Cousin's death a reminder of choice for our ultimate destination

J. H. Osborne • Apr 23, 2017 at 11:49 AM

KINGSPORT — My maternal grandfather, Null Wallen, died just after daybreak on Easter Sunday 1981. “Popie,” as we called him, had a long list of survivors — including 24 grandchildren (three more had died in infancy).

I was 18 when Popie died and am the youngest of my generation, which in our entirety span nearly 25 years in age. As the baby of such a large clan, I’ve had, at 54, a lifetime of attention. OK, I’ll be honest, I’ve been lavished with attention, care, protection, direction, and love from these cousins  of mine, their spouses, their children (second cousins) and their grandchildren (third cousins). I’ve tried, especially as I have matured, to return that favor.

We have scattered and don’t necessarily keep in regular touch as much as the family did when Popie still walked among us. But for the 36 years since his death we remained whole.

That changed last week.

My cousin Judy Pearl (Manis Baker) died the evening of Easter Sunday. She had for years endured kidney disease and thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. I won’t reveal her age, other than to say she fell somewhere in the middle of the pack of Popie’s grandchildren. She (along with several other girls in our generation) was named in part for our grandmother Pearl Faye (Johnson) Wallen. Most people knew her as Judy. Several of us, though, routinely called her Pearl.

Pearls, after all, are precious, beautiful, natural and strong. And so was our cousin Judy Pearl.

She liked being in the center of things. She had a flair for fashion. She was known as a particularly good cook. Based on her flower gardens, I think maybe both her thumbs were green.

When I was a teenager, she was sufficiently older to give me advice on how to talk to girls, what to order when in an upscale restaurant, and other tips on the better things in life. She was well-traveled and had lived overseas as the young wife of a soldier, moving to be near him with their then babe-in-arms Teresa (Williams Roop). She would later live in Asheville, N.C., where my parents took me regularly to visit the renowned allergist Dr. Claude Frazier. That’s how Judy became the one to introduce me to the Grove Park Inn’s wonderful dining and entertainment facilities. She encouraged me when I was an aspiring photographer. When I switched to writing, she said I was the best she knew.

She often worked as a bookkeeper. Workplaces included Lowe’s and Brendle’s. When the Fort Henry Mall opened in 1976, Judy got a job and helped open a new-to-Kingsport fashion store. She always loved clothes. And as I said, she had style. Years later, she helped her husband, Rick, run a family business and ultimately fulfilled a longtime dream and owned an eponymous high-end clothing store in the Knoxville area. She later trained to serve as a caregiver for the elderly in their homes.  After her own disease worsened, she moved back to Kingsport to be closer to family. Through it all she kept her sense of humor and zest for life.

I like clothes, too. If I was dressed well and in good taste, Pearl would ask, “Where you preaching tonight?” or maybe, “Oh, you’ve got a date, don’t you?” But if I’d missed the mark, she’d just as quickly say “Where are you going in THAT?”

Judy would have loved her funeral at Higher Ground Baptist Church, and I think she would have been especially delighted that one of her grandchildren, Jordan Roop, was on drums as he and other musicians accompanied the church choir. My mother, Wanda, and Judy had a close relationship over the years and often talked on the telephone. At the height of the 1980s craze for primetime soaps such as “Dynasty” and “Dallas” — and as Dolly Parton opened Dollywood and starred in a string of films — my mother would answer the phone and Judy would say, “Hey Dolly, it’s Krystal. How are ya, darling?” For several years those nicknames between the two of them stuck. No character on “Dynasty” or “Dallas” ever had a more beautiful funeral than my cousin Judy Pearl.

“She was one mean cooking machine,” Rev. Phil Hoskins said at one point as he eulogized her. “I’ve never eaten better than from the table of Judy Baker.”

Hoskins said there was for sure something going on in Zion now that there’s a new cook in town, adding he would like to see their reaction there when they get their first taste of her chicken and dumplings.

Higher Ground Senior Pastor Dr. Ronnie Owens led off his eulogy for Judy by citing what each letter of her name brought to mind in relation to her life: “J” was for joyful, for she kept joyful even in sickness; “U” was for “understanding,” because she had great empathy for others; “D” was for “decision” because she’d made one and she knew where she was going; and “Y” was for “yes,” because her decision was to accept Christ.

Despite the diversions life offers us, both good and bad, productive or futile, we all share the common destination of that moment when we’ll draw our last breath.

But that wasn’t the end for Judy Pearl, both preachers said. Death wasn’t her final destination. Because of her faith, because of her choice — Jesus Christ — Judy Pearl’s destination on Easter 2017 was the pearly gates of heaven, to join not only her parents, Martin (Manis) and Ann; and Popie and Grandma Pearl; but all the believers who’ve gone on before her, including Jesus and the prophets of the Old Testament.

I usually use this space to write about places to go and things to do along the way, usually with an emphasis on humor and frivolity. I hated the catchphrase “YOLO” (you only live once, for those of you who don’t keep up with slang) popular a few years ago. I am not fond of FOMO (fear of missing out) being used as if it is a medical diagnosis. That said, “Destinations & Diversions” typically is aimed at remembering to enjoy life. Don’t let it pass you by.

But the loss of the first of my generation, those 24 of us who reached adulthood, has prompted me in this entry to say, “Don’t forget your ultimate destination.”

I’m glad Judy didn’t. I’m glad it’s another thing we had in common. I don’t get to spend much time with all my cousins today. But I am thankful, through faith, we have the opportunity to say “Yes” and rejoice together for eternity.

In addition to all us cousins, Judy is survived by her husband of thirty years, Richard "Rick" Baker; daughter, Teresa Roop (Tim); sons, David Martin Williams (Amy), George Williams (Michelle), step-daughters, Penny Clapp (David), Heather Coffey (Barry); granddaughters, Chelsae Troutt (Shawn), Hailey Thomas (Brody), Logan Williams and fiance’ Hunter Talbott, Audrey Williams, Devyn Williams and Channing Williams; grandsons, Jordan Roop (Whitney) and David Roop; step-granddaughters, Corrie Ledgerwood, Colbie Childress, Savannah Clapp and Brittany Coffey; step-grandsons, David Clapp, Jr., Corbet Coffey and Chris Coffey; great-granddaughter, Alexis Ann Troutt; brother, Waymond Manis (Phyllis); and several special aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times-News.