By Denise Rolark Barnes
The Washington Informer
The Caregivers is a unique series focused on the challenges and triumphs of caregiving. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between AARP and Word In Black.
Angie Johnson is a workaholic. During the day, she holds a full-time job as the office manager at a community newspaper in Washington, D.C. She also works part-time as a ticket sales representative at entertainment and sports events in the evenings and weekends.
Last summer, she launched a seasonal home-based business selling pre-ordered seafood boils that her customers claim is the best money can buy. Plus, she, along with her daughters, operate a party planning company that can turn any event into an exquisite affair for a reasonable price.
Holding multiple jobs and working non-stop is what Johnson does.
At age 60, however, Johnson hopes to retire soon, but not until she completes remodeling her home where she also helps to take care of her ailing cousin. It is the home where she was raised by her grandmother, and now it’s the home away from home for her seven grandchildren, who affectionately call her ‘Nana.’
Johnson’s grandmother, Sarah Johnson, was born at the dawn of the 20th century in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1909. She moved to D.C. in 1952, married a military serviceman, and they raised five children, including Johnson’s mother. When Sarah’s husband received a foreign assignment, the family moved to France, where they stayed for two years during the Korean War. When they returned to D.C., they rented before purchasing a semi-detached, three-bedroom house in Southeast that Johnson now owns. Soon after, Sarah, who cleaned homes for a living, lost her husband to cancer.
By then, Sarah’s children were young adults with children of their own, but life happens. When Johnson’s mother could no longer take care of her, she and two of her siblings moved in with their grandmother, who raised them.
“Grandma was strict, to a degree,” Johnson said. “We had to go to bed at a certain time. When we came home from school, we had to do our homework, and we couldn’t look at the TV until we finished.”
But that’s not all Sarah Johnson taught her grandchildren. “Grandma taught us to respect each other, along with our neighbors, and especially our elders. Most importantly,” Johnson added, “she taught us to pray.”
A deeply religious woman, Sarah made her grandchildren accompany her to church every Sunday. “If you didn’t go,” Johnson said, “you had to be sick and bent over the toilet. Or else you had to go.”
“I remember asking her once, ‘Grandma, do you have to be on your knees to pray?’ She told me, ‘No, you can be anywhere to pray. You can be walking down the street to catch that bus and praying while you’re walking down the street. When you’re sitting on the bus looking out the window, you can be saying your prayers while you’re riding. You can say your prayers anywhere.'”
Johnson said she has never forgotten her grandmother’s words, and she practices her faith in similar ways. “That’s why, today, I send my kids a special prayer message every morning by text,” she said. “I send them something to remind them that God is with them always.”
The mother of three children – one son and two daughters – Johnson struggled with drug abuse and abusive relationships for several years. Unable to raise her children, she sent them to live with their father or other family members. Her oldest daughter moved in with Sarah, her great-grandmother, when she was 12.
Finally, when “enough was enough,” Johnson said, she called her grandmother one night at midnight asking to come home. She said she was welcomed without hesitation. Later, her grandmother told her to “‘go get all of your children … get them all now and bring them home.’ So that’s what I did,” she said.
There they were, three generations — actually four minus Johnson’s mother — living together under one roof until Sarah died from breast cancer on her 88th birthday in 1998.
Johnson continues to live in the house her grandmother left her. She sent her children off to college and assisted her oldest daughter to earn a law degree. Each of them have become homeowners in the D.C. area and in North Carolina. And now, they all have children, too, making her the grandmother of eight – two girls and six boys ranging in ages 4 to 16.
“I love being a grandmother, and I really love all of my grandkids,” Johnson said. “They are so smart. They teach me things, like with my cell phone. I didn’t realize it could do so many things until they taught me.”
But she said there is one thing she likes most about being a grandmother.
“I can give them back,” she said. “But I love my grandkids.”
Every year, Johnson said, she gets the entire family together. They may take a trip to Disney World or spend a week at Great Wolf Lodge resort in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“I get everybody together, the mommies, the daddies, and the children,” she said. “I want them all together because that’s one thing grandma used to do. So, I want to always get them together at least once or twice a year.”
Over the years, everything her grandmother taught her, Johnson said, started coming back. She said her grandmother made her understand that families must take care of each other and help each other out.
When Johnson got the call from her youngest daughter, Angel, asking to come back home with her three young sons, it was déjà vu. She welcomed them in, just like her grandmother Sarah did for her. Angel eventually got back on her feet. She was hired as an executive assistant at a real estate company, she bought a car, and she purchased a home of her own. Yet, since she’s been gone, on any given weekend the boys can be heard running up Johnson’s front steps hollering, “Nana, open the door.”
Johnson admits that she is not as strict with her grandchildren as her grandmother was with her.
“When my kids come into the house and see their children eating on the couch, they’re shocked,” she chuckled.
Then they remind them of the children of their great-grandmother’s house rules, including no eating in the living room, especially not on the couch. They let them know, “We couldn’t do that when we lived here.”
“One day, when all of the grandchildren were at the house, I asked them to go outside and water the grass,” Johnson recalled. “When I looked outside, they had taken their shoes off and were running through the water. I couldn’t do anything but smile because as kids, that’s what we used to do.”
Reminiscing about her grandmother and remembering her words, Johnson smiled and said, “Those are my grandbabies. I love them.”