Remembering Miss Ethel

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by Mary Jo Shannon

I believe that certain people come into our lives at particular times for particular reasons, of which neither they nor we are aware. We may know them for only a short time, and then later, looking back, we realize the importance the shadow of their presence had in our development. One such person for me was “Miss Ethel.”

Miss Ethel came into my life a few months after my sixth birthday. She was our nearest neighbor when we lived near Verona during my grammar school years. Her home, an imposing farmhouse where she lived with her older sister, May, sat atop a hill on the opposite side of Lee Highway from our house. The two spinster sisters lived alone there, maintaining the family farm with the help of Albert, their farm hand. May was shorter than her sister and reclusive. We were told she used to give piano lessons, but stopped because of illness.

I remember Miss Ethel as being old, but now I realize she was most likely in her late fifties. She looked older I suppose, not only because age is perceived differently by young children, but also because of her outmoded wardrobe – mostly   gray or blue cotton house-dresses – and  the way she wore her ash-blond hair – combed back and coiled at the back of her head, like an old fashioned school-marm. She was not a teacher but was well educated and a devout Presbyterian.

When we moved into our little house “down the road” from her home, she promptly visited with a loaf of homemade bread to welcome us. As we sat in the living room getting acquainted, she told us about her family. Her parents died several years prior and left the farm to the two sisters. A third sister, Ruth, was a missionary in Brazil and her brother, Gamble, was a Presbyterian minister in a small town (the name of which I do not recall) in Southwest Virginia. Upon learning we had no church home, Miss Ethel offered to take us to Old Stone Presbyterian Church where she was a lifetime member. Mother felt my brothers, ages four and one, were too young but since I was six and already in school, she would be delighted for me to accept. Thus began my four years of association with this dedicated Christian lady.

Each Sunday morning she drove her black 1935 Ford to our house and picked me up for the ride to Sunday School and church in Ft. Defiance. On Sundays she dressed in her best outfits: in fall and winter, a long-sleeved black dress, topped by a no-nonsense gray Harris tweed coat when the weather demanded it; in summer a light blue silk dress with puffy sleeves and a wide lace collar. Her rough, hard-working hands were transformed by kid gloves, and crowning her head, was a wide-brimmed hat. Gloves and hat were black or white, according to the season.

As we traveled the few miles to the church, Miss Ethel inquired about my week at school and told me about the church – built in 1740 and the oldest Presbyterian church still in use in Virginia. It was also a fort, she said, built for protection from the Indian raids The town was named for the church that was a fort – Ft. Defiance. Tales were told of a secret passageway to allow those sheltered there to escape should the fort be captured. However, she continued, no one had ever discovered such a passageway. I enjoyed her stories and felt comfortable with her – I thought she enjoyed my company also.

After I could read fluently, Miss Ethel took me to the church library where I became acquainted with the Bobbsey twins and checked out a book each week until I completed the series. She also saved her Christian Observers and gave them to me so I could read the stories.

Our family moved the spring before my eleventh birthday. My brothers and I began to attend a Methodist church within walking distance of our new residence. I lost contact with Miss Ethel, but I remembered her as I re-read the stories from the stack of Christian Observers I had saved. I gave little thought to the influence she had on my life, but looking back with a new perspective, I am convinced her touch was sure evidence of God’s love and grace for me.