Monday, August 17, 2015

Mrs. Hall

I first learned of Mrs. Hall and her impact upon my life four years ago at a women's retreat. I remember the lighting of the room, where I sat, the baby bucking in my womb, and that perpetual out-of-breath sensation pregnant women hold so dear as Dixie Perry, my friend and mentor, told her story.

Mrs. Hall was a friend to Dixie's mother, Johnie, after she'd lost two young sons. A person who befriends someone lost in grief of that depth is, as Johnie said, "one of God's special people." Mrs. Hall didn't look too special. In fact, she scared lots of people away with her somber dress. But she was one of those rare individuals who gives the most generous gifts of all--time and attention--a legacy she passed on to Johnie who later passed it on to Dixie.

Dixie is my Mrs. Hall. She is definitely "one of God's special people." God is always using her somewhere, some way, with someone. Still, she makes time for me. And when I'm with her, she's all there, which is one reason our times together are always memorable. Dixie, in turn, inspires me to be a Mrs. Hall to someone else.

For four years, this oddball saint has lived, breathed, and left her heel prints all over my imagination. The weekend after I finished the second draft of my novel, my little family made the trip to Baton Rouge to see Dixie and her sweet husband Robert. On our last evening together, I asked to hear again the story of Mrs. Hall. As I listened, tainting Johnie's crock with the worst cobbler I've ever made, I knew I had to immortalize her with my pen.

Allow me to introduce you to someone whose faith continues to reverberate in the world more than 80 years later.

In honor of the woman "who prayed the stars out of the sky," the woman she loved through loss and despair, and my own Mrs. Hall, Dixie Perry:





Mrs. Hall

by Melissa A. Keaster


Curled over the counter, Johnie panted around the wrenching in her stomach. It overwhelmed at the most unexpected times, triggered by the oddest things. Like the eggs staring up from the crock—a pair of bulbous, golden eyes. Raw flour powdered the counter where her hands had shaken. Tears fell into the sifter, forming tiny crater lakes in the soft mound. Wiping the perspiration from her brow, her gaze wandered to the shaft of sunlight warming the empty corner of the farmhouse where the floor was scuffed raw by toy cars and wooden trains

Dick would be hungry soon, and looking for the cup towel waving from the clothesline. But there would be no cake. Not until she could breathe. 

Abandoning the task, she stumbled down the hall to her bedside and collapsed on her knees. Her hands clutched the cotton sheets as she wept. When words wouldn’t come, she reached for song, but melody strangled in her throat, hot and thick with anguish. She crawled to the piano bench, the perch from which she played and sang and so often found solace. But her hands trembled upon the keys, and no Aaron or Hur was there to steady them. Her God accepted hymns of sighs and sobs, but she couldn’t offer those. Not today. Her grief was her own.   

The screen door squeaked open and clapped shut. Boots shuffled into the kitchen and paused. Johnie pushed her brow away from the cool wood of the piano, unsure of how long she’d sat there idle, and rose to fetch Dick’s milk. 

Three ice cubes plunked into the glass. She slid it across the counter, unable to meet his eyes. “It’s all I have today.”
  
Arms damp with sweat, smelling of grass, and flecked with black earth wound around her. “You gotta come through this somehow, Hon. For the ones we got.” A large, calloused hand rubbed circles on her back. 

“Sorry about the cake.”
           
“I don’t care about the cake.” Dick sipped his milk, studying her over the rim of his glass. With a sigh, he cocked his head. “Why don’t you call Mrs. Hall?”

Johnie squinted up at him, wiping tears. “Mrs. Hall?” What had made him think of her?

She’d summoned the nerve to introduce herself at the tent revival last week and only because Mr. Hall hadn’t come. The man had a reputation. While the rest of the community had stood aloof and wary, something about the tall, austere woman dressed in dreary hues from collar to toe beckoned Johnie. She’d liked Mrs. Hall in an instant. The old woman’s eyes echoed her own pain, though she imagined it was of a different kind, and yet there was a light in them Johnie hungered for. A light to be warmed by. Wistful fists clenched air. The prospect of Mr. Hall was too daunting.
           
