By Deana Culberson Johnson
There are some people who continue to inspire us long after their time on earth has passed. My aunt, Mary Ella Hall, made the best of life’s difficulties. She left a unique impression on everyone who knew her, sharing her love of art, books and music.
Aunt Mary battled health problems throughout her life and never married nor had children of her own. She was diagnosed with severe asthma as a child, and in the 1930s there were few treatments available. Doctors told my grandparents that there was little hope. Thankfully, they were wrong, and one of those kind doctors who made house calls when she suffered asthma attacks helped to fund her education at Campbell College where she studied literature. This doctor’s generous gift was evidence of her endearing personality.
Aunt Mary was an artist in every sense of the word, finding beauty in everyday things. She drew, painted, and prepared elegant verses in calligraphy. Words were her true medium. She told and wrote stories throughout her life, and she published several volumes of her poetry.
While growing up in Lumberton, I would visit Aunt Mary in summers in Raleigh. I would accompany her to the D.H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University where she worked. It seemed only fitting that she should be surrounded by books. On special occasions, she would pull out her “mad money” which she kept hidden in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator. I understand now what a tight budget she had, but she always splurged on me.
Her greatest gift to me, though, was the gift of words. She gave me books and magazine subscriptions for birthdays, and she fostered a love for reading that has enriched my life. She took me to my first book-signing where I was able to meet the author. I would share poems or stories I wrote, and she would study my childish notions as if they were the words of Shakespeare. As I got older, I continued to write, and Aunt Mary offered suggestions and encouragement. Her influence is one of the primary reasons that I write today.
Now, I have her books, old volumes that have an endearing history inscribed with her handwritten notes, her journals, letters she wrote to me and her beautiful poems. Her words still inspire me to write, and I think that she would be proud to know that I teach English today at UNC-Pembroke in the College Opportunity Program.