MEETING WITH 103-YEAR-OLD GRACE JOHNSON ERICKSON
Boston 26 March 2014
Meeting people of whom I have heard, but have never seen, is always a special pleasure to me, be they common people, mere acquaintances, artists, media people, scientists, writers or politicians. In meetings with people something always remains in my mind: their appearance, their manner of expression, their unassuming or condescending airs, what I learned from them, the story of their lives, and so on.
There are times when I meet someone for the first time and they immediately satisfy my curiosity, as there are times when they plunge me even deeper into curiosity so I want to know them more deeply.
There are times when the person I meet presents me with something special because they may be witness of a certain piece of evidence, of a fact or an event that can evoke as much sympathy as admiration. Such witnesses draw me into a trip or adventure to meet them.
There are people who, though they are old, carry with themselves history, events, and memories and encourage us to look back to a glorious past. The person I will reveal through these lines was born in Albania, when Albania was occupied by the Ottoman Turks and waiting to become independent in the 16 months to come.
She has a life full of mysteries, written and unwritten; she is the daughter of an American man who devoted his life to Albania, in Albania’s most difficult days. In this cold March morning I met her, the daughter of Charles Telford Erickson whose story tells so much about our history.
A few words about the links of Grace Johnson Erickson with Albania
How can one not be excited when one considers her family history? After arriving in Albania, Korce, and later in Tirana in 1908 the Erickson family was met with Turkish repression and was forced to move a year later to Elbasan. To the three children they brought with them, a fourth was added. In Elbasan they also met the same fate. In the summer of 1911 they were deported by Turkish forces in Manastir (Bitola). There, in internment conditions, was born Grace, of whom we are talking, and whom we want to bring to your attention. After some time they returned again to Elbasan. Grace’s father did not give up on his goals to help with the education and emancipation of a nation about which nobody in the world has written with more love and respect. But in October 1912 the family was hit by a major affliction. Their eldest son, Earl, was injured while playing. His father sent him to Switzerland to heal. Sadly he was not able to survive the infection the wound had received. So in December of that year Erickson went back to Durres after he buried his son in Switzerland. To this calamity was added Serbian repression. Albania was declared independent on November 28, 1912, but was immediately occupied by Serbs. Labeled enemy of Serbs and friend of Albanians by the invaders, he was barely allowed to go to Elbasan and get his family, and that only thanks to the Austrian consul in Durres, Charles Hall. So he removed the family from Albania. Grace Elizabeth, then 14 months old, left Elbasan with her parents, brother Paul and sisters, Lois and Crystal. Her father came back several times to Albania over the years. He became a member of the Albanian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and communicated directly with President Wilson in defense of Albanian territories. He became commissioner of Albania in Washington, then U.S. diplomat in Tirana. He opened an agricultural school in Kavajë in 1926. In 1937 he was honored by King Zog with the Order of Scanderbeg. In 1945 he was a delegate of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America – VATRA to the founding conference of the United Nations and wrote to President Truman about Albania. Then he devoted his life to Albania with articles in the most prestigious newspapers in the world, like the New York Times, The Economist, etc. He died in 1966 at 99 years of age leaving behind one of his best legacies: an unpublished a history textbook about Albania with 56 chapters. This text is now published in Albanian.
Grace Elizabeth Johnson – Erickson – daughter of Charles Telford Erickson
With these thoughts in mind about meeting with people, one can imagine what beautiful feelings the meeting with this white-haired lady would create in me. So I set out on the day of 26 March 2014 towards the home in Needham, Boston with my wife, Donika, and our son, Kreshnik. Together we have made many long trips, within Albania and abroad, for purposes of knowing history, even in countries where it is unlikely for someone to go. We traveled a lot to find the traces of C. T. Erickson. But there was a growing dilemma in me as we got closer to our place:
Would we be disturbing this lady who was now at a ripe old age? Did she have any idea why we were visiting her? Would she be able to answer my questions, my interests and my curiosity on the Albanian reality for which her family sacrificed not a little?
Would she accept visitors who were total strangers to her and meet and talk with them?
The home where Grace Johnson is spending the last years of her life is located in a suburban area not far from Boston, on a hill lined with dense woods, with beautiful buildings and the most ideal conditions that one might think of spending their old age. We took the elevator, came to a receptionist and told her that we were there to visit Grace Johnson.
“Welcome!” she told us politely. “Please write your names in the visitor’s book and enter that hallway!” She is in the first room to the right.
So we did. To the left of the door of that room was a table on which was written:
Meet Grace Johnson.
“Grace Elizabeth Johnson was born in Yugoslavia on August 19, 1911. She lived in Capri, Italy, as a little girl and then moved to Geneva, Switzerland with her sister Crystal. They were put under the care of governess Stefanie. When Grace and Crys, were one 11 and the other 13 years old [Note: Grace was born in Bitola and Crys in Elbasan] their sister Lois went to Switzerland to get them and take them to England where they attended Berkhamsted School for Girls. Finally Grace came to the U.S. and studied nursing. She married Jasper Johnson during that time and they went together to live on a small farm in western Massachusetts. The farm had neither electricity nor running water. There she gave birth to two children, Crystal and Faye. From the farm they went to Rochester, New York, where Jasper worked as welder for the company Kodak. There three other children were born to them, Bob, Pete and Al. In 1950, Grace, Jasper and their family moved to Needham, Massachusetts. Jasper sold hearing aids in Boston. Their last child Don was born there. Grace settled in North Hill in 1998 while pursuing her passion for painting, swimming and books. She has eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.”
