When she talked about those tribulations back in 1937, her feeble voice crackled with both age and emotion. With more than 70 years separating then from now, the grief still lingered but wisdom had covered it like moss on a riverbank.
In those days, the poor were really poor, their back bones hollow from lack of food and their brows heavy with the kind of worry that will drive a man to an early grave. Some did die, leaving behind poor, fragile widows and a passel of half-starved young’uns to cry mournfully over their raggedy remains. Around those hand-dug graves filled with rough hand-hewn pine boxes, folks gathered to pray and sing “Amazing Grace” as it rained. It always rained. Their lives, it seemed, were filled with rain.
“Lookin’ back,” she said softly, “The Lord knowed what he was doin’.”
But back then, it didn’t seem like that at all. She married young at 16, the handsome boy, Scotch-Irish just like her, that she would love till death put it asunder 75 years later. Those first years were hard not only in body but in spirit as they tried to form a life among the depression-smothered foothills of the Southern Appalachians.
In detail she recalled it all on that morning she telephoned early. “Somethin’ just told me to call you,” she said. “I hate to hinder you ’cause I know you’re always so busy but I just wanted to talk to you.”
Because I have sadly learned that time with loved ones can be fleetingly short, I, without hesitation, sat down on a step on the stairway with a cup of coffee and settled into an hour’s long conversation. I shrugged off deadlines, project negotiations and business calls for something more urgent, more important. For she knew things about our family that if she didn’t tell me then, might be gone forever should God call for her before he does for me.
Aunt Ozelle was Mama’s oldest sister. She recently died at 93, after outlasting all those who knew her when she was a child or when she was dewy with youth. Through all her living, she had seen a lot of life, the good, the bad, the sad and the happy. Somehow for some reason, we started in on the sad that morning.
For more than 60 years, she taught Sunday School and she lived what she taught. She was such a Bible scholar than even preachers, including my daddy, often sought her guidance on understanding a scripture. She would tell you, plain and simple, it was her faith that under-girded her and took her down through the sometimes rough journey of life.
Back in 1937, the newlyweds struggled just to stay alive, she said, while living in a little rented house on someone else’s farm. Foxes ate all their chickens, their beloved collie dog disappeared, a little heifer that Paw-paw had given them for milk and butter caught its head between a post and the floor and choked to death. The day before her first baby was born, in desperation, Aunt Ozelle dropped to her knees and prayed.
“I asked that God’s will be done. Whatever that was.”
The next day, she struggled through long, arduous childbirth as a midwife attended. Finally, the baby was born, cried, took her first breath then moments later took her last breath.
“I couldn’t be angry with God and I wasn’t. I had asked that his will be done.”
Thirteen months later, a healthy baby boy was born. Two months later, he died of infant pneumonia.
“I carried the greatest burden in my heart but looking back, I know God knew what he was doin’. I don’t know how we would have fed those children. Times were so hard.”
It is the legacy of my family both that of humble, poor beginnings and steadfast faith. May we never forget where we’ve been or what brought us through.
Ronda Rich is the Gainesville-based author of the new book, “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter here.