In our lifetime, we meet many people who affect our lives, who teach us lessons in right and wrong. I had one such woman in my life for many, many years.
Annie Laura Stinson worked for my mom one day a week ironing clothes. Her hands were knurled by arthritis, her gait slow but her mind sharp. Her eighty something year old mom would be chopping wood in the muddy yard of their small wood framed home when we would take Annie home from a day's work. What a sight this little bitty woman would be in those rubber knee high boots swinging that axe like a midget Paul Bunyan.
My mom would leave on Tuesdays to play bridge, leaving me alone with this great lady. She would call to me, partly for company, but I suspect mostly to keep and eye on me, and I would sit beside her. It was during these times that Annie Laura Stinson would talk with a small child about life and its effect on her and those around her. Little did I know at the time the profound effect it would have on me, even after forty years...
Divorced young in life, Annie had a daughter, Miss Bernice Sims, a talented painter who recently had one of her paintings placed on a US postage stamp. Annie had a granddaughter as well named Bernice that I went to school with for four years. Bernice and I used to hold hands as we walked down the halls of the local high school just to get people talking. You see, this was the newly integrated South and Bernice was black. But I digress.
As Annie Laura spoke, she would take on the persona of a minister. She had few talents in life she would say. She had not gotten her education, but God had given her the talent of ironing. Even with her crumpled hands, she ironed like she was playing Bach. The long, even strokes played out as she told me of the need for God in my life and love for others in my heart.
"Hard times are only hard times if you let them be that way," she would tell me. "You might look at my little house and think that I don't have much. But, I eat three meals a day, I have electricity and utilities, and I have a roof over my head. People want too much out of life sometimes. They get so caught up in making money they don't know how important the necessities are and how little all those luxuries really mean. You can do without luxuries."
About all the laws we have on the books she'd say, "I don't know why they have so many laws. Moses brought down ten in stone because they are the only laws we truly need. Them and the Golden Rule can be put on a page of paper," she continued. "When you pay people to make laws they just seem to go crazy. Doesn't seem right does it? People make new laws so they can get around the Ten Commandments. It's that simple."
I'm certain that I drove her crazy sometimes. But she never raised her voice to me or anyone around me - not one time in all the years that I knew her. She had a sense of grace and dignity that was brought on by her immense pride.
"God made everything for a reason," she said as I sat on the floor beside her. "It ain't up to us to find the reasons. We just have to accept the differences and move on. Take black folks and white folks. We have a problem getting along ‘cause we can't get past color and what it represents."
"I don't understand," was the response from a colorblind ten-year-old boy.
"You see," she continued, "we were brought over here as slaves by white people, not you, but other white people. White represents what we call slavery. Because black folks associate the color white with slavery, it causes resentment and hatred that has been passed on from generation to generation. White folks have their own problems with the color black. They look at us and all they see is uneducated criminals. They fear us, but the truth is that we fear them too, and our fear came first so many years ago at the foot of burning crosses and the roots of many a hanging tree."
She explained much to me about her own anxiety.
"It ain't easy for a prideful woman to go into a white person's house to iron clothes Ricky," she say. "But I don't have no choice. Stealing is against the law. Don't ever take nothing from no one. If you can't come by it honestly, it belongs to the devil and you don't want no part of the devil."
My eyes wide with fear, she'd go on about the devil and the evil he could do.
"Is the devil a man or a woman?" I asked once.
"He's a man," she quickly said. "No woman could ever inflict the type of pain on her children that the devil has put on us."
"Does that mean that God is a man?" I asked.
"It don't matter child who loves you," she said as her well rounded face smiled back at me. "Does it matter that your mommy or daddy is a woman or a man? Of course not. You don't look at them that way do you. The point is that they love you no matter what and that is all that matters to you. So, it doesn't matter whether God is a man or a woman just as long as you are loved and saved."
Years after she quit working, I began taking her all the food she would need to prepare Christmas dinner for her family. It was partly for selfish reasons I guess. It made me feel good to have her tell me what it meant to her to have the food for her family. I guess I did this for about twelve years. People would ask me why I did this. It seemed such a stupid question that I always had the same response, "None of your business."
She gave me two presents in all those years that I still have today, a Bible and a small porcelain piece. She had so little and I didn't want to take them. I had my present when we would sit and talk. She would insist that I accept the gifts. To fail to accept them would be disrespectful. I will cherish these two items for the rest of my life.
Then one day I found out she was in a nursing home in Pensacola, Florida. She wasn't doing well and would soon die.
I took my son with me and drove the hour to the small facility, stopping along the way to pick up a floral arrangement for her room. I reflected on the straightforwardness of what she had said to me over the years. Annie Laura had a way of keeping everything so simple. Each lesson had a beginning, middle, and an end, much the same as our lives.
When we arrived she was laying flat in bed. The nurse said she was not conscious and would not know we were there. I sat by her bed and held her hand. I cried for the woman who had given me so much inspiration, who had taken the time to teach me a little about what mattered in life. I said all the things then that I wished I had said before.
Why is it that our time seems so short with good people and so long with evil ones?
As I finished, I placed her hand back on the bed beside her. Then the most amazing thing happened. She began to iron. This proud woman, who was most certainly dying, was laying flat on her back, arms extended, and ironing clothes.
My son looked at her and asked what she was doing. "It looks like she's getting ready to take a trip to Heaven son. She's ironing her dress this time."
Annie Laura Stinson died the next day. I'm sure she was dressed to the nines for her meeting with her Maker, man or woman.
At her funeral, I saw many of her family. One asked me the question I had never before answered. "Why did you always bring us Christmas dinner?"
The answer was a simple as the question. "Because I loved her."
May she rest in peace.