Zona Justiss

Zona Justiss died of Parkinson's disease in 2008. The following is the eulogy given at her funeral at Otter Creek Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee by Sandra Collins, a close friend who assisted Zona in many ways during her later years.

Many of you in the audience have known Howard and Zona longer than I have and have been far more attentive to them over the years, have had Bible studies with them, worked with them in the beginning and ongoing years of Agape, have helped them through major changes, and have loved them as much as I have. I had known her for thirty years, but there is a specific reason why I am up here.

One day I heard Zona complaining to Howard about something he was doing or not doing. I said, "You know, I say things like that to Jerry, but every time I do it I remember a character in C. S. Lewis's book The Great Divorce. A woman in hell was asking to take a trip to heaven to visit her husband. She felt she had not quite finished correcting him sufficiently for him to be in heaven."

After we finished laughing, Zona said to me, "I want you to give the eulogy at my funeral. You will tell the truth."

I suspect she meant that I would not be effusive or praise her too highly. I would give a spare, unadorned picture of her life. What she could never quite understand was that I had a much higher regard for her than she had for herself. I loved and admired her greatly.

Zona was highly intelligent and had a phenomenal memory for details. When she was in school, she preferred those subjects in which she had to memorize lots of facts. If you need any proof of her memory or of Howard's, for that matter, just Google their names and read the books Thistles Cut, Ironing Done which she wrote in 1991 and Howard's book Roots Deep in Texas. Their son Joel put both books on a Justiss website for all of us to enjoy. She lost none of this memory and keenness as she aged. In her last week she recognized all who came, nodded to nurses' questions, focused her eyes on those speaking to her, and listened as we read the Bible and sang songs. If you have had a chance to be around her or have read her book, you know that she recalled not just the houses and farms and relatives of her past.

She recalled the particular hat a woman wore, the horse blanket draped over the horses after a cold buggy ride to the bank, the exact name of plant cuttings given to her when she was a child, the sadness she felt at the funeral of a relative when she saw a hole in the elbow of another relative's overcoat, the song an aunt played on the piano, the decorative spindles above an arch in a relative's home, the names of all the teams of horses her father worked. I asked one time if she got bored lying there day after day. Her eyes sparkled and she said, "No, I hear a long string of stories from the staff as they go up and down the hall. I also hear all the televisions." Her hearing was as amazing as her memory right up till the end.

She was also very articulate. She would slip the exact verb into a sentence that brought a picture to the listener's mind. Her sentences needed few adverbs because the verbs were so precise and metaphoric. It's nearly impossible to teach that skill. Such verbal skill is a natural consequence of having been talked to as an adult while growing up and of having read many good books. And Zona loved books, climbing into the bed of a relative willing to read to her, climbing up in an apple tree to read by herself, as a school girl hurrying to fix supper for her mother after school so that she'd have time to read Treasure Island, reading poetry with her college roommate, reading The Fall of the Roman Empire, reading Bruce Catton's three volumes on the Civil War aloud to Howard, later having different books placed in various parts of the house so she could read, reading the Bible aloud with Howard and discussing it, reading books about animals and birds and stories of arctic explorers.

After she married, she went to the library so often that the librarian hired her. Of course, Howard said she would have to give her earnings away because they needed to learn to live on one salary only, and she agreed, even though in the coming years this would require great discipline and thrift. She took her six very bright children to the library and read to them, and they too became readers. When the newspaper would do a story on Library Week, the librarian would ask that Zona and her children to come to be in the photograph for the paper.

Zona and I had much in common and I think that's why we formed a bond: we were both displaced Yankees who said what we thought, did not mince words, and were baffled when Southerners were taken aback. We had both descended from German immigrants who held hard, backbreaking work, a clean house, food stored for the winter, and a clothesline of freshly washed clothes high on their list of moral imperatives. Zona, Howard said, was happy when she was washing the clothes. So was I. I felt honored when she said I could wash the quilt she had so lovingly embroidered and kept on their bed. "You'll take care of it," she told me. We both hated stuff and clutter, preferred plain to fancy, and were suspicious of decorating fads. One time in a ladies' class, and I do not recall the subject, she said, "It had never crossed my mind that my dishwashing detergent should be coordinated with the color of my kitchen!"

She occasionally had difficulty with all the rocks Howard collected and said she sometimes felt "smothered" by them. But at least he was bringing things home she did not have to feed, can, or preserve. Even though we didn't like stuff, both of us had kept little things from the past that we treasured, things which would have little meaning to anyone else—a sheet of music, a pair of mittens, a piece of crocheted handiwork. She was thriftier than I.

