Above: Easter with my grandmother Jette and my Aunt LoRayne across from the little brown church.
In 1952, when I was a toddler, my parents, Cullen and Naomi Cantees, along with my brother and me, moved from the safety of my Lebanese father’s family-owned apartment into a house Dad built a few miles away, next to my Mother’s parents. From the den of my Lebanese grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts in the metropolis of Williamson, West Virginia, population 5,000, to the solitude of my German grandfather and English grandmother, Larcey and Jette Dinguess, at the foot of a coal camp in Hardy, Kentucky. A mountain raced up behind our new house and a large tree stretched wide branches across a vast expanse of crab grass.
My brother and I foraged through the mountain behind our house hunting blackberries and raspberries like playful bear cubs, and, when we were older, we explored the abandoned tipple across the way, which was positively forbidden.
My grandmother babysat my brother and me while my parents worked. She also took care of my grandfather, a former coal mine foreman, who at sixty was dying of black lung disease. Soon after we moved to Hardy he died. My memory of him is vague, but my mother said he was as well-respected as a man could be, fair with his men, and everyone.
Sometime after my grandfather’s death, my aunt, LoRayne Dinguess, mother’s sister, who promoted health careers in North Carolina, left her fancy city job and came home to stay with my grandmother.
She smoked! Very few women in my world smoked and I tried desperately to emulate her, picking up the ashtray stubs, pooching out my lips and sucking in on the nasty butts. She also sashayed around the small house next to ours in drapy muumuus with flashy colored prints. What she lacked in style, which wasn’t much to my small mind, she made up for in sheer size and embellishment. She was sassy, just like my two fabulous Lebanese aunts! My mother said LoRayne could do anything, and sure enough, after stints at several jobs, she became the society editor of the Williamson Daily News.
My stars, her descriptions of weddings made William and Kate’s royal extravaganza sound like hillbilly nuptials along the Tug Fork River. “The bride beamed as layers of sheer pale lace cascaded around her shoulders, tapering down the length of her torso and then curving and arching over icy white crepe de sheen outlining the bodice of the skirt. “ Whew. LoRayne did everything with panache. And she did everything for the Lord, puffing on skinny Virginia Slim cigarettes dangled from her lips, and swearing she didn’t inhale.
Across the two-lane road from our house and my grandmother’s house sat a brown-shingled one-story church, with a small steeple and about five front steps. For as long as I remember, it set empty, dandelions blowing like snow spurts across the expanse of a small surrounding field. But, when LoRayne came home the church came alive. Somehow she wrangled keys to the double-wide doors. She cleaned it from top to bottom, painted, mowed down the weeds, and planted trees and shrubs. She became the janitor, grass cutter, and window cleaner, and when she officially opened the doors for “business” some time later, she served as lay reader, preacher scout, Sunday School superintendent, soloist, and, in general, the official “go to” person. I was probably about seven by then and two or so years later, I became the exceedingly off-key substitute pianist. One of my favorite hymns was and will forever be “The Little Brown Church in the Wildwood.”
One day as LoRayne was mowing the lawn she heard the voice of the Lord. She said it wasn’t a booming voice, just still and quiet. If it had been booming, she’d have been more eager, I think. She couldn’t decide if she should obey and possibly make a fool of herself or just forget she heard it. LoRayne still picked up hitchhikers because the Lord told her to, so I knew she’d go for the ‘making a fool of herself’ option. I actually think I remember this story, that I might have been there helping her decide what to do about her quandary, but it could be that I just heard it so often it seemed I was there.
Anyway, she was to go to the general store above the third camp and buy as many groceries as the money in her pocketbook allowed. Then she should take the groceries to a family living in the third and last camp. Two stuffed bags of groceries later, she was trying to decide how to approach the door of a couple’s house she didn’t know, except to say hello. And now she was to give them . . . groceries. Two teeming bags. It’s not like taking flowers. Or even fruit.
“People are proud. What if they take offense?” she said, and rightfully so. I feel embarrassed for her just thinking about it.
So, wrestling the two bags of groceries to the front door of the house, she sat one bag down, and knocked on the door. Finally, the man of the house, Mr. Walters, we’ll call him, answered.
“Mr. Walters,” said LoRayne, handing him one bag of groceries,” I know this looks strange, but then the Lord works in strange and wonderful ways.” Those were the last words she uttered before being hugged so tightly she said she couldn’t breathe and then already in a one-arm stronghold, was plucked up and placed inside the front door. Did I mention that my aunt was not a small woman?
Tears overcame Mr. Walters. LoRayne didn’t have to mention that the Lord spoke to her regarding the groceries, you see, he and his wife had been praying for a miracle all that morning. For whatever reason, money was scarce and there was nothing in the Walter’s house to eat.
We got used to the Lord speaking to LoRayne, whether she was mowing the lawn at the little brown church or waiting on a train at a rail road crossing. Watching LoRayne, I learned how much God cares for His flock—how He uses people to answer prayers. I can’t help but wonder how much human suffering could be eliminated or erased if more people were listening; maybe even willing to take the chance of making fools of themselves.
The founts of knowledge and gadgets we are always plugged into today—televisions, computers, those blasted ear buds—have tuned out the Father of wisdom and love. They’ve turned us away from the sweetest sound imaginable—the simple amazement of God’s still, small voice.