The last part of our stay in Tennessee was very similar to the first part - eating and visiting. We hooked up with Pastor Maurice Hall for breakfast. Jack found him dressed and sitting in the motel lobby at 5:30 am when Suzi went out for a morning toilette. I get antsy just thinking about waiting for 4 hours to pass, but I think Pastor Hall probably lost himself in prayer and meditation and memory.
That Maurice is a man of God was evident from the start, but we soon learned he is much more than that. Sweetie and I only tapped the surface of his interesting, adventuresome, love-filled life. We piled the small man with the big heart into the Lincoln and drove a few hundred yards down the street to Shelby's. The place in town where everyone goes for breakfast. Not a big place, and not so different from the Huddle House, except that it was new, clean and more "down home." Think Alice's Restaurant plopped down on Hwy 411 in the middle of Etowah, TN, where Flo would be right at home if she was about 30 years younger.
Right up front Maurice apologized for his grizzled, unshaven face. His "Norelco" lay in pieces in his suitcase. It reminded me of how my Dad looked on days when even picking up his Norelco was a chore. My sister and her friend Gwen joined us as we sat around the table listening to Pastor Hall tell bits and pieces of his life story. He was easily distracted, would jump from one memory to another, always connecting them somehow. "I'm 92 years old," he told Jack when he asked a question, "cut me some slack!"Maurice spoke of the time he was the new pastor in town at the age of 19 and how he was immediately taken with the cashier at the train depot's sandwich shop who would become his wife and travel companion for 72 years. "I think it's time you too his picture out of your locket and put mine in," Maurice told Marie after a few months. She did and they were together from that point on. He told us about his travels to Germany (while in the Army), France (where they adopted an orphan because they couldn't say no), VietNam (where in the middle of the war people knocked on their door and to ask about Jesus) to the big city of Chicago, to Sierra Madre, CA (where his beloved Marie passed away and his Mexican housekeeper, Marie, filled him with delicacies like mashed potato tacos). He spoke highly of his sons and gave us a picture of his whole family gathered around - he and Marie sitting in the front, encircled by children, in-laws, grandchildren and great grandchildren. It wasn't an old fashioned tintype but it could have been. He gave Jack a copy of the book he'd written about "their" life. He signed everything Maurice and Marie. The wound of her passing, still painful in every mention of her name.
Maurice has been blessed in many ways. He continues, I'm sure, to bless others. He carries the thumbprint of God on his forehead, a small red heart. A constant reminder of the One who created the man, the woman, their union and their life of service. Jack mentioned the mark to Maurice and commented on it being sign of his blessing. Maurice smiled a knowing smile, nodded his head, but spoke only with the light from his eyes.
Maurice may have traveled the world, but his roots were entrenched in the hardscrabble land south of the Mason-Dixon line. Born in Tennessee Colony, Texas, at the age of 9, he helped his father and brothers sharecrop a farm in Louisiana. Arriving in Nashville, TN with just five dollars and 83 cents in his pocket, Maurice went on to earn an AA degree in New Testament from Lipscomb University in 1939. Maurice possesses a subtle, southern humor, a down-home, come-sit-awhile friendliness. I can picture him on a weathered hand-planked porch whittling, maybe chewing on a piece of grass. One of those who could keep their hands busy but never miss a beat of what you were saying. He may have had loads of money in the bank, but he didn't look like a rich man. Just an average guy, I'd guess, who could relate to princes or paupers. His message, like the One he served, was love. Retired now from official "preaching" at 92 he continues to teach the Wednesday night Bible Study at his church in Sierra Madre.
Why (Sweetie hates it when I ask why - says it's a pointless question) out of all the people who could have been sitting in that motel lobby that day, was it Maurice Hall? It felt as if he were just waiting for us. Remember the TV shows Highway to Heaven or Touched by an Angel, where ordinary folk came into contact with a heavenly messenger and their lives were changed. Or if not changed, re-ordered to have more meaning. Ever since we said goodbye to Maurice, with promises to write and visit him in CA, I have been looking over my shoulder for Michael Landon or Della Reece. I have no doubt that we were touched. But I'm not sure what comes next. The TV shows always had a scripted ending, the touchees were not left with questions that only the touchers knew the answers to.
Today, in hindsight, I'm grateful the girl whose motto has always been "Beware of strangers" stopped, opened herself up, and let someone she'd never seen before into her life. I'm grateful for people like Maurice and Marie who practiced what they preached and changed lives while doing it. I'm grateful for a chance to see my Sweetie with new eyes.
Wishing for you angels in your midst,
P.S. If you look real close at the left side of Maurice's head you'll see a faint red mark. That's the heart.
P.S.S. I just picked up the book Maurice gave us, Where He Leads Me, I will Follow - The Story of Maurice and Marie Hall,* in it he wrote:
"To my new friends, Jack and Mary, Thank you for befriending a lonely, just 4 months loss of my lovely Marie - almost 90. Thank you and God bless you. Sincerely, Maurice & Marie Hall."Perhaps that's the best answer to my "why" as I'll ever get.
* Written by Lula Rampey, Wordbyrd Publishing Company, Garden Grove, CA.