Annette.

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A dear friend left us on Saturday.

She smiled serenely at her husband when he told her “Good morning, sweetheart”, and the next time he came into the room, she was gone.

Here one moment.

With the Lord the next.

And while I am truly happy that she has left behind the body that has suffered through rheumatoid arthritis for years, my heart is crying out for her to come back.

Just one more conversation.

Just one more time to clasp her hands in friendship.

Just one more time to watch her interact with her husband, the love of her life.

Just one more chance to convey my appreciation for everything she taught me…

You would have loved Annette.

I can say that with certainty because everyone loved Annette.

It was impossible not to.

She was a tiny little spitfire of a woman, the epitome of a Southern belle, and anytime I had the pleasure of sitting beside her in conversation, I marveled at her ability to navigate truth, humor, and grace as she included and entertained everyone, somehow commanding the room and offering hospitality even when she was too frail to rise up from her chair.

She was like a queen, transforming by her presence a simple room in a senior living center into a palace, her nondescript chair into a throne.

And her husband was her king.

A true gentleman, Mr. J.L’s voice is kindness itself, full of rich tones that cover you with comfort and love when he speaks…

and, oh my. Together, he and Ms. Annette painted a breathtaking picture of Christ and His church, and it was a gift to learn from them as they effortlessly loved one another with every word they spoke and every glance they shared. Their home, free of malice and negativity, was an oasis, and you would be hard-pressed to leave their presence with a frown on your face.

When it comes to Ms. Annette, I don’t even know where to start…

I loved so many things about her. She was as sharp as a tack, and could hang with the best of wits and the cleverest of tongues; it is not everyday that my husband finds a worthy verbal opponent, and Ms. Annette always managed to drop the last joke. How I loved to observe their discourse, a veritable tennis match between two comedians, and my only job was to laugh and enjoy.

I’ll never forget the “bazinga” she dropped on me when I was pregnant with Rebekah. My church had been praying for me concerning some strange heart palpitations I was experiencing; after weeks of panic and worry wherein I mourned the fact that some other woman (the hussy Mr. Gore was sure to replace me with once I was dead) would be planning Gideon’s birthday parties, it was finally discovered that I was simply experiencing acid reflux, and, as we left the clinic that day, my beloved doctor prayed with us that “we would learn to trust you, God, even when we’re being a little bit crazy”.

Well, when Ms. Annette called my mom to check on me and heard the report that I had been diagnosed with acid reflux and a little bit of craziness, she clucked her tongue and said, “Well, you tell her she should get a second opinion!…”

After a pregnant pause, she dropped the punchline: “He’s right. She IS crazy”.

Ms. Annette was not only hilarious, she was beautiful. I still can’t quite believe that Hollywood never discovered her, but their loss was completely our gain. Whether she was in a wheelchair or a sickbed or sitting on her throne in the living room, she carried herself with dignity and poise.

Oh and…jewelry. Lots and lots of jewelry. Rings on her fingers, bracelets on her wrist, earbobs in her ears, dainty shoes on her tiny, little feet…

she fairly sparkled with gems and she sparkled with life, even as hers was coming to an end.

But it was her soul that shone the brightest.

We hit it off, the two of us, from the very first time we met. She watched me grow up, she saw me get married, and she held my babies. And through it all, she loved me.

Her love was pure.

Her love was faithful.

And in a church age where friends so easily come and go, that is no small contribution. It is a remarkable thing to have someone in your corner for life. Someone who checks on you. Who thinks about you. Who prays for you.

And even though Ms. Annette was too sick to attend our church for the past four years, she was for us.

I doubt that she ever realized how much that meant to two young kids just starting out in the ministry.

And so, as I thought about her life today, I mourned…

for the loss of another friend…

for her husband who had to go to bed without her Saturday night for the first time in 72 years…

for her daughter and best friend, Mary, who loved her as much as I love my own mom…

and for this broken and fallen world where death is a grave reality.

But in the midst of my mourning, I felt something else, something new, a reaction that I have always longed for but never mastered.

I rejoiced.

Death has taunted me my entire life, stealing joy from even the most beautiful moments; it has rarely visited my loved ones, but the fear of it has been a nearly constant companion, an enemy that never tires. It rains on my parades. It poops on my parties. It grips me. It mocks me.

And, in my childlike mentality, I’ve always considered it to be the worst thing that could happen, ever, to anyone.

And that it happens to everyone has been, until this point, inconceivable.

But in one last act of friendship on this earth, Ms. Annette, with her beautiful life and her peaceful passing, has given me a gift; for in her death, for the first time in my life, I am finding a hope that overshadows even my deepest fears. I’m starting to see it now…

this life really is just a vapor and a shadow.

It is a blink.

And in that discovery, I see a choice: I don’t have to be frustrated that my visits with Ms. Annette during her sickest days and my child-rearing days were too infrequent.

