Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

103

Sometimes Broadway, Sometimes the Catskills
She had nodded off when I first walked in the room in the Extended Care Facility. She was exhausted, it would seem, from just having had her morning bath.

Her nursing attendant, a tall, bronze, stately woman with beautifully manicured nails and a distinctive British lilt said she had just been chatting away and often "takes a cat nap after I pretty her up."

I'll call her "Mary". She's 103 years old.

I had been asked to visit with her by a local pastor who is a bit overwhelmed by a sudden summer rush of weddings, baptisms and funerals. I had been promised lots of wonderful stories. "Get her to tell you about how she killed the cow," he said.

I sat by her bedside for a few moments, watching her breathe as peacefully as a newborn. The permanent in her gray-white hair needed a bit of a renewal but was combed and neat. She wore a dark print "house coat" which accented her white-pinkish-white skin color against the white, starched institutional sheets.

Her complexion was clear, her cheeks were pink and her face remarkably wrinkle-free for a woman of 103. I wondered what that face had seen over the years.

I placed my hand in her hand, which was quite large for a woman. Her fingers were gnarled and misshapen. I had been told she had been raised on a farm but her hands would have told the story anyway. Hard work, being on a farm.

Suddenly, I felt her had grip mine tightly as she gently stirred in her bed. Her eyes popped open, revealing sparkling blue eyes that were bright and curious but unafraid. I'm sure she had gotten used to waking up with a stranger by her bed. That tends to happen a lot in Extended Care Facilities.

"Hello," I said. "My name is Reverend Elizabeth. Father __ asked me to come and call on you today."

She smiled broadly and then cleared her throat. "Well, if he's 'Father' then I shall call you 'Mother'", she said, as she chuckled a bit and her eyes danced mischievously.

She never loosened her grip on my hand the whole time I was there, except to make it even tighter when she wanted to accentuate a point she was making.

"Please call me 'Elizabeth'," I said. "It's what God calls me."

She chuckled again, "Well, if it's okay with God, it's okay with me, but," she said, raising a gnarled finger and pointing it at me, "If any one of the staff comes in here while we're talking, I shall introduce you as 'Mother'. It will drive them all crazy."

We shared a wicked giggle. I knew right then and there that I was in for a treat - whether or not she shared the story about how she killed the cow.

"I understand you grew up on a farm," I began. That was really all she needed to begin.

"Yes, in rural Virginia," she said, looking past my clergy collar and deep into my eyes, using them as a gauge as to just how much information she was going to share with me no matter what authority my clergy collar conveyed.

"And you?"

"Well, I lived in the outskirts of a city in Massachusetts, in an apartment above my grandparent's house. My grandfather had a vegetable garden, some goats and sheep and a few pigs. Just enough to feed the family. My grandmother had a flower garden in the front yard and some fruit trees and a vineyard in the back yard. So, technically, yes and no."

She nodded. It was enough information for her to continue. "Well, when I say 'rural Virginia' I mean 'rural'. The next farm was 5 miles down the road. We had dairy cows and horses, pigs, sheep and goats. I was the youngest of six but I pulled my share of chores right alongside my sisters and brothers."

She paused for a moment to clear her throat and ask for a sip of water. She studied the glass after she took a sip. "This don't taste anything like the water we used to pump from the well. Now, that was some good drinkin' water."

I smiled and nodded as she eyed my bottle of water. "You pay money for that?" she asked, more incredulous than judgmental.

"Got it at the vending machine in the lobby on the way in. It's already 92 degrees out there. Supposed to run to the triple digits today. Got to stay hydrated."

"Huh!" she said. "Never thought I'd live to see the day when people paid money for water in a plastic bottle. Foolish, init?"

"I suppose it is," I said.

She sighed deeply. "Well, I suppose I'm the Queen of Foolish. Got married when I was 14 years old. Did they tell you that about me?" She closed her eyes and shook her head with disbelief. "That was just the way it was done, back then. Well, at least in rural Virginia it was. My husband was 20 years old. Today, he'd be charged with statutory rape. We just laughed and said he 'robbed the cradle'. So, who am I to think paying money for water in a bottle is foolish?"

Her ancient blue eyes danced in her ancient head. Oh, this one was a pip at one time. Anybody could see that with one eye shut.

