Podcast 492: Old Friends
[MUSIC Alan Singley “Taking Dark Matters Lightly”]
Michael Garofalo (MG): From NPR , it’s the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo.
MG: There’s this thing about radio — it happens to me and I’d wager it happens to you, too — where you can listen to someone talk for just a few minutes and you feel like you know them, almost like they’re a friend. Well, in this episode, we’re going to visit with some old friends.
James Ransom (JR): Let’s talk about Miss Divine.
Cherie Johnson (CJ): Miss Lizzy Divine.
JR: Miss Divine wore summer dresses; she had a bandana and a straw hat, and she was the only person I knew that had more power than my grandmother.
MG: And we’ll get an update on a story that stopped us in our tracks when we first heard it back in 2011.
Mary Johnson-Roy (MJR): After you left the room, I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’ And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart — for you — I knew it was over.
MG: You met these folks for a few brief minutes on the radio… and now you’re going to get to know them better, right after this message. Stay with us.
MG: And we’re back. And I do mean we… because I’m actually joined right now by one of our producers, Jasmyn Belcher Morris. Hey Jasmyn.
Jasmyn Belcher Morris (JBM): Hey Michael.
MG: So, you’re bringing us two interviews from a woman named Mary Johnson.
JBM: Mary Johnson-Roy, actually. And we’ll get to why her name has changed in a minute. But, yeah, two interviews with the same woman, five years apart.
MG: So, tell us about the first one.
JBM: Mary first came to StoryCorps with a man who easily could have been her enemy — and a lot of people said he should have been. But that’s what made this story so remarkable; they developed this incredible relationship.
See, in 1993, Mary’s son, Laramiun Byrd, was shot and murdered at a party in Minneapolis. And he was shot and killed by a teenager named Oshea Israel. He served time in prison, 15 years for the murder. But after he got out Mary sat down with him — the man who murdered her son — for this conversation.
MJR: You and I met at Stillwater Prison. I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you. But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.
Oshea Israel (OI): And he became human to me. You know, when I met you it was like, ok, this guy, he’s real. And then, when it was time to go, you broke down and started shedding tears. The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can–just hug you like I would my own mother.
MJR: After you left the room, I began to say: ”I just hugged the man that murdered my son.” And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you–I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.
OI: As far as receiving forgiveness from you–sometimes I still don’t know how to take it because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. It’s something that I’m learning from you – I won’t say that I have learned yet – because it’s still a process that I’m going through.
MJR: I treat you as I would treat my son. And our relationship is beyond belief. We live next door to one another.
OI: Yeah. So you can see what I’m doing–you know first hand. We actually bump into each other all the time leaving in and out of the house. And, you know, our conversations, they come from ”Boy, how come you ain’t called over here to check on me in a couple of days? You ain’t even asked me if I need my garbage to go out!”
OI: I find those things funny because it’s a relationship with a mother for real.
MJR: Well, my natural son is no longer here. I didn’t see him graduate. Now you’re going to college. I’ll have the opportunity to see you graduate. I didn’t see him getting married. Hopefully one day, I’ll be able to experience that with you.
OI: Just to hear you say those things and to be in my life in the manner that which [sic] you are is my motivation. It motivates me to make sure that I stay on the right path. You still believe in me. And the fact that you can do it despite how much pain I caused you–it’s like amazing.
MJR: I know it’s not an easy thing, you know, to be able to share our story together. Even with us sitting here looking at each other right now, I know it’s not an easy thing. So I admire that you can do this.
OI: I love you, lady.
MJR: I love you too, son.
[MUSIC Blue Dot Sessions “Grey Grey Joe”]
MG: So one of the things that’s shocking about this story is that they’re neighbors.
JBM: Yes, they lived right next door to one another in the same building. I mean they share walls, that close.
MG: So in the five years since they’ve recorded this interview what’s been going on in their lives.
JBM: Well Mary and Oshea got together and they went all over the country in local churches, local schools, sharing their story. And Mary also started a support group for other mothers who have lost children to murder.
MG: So you were telling me something else pretty major happened since this interview.
JBM: Yeah, I got something really amazing in my email one day. It was a wedding invitation. Mary was getting married!
MG: So, who’s the lucky guy?
JBM: His name is Ed Roy.
MG: And Roy, that’s why you corrected me earlier with Mary’s name, it’s now Mary Johnson-Roy.
JBM: Exactly. And like Oshea, Ed also served time in prison. And later, like Mary, he also lost a son.
Mary Johnson-Roy (MJR): How did you and I meet?
Ed Roy (ER): We met when my first-born and my one and only son was murdered. And a couple of my daughters had asked me to go to the church to hear you speak. I wasn’t ready for the forgiveness part, but I was at a loss. Like I shared with you, I thought God took my boy and was punishing me for my own crimes. I had joined the gangs early and pulled my first armed robbery at 11 years old. But with you being there, I saw hope. You took me under your wing; that’s why I called you my angel.
Then, I remember, I had that dream — that was just before our wedding. And your son was saying, ”Yeah, Mom! Alright!” You know, ”Right on!” And my son was saying, ”Yeah, Dad! ‘Bout time you got it right!”
MJR: We also had Oshea in our wedding because he is my spiritual son.
ER: That was beautiful. As the years and time goes by, you know where I been. You know where I hurt.
MJR: And I know you take care of me when I’m not doing well. And I’m grateful to have someone there that has experienced the same thing that I have. The anniversary’s coming up of my son’s murder — February 12th.
ER: That empty hole’s always going to be there in our hearts. But I feel like when we together and we able to listen to one another’s heartbeats, it says a lot.
MJR: I’m thankful. I really am. You’re a good man.
[MUSIC Peter Rudenko “Inhale Part 2”]
MG: So how long have Mary and Ed known each other?
