For me it marks the end of an era. The passing didn’t make the news, but it certainly affected me.
You see, my earlier single years were impacted by a touch much gentler, more personable, and certainly more genteel than my own. That touch was embodied in three special ladies — two sisters and their first cousin. They and their families took me in, in a manner of speaking, and quietly changed me. While time and circumstances were to push us all in different directions eventually, there was a few years’ interlude that marked my life to this day.
I had never been a “girlie girl”. Just wasn’t. I remember thinking from a young age about what I would “be”, and I hate to say it, but I don’t recall the vision of becoming a wife and mommy competing well with “scientist” or later “psychologist” or the one that eventually stuck, “social worker”. I went straight from high school to senior college to graduate school to a career, and though I dated some along the way, I wasn’t particularly in a hurry to “find someone”.
Not long after moving back to Mississippi from my year-long attempt to follow my dreams in North Carolina, I had begun to seek God more seriously than ever before, and had been filled with the Holy Ghost at age 26, which began another phase of life, serving the Lord with all my heart. When a few years later I moved to a community nearer my church, I was brought into contact with this group of ladies from an older time. Their desire to exercise biblical hospitality simply bowled me over. It was Sister Grace, Sister Hosey, and Sister Montgomery. (They weren’t nuns, we just use the term “Sister” as one of endearment and respect within our Pentecostal church family.) I’m not sure why two of the ladies were addressed by their last names and the other by her first, except that “Sister Turnbough” might have been a mouthful — few were even sure how to spell it — but most of all, “Grace” just seemed to describe her best.
The events that would draw this reclusive young woman into a family I didn’t know began not long after I moved into the tiny rental house. A knock on my door one Saturday morning brought me face to face with one of the ministers of our church. He had just come from Sister Grace’s house, almost directly across the road from mine. He had prayed for her, he said, but was concerned that she was in pretty bad shape and needed someone with her. My immediate thought (not at all seeking to be the hero in this story) was, “Doesn’t she have family around here? Why me? Besides, it sounds like she needs an ambulance more than companionship.” But, having been “raised”, spiritually speaking, to be in obedience to the ministry, I just said I would go, and went on over. That morning literally changed my life.
The fact is, the woman did need an ambulance, and anyone else probably would have already called for one long before. But Sister Grace truly had the faith of a child, and it had already brought (and would continue to bring) great miracles in her life. She was probably having a stroke. Her face was so distorted it was grotesque to look at, and whatever was happening had affected all her limbs. Seeing the look on my face, she assured me she’d been prayed for and knew God was going to work. The ambulance idea seemed a little difficult to bring up just then, so I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pray with her just a bit. Perhaps I could explain my delay to her family. After a few minutes of prayer, she announced, “Susan, I believe He’s touched my feet! I feel it! Let’s praise Him for touching my feet!” Through my anxiety about possibly letting this woman die on my watch, I began to join her in praising God for touching her feet. In my way of describing it, the Holy Ghost fell in that living room! In a moment’s time, we were worshiping and praising God like it was a high church service. As we praised Him, she announced, “He’s touched my legs! Let’s praise Him for touching my legs!” and here we went again. This continued and progressed until I saw her face go back to normal, and she was as whole as anyone who’d never been affected by anything unusual. I was not only greatly strengthened in my own faith, but my spirit was melded together with the spirit of this woman in a way that nothing else could have done. It would sustain me in years to come, and in ways I could not have imagined at the time. She would later skip down the hall of a hospital as doctors whispered behind her about tumors that had been on her liver on previous MRI’s, but not on the ones they’d repeatedly run that day.
Sister Grace was a package deal. Her own sister was a couple of states away, so her cousins who lived nearby had to fill in the gap, and Sister Hosey and Sister Montgomery, the two with whom she most closely shared her faith, were the dearest it seemed. They all three lived on land their grandfather had owned, as I recall, and had a quite a history in common growing up. They’d just about fall out with each other at times, but at the core, they’d have done or given anything for each other.
In those days, people “set” with each other. I know, that’s not the right word to use (and I still have trouble remembering where to use “sit” and “set” in writing), but the terminology was, “Come and set with me sometime.” These three ladies, and others in their family, would take turns visiting in each others’ homes, just to talk and enjoy one another’s company. We do that on Facebook and other social media now. What would happen if any of us knocked on the door of a friend and said, “I just came by to set awhile”?
I began to find myself drawn into the “setting”, and over the years some of my rough edges were knocked off. Not gossip sessions, the predominant topic of conversation was the goodness of the Lord and encouragement from His Word. For readers who haven’t known me for a long time, this was major. Being shy and retiring is a rather substantial trait in my birth family of Thigpen’s. (Perhaps that’s why our family reunion has continued for 83 years: our fore-bearers knew they had to create an annual exception just to stay in touch with their kin.)
There were some interesting moments, many of which went against the grain of my plain ways and preferences. Conversations like these. . .
“I want to come see your ‘tiques sometime…” Sister Montgomery was a confirmed ‘tique (antique) collector, as were the others, and going “tiqueing” with her girls or sisters was a highlight. My quick response was, “Sister, you’re welcome to come walk all through my house, and if you see a ‘tique there, you let me know.” It had never crossed my mind that I should consider collecting anything old. To this day, though, if I see an interesting piece of glassware or pottery, it immediately gets turned over to look for a date or an imprint of any kind to show its value and age. And, yes, she’d find a few if she could come today. I even have one or two that Sister Hosey’s delicate hands were able to glue back together after my clumsiness damaged them, as though nothing had ever happened to them.