I don’t have to wish to see her just “one more time”.

I don’t have to mourn like all is lost for Mr. J.L. or Ms. Mary.

Because the beautiful, life-altering, Bible-based truth is this…

I will see her again.

I will clasp her hand.

I will chat with her.

I will see her smile serenely at the husband who loves her, their bodies free from the curse, their future eternal and perfect.

I will thank her.

And thank her.

And thank her.

This isn’t the life we were made for, but rather, the shortest prologue to our real story, and the friendship that I weep for today has really only barely begun.

What comfort! What joy!

What hope.

Ms. Annette and I always expressed our desire to live next door to one another in heaven…

and now that she has gone there before me, the thought grows fonder and dearer.

We meet to part…

we part to meet.

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Della.

From Della to Mr. Gore, July 2007…

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If you had told me two weeks ago that my first outing with Baby Shepherd would be to Ms. Della’s funeral, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But such is the nature is death…

if we knew when it was coming, we would spend every waking moment in bedside vigils, hanging onto the ankles of those we knew would soon be departing.

As it was, they were so habitual and ordinary, I don’t even remember my last words to Della.

I know we were probably standing either in the dimly-lit church sanctuary or in the fellowship hall, where we crossed paths Sunday morning after Sunday morning after Sunday morning, for as long as I can remember.

I would have told her how beautiful she looked.

(She always looked beautiful).

She would have asked how I was feeling and might have exclaimed over how much Betsie has grown or how handsome Gideon looked in his dress clothes or how Rebekah’s hair is getting so long.

(She always took time to notice the kids and ask how I was doing).

We probably hugged, and I am positive that I felt happy on the inside just to see her for that brief moment before we moved on to our respective Sunday School classes.

(Della always made me happy).

But whatever greetings we swapped during our last meeting on this earth, one thing is certain: I had no idea they would be my last to a woman who meant so much more to me than a passing hug, and who I admired for so much more than her physical beauty.

If I had known…

I would have cradled her beautiful face in my hands and told her that she was dearly loved…

I would have thanked her for consistently exhibiting to me those Christian fruits that are most admirable in a woman of God…

I would have asked her to tell me all of her funny stories one last time so I could write them down for safekeeping…

I would have recorded her speaking voice so I could listen to her rich and indescribable tone anytime I wanted…

I would have asked if I could come over and learn how to make her to-die-for homemade rolls…

I would have told her that, during the toughest days we’ve had in the ministry, her unswerving faithfulness, gentle guidance and genuine words of encouragement helped keep us going…

I would have hugged her tighter, I would have memorized the lines of her face, and I would have sat beside her at worship…

I would have asked her to wait just one more week, so she could hold my new baby…

And I would have promised her that I would miss her every Sunday and at every women’s fellowship and everytime I drove past her tidy, yellow house for the rest of my life.

Della was not a relative of mine, and if it were not for our like faith, we never would have known each other…

but when the grace of God reached down and plucked her from the road that leads to destruction to place her on the path to life, and then did the same for me years later, all of that changed; by the world’s standards she wasn’t my grandmother or my great aunt or even a distant cousin — she was just a “little old lady” who went to the same church as me.

But my redeemed heart knows better…

she was my sister. My mother. A vibrant, intrinsic part of my family.

And though I know we will spend forever in the same place, my humanity weeps bitter tears at the thought of saying goodbye.

Tears that bring to mind a day, half a decade ago, when Mr. Gore and I were discussing our future and weighing the pros and cons of him applying to be senior pastor at the church I had grown up in; to say that things at the time were messy and complicated would be an understatement. And although my husband was inexperienced and fresh out of seminary, he was a brilliant man with accolades and references galore; he could most likely have found work anywhere…

but “anywhere” wasn’t the story God had written for us. He wanted us here, and He tuned our hearts and our passion to stay, no matter how difficult the road ahead seemed to be.

The church was in turmoil, the budget was limited, and due to an unfortunate church split five years prior, well over half of the remaining membership was over the age of 65. There was one baby in the nursery and he was ours…

But it didn’t matter. We were in love.

“I just can’t leave them…” Mr. Gore said, with conviction. “I want to be their pastor. I want to walk them through the rest of their life. I want to preach their funerals…”

My heart agreed, most vehemently.

But here we are so many years later, and my, those funerals are hard…

Each lifelong friend who leaves us for “Beulah Land” leaves a huge vacancy in our hearts, not to be filled until we meet once more in our forever home; God has only caused our love and tenderness for them to multiply, and while our initial dream of walking these dear saints through life has come true, it carries with it a pain that we couldn’t have imagined…

The day before Della’s funeral, Mr. Gore went to her viewing at the funeral home. Finding himself very much alone with the body our friend left behind, he sat and wept. Della had ministered to him in ways no one else ever saw, giving him godly advice, sending him encouraging notes and cards, praying for him

much like our sister Thelma and our brother Richard, the world might not have known the tiny little lady in the little yellow house, but she mattered, and her role in the Kingdom was vital and beautifully performed.

