found a 4th or 5th cousin related to these men! Evelyn had pictures of their family and this cousin had pictures of our family! My grandparents, three of their children and my grandmother’s sister all lived in the Chicago area at one time so they would visit each other’s families. We have been conversing with this distant cousin ever since. She told me her grandparents had also been missionaries and her aunt was going to Sweden soon to buy a Volvo.

My aunt loved her family. She would often talk about all of them and could tell me all of their names, wedding dates, birthdates as well as their kids names and birthdates! I’m lucky to remember my own kids names and birthdays!

My aunt had a great sense of humor that she had until her final days. We used to tease each other because several years ago she told me she didn’t like me when I was a child! I was a bit bossy and when she stayed with us, I wouldn’t offer her food when I got something for myself! Now she liked me. I would tell her I was her favorite youngest niece! She’d chuckle.

Last summer she was so happy to meet a couple of my grandchildren who were both about a year and a half old. Macie was the first one and stole everyone’s hearts there at Harvest Hill. She’s quite the character and loved Evelyn’s walker. Not long after this visit Macie’s daycare asked who Evie was. Macie had been drawing her into all her family pictures. Next to visit was Erik. Erik is definitely a Johnson. He has red hair like my father did, when he had hair, and already has my father’s sense of humor.

I could go on and on about the stories I have learned from her over the past several years that made her who she was. I am amazed and proud of all that she had done in her life. I am grateful for the time and stories we shared.

On a recent visit she had a big smile telling me how members of this congregation visited her and sang church hymns with her. She even sung one of them in Swedish.

Thank you to everyone for coming today to celebrate Evelyn’s long life. I especially want to thank my brother Carl for the countless trips he made to Vermont and New Hampshire to help with both Evelyn and her sister Anna for all these years taking over from where my father left off.

In ending, when I saw my aunt the day before she died, I told her the next day was my birthday and I expected to hear her sing Happy Birthday to me. Not only could I hear her singing to me, but my sister said she waited until my birthday because I was so special to her. My aunt Evie changed my life these past few years and I am blessed for that.

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