A Tribute to Grandma Margaret

The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul

My mother, Grandma and me on Dec 23, 2019, less than month before her sudden decline and passing.

On Tuesday morning, January 21st, 2020, my grandmother, Margaret Johnston, passed away after a months-long battle with cancer. Grandma Margaret died in the comfort of the home the she and her husband, my grandfather, shared for over four decades. She was surrounded by my mother, her three sisters, and my uncle, their spouses, and her fifteen grandchildren. I was privileged to be with her in what ended up being among her last days, but it still did not seem like enough time. In the days leading up to, and since, her passing, I’ve reflected on the most extraordinary elements of her life and legacy. I realize I’m only beginning to understand the extent to which her life has touched those around her, including my own, inspiring and my view—and even my work—regarding the foundations of human relationships and community. She was exceptional in many ways, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share two of them at her celebration of life this past weekend. One I call The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul. The other, the Zeal for Hope, and making ordinary encounters extraordinary.

The Mellifluous Echo of the Magnanimous Soul 

We are all familiar—either personally, or through news, history, or memoir—with the potential of a single individual, especially a parent, to make decisions that have unfortunate reverberations in the lives of those around them, often affecting generations. We hear many of these stories today. Indeed, many of the headlines of crime and human tragedy title what are actually stories of parental abuse and childhood suffering.

Less frequently do we hear stories of the inverse: tales describing how one incredible, extraordinary human being, one magnanimous soul, produces positive consequences that reverberate across time. Such people have tremendous strength of character and raw determination, and act as their family’s social glue and foundation. Through their lifestyle and cumulative decisions, they influence those around them—and the generations after them—for the better. These magnanimous souls, people of great personal strength and benevolence, live out a beautiful song—a song that produces a mellifluous echo in successive generations. They initiate a virtuous cycle that begins by building into the lives of those they meet, who in turn build into the lives of yet more individuals. Grandma Margaret epitomized this type of life. Hers was a life well-lived.

She and my grandfather raised their children—four daughters and one son—to love God, to be unceasingly considerate of others, to pursue moral excellence, and to walk through life with a joyful, contagious, and song-filled (at least for the sisters!) ebullience. Each of my grandmother’s children, while unique in their own right, have gone on to be glue in their families and communities. Each of their two to four children—my cousins and my siblings—have, in turn, internalized these values, originally instilled by my grandmother and diffused by our parents, and have become positive lights in their own spheres of influences. This is the extraordinary legacy my grandmother leaves. It is one that is difficult to quantify, but one that has done untold good for more people than she—or I—will ever know. As Ravi Zacharias said in his video-eulogy to her, which we played at her celebration of life, only eternity will reveal how she blessed the world and those around her.

Zeal for Hope, and Maximizing Every Human Interaction

For Grandma Margaret, there was no such thing as an ordinary, casual human encounter. No meeting with another person was neutral: every interaction was an opportunity for her to share the absolute hope she held with every molecule of her being. Her central hope was in her faith. She believed resolutely in the eternal salvation that comes with Jesus Christ for anyone who chooses to repent from their sin and accept the free gift of forgiveness through His death and sacrifice on the cross. She was never without a gospel tract or a booklet on the “Four Spiritual Laws” in at least three different language. After years of passing conversation and friendship, even saw her mail lady come to faith.

In addition to the Gospel, which she was confident would bring people internal peace, she also had great hope in products or services that she was confident would make people’s physical physical lives better. She was a serial entrepreneur: often when a new company came to Canada, my grandmother was among the first people they would recruit to help them sell their wares. It’s difficult to fully recount all the different companies she was involved with, but among the ones that I remember from my childhood are Mary Kay cosmetics (my grandmother, my mother, and one of my aunts at one point each had pink Cadillacs which they parked simultaneously in their driveway in Oakville, Ontario!), Environu non-toxic household cleaning products, Xoçai health dark chocolate, Amway, Tahitian Noni juice—the list goes on! She was even awarded an Amway “Idea Award” by Richard DeVos for her entrepreneurial spirit. Even now, remnants of these products and their promotional materials can be found throughout her home—and seeing them never fails to bring a smile to the face of anyone who knew her. 

Pink Is The Color of Success: My grandmother, my mother, and my Aunt Skye featured in Oakville Ontario’s local newspaper for their success in selling Mary Kay Cosmetics. They are are photographed above with one of their three (!) pink Cadillacs.

At Grandma Margaret’s celebration of life, my uncle invited the audience to offer more of her business ventures, many of which we had forgotten! My mother laughs remembering times when Grandma Margaret, while in retirement and no longer fully invested in any single product, would laugh as she reached from a selection of her promotional brochures before leaving the house and ask, laughingly, “Which one should I promote today?”

Yes, Grandma was most herself when she was sharing with others the hope that she had—whether it was in Christ or healthy chocolate. Yet more than anything, selling all of these products was merely a pretense for her. It was an excuse for her to satiate her passion for people and for relationships. For my grandmother, a stranger was just a friend she had not yet met. She was socially fearless, and had no qualms approaching and striking up a conversation with homeless person downtown Toronto (armed with a Tim Hortons cup of hot chocolate for them and a gospel tract, naturally), or Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker at a cocktail party.

She had a passion for people, for forming relationships, and for making other’s lives better. She was always eager to share her hope with anyone who would listen.

Of course, sometimes she irked people who were suspicious of her kindness. After all, who starts a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop these days? There were, of course, others who simply didn’t want to be sold to—including members of her own family! I remember taking my grandmother for coffee around this time last year and being vexed that, the moment we sat down, she began to introduce herself to the middle-aged man at the table next to us. Within moments, she had drawn a gospel tract from her handbag to begin leading him through it. Grandma, I thought to myself, why can’t we just spend time together? Why must everything be a moment of salesmanship?  

Yet sharing her hope was embedded in her DNA, and though her acts of kindness and friendship were sometimes misplaced, misinterpreted, or rebuffed, far more often were they appreciated, reciprocated, and brought life and light to someone direly in need of it. In a world plagued by darkness, loneliness, and a lack of hope, the intentionality that my grandmother brought to every exchange with other persons, and her fervor for cultivating friendships, undoubtedly made the world a brighter, more connected place. 

It was a privilege to share a few of these ideas at her celebration of life this past weekend, which you may find here. Losing her leaves a gap felt keenly by our family, but my aspiration is to honor her by keeping her legacy alive and mining her rich life, brimming with wisdom and grace, for lessons in community and friendship that can be a model for, and inspiration to, us all. 

Grandma Margaret, July 13, 1936 – January 21, 2020.