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My Perspective - Thanks Johnny

“Sometimes people come into your life for a moment, a day, or a lifetime. It matters not the time they spent with you but how they impacted your life in that time.” - Unknown

By Jim Palmer

Who is the most important person in your life? I could probably make an argument for a few people in mine. But for my mom, there is one person who stands out. It was her cousin, John Maki.

Johnny (as we all called him) passed away this summer after a few years of declining health. At his funeral, I thought about Johnny’s contributions. He was a pastor for many years, a loving father and husband, and a friend to many. But one of his biggest contributions was the impact he had on my mom’s life (and indirectly on mine).

When I was young, I could tell Johnny was important in my mom’s life. When I got older, I learned just how important he was to her.

My mom (Judy) had an unusual and difficult upbringing. She lived in a duplex on 8th Ave East in Duluth during the 1950s and 60s. She lived on one side of the house with her mom, her grandparents and one uncle. She never knew her dad. He drowned at a family gathering (helping save two boys) when she was just an infant. Her mother (my grandmother) never married and struggled with mental health from the day of the drowning until the day she died. It was very difficult for her to be a mother. My mom’s uncle died when she was seven and her grandpa died when she was 13. Her grandmother took on most of the important parenting duties by default. In many ways, my mom was raised by her grandmother, who passed away when my mom was 19.

On the other side of the duplex lived my mom’s aunt and uncle and two cousins. One of those cousins was Barbara and one was her younger brother, Johnny.

The two sides of the duplex were connected, but not in the most user-friendly way. One side had a regular staircase, but the other side had a trapdoor in the kitchen with a ladder below. My mom would run down the stairs and knock on the bottom of the trap door and then wait until someone opened it. It was her escape.

Judy went to Johnny’s side every day. They would play with cars, trains, and board games. Johnny was often in charge of setting up the games... which meant the games included cowboys and pirates and not dolls and princesses. Later in life, when my mom had three boys of her own, Johnny reminded her that she received all the training she needed for raising boys during those years in Duluth with him.

Families from both sides of the duplex would often go to the family cabin, sometimes for a weekend and sometimes for a week. The cabin was located north of Duluth, and Judy and Johnny would play together from sun-up to sundown. They would swim, swing, bike, and were always looking for the next adventure. In the winter, they would head to Johnny’s other grandparents’ house, where they would ski and toboggan down a hill in their back woods.

They had a lot of fun together. And they would talk about whatever was on their mind. Johnny, who was a few years older, was a listening ear and was there to offer up advice or guidance. He was just what she needed at a time she needed it most.

As my mom was starting college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), her grandmother died. And shortly after, Johnny completed his undergraduate from UMD and moved away to attend seminary school. This was a difficult time for my mom. She missed him.

For the next 30-40 years, Judy and Johnny only saw each other about once or twice a year, and only talked occasionally by phone. But whenever they did, it was like they had never been apart. During this time, they were busy raising their families, my mom in Minnesota and Johnny mostly in Indiana and Michigan.

When Johnny retired about 12 years ago, he moved back to Duluth. Since then, Judy and Johnny continued where they left off (without the cowboys and pirates). They talked regularly by phone and visited each other in person at least a few times each year. My mom said their conversations often revolved around things they shared growing up and their time in the duplex. They also talked about the adults in their lives back then and understanding the difference between what they perceived as children and what the adults were truly going through at that time in their lives. They often concluded that life wasn’t very easy for any of them either.

Growing up, I would see Johnny about once a year. We always saw him and his family at their family cabin -- the same one that Johnny and Judy had played together as kids.

Johnny was the guy who always led our family in prayer before meals (in English and in German). He was a master storyteller who could paint a colorful picture when he spoke or when he wrote (he even wrote a handful of columns for Senior Perspective a few years back). He was a knowledgeable man -- the kind of guy who made you feel a little smarter after talking to him. He had a big vocabulary and knew how to use it. He was known for his witty, unique and sometimes edgy (especially for a pastor) sense of humor. He had a boisterous laugh that filled a room, and a contagious smile. He was often the center of attention, and when he spoke, everyone listened.

For my mom, Johnny provided stability, fun, and someone to talk to. She said he was one person that she could talk to about anything... when she was five and when she was 75. When Johnny died this past June at the age of 78, his wife and two daughters were by his side. So was my mom. And that is just how Johnny would have wanted it. For as important as Johnny was in Judy’s life, he would tell you that she was just as important in his. Life on the other side of the duplex wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows either, so they were both stronger because of their time together.

Thanks Johnny, for being there for my mom through her difficult childhood, for being like a big brother to her, and for training her how to raise boys. I’m forever grateful.

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