“… he was a fine boy, the kind you wouldn’t mind your daughter bringing home. That is, if you had a daughter.” Miss Bessie’s gaze fell on my ringless hand. She paused and took a sip of lemonade, and narrowed her eyes. “Now Preacher, I don’t think you’ve heard a word I said.”
I felt my ears burn, and knew she was right. She’d been droning on about her sister’s nephew’s son ever since we’d sat down on the porch, and my mind wandered—several times.
Two hours earlier, she’d called. “It’s too lovely outside to be cooped up in your office studying Greek tenses,” she said, her craggy voice conjuring up wicked images.
Her attempt to pry me from my office worked. Indeed, it was a lovely day. And it didn’t take too much persuasion to cause me to close my books and change into something more comfortable. Although sitting with a lonely senior saint was not my idea of how to spend a spring day, apparently it was God’s. So I made the journey into the country. It felt like another country, another era, another world. It was Bessie Myers’ world.
As I strode up to her front porch, I noticed the rays of sunlight piercing the foliage like a thousand javelins. Overhead, a warm breeze drifted through the conifer trees making them sway with a gentle rhythm. In the distance, a Whippoorwill called to the Bob White, who in turn called to the cicada telling it to be quiet. It didn’t and so the afternoon dragged on.
Sitting on her porch, I mopped my brow and took another sip of lemonade letting its cool, tarty flavor sooth my parched throat. Apparently my sermon the previous day had left it raw.
It was one of those rare occasions that Miss Bessie was in attendance. She sat on the second row, hands gloved, a straw hat perched on her head, and her large print Bible on her lap. She listened attentively. Now it was my turn to listen. I hoped my delivery was not as laborious as hers. Probably was, and this was pay-back time.
“Have I told you about my late husband Ned?” her question begged a yes answer.
Although I was sure she’d told me before, maybe today, I pushed out a weak smile. Shifting in the wicker seat, I said. “Why, no,” I lied. I’d confess it later. “Tell me about him.”
A distant look veiled her eyes and her voice grew light and dreamy. “We were just children back then, so young, so full of life, full of dreams. He’d always wanted to be a doctor, you know. But back then, as it is today, it took money. His family came from the holler, and were as poor as church mice. We’d courted off and on for about a year. Then one day he showed up, unannounced, to ask for my hand in marriage. That was also the day our mare decided to foal … early. Daddy was plowing the lower forty and Mamma was in the middle of boiling laundry. That’s what we called washing the clothes in those days,” she added instructively. “So Ned, who’d read a few medical journals he’d found at the doctor’s office, ran to get Daddy while I stroked Millie. That’s the mare’s name,” she said, an impish twinkle danced in her eye.
“I was only fifteen at the time and had never seen a horse in labor. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall having seen anything in labor, I mean, giving birth and all.” Miss Bessie’s cheeks pinked and she fanned herself.
I smiled and took another sip of lemonade. Seeing my Kerr jar half empty, she took the opportunity to excuse herself. She returned with a large pitcher of lemonade, its ice cubes bobbing like ships on the sea. I couldn’t help noticing the tan smear on her lower lip, but ignored her weakness. As I stood out of respect, I saw the double barreled shot-gun leaning against the door frame and two empty shells. A light chuckle percolated in her throat as she retook her seat.
“Such a gentleman, kinda like Ned.” With that, she plunged back into her story. “Daddy and Ned rode up on his tractor. Ned jumped off,” she grinned. “His foot landed in a pile of chicken—” she caught her breath. “Oh my, I almost had a slip of the tongue.” Her reference to the ‘tongue’ didn’t escape me as that was the topic of my sermon yesterday. Apparently it ruffled a few feathers on the ‘prayer chain.’
“Anyway,” she continued. “Daddy stopped the tracker and followed Ned into the barn to where Millie lay. Her belly was swollen and she seemed to be suffering real bad. I made up my mind right then, if birthin’ caused this much pain, I wanted nothin’ to do with it. Later I learned the other half of the story and changed my thinkin’ … somewhat.” She fanned herself vigorously.
“Well, after it was all over we had us a brand new filly,” her face beamed as if it were today. “Can I impose on you to stay for lunch?” again, the urge to say no was conquered by the need to say yes. As if timed perfectly, the aroma of chicken and dumplin’s wafted from the kitchen. My taste-buds went into overdrive.
“That smells mighty good, Miss Bessie, but really you shouldn’t have—” a weathered hand cut me off.
“No need to be overly humble, now Preacher. I didn’t exactly cook it up for you.”
Heat crept up my neck and it was my turn to fan myself. “Oh? Then why did you make a batch of chicken and dumplin’s if not for me?” My question brought a quizzical look on her face.
She cleared her throat and took a sip of lemonade before answering. Her eyes narrowed as an old blue-tic hound loped across the barren yard. His tongue hung lazily from one side of his mouth and she muttered something about the shot-gun, chicken coop and his cold nose.
It suddenly dawned on me. “Where’s all of your chickens, Miss Bessie?”