I got to know Juanita Cooper because of our shared love of song.
It all started at Sunset Manor (now Medicalodges) nursing home in Frontenac at the weekly, Friday morning sing-a-long with the residents. She was there to sing with her mother, me my dad.
After they died we still went back every Friday at 10.
We weren’t the only ones. Alfred Basil, whose wife had passed on, continued to come, and, before long, Juanita’s daughters, Terry and Billie. The past few months Lee Williams, an old friend of Juanita’s from Mindenmines, has been coming as well.
We kept on because of the camaraderie — the joy of it. The residents felt it too. You could see the little spark in their eyes as they mouthed the words.
It wasn’t only the singing, it was fun of it all. We danced. We joked. We played.
And the keenness of it too. Juanita was intelligent, a witty woman who knew how to deliver a pithy aside — and appreciated one as well — whether it be in reaction to something that was said, a resident’s behavior, or a line in a song.
After 45 minutes or so running through the week’s song list, we’d really get down to it, spontaneously singing a capella everything from gospel … to polka … to show tunes (Lee’s specialty) … to 50s, 60s and 70s hits. I was always good for a little Roger Miller, maybe “King of The Road.”
This singing without accompaniment was my favorite. Especially when both Terry and Billie were there to sing three-part harmony with Juanita, something they’d been doing together for over 60 years.
I think it might have been Lori (who works there and has a great voice herself) that first called them “The Spice Girls.” Juanita christened herself “Old Spice.”
I would walk to the far side of the room and sing a little lower just so I could better hear them sing “Amazing Grace,” the song that always started our gospel segment.
Their voices unfolded inside me like daylilies.
The same thing happened over at the Sheldon, Missouri cemetery a week ago Friday. Only this time it was Juanita’s sister, Carol, harmonizing with Terry and Billie beneath the blue tent over Juanita’s open casket.
Juanita died, at the same nursing home where we all met weekly to sing, on July 3rd. She was 86.
I lead the graveside service, reading to the gathering from 1st Corinthians, saying prayers, and asking them to share their thoughts and recollections — as well as join in singing “Farther Along” and “Precious Memories” in addition to “Amazing Grace”.
Juanita, who grew up in Sheldon, was a retired Post Mistress who had worked in Iantha, Sheldon, and Mindenmines, Missouri. She was a member of the postal union. She had a son, Jim, in addition to her two daughters, four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren.
Terry told me that, so gifted was her musical talent, that, at one point, there was talk of her going to study voice in New York at Julliard after high school graduation. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her.
She not only had a marvelous ear and a wonderful voice, she also had a love of the poetry of song, the lyrics. She especially liked, I remember, John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind,” a song made a hit by Glen Campbell. “Tears of joy might stain my face / And a summer sun might burn me til I'm blind. / But not to where I cannot see you walking on the back roads / By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind.”
Before the service, Terry showed me a clipping of lyrics to The Beatles’ “In My Life” Juanita had cut from a magazine and a partial list of rock concerts she had attended over the years — Earth Wind and Fire, Tina Turner, Chicago, Peter Frampton, and Ray Charles just name a few. No doubt, most times, she would be 20 or so years older than the oldest attendee.
One of her grandkids mentioned that when you went over to her house to visit she could be watching anything from Jeopardy to MTV.
Another grandchild mentioned that she would let them turn the stereo in her car up to the max, roll down all the windows, and cruise Broadway in Pittsburg. Then they’d crouch in the back seat and enjoy the looks on the faces of drivers rolling up beside a gray-haired, senior citizen blasting her stereo at a stoplight.
We all agreed that she was young at heart, and so broke into impromptu song together, “Fairytales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart. For it’s hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind and young at heart.”
The service was like an old timey camp meeting, with observations, funny asides and reactions called out by family and friends. Not unlike our weekly gatherings at the nursing home. There were, of course, also tears of grief and loss amid the smiles and stories.
We were all back at the nursing home last Friday at 10 singing, joking and dancing with one another and the residents. All but Juanita. Terry cried when we sang “Jesus Loves Me.” Lori gave her a hug. I rested a hand on her shoulder.
On the drive home I sang softly to myself a ballad we did many times together on Friday mornings: “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling / From glen to glen and down the mountain side. / The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling. / It’s you, it’s you, must go and I must bide.”
— J.T. Knoll, a writer, speaker and eulogist, operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-0499.