Since the day we pursued this ministry, God has been so faithful to us and to our church. The division we inherited has flown the coop. Old wounds are being healed. Our membership, though smaller, continues to grow purer and purer. Love abounds. And while our budget is still limited, God has met every single need.

If the thought ever crossed my mind that we would be giving something up to “lay down our lives” for a church that was tiny and troubled and, frankly, not-the-coolest, five years with Della (and so many like her) has proven me stupid…

we have gained the world, drinking in priceless wisdom and encouragement from some of God’s very best, and learning what it means to be the body of Christ.

We grieve over the precious and important member we lost this September…

even as we thank God for the gift of knowing her at all.

~

Della, holding Baby Rebekah at our women’s fellowship in 2009

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Want to know more about Della and the sweet people in our church? Read one of my favorite posts: The Early Birds

Mr. Titsworth

Our church family has many widows.

They bravely continue on in this world without their other halves, learning to work, to eat, to sleep, to relax, and to attend church alone where once there was a man beside them, some for many, many years.

They learn new skills that their husbands probably took care of, keeping their properties and their cars maintained, handling all of their finances, and filling in the gaping holes that their deceased beloveds left behind.

And in the midst of those many widows stands one widower…

His wife departed much too long ago, and in this great, big world without the love of his life, Mr. Titsworth learned to continue on.

Where I’m sure his wife used to handle most of the correspondence, Mr. Titsworth faithfully picked up, and everytime a special occasion arises, there, in the midst of the effiminently wrapped presents and gift bags is a single envelope from him, filled with a generous gift of cash. He lets the greeting cards do the talking and signs his name beneath the printed words, but the sentiment behind his kind gestures loudly proclaims “You are important to me.” I have received such a card on many occasions: high school graduation, my wedding day, the birth of Gideon, the birth of Rebekah, the birth of Betsie, Pastor Appreciation Day, Christmas…there is always a card from Mr. Titsworth.

Likewise, at all of our church potlucks and luncheons, where rows and rows of bubbling casseroles and beautiful salads line the table, there is one signature loaf of bread next to the utensils, faithfully purchased and delivered by Mr. Titsworth – his name stands out on our call list for funeral luncheons, the lone man in a long list of females. But he never, ever forgets, and that simple but faithful loaf of bread is a sweet reminder of who he is and what he contributes to our church family.

But on a sad Thursday in July, at a 12:00 funeral luncheon, that loaf of bread was very noticeably missing.

And the following Sunday, with heavy hearts, we “did church” for the first time without this man who was bound to our congregation like a grandfather, departed from his usual pew, and from this fleeting life, until we will meet again in glory.

Late on the Wednesday night before his funeral, as I sat alone in our home office and rehearsed the solo I would be singing at his service, tears filled my eyes as the weight of what we had lost…

If you’ve been a visitor to Mrs. Gore’s Diary for very long, you know what the senior adults in our church mean to both Mr. Gore and me. We came home from Kentucky with this group of people in mind, a small congregation left behind numerous times in a church that had gone through hell and then some for over a decade. We love them with as everlasting a love as sinful humans can possible contain, and I’ll never forget that day many years ago, when Mr. Gore and I were trying to decide whether or not it would be worth it to “take on” such a wounded church, my husband said these words: “I just can’t imagine someone who doesn’t know them doing their funerals. I want to walk them through their last years…”

I could not have possibly agreed more. This was the church I had been born to and a part of my entire life. It was where Mr. Gore and I met. Our hearts were here, no  matter where we went. In other words, this was our family...

Since he first accepted the call to become senior pastor at this church 4 years ago, however, we have been exceedingly blessed, and God graciously allowed us truly beautiful and peaceful years with the seniors citizens we adore. Their overall health has been wonderful, and the deaths have been few.

Then we unexpectedly lost Thelma.

And now, a few months later, Mr. Titsworth.

As I continued to attempt rehearsing my song on that Wednesday night – stopping to weep, trying again, stopping to sob, trying again – I thought of him…

His sweet cards.

His loaf of bread.

And a couple of stories I’ll never forget…

Mr. Gore and I were engaged to be married. He proposed in December 2004, and our wedding date was set for June 11, 2005. When he returned after Christmas break to Kentucky for another semester of seminary, I got to work planning the wedding of my dreams, and one of the biggest parts of that dream was to involve my sweet church family every step of the way. Thus was birthed the “Great Plate Search of 2005″. Giving me the microphone one Wednesday night, our pastor at the time allowed me to share what I needed help with: finding as many vintage floral-patterened plates as I could find. All the wedding books said that a bride needed to plan on about half of her invites attending the wedding, and with a wedding guest list of 400, we needed at least 200 plates. “Ready…set…go!” I announced to my little church family before our prayer meeting was adjourned for the night.

