When I think of simpler times, I think of that place.
It isn’t picturesque. It stands, unshaded, in a sun that, in the summertime, is unkindly relentless and, in the winter, winks weakly.
But there, amidst its clapboards, hardwood floor and white paint, I found the strength of faith and family through the stunningly beautiful blood harmony that rang out in the hymns, played on an old upright piano that, more often than not, was out of tune.
The first time I ever heard anyone get “happy in the Spirit” was there as I sat on the second seat of the fourth row on the right side. It is an Appalachian tradition, that of praising the Lord with a shuddering shout and a floor cracking stomp. It came, or so I thought, from the most unlikely place: my grandmother, Elizabeth Burnett Miller, known to all as Lizzie.
Mawmaw was a rail thin woman who wore her hair pulled straight back and pinned up into a tight bun. At nights, she would let her almost waist-length hair down and comb it to a gleaning shine. I doubt she had ever cut it in her life. She was gentle. Loved by all for her kindness and humility, called “humble” by the mountain folks and pronounced without the “h”. Umble.
She barely spoke above a whisper. I never heard her raise her tone. If she were displeased, she showed it with her eyes but never with her voice. Though she was my mama’s mama, she was loved and respected extraordinarily by my daddy who always called her “Miz Miller.”
About every third Sunday, Daddy would say, as we were dressing for church, “I reckon we better go over and see Miz Miller today.” I loved to hear those words. After church, we three would head across the mountains, stop for lunch then travel the curving road that led to one of my favorite places: a tin-roofed, four-room house without indoor plumbing that boasted a tiny front porch that seemed to heave with a heavy burden.
There I found my first cousins — degrees of cousins matter in the mountains — and we played happily while our parents and grandparents visited.
“Ralph, can I fix you a cup of coffee?” she’d asked Daddy. As much as he loved her, she loved him back. They admired each other and their strong, abiding faith connected them in a way that seemed to tunnel deeper with each year that passed.
“I’d appreciate that, Miz Miller.” She’d heat up a kettle of water then bring it to him in one of the few cups and saucers she owned. He’d take a sip and say, “That’s mighty fine coffee, Miz Miller.”
She had a servant’s heart. She spent her life serving…husband, children, church, community, hard times and, most especially, the Lord. She proved that by the black King James Bible that was falling apart and that she squinted hard to read.
There we were one summer night’s revival service. The preaching, after a long time, had finally concluded and the altar call for lost souls was being rendered. Suddenly, a piercing shrill shot through the tiny church and I, about 12 years old, nearly fell backwards over the slatted pew.
My quiet, unassuming grandmother threw her hands in the air, closed her eyes, tossed her head back and danced out of her pew in the women’s corner of the church and across the altar.
My people don’t dance.
But Lizzie Miller did that night. She testified boldly and loved on Jesus then inched back to her normal reserve.
Just outside the front door of Nimblewill Baptist Church, on the front row of the cemetery lies the mortal remains of my grandparents, Ance and Lizzie Miller. Their graves face to the east and they are ready to rise when Kingdom comes. Thank God for the memories of that simpler time.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of There’s A Better Day A-Comin’. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.