Mama’s stare is so hard, so consistent, and so filled with disgust, I struggle not to turn away.
But I keep my eyes level, my unaccepted hand out, my backbone straight.
I’m trembling inside.
“Happy Birthday, Mom,” I say, thankful in that awful spotlight to know Tilda isn’t my mother.
Her daughter-in-law, my friend Jean, puts a gentle hand on the old lady’s shoulder.
“Rich is saying hey to you, mom,” she says.
Tilda holds me with her eyes, doesn’t miss a beat. The battle-scarred she-wolf glaring at a scrawny pup.
“I know,” says Tilda.
I don’t even rate a sneer.
“She’s just mad Fred isn’t here,” whispers my wife, Gina, and it breaks the tension enough for me to make a hasty escape toward the gift table where I toss down the birthday card I carry.
Gina gets us some punch.
Fred, our basset hound, is part of the reason Mama Tilda doesn’t like me. (A recent incident involving a rain-drenched Fred, Mama trying to nap in Jean’s recliner, and a lot of slobber.)
The other reason is that I’m a long-haired hippie freak.
I know this because one afternoon after walking Fred past Jean’s house, my friend shared her mom-in-law’s frank judgement.
“She’s from a different time,” said Jean. “She worked in the mills her entire life. She’s a hard woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”
So, going into the birthday part, I knew the part I played.
But in the near-decade we’ve lived in South Carolina, Jean has become family. And Jean’s family, too is dear to us.
Sipping my glass of bland pink punch, I look across the room at Mama in her chair, stoically accepting her guests, greeting each of them with not much more joy than she showed me.
She’s a hard woman. And I wonder about her.
When we leave, I don’t say good-bye.
And then, one bright Sunday morning, I’m standing in the open narthex of a historic church as the congregation flows past, moving outside where they’ll shake the minister’s hand and greet the noon hour.
Gina and I are picking Jean up for lunch after the service, and we arranged to meet her here in the front of the church.
While we smile and nod, and greet a few people we know, I spot Mama Tilda, doddering toward me.
I can’t tell if she’s seen me.
She’s resplendent in a soft orange dress, tasteful gold earrings, and a freshly colored pile of thick-sprayed hair.
An old man greets her with a smile and, incredibly, she smiles back.
I’ve never seen Tilda smile.
Even now, it’s not much. Sort of an anemic tic of the cheek. But it’s there.
And the sparkle in her eyes can’t be denied.
This is Tilda in her element. With her people.
And her soft, parchment thin hands, knobby from decades of work and thick with veins gently accept the greetings offered to her. She holds hands with the man, his wife. She bends to touch the chin of a toddler. She coos over a newborn babe.
And then she’s beside me, looking straight into my eyes.
“Good morning, Tilda,” I say.
She nods, turns away. We’d both like to be somewhere else, but we’re trapped by a new wave of chatty, back-slapping parishioners heading for the exit at glacial speed.
“Nice day,” I offer, just for something to say.
Tilda nods. Which is some progress.
And then she cocks her head and her eyes light up with emotion.
She puts her hand gently on my arm, and when she speaks, her voice is warm like I’ve never heard it.
“I’d like to show you our upper room,” she says, and moves backwards toward an open door I hadn’t noticed before.
Again she touches me, then gives me a mischievous wink and crooks her finger for me to follow.
Away from the crown, beside an open stairway, Tilda is suddenly all sweetness and light.
“You’ll find a lot of joy in our upper room.”
Not being a religious person, and certainly not a Methodist, I’ve never been in the church before.
Or alone with Tilda for that matter.
“Discipline too,” she says. “I can show it to you,” she flashes me a genuine gold-crowned smile. “If you’d like.”
Swallowing hard, I don’t know what to say.
Tilda’s warm hand of friendship—of joy in the upper room!—rests on my arm.
Her smile is contagious.
She really is a beautiful woman.
The upper room awaits!
“Your wife will enjoy it too,” says Tilda.
Now I’m really sweating.
And she steps toward me.
Reaches around my back.
Tilda picks up a paper pamphlet from a pile on the polished table there.
She holds it in front of my face, a thin newsprint booklet bound with two staples. A photo of a stained glass window on the cover, a series of Bible verses and commentary inside. The cover is emblazoned with the tract’s title.
The Upper Room.
“Read this devotional every morning when you get up, and each night before bed.”
“Joy?” I say.
Tilda pats my arm. “And discipline,” she says.
Then she moves deliberately back to the crowd.
As I watch, she turns back once. “Share it with your dog, too,” she says.
And she gives me that hard stare I’ll always remember.
And wonder about.