My Mamaw died last night. There won't be any plaques or awards given her. There will be no crowds mourning at sports arenas for her memorial service. It will not make the 24 hour news cycle. But, a better person I have never known and I praise God that I got to witness a life that stocked up mounds of rewards in heaven. If there is a way that a person is supposed to live, she lived it, and all who knew her were affected by her.
She was born in 1917 and lived on a farm in Lee Town, Mississippi, a farming community outside of Picayune, MS in south Pearl River County. She was one of 7 brothers and sisters. In 1934 she married my grandfather, James Carl Cross whom she met at a Civil Conservation Corps dance (one of FDR's New Deal measures). They moved up to his family farm in Ellisville, Mississippi. In 1939, they moved to New Orleans where he got work as a shipbuilder in the shipyards. He worked as a pipefitter and shipbuilder during WWII and my aunt and father were born during that time as well. My Mamaw worked as well in different jobs from a coffee packing plant to domestic help. She lived out her Christian faith in deed and not just in word and was known to take people in who needed homes and always spread the love and knowledge of Christ wherever she went. Her husband didn't go to church, but she did and she always made sure that my father and aunt were in church every time possible. They didn't have a car so they would take the bus to get to Sunday School on Sunday morning and Training Union on Sunday night. Then, on Monday, it was up early and work all day.
I was born in 1974. By then, my Mamaw was 57 years old and she and my Papaw lived in the back end of a duplex with us on Venus Street in the Gentilly Terrace area of New Orleans, up by Lake Ponchatrain off Franklin Avenue. I was at her house as much as I was at my own, it seemed. She was a great cook who combined the best of Mississippi country cooking with Louisiana Creole dishes. The smells from her kitchen were amazing. She was always laughing, smiling, and giving us encouragement. I loved being with her. When I was 5, my family moved up the road to Picayune, Mississippi and a year later my Mamaw and Papaw followed us up there. I was glad. They didn't have anything in the way of retirement, so at the age of 70 and 63, they got jobs working as managers for The Pines Apartments, which was a retirement home. There were over a hundred people living at The Pines and my Mamaw ministered Jesus to all of them just like she did everyone else.
What struck me most about my Mamaw's life is how much she loved God. She always had an open Bible marked up and underlined sitting next to her chair. She read it daily and its words permeated her life. She quoted Scripture to us and applied it in all of life's situations. It just rolled off her tongue. She was fun and real and enjoyed life and you enjoyed being around her. She never condemned you when you were being ridiculous but would just smile and say, "Honey, if there is one thing that I have learned, it is to always look to the Lord." She just constantly encouraged me to look to Jesus. When I was a teenager, I was full of ambition and couldn't wait to get out of my small town. I wanted to see the world. She would look at me and smile and quote Scripture that would pour across my unsettled soul. Philippians 4:4-13 was constantly being quoted by her in different ways and pieces. It has become my favorite passage of Scripture because I saw her live it out each and every day.
Philippians 4:11-13 says (in the King James that my Mamaw read)
11Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
12I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.
13I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
That was her testimony. She was content in whatever circumstance she found herself in because she was in the Lord and He was enough for her. He lived through her and molded her character to His. Even though she had lots of difficult experiences, I can honestly say that I never heard her complain about anything ever. I never heard her say anything bad about anyone or run them down. Neither did my father or my aunt. She would just give praise to God. But, she was not naive. She was as solid as a rock but her stability was rooted in joy, hope, and peace found in Christ. She would always tell me, "Honey, stay in there with the Lord and you will never go wrong." She was right. So often, I didn't understand what she was saying, but now I do.
In August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and my family was in the middle of it. My Mamaw was in a nursing home in Slidell, Louisiana, which was hit especially hard. I didn't know what had happened to her or to my family and it took me several days to get to them. Her nursing home was in the middle of a disaster area mere miles from Katrina's ground zero. Helicopters, National Guard Humvees, and troops were everywhere. People were rushing around in a panic trying to evacuate the nursing home because they could no longer care for the residents and fortunately, I made it there a mere two hours before they were to leave to parts unknown. I wrote about what happened when I found her a few years ago here and this story shows well what kind of woman she was:
I walked down the hall and saw her in the cafeteria, sitting in a wheel chair looking out the window. She saw me and her face lit up, she smiled, and said, "Hey you sweet thing, how are you doing?" She beamed and tears came to my eyes. It was so good to see her. She has dementia, but she always remembers me. I told her that we were going to take a little trip because of the storm. She got confused and did not remember the storm. She didn't understand why she was leaving, but she maintained her usual high spirits. I told her to trust me and everything would be alright. It was hard not to think back on all the years that she took care of me, taught me about Jesus, made me chocolate and coconut cakes, and was just the best grandmother a little boy could have. It was a privilege to be taking care of her now. She was going to be alright. God truly is good.
