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Family Album / Al and Mary Ruth Joyner

Abiding Strength

November 01, 1998|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the one-month anniversary of her mother's death--not that 7-year-olds measure grief in such ways--Mary Ruth Joyner is sitting cross-legged in a quiet corner of the kitchen pulling bits and pieces of her mama's life out of a monogrammed canvas duffel. An empty Fruit Rollup wrapper (apple flavor), a mirrored black compact and a tortoise-shell tube of glittering bronze lipstick.

Mary twists open the lipstick and, holding it like a pen, inscribes a piece of scrap paper in her careful third-grade cursive. "F . . . l . . . o . . . J . . . o," she writes slowly, then with two quick strokes, draws a little heart at the end.

"Mary, come play a song for us," someone calls from the living room. She tucks the Valentine back into the bag and joins the grown-ups (the house seems full of grown-ups lately) around the ebony piano her mother bought a decade ago with the hope that there would someday be a child to play it.

Too short for the bench, Mary stands up to the keyboard to play. She plays "Chopsticks"--with both hands, rushes through a few chords of Beethoven's Fifth and then picks out a new melody she came up with one day after school.

"No, no, play that one I like so much, that happy tune," says her father, Al Joyner. Although Mary has never had a music lesson, she offers a flawless rendition of Beethoven's aerie "Fur Elise."

"Isn't she amazing?" Al marvels. "Mary is a true gift from God. One more strong woman to help me through this life."

To understand the force of Florence Griffith Joyner's determination, to feel the power of her enormous presence--even in death--one need only spend a day with Mary and Al.

Before Griffith Joyner died Sept. 21 after suffocating in her pillow during an epileptic seizure, her husband used to joke that when he wrote his autobiography, the title would be "Man in the Middle."

"Almost since I was born, I've been surrounded by strong, strong women. First, my mother, Mary Ruth, then my sister Jackie [Joyner-Kersee] and then my wife. Without them," Al says, "I couldn't have done any of what I have with my life. Now, it's up to Mary, my mother's namesake. She's the future."

Living Up to His Name

Alfrederick Alphonzo Joyner has not always been defined by the women around him. At first, he was defined simply by his name.

"With that grandiose name, I just had to do something important," he says.

His mother was 15, and his father, Alfred, was 14 and a promising pole vaulter and hurdler who gave up sports when Al was born on Jan. 19, 1960. Sister Jackie, named by their Grandma Ollie for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, arrived two years later. Two other sisters soon followed, and they all lived in Grandma Ollie's home--a tiny house with a front porch 3 feet off the ground that Al and Jackie and their cousins used to practice long-jumping from into the weed-choked yard.

Raised on the wrong side of the Mississippi in East St. Louis, Ill., a city that often tops the list of the nation's most dangerous places to live, the Joyner kids were strictly supervised by their mother. One of the few places she let them go without her was the neighborhood recreation center.

Al took up swimming and diving. Jackie took up track and field. Then, as now, they didn't compete against each other if they could avoid it. If they did, Jackie usually won, and Al had to endure another week's worth of teasing from his father.

But not even Jackie could swim like Al. As a lifeguard at the public pool, he was famous for saving a 7-year-old from drowning. The girl dubbed her hero "that sweet man by the water," and soon everyone who heard the story of the rescue was calling Al "Sweetwater." It was a nickname that fit the soft-spoken, sweet-tempered boy.

But in high school, after years of watching his sister and his cousin Roderick Glover, a champion high school hurdler, compete, Al decided to go out for track. He didn't give up his late-night dance contests (which he always won), so Jackie had to drag him out of bed in the morning for practice before school. But with his cousin's help, he mastered the tricky triple-jump technique and, by the last three weeks of high school, had improved so dramatically that he was offered a scholarship to Tennessee State.

A semester later, Al transferred to Arkansas State. But in his sophomore year, he was called home: His mother was in an irreversible coma. She had been stricken with a rare and virulent form of meningitis, and, at the age of 37, Mary Ruth Gaines Joyner died.

In 1983, Al left college to train full time for the Los Angeles Olympics.

"If I don't come back," he told friends, "it's because I'll have married Florence Griffith."

He had been smitten by the dazzling sprinter for months. From the moment he saw her picture in Track & Field News, he wanted to marry her. Now that she was training with his sister Jackie at UCLA, he had reason to hope he might actually get a date.

Jackie wasn't so sure.

"Why not? Because he was my brother, my crazy, silly, daydreaming brother," Jackie recalls.

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