They were happy to help. I had ladies pulling boxes of antique plates out of their attics, some on loan, some for keeps, I had ladies calling me from junk stores or antique shops to announce a good price or a lovely pattern, and everytime we were at church, we were discussing plates, plates, and more plates.

But again, Mr. Titsworth was going to fill in where his wife would have probably thrived. One evening after our Sunday night service, he walked up to me and said in his friendly (and almost bashful) manner, “I pulled up to a garage sale yesterday to see if they might have any plates for your wedding…”

A delighted smile spread across my face. I couldn’t believe he would do such a thing for me.

“They had some plates…a lot of plates…” he continued, shyly, “but…I wasn’t sure if it was what you were looking for or not, so…here. Take this.”

There was a $5 bill in his hand.

As I accepted it, my heart absolutely melted within me. It was one of the highlight moments of my wedding preparations, and I beamed at him as he continued, “Now you can pick out something you would like.”

Now, 7  years later, I can’t really remember who else donated plates to the Great Plate Search, but…I will never, ever forget this moment with Mr. Titsworth.

But then he was always quietly watching and looking for ways to show his love. Only two weeks before he unexpectedly fell ill, I was with Gideon and Rebekah in the sanctuary before church. Gideon had on his cowboy boots and hat, and was running around the room spinning his poor excuse of a lasso, comprised of brightly colored lengths of string that came with our Melissa and Doug lacing cards. He had tied them all together and looped them near the end, and I was forever being called upon to fix this hodgey-podgey construction. Seeing him, Mr. Titsworth chuckled and said, “We need to get that cowboy a real lasso!”

I agreed, but soon forgot all about our conversation…

Until a week later. Walking into Mr. Gore’s church office, I looked down and noticed a large and sturdy rope coiled up on the floor, next to a shiny belt buckle with a horse on it.

“What’s this?!” I exclaimed.

“Oh, Mr. Titsworth dropped that off for Gideon…” he explained.

I shook my head in disbelief at Mr. Titsworth’s thoughtfulness and generosity, and my heart constricted once more as I basked in the joy of being a part of the family of God, where such love is common, but deeply appreciated.

I had no idea as I pondered my blessings that day that I would never see Mr. Titsworth again. We had come down with colds the week he was in the hospital and had to stay away, and Mr. Gore’s Grandma unexpectedly passed away the next week, calling us out-of-state to attend her funeral. We returned home on a Saturday with every intention of visiting Mr. Titsworth on Monday…but it was too late.

As our church family gathered with Mr. Titsworth’s blood relatives on that Thursday morning in July, the sadness and disbelief in the building was tangible. Although our church body was scattered all about the sanctuary during his funeral service, our eyes would meet, and I knew that what I was feeling as I sat on the stage waiting for my solo was what all of my brothers and sisters were feeling – not mourning like those who had no hope, but still, undeniably sad, for every single one of us knew that a truly great man had departed from our fellowship; our joy that he was Home was tempered by the grief of knowing that we would be spending many years without this hero by our side.

After the funeral, before leaving for the graveside service, I walked my beloved friend, Kenneth (who has been featured on this blog many times), to his car. He had been commanded by his doctor to stay out of the summer heat, but couldn’t bear to miss Mr. Titsworth’s funeral. I was so worried about him, not just for his body, but for his soul…for every Sunday, he and Mr. Titsworth, in their Sunday School class of three, would sit and study the Word together, come rain or shine. “How are you doing?” I asked him as we walked slowly through the parking lot.

“That man was the best friend I ever had.” he simply replied.

It is no small thing to have brothers and sisters in the faith, who, though small and insignificant in the scope of history and a booming world population, are big in our lives. Through the most seemingly mundane and routine actions, God uses them to bolster our faith, to bind our hearts into one, to sharpen us and inspire us and encourage us…

and therefore, it is no small thing to lose them.

Part of my Sunday morning routine these days is to pull up into our parking spot, look to my left where his blue pickup truck always sat and feel that familiar sadness wash over me. I still can’t believe I won’t be worshipping with him again on this side of heaven. But I hope I never stop missing him. I hope I will always tell Gideon about the man who gave him his very first lasso. I hope I will never forget that sweet $5 bill…

But mostly, I hope that I will be as vital a part of our church family as he was and that, by living and moving and breathing, I will point the church and the world around me to Jesus Christ.

That’s exactly what Mr. Titsworth did.

Thelma.

Have you ever heard of Thelma Taylor?

Probably not.

Few of us on this planet had the blessing of knowing her. She lived in a tiny house in a tiny town and attended a tiny church. To know her, one would also have to live in that tiny town and attend that tiny church…

Thank God, I did.

