2011: a year of delight and depression. After all, I published my first book, which is the source of the “d” words in the first sentence. When I studied Kosho Shorei Kempo I learned the expression, “To fall seven times, to rise eight, life begins from now,” a past student reminded me this year. Each down has pushed me to get up to see what‘s coming next. I have been blessed with an excellent example.
My example for survival is Lottie Smalls, my sister from Pineville, South Carolina. Black, she has weathered the Jim Crow South, worked the fields picking cotton, bore ten children, struggled with poverty, seen her home burned to the ground, had illnesses and lost her parents, children, relatives and friends to death. Each time she has “arisen” to struggle through trusting in the love of the Lord and a healthy sense of humor.
In September of 2011 my sister celebrated her 90th birthday. In the spring family members began a flurry of “secret” phone calls from South Carolina to New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, California, Europe and all points where a Smalls family member might be found discussing the nature of the extravaganza. Who to invite? Where to have it? Large and public? Small and personal? There is protocol in Pineville, South Carolina about such things and etiquette in conducting a 90th birthday that is worth living for and flaunting!
All calls turned from celebration to concern later in the spring when Miss Lottie had a stroke. The party was shelved – perhaps never to be considered again. For several weeks we worried, and then, with some physical therapy and loving care, the Lord brought her back. Her mind wasn’t clear yet and, after all, she was almost ninety. It should be easier to have a secret party. Perhaps a small party would be the best choice now.
The phone calls slowly began again. Lottie sat on the porch and watched for folks to drive to the end of the long road where she lived. Colors were chosen – purple and white. Lottie enjoyed her court television shows. The date and time were set. Lottie micro waved her pancakes. The place: Day Dawn Baptist Church’s fellowship hall. Lottie went to church. The menu was chosen.
Time passed and Lottie began to ask leading questions about what they were going to do for her birthday. “Nothing much,” she was told – just a small family gathering (as if that were even possible) – maybe grilling something out in the backyard. They knew she expected something.
When I’d call her, she would lament that she was not going to have much of a party. I consoled her saying she’d been ill, perhaps this wasn’t the time. We couldn’t come back to celebrate with her, just didn’t have the money. Maybe next year would be better.
Her questions became more precise. Slowly her children and grandchildren realized she knew too much. It would not be a surprise party. They had worried she might be too frail to have a big surprise, so they comforted one another that she would not be shocked by a surprise. But how did she know so much? She’d been ill and wasn’t entirely conscious of things like she had once been.
Lottie hadn’t lost her edge, she’d fashioned a ruse. Normally her daughter Noel made phone calls in front of her. However, from time to time Noel took the phone outside – party plans the topic of discussion. It was so easy for Miss Lottie to pick up the phone and listen and then pretend she knew nothing. It seemed the only secret left was that my husband Joe and I were coming from California.
Her birthday was three days before the party. I’d sent her present to arrive on that day. I called to wish her a happy birthday. She asked, “Where are you?” I answered that I was at home and sorry we couldn’t be with her on her day. We left for South Carolina the next morning.
We knew she’d see us coming when we drove up to the house. When we went in she spread her hands palms upward, said, “Thank you Jesus,” and closed her hands across her breast looking shyly down as she rocked back and forth on the couch.
The fact she knew so much about the party was THE topic of the conversation, but it made me wonder. If she knew so much, did she know about us? And so, when we were alone, I asked her, “Lottie, did you know we were coming?”
She looked down and with a small smile said, “I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
Lottie’s brother Leroy, Lottie Butler Smalls, Lottie’s brother Henry, and Henry’s wife Emma