Dick rubbed his sunburned neck. “Why don’t you call? If he’s not there, I’ll drive you.”
“But the supper—”
“Biscuits will suit.”
“The boys—”
“Will be fine without me for a spell.”
             
With a hesitant nod, Johnie straightened, and moved to the telephone. Gripping the receiver in one hand, she worked the crank with the other. A stern voice answered. “Operator.”
             
Despite the time she’d had to prepare, Johnie scrambled for what to say. “Mrs. Hall? This is Johnie Deal. From down the way. May I…may I call on you?”
             
A wave of static buzzed in the receiver. “Yes. If you come now.” 
No questions. No comments. Just an invitation.

“I’ll be right over.” Hope flickered as Johnie returned the phone to its hook. 
 She turned to Dick. “Let’s go.”

Johnie tugged off her apron, and hung it on the peg by the refrigerator. The Texas heat slapped her face when she stepped outside, and dried the tears on her cheeks. The green GMC was warm enough to bake a pie. A gauzy layer of cotton did little to protect her bottom, and she winced as it touched the leather seat. A short, jolting ride down the hill brought them to her three surviving sons. They peered at her through the window, probably wondering about their cake. After offering them a weak smile, she focused on an old oak in the distance as Dick delivered his instructions.

Why did she pine when she’d been given so much? Why couldn’t she overcome the sadness as Dick wished she would? To forget would make life easier, but no matter how she willed, forgetting was impossible—blasphemy to her mother’s heart. God had given five priceless, unique souls, and God had taken two away.

“Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Her lips stumbled over Job’s lion-hearted declaration of old. He’d lost all ten of his children. Why couldn’t she conjure his faith?

The truck door slammed, and Dick patted her knee. “It’s been two years, Johnie,” he said. As if time touched a mother’s grief.

Her gaze flicked to him. Two years had greyed his hair and furrowed his brow. There was a weariness in his eyes that didn’t wane with sleep. They were his sons, too, but he compartmentalized his pain. He didn’t limp through life the way she did. It hurt not to be understood by the man she loved. By the man who loved her. It hurt to be alone.

A series of gravel roads brought them to the Hall’s homestead. Dick turned to her. “I’ll be back for you in an hour.”

He may not understand, but he cared. She squeezed his hand, and crawled out of the truck.

Uncertainty attacked when her feet touched the ground. What was she doing here at this strange woman’s house?

A gust eddied down the drive, kicking up dust and herding her toward the front door. The porch step groaned under her weight. Swatting a wasp, she knocked. The house quivered as feet approached from the back. Rusty hinges groaned, and Mrs. Hall squinted out, adjusting the spectacles on the bridge of her long, thin nose. An incisive gaze settled on Johnie’s face. Unsure of what to say for herself and too stricken for small talk, Johnie stared back.

Despite the heat, Mrs. Hall wore the same uniform she’d worn that night at the revival—a calf-length grey cotton dress, black cotton stockings, and black lace-up shoes. When she proposed a walk, Johnie’s eyes widened. “Are you sure? It’s awful hot.”

Looking past her, Mrs. Hall removed her apron. “There’s no finer cathedral than a blue Texas sky.”
Stunned by her insight, Johnie’s lips parted. “A walk sounds nice.”

Mrs. Hall’s head snapped to attention, her severe brow darkening. Johnie spun. As Dick backed out of the driveway, a black Ford crunched down the road.

Mr. Hall.

Johnie’s stomach dropped to her ankles. Dick returned, and hope fizzled. She’d have to leave now.

Mrs. Hall’s grey eyes saddened. “You’ll try me again tomorrow, won’t you, dear?
Swallowing, Johnie nodded. “Yes, ma’am. What time?”

