Mary was someone I met in my first pastorate. I was told it was the preacher’s job to go and fetch her on Sunday mornings and take her to the church. Someone else would take her home, but I had to bring her. Being newfound in my role as pastor, and being what Bishop Will Willimon has termed a “quivering mass of availability,” I readily agreed to this job, curious as to how much of a challenge it would be. So I got directions and made my way to her house before the end of moving week so I would be ready for the chore on Sunday.
Mary lived up a graveled road about a mile from the road that connected my two congregations. She lived at the foot of Clinch Mountain, and near the convergence of two small streams. Her home was a clapboard, two-story farmhouse that had stood weather-beaten for about a century against the elements there. I was first impressed by the barn. Twice as big as the house, dark in oil-treated wood, it stood luminous on the hill side in the bright June sunshine. The yard of the house was fenced in to separate it from the land where animals grazed. A small smoke house stood like a sentinel in the back yard. Nearby was a privy, and over all the yard were tall, ancient shade trees.
Mary was frail, needed a walker to make it to the door, and lived mostly in the kitchen of her little house. Her face brightened with recognition upon hearing who I was and what I was there for. She immediately stated her obligatory doubt that she was worth the trouble of coming to get on Sundays. This kind of statement I now know is rudimentary to mountain people. It is our way of apologizing for putting someone out so that we might have our needs met. I assured her of the value of her being in church and that since her house was really on my way to the first preaching stop, she was in no wise trouble for me.
We chatted to get to know one another and build trust. She expressed deep thankfulness that I was willing to see she got to church, and we agreed on a time to plan on going. Our relationship had begun. I pastored that church for five years. Mary went with me every Sunday, save one or two when she called with news she was too sick to come.
I’ll never forget the time I knocked on her door and a lamb answered. She was watching it, having brought it inside the house due to an injury it had sustained which she was doctoring. It bleated loudly as I approached the door. Another time Mary fell in her back yard on the approach to the gate. I found her lying on the ground when I pulled up. She had been down more than ten minutes. I carefully walked her back inside and tried to help her stop the bleeding that was happening in her legs from the scrapes she got in the fall. She sat a while and thought she could still make it, so off we went, even though I thought perhaps this would not be wise.
When I married during this pastorate, my wife found out quickly that Mary had a reserved seat on the Sunday morning car ride. She was willing to give it up to this 80-some year old mountain woman, having been brought up to respect her elders. They would argue each week, in a good-natured fashion, over who should sit up front.
Mary had lived alone a long time. Her husband had died about twenty years before I met her, and she had survived on that farm. She raised her own vegetables, lived in a house with spring water, and cared for animals which her nephew was helping her farm. Mary had no children of her own. But each day she contributed to her own care as she exerted hard work in difficult conditions, and kept going with a smile and sheer determination.
She owned a Bible which she read daily. She showed me the pages of this Bible whereupon she had marked the times she had read it completely through. I know there were at least seven marks, indicating seven read-throughs. Someone who had done that was, I came to learn, a rare find in church work.
In subsequent years, Mary had to be taken to a nursing facility, and since it was located in the town where I had been sent after that initial pastoral appointment, I maintained contact with her through regular visits to that facility. I would find her slumped over in her chair, almost lifeless, but upon speaking her name, she would look up, a smile would begin to envelope her face, and we would reconnect.
I had an honored place in Mary’s services after her death. I was never so honored in my life. This lady of the mountain farm had taught me so much about the survivability of people who are determined. I often remember her when I need to find my backbone. She was a true survivor.
Thank you God for the Marys of the world.