She had grown into the name that everyone called her behind her back – “old maid.” She may not have really been that old but carried herself like an eighty-year-old when she was barely into her fifties – and in this family, fifty was still a young thang! She moved slowly, slightly bent, shuffling as she walked around all day with pink sponge curlers in her hair and tuggin’ on a frumpy old house dress. Seemingly, this was the extent of her wardrobe except for her granny Sunday shoes and a couple of full flowered dresses that, on her, looked like a long-forgotten garden filled with more weeds than flowers.
Fannie – the eighth girl of twelve children – seemed to have gotten lost in the mayhem of childbirth and life on a farm. There were too many children and twice as many chores. The other siblings somehow found creative ways around doing too much work. So, the quiet one, the most compliant one, found herself becoming the second part of her secret name – maid – as she always did everything her other siblings thanklessly demanded of her. She cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed, and she shopped – day in and day out. She became everybody’s property, and you could hear her name reverberating off the walls as it was yelled continuously – FAAANNIE!!! – they’d all yell, one right after the other – to do this or fetch that. Most people would go insane with that constant, demanding drone of unending requests. However, she came from a long line of disenfranchised women who were treated like chattel; but she never said a mumbling word, at least not within earshot.
It’s been said that there is someone for everyone, but perhaps that’s not true. Fannie checked off each hour of the day – expressionless. There was no indication of pain and suffering. She was just kinda flatline, as if she didn’t feel anything. And maybe she never did. Where did those feelings go in Fannie that made others just light up, laugh out loud, or tingle with desire with just the thought of being touched (literally and figuratively) by someone else who expressed a genuine interest in them? Or was she just born without emotions that made her feel such inner joy?
And just who gave anyone license to label this woman in any unkind way? It certainly wasn’t God because, despite her appearance on the outside, inside was one of the most beautiful women ever created. Few in the world were ever fortunate enough to bask in her hidden beauty.
It seemed like it took forever for her slave-driving siblings to leave this house. It was 1944, the world was in turmoil, so three of her brothers were soon drafted and sent off to war. Two brothers had already died as teenagers in a tragic farm accident. Little work was to be found in this deep south country town, so three of her sisters hopped a train and went north, following their much older sister, who was the first one to leave home. They hoped to find work created as a result of the war. Shortly after they all left, Fannie’s beloved mother died. Her two younger sisters, fearing they would have to be forced to help take care of their father, moved to a neighboring town to a rooming house, working odd jobs wherever they could find them. They had all scattered like dust, not giving a thought to the one sister left behind to care for an aging, sickly, angry man. Since Fannie’s mother Sarah died, he seemed even meaner. They had a hard life – always struggling to make ends meet. His one pleasure seemed to have been making babies. Sarah had no pleasures, not even her children, who must have missed the Bible passage about honoring thy mother and thy father. Sarah worked the fields with her husband, made babies, and took care of them as best she could. When she died, she hadn’t been sick, but she sure was tired and oh so sad. This was probably a welcomed escape. No one showed her any real love except Fannie. However, the two of them never had time to even share the love they had so deeply for each other, they just knew and accepted it. When Sarah left, Fannie had no one.
Slowly, Fannie began to disappear. She retreated to a secret place where no one could reach her, even if they wanted to. Struggling to take care of her swiftly failing father, she first stopped leaving the house, not even going to the store just down the road. If it wasn’t already canned or in the garden out back, it became just unnecessary. She barely had enough energy to cook some days and slept a good part of most days. All her life, she had regularly attended church. One of the elderly church ladies noticed that Fannie hadn’t been seen in quite a while. They assumed that was because of her mother’s death and her father’s failing health. By the time someone went to the house, her father was in horrible condition, barely responsive. Fannie was now almost non-functional. So, both of them were taken immediately to the hospital. Fannie’s father ended up in a nursing home but died shortly after he arrived. Fannie, now non-communicative, didn’t even know he had died. She had now traveled to a place of silence, almost as if in a coma, but she wasn’t. She didn’t want to die but failed to see any purpose for connecting with a world that never seemed to want to connect with her.
She was sent to Central State Hospital for the mentally ill. They didn’t know what else to do with her since no family stepped in to take care of her. There she further retreated into a state of total shutdown. She knew what was going on around her and found some comfort in this quiet space. Her body continued to function as she was being fed, being exercised, and surrounded by other busybodies. Some just chatted incessantly, some yelled constantly, and some sang. Somehow Fannie tuned out all of that noise except the singing. She had been there for almost three years, a ward of the state, then something began to grow inside of her that she never thought that she would experience. It was a desire to be a part of the world, even a world that was really broken. The thing that pulled that feeling out of her was music, beautiful music.
Each week for the last few months, a new staff member had been invited to her ward to entice the patients to come together to sing. At first, she was just an invisible chair in the room, always placed next to Emma Jean, a lady who just loved to sing. She sang everything from jazz to opera. It was like listening to the birds in the morning as they woke on the farm. That had always brought Fannie a little sense of the joy that God intended.
One day, with their chairs all in a circle, the new mental health assistance stood in front of Fannie’s chair, gently took her hand and Emma Jean’s hand at the same time as Emma Jean began to sing. It was a very familiar Baptist gospel song that Fannie had sung all her life at church – “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” He stood there for a few moments, singing along with Emma Jean. Then, much to everyone’s shock, Fannie’s voice returned in that song. With eyes closed as if she was in total peace, she sang until the song ended. She immediately returned to that place where she felt safe, but she was keenly aware that outside that space was someone who had just touched her soul. He continued to move around the circle, touching two hands at a time, starting the song over and over again until each person had a chance to participate if they chose to. Almost everyone in the circle sang at least a part of the song. The staff stood around the room in awe of what had just happened. It was miraculous. It was as if an angel had entered the room and blanketed it with pure love.