Every Sunday growing up, I saw her at church with her husband, Lynn. Lynn was a big personality and, as a young child, my eyes and my attention were usually drawn to him when I would see them together. He liked to tease the children at church and I was always intrigued by what he had to say.

But Lynn died, and I grew up, and that’s when I started to take notice of Thelma.

Beautiful hair, white as new snow.

A sweet smile that lit up her entire face.

A kind word always on her lips.

Our church split right down the middle about a decade ago, and my family was left with a group of people we had always known and loved, but to be honest, had spent very little time with. Most of them were senior citizens, and they had functioned in their place – at prayer meetings, at Young at Heart events, at Sunday morning worship – and we had functioned in ours – at VBS, at youth events, at children’s church, on mission trips…

But that summer following the split, I saw something magical happen. A body came together, young and old, and did what was necessary to keep the church alive. The split was tragic, but it allowed me to see with fresh eyes the treasure that had been sitting in my church all those years. We had learned to do all the work and fun without them, and as a result, they had been delegated to pouring drinks at potlucks and singing in the adult choir on Sunday mornings. But now…well, now we needed them again, and they answered the call with eagerness.

I suppose this is when my real love for the Young at Heart group began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Especially Thelma…

I’ll never forget watching her, a widow in her 80’s, chasing behind her large group of 4 and 5 year olds at Vacation Bible School. Half of our usual workers were now attending church up the hill, and we had to use everybody and anybody wherever we possibly could. At the end of each day, the entire lot of us would collapse on the couches in the foyer and laugh as we – all of us, in our 20’s OR in our 80’s – tried to catch our breath! How God drew us together that summer – and by His grace, kept our doors open.

My friendship with Thelma began to grow, and I was devastated to leave her and many others behind when I joined Mr. Gore at seminary in Kentucky.

But God had a unique plan for us that would bring us all back together again in this church were our hearts had been bound together, and Thelma was soon on the pulpit committee that called my husband as pastor. There is so much to the story, but I will never forget her joy to be included in this important group of people. She was just beside herself and, chuckling with her hand on her chest said “Me?! Nobody has ever asked me to be a part of something like this!” It brought us such joy to see her serve in this capacity, and our hearts were blessed beyond measure to be ministered to by her during another difficult hour in our church home.

We have been through so many ups and downs in the last 12 years, but all along the way, Thelma was there to encourage and help us, and most importantly, to pray for us. Prayer was her language, and I’ll never forget sitting in her dark living room one night, listening to her pleas to God on behalf of our church body. Our position on the globe was minuscule, and the world had no idea or care that the 3 of us were there, praying together, but it felt important and powerful and oh so sweet.

Nor will I forget the day we were all parting ways after a Young at Heart outing to Cracker Barrel and I heard a yelp. Turning around, I saw her lying on the concrete, face-down, a small group of people around her. She had missed her step and taken a nose-dive in the parking lot. As I sat with her in the fellowship hall and held her hand, the bump on her eye grew to the size of a golf ball and my heart ached inside of me. But my 88-year old friend had no breaks, just bruises…and the doctors were shocked to find that the only pill she was on was a daily vitamin! None of us had any idea that Thelma was the most healthy woman in our congregation!

And then came the heartbreaking news a couple of years ago that Thelma would be moving away from us to retire to the Baptist Village in Oklahoma City. Before I could even digest this sadness, we had thrown her a going- away party and she was gone. There was – and still is  – a giant hole in our congregation where she sat and moved and prayed and lived and loved and encouraged and ministered.

We were able to stop by and see her from time to time, the best visit taking place as we drove her across the city to have breakfast at Cracker Barrel once more. After eating, Mr. Gore did me the great kindness of taking the children to play with toys in the general store, and Thelma and I sat and talked and talked and talked, for nearly two hours! We were walking once more through difficult days in the ministry, and this meeting with her was like a feast for my weary soul, giving me hope and confidence, much like that quiet night in her home where we prayed together.

And then there was our last meeting, 5 days ago, at a hospital in Edmond, Oklahoma. Thelma had recently been feeling poorly and after a few tests, had been diagnosed with leukemia. Her good health took a very quick turn and she was not doing well at all. After speaking with her on the phone, Mr. Gore told me that we should hurry if we wanted to see her; I’m so grateful to my Mom for keeping our children on short notice so we could make the trip.

Finding her sleeping in her room, Mr. Gore went to ask a nurse what we should do while I took a moment to gather myself back in the hallway.; tears had filled my eyes the moment I saw her and a lump had lodged itself in my throat. “Wake her up.” the nurse assured him. I knew then that Thelma was not long for this world.

