I knew this Queen as Aunt Juanita, for whom I was named (and for my Aunt Lola.) She was born Vivette Juanita Ralph on a farm named Vertical Plains near Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and married Tom Gilliam Hawkins not long before I was born. She was the second oldest of nine children, but was the oldest living for the last 32 years.
My early memories of Aunt Juanita combine with the fun I had visiting her only child, daughter Annelle, who is a couple of years younger than I. We often got together in the summers for a week or so, either at my house or hers. We never lived close except when Annelle was a baby. I remember visiting them in Peabody College student housing when Annelle was in a playpen.
About that time, when my parents shopped at the Sears, Roebuck Company we would always go to the offices to visit Aunt Juanita, who worked there. In recent years, she and Steve discovered that they had a mutual co-worker there, Miss Looper—just starting out when Aunt Juanita was there, in charge when Steve worked there.
I guess because I was named for her, she always sent me a birthday present. I’m pretty sure she didn’t give to all 17 cousins. The one I remember most was a set of outfits for my favorite doll, all beautifully handmade. I was quite proud of my doll’s extensive wardrobe. (My mother secretly sent her my doll to get the measurements.)
I remember visits to Columbus, Mississippi, where my uncle taught at the Mississippi University for Women. One time I rode with them from Goodlettsville, Tennessee, and on the way threw up in their new car. Uncle Gilliam never let me forget it.
I remember my parents introducing a friend to the Ralph family. Afterward, he said, “Your sister Juanita is the prettiest of all the sisters!” When I told her that years later, her response was a typical, “Pshaw!”
Aunt Juanita was always the quietest of the six Ralph girls, as I observed, but when she spoke it had meaning. She ruled her home with an iron hand that was in a soft, genteel glove.
When Steve and I were living in Kansas, we visited them in Oklahoma for Thanksgiving, grateful to be invited to be with family. That’s when Steve started to understand some of Aunt Juanita’s quirks. For example, I dropped something in a wastebasket and she quietly took it out to the garage and emptied into the larger bin.
Her Thanksgiving dinner was scrumptious, for she was an excellent cook. Both that house and the home they built for retirement had very compact kitchens because she didn’t like anyone to be in the kitchen with her when she was cooking. “No, I don’t need any help,” she would say firmly. And I’d skedaddle. (My mother, on the other hand, recruited all the help she could get.)
In Oklahoma for many years, they often hosted family members. In 1986, as my family and I were making a cross-country trip, we stopped in Edmond for an overnight visit. In 1989, when our son Josh was competing in an American Legion Oratorical Contest, Aunt Juanita and Uncle Gilliam drove an hour to El Reno, Oklahoma, to see us that Tuesday afternoon. They had been very interested in our stories from Frankfort and Lansing and were a great encouragement to Josh. So I called her from the airport after Josh won. As soon as I said, “We’re at the airport,” she interrupted.
“Well, tell me right away! I’ve been on pins and needles—well, actually I’ve been cleaning up from lunch, but I’ve thought about him all morning and wondered and worried!”
“Well, we’re going to Tampa!” I responded.
She started crying and said, “Well, I’m glad he could win in Oklahoma!” Since Uncle Gilliam was a geography professor, location always seemed a bit more important to them than to others.
She was involved with dedication to the League of Women Voters and the Audubon Society, going out into Oklahoma to help count birds and validate their environments. During these years, she wrote us beautiful and expressive letters about their activities.
They retired and moved back to her part of the old home place near Goodlettsville, Tennessee, so I got to visit them there. We celebrated their 50th anniversary at the Old Beech Cumberland Presbyterian Church where they were married.
They were available for family dinners, and we loved having them there. Garrulous Uncle Gilliam was always teasing and telling tales, but Aunt Juanita would sit quietly alone. Then Steve would go over to her, and, with his usual manner, have her talking about all kinds of things in a matter of seconds. He loved those conversations, and so did she.
Uncle Gilliam’s health failed, and Aunt Juanita cared for him for years. All together, they were married 64 years before he died in 2008. Not long after that, when we visited her, she asked Steve to preach her funeral. Since they’d returned from Oklahoma, she told me they considered themselves “Baptists at large,” so not being tied to a certain church made Steve a good choice as well as their closeness.
She has been staunchly independent since then, staying in the home they built on Long Hollow Pike. But now she, too, has passed, at age 97. Clear-minded to the end, she smiled and was glad to see Steve and me when we visited her in hospice on Wednesday. We told her we loved her; she told us, “I love you, too.”
So next week we’ll take her back to the Old Beech Cumberland Presbyterian Church where she went as a child, for her body to rest in the old cemetery beside her husband. She told me once that when they were getting married, she almost backed out before walking down the aisle. “But I guess it worked out okay,” she said, with her little smile. Yes, it did.
So she has passed, but she was a woman of faith and lives forever, both in our hearts and with her Savior in eternity. May we all live so well.