“One day you’ll have a little girl with long dark hair. And you’ll go shopping together…” If there was one thing Sister Montgomery liked more than ‘tiquing, it was out-and-out shopping. The only thing I was less likely to do than collecting antiques was shopping for enjoyment. Going to a store was a necessity in my book: what you did when you needed a specific item, and you should surely get it over with as quickly as possible. The thought of going to a mall made me wince. It was absolutely not something you did when you wanted to kill a few hours, and certainly not with a child in tow. My daughter is now twenty years old (with long dark hair), and somehow over these years she has shown me that shopping — with someone you love — can bring a great deal of enjoyment. In fact, earlier this week, I shopped til she dropped.
Sometimes, there were gentle rebukes. . .
We were all to prepare food for our church’s anniversary service. This was a big deal. Ministers from everywhere would be there to celebrate with our church and pastor, and the meal we provided afterwards was always something to behold. I was assigned a dish completely foreign to my culinary talents at the time: punch-bowl cake. Mercifully, Sister Montgomery offered for me to join her and her daughters for a group cooking effort in her kitchen, and she walked me through every phase of the dish. One of the layers of cake and pudding and strawberries and whipped cream wasn’t being applied into the punch bowl to her satisfaction, and I had to be directed on how to get it just right. “When I make something for the church,” she admonished, “I want it to taste as good as it can taste, and to look as good as it can look.” To this day, when I’m arranging my brownies on the nicest platter I can find (sorry, but the punch-bowl cake thing just didn’t stick) I remember that my true assignment is to make sure they taste as good as they can taste, and look as good as they can look. I’m trying, Sister.
Beyond the things that had to be done to tune up my gnarly person, there were other moments that made a serious impression on me, just by watching:
The peculiar way Sister Montgomery’s face and voice changed when holding or talking to, or even speaking about, little babies and children — pure delight, devotion, and focus on that little one, as if the greatest gift God ever gave humanity had been placed within her grasp. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone so devoted. The particular way of burping my own baby when she came along was taught by her as well: “stirring” as she called it, worked a whole lot better than the traditional up-on-the-shoulder-back-pat technique. “You have to stir babies,” she’d told me, which was demonstrated as placing the baby upright on your lap, with a hand on the chest and a hand on the back, then ever-so-gently easing her around in a circular motion from the waist. Worked every time, as I recall.
There came a time when Sister Montgomery said she felt we should begin to have some home prayer meetings. I was all for taking more time to pray together. We started meeting every afternoon, with Sister Hosey, and Sister Grace, and several daughters, granddaughters, and others — up to eight or so ladies. I can honestly say that some of the most powerful prayer meetings I ever experienced were there front of that chair where I knelt in Sister Montgomery’s living room. After a few months, though, a day came that would change her life forever. Her beloved husband, Buster, became very ill and was soon diagnosed with cancer. Though the prayer meetings were somewhat disrupted as she focused her sole attention on caring for him, she recognized God’s preparation: “How could I ever have faced this if we hadn’t already been praying beforehand?” Her faith never wavered, even though there came a day she had to let him go. One night as she prayed alone by his sleeping form in a hospital room, a vision of the Lord Himself appeared at the foot of the bed, assuring her of His love and care during that time. It affected all of us, and strengthened her greatly.
Time and readers’ attention spans would fail for me to tell of the warmth added to my life by accounts of how the family came to God one at a time: first Sister Hosey’s daughter, Kathy, who prayed for the rest of the family until God had His way in many of their lives; Sister Hosey and her son, Jackie; Sister Hosey’s and Sister Montgomery’s mother; another son, Kenny; Sister Montgomery’s daughters, Betsy and Janie, followed by Sister Montgomery and her husband; and eventually Sister Grace (hopefully they’ll forgive me if I recorded that out-of-order or left out someone).
They loved to talk about the goodness of the Lord, and when they got the chance in person or on the telephone, that is what they’d do, for as long as both parties could spare to do it. Years ago, Sister Montgomery and I literally talked all night long about Scripture and God’s goodness, and things we’d seen Him do in our lives and the lives of others. I remember the precious craft items Sister Hosey would make by hand, bringing them to sell to raise money for the church. I felt a bit condemned that I wasn’t more “crafty”. I treasure memories of Sister Montgomery quoting their mother during church testimony services. Sister Dykes, who I was not privileged to meet, was well advanced in years when she received the Holy Ghost, but fully understood the essence of living a godly life: “Ninety-nine and a half percent won’t do,” she’d said. “It’s got to be all the way in living for God.”
I vividly recall images of shelling peas as a community, an event the three would gather for as faithfully as prayer meeting. It took lots of hands to get those peas shelled right away, most important because “vegetables start to lose their natural sugar the minute they’re picked, and you have to put them up as quickly as possible”, Sister Montgomery had explained. It was intended to let me know that I wasn’t just being included; my fingers were sorely needed (pun intended). I hear the echos of her young grandsons as they strolled through her kitchen: “Fix us something we can drag through some syrup”, they said, which she immediately knew meant sausage was to be fried up, and she gladly complied.
We began to lose them a ways back: seven years ago, Sister Hosey slipped away on Easter Sunday, precious and faithful to the end, though cancer had brought her many, many miserable days. Three years ago, Granny Grace, confined to a nursing home for years due to major health issues, prayed her way on over to the other side. Just last week Sister Montgomery left on a Sunday night to join them for an eternal visit in the presence of the One they most adored. To me, it represented the closing of a chapter I’d never even expected to have written in my life, but am so much richer because of.
It really does make going to see them a more precious thought than ever.