I was privileged enough to rearrange my work schedule so that I could attend the celebration of the life of one of my all-time favourite people, Mrs. Jackie Harris, yesterday. I’ve known Ms. Jackie practically all my life, as she was at First Methodist downtown every time the doors were open, much like my family was when I was growing up. She was always, without fail, dressed to the nines; in fact, when someone says that phrase, I actually think of her. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I really got to know her one-on-one. I was a youth delegate to the South Georgia Annual Conference (UMC), and she was a lay delegate. She and John Harrington and I rode up in her so-called Mafiamobile (at least that’s what I remember her calling it): a behemoth of a fancy, navy Oldsmobile that truly had room for about six or eight people in it! As a very awkward teenager, I was rather flabbergasted that Ms. Jackie took such an interest in my life, from asking me about school, my faith, my family, and anything else she could think of on the trip from Valdosta and Macon. We got to know each other very well over the course of the week, and I was truly in awe of her by the time we got home to Valdosta. I’ll never forget her standing up in front of the whole Annual Conference assembly (a huge auditorium full of people at Wesleyan College) to make a proposition when that portion of the business conference was going on. She was incredibly well-spoken, and defended her points to the hilt in spite of a few naysayers. All three of us from FUMC went to Annual Conference the next summer as well, from what I recall, but that was to be my last trip with her, since my family left the church at the end of that summer for various and sundry reasons.
For some reason I’ll never fully understand, Ms. Jackie stayed in touch with me. We’d write letters and Christmas cards back and forth, and I believe I stopped by her house on Patterson Street one summer to say hello to her. (One can tell he/she is getting old when you hafta say or type “I believe…” and “from what I recall” as much as I have in this blog!) She even made a point of coming to my high school graduation, which was no small chore at the VSU PE Complex with almost 400 graduates. I regret that’s the only picture I ever had taken with her, and it’s of poor quality, but here it is:
When I quit college (twice in less than six months), I remember Ms. Jackie being one of the few people who didn’t criticize or berate me for my decision; she wasn’t totally in favour of me going to work full-time at age 18, but she said the Lord knew what He had in store for me. I returned the graduation favour by attention Ms. Jackie’s induction into the VSU Sports Hall of Fame in 1999, and I’ll never forget how excited and humbled she was by the honour. Once she moved from her home to Langdale Place, I visited her there several times–usually taking her up on a lunch invitation–and I was again in awe of her, because every single person there seemed to know and love her. In fact, her apartment there was right above the main entrance, and her balcony provided the perfect vantage point of the lovely campus. After lunch we’d go back up to her apartment to visit, and I remember her asking me one time to read some scripture to her because she said her eyes were tired. I humoured her and read the rather lengthy passage, and I realized as I was leaving that she didn’t really need me to read it to her; she wanted to make sure I read it, as it was very applicable to my life at the time. She knew I wasn’t happy in Valdosta and that I was fixing to leave town, and the scripture related to that more or less.
The last time I saw Ms. Jackie was about three years ago in the spring of 2008. Ms. Marsha, her daughter, warned me on the phone before the visit that Ms. Jackie wouldn’t recognize me, as her memory had deteriorated a great deal since I’d last seen her. Undeterred, I came armed with pictures and memorabilia from Annual Conference and a book I thought she’d enjoy reading. We sat in the library of Langdale Place and I had my first experience with someone suffering the harrowing effects of Alzheimer’s. Ms. Jackie was sitting right next to me physically, but she wasn’t the lively, charismatic, witty lady I’d known all my life. She said very little and acted a bit shy; Marsha and I did most of the talking and shared memories about when Ms. Marsha had taught me 7th or 8th grade Sunday School. I left utterly heartbroken; past heartbroken, actually. It was then that I began praying for her and her family every single day, right after Granny and step-grandmother on the prayer list in my head. I knew her funeral would come sooner than later, and I promised myself that I’d attend it no matter what.
That funeral was yesterday. Far from sad, it was a moving celebration of the life of a woman who made things happen, who brought out the best in the thousands of people she impacted during her 95 years, who wore a fancy bathrobe to Jimmy Carter’s inauguration (you’d hafta hear the story to believe it!), who helped integrate the Valdosta City School System, who ran one of Valdosta’s most successful dress shoppes, and who loved Jesus and never hesistated to pray to Him any chance she got, including before the car trips I took with her. Two of her grandsons spoke at the funeral and most all of us were brought to the verge of tears by their sweet memories of the larger-than-life lady that they knew simply as Nanny. To the rest of us she was Ms. Jackie: always dressed to the nines, always with an elegant parasol, always with a smile on her face, and always expecting the best out of you and out of life with Jesus. I cannot wait to see her in heaven, and I know she’s kicking up her high heels as I type this, rejoicing with the other saints and her husband Pappy who passed on before her.
Here’s to you, Ms. Jackie…you’re one of the classiest ladies I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, and one of God’s most humble servants to boot. Thank you for all the memories and for believing in me when I didn’t believe in myself.