She was the child they had in order to "fix" the failing marriage.
(Eugenia, Alex Sr., Judy, Alex Jr.)
My grandfather, Alex, having been living up to his "Alley Cat" nickname from what I was told. But it was post war 1940s--1947 to be exact--and on December 15 of that year, Lynda Jean Johnson was born.
They started things out rough by spelling Lynda with a "y". That would lead to a lifetime of correcting people.
She had piercing blue eyes and red hair--surely this would make her stand out in a crowd.
She was raised in a devout Catholic as was my mother and uncle.
I'm sure that she was good in her parochial school--she was always an extremely bright person. But something happened in 1980 when my grandmother died. I believe the priest--the highly regarded Fr Diaferio refused to perform a full mass for her due to some sticky financial details. I never did fully understand what happened but it was enough to turn this feverishly agnostic woman into a devout atheist.
She studied hard and received excellent grades all throughout school. She was a follower of fashion and surely made her mother and father proud.
She loved her brother, Alex, but he joined the Navy in the 50s and set off on his own adventure. He would eventually move to Newport, RI in the 1970s for some years with my Aunt Norma and cousins, Heather and Dirk. But Lynda said she wished she could have had him closer to home when she was younger, as the father figure in the house wasn't exactly around as much as he could have.
She was a child of the Sixties--a sprightly nineteen in the summer of 1967.
And she set out for California shortly after college with her best friend, Anne, who I always knew as "Auntie Annie."
I have some diaries from those days. They include some pretty amazing stories of working as a dancer in some of the clubs in the Los Angeles area. Now these aren't the types of dancers you might associate with strip bars today. These were the "dance card" dance clubs where you pay just for company. Though I'm sure there were some unconventional practices if I know my aunt she was pretty much by the book.
She was living in Montebello, California in 1969 when my mother showed up with my soon-to-be father (it's a long story) and were taken aback by the strips of tin foil hanging from the ceiling creating an environment like walking through a psychedelic diamond. The story goes that my mom and dad were not exactly "with it" enough to appreciate the decor.
She was still there when my mother drove across country nine months pregnant to stay in the "safe house" with her and her then boyfriend, Manuel--whose name is one fourth of my baptismal name--and have me, out of wedlock, and stay for a few months until I was ready to transport back to Fall River.
Like I said, a very long story.
She traveled in Central America and in Europe in the early 1970s. I believe she had some connection to the Peace Corps. I hope I find some diaries from those days. I'm sure knowing how she was the rebel of the family there would be some stories to preserve.
She had many sides to her personality. That's putting it nicely, I guess. From what I'm told she had been proposed to on several occasions and said "yes" to many of them only to have things fall apart before too long. That said, she apparently amassed quite a collection of engagement rings.
Life is complicated enough these days. But we have so many ways through many of life's problems such as therapy and inspirational life coaching. I'm sure it must have been a total mess in the 1970s.
She loved her mother and father. But it was her mother, Eugenia, who was the beacon of light in the Johnson family. When she died in November of 1980 from cancer our world was torn to pieces.
By 1980 Lynda Jean Johnson had been an English teacher for seven years or so. But when my grandmother died something sparked in her and she decided to . . . become a lawyer.
That's right. She went to Suffolk Law at night after working all day teaching "hellions" (as she called them) at B.M.C. Durfee High School.
She took the bar in 1983 and passed.
Here's a congratulatory letter from state representative Tom Norton.
And here is the license plate she proudly drove around with on the back of her beloved Datsun 280Z. Oh, how I loved to get dropped off at middle school in that car. Though she always insisted I kiss her on the cheek before I got out. Kinda ruined my early teen swagger rep.
So here's the thing . . . it's 1983, she's been a teacher for probably ten years. She just the first few years of the 1980s studying law. She could have quit her job teaching the "hellions" and make some bank and get a fancy mahogany and maroon leather chair.
But she didn't.
She didn't practice law at all.
She just wanted to do it--to prove to herself that she could.
And then she went back to teaching and trying to inspire her kids in the classroom.
She kept that license plate for many, many years. As you can see the registration is from 1993.
Like I said, a complicated person.
In the mid 1980s I was in a band--a few of them, of course--but the main one, Undercover, was a cover band (get it?) and Lynda J Johnson was our manager. I have business cards somewhere with her name on it.
See, one of her colleagues was a guy named Marc Dennis. He's a very famous Portuguese singer. And his band, Atlantis, was the top of the pops back in the 80s. She struck up a deal with him: her band of teenagers would come and play between sets at his band's shows. They'd use all the other band's gear and play as long as they wanted to take breaks.
This was good for everyone involved. We got some experience playing in front of people and his band had extra time for whatever activities middle age musicians fancied in 1987.
I remember the first time I got drunk. After one of our sets I had been given two large plastic cups of Bud Light from one of the Portuguese Feast's beer tent bartender. I drank them both and then it all hit me at once. I remember rolling on top of a parked car's hood and my aunt saying, "Alex, you're drunk! What happened??"
This would not be the last time I heard this said to me.
In 1988 she began a complicated and lengthy relationship with a former student--twenty years her junior--but only after he had graduated high school, so I was told. They were mentors for each other it seemed. He was able to have the mother he always wanted who encouraged him to further himself and foster his artistic talents. She was able to have a young strapping companion who would accompany her on many trips and be that complex combination of surrogate son and lover. They were happy for a time. But as these things go and as time passed on the relationship soured and became unhealthy. It ended badly and I'm happy not to know many of the gory details.
