It is always a bit dangerous trying to describe someone that other people know far better than do you. Yet, there are times when we feel it is necessary to take that risk. This is for me such a time. Rather than making assertion to claims of truth, I will say that these are my memories, recollections and impressions.
I cannot remember when I first met Jack and Juanita Harrison but I know that it was when I was a small child. They were friends of my parents long before my memory, and as it turns out, long before my existence. But I do remember, quite well, when it was that I came to form my own relationship with them. That would be the summer of 1968, when my family moved to Browns Grove, Kentucky.
Like my parents, Jack and Juanita had six children, two boys and four girls, the mirror opposite of our family with its four boys and two girls. Unlike my parents, Jack and Juanita managed to raise theirs to be a close-knit family, where love seemed to pretty clearly trump approval. It was not, by any means, that the Harrison’s were more prone to condone inappropriate, unethical or unseemly behavior. It was, by every means, that love seemed less conditional. And it seemed quite clear to me in my teenage years, that they simply enjoyed being a family. And in a way that never seemed clear to me at all in my family, Jack and Juanita clearly delighted in their children and grandchildren. That impressed me as rich and wonderful and incredibly blessed and blessing. But what was miraculous in my adolescent eyes was that the Harrison children clearly delighted in their parents and cheerfully adopted their best traits.
“Cheerful adoption” seems perfectly appropriate in regard to Juanita Harrison; she was one of the most consistently cheerful people I’ve ever known. I have no doubt that she had her moments and moods but in the many hours that I was around her, she was persistently upbeat. Her eyes actually did twinkle; it wasn’t just a figure of speech. Her laugh was comforting, positive and sincere. Her hugs were real, warm, genuine. She was averse to flattery, neither offering nor accepting it. She worked hard, whether at the furniture store or in her home and she both knew and demonstrated the meaning of “Southern hospitality.”
As both family friend and “hired hand” for milking the cows, I was around the family a lot, especially after my parents and youngest brother moved away during my sophomore year. I occasionally spent the night at “Harrison Hill,” even though I lived just a couple miles away. I spent so much time there and grew so close to the family, that I began to think of Miss Juanita as more of my mother than as just someone I knew. I tried calling her “Mom” but I felt like an intruder. “Miss Juanita” seemed too formal and so I settled on “Mama ‘Nita.”
She was very much like a mother, always listening and offering advice from time to time. And, I came to know that in spite of her natural cheerfulness, if you pushed her too far, you would find an honesty of expression that left no doubt as to her position on the matter. But she never seemed to carry her anger from one day to the next. (Family may differ on this point and I will defer to them, if that is the case.)
What she did carry, constantly, was a decency and dignity that impresses me even to this day. She never seemed aloof but always seemed proper. She never seemed distant but had a keen sense of propriety. She loved her family and her friends. During the years of my adolescence and early adulthood, she exerted a firm but gentle influence on me.
Outliving Jack by twenty years or so, she continued to manifest the humor and grace that I remembered. Though my contact with her over the years diminished by reason of distance and my own lacks and deficiencies, I never doubted her love, never forgot her example. Though it has been thirty years since I lived at Browns Grove, I still hold the treasure of my early acquaintance with Juanita Harrison.
As teacher and minister, pastor and professor, carpenter and education administrator, I have known thousands of people over the years. I’ve never known anyone more decent or more dignified, more genuine or more loving. Her life and example have touched and will continue to touch many generations through her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My world seems a bit smaller with her passing but my life will always be blessed by having known and loved Mama ‘Nita.