I reconnected with someone very special from my past this weekend. The experience has me still reeling here on Monday morning. And since I was too weepy yesterday in the pulpit to explain to the church who she was to me, I guess I should say here what I tried and failed miserably to say on yesterday.
First, it pains me to admit that I couldn’t place her face when she first walked up to me on Saturday after the Prayer Breakfast. You know what I mean. Someone comes up, and you know the face, or supposed to know, but you can’t remember the name. Your mind races through the files on your hard drive. The quick search turns up empty. You sense that she was once someone very important in your life, but you can’t seem to locate the file yet with all the information on it. Something about her face told me that I once loved her dearly. The feelings came trickling back before the actual memories did. And then it slowly dawned on me. Mrs. Vivian Thomas. The secretary at my old high school. But Vivian Thomas wasn’t just any secretary. Mrs. Vivian Thomas had been my guardian angel, my confidante, my friend, my play mother during some of the stormiest days of my teenage years.
In my homeroom class I was the designated person to turn in attendance sheets and lunch money to the principal’s office there where Mrs. Vivian Thomas worked. I took the job because I always looked forward to my talks with Mrs. Thomas as she stood there across the counter with her short brown frame, her warm eyes and gentle smile, and the lovely mole between her lip and nose. I was a mother-hungry girl and knew how to wiggle my way into other mothers’ hearts, even though I never succeeded with my own. Mrs. Thomas had children of her own, but that didn’t keep her from nurturing other young people who came through the principal’s doors.
I know now that Mrs. Thomas looked forward to my morning visits as much as I did. I was a ham, a brooder, a wall flower, a girl with a quick wit who loved the attention she showered on me. Every morning I came in she’d asked me how I was doing, and our conversations about home, boys, school, and life would start from there. Mrs. Thomas knew when I was happy and she knew when I was brooding over something that left me short and snappy. And she knew how to tease me out of my moods, love me into submission, and scold me into behaving like I ought. Did I mention that I was something of a terror to my teachers when I was in my early teens? Don’t ask. It’s a long story. I’m just grateful I got through those years. Fortunately there were three or four colored school teachers who in the course of my childhood impacted my life by noticing that there was more to my brooding personality than met the eye and found a way to give me the attention and direction I sorely needed back then. I’m convinced that my life would have turned out completely different had it not been for these colored school teachers from my childhood…and Mrs. Vivian Thomas, the high school secretary.
“Renita, get in here and calm yourself down.”
“Renita, what’s this I hear about you acting up in class?”
“Renita, don’t let that boy I’ve been seeing you with talk you into doing something that ruins your life.”
“Renita, you going to college and you’re going to make something out of your life. You hear me?”
“Renita, you’re going to make it baby.”
Mrs. Vivian Thomas is in her 70s now. It was my time on yesterday to beam when she was introduced as a deacon (not deaconess) at her church. She’s also a cancer survivor, thank God. But since time will not be denied what’s due it, Mrs. Thomas walks slightly stooped over and slower than she did decades ago. But her eyes, those twinkling eyes, they are still the same. And that smile, the one with the power when I stepped in the principal’s office to melt my heart and reassure me things would be alright, it’s still there too.
Mrs. Thomas went home and composed a letter to me Saturday night after seeing me at the breakfast and had someone hand it to me before I went into the pulpit on Sunday. In it she reminded me, encouraged me, and let me know how proud she is of the woman I’ve become. She was also thankful to God that she’d lived long enough to see her prophecy come true.
And so there we were on yesterday. Me, the preacher, standing in the pulpit sniffling and choking up, trying to find the words to thank a woman God decades ago sent into my life to save me from myself. And there she sat on the front pew Deacon Vivian Thomas weeping and wiping her nose and shaking her head in wonder and gratitude to God.
Here and there, now and then, God allows us glances back at our past and glimpses into the future, permitting us to see a larger view of what God has in store, and has had in store, from the beginning…
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)