I was honored to offer this story at Mary Kate’s funeral today.
When Johnny and Mary Kate built their house on Simpson Mill Road it was a homecoming of sorts. The old house where Uncle Clem and Aunt Mary Eliza had lived their entire lives was in ruins. Johnny had the ambition and strength to finish what the wind and the rain and the rot had begun. Under the persuasion of his tractor and crowbar and chains, the old house crumbled to the ground. Then by the determination of them both, a new house was built.
You didn’t have to talk to Mary Kate long to know that home was important to her. She had spent her childhood working and playing in these fields. She knew the massive Water Oaks around her in a day when Uncle Clem’s mules stood and cooled in their shade. Though she had moved away and raised a family in another place, this was always her home. I know without a doubt she was glad to spend the last few decades of her life in that place.
Those of you who called her Mama and Grandma, you knew her in a way that I could never pretend to know. Though she is my kin, I have only come to know her over the last 25 years or so. We visited your home up around Atlanta when I was little, but I only have faint images of a house that wander in my mind. It was not until more recent years that I got to know her well. And in that time she became to me the last of a generation of our family that belonged to the old ways and to a simpler time in my life.
When Aunt Annie, your grandmother, settled in for a day of cooking, heaven came to visit her kitchen. A smooth concrete floor surrounded by humble cinder block walls. She made the best little biscuits. I’d ride my bike up to her house and she would see how skinny I was, and she would say to me, “You need a biscuit. Here, take three.” And Lord, the fried chicken legs and corn bread and cakes that she made. My wife fell in love with Aunt Annie over Coconut Cake.
When Mary Kate and Johnny moved back here and as I got to be more and more connected to them, it became obvious to me that Mary Kate had paid close attention in her Mama’s kitchen. If you belong to her family or have ever participated in a potluck meal here at Berea, you know what I mean. Her way of taking care of you was to feed you. And if some of you have her notes on making Coconut Cake, my wife would like to speak with you before you leave today.
I have knocked on Mary Kate’s door a hundred times over the years, and I never once worried about whether or not I would be welcomed in her home. “Come on in” was her middle name. She was one of the more genuine and warmhearted ladies I have ever known.
Some folks are shy or embarrassed or reluctant about having folks in their home. Too busy. The place is a mess. I’ve got other things to do. But it was never like that with Mary Kate.
If you came to her home, she was glad to invite you into her world in the sunroom on the back of the house. She embraced you warmly and would urge you to take a seat. “Let’s visit for a spell. I’m so glad you came.” She was honored that you stopped by.
Whenever I asked about how she was doing, she would brush it off with “I’m fine, let’s don’t talk about me. How’s Beth and how are the kids. Oh my, I love those children of yours. Tell me all about them.”
We had lunch yesterday with family and friends. Two of our kids were there. The conversation turned to Mary Kate and some of their memories of her. It was something like providence that brought my kids and Johnny and Mary Kate together in the summer of 1997. We could never have orchestrated that day. We would never have planned the kind of tragedy that made their bond possible.
My Dad was hit by a car out front of our house one summer afternoon. He misjudged. He stepped out into the road and was clipped by a vehicle and taken by ambulance to the hospital. Our kids were visiting my Mom and Dad when it happened. My wife was with her Mom in the hospital over in Birmingham. I was 75 miles away at work. Mama needed to go with Dad to the hospital. I don’t know how Johnny & Mary Kate got word to come down to our house, but they did. And without hesitation they said, “We’ll take the kids.”
For the better part of two weeks, while the rest of us hung out in hospital chairs and waiting rooms, Mary Kate and Johnny adopted our kids. She taught them to play Crows Foot with Dominos. They played games on the living room floor. Johnny taught them to fly to the moon in the swing tied up in one of the old Oaks by the house. They spoiled them. And they loved on them. They fed them. Gave them blankets and pillows. And they made sure that their world was okay in a time when we weren’t sure where life would take us.
I have never forgotten that gift. My kids are all in their thirties now, and they have never forgotten.
The way the hand of God moves in our lives is a hard thing to explain, I guess. But if we knew exactly how to explain it, we might just try to explain it away. We humans are dumb like that. And I think it is the mystery of it all that appeals to me anyway. We don’t really know any more about the hand of God than we know about the sun, moon and stars. We know enough to see them and describe them and analyze them, but not enough to erase the wonder and beauty of their existence.
I have often wondered about what we would have done if Mary Kate and Johnny were not there. What if they had not moved back home? What if there had been no accident? Would we have known each other like we did? Would I have been drawn to go by and knock on their door to visit from time to time?
Providence makes each of those questions just so much wasted breath. The Hand of God has touched our family in a thousand ways.
What matters today is this. Mary Kate is home with Johnny now. And I am sure it has been a homecoming of the ages. His memory is perfect. Her ankles are not swollen. Both of them walking on legs that are strong again. Her hair brown and flowing. His head with actual hair on it. Like the days when they were young, because now they live free of everything that made them feel the weight of this life.
It was she who knocked on the door this time. He welcomed her. He pushed back the screen door and said to her, “Come on in. I’m so glad you came.”