"He was a good man," she said. "Well, he was a man. I caught him once, out in the barn, with my cousin Suzy. They were under the hay - half naked. Didn't take no Einstein to figure out what they were doing. My first thought was 'damn fool'! Ever laid in some hay? It's okay if you're just gonna lay there, but if you got 225 pounds of farm man pumpin' on top of you, that hay can suddenly find its way into places God never intended hay to be, if you know what I'm sayin'."

She quickly scanned my eyes to see if she had shocked or offended me and, when she saw that I not only understood, I saw the humor, she laughed and squeezed my hand.

"Whatever did you do, Ms. Mary?"

"Well," she said, shifting her weight in the bed, "I looked at him and I said, 'Get your sorry, low-down, cheatin' behind into the house'. And, while he was picking up his britches, I turned to her and I said, 'And you may have had him in the hay, but you ain't gonna have his ring on your finger. That will be his punishment. He's gonna havta stay married to me and make this right. You hear me?'."

"And," she said, with a harumph that was just as resolved as the day she first said it, "that was exactly what happened."

Rhinestone Cowgirls Don't Cry
She was quiet for a while as she seemed to fold up that painful memory and put it away, back where it belonged, in a small box labeled, "Forgive, but never forget".

"That's what's wrong with women today," she said. "You gotta understand that men will stray from time to time. That's just their nature. They don't often use the brains God gave 'em before they unzip their fly, you know?"

I smiled and nodded. She laughed and said, "Do you know why men chase women they have no intention of marrying?"

"Um," I'm not sure," I smiled. "But, I'm sure you're going to tell me."

She squeezed my hand to ready me for the punchline. "For the same reason dogs chase cars they have no intention of driving."

We giggled as wickedly as two school girls in a junior high bathroom. I swear I saw the face of a 14 year old flicker for a few seconds across her 103 year old eyes.

"But," I asked, "are you saying that women should put up with infidelity?"

"No, no, child," she said, "But you gotta give 'em one - just one - chance to make it right. And, if you do it right, they'll never do it again. Mine didn't. Not ever again. No sir."

She looked down at her sheet, squeezed my hand and then said, "Sometimes, you just gotta let 'em hear you growl."

"Ah," I said. "And, if that doesn't work?"

"Then, I say, let 'em chase cars they'll never drive."

She sighed again. I could tell she was getting weary, even though she was obviously enjoying herself as much as I was.

"So, you want to hear about the time I killed the cow?"

I didn't even have time to respond before she launched into it. "I was working for a neighbor - milking cows - making a little extra money to buy some material to make a party dress I wanted. Didn't have a party to go to, but I figured, when I get invited, I'll have a pretty party dress to wear."

"Now, cows can be as stupid as some men. They nudge you and push you for some more hay, even when they got their belly full. So, this one cow kept pushing me toward the fence where there was a bail of hay on the other side. I shushed it for as long as I could and then she pushed me so hard, I fell right on my backside."

"Well," she continued, "I've always had me a bad temper. Don't mean to. Learned it from my older brothers. I was just a little thing and so they taught me how to fight so I could take care of myself when they weren't around."

She cleared her throat before she continued, "Next thing I know, I'm up on my feet and I punched that old cow in the head - right between the eyes. She stood there for a few seconds, stunned, and then she fell right to her knees and sorta swayed there for a few more minutes, looking for all the world like a drunken floozy in a gin-joint. Then, she mooed real loud and fell over and died, just as quiet as you please."

"What did you do?" I gasped.

"Well, I runned out of that barn and called the farmer. I didn't tell him what I did, I just told him that one of his cows fell over and liked to died."

"The farmer, he come in and take a look at that cow and just scratched his head. He mumbles to himself, 'Well, they all eat the same hay and feed. Nothin' seems to be wrong with the rest of them. Animals is strange, ain't they?' And I said, 'Yes sir,' trying not to let him see my knees knocking."

"Well, that farmer saw how scared I was anyway, so he patted me on the head and said, 'I'll make sure to send some of this meat over to your kin'. And then, he walked out of that barn and right back to work."

She closed her eyes and looked down at our clasped hands. She pumped them a few times, as I imagined one would pump a cow's teat for milk. When she looked up again, her bright blue eyes were dancing with tears.

"You know," she said, "I never ate one piece of that meat. I couldn't. I felt so guilty."