We both remembered relatives remaking clothes, cutting scraps for quilts, and cutting strips for rugs, but those memories made her thrifty. The lesson did not pass down to me, unfortunately. She cooked all the meals when it was their turn to do Meals on Wheels, while most of the rest of us stopped by Hills grocery store and picked up what we would take. She didn't want to spend the money on store-prepared food.

And like Zona, I grew up among people who did not express in words how much they loved me. It was assumed that we understood we were loved because our parents worked hard all day to keep us fed, clothed, housed, and educated. It was also assumed by our parents that expressing how we could improve was more helpful than expressing appreciation for what we had already done. Having grown up among people who did not express their feelings easily produced culture shock for both of us when we had to live the rest of our lives in the South, where people hugged all sorts of people whether they knew them or not. Like Zona, I understood with my head all those great passages about grace in both the Old and New Testament, but it was hard to let the message of unconditional love sink into our everyday lives and overflow to other people. God knew how much trouble we would have and sent us both husbands who would love us unconditionally and graciously in spite of ourselves—"grace with skin on them," as Ruth Rucker would have said.

Zona loved the natural world. Although she wanted to major in biology in college, a college counselor told her that women did not major in or teach biology. She needed to pick something like elementary education. What a loss for her and for the college! She loved everything large or miniscule about the natural world. She loved hearing from the family in Michigan how deep the snow was this year and hearing from California the kinds of birds Yooko had been seeing and photographing. When she went to Colorado for graduate school, she spent all her weekends touring the sights. As a little girl, she did not mind cutting out thistles in forty acres of peas on her father's farm because it gave her time to be alone looking at the sky, the clouds, and the beauty around her. Her children grew up with the same love for the natural world around them, bringing home lizards, snakes, colorful leaves, flowers, and rocks and having her tell them about them.

She loved thinking about the hundreds of square feet of flowers that Alan works in. In her book she tells how much she enjoyed times camping on the beach or in the woods and how she and Howard's family, a number of them in their eighties, had ridden on hay bales in a truck to walk around the place in Texas where the Justisses had grown up. She could not imagine a better, more refreshing day and smiled to think what others missed who returned from vacations telling about the hotels and malls they had seen. I was not surprised to see in the 1929 hymn book by her bed, pieces of paper marking "This Is My Father's World" and "All Creatures of Our God and King."

When I was alone with her, I would sing these songs to her. In the past when I would sing to her without the book, I would stumble over the words, but she would sing or mouth them all. Till the last week of her life, Howard would bring her flowers. At Lakeshore there was a rose bush from which he would pick clusters of deep red roses to put at her bedside or on the window ledge. What a husband! During the last week he could not bring her any. For some inexplicable reason, there were no more roses on the bush. He had picked them all. John Dawson has provided a rose bush for Otter Creek's garden in memory of Zona.

After Zona became more confined to her bed, I determined not to talk about her illness. It was an erratic form of Parkinson's which would sometimes allow her to move about, talk, and smile and other times keep her frozen to her bed, unable to change her facial expression, unable to move her lips much as she spoke, and unable to feed herself. Instead I would tell her about some new insight I had just read about a parable or something Dr. A.J. Levine had said about Matthew that I had never known. Or I would tell her a funny story about Isaac or Rachel, our grandchildren. Invariably, as I left, she would say something about storing this memory so that she would have it to think about later after I was gone.

When I read her book, I saw her packing away memories over and over. When she left Colorado, she stored the memory of the mountains to help her get through the next school year. When she spent her first Christmas in a rather barren part of Texas, she stopped to "absorb" the hedge of poinsettias at a neighbors' house. She saw a spider web stretched between two trees in her backyard in Texas and called her children to see it and the colorful spider in the center. She had such a vivid memory of that that she recaptured it for her book. When a very young Leeta drew pictures on her bedroom wall that would not wash off, Zona said it would be a treasure in later years. When the Griffith family came to sing, she would store it in her memory and tell me about it. When Alan made a visit and jiggled her toe as he left the room, she told me about it. She told me in detail about seven grandsons standing around her bed during one of their visits. She considered every little visit or event that made her day more pleasant a clear sign that God was present and that he was providing for her.

