Last week left us with a telephone order from Gela for all my books as a present for her mother’s ninety-fifth birthday. I signed all the books and left with a sense of urgency, not the least bit bothered that I was going to meet strangers dressed in jeans about to tear at the knee and a faded t-shirt.
I don’t know what I was expecting. I just knew that I was looking forward to it. And that’s not like me at all.
I felt an unnatural “pull” to meet Kathleen (the mom) as I drove, uncharacteristically looking forward to meeting strangers. I was brought up not to impose, so I usually am hesitant about entering strange homes. But I felt this family’s welcome long before I got out of my car.
Gela had told me that the house was more than a century old and the place had once been a dairy farm. I saw tender loving care burnished with years of weather on the porch. The house had painted siding that had faded with time. It was very dissimilar to the old farmhouse I grew up in, but somehow familiar.
Kathleen, her daughter Gela and granddaughter Jody, were waiting as I entered the small living room that doubled as a bedroom. I felt the familiar unsteadiness of the floor and heard bottles rattle on a nearby dresser with my steps. I suspect that the house is supported by bois d’arc stumps, just as ours was.
But the home did not have the musty smell that some older houses have. It smelled of warm food and hospitality—a fragrance that cannot be defined, just experienced.
I did not know what they had told Kathleen about my visit. Was it a surprise? Did she know I was bringing books? And why had she wanted my books? Had she read one before? And why had I not asked those questions on the phone?
Gela introduced me to her mother and daughter. Kathleen stood and walked toward me with the energy and grace of a much younger woman, both eyes twinkling. She took both of my elbows, told me how wonderful it was to get to meet me. I hugged this lovely lady I had never seen before, feeling as if I was getting a long-wished-for last hug from my mother, gone more than a decade now.
It’s a worn-out phrase and a cop-out for a writer to say this, but words cannot describe the feeling she gave me. I wondered if she had confused me with someone else, possibly a long-lost son or nephew. No. We connected at that first moment on some higher plane. She seemed much younger than her years and her face was full of youthful joy, curiosity, and love.
Looking back, it seems as if we were all talking at once, recounting the sequence of events that had led me to their doorstep, but Kathleen’s eyes seemed never to leave mine. I told Jan later that it was one of the warmest feelings I had ever felt and one of the most astonishing encounters I had ever experienced.
Nobody ever fully explained how it was that Kathleen cut out that tiny notice of my book signing. I never even saw it in the paper. We speculated that she had read one of my first books and wanted to read the new one. Even she was unsure why she wanted to come to the book signing, meet me and read my books.
At her advanced age, she remains an avid reader, though her hearing is almost completely gone. Jody feverishly wrote on a whiteboard so that we could communicate, but I prattled on, absolutely positive that Kathleen understood everything I was saying. I know that sounds irrational, but I seemed not in control of the situation. Kathleen was in charge.
I have had more than a week to think about this visit as I write this. I have examined and re-examined it. I have asked myself if I am I “making too much” of a pleasant encounter. Am I being overly sentimental? Was I just caught up in a vulnerable moment and susceptible to suggestion? Maybe, but I don’t think so.
I do regret that I may have gushed as I talked to these three ladies, spilling out my life history because it seemed to parallel much of their own and because they were all so easy to talk to.
Through it all, Kathleen looked deeply into my eyes with rapt attention. More than that, I felt her communicating with me on another level. She asked Jody to go into another room and bring in a small container of books she had left on a table. Kathleen pulled a book from the box and showed it to me.
I was taken aback when I saw the title. The Bootlegger's Other Daughter by Mary Cimarolli.
Mary and I are friends and colleagues and she had just ordered a copy of my most recent book, Go Down Looking, two days before. Kathleen did not know this.
She pulled a second book from the box—The Glass House by William Thompson. Bill Thompson and I have been good friends for many years. My old publishing company published this book. I turned to the acknowledgements page in the book and showed Kathleen my name. She had not known.
Trying to figure out where we had met before, she asked me if I had ever been to Shady Grove Church. I had not, but told her that I had recently spoken at Mt. Zion and at Gafford Chapel. She asked if I knew Roy Lee Dittmar, the pastor at Mt. Zion. I have known Roy Lee for almost forty years.
There’s a knock at the door. Roy Lee Dittmar enters.
Roy Lee cooks desserts for good causes and for his congregation. He was on his way to Greenville to deliver one of his cakes (or pies) to wife Jan’s twin sister, Joan. He later told Joan about seeing me at Kathleen’s house. He also told her that Kathleen was one of the most learned biblical scholars he had ever known, that she has an extensive library of religious books.
Pastor Roy Lee knows a lot of religious scholars, has preached and been preached to by some of the best and brightest, so that is a high compliment.
Some of you skeptics (I used to be among you) are probably saying that this is just a group of coincidences. Maybe, but I cannot escape one thing—the warm feeling that I had when this lovely lady took me into her arms and looked into my eyes.
When I rose to leave, she walked me to the door and grabbed both of my arms and squeezed them. “Now you go on home and get to writing.”
Tell me that’s not a sign.