The Ford pulled up beside the GMC, and Dick climbed out. Heat rose into her cheeks for Mrs. Hall’s sake. Mr. Hall was mean as a west-Texas rattler, but there was no need for Dick to escort her to the truck. But instead of retrieving Johnie, Dick ambled over to the Ford, smiling. Mr. Hall emerged wearing a fierce scowl, but shook Dick’s extended hand. Mrs. Hall looked on, frozen in place. The corner of her right eye twitched.

The men muttered so low Johnie couldn’t make out what they said. After a moment, Dick shot her a pointed look, and relaxed, arms folded, against the side of the truck. Mr. Hall never dropped his scowl, but seemed more interested in Dick than his wife or Johnie.

Her lips pursed, Mrs. Hall took Johnie’s arm, and led her off the porch to a worn path in the scraggly grass, which crackled in the sun. With every step away from the house, the sky stretched wider. Lonely mesquites dotted the open prairie here and there. There was a fullness to the emptiness. When Johnie breathed, she tasted God on the air. Lulled by the rhythmic grinding of pebbles under Mrs. Hall’s one-inch heels, Johnie startled to her voice. “Your soul’s ailin.’”

Those soft, grey eyes were sharp. “Yes ma’am."
“Heard about your boys. There’s no pain like the death of a child."

Tears pooled in Johnie’s eyes, threatening to spill over. How had she known? Were the losses tattooed on her brow? But of course people talked, especially in small, southern towns.

Mrs. Hall’s bony hand slipped into hers. “May I pray?"
And Johnie knew why she’d come.
“Please.” She closed her eyes, content to be led, thankful conversation wouldn’t be required.

Mrs. Hall didn’t begin right away. The intentional silence of a gathering thunderstorm crackled around them, raising the hair on Johnie’s arms. When Mrs. Hall spoke, her voice, feeble with age, transformed—not in volume but in clarity. “Bow down your ear to me, O Maker of the heavens and the earth, not on my account but on account of your Son, who lived the life I should’ve lived and died the death I should’ve died.

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name we give glory. Blessed be the name of the Lord, who does whatever He pleases, who thunders marvelously with His voice, who sends out lightening where it should go, who commands the morning and shakes the wicked from the earth as crumbs from a tablecloth.”

Johnie opened her eyes, half-expecting dark clouds to form overhead, cueing a family to rise from their picnic and shake out the red and white checked cloth.

“It was you who laid the foundations of the earth. You who formed the universe from nothing. You who called light out of darkness. You who summoned land from the deeps. At your word, even the driest, weariest ground yields fruit and herb.”

Thirst ached Johnie’s tongue. Her heart was such a wilderness, a land she believed—at times—to be forsaken by God. And yet even the rocky soil below her feet brought forth the sweet-smelling grass swishing against her skirts and the mesquite shading the jack rabbit at her right. All at the Lord’s command.

“The stars shine in the night sky as signs for seasons and the passage of time, reminding us there are songs in the night if we will only listen. Your finger looses the cord of Orion and leads the Great Bear and her cubs home. Your palms, engraved with our names, shaped the sun and moon, and the clouds ride upon your breath. You call every creature into being and ordain the number of its days.”

A sob hung in Johnie’s throat. How could so few days be right? Even in a world gone wrong?

“Your eye sees the cattle on a thousand hills and the sparrow when it falls. You watch over the lowly ant and hunt prey for young lions. You act as midwife, overseeing the birth of every wild thing. You attend the deaths of your saints.”

In her mind, Johnie saw the Lord resting a hand upon the brow of each son as he lay dying, extending it to escort them from one world to another. But why? Why take her little boys?

“What is man that you are mindful of him? The son of man that you visit him? Yet you formed us in your likeness. You breathed air into our lungs. In you we live and move and have our being. You gave us dominion over all creation, and honored us with eternal souls that we might know you. And when we rebelled, you stooped to the ash heap we made of this world to lift us poor and needy from the dust.”

Mrs. Hall knelt and gathered a handful of fine gravel in her free hand. It sifted through her fingers, carried off by the wind.

