Michelle McMillan-Holifield & Jennifer Marquez

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NONFICTION

Sook Jesus: The Vera Letters

“One evening I went out to call the cow. I walked to the old gate and I looked up and I had the Lord on my mind. I went to say, Sook Jersey, and I said, Sook Jesus.” – Vera Jewel

Jenn, remember when we were about twelve, we sat down with Vera Jewel (or Veer Jool, as everyone called her) and recorded her stories? Back then, you donned thick-rimmed 80’s glasses. I was a short, stocky third baseman. She, our common thread, our silver-haired grandmother.

How blessed we are to have those recordings. I listen today and relish how easily and sweetly she talked about Jesus, how she’d break into old hymns, her age-worn voice lifting in falsetto but her heart: her pure heart so full. Jenn, how sweet that sound.

*

Ruby and Jennifer was gonna make me slide on that banana. The slip and slide. Well . . . she wet it down and I go out there and she was gone run, hit me and she take a runnin’ start. . . . Boy she run, and she let me have it and I ain’t went nowhere yet. I never did slide.

*

Those stories cut me to the quick, Jenn. They evoke the smell of earth, the slick slide of moss on tree roots and continuous cicadas’ churning: it is summer. You and I are standing in Vera’s front yard pretending to be Nadia Comăneci and Mary Lou Retton. Handstands and cartwheels, aerials and handsprings.

I went back to her yard years later, pressed my hands in the grass. My palm stung with prickly stickers. And I just knew: I would be forty and still missing her. Her stories are both a comfort and an ache.

*

Reach out and touch the Lord as He goes by. He’s not too busy to hear your heart’s cry. He’s passing by this moment. Your need He’ll supply. Reach out and touch the Lord as He goes by.

See I told you I could. Now turn this off and see what I sound like.

*

After we recorded her stories, we pampered her with an Oil of Olay facial. We took all the bobby pins out of her hair, brushed and repinned her soft, white mane—a bit misshapen. I like to think she loved it better that way, her little leaning tower of gray.

Years later, when I would visit her in the nursing home, I’d brush her hair; it was still soft, but so very thin.

*

Michelle used to come stay a lot with me when she was little. She didn’t want to stay at home, sleep on her good baby bed. I just had an old baby bed with quilts. Chelle liked to sleep on them quilts and I’d rock and sing to her. I’d tie my hair up with a scarf. Michelle was big enough she’d take her hand and feel up there and see if I had that scarf on, and if I did she’d lay her head down and go to sleep.

*

At the nursing home, someone painted her fingernails pink.

Maybe they meant well, but she didn’t wear makeup unless you and I spruced her up during her facials; she didn’t accessorize. She wore my old Keds to the garden and slogged away in the heat. After seeing those pink nails, I knew she’d been too tired to protest and it would not be long.

*

One time I was wrapping ya’ll’s Christmas presents and I got ya’ll a doll. . . . I had one of ‘em wrapped and I turned [it] over . . . and it cried and Jennifer said, “What’s that?” and I said, “It’s nothing,” and she said, “Something cried!”

I think that was the last doll I give ya’ll.

*

Christmas 2006: I arrived at the nursing home late. I didn’t want to wake her, so I held her hand for a bit. My memory contains her eyes opening to focus on me, but it’s been ten years since that Christmas—I could have invented that memory, simply because I desired it to happen.

An hour after I left, she was gone.

Assuming I was the last person to be with her when she was alive is both a comfort and an ache. If I had stayed, I could have been with her in her last minutes.

*

I wanted to learn how to ride a bicycle. . . . And I got it started and couldn’t stop and run into a man’s porch and flipped over the handlebars on his porch. And I said, “Henry, if I learn to ride this bicycle, you gone buy me one?” He said, “Naw.” And I said, “Here I nearly broke my neck and you not gone buy me one?”

*

Jenn, remember how Vera and Henry’s house was so absolutely still. Their house lacked the white noise of ceiling fans or central heat and air. The only constant sound was the almost-silent liquid whir of their little gas heater, always on, in winter and in summer. But every night the train would run on the tracks directly behind their house, so loud we’d stop talking; it was senseless to try to talk over the freight’s patterned dragging, its horns like mourning geese. After the train passed, it’d take a good five minutes for our ears to purge themselves of the train’s furious chugging.

Jenn, I miss those trains, their steely barks that marked time. I miss the way they dictated a brief time of not talking, where it was just us and the train’s unstoppable force. I miss the ringing in my ears afterward.

*

I miss that sticky house and Vera and Henry stirring about getting ready for bed just past dark—thick click of the kitchen light turning off, shuffle of house shoes, so old and flat, always on the verge of slipping off.

*

She used to say to us, “God love my babies.” I never knew if that was a statement that He loved us or a directive for Him to do so.

She loved Jesus, didn’t she, Jenn? If I could have children, I would want my legacy to my grandbabies to be that I loved Jesus with everything that was in me.

*

What I really want, Jenn, is to have her back.

*

♪Those that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as an eagle. They shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint. Teach me Lord. Teach me Lord to wait. ♪

 

 

Chelle,
Reading your letter took me back to a time when life was simpler…maybe because that was her approach to life and being around her brought everything into focus. Even as a child, I felt a clear mind just being near her. I miss that. I miss her. Thank you for reminding me of those moments.

I remember that slip and slide. Her lack of opposition taught me a valuable life lesson— living in the moment. Not missing anything. Sure, she got her old black and white polka dotted dress wet, but that didn’t faze her. She gladly plopped down in the middle of the slide and let me barrel into her—not even budging her an inch—but she never seemed irritated, hurried, or needing to do anything else. I look back on that now and envy her. She never missed a moment with me and oh, how I wish I would have taken in more.

