Local Neapolitans Celebrate the Holidays in Hand-Stitched Tradition
PHOTOGRAPHY BY VANESSA ROGERS
Neapolitans have a way of doing things with a certain je ne sais quoi, as demonstrated so elegantly by Susie and William “Bill” Johnson during the holiday season. Love, artistry, and family tradition come together beginning just before Thanksgiving, when enough beloved ornaments come out of safekeeping to fill five Christmas trees, grace tabletops, and evoke ooohs and aaahs all around.
Against the neutral tones and understated elegance of their beachfront home in Naples, each element of the Johnsons’ Christmas decor becomes an objet d’art. At the heart of it all are Susie’s exquisitely designed needlepoint stockings at the hearth, awaiting the arrival of Santa, and her personalized, hand-stitched ornaments celebrating the lives, passions, and passages of every member of the family. Well before a new baby is welcomed into the family, Susie is already stitching a needlepoint frame to await that first newborn photo.
“I’ve even made an ornament for each dog that we have been lucky enough to have in our lives,” Susie says.
Susie and Bill’s love story began when they were teenagers, and followed them through college days, marriage, two children, and now five grandchildren. The magic Bill experienced as a child during the holidays quickly became magical for Susie early in their marriage. Now the rising anticipation and joy of the season is the same for every member of the family. This Christmas there will be 11 hand-stitched stockings hanging from the mantel, including ones for grandchildren Katherine and Austin. Susie learned the art of needlepoint at age 16 at the side of her beloved Aunt Betty, and it has remained a passion all her life.
“She would have been so proud to know how much joy I still receive from her gift of teaching me to stitch,” she says.
Susie’s needlepoint artistry extends to other beautiful pieces as well, including tooth-fairy pillows, belts, coasters, and themed items for other holidays. In addition, her talent provided the inspiration for a business in which she created custom totes to carry needlepoint canvasses and yarns, which were sold to customers as far away as Israel.
“It gave me great satisfaction to know I could start a business and be successful,” she says. “Mission accomplished! I enjoyed it for several years. I didn’t have to do it forever.”
Sports and college are big themes in Susie’s stitchery. During their college years, one of the first needlepoint gifts she made for Bill was a UCLA pillow. Bill’s father, whose nickname was Tiger, played football for the San Francisco 49ers, and later coached for the Cincinnati Bengals, so it’s no surprise to find 49ers and tiger ornaments gracing the branches of one of the Christmas trees.
The Johnsons’ son Brad was a good soccer player, so Susie made several soccer ornaments for him over the years.
“Now Brad’s son, our grandson Will, is quite the athlete, following in his dad’s footsteps,” Susie says, so the newest soccer ornament is his. Will also is an excellent stitcher, which pleases his mom, and would certainly please Aunt Betty. “It’s a great form of relaxation,” she adds, “and a good way to hone fine motor skills. Best of all, it gives us time together, which I treasure.”
Bill, Susie, Brad, and daughter-in-law Kelly all have earned degrees from the University of Texas, so naturally there are plenty of college-themed ornaments. One year, when daughter Tracy attended Washington and Lee University, Susie stitched a university pennant into her ornament. And there’s at least one ornament for Sewanee: The University of the South, representing Brad’s undergraduate years there.
The Heinz Connection
Bill is the retired CEO of Heinz, so it’s no surprise that the company and its most popular products figure prominently in Susie’s needlepoint and Christmas decorations. Among the most treasured collections is a reproduction of the1880s Heinz Village. The clock tower replicates the clock that once topped the Heinz factory in Pittsburgh, and the domed building was a neighborhood grocery store. The real showpiece of the collection is the Heinz Hitch. The famous delivery wagon, which was pulled by six Percheron horses (at 2,000 pounds they’re bigger than Clydesdales), was in the Rose Parade, and was in demand for appearances at state fairs and other major events.
Each year for many years, Bill says, Heinz commissioned a Waterford crystal sculpture of a Heinz product to be given as Christmas gifts to dignitaries such as ambassadors and heads of state, and occasionally to key executives. Only a limited number of pieces were made, and then the molds were destroyed, so any remaining pieces have significant value.
The Johnson Chocolate Cookie
Only at this time of year does the aroma of chocolate cookies waft from the Johnson home on Gordon Drive. Not just any chocolate cookies, these are the result of a highly guarded secret recipe that evokes memories built over four generations.
“Every year, the smell of those first cookies coming out of the oven—and then that first bite—takes me right back to my mother’s kitchen, and to many wonderful Christmases when I was a little boy,” Bill says. “My mother, Dot, made them crunchy, while Susie’s are soft and chewy. Some like them one way, some like them the other.”
So what’s in this family recipe—and which does Bill prefer, the crunchy or chewy version?
“So sorry,” Bill says with a laugh. “One must be born into this family—or marry into it—to get this recipe. As for the second question: We’re talking about my mother and my wife. There’s no way in the world I’m answering that one.”