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North Stonington native saw strangers as future friends

Even late into her life, long after the chaos of growing up with 12 siblings had subsided, long after years of hosting a Bible study in her home, and long after she’d met the love of her life square dancing at the Stonington Grange in 1945, Irene Johnson remained vibrant.

Ask her great-grandson, Morgan, who suffered a bloody nose several years back caused by Irene’s lockdown defense on the basketball court when he was only 9 or 10. Irene had been diagnosed with osteoporosis, so her daughter Lizanne Johnson put her foot down, telling Irene she had to stop hooping because she could end up breaking a bone.

“They actually continued to play basketball,” Morgan’s mother, and Irene’s granddaughter, Amanda Collins said. “She started to take it a little bit easier on him, and Morgan got very upset. They were playing one day, and she wasn’t playing tough, and he said, 'GG, you need to guard me!' So she started guarding him, and lo and behold, Morgan ended up with a bloody nose.”

Lizanne says it reflected her mother’s upbringing with enough siblings to form teams and play baseball and other games.

Irene Johnson died due to COVID-19 last year at the age of 93. Family members say she was a throwback, the genuine article, a salt-of-the-earth matriarch whose influence on those she met spanned generations.

Born Feb. 3, 1927, Irene was the 11th child and eighth daughter of 13 children born to John and Mary Wilkinson, who operated the Daisy Farm in North Stonington. Lizanne said her mother considered childhood on the farm “paradise” until World War II. If somewhat messy, life at least made sense. Everyone had chores. They’d walk to school, come home for lunch, then go back to school from grades 1 to 8. The siblings’ schoolmates all wanted to come to the farm after school.

“Our grandmother knew exactly who didn’t have enough to eat at home. She would send them right into the pantry and say, ‘Go ahead, slice yourself some bread, and there’s the big pail of peanut butter,’” Lizanne said. “They would go and help themselves. The best thing would be when mom would sneak out and go up the hill with her book, and just read.”

Irene was an avid reader throughout her life and would often read mysteries, histories and religious books. She enjoyed imparting knowledge as much as she loved to learn. Lizanne said Irene was especially proud that her teacher would come to visit the farm. There was a racetrack on the property — the most miserable time for Irene was when the family had to weed it, Lizanne said.

During a Zoom interview, seven relatives reminisced on Irene's life and their relationships with her. They are proof that what Irene always valued most — family, friends, people, company — had rubbed off on them, as they cracked jokes at one another’s expense. They’re in touch frequently. They took the chance to continue Irene’s master storytelling tradition during the interview. While Lizanne waxed fondly on her mother’s youth, Matt Beaudoin, Irene's eldest grandchild, noted that what Lizanne was talking about predated her by some 25 years. He said the way Irene connected her family to their past was invaluable.

Irene worked on the milk route as a child; everyone had their turn. Lizanne said Irene’s oldest brother, and second-oldest sibling, drove the truck, and she worked it with another sibling. They’d go as fast as they could so that they had time to stop and buy an ice cream cone in the morning before returning home. There were two routes, one before breakfast, and one after, and both ended with ice cream.

“If you ever ate ice cream with my mother, she was the fastest, neatest ice cream cone eater in the world. There was never a drip,” Lizanne said. “My goal as a kid was to eat an ice cream cone as fast as she could. But why did she eat it so fast? Because her brother would say, 'You have to finish before we get back to the farm, they can’t know, hurry up.’”

Irene eventually started a family of her own after meeting her husband, Clifford David Johnson Jr., in 1945. She was at the Stonington Grange when “Dave” met and square danced with her. She went in the bathroom and wrote his name on the wall that night. He was “fascinated” by her, Lizanne said. They married five months later after Dave won a hearts-and-minds campaign with both Irene and her father, an “old Yankee” with a dry sense of humor and great judge of character.

According to relatives, the two balanced each other. They lived in North Stonington from approximately 1946 to 1980, when they moved to Noank because Irene said it was Dave's turn to live where he wanted, as he had grown up around saltwater and was looking forward to fishing. He designed a bow-roofed house to fit the character of Noank Village.

Irene supported Dave’s goal of running a business as a tool and die maker. He was successful, and they opened up their home to missionaries and traveling musicians who needed a place to stay. This is how Irene began to make her lasting impact on the world and the region.

The family went to the Second Baptist Church in North Stonington when Lizanne was growing up. She said her parents saw that the younger parishioners needed a place to go where they could feel welcome aside from the church. A minister from Sweden who went to the same church agreed to be the Bible study leader.

“Dave and Irene built an addition on their home and started the Thursday night Bible Study,” Irene’s obituary reads. “No one ever left hungry, spiritually or physically. Irene was ‘Ma’ and later ‘Grandma’ to scores of teenagers for many years. When the youth group wanted to sponsor a concert given by the Bethel Community Chorale from Harlem, N.Y., in the early 1970s, she housed six young men for the weekend. One of those young men, Richard Allen Farmer, became unofficially adopted and is the son she always wanted. After Dave died in 1989, Irene continued to welcome people into her home.”

Lizanne said missionaries would go in and out of the state on yearslong rotations, and they’d be looking for places to stay because the church couldn’t afford a hotel. Irene and Dave always volunteered.

