It was the last day when we were allowed to see people face to face. March 14th. Before “the world closed” as a friend says. A dear friend, Leola, 97, and I had planned to meet at her place. It had been over a decade. Twenty-six years ago I arrived as her new pastor with Karen and four young daughters at Banks Community UMC. TWENTY-SIX years. Time does have wings. Since then I’ve pastored at another congregation for eleven years. Just incredible. And every day I’m surprised by my face in the mirror.
I called Leola, “Okay, there is this fright out there of this virus. I am not ill. I have no symptoms. Do you still want me to come?”“Pastor,” she said. She will always call me pastor. “Here’s what I think. I’ve lived this many years and someday I’ll die whether you come or not. And it would be fine with me if the virus took me. I don’t mind getting to go home. Not that I am planning to get it, but I don’t have any fear.”
“Okay, then. I’ll come!” I said, laughing.
She is a person who lives life to the overflow.
The next morning, Leola called. “Pastor,” she yelled into the phone. “I woke up with a sniffle. I don’t think you should come.”
“Are you concerned that I’ll catch something from you? Or do you not feel well?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m fine. I just didn’t want you to get anything from me.” She laughed.
“Oh Leola, I’m fine and I won’t get anything. So if you are still okay with it, I’ll come.”
“That would be my greatest pleasure in the world to have you come,” she said.
I arrived at her place at 11 am, on a foggy, Saturday morning. She lives alone in a one-story house that sits on a hill with lots of property. It overlooks a large, open field with a duck hunter’s pond. She has lived there for decades.
The house has a steep set of stairs that go down to the full, finished basement that has a full kitchen, an extra bedroom. That’s where she keeps her firewood. From there a backdoor is at ground level. She still goes down into the basement daily to get wood for her wood-burning stove upstairs. “I find that I can bring two pieces of wood at a time,” she told me, “while holding onto the railing.”
Now you know why she is still alive after 97 years! She keeps going! She’s slowing a bit. A fall two years ago left her with a nerve and tissue injury to her left hip.
“I’m hobbling, Pastor,” she told me, meeting me at the front door, “but it was my own stupid fault.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Andy told me at church not to go into the new kitchen. They were remodeling it. And it was still in process. But I wanted to put my casserole into the oven. And there was this big lip in the middle of the floor. I stepped over it easily putting my dish into the oven, but totally forgot it was there on the way back and down I went. Oh, I was so mad at myself. As a result, I’m in chronic, excruciating pain.”
When she retired from her work at Portland Power and Electric, 35 years ago, she served three years as a missionary to Ecuador. She took Spanish before leaving, but when the class got to the past tense, “They lost me,” she says, “and I lost all the present tense as well.” So, she went only speaking English and had a blast. Leola would tell you with a laugh she is as stubborn as can be. She’d be telling the truth!
She reminded me, “I’d get so mad at you,” she said, “but I love you Pastor and I always will.”
Once, there was a raccoon eating her chickens. So, Leola, then in her 80s, stayed up all night, propped up at the basement outside door, her shotgun across her lap, looking for him. “I was bound and determined,” she told me. “But I snoozed, just a bit, and that raccoon got them all! All nine of the chickens! I hate raccoons and my good friend Gail FEEDS THEM!!!”
The joy of Leola, at 97, is her keen memory.
“I started walking just before turning 9 months old and began to leave and run away immediately.”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I just didn’t need anything to do with my mama and wanted to be with my dad. So, Mama told my dad, ‘Build me a fence to keep this girl home!’ So, dad built this six-foot fence around the yard and told my mama, not to worry. So, mama was doing her Monday’s wash, not worrying about me. And about 11 O’clock the phone rang and it was her friend saying, “Cora, I see Leola and her dog coming up the road down here one and a half miles from your place.”
“How did you get out,” I interrupted.
“Well, I climbed the fence, and dropped over,” she said.
“How did the dog get over?” I asked.
“Well, the dog just could crawl under,” she laughed.
“You climbed over a six-foot fence,” I said, incredulous.
“Yes, so Mama came and got me and brought me home and asked, ‘Leola, how did you climb over?’ So, I showed her. And I have a picture of me, climbing that fence still.”
“My sister was born 20-months later, and she was an angel. Mama could put her in a chair and say, ‘Now, Lola Dean, you stay there until Mama gets back.’ And Mama could be gone two hours and Lola would still be sitting in that chair. But if that were me, and Mama said, ‘I just need to put my shoes on and we can go, so stay here,’ by the time Mama left the room, I was long gone.”
“It got to the point where Mama said, ‘Roy, I can’t handle her. So dad had to build seats on all the farm equipment and so I had to go with my dad and ride along while he farmed. Cuz Mama gave up on me. I was about 18 months old when Dad took over. But I loved my dad. Wherever dad went that’s where I wanted to be. So Mama wished that I’d have a child just like me, for she said, ‘then you will understand.’ Maybe that’s why I never married. I didn’t want to have one just like me and sure and shooting, I would have.”
“So now I keep praying to the Lord that maybe Mama had forgiven me because maybe I didn’t turn out too bad.”
A toddler who wanted to be near her dad so much, she was willing to be strapped next to him on his farm equipment. What a picture.
In the middle of this ongoing quarantine, perhaps something to hold onto is simply that desire to be with her dad. Some of you may not like that image of God as a heavenly Father. So, you might need to rethink that as “mom” or for others “parent.” But for me, the language of Abba, Daddy, Poppa, Father God has helped me reform and heal my own dad losses and wounds.
So, when I cannot do the things I normally would love to do. I cannot “climb over the fence to escape the restrictions,” maybe the call is simply this: to hang out strapped in next to Poppa God, to turn to Jesus more frequently.
Leola, thank you for being an example of joy in the midst of suffering and of perseverance in this life. And for reminding me, “There’s no place I’d rather be than with my Dad.” That’s a reminder I especially need.