She was old all my life; 76 when I was born, 87 when I first met her. When she spoke, it sounded like a swarm of bees hovering over a thick patch of clover. She was blind and feeble and had to be led around by the arm. But there was rarely a Sunday that went by for a hundred years that didn’t find Miss Effie Lou standing in the choir loft carrying the altos on her bony shoulders. She’d lost a husband, a daughter, and two sons, but she never lost her song.
I have always been fascinated with old people. All the things they’ve seen and heard and done. When I was a kid, I would go over to Ludbar, the small assisted living apartments where she lived, and sit for hours listening to her tell stories.
“I was 5 years old when the Titanic sank,” she said. “Daddy was a preacher. We prayed for the families of those that sank frozen into eternity as he told us to make sure we were always ready to meet the Lord.”
She told me about life before electricity and bathrooms and televisions. She called the names of the horses and mules that had been her companions as well as her transportation. And it sounded like quite an adventure to an 11 year old boy. But when she told me about having to check the outhouse for snakes whenever she had to powder her nose in the middle of the night, it dampened a great deal of my pioneering zeal.
“I was grown before I ever saw a car,” she said. “And it was several more years before I got up the nerve to ride in one of those noisy contraptions. At least with the horses you didn’t have to worry about being left on the side of the road with a flat tire, and I never recall ever hearing about two horsemen having a head-on collision.”
She talked about meeting Louis, her late husband, while picking cotton on the row opposite him during the Depression.
“He was insufferable; cocky, flirtatious, and the most handsome thing I ever saw,” she said, smiling at the ghost of a memory that she could still manage to see despite her milky white eyes. “He told me that if he picked more cotton than me I should agree to go out with him. I told him that he’d have to pick more cotton than every man in that field before I’d give him a second thought.”
“What’d he say,” I asked.
“Nothin’. He just grinned and went to snatching and stuffing like his britches were on fire. He filled nearly two cotton sacks more than the highest picker, and twice as many as several others. I married him six weeks later.”
Then she went quiet for a few minutes. “We never spent a night apart for the next 55 years until April 24, 1980. The night the Good Lord called him home.”
Some days when I visited Miss Effie Lou she didn’t feel much like talking. She just sat by the light of the window feeling the sun on her face and listening to voices long quiet to everyone but her. On those occasions I would do most of the talking. She would nod and smile as I explained the finer points of the Batman legendarium, or how chiggers could be removed from one’s nether regions by smothering them with some of grandmother’s fingernail polish. Boys don’t have good sense at that age.
Then I would go sit down at her old piano and say, “Do you feel like singin’ one?” She always did. And soon she would be leaning on the end of the ancient upright Kimball showing the angels a thing or two about how it’s done.
Though raspy and thin, worn threadbare by the friction of so many passing years, her voice had a strength and beauty to it that was otherworldly. It was the sound of a century’s worth of Arkansas Delta breathed out all at once into the wind. The sound of revival meetings in clapboard churches; the sound of haltering lyrics strewn with the roses over a wooden box draped with a flag. It was the sound of feed store gossip around live-bait wells; the sound of pink tomatoes kissed by salt and summertime. When Miss Effie sang, she sang the mourner’s song, but tempered by hope and circumscribed with joy.
About once a year she would get particularly blessed during a Sunday service. She would ask the pastor if it would be alright if she could “sing a special.” And these were always special times. A man in the congregation, often my grandfather, would lead her up to the platform and I would begin playing the introduction to the song she always chose, “I’ll Meet You in the Morning By the Bright Riverside.” Before she was finished, everyone that wasn’t on their feet shouting were on their faces weeping.
Shortly before she passed away in 2004, I came home from college. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a little room packed with piles of her grandchildren. Miss Effie Lou was lying in bed with her eyes closed, hand draped across her chest. I eased over and raised the lid on the old Kimball. “Do you feel like singin’ one?” I asked.
She never opened her eyes. But after a moment her lips parted and from them came that voice imbued with a new vigor:
“I’ll meet you in the morning with a ‘How do you do?’
And we’ll sit down by the river and with rapture auld acquaintance renew
You’ll know me in the morning by the smile that I wear
When I meet you in the morning, in the city that is built foursquare.”
That voice has gone from this world now. But every now and then, when the wind stirs just right in the live oak trees, or a choir of honey bees hover in tune over a thick patch of clover, I can still hear it. And I remember that morning is coming.