But before this would happen, in 1992 her father--my grandfather--died after complications from dementia. It was a long and arduous journey. Even with all his faults she loved her dad and would dote on him, my mother too. And it was heartbreaking to watch him slip away, even though at the time I was beginning my long and storied relationship with drugs and alcohol.
I was living here in Western Massachusetts and beginning my own new chapter. After two summers of my mother spending time in Poland and me raising holy hell with my friends in Fall River I was given an ultimatum: quit drinking and drugs or move out of the house.
I chose to move out of the house and into off campus housing with my then girlfriend, Amy and we would eventually move two hours west. I would continue my long and slow descent into madness that would take a little over fifteen years to run its course.
In the meantime my aunt and her best friend, my mom, bought a home in Mattapoisett, Mass and sold 1073 Bedford St in Fall River where I was raised. They sold my grandfather's print shop/home on Beattie St.
They started their own new chapter in their lives beginning in 1996.
In a surprise twist my aunt became a contributor to the New Bedford Standard Times as an editorial cartoonist.
The devout atheist had found a new calling.
But she was an animal lover as well and had a penchant for persian cats. At one point I think she had five of them, all rescue cats. Though Lynda never had a child she had many babies. Her cats and her sister were her life at home. And the animals in the vast backyard were recipients of this love as well. One of my favorite memories of my aunt is her traipsing out into the snowy yard in her mu mu with a full bucket of dog food for the deer, bears and raccoons (there were two of them and she had named them both).
They would spend a decade together in that tranquil house in Mattapoisett. I'd come home for holidays and to do some work in the summer. I was a mess for most of those days and years but I loved both of them, even if my aunt and I had a hard time coming to terms on my lifestyle habits.
When my mother got her terminal diagnosis in late 2005 my aunt was all but destroyed. She was about to lose the last person in her life that wasn't me. Her mother and father were gone. Her brother had died in 1998. Her good friend Anne lived in Virginia and mainly visited during the holidays. I was living two hours away and a complete mess. And now her sister--her best friend--was about to begin her long goodbye.
The sixteen months that it took for my mom to complete her journey was one of the hardest things I have ever had or ever hope to do. But she was my mother and I have a different understanding of the person she was. But my aunt had known her for close to sixty years. When my aunt was in elementary school my mom would walk her there and then continue on to her school. She was my aunt's guardian. She had always been there for her, supporting her and encouraging her with love and admiration. When my mom passed in January of 2007 her world changed forever.
But in less than a year it would change again.
On December 27, 2008 I would get arrested for DUI and have taken my last drink.
Those first five months of life in sobriety was some of the most remarkable days ever. And I got to share it with my aunt both in our many phone calls as well as through this blog. Though she retired early in 2006 to take care of my mother, her vocation never ceased. Each blog post I would put up online would be lovingly corrected on her end and then sent back to me for reposting.
She was so unbelievably proud of her nephew.
In April of 2008 she began experiencing pain in her abdomen. On May 8th I encouraged and accompanied her to see her doctor in Boston.
At 3am on May 9th--my 38th birthday--a doctor who we didn't know and I'm sure I'll never see again would come into the hospital room we were both asleep in and deliver her final diagnosis: her cancer had returned and spread and there was nothing they could do to save her.
The final few months of her life were spent going back and forth to Dana Farber in Boston. I drove her most days, especially towards the end. I had a ignition interlock device in my car which was a stipulation of my DUI case. My amazing attorney, David Mintz, managed to get me a deal where I didn't lose my license for two full years as is normal for a 2nd offense. At the time we were just happy this was the outcome and I had already begun my journey into sobriety. But now that Lynda was sick again, and eventually unable to drive herself, made this all the more poignant of an outcome.
As a diehard liberal and progressive it is a shame she never got to see Obama elected.
She never got to see me buy my first home.
She never got to meet my Jodi and to share the magical feeling of our engagement announcement.
But all that said she certainly experienced a lot in her sixty years on earth.
In her final months she would often say to me, "It's okay. I've had my turn."
I hope when the time comes for me to leave this earth--if I'm given a chance to ruminate on it at all--that I will be able to summon the strength and humility to let go like this. I pray from time to time that I let regrets fall by the wayside and just take life for what it is: an amazing journey that encompasses a full spectrum of emotion, from the highest peaks of joy to the lowest depths of sadness and everything in the middle.
I'll always remember hugging her for the last time as I left for a short tour with the Young at Heart Chorus. She had encouraged me to go and do what I love. She said she would be all right. And I knew that her friend Anne would be there to spend a few days together while I was gone.
She took me in her arms and hugged me.
She looked me square in the eyes and said.
"You. Go and just be good. That's all I ask. You do that for me and I'll be happy forever."
Well, I've had quite a run, Auntie. I think you'll be happy to know that on December 27--if all goes as planned--I'll have been good for nine years.
There is so much more I could about Lynda Jean "Ms" Johnson. But I think that's probably good for now.
So how about I just say Sto lat and Happy Birthday.
I love you so very much.
~Squaka (another very long story)
Lynda J Johnson
As I do every year on her birthday today I will donate to one of her favorite charities, A Helping Paw. They are a no-kill shelter and do many great things with the animals of the South Coast. And she loved her animals almost as much as she loved me.