“Promise me you’ll have children, Kelly. Just one. Have one for me.”
Mrs. Johnston knew I didn’t want to be a mother, but that didn’t stop her from laying it on thick every chance she got.
“You need someone to take care of you when you’re old. If you don’t have children, who will take care of you?” she’d ask.
“A very well-paid nurse.” I’d tease. “Besides, I’m going to be independent in my senior years, just like you.”
To that, she’d always roll her eyes. Sure, she was independent, but she didn’t want it that way. Mrs. Johnston wanted children as a young women, but it was not in the cards for her and she had regrets about it.
That’s probably why she and I bonded so easily. Our families lived in Philadelphia, but here we were in Atlanta. So, we became family to one another.
The days immediately following Mrs. Johnston’s killing were the darkest days of my life. According to police reports, plain-clothed police officers were serving a “no-knock” warrant at her home when she allegedly opened fire on them. I knew that Mrs. Johnston owned a gun. I teased her about it all the time because she loved to tell me how anyone breaking into her home would leave with more holes in them than they could count. I thought it incredibly amusing that a 92-year old woman packed a piece, but she was no ordinary 92-year old woman.
What I couldn’t understand is why anyone would think that she ran a drug house. It was absurd. So, when the news reported that the police found drugs in her basement I knew something far more sinister was at play. She didn’t even take medication and hated the drug element within her neighborhood. She’d never allow drugs in her home. Never.
In addition to grieving for my friend who’d died in such a violent way, I was heart broken by the way the city and authorities lined up behind this false narrative. Even the media villainized her as a matter of fact. I was sick at the thought that a woman could live nearly a century’s worth of life as a good, honest and decent person, only to be defamed so easily in death. I spoke to a few media outlets about the woman I knew, but my voice was no match for a well-orchestrated lie.
It’s not until a week later that the truth began to come out. The cops targeted the wrong house and to cover their tracks, they planted the drugs. In time, the world learned what I’d known all along, that she was innocent.
Kathryn Johnston not only died a courageous death, but she lived a courageous life.
Today marks 10 years since that tragic day on Neal Street, and while I’m sure Mrs. Johnston’s killing and subsequent framing has important implications for ongoing conversations on police abuse and community/police relations, I choose to leave that analysis for another day. Rather I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about my friend, the one I knew in life, because she was so much more than how she died.
Kathryn Johnston was a force. She was mentally sharp and physically strong, and she left an impression on those she met because she was so full-of-life.
Mrs. Johnston was incredibly proud and fiercely independent. She didn’t like to ask anyone for anything, which caused her to appreciate even the smallest gestures. One Christmas I bought her a deep fryer for and you’d thought I had bought her a Porsche. I remember arriving for our monthly grocery store trip several months later, only to find the deep fryer, sitting in the middle of the table with the same red bow. “Are you ever going to actually use the deep fryer, Mrs. Johnston?” That’s when she told me she was waiting for one final neighbor who hadn’t been by to see it yet. All the while I’m thinking, “I got it from Walmart, for goodness sakes.”
Despite her penchant for fried food, she was perfectly healthy and to her last day ate just about whatever she wanted. She credited her tip-top shape to the StairMaster situated in the corner of the living room which she said she used several times per week.
Mrs. Johnston, was a very private person with a small circle of friends and family, but if she loved you, she loved you fiercely and would do anything for you. When going through my divorce, she would frequently tell me, “Kelly, just leave him and stay here with me. You’re always welcome here with Mama Johnston.” And I knew she meant it. She could be a tough woman, but never with me. Whenever she knew I was on my way for our monthly shopping trip, she’d always be waiting by the door. She didn’t want to make me wait, despite the fact that I was habitually late. Though, she never made me feel bad about it.
And she was funny, really funny. Her laugh was infectious and we’d often descend into laughing fits based of some crazy thing she’d said. She liked to shock me and generally got a kick out of herself. I miss so much about her, but that’s definitely one of the things I miss most. She had a beautiful smile.
Kathryn Johnston not only died a courageous death, but she lived a courageous life. One of quiet dignity and her life mattered to me. She mattered to me.
Mrs. Johnston was my friend and I’m grateful to have been loved by her and to have had the opportunity to love her back.
Originally published on Huffington Post.