April 20, 2006

Aunt Margie

1511 page22 capY MOTHER HELPED MY MINISTER father by playing the organ or piano for every church service, prayer meeting, and evangelistic meeting. This meant that my older brother, just starting elementary school, and I had to sit on the front row of the church during services. This enabled our busy parents to keep an eye on us. Sometimes we were allowed to sit with a trusted adult.
One woman in our church I called Aunt Margie. She was a nurse, and she embodied what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up. She was often at the meetings, and I always begged to sit with her. She was tall and gentle. She’d hold me on her lap and rub my back. She cuddled me in her arms, and I remember the smell of her clothes. She always spoke softly to me, even when she corrected me. When we knelt to pray, she wrapped my hands in hers as we bowed our heads.
Sometimes my parents left me with Aunt Margie overnight when they had to be away. I loved staying with Aunt Margie. I thought she was the most wonderful cook in the world. I’ll never forget her pecan pie.
Joined in Service
One winter day when I was staying with Aunt Margie, she took me with her on her “rounds,” as she called them. I wondered what this meant, but I knew it was important. Aunt Margie told me that I could help her if I was especially careful and obeyed everything she asked of me. I made a serious promise, and we prepared for “rounds.”
We went first to the grocery store, then the drugstore, then we started out. I realized as we drove that we were going deep into the old South, into an area with which I was unfamiliar. My family was never well off, but the places we visited that day were beyond poverty. They were homes that were really shacks, way out of town on the edge of the swamps; homemade cabins and places that should have been condemned.
1511 page22We stopped in on a woman who was very sick. She was in her bed when we arrived, and she didn’t get up when she heard us at the door. She just called out for us to come in. There was a terrible odor in the house, and it seemed colder in the house than it was outside. Aunt Margie told me to bring in a box from the grocery store while she took some medicine from the box she got at the drugstore. I did exactly what I was told, then I crept quietly into the bedroom. I watched Aunt Margie gently help the woman sit up in a chair. Then she went outside and brought in some wood and put it into the black iron stove and started a fire. She then called me over to help change the sheets on the bed. She sent me out of the room while she bathed the woman. I was to watch the water in the pot on the stove and call to her when it boiled. I did just as I was told. She made the woman some soup and some tea, then returned to her patient. I tiptoed into the bedroom to see Aunt Margie tenderly put the woman back to bed and put hot and cold compresses on her chest. Then she gave the woman an injection. Finally, I helped feed the woman some soup. I watched Aunt Margie tuck the woman into bed and promise to return the following day.
Basic Questions
Our next stop was the house of a man who wouldn’t open his door. The house and yard were lined with well-organized used containers of all kinds. He must have collected containers for 50 years. I was instructed not to say a word about any of this while we were there. “We mustn’t offend the old gentleman,” Aunt Margie told me.
We set the box of food down on the porch. Aunt Margie called out to him and told him what she brought him and told him to take the medicine she brought. She put a blanket on top of the box and called out again. This time he answered from inside the shack. The door was broken, and I could see a figure between the openings of the wood. Aunt Margie told him to come get the box and to put the blanket on his bed. He called back to us and said he was “much obliged.” I never saw him.
I asked Aunt Margie if she had ever seen him. She just smiled. She asked, “Does it matter whether we see the people we help?”
I wondered at the question. Grown-ups didn’t usually ask my opinion; they just told me theirs. I liked this about Aunt Margie. She asked about my opinion, and she always seemed to listen to my answers.
“I think it might be OK if we don’t see the people we help sometimes,” I answered. “I think Jesus might want it that way to keep us from staring.” Aunt Margie smiled and told me to keep thinking on it.
We visited a tiny little woman who lived right on the swamp. I was afraid there might be an alligator or a cottonmouth snake in the yard, but Aunt Margie just said a prayer, and out we stepped from the car. We quickly walked up to the broken steps of the house. The door was slightly open, and we knocked on it as it swung open. The woman was very old, and her face reminded me of bumpy leather. I was not yet in school, yet she seemed to stand close to my height. She was very thin and wore a knitted hat. Aunt Margie spoke to the woman gently but firmly. I knew this voice; Aunt Margie had used it on me when I took more than one cookie at a time. There were holes in nearly every wall of the house, and cold air seeped in. The woman seemed to be wearing every piece of clothing she owned. I assumed this was to stay warm. Aunt Margie took a newspaper and told me to open its pages. We took some duct tape from the car and taped the paper over the holes in the walls. The shack had no electricity or running water.
The old woman seemed to listen to Aunt Margie, but she didn’t really give her much attention. Aunt Margie was worried about her and how she could keep warm. She worried that she wouldn’t make it through the winter. She told her to be careful not to burn the house down and to come into town if she needed anything. The woman smiled, showing only about six teeth, and told Aunt Margie not to “go on so.” She told Aunt Margie she was right where she wanted to be. Then she told us to “git.” She thanked us for the groceries, and she thanked us to leave. Aunt Margie hugged her, and we left.
When we got back inside Aunt Margie’s station wagon, I saw tears in her eyes. “Why are you crying?” I asked.
She never answered. I found out later the woman died that winter.
Motivated by Love
The day continued with one visit after another. We visited the sick and elderly. We saw both Black and White people, and we treated them all with respect and dignity. I knew this was the right way to treat people. I was filled with compassion for the people and with gratitude for Aunt Margie. I was grateful that she allowed me to know this part of her life, grateful to have been part of the day.