When her eyes opened and she saw us there, her face lit up and that smile that cheered me on so many occasions warmed my sad heart. We talked as long as she was able and then we prayed together once more, holding her hands, caressing her face and combing her beautiful white hair with our fingers. It was such an honor to minister to her and I thank God from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to tell her one last time how much she has meant to us and how deeply we love her.

Thelma died this Sunday morning.

And the little girl who lived in the tiny town and went to the tiny church is shedding tears.

Because the world may not have known Thelma and what a dear sister in the Lord and what a heroine in the faith and what a teacher in prayer she was…

but I did.

And oh what a difference she made in my life.

I Remember Granny.

The most random things trigger my memories of her…

Honeysuckle. Carpet sweepers. Aluminum cans. Old McDonald. Funyuns.

Muumuus. Rouge. Iced Oatmeal cookies. Daffodils. The American flag.

Willie Nelson. Linoleum. Pretty rocks. Ceramic frogs. Whistling….

Her official name was Willie Belle Rouk. Her friends called her Billie.

I called her Granny.

As a young child and then a self-absorbed teenager, I had no concept of who she was or what she contributed to my life or how much she loved me, even, until I began having children of my own. But I was at home in her home, and for an incredibly shy and timid homebody who spent the first 10 or so years of my life clinging to my Mother’s skirt, that was saying a lot.

I innocently and thoughtlessly enjoyed the blessing of being her granddaughter, eating her food, playing in her yard, running errands alongside her… and now that I am finally cognizant enough to express my gratitude and to grasp what an amazing woman she was, she is long gone, taken from our lives unexpectedly a decade and a half ago as her heart silently stopped in her sleep.

But I can still thank her. I can still honor her. And this Mother’s Day, as a tribute to her and to my own Mother and my beloved Aunt B, I want to tell you about her, even as I know my childish memories of her will do nothing to truly capture who she was and what mark she left upon this earth.

Long before the organic movement began, when Twinkies were in their hayday and preservatives were considered awesome, my Granny’s house was the place to be. My Mom was a homemaker, but when I began kindergarten, she went back to college, and I began spending half-days with Granny until Mama could pick me and my brothers up after school. Granny’s kitchen was always stocked with the goods: “Sodey-water” (pop), Iced Oatmeal Cookies, those round cookies that were dipped in chocolate on one side and striped with chocolate on the other, Ding Dongs, wafer cookies, tins of shortbread cookies…

And that was just the store-bought stuff. She was an amazing cook, and our entire family gathered in her tiny house more often than not to eat Sunday lunch or to celebrate birthdays or holidays. When we weren’t at our house, we were at her house, and the food was always hot and delicious and plentiful.

But I especially loved my time alone with her. It struck me a couple of weeks ago that, as much time as we spent there, I don’t remember her having one toy for us to play with. But I was never bored. Granny and I would go driving around town and the country highways looking for pretty rocks to take home or aluminum cans to sell. We would go walking down her block, stopping to look at the chickens down the street or to say ‘hello’ to her neighbors. We would sit in the swing in her yard or the glider on her porch or the chairs under her awning and sing “Old McDonald” and watch the world go by. We would hang her clothes on the clothesline, Granny panties and all. We would sweep – OH would we sweep! – her porch and her sidewalk at least once a day. And nearly everyday after my morning school was adjourned we would go to the store, buy applesauce and Funyuns for my lunch, and go back to her house where I would eat on a TV tray and watch Matlock with her and Papa.

There were other shows at other times…The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, Quantum Leap, Hee-Haw, Austin City Limits…we spent a lot of time in her small living room watching shows together. I sat Indian style on the blue couch next to the wall, my Papa sat in his recliner facing the TV and Granny sat in her chair next to his, seperated by a small path into the living room.

Their house layout was a circle – the kitchen went into the living room that went into the guest room that went into the bathroom that went into Granny and Papa’s room that went into the kitchen – and I would walk laps with my Papa as he did his daily exercise, toting his oxygen tank with him. I made it my goal to pass by him as many times as I could, the old floors of their house shaking under my feet. He was walking for his life; I was finding something quite fun to do, and I think we both enjoyed it very much.

When my brothers came home from school or football practice, many of their friends came with them, sitting around Granny’s table, eating snacks, having unlimited Sodey-waters. They were at home there, too, and that’s why so many people in our town simply knew her as “Granny”. She was their’s, too, and it made us proud to share our precious belonging with the world and to see how comfortable our friends were in her presence.

It didn’t hurt that she lived right across from the football field. We would go to her house early on Friday nights to claim a good parking space and eventually meander over to watch the games. But when the winter set in and the cold was too much for us to bear we would steal back across the street to warm up at her house. Walking into her heated living room on those frigid nights is a vivid memory for me that seems to span many, many years – my child-sized glasses would immediately fog over and soon, a mug of hot chocolate would be in my hands and my fingers would burn and tingle as they thawed out under the heat.

