BY GEORGE E. CURRY
I can’t think of a time when I didn’t visit Johnson City, Tenn. My Aunt Julia Mae Cousin has repeatedly regaled me about my first trip there. She says I was only several weeks old when her mother, Sylvia Harris, brought me to her from Tuscaloosa, Ala. Aunt Julia Mae said I was sick at the time and that she took me to her physician, who immediately healed me of my illness. Although Big Mama took me back home to Mrs. Martha Brownlee, my mother and her daughter, Aunt Julia Mae told anyone who would listen: “I have never been able to get rid of him since that time.”
Not that she ever tried.
Growing up, I spent most of each summer in Johnson City, which is north of Knoxville, near the Tennessee/Virginia border. When I was a student at Knoxville College in the late 1960s, I would often borrow my roommate’s car on weekends and head to Johnson City, where Aunt Julia Mae would stuff me with food and give me some to take back to my dorm. During the football season, she would sometimes drive to Knoxville to see me play. And in June of 1968, just before I was leaving to attend Harvard University on a summer history scholarship, I held a construction job in Johnson City, thanks to two of her brothers, Uncle Frank and Uncle Buddy.
Aunt Julia Mae collected my weekly pay to make sure the money I earned would go toward my college education. She said I was allowed to spend a dollar once to buy a watermelon. I honestly don’t remember her allowing me to buy a watermelon, but it obviously made an impression on her. Whenever I visited her, which was at least three or four times a year, she relished telling the watermelon story. As she grew older, especially after she turned 90 almost four years ago, she would tell me the watermelon story four or five times in the same day, sometimes minutes apart. And I never got tired of her telling it because she told it with so much gusto and would laugh heartedly before completing the story.
On her 90th birthday, I tape-recorded an interview with her about our family history. She told me about Big Mama moving the family from Birmingham to Greensboro, Ala. At 16, she took a 66-cent train ride from Greensboro to Tuscaloosa to find work. Big Mama and her other children, including my mother, followed Aunt Julia Mae to Tuscaloosa, where they all remained until Aunt Julia Mae married and moved to Johnson City with her husband. After my aunt migrated from Tuscaloosa to Johnson City, others followed. Uncle Frank moved there. Uncle Buddy made the transition. Jesse “Padna” Harris, my youngest uncle, moved to Johnson City several times. And Aunt Kat moved there during the advance stage of Alzheimer’s. Several of Uncle Frank’s children – including Mary, Dosha and Alberta – also journeyed from T-town to Johnson City.
Aunt Julia Mae asked me on more than one occasion: “Why don’t you buy a house in Johnson City?” On one visit she asked that question and I replied that I already had a home in Johnson City. Looking surprised, she asked, “Where?” I told her, “I am in it now. You always told me that this was my home.”
That’s another story she was fond of telling with great delight.
Thanks to Aunt Julia Mae – Mama’s only surviving sister – Johnson City has always been like a second home. But returning this weekend was different. Aunt Julia Mae died last Thursday, just two months shy of her 94th birthday; her funeral was held on Sunday.
When I received news of Aunt Julia Mae’s death, I didn’t know how I would feel returning to Johnson City for her final send-off. I couldn’t imagine entering her home on West Holston Avenue and not seeing her there. I couldn’t imagine not hearing her playful fussing. And I couldn’t imagine Big Mama’s oldest child dying, leaving only two siblings, Mama and Uncle Buddy (Willie James Harris).
Ministers often try to characterize funerals as a joyful “homegoing” services. I confess that it has always been very difficult for me to celebrate the loss of a loved one. But the homegoing service for Aunt Julia Mae at Grace Temple Church in Johnson City was a festive celebration. I suspect one reason was that the pastor, Rev. Mark Redd, grew up with my cousins and was an informally adopted family member. Another reason was that my aunt was a diabetic and had both of her legs amputated a few years ago. Now, she would no longer be in pain. Perhaps the most important reason there was no sadness was that Aunt Julia Mae had lived a full and fruitful life. She had made it clear that she was eager to go home to be with the Lord. As Pastor Redd said, she still lives in all of us. And I have a tape of Aunt Julia Mae’s watermelon story to listen to anytime I want.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator and media coach. He can be reached through his website, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.