If you grew up in a small community, like those in the Appalachian mountains, then you probably remember some individuals that made a lasting impression on your memory. One of those, for me, was Ms. Hattie. Now, that is not her real name as I didn’t want to feel like I was gossiping about the neighbors too much. I’m sure, however, that those that grew up close to me will recognize her.
Ms. Hattie lived a piece down the road from me and she was considered a solid, Godly woman. That is the thing I remember the most about her. When the church bells would begin to dong, their sound spreading throughout the community, you could peer out Ms. Hattie’s driveway and there she would be making her way slowly but surely toward the church. As a child I use to think I could make that trip 2 or maybe 3 times by the time she made it once, but now being older I have sympathy for her journey. She was always dressed in sensible shoes, a modest dress, sweater either worn or hanging over her arm, along with a large purse. Sometimes, if a breeze ruffled the bottom of her dress you would catch a glimpse of her hose pulled past the knee and rolled down, then twisted as older women wore them. Hair pulled severely back from her face and screwed into a tight neat bun, her face was offset by thick lensed glasses, that made her eyes difficult to see.
Ms. Hattie was just an ordinary woman for that time, though I don’t see her like much anymore. She was friendly and smiled, but I always had the impression that she didn’t settle for any nonsense. Church was a place of respect and she expected children to behave with respect there. So I was always on my best behavior around her. She also had a reputation for her blunt speech. She told the truth as she saw it and made no attempt at insult, but some may have taken it that way. I remember once when she met a prospective suitor for her niece and was ask her opinion of him. If you want my opinion she said, “He is lacking a whole lot upstairs what the rest of us might be lacking just a little bit.” Later her opinion seemed to prove true.
Yes, Ms. Hattie remained an ordinary woman of the community until my teen-age years and then my aunt suggested I visit Ms. Hattie and get her to tell me about her childhood. Ms. Hattie it seemed had, had a rough childhood. So one spring day I visited Ms. Hattie bringing her a small vase of flowers. After having a seat and trading niceties, I ask Ms. Hattie would she mind to tell me of her years growing up. Oh, she laughed, “That was something else. My mamma died when I was five. She died giving birth to a baby girl. Then we had that baby and no way to feed her. My daddy sent me to the neighbors and anywhere I could go to see if I could find some kind of milk, but there wasn’t none. I was only five and I didn’t know where many neighbors were, but I found as many as I could. We made that baby a sugar teat and done everything we could for it, but it didn’t live. After a couple of months, my daddy found a woman and he wanted to marry. I guess they didn’t want to be bothered with no young’ns around because my daddy decided to get me gone. He trade me to some distant neighbors to help care for their ailing mamma. Well, they called it a trade because they gave my dad some money, but I guess you could just say he sold me to them.” Ms. Hattie would pause occasionally with a far away look on her face, but I didn’t hear any self-pity in her voice. She just spoke calmly relating what had happened. When she arrived at the family farm Ms. Hattie found the old lady that she was to care for lived out in a house by herself, but the house was beside a bigger house that contained her daughter and grandchildren. Ms. Hattie continued with her telling of her life. “The old lady was bed-fast and needed somebody to care for her, so that became my job. I didn’t know much about cooking at that age, but I would pull me a chair up to the old wood stove and climb up in it. Then the old woman would call to me telling me what to do prepare the meal. I also had to take care of her toilet business, bath her and wash the clothes. I soon learned and became a tolerable caretaker.”
Sundays were the best day according to Ms. Hattie and had a life long influence on her. “Every Sunday they made sure we all went to church. I loved going to church and one Sunday a woman stood up in church and started shouting. I took one look at her face and it glowed like there was a light from within her. I thought she was the most beautiful person I had ever seen. Oh normally, she wasn’t that beautiful, but with that light shining out of her, she was beautiful. I didn’t know what that woman had, but whatever it was, I wanted it. I was bound and determined that one day I’d find what made that woman so beautiful and I’d shine too.”
Besides Sunday, the rest of Ms. Hatties’s life she was the help and was treated as such. “The family was good to me in some ways. They ordered me two dresses off the back of a magazine and that was the first ready made dresses I had ever had. I still didn’t have any shoes, but the family had a pile of stuff out back where they threw things that were worn out or no longer of use. I dug through that pile and found some shoes I could wear. I was tickled that I had me a whole outfit. When I got a few years older, they decided I needed underwear and they took some scraps of denim and made some for me. You talk about something being rough on your butt, it would rub you raw. I was just glad to have some underwear of some kind, as I was entering my teen-age years. The family never took me to the doctor or dentist though and they had the money. I just had to go on with what was hurting me and hope it went away.”
Ms. Hattie went on speaking some of her life and telling things like about the first car she ever saw. The old woman she cared for died and she moved next door and helped tend the rest of the family. Eventually, she moved on to other families helping to care for their house or children. When she moved to my community and an elderly man wanted her to come care for him, but Ms. Hattie was worried about breaking the rules and being the center of gossip. She wouldn’t agree to care for the man unless they were married because it would be scandalous for an unmarried woman to live alone with a man even if he were elderly. So the man agreed to marry her and it worked well for both of them. The man received excellent care in his old age and Ms. Hattie had a home. When her elderly husband passed he left Ms. Hattie life time rights to his home and she was able to raise cattle and earn some extra income. It was probably the first time in her life that Ms. Hattie could claim that she owned anything besides her few clothes.
I learned so much that day from talking to this ordinary woman. One of the most important things was being thankful for the modest childhood I had been given. As Ms. Hattie wound down our conversation by remarking about her age and the years she had left, “I’ll be heading out of here one day,” said Ms. Hattie, a life long Baptist, “and when I do, I don’t want want none of them buzzard Baptist showing up at my funeral. Them buzzard Baptist will come flocking in when you die and hover all around. They’ll bring food, flowers and crying all over the place. Been twenty years or more since you last seen them. Just like ol’ buzzard hovering around. They need to bring you that stuff when you are alive and not wait until your done dead. If any of them wants to come around then they better be showing up before I’m dead.” I really couldn’t disagree with her and have used the term buzzard Baptist many times since.
When Ms. Hattie was in her 80’s that day did arrive and then came the day of the funeral. Ironically, there were a couple of real buzzards at the end of her driveway. I didn’t have time to stop and ask if they belonged to a certain denomination. After the funeral, Ms. Hattie made one final trip down the aisle of the church. Not a usual walk with faltering steps caused by swollen legs and in square heeled shoes. This final trip was one of honor as she was wheeled ceremoniously down the aisle as the community stood on each side in a show of respect and sorrow. This ordinary woman would not be returning to our midst again. She left her life of woe and hopefully that beautiful light will shine from within her throughout eternity.