Sunday, July 21, 2013

Aunt Mabel and the Moon Landing

1969.  What a year that was.  I had finished my one and only year of teaching in the public school system, married and was planning a major move from one coast to another. And then came July 20th.

Everybody was a-buzz about astronauts and rocket ships and a trip to the moon. To quote some wag, "Who woulda thunk it?"  We remembered JFK's words from 1962, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." I was never a great fan of JFK, but how could one hear those words and not be captured by them?  Then came 1969 and we were actually witnessing history being made as we sat in our own living rooms, watching  our television sets transmit the black and white pictures returned from what seemed an immense distance and on an alien yet familiar world.

My new husband and I were in my hometown that weekend, picking up some things I wanted to take with me to my new life as a wife of a Navy serviceman in a place far from home. Of course, I had to introduce him to some of the favorite relatives and among them was Aunt Mabel. Aunt Mabel was really a cousin but in good Southern custom, she was "Aunt" as a mark of respect and she was definitely a woman to respect. She had been divorced by her husband, a Baptist preacher, no less, and she was left a woman alone in a time when divorce was almost unthinkable. She didn't cower under a rock or sit and bewail her misfortune. Somehow she had run across what became her passion, her ministry to the world, and gave Virginia back a landmark it had almost forgotten.

Red Hill was Patrick Henry's last home and where he had practiced law in his later years. Up in the Blue Ridge mountains near Brookneal, his home had become an overgrown ruin with little left there to commend it to anyone's memory.  Aunt Mabel, however, had a dream.  Almost singlehandedly, she worked out a plan.  She needed laborers to clear and build, so she approached the local sheriff. Would he allow his prisoners to work voluntarily on the project if Aunt Mabel fed them for the day? Soon prisoners were working on weekends at clearing brush and overgrown trees, freeing the Osage orange tree that had been hemmed in by the encroaching forest, and clearing away the burned timbers and boards while leaving the fireplaces and chimneys standing alone like sentinels. They began to rebuild and, in return, Aunt Mabel kept the fried chicken coming. Eventually the project was finished and she became the first curator and docent of the property.

I saw her portrait hanging in the visitor center the one time I was able to return there and when I remarked to a member of the visitor center staff that that was my Aunt Mabel, I was treated almost like minor royalty simply because I was related to her.  She had left Red Hill some years before but some there still remembered her, her work of reconstruction and refurbishment. I don't think they saw it as a ministry, nor did I until I looked at it through the lenses of EfM (Education for Ministry), but it was a ministry indeed -- to the prisoners who worked to help the project but who were able to be free of being behind bars for a while and to enjoy some great cooking, to the Commonwealth of Virginia through the restoration of a historic property and a connection to a hero of our national history, and to those of us who knew and loved her and who rejoiced that she had found something she seemed to have been born to do. 

By 1969 Aunt Mabel had serious health problems and had been forced by them to leave her beloved Red Hill for an apartment in Williamsburg near her son and his family. It was there that my husband and I were sitting, in her living room, glued to the television on July 20, watching a man land on the moon. Oh, I remember the images, but most of all I remember Aunt Mabel's rapt face as she watched. She had been born  in 1897 in Gloucester, a rural area where horses and carts were the mode of transportation and cars wouldn't be seen for years. She had seen so many changes in her life, so much modernization, and I don't think she ever really took any of it for granted. The television was a wonderful thing, but on July 20, she sat enraptured, watching something that hadn't even been a thought or a dream in her childhood. For once, even a quote from her beloved Patrick Henry's writings that would seem appropriate to the occasion failed her. My husband and I were enraptured too, but it was Aunt Mabel's face that was the thing I remember most.

Ministry is a funny thing. We think of it as something church-y, like preaching or teaching, presiding at the altar or visiting the sick. We don't usually consider what we do in the normal workaday world as ministry -- but it is and it can be. Aunt Mabel had been a preacher's wife, doing the preacher's-wifely things to do around the church but I don't know that she considered it a ministry, only her wifely duty.  When that particular ministry was shattered, she found a passion of her very own and pursued it as she dreamed and worked to rebuild the shrine to Patrick Henry, one of her heroes. She always referred to it as a shrine, not that Mr. Henry (never "Patrick") was a demigod or anything, but rather that it was a specific place dedicated to the life and work of a remarkable human being. For me, Aunt Mabel was just as remarkable.

So on a day when I look back and remember the remarkable human beings that went to the moon and actually walked on its surface, I remember a remarkable human being of a very different sort. She will always be one of my personal heroes.

Mabel Oliver Bellwood, 1897 - 1993
May she rest in peace as assuredly she will rise in glory.

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