Questions for Reflection

1. Whose example of generous and unselfish service has influenced you?
2. List (modestly) three ways in which you, as an individual, serve those who are less fortunate--materially or spiritually--than you are.
3. With so many obvious and pressing needs in our communities, how do you fight “compassion fatigue”?
4. Which organizations have the best reputation for serving your community? Is your church one of them? If not, why not?

We didn’t return home until after dark. I was tired and cold, but very happy. I asked Aunt Margie why she went on her “rounds.” She told me that she was doing what Jesus would have her do. She told me that all those people we had seen didn’t have anyone else and that she wanted to do something for them because Jesus loved her so much.

That evening after Aunt Margie fed me a bowl of homemade soup and gave me a wonderful bubble bath, she read me a story, said prayers with me, and tucked me into bed. She kissed my forehead, and I breathed her in as she leaned down. I remember her slippers sliding along as she walked across the room and turned the light out. She left the door ajar so that I wouldn’t be frightened. I could see from my bed into the next room, and I watched her sit down in a big chair and read her Bible. I was completely safe and fell asleep quickly.
The times I spent with Aunt Margie were never forgotten. Our families stayed close for many years; then we moved from the South. When I was 19 years old, I went back to Alabama to visit Aunt Margie. When I hugged her hello, that same familiar, soft fragrance graced my memory. She still spoke softly to me in her beautiful Southern drawl. And she made me pecan pie. She had long since retired from nursing but still continued to go on “rounds.” She still smiled and laughed so comfortably.
A Life Worth Celebrating
My father called recently to tell me that Aunt Margie had died. It has been so long since I have seen her. But it seems the world is a bit colder without Aunt Margie. There has been a loss with her passing. I have the assurance that I will see her again, but just now as I sit in the still of the day and remember this blessed woman I am honored. She loved me, and I loved her, even if it was in childhood. Her grace and dignity were powerful influences on me. She loved to smile, and I am once again blessed by her memory.
The way Aunt Margie lived affected me. I was not yet in school, yet she helped shape who I would become. I’ve always remembered that my influence as an adult will be remembered by the children with whom I come into contact.
I don’t know what Aunt Margie’s political beliefs were, but I do know that she ministered to both Black and White people at a time in the South when the races had little friendly contact. She showed no distinction between the people who needed help. I grew up believing that we are all God’s beloved children, no matter the color of our skin. I also became a nurse, and I remembered Aunt Margie as I walked down the aisle at graduation. Every so often I’m reminded of those wonderful times I was fortunate to spend with Aunt Margie.
Cynthia Clark is a registered nurse who lives in Murrieta, California.