The steam of a Mississippi Delta morning was starting to take hold as I sat under a magnolia tree in front of the grand, old courthouse in Greenwood. Fifteen yards away was the muddy Tallahatchie River. The cars hummed over the bridge as I sat quietly reading the works of Miss Eudora Welty.
“Anybody sittin’ there?” I looked up to see a woman with ebony skin shimmering with dew on her face. She motioned to the seat beside me.
“No ma’am.” Her smile revealed no front teeth. She struggled over and sat down.
“I had to get me somethin’ to eat.” From a brown bag, she pulled a package of pickled sandwich meat. She fiddled with a piece.
“Are you diabetic?” I asked.
Her eyes widened. “I shore is. How you know that?”
I gave my reply then she started talking. I have discovered that if you just listen, people will tell you their stories. They seldom edit them. They just pour out themselves. The day before, I had a 15 minute conversation with the car navigation services woman when I called to request an address to be downloaded. She told me she was raised in Louisiana, moved to Utah 15 years ago, but her heart was still in the South where her mama lived in Selma, Alabama. And her sister had lived in Atlanta, but she had died of cancer two years earlier. I listened as I was driving, asking a question from time to time.
On the courthouse bench, I learned her name was Etta and she was from somewhere out in the country near Yazoo. She talked of her diabetes, how her heart beat both slow and fast, the way her right leg ached constantly, and how she’d been going with a man for nigh on 10 years.
“He loves me. He shore do. He don’t let me suffer for nothin.”
Miss Etta was worried about her housing situation. “I’s livin’ in this old, fallin’ down house that this mean old white woman owned. It was terrible. Leanin’ to one side, toilet half worked, roaches and rats. Roof leaked. She was chargin’ me $140 monthly for that rattle trap. I done moved myself to my niece’s. Now, I’m just waitin’ on the Lord. He gonna send me somethin’.”
“Why don’t we just pray about it right now?” I asked.
“Oh, child, you purdy little thing, let’s do that.”
It’s a lot safer offering to pray with a stranger in the rural South than it is in a hospital waiting room in Connecticut. I offered that once to a family suffering with the sudden death of a loved one. It did not go over well. But Miss Etta was different. She welcomed it.
We held hands and I prayed for her diabetes and that the Lord would see fit to send her the right place to live and that his timing would be swift.
“Amen, Jesus!” she proclaimed when the prayer ended. “Now, Jesus, he’s gonna answer that prayer.” She said it with full confidence. “Oh, sweet girl, you brung me today ‘xactly what I’s needin’.”
For a moment, she talked of her faith, of how deeply she believes and how she tells all her family to “get right with the Lord before it’s done too late.”
She looked up to watch a magnolia leaf drifting down. “Jesus will work if you just let him.”
“Miss Etta, I think that’s the wisest, most profound thing I ever heard.”
She talked and I listened for quite a spell until the man she loves came out of the courthouse. She stood up to join him.
“You blessed me, girl,” she said. I stood up and we hugged good-bye. She knew nothing about me but I knew much about her. I thought to myself, “Be mindful to entertain strangers for many have entertained angels unaware.”
Miss Etta, I think, was an angel.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Mark My Words: A Memoir Of Mama. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter. Her column appears Tuesdays.