Johnson “Snooks.” I don’t know where the nickname came from, but I only wish I could be so cool as to have a nickname like that. Her mother named her Norma Jean, and she was a skinny, black-haired lady who was full of piss and vinegar. I was told once that she was in an accident when she was younger, that all of her blonde hair fell out, and it all grew back black. I don’t know if this is true or not. Maybe I made it up.
She was born to a feisty Scottish woman, and she had three older sisters. Her father was an Irish ballplayer and bootlegger. She used to sell buckets of water to the gypsies who lived in the park across the street. She herself had a little bit of gypsy blood in her as well, what I like to imagine was the blood of the Irish Travelers, but I’m not positive.
Grandma Johnson met Grandpa Johnson while on horseback. He was out riding with his best friend, a Norwegian named Johnson. Grandma was out with her best friend. The four met, paired off, fell in love, and were close for most of their lives.
Grandpa Johnson was drafted into the Army and the family moved to Hawaii. There they had my Uncle Jim, who was the apple of my Grandma’s eye. She came from a family and a generation that favored boys over girls, which seems paradoxical to me when I look at the dynamic women in her family.
The family moved back to Montana, and my mother was born. Grandma Johnson wasn’t a great mother, and Grandpa Johnson wasn’t a great father. This chapter of my family’s history is riddled with abuse, alcoholism, and poverty. But, for all of the stories of the bad things that happened, I’ve heard just as many, if not more, stories of the good things, too. It’s like that Hank Williams Jr. song, “if I get stoned and sing all night long, it's a family tradition."
Snooks struggled with alcoholism her whole life. She smoked. She had eating disorders. She wrote bad checks. She was abused by her husband. She fought (physically) with her sisters and other family members. Her son and nephews were drug addicts and brought criminals to her home on a regular basis. When she’d call us up on holidays, she was often drunk on tequila. She told us once that she loved to howl at the moon.
Grandma Johnson loved cats, even when they were mean to her. She loved her grandchildren. She loved horses and she loved Native American artifacts, jewelry, artwork, and memorabilia. I have some of her beaded earrings. I don’t know if a Native friend of hers made them, or if she crafted them herself. She liked the color pink. She loved turquoise. While I won’t wear her giant pink earrings, I love wearing her turquoise rings; big, huge, gaudy, beautiful. They’re full of luck.
She was wonderful artist who painted epic, beautiful landscapes. I used to go into her studio and look at all of the oils, paints and colors. Look and never touch. Grandpa Johnson kept her artwork around his house throughout all of my childhood, even though they divorced when I was about ten. Grandpa was abusive (and I imagine Grandma was, too) but he loved my Grandma her whole life, and he was devastated when she passed.
Grandma Johnson moved down to New Mexico and was there for a few years. This gave her enough time to reconnect with my mother, and to form a relationship with my sisters. She came to Texas for Christmas one year to celebrate with me and my then-fiancé/now-husband (who she never did like). It was a great holiday, but she was diagnosed with cancer immediately after. I’ll always wonder if the trip was what made her so sick, after a six hour drive from Alamogordo to Lubbock and back again.
The cancer was pretty terrible, but she fought it the best she could. My family took care of her, and I’m so glad that they were able to spend this time together. I have guilt feelings about not being there to help out, but I’m proud of my family for being so loving and strong through those hard times.
When I was a baby and toddler, she took care of me. We were very close. She would feed me ice cream and let me play with kittens. I loved her very much. She gave me her mother’s jewelry, my Great-Grandma Lonie. The last time I saw her, her psychosis from the cancer was setting in. She was barely coherent. She was not the strong, fiery woman I knew. I’ll always regret those last moments. The women who took care of me in my infancy, I was unable to help her in her old age.
She wasn’t happy in New Mexico, and though it was a painful decision for her and for my mother and sisters, Grandma moved back to Oregon to die. She was back with her sisters, the alcoholism and drugs, but this is where she wanted to be. My mom was able to fly up there and say goodbye. When she died, her family pawned all of her belongings. I was able to get some of her jewelry, and I put this out in a bowl on my altar every year with her mother’s faux pearls, and with Grandma Val’s penguins.