Likewise, I remember coming in on unbearably hot summer days and sitting directly in front of the window unit in the kitchen, the deliciously cold air blowing my sweaty hair away from my face. We would talk into it and sound like robots and had soon forgotten how hot it was outside and perhaps in the rest of the house.

Granny’s house was always spotless, but she was a true lover of junk, and her house was crammed full of knick-knacks with a heavy emphasis on ceramic frogs. My favorite was one that plead my emphazemia-burdened Papa’s case, a frog with a top hat bearing a sign that said “Please don’t smoke. I might croak.”

Yes, so many things come to my mind when I think about Granny…the newspaper clippings and pressed flowers stuffed into her big Bible, her tiny closet with a dozen or so dresses hanging tidily on a hook, her rather terrifying driving, her dog named Sweetie, her chenille bedspreads, her Avon purchases, her fabric-covered box of costume jewelry, her always-stocked cookie jar, her pew at church, her occasional slipping of wind or soft profanity (always followed by a quick “whoops!”), her red pick-up with the customized plate reading “Go, Granny, Go!”…

But with all my memories of her, and all the hilariously funny stories we still tell about her  today (I promise I’ll share them someday), my single favorite thing about her is the woman she was that flows so fluidly and beautifully into the women she made.

Even if I had no memories of her at all, I would need only to look at my Mother and my Aunt B to see that Granny was an amazing woman, worthy of praise and honor, for she bore and raised two of the most industrious and gentle women I’ve ever met. Compassionate, humorous (lots of times on accident, sometimes on purpose), hard-working, talented, self-sacrificing, dutiful, faithful, patriotic, and brimming with love for their family. Just like Granny, they hop to it all day long, living for the ones God has given them to. They pour themselves out for us, just like she did for them…just like I hope to do for my own children.

It is a beautiful thing to be cradled for life by women who nurture and unconditionally love you; in their presence, you feel 100% adored, and completely at rest. The minute you cross the threshold into their home, your heart sighs and you don’t need any distractions (or toys!) to keep you happy. You’re with the women who know you. You’re home.

On this Mother’s Day, I will be thinking of Granny, missing her, wishing my husband and my children could have known her…

But the women who knew her best, who grew up under her ministrations and learned by her hand, are still with me, carrying her best characteristics, and passing them on to me and to my daughters.

In them both, I see her.

It’s no wonder I remember Granny so well.

The Early Birds

~ It felt very important to me a couple of weeks ago to jot down this Sunday routine…one of my favorite times of the week ~

As we pulled into the church parking lot, I saw her walking swiftly down the street toward the church, her Bible tucked beneath her arm.

Her hair is as white as snow, thick and curly and cut in the shorter style of most of our senior adult women. She is trim and petite, and always put together.

She is my friend and her name is Della.

Della almost died this year, and spent many months recovering at home. Every Sunday morning following her hospital release, I looked for her. When she didn’t walk through the darkened sanctuary where the kids and I waited to say ‘hello’ to her as our paths crossed week after week after week after week after week, my heart felt bereft and I wondered if she could feel how much I loved and missed her.

But, thank God, she is doing well and is back with us, and as her journey toward the church building caught my eye, I smiled and hopped out of the minivan to greet her.

The plucky thing is so spry and sure-footed, she made it into her regular side door before I could chase her down; but I knew I would see her inside and I entered into the front entrance of the church I love, ready to greet the “early birds” who show up 30-40 minutes early every Sunday morning.

It is the same every week…

In the first room to the right, I stop in to say “good morning” to Paula and Virginia, who catch up with one another in their domain, our church library. Paula has white hair with specks of grey, vintage spectacles and a vintage shirtdress for every Sunday, always topped with vintage costume jewelry like my Granny had in her special jewelry box. She has the most uniquely beautiful soprano singing voice, and if you close your eyes during her solos, you can imagine a young girl on the stage rather than an elderly lady. Paula and her husband, Jay, used to keep me in the church nursery when I was a baby, and so it was with great sentimentality that I released Gideon to their Sunday morning care when he was an infant. 

And Virginia is a dear woman, also with snowy white hair and glasses, but partial to jewel-toned polyester pants with printed silk button-up shirts. She and Paula have been taking care of the church library for as long as I can remember and nearly every week, Virginia recalls the time that she looked down and saw a young and painfully shy Mrs. Gore (Miss Jackson, then) with her chin on the library table, huge and solemn eyes looking up in hopes to check out a book without uttering a word – it warms my heart that we share this piece of history together, and that it means as much to her as it does to me. She and her husband, Kenneth, have been beloved friends to me for many years. They have no children and I would give anything if they could really understand how serious we are when we call them “family”.