One time when it was obvious she was having a particularly bad spell feeling frozen to her bed by Parkinson's, I asked her if she missed the snow in Wisconsin. I missed the snow in Indiana that had often come to my knees. She told me how the snow had once been so deep that to drive the buggy with the milk to the dairy, her brother had driven over the top of the fence. Her description was so vivid that I could see it. She also told me about harvesting the many acres of peas, how hired hands had to come and some had to stay at the house, and had to be fed. She described every detail so clearly that I could picture the viners, the meals, the bed in the basement for the hired hand. Memories had been stored carefully and it gave her joy to think of them.

I told her she was like Wordsworth remembering the daffodils, and I brought the poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" to read to her.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

She smiled. "My roommate and I used to read poetry to each other," she said, "and that was one of the poems."

When she married Howard, she learned almost immediately that she needed to have enough food prepared for any guest he might bring home with him. And over the years, he brought all sorts of people who needed to be housed and fed. While it was not as easy for her as it was to Howard to be hospitable to all that he would bring home, he could not have done it, if his loyal partner had not been willing to cook, to clean, to make up the beds, and wash the sheets and clothes. I shook my head when I thought of all the work and difficulty of having not only six children but a houseful of other people to care for as well. Once when I was talking about this, she said that at one particular meal as she was walking around the table, she had said to herself, "Lord, who are all these crummy people?" That helped me. I knew I could not have handled all those surprise guests very well and didn't feel so bad that I had had similar thoughts.

What happened, of course, is that scores of people were helped, people who greatly appreciated the kindnesses they had been shown and became a wide, extended family of even more children. Faithfully attentive through the years and during Zona's last week has been Lydia Yohannsen, who fled Ethiopia with her sister during a dangerous time, and lived with the Justisses while she went to school. Lydia has indeed been a second daughter to Howard and Zona, attentive, loving, and appreciative. Her nursing skills have kept her on top of their health problems, as she has arranged for doctor's appointments for a skin cancer on Howard and noticed physical problems, like a blood clot, that needed immediate attention. Howard lovingly calls her his secretary.

Looking back over the eighties and early nineties, I think how ridiculous it was for me to presume to teach Bible to people like Zona, Carolyn Maddux, Bernie Arnold, Ranelle Gaw, Marge Keedy, Lola Stinson, and Ruth Rucker. I learned far more standing in front of them and others than they ever learned sitting in front of me. I learned from Zona because she was willing to share her failures, to admit what she did not know, willing to say that even if you try as hard as you can, a believer will not be spared pain and disappointment. What most of us forget is that if you put a candle down inside a perfect container, only a little light escapes from the top. But if you put it in a container with openings or cracks, the light shines through. It was through those cracks, those admitted failings that I saw God shining through Zona. Paul says,

...we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; ... struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (II Corinthians 4)

From Zona I have learned these particular lessons:

  • To show hospitality to strangers even when I do not always enjoy it. It is worth doing. The rewards come in more brothers and sisters and children;
  • To look for God in everything and everyone;
  • To admit failures, to admit I do not have all the answers, to see that God works through those failures.
  • To keep faith through that final illness and bear it with patience;
    Zona had taken care of her father during the varied stages of Parkinson's and she knew all the phases of that disease and what was coming next. She knew the final phase would be the inability to swallow. But she hung on, kept her faith, and tried to be patient. I admired her greatly for that; and
  • To store up good memories to recall at later times to bring joy or comfort.
  • Zona loved passionately her husband, her children, her children's spouses, her grandchildren, other people's children, the natural world, good books, good music, the Bible, and the God to whom she attributed everything.

    I am storing memories of all the times I was able to spend with Zona and hope her example will stay with me when trouble and illness come.

    She said one time that her greatest honor was to have been Mrs. Howard Justiss and believed that those she said it to felt sorry that she had no identity of her own. My guess is that what she meant was "What an honor to have been loved and cared for by such a man."

    On the Friday night before she died, I stayed with her. As Howard left, he put his hand on her forehead and looked long into her eyes. I saw her mouth, "Thank you. Thank you." The expression I saw was clear. This was the thank you for a lifetime spent with him—love at first sight in a graduate class in Colorado, love that lasted sixty-six years. When she died on Sunday morning, he was there as always hovering over her.

    When I would leave her after putting away some clean clothes I had washed, we had a little routine. She would unfailingly thank me several times, and I would say, "It is a privilege and an honor."

    And that is what I say today. It has been a privilege and an honor to know you, Zona.

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