Yes, I remember gymnastics in her front yard. She had the good grass. No stickers. It was so thick… like the best carpet ever. Unfortunately, I also remember a hornet I landed on one time. That left quite a mark. And grandma, in her wisdom, rubbed butter on it like any wise older woman would do.

Brushing her hair was one of my favorite things, too. So unusual that her hair was that soft. Gray hair is usually so coarse, but hers was not. It was almost like silk. She was content sitting through our “makeovers”. Being the simple woman she was, I know that the pampering, makeup and hairstyling didn’t appeal to her much. But she was always willing to spend time with us. I never got the feeling that she wanted to do anything else. I envy her ability to revel in the simple moments of life that, in the end, become the most important. I find myself longing to become more like her … or possibly I just miss her so, that I long to be with her again and brush her hair.

Just the other day I was shopping for Christmas gifts, and I looked down on the shelf and saw it. Ribbon candy! I couldn’t believe it! She loved ribbon candy. That was a staple in her house during Christmas time. She loved it and always offered me some when I went to visit during the holidays. I almost bought that ribbon candy. I should have bought it. Not because I liked the taste so much, but because she loved it.

The weekend is approaching. I think I’ll go back and grab a box. Just for her.

**

When I was in college, I worked as a waitress and had closed the night before. I probably got to sleep around 2 a.m. Out of the blue, she called me mid-morning. She woke me up. I was irritated, of course. She probably felt it, although she never uttered a negative word about my short speech. That particular morning, she called with a purpose. Her voice was almost frantic. I began to worry something was wrong with her, but then she gave away her reason for calling. “Jennifer, the Devil’s gonna try to get to you. Any way he can. Don’t let him.”

Caught off guard, I replied, “I won’t mam-maw. I promise.”

She seemed content and quickly changed the subject. After our short chat, I hung up haunted by her concern. The busyness of life took over, and I forgot that conversation for quite some time. It was over a decade later that I really understood her prophetic words. Could she have been shown some of my missteps and trials and been desperately worried I wouldn’t turn back to the Lord? Our sweet Jesus only knows, but I value her warning today more than ever. Maybe because I did let the enemy get to me for a while. But thankfully, by the grace of God, I returned home. I’m sure it’s because she prayed nonstop for us.

**

Unlike you, I didn’t visit her much once she went to the nursing home. One of my biggest regrets in life. So much more time I could have had with her. Pure idiocy on my part. She never held it against me, though. When I did go see her, she would smile and intently listen to all I shared with her. She would ask me how I was and what I had been doing. She never once asked why it had been so long since I last visited. Always eager to spend time with me. She was like Jesus in so many ways. He is always waiting to spend time with us and always eager when we return to His presence. Never making us feel guilty for taking so long. She was like that, too.

I’ll never forget my last visit. Coincidentally . . . or not, it was Christmas Day 2006. It was late afternoon. Art and I went by to visit her after spending the day with my parents. Mam-maw was awake when I went in to see her. Her eyes were open, but she didn’t respond verbally as she always had before. I grabbed her hand and held it. I caressed it gently, hoping to get a smile. The smile never came. She made eye contact with me and just stared intently into my eyes. I spoke to her. I told her how I’d been and what had been going on…just like usual. She was listening. She never looked away. She just gazed into my eyes. She was in pain. She was miserable. And I . . . was heartbroken. I hated to see her that way. I don’t remember if I told her I loved her or if I kissed her. I sure hope I did. I mostly recall her painful stare. Art and I left, and we did not really speak the entire ride home.

**

I have to tell you something, Chelle. I’ve kept it in for 10 years now and it has eaten me alive. No one knows. But I must tell you, partially because you deserve to know and partially because I need to confess. I hope you’ll forgive me, Chelle. I need you.

**

On the way home, I prayed. It was the most deliberate, self-less prayer I’ve ever prayed. What I wanted or needed at the moment took a backseat to what I knew she needed. She needed to sing those hymns again, but with our Father. She needed to dance and lift her hands before the One who breathes life into our bodies. I wanted that for her. I wanted her free from the bondage of her broken body. I loved her so that even thinking the words seemed treacherous. But I did it anyway. I prayed that the Lord would take her home.

And He did. Less than an hour after we returned home, mom called with the news that she had passed. I cried both in grief and joy. Grief for me because I, among many others, would miss her.

Oh, but joy for her. She was free. She was no longer burdened and bound by this body that meant suffering.

**

“I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away”


Michelle McMillan-Holifield is a recent Best of the Net and Pushcart nominee. Her work has been included in or is forthcoming in Boxcar Poetry ReviewNelle, Stirring, Whale Road Review and Windhover, among others. She hopes you one day find her poetry tacked to a tree somewhere in the Alaskan Wild.

Jennifer Marquez lives in Louisiana and teaches 3rd grade math and art. As a native of Mississippi, she attended Mississippi College where she received a M.S. in Public Relations. This is her first official publication. 


Photo credit: “Light” by [Alan], via Flickr.com.


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One comment

  1. Michelle and Jennifer, I can’t imagine writing a story with another person, but you two pulled it off.
    I feel like I knew Vera. All the details you included, bobby pins, soft gray hair, powerful love for Jesus–I was there, I was with her.
    And your style, talking to each other, interspliced with fragments of Vera’s conversation, is very effective. You convey the depth of Vera’s love for Chelle and Jenn. But even more than that, you convey the depth of Vera’s love for Jesus.
    I’m with you, Chelle. I have only one grandson, but he is precious to me. I want my legacy to him to be that I loved Jesus with everything in me.

    Like

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