Family's Thanksgiving blessings: love, memories and a victory Amid holiday bustle, mother roots for son

November 29, 1991|By Rafael Alvarez

Four large and hungry young men in football jerseys appeared at Marilyn Johnson's table for breakfast yesterday morning.

As a television beamed New York City's parade into the living room of her West Baltimore home, Mrs. Johnson scrambled a dozen eggs and cut many slices of ham for the boys of City College's unbeaten football team.

In the middle of breakfast, she paused a moment to take from the oven a turkey she began stuffing and roasting at 5 a.m.

Five hours later, Thanksgiving Day was coming alive in the first block of North Athol Avenue, and while Mrs. Johnson had a full dayahead taking care of her family, her 17-year-old son, Kenya, could only think football.

Asked what he was thankful for, No. 75 on the big offensive line of the City College Black Knights said: "The game means another chance to do what I enjoy, playing football."

The game was the 103rd match between City and Poly, archrival football teams that meet every Thanksgiving afternoon to pound one another into the dirt at Memorial Stadium.

To the 6-foot 3-inch, 240-pound Kenya, the game was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the Black Knights to go unbeaten in his senior year. To his mother, it was yet another opportunity to be there for her son.

The game wouldn't start until 2 p.m., but Kenya and his football buddies wanted to get there early, and Mrs. Johnson accommodated them by dropping them off at the stadium about 11:30 a.m.

She then drove back to her 4-year-old town house just north of Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington, carved her turkey and made up four aluminum trays loaded with meat and stuffing -- stuffing with smoked sausage "the way my mother used to do it" -- stewed tomatoes, collard greens, turnips, potato salad, mashed potatoes and gravy.

These goodies Mrs. Johnson would run over to the east side of town where, in the 2600 block of East Hoffman Street, her elderly father and her brother Larry waited in the house where she was reared in the 1950s.

On the ride over from the stadium, the 44-year-old single mother, a defense contract administrator, talked about how grateful she was that Kenya is devoted to sports when so many young black men in Baltimore are interested in things that lead to death.

She was determined, she said, that he will go to college one way or the other but hopes his football skills will make the sacrifice easier to afford.

"That's been the plan since he was a kid, for him to go to college," she says.

"He's knows that we'll get him there one way or the other."

Traveling east on St. Lo Drive through Clifton Park in her burgundy Plymouth Acclaim, Mrs. Johnson picked up Sinclair Lane, headedsouth on Patterson Park Avenue, took Oliver Street to Luzerne Avenue and finally made a left onto East Hoffman Street to the row house her father bought some four decades ago after moving to Baltimore from Smithfield, Va., to work at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point plant.

Paul Lee Parker, in his wheelchair, waited for her at the kitchen table. This was his second Thanksgiving without his late wife, Eldner.

"Daughter," he said with a smile."Did you bring me something when you come?"

Mrs. Johnson opened the refrigerator to show her father the bounty she delivered, and the old man smiled again.

Asked to recall the Thanksgivings of his youth, Mr. Parker started at the beginning.

"I was born February the 20th, nineteen hundred and five. I ain't no child," he said. "When I was coming up we used to hunt possum, and coon and muskrats. This was in Smithfield, Virginia, on the south side of the James River. That's ham country, but when I was young we had turkey shoots, and that's how we got our Thanksgiving dinner."

Mr. Parker said he misses those days. "Can't do nothing like I used to do," he said. "I used to be able to shoot a squirrel runnin' across a tree on my good days."

But he is thankful for the days that have passed -- able to provide for his family by working "in coke ovens, and blast furnaces, open hearths, the tin mill, the old wire mill, yessir, I did all right" -- and he is thankful for the days he has left.

"I feel all right for an old man," he said. "I'm crippled, can't walk, can't shoot like I used to, can't hunt, but I thank the Lord that I'm here, and it's good to be here."

Inside a china closet in Mr. Parker's dining room is a picture of his grandson, Kenya, in his football uniform.

After a short visit, Marilyn Johnson took leave of her father to return to Memorial Stadium to watch her boy play football.

Mrs. Johnson sat on the west side of the stadium behind the fabulous City marching band.

For most of the game, the score was tied at 8 points apiece; City scoring early, Poly catching up and the contest in a deadlock until the third quarter.

"It's a tense game," she said. "I thought they were going to run away with it, but they didn't."

Soon, Kenya Johnson threw a block for speedy Hari Lymon deep in Poly territory and the tailback scooted into the end zone for the game's last score, giving City a 14-to-8 victory and preserving a perfect day in Kenya's perfect year.

In the stands, Mrs. Johnson said: "They give Hari the protection, and he does it every time."

Kenya joined his teammates whooping it up on the sidelines, and Mrs. Johnson waited to take him home so he could shower and change his clothes before they drove to the Woodlawn home of a friend who sings with Mrs. Johnson in East Baltimore's Faith Baptist Church choir.

And there, more than 12 hours after she woke up, Marilyn Johnson finally sat down to some turkey and fixings on Thanksgiving Day.

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