Speaking of Kenneth, I usually go straight from the library to see him in the fellowship hall, but it is a long walk and I usually pass several other friends along the way. Miss Jessie, one of our African American members, has a different head of hair and a different style of dress every Sunday and she is always there by the church office looking for her class’s roll sheet, a stack of bulletins already in hand. I could fill a book with her interesting outfits, and even more books with her funny characteristics, but what I love most about her is that she loves my children and chases them down for some lovin’ every Sunday morning. Sometimes they scream and cry, but sometimes Rebekah surprises us and kisses her right on the mouth and I get a good chuckle. I sit behind Jessie in “big church” and spend most of the sermon finding quiet and unobtrusive ways to wake her up from her loud snoring. Sometimes I cough. Sometimes I drop a hymnal. Sometimes I laugh a bit louder at the pastor’s jokes than I normally would. Her medicine makes her sleepy, so she really can’t help it…plus it makes me feel useful. The jobs of a pastor’s wife are varied and amusing, for sure.

Kenneth, Virginia’s husband of 64 years, is always stationed by the back door where he has been greeting our members for years. If he is standing, I know he is feeling particularly good, if he is sitting I know that his legs and back are giving him trouble and he is due another steroid shot, and if he is gone, I know that he is home sick. I hate it when he is gone. But most usually, there he is, and I sit with him in the small pew by the door and see how he has been faring for the past week. He always makes over Baby Betsie, he always gives Gideon “five” and he always allows Rebekah to rifle through his shirt pocket, pulling out his comb, his pen and his glasses case before putting them back where they belong. Without fail, he wears polyester pants and a short-sleeved button up shirt, and is often sporting a large veteran ballcap on his grey head of hair. No matter what is going on in his life or with his health, he is chipper and kind, his personality a carbon copy of Virginia’s. While we talk about health or the weather, my heart is bursting with gratitude that I get to call this man my friend and brother.

After about five minutes with Kenneth, I head through the backstage doors, entering the sanctuary at the front and walking to the back where I usually run into Della. She always looks my babies in the eye and exclaims over their church clothes or over their growth spurts, smiling and talking with a voice that always captures me with its indefinable quality. I feel just sure she could be an audiobook narrator, but she just laughs when I tell her so. She has worked her whole life, cooking and scrubbing, raising a family, tending to her late husband, cleaning the church…so such a silly notion would never have crossed her mind! Della is…beautiful. Slight in stature, but so very strong. Funny and quick-witted. Kind. A true woman. A true lady.

In the hallway once again, I pass many friends, sometimes stopping to chat, sometimes waving and smiling as we head to our respective classes. Miss Sharon. Miss Nettie. Miss Erma. Love them all.

Then I shake hands with one of our only widowers, Mr. Titsworth, and talk about the weather and what he’s growing in his garden and I always remember the time he pulled over to a garage sale to see if they were selling any vintage plates I could use for my wedding reception. “I wasn’t sure if  you’d like what they had, so here…take this instead.” he said, before handing me a $5 bill. My heart melted on the spot and it still does everytime I see him. He is a good man and our church would not be quite right without him there.

Before long, one of my most beloved friends breezes through the front door. Kate, a widow of 10 years who never ages a day, is one of the most smartly-dressed women I know. She walks every day and has a body to prove it, but what I admire most about her is her work ethic. A country girl who moved to town after her husband died, she keeps most of our church clean (for free) and knows how to help someone without asking.  She loves to read cookbooks and has a cackle that you can hear for miles. When I see Kate, I always think of her husband, Calvin; they were one, and now they are half of one. But she has been so strong and brave and she calls my husband “Pastor Chris” and asks him to pray for her when she needs it. I admire her humility as she submits to one so much younger and inexperienced than she. But then, all of these friends do. They have made our ministry and our life an absolute joy.

Linda is next. She has been teaching 4- and 5-year olds for what seems like an eternity, and it is no small thing to me that my own son is in her class now. Although she recently had to have her foot amputated due to complications with diabetes, she is never, ever down, finding joy and adventure in every single situation – her eyes disappear into crinkles when she smiles and her deep tenor singing voice ministers to my soul. She is dear to us. So dear.

Then comes Joy, one of the most meek and faithful women I’ve ever known. Every Sunday, she is there early to teach her young Sunday School class. Every Monday, she mails out a letter to each of her students. Every Wednesday, she teaches another children’s class. And through it all, I have never heard her complain or gossip or make a negative comment…she quietly goes about her work with gladness, week in, week out, years coming and going and passing. The more I grow and take note of the world outside of my own, the more I admire her…

Before long, the younger crowd starts to show up, rushing in with children in tow, and the  Sunday morning pace picks up as the chatter grows and moves into separate Sunday School classes, children running and squealing through the hallway, Cheerios being distributed in the nursery, roll sheets being filled out and turned in to the church office. Sunday morning has officially begun…

But I know I’ll see my early birds next week.

9:00 sharp.

Me and Kenneth, friends forever.