Saturday, April 29, 2023

A life well lived…


Elizabeth Johnson was a creative woman. She fashioned children and raised them to strong and creative adulthood. She cultivated grandchildren, sharing stories and her ever-expanding homesteading skills with them. She then expanded her world to include her students, the children she tucked into her heart where she could give them warmth and support so they could thrive in a cold world that teaches children to ignore rather than wonder.

From her sunlit, window-filled room, she led classrooms of students in wonder. They read and studied poetry and art and learned to think. She made it a family affair. Her daughter also taught with her own daughters in tow. Her granddaughter presented poetry and art lessons. Her broad wooden farm table was stacked with books, and the New York mountains filled the space behind her, and both things pointed to her creative personality. She loved words, writing, gardens, her yellow house, her husband, Brad, her family, the ox team she trained, and the sheep she raised. Her students looked through their computer screens like looking into a window on her life.

But windows only show a slice of life and never the full picture. If we could have spun the view around, they could have seen her house for all of its glory. She and her husband, Brad, lived an extraordinary life in an extraordinary way. They lived in a glorious yellow hobbit house, one literally set into the side of a hill. It tunneled into the hill, but the sunny front poked out like a turtle peeking out from its shell. Her wide front door opened onto her gardens and expansive property filled with her various creative projects. For the rest of my life and that of my children, when we read about Tolkien's Hobbit and consider his description of a hobbit hole, we will know that he meant her house.

One of the last times that we saw her, Elizabeth sat outside with us in her little garden area and read unpublished stories to my children, swearing them to secrecy and drawing them further into her heart. She showed them her latest creative outlet, fairy gardens. As her strength faded, her ability to influence the world around her felt smaller, and she described her world as smaller so she intentionally influenced smaller worlds. In a complex system of hanging baskets and window boxes, she created a series of separate but interconnected worlds, each with its own theme. There was a fairy world, a dragon world, and a pixie world, and sometimes the figurines would visit other worlds. My children's favorite was the Beatrix Potter world, where all their favorite stories came to live in charming little gardens within a larger garden within her homestead. Always the loving grandmother, she also made a section for her grandchildren to influence their own little worlds with flowers and figures just for them and she let my own children play in it. For as much as she believed that her world was getting smaller, it was continually growing as she pulled people and projects into it. Her heart flowed with love, and it poured out and saturated everyone who came into contact with her.

Elizabeth was a gifted writer with the ability to paint worlds with her words and find ways to describe feelings and moments and scenes so that she could take the thoughts in her head and put them in other people's heads. She was magic and filled every moment with magic. Even those who didn't know her through the classes could get to know her through her books. One of the most wonderful things about her books is that they captured her; they feel like what it feels like to be in her home and her garden and soak up the love that she so generously lavished on others. I think she was a fairy herself, capturing thoughts and emotions, bottling them, and sprinkling them throughout her projects like flower seeds. The entire world was like her fairy garden and full of beloved figures and beautiful plants all tended with loving care.

She lived in New York, and I don’t, but I am often in New York. I have two sons in seminary there, and my sons have spent many summers in the Summer Boys program at Holy Trinity. For the last several summers, I had boys coming home from seminary in the summer and other boys going back for summer camp, coming home just giving me a brief respite before bringing those seminarians back again. Four trips back and forth along the New York turnpike each summer gave me ample opportunity to visit her and look into her world when the time was short.

On one of those trips, one of my seminarians was with me to take boys to the summer program. This son is a deep thinker, a philosopher like his father, and he carefully considered everything she said. Elizabeth had planned her own funeral and put everything that her family and friends would need to execute her vision into a plastic tote. She wanted us to see the glade where she would have her funeral. She told us how she commissioned the icons, including one of her patroness. She discussed her "home birth" plans with my son who took it in with so much gravity and profound respect and nodded in agreement. This is the way it was meant to be done.

After she had reposed, her daughter, Celeste, sent me an iMovie which showed the depth of her mother's plans, more than I had seen over the summer. Beyond binders, the pavilion, and the glade, she had made a map of where and how to set up the tables and chairs and even assigned chores for everyone. She provided the candles and candle holders and paper plates, and other items needed for her mercy meal. She had pulled her friends into her plans, given them their assignments, and then placed everything they would need in this bin. She thought her world was small, but through her magic, her world was ever-increasing, ever-growing as she reached out and embraced others and pulled them into her. Her life teaches us how to live, and her death teaches us how to die and how to die well with every moment stepped in love.

The other night, in the hours after she slipped away, I lay awake in my bed and I wept. I was thinking of Celeste and the family’s plans to wash, dress, and prepare Elizabeth for the moment she had prepared for because her home birth was at hand. I lay on my side, facing away from my husband, and tried to hide the tears. My husband pressed against my back and told me about something that struck him in the adult class he had led in the evening. St Anthony of the Desert wrote that the common interpretation of Job is one of endurance in suffering and how it is wrong. What it is really about is the powerlessness of the Devil. He can do nothing without the explicit permission of God, and even then, he is severely limited. No matter how powerful we might think he is, satan can do so very little in the presence of a single holy man.

Elizabeth was a single, holy woman. She loved God and, through her books and classes, taught others to love Him. She reposed on Radonitsa; in the Slavic tradition, this is the day that we take red eggs to the cemetery and greet our beloved dead with the Paschal tropar and gifts signifying the resurrection. It is the first time after Pascha that we can have the service of the memorial, the Panikhida.  One of my great sadnesses will be that she reposed so shortly after vespers and the panikhida, but my husband immediately served another for her the next day. I stood at Kliros and looked at the Pascha decorations, and I struggled to sing, but I did it. I breathed deeply to give me stability, and I sang every word and thought of Elizabeth and how greatly she will be missed. Every anniversary of Radonitsa now belongs to her in a special way, she can be remembered at the first memorial, and we can greet her with red eggs and sing to her the paschal tropar and again be drawn into her world, her new world where she will wait for us to follow.

In your generosity, remember her in your prayers and the services of the Church. She is Cripina in baptism. She wrote several books but her book, The Miracle of the Red Egg, will now be iconic given that she reposed on the day we bring red eggs to our beloved reposed. I will always think of her happy death on Radontisa, and I will remember that death has no power here and suffering has no meaning because God’s love is greater. May the Theotokos comfort all who grieve and may Crispina's memory be eternal.


  1. So beautifully put. Thank you.

  2. This was beautiful and brought tears to my eyes. May her memory be eternal!

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