Farmer said he came to southeastern Connecticut while on a concert tour with Harlem’s Bethel Community Chorale, and it was determined that all the instrumentalists would stay at the Johnson house.

“I fell in love with them. I decided after this weekend tour was over, I was going stay in touch with this couple because I just liked them, I thought they were great folks,” Farmer said. “I started coming up on my own, quite apart from the singing group. I started popping there for a weekend all through college. I was never out of touch with them from the date of that weekend concert tour until the day Irene Johnson died.”

Farmer said Irene's response to her own paternal grandmother not taking kindly to "all these damn children running around" was part of what led to his unofficial adoption.

“She felt unwanted and unappreciated by her own grandmother, and she decided she would be the complete opposite of that, so very accepting, with arms wide open. When my son was born, Irene Johnson was probably more excited than I was,” Farmer said. “She said she used to climb up in her father’s lap with her siblings and play with his hair. I said, ‘Did he ever shoo you away?’ She said, ‘Never.’”

Irene decided to replicate her parents. She knew no strangers.

“It didn’t matter what color you were, what age you were, what gender you were,” Farmer said. “She didn’t always agree with what you were throwing down, but you were still a person. She would talk about folks in her own family who weren’t living the way she agreed with. ‘But, they’re mine!’ she’d say.”

Irene always had time, and her family was never an inconvenience to her, Collins said.

“If we needed to talk, she was there,” she said. “If we stopped by, she was always ready to make some tea, get the cookies out, sit and chat. She always took an interest in everything that we were doing. When I think of my grandmother, I think of how much she was loved, and how much love she gave. She was never too old to get down in the grass and play with the kids and walk to the park. She had that sense of childhood all the time.”

Beaudoin remembered when Irene taught him to play Wiffle ball when he was a kid. Only last year, she and her great-grandson Samuel were chastised for rolling around on the floor and roughhousing.

Heather el Bacha chimed in to say her grandmother Irene was a role model. “My lasting impression of our grandmother is that she had a rotary dial phone her entire life. She never had the internet. Now that I’m an adult, I see that she had the key to life,” she said. “It’s not living in the screen and this fast-paced lifestyle that we have in the modern era. Her home was always full with real people and real connections. She knew all her neighbors. It was simple, but it was beautiful and profound. I think we have a lot to learn from the way she lived her life.”

“She’d be so proud to hear you say that,” Lizanne responded.

Nicci O’Hara said her grandmother was the “most influential woman I’ve ever met.”

“We would sit for hours just talking at her kitchen table, from being silly and goofy and just laughing about stupid things, to having seriously in-depth, personal conversations about religion, politics, anything,” she said. “We would sit for hours, and you never felt the time. I would talk to her about everything. She was easy to talk to. And she was so fun, she would just break out in a dance or a song.”

Beaudoin referred to tea time with Irene as “the queen’s tea.” Who came to tea was of no consequence so long as they were willing to laugh. And if you didn’t normally take tea, that was of no consequence, either.

“At her house in Noank, these rough and tumble wannabe tough guy teenage boys were having tea with grandma and the little shortbread cookies, making a whole ceremony out of it,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are, you’re going to sit there and have tea with grandma, you’re going to enjoy it, and you’re not going to realize that it’s not your thing to do.”

As the coronavirus pandemic set in, Irene was unafraid. She felt it made more cosmic sense for her to be victim to it rather than a young person.

“‘I’m ready,’” Lizanne said her mother told her. “‘I’ve had a wonderful life. Your father’s waiting for me. If I get it, I get it, and don’t you worry about me.’”

As Beaudoin put it, “She had a pragmatic, comfortable relationship with life and death. She knew where she was going, and she knew who she was going to see when she got there.”

Irene was losing her memory, and in September she fell and broke her hip. At the time, she had someone living with her 24/7. As the family spoke to the doctors, they realized even two people with her at all times wouldn’t be enough, so they reluctantly decided to have her go to the memory care unit at Atria Crossroads Place in Waterford.

“She loved it. It was like she was young again. She had friends,” Lizanne said. “My sister Martha went with her daughter and son-in-law and grandson to visit one Sunday because we’d all do window visits. My mother went to the window and said, ‘Oh hi, I’m sorry, we’re going to visit each other’s apartments. I can’t stay, but so glad you came.’ She was happy as a clam.”

A week before Thanksgiving, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.

When Irene stopped eating, she was hospitalized. The family was devastated because they couldn’t visit and she wasn't answering the phone. The doctor called and told Lizanne that they had done what they could for Irene, and “now it’s up to her.”

“As soon as he said that, I knew that was it. She was ready, and she’d been telling us. So because of that we agreed to hospice,” Lizanne said. “I went, I spent Thanksgiving afternoon with her a long time. She was asleep, or in a coma, or whatever. But Richard sang to her, and I sang to her, and I had people on the phone and FaceTime. And then she died. I was getting ready to go again on Friday the day after Thanksgiving when they called and said she had died.”

Lizanne said she feels for the people who take care of COVID-19 patients.

“I’m glad it wasn’t just one person in the room, they knew that she was going to die, so there was more than one,” she said. “To handle that together as a group is good, but those poor people. Our health care workers are saints.”

Irene’s family doesn’t want her legacy to fade with her death. They say her values of community, family and the joy of human interaction will live on, as she'd assembled a small army to carry her torch.

s.spinella@theday.com

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