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Ready, Willis and Able – Bonnie continues to inspire (Nov. 19, 2014 issue)

By Janice Willis-Barnett
As we walked to the cemetery above Coffee Ridge Baptist Church, the sun lit up the green grass under our feet and glowed in the yellow and red leaves on the trees. There were no sounds except for muted, human voices and an occasional bird call. The sky looked as if it had been polished a brighter shade of blue just for the occasion. I thought how grateful I was to be in the company of these friends and relatives as we made our way to the gravesite of Bonnie Willis Edwards or Miss Bonnie as she was affectionately known.
After the committal service, we stood, not saying anything for a few moments. I imagined the old-time preacher Charlie Foster coming around the hillside, calling down to us, “And how is it with your souls today Brothers and Sisters?.” Uncle Charlie, as he was known, was Miss Bonnie’s grandfather. And without a doubt, he would have been pleased with Miss Bonnie because she was a great soul who faced adversity from an early age with amazing grace.
Imagine what life was like in remote parts of the south end of Unicoi County in the 1920s. There were no paved roads like today. People raised or hunted for almost everything they ate. And they frequently didn’t recover from accidents. In 1924, when twelve- year-old Bonnie lost an eye trying to start a fire to cook food for her family, she was fortunate that her Uncle Frank Willis was able to take her by bus to a hospital in Asheville. Then two years later, young Bonnie lost her mother and was again fortunate that her father moved the family to Willis Cove where the Willis women helped Bonnie learn how to take care of her younger sisters and little brother.
I stress Miss Bonnie’s good fortune in the face of such serious challenges in her young life because it speaks so much to the kind of person she became. For her the glass was never half empty. It was always half full. This is evident from stories of Miss Bonnie’s life, written down by her daughter Janie Franklin as she cared for her mother. You can read these stories in the books, “Willis Cove Through the Eyes of Miss Bonnie” and “Miss Bonnie’s Precious Memories.” While Janie was trying to get them ready for publication, she was helping Bonnie as well as dealing with a husband with Parkinson’s and working part time as a Hospice Minister.
Recently, I loaned my copy of “Willis Cove Through the Eyes of Miss Bonnie” to a friend, who is a social worker in nearby Washington County. When she returned it, she put her hand over her heart as tears ran down her face. “This book touched my soul,” she said and added that she was making plans to start recording her mother’s and her aunt’s stories of blessings and challenges.
Without a doubt, Miss Bonnie’s life continues to inspire.