Such was life. A vapor. Gone in a blink. It continued, even when Johnie wished it wouldn’t. Man slept, his flesh marrying to the soil, and the gospel marched on. God is—always—in spite of the brevity of mankind. She gasped at the pain of impaling truth. It hurt her human sensibilities. And it was good, for in that pain, she let the other go.

“You cast off your crown to seat us with princes. And what are we, Marvelous King, but little dogs under your table? And yet you bid us feast by your side. You are a God we can touch, and you invite us to taste and see. To enjoy you with all our senses. So we eat the Bread of Life, we drink your bitter cup, and comfort ourselves with the sweetness of your word, which is as honey on our lips.”

As Mrs. Hall praised God’s word, His promises came to Johnie’s mind—When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned…He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.

It seemed to Johnie that Mrs. Hall could hear her thoughts. “I know, O Lord, that your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness you have laid affliction on our backs, have caused men to ride over our heads, have brought us through fire and through water. Be merciful to us that we may see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Deliver us in our affliction, and bring us out to rich fulfillment.”

Johnie felt honored by Mrs. Hall’s candor. Most of the women she knew never showed their slip, much less their heart. And yet on this first visit, Mrs. Hall shared her pain through prayer.

A tear slipped from the corner of Mrs. Hall’s weathered eye and trickled along a wrinkle in her cheek. She fell silent, her gaze fixed upon the heavens. Stars blinked awake, and a crescent moon rose over the hills in the distance.

“Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens! Praise Him, all his angels! Praise him, sun and moon! Praise Him, all you stars of light!”

And the stars answered the call to arms, streaking across the dusky sky, and fell toward the horizon. One, two, three.

Johnie and Mrs. Hall stopped, faces upturned, marveling at their God and all he had made. Marveling was medicine. It didn’t take away the pain—nothing but heavenly reunion could do that—but it made the pain bearable.

Johnie breathed. Beauty danced before her eyes. The earth was full of goodness again. Her lungs filled with a shout she couldn’t contain. “Praise the Lord!"

The grass caught her words and whispered them across the plain.

Sensing the need to return to her husband, Johnie led Mrs. Hall homeward. Together, they sang doxologies with the sunset until they were reproached by Mr. Hall’s scowl.

On the ride home, Dick asked, “Well? How was it?"
Tranquil, Johnie relaxed against the headrest. The smile came naturally. “That woman can pray the stars out of the sky."
“And stars into those sky blue eyes.” He grinned.
Taking his hand, she kissed it. “Thank you.”

The moment she arrived home, Johnie donned her apron, and whipped up the batter for the pound cake. While it baked, her hands gently worked lard and buttermilk into flour. A batch of cathead biscuits joined the cake in the oven. She fried up a pan of sausage, mixed gravy from the drippings, and sliced several tomatoes, thanking God for the bounty and stomachs to fill. Her four ravenous men rewarded her with contented grunts and moans as they ate. Music to her mother’s heart. And when the dishes were washed and toweled dry, she sat at the piano and played her favorite hymns.
 __________________________
             

Snow dusted the prairie before Johnie visited Mrs. Hall again. And again, Johnie came to her limping and left with a steadier gait. For their next walk, God rolled out the blue carpet. Bluebonnets leapt to life from the barren wasteland around them. The time after that, Johnie herself had blossomed. She rubbed her round belly, praying the child inside could hear the praises to the God who gave them both breath. Even the breaths hard to take.

_________________________
             
Years later, when Mrs. Hall had gone the way of all the earth and joined her Maker, Johnie’s seventh child—her only daughter—asked how she’d survived the loss of her two sons.

With a soft smile, Johnie recalled the faithfulness of her God and his servant. “I wouldn’t have. If not for Mrs. Hall.”



Dedicated to Dixie Perry, my mentor, who is as good as a Mrs. Hall to me.


3 comments:

Ms. A said...


Very nice!

Talena Winters said...

Thank you for this.

MelissaKeaster said...

Talena--*hugs* Thankful it blessed you.