remembrances

What I Learned As Toni Morrison’s Personal Assistant

Toni Morrison. Photo: James Keyser/The LIFE Images Collection via G

From 1997 until 2006, I served as Toni Morrison’s personal assistant, but I knew her before then. I’d met Toni through her caterer, my friend Franklin Johnson, a Cordon Bleu Chef who passed on a couple of years ago. I’d deliver food to Toni’s home, tend bar at her parties, and get to sit and shoot the breeze. She was always kind and generous to the workers because she was one of us.

Everything she said seemed important to me then, and that was true throughout the nine years I worked for her. It’s still true. I got to know the private side of Toni in those days: her joking-around-while-smoking-a-surreptitious-cigarette-with-the-workers side. Her often-wicked-sense-of-humor side. Her anger-at-what-isn’t-right side. Her ceaseless-love-of-family-and-friends side.

If you watch the new Timothy Greenfield-Sanders documentary, The Pieces I Am, you’ll see Toni enjoying her porch swing, a swing I installed at her home in Grand View-on-Hudson, New York. She had wanted one for a long time and came out right away to give it a try. You could see the joy in her face. As she sat there, a distant look came across her face as she gazed out at the Hudson River and she said, “John, do you see that spot just beyond the dock? That’s where I saw Beloved come out of the water.”

***

September 11, 2001 began typically. I was on my morning 5k and had the Don Imus show on my Walkman. Then the first plane hit. Soon, the second. Sportscaster Warner Wolf — who lived just north of the towers — called into the show and described the horrific scene. I showered in a daze and made my way to Toni’s home. She was glued to the TV screen, and we looked at each other with a mutual expression of something like numb disbelief. As the day went on, gray smoke wafted up the Hudson. So many souls in that dust, drifting by the place Beloved came out of the water. All we could do, after a while, was look out the windows surrounding the room, sit there, watching the particulates swirl and settle into the river.

***

A fully dressed woman walked out of the water. She barely gained the dry bank of the stream before she sat down and leaned against a mulberry tree. All day and all night she sat there …

***

One of the last emails I received from Toni was in January 2018. I had written to wish her a happy new year, let her know about our move to Raleigh and some struggles we’d been having. She wrote back:

Happy new year John,

Glad you are holding up so well. Life should get simpler not so complicated. I have to placate every bone in my body just to write a paragraph. I am 86 so perhaps I should shut up.

Good luck to your family. You always do the right thing.

Peace

Toni

I don’t always do the right thing. But Toni Morrison taught me how to do the right thing more often than I’d done it before, and she often led me toward what the right thing might be. And we are all lucky Toni didn’t just shut up these last two years. Everything she wrote and said is important.

At this moment, I’m staring at a photo of Toni and me on the back porch. Her face is animated, and she’s pointing at something outside the frame. Toni’s greatest creations were not her novels; rather, they were the thousands of young writers she bore into being. I think she would have told you as much. As she famously stated in O, The Oprah Magazine, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

The author and Toni Morrison. Photo: Courtesy of John Hoppenthaler

For decades, many of these writers — of all colors, genders, ages, and orientations — have come up to me and shared their stories of love and indebtedness, of the freedom Toni granted them to write the books they wanted to read, the ones we needed to read. Natasha Trethewey, one of the writers who owes this debt, once told me about an event at Radcliffe College she’d attended with Toni a few years ago. At dinner, Toni stood behind Natasha’s chair, put her hands on her shoulders and said a few words to her. In doing so, Toni’s breasts brushed the top of her head. Natasha told me it was as if she had been anointed.

***

Toni loved mysteries. She might say, “Oh, look at the time. Jessica’s on.” Then she’d go into the next room to watch Murder She Wrote. She loved P.D. James. Toni’s novels are all mysteries, of course, their narrators trying to determine who is ultimately to blame for the atrocities we levy on one another. In The Bluest Eye, Claudia MacTeer tells us, “There is nothing more to say — except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” Toni, speaking through her character, suggests the importance of documentation of the black experience and, of course, in the documenting of the how, the mystery of the why is ultimately revealed. Not cleared up — revealed. Toni Morrison’s oeuvre is about revelation, in both of its dictionary meanings.

Toni’s great friend, poet Lucille Clifton, signed many books for me. Always, the inscription was “Joy!” In my sadness today, I remember, above all else, that Toni Morrison’s is a life we should celebrate, even as we mourn. From her body, from her personal grief and sense of loss, from the grief that floats through the air of her words will emerge more writers and more stories, and it is in this we must find solace in such troubled times.

In her 1993 Nobel lecture, Toni wrote, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” I’m sitting near the shoreline, waiting for Toni to emerge from the water, imagining creation, imagining re-creation. Or I’m sitting here at my desk, midnight coming on, picturing Toni, her beloved son Slade, her sister Lois, and Franklin Johnson together, laughing and munching on a few of Franklin’s amazing spareribs, maybe, in some place better than here. Joy!