The Holy Mission

Lilly Baker came from a Kentucky coal working family of thirteen and only went through the fourth grade, but as a child, she helped her mother care for others. At fifteen, she began working with a mountain nurse, and from then on, she walked throughout the mountains and hollows where people lived. She stayed with and nursed the sick, cared for their families, and comforted their kin. She served as a midwife when necessary. Lilly married a coal miner and gave birth three times and cradled her “blue baby” with a heart defect in her arms until the baby died. She also cared for her husband throughout his life and death from black lung.

I stayed with her when I interviewed other women in Appalachia in 1980. Lilly, a tiny and slightly stooped, seventy-six-year-old, had an oval face, dark brown eyes, fair skin, and heavy black and white eyebrows.

I remember a specific morning. Lilly’s face glistened as she said, “I got baptized in the creek when I was fourteen. God came down in a cloud and said, ‘Lilly, visit the sick and the afflicted. It’s your holy mission.’” Six decades later, Lilly had not forgotten her charge. She told me she would take me to one of the afflicted, and we climbed up the hollow. She carried a bag of food.

We smelled the house before we reached it, a terrible stench of human waste and illness. The green, eight foot square house stood on titled brick stilts. Rotten debris was piled under the base, and a thin, limping gray kitten crawled among some trash.

The elderly woman Lilly took me to see leaned against the decaying doorway, holding herself against the frame with her hands. She looked like she was starving. Her skin was almost as white as her hair, and large, orange-brown freckles lay across her nose and under her eyes. She smiled at us, but her eyes looked confused and wary. A wide-eyed skinny blond boy of about nine watched us just outside the door. Lilly looked at the boy, “It’s OK. We’ve brought food and have just come visiting.”

The woman in the doorway still seemed confused to have us there, so we stood outside her house talking with the boy. He spoke brokenly about a road being built up their hollow, grabbed the kitten, which tried to crawl under the house, then held the animal awkwardly by one leg and smiled and lifted it up to us. As he did it, the emaciated woman muttered, “You got to watch the kid. He’s a little off. He don’t get things straight. Hard on cats.” She then turned slowly toward him and continued, “It’s good to have him though. He’s my company boy.”

It seemed as if speaking made her more at ease, and she sank away from the door, holding onto a walker, and eased down into a hard chair in the corner of her shelter. We took it as an invitation and stepped up and inside the door. I looked around and saw the old chair she was sitting on, a single bed with soiled blankets, a small wood heater, and a table with an empty can of peaches. There was no toilet inside the house, and a pan of dirty water sat against the wall. Lilly put her food on the table. “There’s enough for the boy too.” She turned to me.

Suddenly the other woman spoke. “My Lewis was a corn popper. We popped corn for carnivals. He’s gone now, I’m all alone, except for the boy.” Then she sat silently, smiling at us and nodding to our questions as she and the boy ate.

Eventually Lilly said, “We’ll say goodbye now. I’ll bring food again soon.” We left the old woman sitting quietly in the corner of the room, but the boy waved at us from the doorway. As we walked away from the door, the smell of honeysuckle replaced the scent of decay. I contacted a nun in public health and told her about the starving woman and child. She assured me that they would try to get them services. I could not do much because I was leaving town the next day, but I left some money with Rosie for food. If public health did get food and care to the woman and child it would be because Lilly, even when losing her memory, acted out the basic values of her life.

Several government programs have been designed to help the vulnerable, such as Mrs. Lewis and the child. Social security, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, and what was called Aid to Dependent Children and is now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families all have problems, but, theoretically, they could have helped Mrs. Lewis and the boy. Nevertheless, these measures themselves are in danger today. Jim Wallace, in the magazine, Sojourners (8-2-12), claims that the current proposed Republican budget is immoral because it devastates such programs. “In particular,” he states, “to roll back tax credits for the poor to help fund tax breaks for the rich is morally reprehensible, and the faith community has to speak out.”

I still remember Mrs. Lewis and the boy. When I came back to visit a year later, Mrs. Lewis’ house was gone, and Lilly had gone to live with her daughters in Indiana. I hope their need back then inspires us to political activity now. (The story told here is part of an unpublished manuscript called Memory, Meaning, and Resistance: Oral Histories of Working-Class Women. by Fran Buss.)

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