We packed everything and helped her into my truck. I realized that I was taking her away and sending her to Arkansas, where I might never see her again. I was really starting to deal with sadness, as I thought about the horror of this storm and all that was lost. As we drove north toward Picayune on I-59, she kept saying, "Would you look at that!" and "What happened?" Trees were snapped and sheared everywhere. It was truly a mess. Then, she said something that stopped me in my tracks. All week long, I had been taken aback by the horror of what had taken place. I only thought about what had happened in the negative. "How horrible, how terrible," I had said. I had entertained and tried to answer questions like, "Why did God allow this to happen," and "How could a God of love let people suffer so?" I knew the theological answers, but I was only seeing the negative. Then, my 88 year old Mamaw with dementia taught me the greatest theolgical lesson of my life, driving in that truck, north to Picayune. Instead of complaining or saying how terrible it was, she said,
"Will you look at what God did? Look at His power! He just snapped these trees in half with His mighty hand! We serve an awesome God, son. He can do anything. We have to praise Him! The rocks and trees will cry out if we don't praise Him! Look at what God did! Isn't He powerful? I just don't understand how people don't praise the Lord. Look at His power!"
I was stunned. I sat in my seat and looked at this lady who had served the Lord all her life. She never stopped praising God and believing that He was at work in everything. She knew that even the wind and waves obeyed Him. I knew I was in the presence of a precious saint of the Lord. All my life, I never heard her complain – not once about anything. She was not to break her record now. She was giving God praise! I was reminded of Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again rejoice. Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near." God was speaking through her to me. She had prayed for me all my life and I always felt such a connection with her. But, now, God was speaking through her to me, straight from heaven. At that moment I knew that God was in control. Truly, in control.
I was able to see her one last time a few weeks ago at her nursing home in Little Rock, Arkansas, the day after Thanksgiving. She did not look like herself. She was bent over and drawn and her teeth were gone. She was ready to go home and be with the Lord. But still, her eyes twinkled and her smile was comforting. She gave her life to God and He never left her nor forsook her. He always took care of her. She quoted Scripture, even though she didn't know who I was anymore. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you." "Be content in whatever state of mind you are therein." She held my hand and my mind went back to days in her kitchen, smelling the wonderful food that she made and watching her work with complete joy. I can hear her voice and her laugh and remember what it was like to lay my head on her shoulder. I remember how at Christmas time, she would always buy my sister and me a present and give it to us right after Thanksgiving because she couldn't wait to see us play with it and enjoy it. Then, she'd have to go buy another present to give us for Christmas. She couldn't wait to see us happy. I remember her flower garden that I'd help her plant and her fig preserves and coconut cakes and her hands lifted high praising God and the people that she loved and served. I remember her praying for me.
That day in the nursing home there was another lady there who was a resident. She kept interrupting our family as we tried to talk with Mamaw. We ignored her and eventually she stopped and sat silently in her wheelchair. She stuttered when she spoke and didn't make much sense. After spending about an hour with Mamaw, it was time for her to be wheeled back to her room. On the way, she stopped right next to that lady that we were all ignoring and she reached out and took her hand. One hand on top of the lady's hand, one hand underneath – the way I had seen her do hundreds of times with people when she would meet with them and encourage them and pray for them. She stopped for that lady and looked at her with love in her eyes and said that she loved her. The lady said that she loved her too. I watched in awe. Mamaw didn't really know where she was and she didn't know who her family was but she never forgot how to love others and to find the one who was forgotten and remember them. What she had sown into her life continued to come out day after day. She just drew people to herself and that was Jesus in her doing that. In that moment, I saw the love of God like I had so many times before.
The world doesn't know who died last night but I do and from her I know what is valuable and important and eternal. She pointed me to Jesus and to Jesus she has gone. And I stand here on this side of eternity remembering her and hoping and rejoicing in the One to whom her life has fled.