We entered into the well-furnished room that resembled a hospital room, with all the proper equipment. It was very clean. But Grace was not there. An orderly that we found there told us that she had gone to another room. Not much later, they brought her in. She was in a wheelchair.
Grace met us with a bit of surprise. Her eyes were sharp and without glasses. She had a deep, penetrating look, silver white hair, smooth face not much wrinkled, sweet smile full of light and life. The employee brought her before us and secured the wheelchair. I approached her and told her who I was. And so did my wife and son. I sat beside her. I felt I had before me the oldest living person born in Albanian lands.
I spoke a little about why I was there. I told her that I had come to meet her to honor the memory of her father, Charles Telford Erickson for everything he had done for my country.
She told me simply with a trembling voice: “No, really, you’ve done this for me?”
“Yes,” I said, “your father has done a lot for Albania.”
“Ah, yes,” she said, “my father was a great man.”
Then we continued the conversation. She remembered many things, but mostly what were told to her. I took out the book I had brought her. Then I asked, “Do you recognize the photo on the cover of this book?”
“Oh,” she sighed, “this is my father, Dad Eric.”
I told her that the entire book was devoted to his life and work in Albania and for Albania. Then we turned to the pages where the pictures were. She recognized them all.
“Yes,” she said, “this is my father, this is my mother, this, here is Alice, father’s second wife. She was very good to us. She loved us. Well, my father,” she sighed again,” was a great man. He opened schools there. Is his school still there?”
At that moment, I felt how great it was that on the 100th anniversary of the Independence of Albania, the Agricultural School in Kavajë was named after Charles Telford Erickson, the one who had established it, her father.
“Yes,” I said, “your father’s school is still open and bears his name.”
“Is it true?” she asked. “I am happy! He loved it. I was young when I left and father sent me to Switzerland with my big sister. We were kept by a good governess Stefanie. Eh.”
“Are you also a minister?” she asked.
In fact I have the impression that she knew something about me from her sons, Bob and Don who probably could have spoken to her about the function that I had. And in her time, those who served on that role were called ministers. Don had visited Albania in November 2012 when he inaugurated the book, then I met Bob and Don in the spring of 2013 when the Pan-Albanian Federation of America VATRA did the inauguration ceremony of the book in New York.
I explained that the book was a gift to her.
“No,” she said, “really? Is not this something very beautiful?”
Thank you very much!
She took it. She held it and looked intently at the cover picture of her father that resembled her so much.
I had done a lot to bring to light the life and work of Charles Telford Erickson. I traveled to Yale University, to the archives in Washington, New York and London, revealing documents, letters and translations until the publication of the book. But my concern was how to find someone from his family as living proof of the contribution of this so pro-Albanian family. It was the Reverend Father Arthur Liolin, head of the Albanian Orthodox Church of America, the successor of our great Noli, who shortly before the publication of the book informed me that he had information of Erickson’s descendants. So I contacted Grace’s sons, Don and later Bob, grandson and granddaughter of Telford, Paul and Mary Morris. All these contacts gave me a beautiful emotion because it was as if I had found the branches of a tree that had its roots in Albania and had given my Albania, our Albania, so much ….
Of course meeting with Grace Johnson, however brief, was the most special, the most beautiful, and the most unforgettable experience in all this.
A moral obligation
Thus I met the direct descendant of my hero (I hope of all Albanians) Charles Telford Erickson on 26 March 2014. I left that home with an immense love and respect for the daughter of a man who had given everything to Albania, even members of his family.
It was not only the endless veneration I feel for his work, but also the role that he has played and plays in my life ever since I became familiar with his work that took me to such a meeting. Even though he is dead, the light of his soul has become a light of education, of spiritual cleansing, of a beautiful human feeling, of compassion for the poor, the small, the helpless, be this an individual or a nation, as it was the case with the Albanian people when he got acquainted with them, in the last years of the Ottoman darkness that had enveloped the country. And not only then, but till the end of his life Albania was to him a purpose, a mission, a task.
The role of Grace Johnson may seem small or insignificant, but she is evidence of the sacrifice of her father, which resulted in the loss of her brother and her dear mother for the sake of the love for Albania. She grew up with a governess in a foreign land without the presence of her father and mother simply and only because her father devoted his life to Albania. She lacked the essential luxury that brings up and nourishes a child, the family, the homeland, the way of living her parents had known as children, but could not give to their children in the poor Albania.
And she herself calls him “a great man.”
There cannot be a more beautiful reconciliation than this with the sometimes trans-human feats of her father. Therefore I felt a moral duty not to miss the opportunity of meeting the woman who directly bore the blood of Charles Telford Erickson in her veins, his 103 years old daughter, Grace.
I practically met the history itself of one of the more meaningful, yet, unfortunately, more unknown segments of my country – the origin of the conception of relations with the greatest friend and ally of the Albanian people, the USA.
I hugged her, kissed her hand, and patted her silver hair. She looked at me sweetly. I felt she was looking at me with the same love her father had looked at the Albanians. She asked:
“When my friends ask me whom I met today, what should I say to them?”
I said, “Some people of an Albanian family who love my late father to worship and veneration.”
I had no business cards with such a designation. So I gave her my work’s. And I felt how much I honored that business card that day.
After meeting with Grace, her son Don Johnson wrote these words:
Thank you for visiting my beloved mother Grace.
Albania tempered Dad Eric. He implanted the Albanian Besa [Translated: the word of honor] in my mom and Mom Grace implanted it in us, her children.
Thank you, Albania.
And I answered:
Thank you America for giving Albania such people!
Boston, March 26, 2014