JBM: Well, ok, so they’ve known each other for more than a decade…and they developed this really strong friendship before Ed admitted his feelings to Mary.
MG: Now Ed mentions in the interview that he had some rough years in his past.
JBM: Yeah, I mean at one point he had four felonies on his record. But those have been expunged in part because of the work he’s done sharing his story, and working with at-risk youth.
MG: You know, it’s so amazing how Mary’s taken this tragedy and twice she’s turned it into something really beautiful. But I think what I love most about hearing this update is that you get the sense of how hard it’s been.
MG: That this whole thing, you know, putting your life back together after a loss like this, and it’s really something that I marvel at when I hear Mary speak, the strength that is must take to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s just stunning.
JBM: Yeah, I don’t think you’re alone in that. I mean, when people find out that I work at StoryCorps, this is the story they bring up, five years later. And, you know, you just said something about how Mary has taken this tragedy and turned it into something really beautiful, twice. Well, I think you’ll be happy to know that she told me that there will be a third chapter. She wouldn’t tell me exactly what, but she did say that when she thinks about her life she sees it as a trilogy.
[MUSIC Ketsa “Escape the Profane”]
MG: Well Jasmyn, I hope that when the third part of Mary’s trilogy comes out that you’ll share it with us here.
JBM: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe I’ll invite you to the premier. [Laughs]
MG: Red carpet, please.
MG: Most of us probably have somebody from our childhood that looms large in our memories — good or bad. Maybe it’s a grandparent; maybe it’s your bully; maybe it’s a friend who moved away.
For Cherie Johnson and her cousin James Ransom, it was their neighbor and Sunday School teacher.
James and Cherie recorded their interview during our very first year touring around the country, back in 2005. They remembered the time they spent at their grandparents house in Bradenton, Florida. When they were kids, the whole extended family would gather there on weekends and holidays. And for the kids these weekends included Sunday school at the local Methodist church, which meant spending time with Miss Devine, a woman who taught and took care of two generations of their family.
James Ransom (JR): Let’s talk about Miss Divine.
Cherie Johnson (CJ): Miss Lizzy Divine.
JR: Miss Divine was a wiry lady. She wore summer dresses; she had a bandana and a straw hat, and she was the only person I knew that had more power than my grandmother.
CJ: She wasn’t a mean person; she was stern…
JR: Stern, yes, very stern.
CJ: …and you knew when she said something she meant exactly what she said. In fact, she was our Sunday school teacher. The only thing that would keep you from going to Sunday school, you had to have one foot on the banana peel and the other in the grave…
CJ: That’s the only thing.
JR: There’s no, no excuse.
CJ: You had to go.
JR: Had to go.
CJ: One of the things that you prayed for when you were in Miss Divine’s class was ‘Lord, please let me get old enough to get out of this class.’
CJ: She did the catechism: ‘Who made you?’ ‘God.’ ‘Where is God?’ ‘Everywhere.’ She went through and, oh Lord have mercy please.
JR: This Miss Divine would come in on Sunday mornings to take us to Sunday School. And when I saw her come, Cherie, I thought the leaves would be blowing off the trees, and the sky would go black and the clouds would come in and she come in the house one morning and say, ‘Good morning, children.’ And everybody from my mother on down said, ‘Good morning, Miss Divine.’ And she says, ‘It’s time to go to Sunday school this morning, children.’ I said, ‘Miss Divine, I can’t go to Sunday school today.’ She said, ‘No?’ I said, ‘No, ma’am.’ She said, ‘Why not?’ I said, ‘My mother didn’t bring enough clothes for me to go to Sunday school this morning.’ She said, ‘Oh, no?’ I said, ‘No, ma’am.’ She said, ‘Well, what do you have, what kind of clothes do you have?’ I said, ‘All I have, Miss Divine, are my pajamas and my tennis shoes.’ She said, ‘Well, that’s OK, honey, put your tennis shoes on; we’ll go to Sunday school.’ I looked at my mother and she looked away, Cherie. Miss Divine made me walk two blocks in my pajamas and my tennis shoes. I had to sit in church with my friends during Sunday School in my pajamas and my tennis shoes…I’m gonna tell you, Cherie, I..I never lied again.
CJ: Miss Divine was always there to take care of us. But when Miss Divine braided your hair your eyes went up like this.
CJ: You had to sleep on soft pillows because I mean, boy she had it tight.
JR: Mm mm mm.
CJ: And Miss Divine had mango trees all over her yard but Miss Divine never brought you a mango until it was rrrrotten.
CJ: It would smell like liquor. [Laughter] That’s when she brought you the mango.
JR: But you know what? That’s the kind of stuff that we got growin’ up. And, and, and I’ll never forget that.
[MUSIC Abdullah Ibrahim “Mannenberg Revisited”]
MG: That was James Ransom with his cousin Cherie Johnson in Sarasota, Florida.
MG: We got some sad news last week when we found out Cherie Johnson had passed away. Her funeral was this past weekend. It was held at the church that her grandfather created in Bradenton — it was packed with her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even one great-great-grandchild. There were lots of stories about mangoes and miss divine, including a screening of the animated version of the story you just heard. Cherie will be sorely missed, and will always be part of the StoryCorps family.
[MUSIC Yeyey “Tiptoe Instrumental”]
That’s all for this episode. These stories were produced by Jasmyn Belcher-Morris, Liyna Anwar, and Katie Simon. The podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop. Find out what music we used in this episode and in every episode on our website, StoryCorps.org. Don’t forget to review us on iTunes and tell us what you think of the show. And if you want to leave a voicemail for someone you hear on this show… give us a call at 301-744-TALK, that’s 301-744-T-A-L-K.
For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.