She wiped a tear from her eye as she said, "I told my priest that story and I asked him to give me absolution for the fact that I hadn't told the truth to that farmer, but I never asked for absolution for killing one of God's creatures."

She pumped my hand again and then looked me in the eye as a tear fell from her eye and asked, "You got an absolution prayer for killing a cow?"

"Of course," I said, as I closed my eyes and raised my hand to absolve her.

"No, no, no," she said. "I want a proper confession. From the Prayer Book."

I reached into my purse and got out my pocket edition of the BCP, opened it to page 447 "Reconciliation of a Penitent" and handed it to her.

"What are you going to use?" she asked.

I pulled out my iPhone with my BCP app and said, "Got it right here."

"In that? Get out? Oh, my goodness? Who would have ever imagined such a thing?"

"Stranger than paying for bottled water, init?" I said with a smile.

"Stranger," she said as she fixed her glasses to look at the words on the page.

She cleared her throat, blessed herself with her left hand as her right hand remained clutched to mine and began, "Bless me, for I have sinned."

Old Woman and The Toad - Judy Somerville
What she regretted most, she said, was that her temper had gotten control of her brain and it ended up costing a life. She said she had vowed before God never to let her temper get the best of her again, and that, in all those years, she had kept her vow - even when she got mad at her husband's infidelity which made her mad enough to have killed them both, right then and there, in the hay in that barn, all those many years ago but instead forgave them both - and hoped that this would be sufficient for her penance.

I assured her of God's pardon and forgiveness and the absolution of her sin.

"The Lord has put away all your sins," I said.

"Thanks be to God," she said.

I found myself chocking over the familiar words which end the Rite, "Abide in peace, and pray for me, a sinner."

"I will," she said, as a tear streamed down her face. "I will," she vowed solemnly.

She closed the book and let it rest on her lap. An exhaustion swept over her face and slumped her shoulders.

"Thank you," she said, her eyelids heavy with sleep.

She opened them slowly and said, "You will come back, won't you?"

"If you'll have me," I said, "I would love that."

"I will have you always in my heart," she said as she closed her eyes and her chin dropped to her chest. Soon, she was softly snoring, but her hand was still firmly clenched in mine.

I stayed there with her for a few more minutes, and found myself inexplicably singing to her softly, "Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so." I sang it as prayer. I sang it as lullaby.

Her nursing attendant appeared at the door and began singing softly with me, "Little ones to him belong. We are weak but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so."

Her hand finally relaxed and I was able to release my hand from hers.

The nursing attendant whispered to me over the bed as she lowered it slightly, "You know, whether we're three or a hundred and three, we still need to be reminded of the love Jesus has for us all."

And you know, she's right. Even though we may know it in our hearts and live it in our lives, we still need that "Blessed Assurance" from time to time.

Especially when memories of things "done and left undone" come back to haunt us.

Whether we're three or a hundred and three.

18 comments:

whiteycat said...

Great story, Elizabeth! Another chapter for "the book."

IT said...

I think there's a whole section of the book about the wisdom of the elders as heard in the extended care facilities. Wonderful story.

Elisabeth said...

I wish I had been there.

Caminante said...

Agreed with Whiteycat. What a blessing... her stories, God's forgiveness....

Hutch said...

Jesus - and I - love you, too, Elizabeth. Thank you.

the cajun said...

You and she and we have been blessed by this encounter. Thank you.

I'm here! Now what? said...

I wish my patients would tell stories like this. Thank you for sharing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Whiteycat - Thanks so much.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

IT - I was truly blessed by that visit.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Lis - Me, too. You would have loved her.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Caminante - I think there's a whole lot more "church" that happens in ECF than in most "sanctuaries".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Hutch. We all need "blessed assurance" of God's love.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Hey, Cajun - Missed you at DL the other night. We were told there was a one hour wait - at 8 PM!!! Business is good. Turns out it was more like 25 minutes but always worth the wait.

I was truly blessed to share this encounter and blessed again to share it here.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I'm here - Maybe you have to wait until one of them turns 103.

JCF said...

What whiteycat said.

Jim said...

Thanks for this. I think the absolution liturgy in the BCP is one of our greatest neglected resources.

FWIW
jimB

Caminante said...

I also wonder if, now that she has received God's forgiveness, that is the last piece of work she needed to do....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I had that same thought when I went out to the car. I wouldn't be surprised if she can now "let go" and "go home".