Around the time I was just "getting" jokes (or maybe stopping my bad habit of making up really terrible ones in lieu of using actual humor), I vividly recall my cousin Penny's vivacious presence and command of a room when telling her breaking-news-style funny story of the moment.
To channel Sophia from "The Golden Girls," picture this:
The setting was my Grandma Johnson's house -- a serene environment on a regular day, but bustling with literally hundreds of her descendants and their signature potluck dishes on get-together day.
The year was sometime in early to mid-80s, so the hair was big, shoulder pads were in, and eye shadow and lipstick colors were far from timid.
Enter Penny, who fit the fashion bill perfectly. Always dressed in the latest and full of personality, this particular day in my memory, her jokes all seemed to begin with, "See, there was this guy..."
As an elementary school kid, I may not have even fully understood the jokes and their punch lines, but I did comprehend a few things: Penny was full of life, she wore cool clothes, she and my other very hip cousins didn't ignore me, and most importantly to me at that moment, she was great for a laugh.
Through several decades, quite a few wardrobe changes, a variety of hairspray and product adjustments, a widening of lipstick color ranges, and life choices that for Penny has added a precious husband and two beautiful children, one thing remains: when Penny is in the room, she is the life of the party, and whether or not you're related to the Johnsons, you're guaranteed to laugh at her jokes and creatively expressed stories. They may not all start with "There was this guy" now, but they're always worth a listen.
Within the last few years, Penny and her family have dealt with the ugliness of cancer -- something no one should have to experience. The family's faith has remained solid and admirable, and even during hospital visits, Penny has managed to share her trademark hilariousness in the style that only she can.
With exposure to the medical field and a hospital steeped in a century of faith, I heard recently about a clergyman sharing with a friend that sometimes God's spirit of healing doesn't always come in the form of a medical miracle with the earthly, seemingly win-win results we'd like to see. Sometimes that healing is delivered gently and graciously by a Father who created this world to be perfect, but watching us mar it with sin and subsequently, pain, He proceeds to heal His children by alleviating their hurt and bringing them home into an ultimate situation of comfort.
That morsel of wisdom, though beautiful, is never easy for this incredibly human, frail mind to swallow.
My selfish soul, who has only experienced earth, wants Patrick and Penny's love story to live on right here in the South, where I feel they both belong. In their human bodies. I want them to celebrate anniversaries until they're old and gray. I want their children to always be able to call their mom on the phone and hear her stories, or her admonishments, or her encouragement, or how to cook their favorite meals.
But, as we can all celebrate, I'm not God.
He has bigger plans for this beautiful family that will undoubtedly spread their incredible story of faith and childlike love for His will farther and wider, and I'm entirely too feeble-minded as a mere human to know what those plans are.
Even with that knowledge, am I happy about their situtation? No way.
Do I understand it? Of course not.
Would I change it in a heartbeat given the power? Absolutely.
But it's not my option, and that is truly good. My truth to accept is that my cousin was brought into our lives not merely by family dynamics, but by God's willing hand.
There are probably greater reasons Penny came into the Johnson clan, but I like to think our Heavenly Father knew I enjoyed a good laugh, even at an early age. I like to think He knew my sister was fascinated with shoes and that we enjoyed Penny and Sherry's fashion shows (which may or may not have also been known to the rest of the world, including Penny and Sherry, as dinner at Grandma Johnson's house). I like to think that God used a hilarious, savvy, fashionable businesswoman to show me that girls do and can just wanna have fun, and that He used that same hilarious, savvy, fashionable wife and mom to show me that wives and moms also do and can just wanna have fun. I know God used that hilarious, savvy, fashionable believer to reiterate to me that Christians do and can just wanna have fun.
And I know without doubt that no matter how long His spirit of healing lasts in its earthly form for any of us, our Father who art in Heaven will continue to use Penny's story to show the value of strong faith and trust, the beauty of a bright smile and deep laugh in spite of circumstances, and the unmatchable fire of pure love for family.
So, all this leads me to think it's high time to change the beginning of Penny's story.
I mean, I'm the first to admit that "See, there was this guy" did have its day, but maybe it's time to switch it up a bit.
Because now, when I talk about Penny, I hear myself beginning her vivacious story with, "See, there's this really hilarious girl."
No matter what escapade we're telling of Penny's, we'll never forget the punch line. And we know that as always will be her trademark, we'll have a great laugh while sharing these precious, unforgettable memories.
Penny, thank you, thank you, thank you for these sweet memories of laughter, love, time spent with and dedication invested into this family. Thank you for creating the family Facebook group so we could all keep up, share photos and reconnect online. Thank you for writing the beautiful intro to that group about the Circle of Eleven. It touched many of us in a lot of ways.
Hugest for "my memory box," as my nephew has taken to saying, thank you for never neglecting to make me feel special, no matter how young or irrelevant or dorky I was. (And yes, this applies to last year's family reunion, too.)
It's an honor to be your cousin.
“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” ― Maya Angelou