Unreliable Tombstone

During the reminiscences that come with a family gathering, my 62-year-old sister asked, “Do you remember Mrs. Harris and Sunbeams?” This seems a good time to think about her as we honor those who have touched our lives and gone on before us on this Memorial Day.

Following old Southern tradition, today’s remembrance includes all those who have influenced our lives and have passed on to their rewards along with veterans who receive special mention. I won’t follow the tradition far enough to go to the graveyard and clean gravesites, wash headstones, and place flowers. I’ll just pay tribute to one of many rural people who touched the lives of my sisters and me as well as a host of other people.

I was seven when I met Mrs. Harris, so she probably wasn’t as old as I thought at the time. Her birth date is given as Nov. 19, 1919 with her daughter’s on the tombstone right beside it as five years later. My blog readers, I am sure, are intelligent enough to see the problem with credibility. The quoted inscription on the stone, “She loved and was loved,” is accurate as far as it goes. It just fails to tell the whole story. You can’t even depend on a tombstone.

I observed a striking phenomenon as rural Zion Baptist Church celebrated its 175th anniversary a couple of years ago with a book of memories and a weekend of remembrances. Both in the book and in the spoken memories, one name far overshadowed any others in recollections. It was not a pastor, deacon, musician, nor anyone normally thought of to be a leader in the church. The name was Mrs. Mary Harris.

All she ever did in church was work with preschoolers and young children, but she did that faithfully every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and usually once or twice more during the week for most of her lifetime.

One man, who appeared to be in his late sixties, stood and said, “I remember the Sunday when I lifted the roof of Mrs. Harris’s little clay house so the friends could let the sick man down for Jesus’ healing.” He triggered a spate of other stories of moving characters around on a flannel board and other creative ways Mrs. Harris taught the Bible stories she loved to the children she loved.

The quote on her tombstone in the cemetery across the road from the church is classic understatement. The tombstone doesn’t have room to hold all the thanks from all the adults whose lives she touched as children. Caregivers in that rural cemetery keep the gravesite in a way that honors her memory. The rest of us rely on honoring her as we pass forward what she gave so unsparingly.