When Canaan McCormick graduates from the Georgia Academy for the Blind on May 23, she will become the fourth member of her family to receive a diploma from a school in Macon.
Her mother, June Forester McCormick, graduated from Wesleyan College in 1978 and her aunt, Kathy, was a Wesleyan graduate in 1976. Canaan’s brother, Carter, received his degree from Mercer University in 2012.
Canaan has a prediction about her mama on the big day. “She’s gonna cry,” Canaan said.
June has been a Braille teacher at the academy for the past seven years. She won’t try to put the brakes on her emotions. There will be happy tears. Proud tears.
Her three sisters -- Kathy, Kim and Christy -- will be there, too. And they all will be so happy they just might stand up and sing.
If they do, Canaan has a special request. It’s called “Another Shoulder at the Wheel.”
When I’ve done all I can do
I can always turn to you
Another shoulder at the wheel to see me through
When the road is long and the tears are real
When I’m past the point of giving up
There’s nothing like the feel, of another shoulder at the wheel
“It sums up our journey together,” June said of her daughter.
Canaan is 21 years old and has been blind since birth. She was born four months premature and weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces.
Her twin sister, Cless, did not survive. Canaan wasn’t given much of a chance either.
“But she’s a fighter, and she made it,” June said.
Since 2007, Macon has been June and Canaan’s second home during the school year. After graduation, they will return to their close-knit family in New Salem, in the northwest corner of Georgia. June’s parents, C.D. and Vonnie Forester, still live in the same house where they raised their four talented daughters. Her husband, Joel, is the chief magistrate judge in Dade County.
Canaan has lined up a part-time job at a radio station in Trenton, so they will “come down off the mountain,” as they say in the hills, and Canaan can play songs for listeners from Lookout Mountain to Rising Fawn.
Her famous mom and aunts have been making music in those mountains for more than a generation. Canaan will have her own personal playlist.
“I Fell in Love Last Night.” “(I’d Choose) You Again.” “Mama’s Never Seen Those Eyes.”
“I ask people at school if they’ve ever heard of The Forester Sisters,” Canaan said. “When I tell them my mother is one of them, they say, ‘Get out of town!’”
Singing sisterhood sensation
The Foresters grew up in a musical region two hours south of Nashville. Most everybody could pluck the strings of a banjo on bluegrass Saturday nights and carry a tune in the church choir loft on Sunday mornings. They didn’t believe they were any more special than anyone else.
Kathy and June are the oldest, and when Kathy was 10, the family got a piano. The two sisters sang “Silent Night” the next Sunday at the New Salem Methodist Church.
“We wouldn’t let Kim sing with us because she was little,” June said. “But she started singing so loud from the pews when she was 5, people in the congregation said we had to let her sing with us. Then we wouldn’t let Christy sing until Mama finally said if we didn’t, ‘y’all won’t get to go swimming in the creek on Sunday.’ That was a big social event, so we finally relented.”
Kathy was a “piano performance” major at Wesleyan, and June soon joined her to pursue a degree in education. Coming from a family of all girls, they didn’t have to do much adjusting to the all-female Wesleyan. They enjoyed the rich musical heritage of Macon, starting with The Allman Brothers and other Southern rock groups signed by Capricorn Records.
After college, they returned to teach school in Dade County, where their roots were as humble as ever. Their mother was a “spinner” in a nearby textile mill. Their father drove a truck for the water authority in Chattanooga and farmed soybeans and corn.
His first name, C.D., would be somewhat prophetic for his musically inclined daughters. The Foresters began singing with local bands. They made a demo tape in December 1983 and later did a “showcase” concert in Calhoun with country singer Larry Gatlin, who told them: “If you’re not big stars, you ought to be.”
A drummer with connections to Warner Brothers Records was able to get them an audition in Nashville in July 1984 -- 30 years ago this summer -- and they were signed on the spot. The mother-daughter duet The Judds had just broken onto the country music scene with a fresh sound.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” June said.
They became the first act in Billboard history to have their first 15 singles all reach the Top 10 on the country charts. They toured for 12 years, spending as many as 320 days a year on the road. (June’s husband, Joel, was the group’s road manager.)
The Forester Sisters performed on stage at The Grand Ole Opry more than a dozen times, including as recently as this past February. They worked with some of the biggest acts in country music, from Alabama to Dolly Parton to Kenny Rogers to Johnny Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash.
(She said June Carter Cash was intrigued that Forester’s name was June and her son’s name was Carter. June said Carter no doubt got his “adventurous spirit” from his early travels with the singing group. He recently returned from Africa and Costa Rica, where he filmed alligators. His degree from Mercer is in digital media production, and he is doing graduate work at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He wants to work for National Geographic.)
“When we all started having children, we took them with us,” June said. “We were one big, rolling family. My sisters’ children became like my children. The kids would laugh and say they were interchangeable. They didn’t care which one of us they were with. We were all like their mothers.”
‘Can’t imagine life without her’
“I always wanted to be a mother,” June said. “My life is centered around my family and my children. Of all my sisters, I’m the most like my mother. My father tells everyone my mother will never die as long as I’m alive.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1992, June was admitted to the hospital. Cless was born 18 weeks prematurely and died.
“Then, like a miracle, everything stopped,” June said. “I held on to have Canaan. She was born two weeks later.”
June picked her daughter’s biblical name, appropriately enough, from a hymn book. June stayed in the hospital until almost Christmas. Canaan did not go home for 105 days.
When Canaan was 3 months old, doctors confirmed to June -- a lady who sang harmony on the Forester Sisters song “Mama’s Never Seen Those Eyes” -- her daughter could not see.
The first time Canaan went on the road with her mother, she was 7 months old and only weighed 7 pounds.
“She was almost like a newborn and still fragile,” June said. “I held her on the plane all the way to Las Vegas.”
Everything began to change.
“When she came along, it was a turning point for me,” June said. “I had to prepare to help her, and others as well. We had some blind fans who came to our concerts, but I’m not sure I had ever known somebody who was blind.”
She returned to school and got her master’s in education for the visually impaired from Middle Tennessee State. She taught Canaan and other blind students in Dade County for a dozen years before they came together to the Georgia Academy for the Blind.
It has been a blessing for mother and daughter. Canaan has received a specialized education she would not have had if she had been mainstreamed in the public schools. June has taught grades K-3 and 6 in the classroom at the academy and is now the lead Braille teacher.
“As a mother, I can’t imagine my life without her,” June said. “It has been a rocky road at times, but we have such a close bond. When you have a visually impaired child, you are their eyes. Bless her heart. I’ve dragged Canaan all over the place. But to understand the world, they have to be out in it. They have to live it, touch it and feel it.”
Canaan has inherited her family’s musical genes. She plays the piano, clarinet and mandolin and sings, too. “She has perfect pitch,” June said.
Canaan once stood up at a wedding and sang with her mother and aunts. She rarely misses a Forester Sisters rehearsal, and she has remained her mother’s No. 1 fan.
“She has encouraged me to never give up, pursue my dreams and not to sweat the small stuff,” Canaan said.
Another shoulder at the wheel.