Growing up as I did in what might seem like the unlikeliest of circumstances for privilege — a baby boomer, living in the household of a self-described “poor country preacher” in the foothills of northwest Arkansas — I consider myself to have lived a very privileged life. Early on, my parents taught me to appreciate whatever is of greatest intrinsic value, highest merit, for that is what is the longest-lasting. Seeing this quality in the lives of many of my neighbors, I can credit those formative years of my childhood for instilling in me whatever goodness there may be found. For, hard at work, even without my knowledge, there was a legion of men and women surrounding me and my entire family, laboring behind the scenes at laying brick by brick the solid foundation of character from stone hewn by their own hands, carried from the vast supplies of untapped resources in each of their lives. They brought the best of what they had: truth and fidelity, hospitality and selflessness, forgiveness and acceptance, these were the materials they brought to help build my life. And, above it all, motivating every word or action, was overarching love as infinite as the wisdom that guided their lives, as vast as the sky. Not enough good things can said about these people who lived their lives quietly, doing good things privately without recognition or reward. Only now that I have achieved the age that many of them were when I first knew them, and many of them still are in my memory, am I coming to understand the depth and breadth of their influence on my life, and the sweet and very subtle ways that they left their mark on me.
One such person, to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude, carried out her functions in life without fanfare or advertisement. You would see her on the sidelines, in the corners of a room, always wearing a look of sweetness and content on her face. By the time I knew her, she had lived a lifetime of service to her husband and to her community, and she continued to do so until she died. Only once did I hear any details about her life, and it came in the form of a sermon illustration that my dad told. As he told it, the story took up permanent residence in my mind and heart. It is a story about real heroes that is rarely shared, ordinary people who go about their lives doing extraordinary things. It has helped me to notice the elderly, the quiet, the unpopular. Again, I am privileged because my dad took the time to get to know everyone in his congregation — not just those in positions of power or authority. It gave me a different perspective, one that has enriched my life over and over.
In her youth, Ella was beautiful and Norman was under her spell. Her thick, long, blonde hair and large blue eyes were as captivating as her smile and her charming ways. Before they were to be married, Ella contracted an illness that could have been fatal. However, after months of confinement, she did at last recover. But the ravages of the disease took away her beautiful hair, and so she hid herself from everyone – especially Norman. When the news of Ella’s recovery finally reached Norman, not even wild horses could have kept him from going to her. From behind the locked door, she could hear him thundering up the stairs to her bedroom. She would not open the door, but hid in disgrace. But, love conquers all, and so she heard the door smashing as Norman kicked it in. He rushed to her and gathered her into his arms, assuring her that she was as beautiful as she had ever been. And so, they lived happily ever after. In her old age, we all knew her to be fittingly crowned with a head of snow-white hair. I am sure that the normal vicissitudes of life brought Norman and Ella their share of pain and sorrow. But, she was known to have said that in all their married life, they never argued once. Ella was happy to be a homemaker and to look after her husband, keeping the house neat and clean, perfecting the art of home cooking, tending to the gardens. She babysat children in her home from time to time, and without ever knowing it, she was a role model for women in her community.
I never knew her as Ella, but as Mrs. Maxey, the old, blue-eyed, white-haired woman who lived down the street. May never comes around on my calendar that I don’t think of her. For, May was the month school was over for the summer, and soon after that, our church hosted the annual Vacation Bible School. As was true of most of the women in the church, my mother was always up to her elbows in the planning and execution of the week-long half-days, teaching some of the classes, baking cookies for the refreshments, and getting her four children dressed and to the church on time each morning, in addition to all of the other housework that occupied her time. It was one of the busiest weeks of her life, and Mrs. Maxey took this very much to heart. Our entire family knew that once during that week of hurried busy-ness, Mrs. Maxey was going to prepare supper for us. It would be delivered hot in dishes ready to serve, and we always looked forward to it. We could be sure that there would be new potatoes and fresh, tender green beans from her garden; the first scallions – hot and already cleaned and ready to dip into salt and bite into; and a peach cobbler made from the fruit she had canned last summer. From these meals I learned why my mother’s cooking was so good: it was seasoned with love, and so was Mrs. Maxey’s. And, it was my annual privilege to walk down the street to her house to return the dishes. She always greeted me with that broad smile, never asked me if we liked the food, never expected a compliment, just smiled warmly and invited me in while she put the dishes in the kitchen.
Those meals and her smile belong to another place and time that I still carry with me in memory. And although I can only return there in my vivid thoughts and recollections, I do know how privileged I am for the experience of them. And, I have the tangible evidence of Mrs. Maxey in the form of her cookie recipe. This one is a real keeper! Soft pillows of sweet cookie that shouldn’t be frosted because they are so good with just a cup of tea or coffee or a glass of cold milk. Every year I make these cookies at least once, and I love to share them. I think that Mrs. Maxey would like that.
Mrs. Maxey Cookies
3 cups sifted flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
enough buttermilk to make a soft dough
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Mix butter and sugar together. Add egg. Add dry ingredients alternately with buttermilk. Dough should be rather stiff. Work in more flour till dough is stiff enough to handle. Roll out on flat surface to about 1/2 inch. Bake on greased cookie sheet until just brown. I like to cut the dough into non-uniform squares, but you can cut into any shape, any size. Leave space between the cut-outs on the cookie sheet because they will puff up a little while baking.