The first time I met Miss Bessie was when I was serving as interim pastor in a little country church. The congregation of elderly saints, and a few towns’ folk had an, “it ain’t never been done-that-way” approach to doing church. Needless to say it was challenging.
As a way of getting better acquainted with my flock, I began visiting each member. I’d heard about Miss Bessie from the others; their “Prayer Requests” left me wondering who needed the greater amount of prayer. It was not without a little anxiety when I turned off the highway and drove back into the holler.
I pulled to a stop. A small shanty resting on bodark posts sat in the clearing. Bodark, I later learned, was a very resilient wood, sorta like Miss Bessie. The house she’d called home, for more years than she’d admit, leaned slightly to one side. The tin roof, littered with pine needles, sagged and the stone chimney looked like it might topple over at any moment.
It was September and the summer lingered like a bad hangover. Noticing an elderly woman, hunched over a black kettle, Miss Bessie reminded me of the Wicked Witch of the West from the “Wizard of Oz” singing “Bubble and Bubble, Toil and Trouble.”
I got out of my car and took a step in her direction. Startled, she waved me off as if I were trespassing. It never occurred to me to call ahead. The other church folks enjoyed my impromptu visits, apparently not so with Miss Bessie.
She continued her menacing wave as if swatting at a fly. Then she stood, knocking her wooden chair backward and dashed into the house. Holding my position, I wondered if she’d emerge from the house like Granny Clampett, a double-barreled shot-gun clutched in her hand ready to pepper me with buck-shot.
Moments stretched and finally her slender form took shape behind the screen door. She pushed it open. It creaked in protest. Then she stepped out; a large jar of peaches in her hands.
“You look skinnier than you did in the newspaper,” her craggy voice cut through the morning air.
I looked down at my growing waist-line and wondered what she meant. This church redefined “Koinonia.” Concerned their yet unmarried preacher would die of starvation, they’d started a “Feed the Hungry” drive with me as their sole benefactor.
Reluctantly, I drew closer and took the proffered jar.
“Care to sit a spell? I have some fessin’ up to do.”
Taken aback at her candor, I smiled, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot. She stood expectantly, hands gathered in a soiled apron.
“Yes ma’am, I think I will.”
She led the way back to the black kettle which sat over a bank of glowing coals. With each puff of wind, they seemed to breathe. I wondered what was in the kettle.
“It’s apple butter.” As if she’d read my mind.
Picking up her wooden chair, she nodded in the direction of a shed. “There’s another one in there. If you want to stand, that’s okay by me, but I have a lot of fessin’ up so you might want to sit.”
Pinching back a grin, I obeyed. Inside the aging shed was a menagerie of rusting tools. It reminded me of my granddad’s garage. Smells of turpentine mingled with pine took me back twenty-five years to a boy watching his grandfather sand a board until it was smooth as silk.
“You get lost preacher?” her voice caught me between the past and the present. Sheepishly, I returned, a rickety folding chair in hand.
“Miss Bessie—” I began.
Her gnarled hand shot up like a Pop-Goes-the-Weasel toy.
“Now preacher, it’s been a spell since I’ve been in church.” She paused to stir the apple butter with a wooden ladle.
I waited for the other shoe to drop. Rumor had it she caused the last preacher to leave. I braced myself.
“As I was sayin’, it’s been a while since I’ve been to church. Ever since my husband passed, it’s been hard to get around. My son comes and carries me to the grocery store once a week. Other than that, I don’t get out much. ‘Cassionly one of the church folks would stop by and offer me a ride, but ever since the last preacher went to medlin’, well,” her voice faded and I caught myself leaning in her direction. Maybe the rumors were true.
“Well, Miss Bessie, I don’t plan on—”
She cut me off with a wave. This was her platform and I was her audience. She made that clear with one sweep of her hand.
“Yes, ma’ma,” I said, feeling like a school-boy.
She continued to share her view of what a preacher should preach, listing salvation and evangelism as her top priority.
“The main thing is to stay out of people’s lives. Stick to the Bible and let well enough alone.” She concluded her remarks with a nod, then stirred the kettle again.
Sensing the conversation was over, I stood to leave.
I felt like I was taking the widow’s mite and guilt stabbed my heart. Reluctantly, I walked up the back steps which led into the house. Inside, the pungent odors of chopped onions, and stale coffee assaulted my nostrils. Looking around, I noticed an envelope held down by an old soup can, its wrapper long since gone. I slid it aside, lifted the envelope and turned it over. I stared at the brown smudge which sealed the flap and knew there was one less sermon I needed to prepare.
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