A Country Angel
My sister Janice, known to her home health patients as “Big Pretty,” would enter every room like a clap of thunder, and you couldn’t help but turn your head to see who had that voice, that presence that would pull your full attention to her. Hair pinned or wrapped in a bun, she’d nudge her large frame into a chair like a setting hen, clucking a little about the time of day, state of the weather or ask about how “your people are?” As we liked to tease one another, we were both “common as pig tracks.”
But that was the funny thing. I knew my sister wasn’t common at all. She was a woman who had dropped out of high school, lived much of her life struggling, who with three small girls at home, finally pulled her shy, awkward self together long enough to complete nursing school. As a nurse, Big Pretty found the voice we would all come to know as a trusted advisor, a wise counselor and devoted caregiver. She would cluck about a patient’s health, monitor their blood sugar, all the while saying, “Them’s the prettiest tomatoes I believe I’ve ever seen right there. Why I’d love to have a couple, you’re the sweetest thang.”
I loved her intelligence, her wit. She never missed a beat with her chit-chat, yet within five minutes could do a five star evaluation on any man walking. They could be “no count,” “worthless as the lead it’d take to shoot him,” or “useless as tits on a boar hog.” Or they might be “haughty,” “all hat and no cattle” or “sweeter than a bee myrtle in June.” With Janice, you could “set a spell,” or “take a load off” and cuddle beside her while she crooned about what was for supper. “I’m making red-eye gravy, a pork roast and a chocolate pie that will make old granny weep,” she’d purr. We’re having “fried chicken tomorrow night, so come by early, then I’ll set out some snacks.” Everyone knew Janice’s appetizers could be bacon wrapped chicken, rolled in brown sugar! They were not to be missed. “Wear your eatin’ pants, “she’d say” cause we might bust outta something if we ain’t careful.”
Big Pretty loved sweet tea. She loved dragonflies. Cornbread. Pie. Grilled anything. She just loved to eat. She loved to share her recipes and whatever was cooking from her kitchen. It was an extension of her heart. She fed us love, hovered over us and made a fuss. We were never any trouble, she said, even as she stirred a pot of beans in a hot kitchen after a long summer day. Her love might taste like butterbeans and sausage one day or greens and ham hocks the next. But it was ever present. Yet most of all, Janice loved life, and she loved all of us within it.
I never realized we had a language between us, but we did. As a boy, with Janice, I had watchful cover and knew she would fight anyone who ever tried to bully her baby brother. She might tease a nurse friend about being a Low Voltage Nurse (LVN) as opposed to a Real Nurse (RN). But her heart was pure gold. But there was a touch of brass in there too. Because Big Pretty was like that, there was always a little salt with the sugar, and she could administer a good “a** chewin” if somebody really deserved it. But she never stayed angry, and you were as likely to see a daughter’s ex coming by to help her put up Christmas lights years after he was no longer in the family. My sister was everyone’s Mama.
Janice and I would often talk about our work, those things that truly touched us.
She once told me about a patient, “This little black lady, the tiniest thing, living by herself, blind as a mole.”
“Brother,” she said, “She was wheelchair bound, lived in the middle of nowhere. She’d roll off her high porch down these perfectly placed boards out into her pecan orchard, with bags strapped to her chair.
Each fall she was my first home visit, because she’d be up and out there before daylight. I remember pulling up, hearing nothing but the rustle of pecan leaves early in the morning. Then this little woman’s voice singing “Jacob’s Ladder” to herself.” ….. ‘Over here, Big Pretty,’ she’d call.”
“And she’d always have a bag of fresh pecans ready just for me, knowing how much I cooked over the holidays.” Janice recounted. “I would tell her, ‘It’s not daylight, Miss Mae.’ And she’d say ‘It’s never daylight where I am, baby, so I work whenever I want.”
Big Pretty took the blind lady a plate from her kitchen every Thanksgiving, every Christmas and countless times in between. She had a soul good to its core and one simply sensed it. If she loved you, she loved you and if she didn’t, well, you knew that too.
Janice held so many secrets about life. She had many friends, but most people didn’t see her struggles. You had to live up close with her, to know her heart, to see what grieved her most. We shared our wildest joys and our saddest sorrows with one another. In her life, like all of ours, my sister forgave, and was forgiven, she was broken, she was reborn, she was wounded deeply, yet healed her own heart by taking care of others. Janice knew the greatest of life’s secrets. We truly get back just what we put out into the world. Her generosity knew no limits, her heart was boundless and her love was unconditional. And my sister received it back. Big Pretty’s light now burns bright within each of us who knew her, a light that time will never dim.
Many of us come from different generations, different perspectives, but a singular love brought us together to pay respect to my sister. She lived life so large as to imprint her spirit boldly across all our lives while on this earth. She spent her time honoring us with her love and sharing the simple joy of being alive. How special was that?! Daily, every time we saw her, Big Pretty would give us another laugh, another piece of pie, another nudge to be happy, a reminder to be thoughtful, to be good to one another. And to be grateful for all we have been given in life.
So, today, forgive me if I ran long. There isn’t enough time to remember a life so great, so splendid, so bountiful and so blessed. I hesitate to close the curtain on such a great soul who taught me so much about living. But Janice, my beautiful sister, the biggest and prettiest spirit I’ve ever known, will never die in our hearts. She lives on in all of us, and she loves that. Every time we hear a “Big Pretty story” or remember her smile, she returns. Thank you for joining her on this magnificent journey, as we are all richer for having done so.
Rest with the angels, Big Pretty, watch over us, as there will never be another like you. Oh, how I loved you so.
April 8, 2015
* My eulogy for my sister, Janice Teague, who died of breast cancer three years ago this spring. Some losses never leave our hearts.