There was a woman and her husband I loved most of my life. Many people loved them because they were merry, kind and loving to all.
Russell was a barrel-chested man with eyes that twinkled and a constant smile. Neva, also with sparkling eyes, was small, unfailingly sweet and never critical of others.
During my college matriculation, I dated their son, Philip, whose blue eyes, smile and sweet nature were a carbon copy of his parents. They were a pleasing family of gentleness and calm. Before I knew them, Neva’s and Russell’s 11-year-old son, Ricky, born with challenges, died.
The family maintained their sweet natures and did not become bitter or hard. Even when Philip died of an illness at an age much too young, they carried on with smiles and joyous spirits. For a few years after, I called Neva on his birthday. There was a tinge of sadness but she steadfastly resisted wallowing in pity. She always found something to laugh about and her lilting laugh was like a salve to my spirit. She made me feel good even when she felt bad in her heart.
Russell, I adored. Whenever he saw me, he swooped me up in his arms, hugged me tightly and said, “There’s my girl! Just as pretty as ever.”
Several years ago, our church decided to do a community outreach. The pastor wanted us to call on people not attending church. Louise, Rodney and I teamed up together. After being chased off by one man with a shot gun at a trailer, a cussing woman in a rundown shack, then a pack of dogs at another, our Christian spirits were spent.
“Hey, let’s go to Russell’s and Neva’s,” I suggested. “They’re in our assigned area and they don’t go to church with us.”
Our wearied, beaten spirits were renewed by the cheer and love with which they greeted us. We spent the next two hours – until we were due back at church – sitting in rocking chairs and a swing on the concrete porch of the clapboard farm house. In the soft summer’s evening, we laughed and reminisced.
I invited them to church and Neva replied, “I go to Mt. Gilead every Sunday. I just love that Les.”
The next Sunday, though, Neva showed up at our early service and began a long tradition of attending 9 a.m. with us then going to Mt. Gilead at 11 a.m. Eventually, Russell came and joined the church. They were the only two people brought into the church by that canvassing of the neighborhood. We had sought refuge from shotguns, cussing and angry dogs, and sweet refuge was what we were given.
A while ago, big, stout Russell died all of a sudden. When Louise called me, she said, “And they had to put Neva in the hospital a couple of hours before he died.”
I dressed and went straight to the hospital. When I walked in, her face lighted up, she clapped her hands and, beaming, said, “That Russell” – she always called him ‘That Russell’ – “would be so happy that you’ve come to be with me.”
A week after the funeral, I visited her at home. She told me that it had long been her practice to clean up the supper dishes then go to bed at 8 while Russell watched TV.
“Do you read?”
“No. Don’t even have a TV in there, either.”
“What do you do?”
“I get into bed, turn off the lights and talk to the Lord for two or three hours.”
Neva knew tremendous sorrow. She outlived two sons and a husband but she knew that quiet time with the Lord could give her peace and joy. About a month after Russell departed, Neva took ill. In the hospital, she pulled off her oxygen mask and said, “I love all of y’all but I’m goin’ home.”
An hour later, she found her greatest joy ever. She reunited with her guys.
[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]