Frederick Wilkins was a dark-skinned man who looked as if he had worked the same farms in the country where Fannie’s family lived. He obviously was no stranger to working. You could just tell by his big, rugged hands and muscular arms. But he had such a sweet and gentle demeanor even though he spoke only when necessary. His message was mostly conveyed in his actions. Each week he came, and it was evident that the patients anxiously awaited his arrival every Wednesday afternoon. Seemingly unaware of time on most days, just following directions of the staff, Wednesdays became different for these patients. They all seemed to know precisely the time of Frederick’s arrival. They started gathering their chairs and making a circle or something resembling a circle, in anxious anticipation of his arrival. Each week would bring a new song, sometimes accompanied by Frederick’s harmonica or just his extraordinary voice. Over time, he began to stand in front of them, waving his hands to direct their singing. They had transformed into a choir, each week, individual voices growing stronger and magically blending like the ingredients of a downhome southern pound cake with 2 sticks of butter, 5 eggs, and both lemon and vanilla flavoring. Wow! It was so tasty and brought so much joy to every person in the room.
For her entire life, Fannie had lived in a world separated from everybody else. This had become her norm. Being included was very strange to her, but pleasurable. She was unsure as to how to maneuver this new territory. She would sing, and she loved it. It made her feel normal. However, this normal was still so far from the world outside of this institution, just like the others around her. Mr. Wilkins made her feel a new normal, allowing others to touch her (literally and soulfully). She could tell that he was a very kind man. One day he quietly asked if anyone had a song that they would like to sing. Without looking up, for the first time since being at Central State, she spoke. With eyes closed, she quietly said, ‘Amazing Grace.’ She knew that Emma Jean would start singing it as soon as she said it, and she did. Everybody else started to chime in at almost the same time. That moment felt so good for Fannie, inside and out. It was a bit scary to come outside of that protected space that she came to live in for so long.
Word of the quality of the singing of the patients on Fannie’s ward began to spread, and requests were made for them to sing on other wards for special occasions. Would she go if they decided to do this? The day came when she did. Emma Jean simply grabbed her hand that day, they boarded the bus to drive to the other side of the hospital. The ride seemed like miles away as they were escorted by Mr. Wilkins and three other staff members. It was kinda exciting. Fannie never let go of Emma Jean’s hand. This became the first of many trips across the hospital’s huge campus and then to select places outside the hospital – churches and to other special events.
Fannie soon discovered that she possessed something special – her voice – and that made her happy for the first time in her life. She began to like hearing her voice and would sometimes quietly sing to herself when in her own space. It then became more natural to start loving other parts of herself. Somewhere in Fannie’s head and heart was her determination to grow strong enough to control her own destiny. For the first time in years, she began to dream of life outside of this place. It never felt like a prison, more like a refuge where she was encouraged to find out how she wished to live the rest of her life. It was amazing to see each part of her unfold. She found a safe testing ground first in her new friend (actually the first real friend she’d ever had), Emma Jean. Both of them began to depend on each other and that was a good thing. They didn’t talk constantly, but would occasionally have short chats, usually about songs they loved. Soon they became inseparable, finding so much comfort in each other’s company.
It took another couple of years for Fannie to find her way to a life that she felt she could control and enjoy. With the help of people on the hospital staff, she began to work in the laundry. She soon was moved to a smaller unit with others who were transitioning back to independent lives. When the time came, Fannie and Emma Jean were discharged to a home with other former patients. They understood where they had come from and where they wanted to ultimately go in their lives. For the first time in Fannie’s life, she felt like she was home. She and Emma Jean shared a room together, and both got jobs at a laundry walking distance from the place where they lived. Their lives were coming together with one step at a time.
Fannie never had any desire to reconnect with her siblings as none of them ever made any attempt to connect with her. Now at almost sixty years old, she was able to begin life as if for the first time. It was as if her other life never existed – she was free! She and Emma Jean became each other’s safety nets. They were more like sisters than any sister Fannie ever had. She discovered that she could never have found love, joy, or peace outside herself until she had found love within; and having such a close friend made the journey even easier.
The one thing that Fannie carried with her into her new life was the spirit of her mom, Sarah, who sadly, never got the chance to know real freedom. Fannie’s soul was now filled to the brim with all that she had missed for almost six decades. She and Emma Jean were invited by their house manager to join her church. When she discovered that they both sang, she spoke to the choir director about them. Much to their amazement, the director was Frederick Wilkins from the hospital. It was almost impossible to measure the joy they felt at seeing Mr. Wilkins again. Both Fannie and Emma Jean became well-respected members in their church, learning to interact comfortably with so many in the church family.
Years passed by and Fannie and Emma Jean’s life found its own happy rhythm. They were a part of a community that they loved. After a time of saving their money and finding comfort in the community where they landed, they decided to venture out a little further and found a place of their own. It wasn’t fancy but it was warm and wonderful, filled with the good smell of Fannie’s cooking and the beauty of flowers and plants all over their home. Their one constant was music – played all day, every day over their small radio. They were great companions who found such comfort in their most unusual union, brought together from a dark place. Their souls looked back in wonder, so joyful that they were able to be reborn into a world of peace and contentment.
Love is often buried so deep that one may think that they will never find it. Sometimes what we think we are looking for as love comes in disguise. So often we expect it to be delivered on a silver platter or delivered in a fancy gift box. However, love can come packaged in almost anything, sometimes in a garbage bag.
Fannie was able to first protect her soul from destruction by turning within – finding a place of solitude, safety, and peace. In due time, she peeled back layer after layer of the person she truly was until she discovered that she too had inner beauty. And the rest of the story took on a life of its own.
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps
Hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls
To arrive at its destination full of hope.”