“You know, grandma’s sister saw an angel once.”
My grandmother dropped this bombshell into a conversation we were having almost a year ago. In response, I almost dropped the laundry I was folding.
“You mean, like, she dreamed it?” I asked.
“No, I mean she actually saw an angel. I thought I’d told you about this already.”
I’m going to stop right here. You need to know that my grandmother, at 83, is still possessed of all her faculties. She’s smart, shrewd, and never been gullible. Yet here she was, talking about her great-aunt’s celestial visitation in the same way she might say, “I prefer almonds to walnuts.”
Setting aside my son’s power ranger sweatshirt, I shoved the laundry to the left and sat down on the bed next to Nana. “OK,” I said. “Tell me.”
“Well, when we were coming up, Aunt Betty was already old. [Note to readers: in southern Virginia, the older generation pronounces aunt with a long a. Nana says Aint Betty] Especially back then, because working so hard and being outside all the time, you aged fast.
“Anyway, one day I was visiting Aunt Betty with Mama, picking and canning, and for some reason Aunt Betty decided to tell me. We sat down on her bed, like you and me are sitting here, and she told me that when she was just a little girl of 8 or 9, she was sleeping in the kitchen. They had to, because it was a small house, and only her mama and papa had a bedroom—the rest of the kids had mattresses on the floor near the wood stove. Anyway, Aunt Betty heard her name being called. And she sat right up, but nobody else in the house even stirred.
“Well, she sat there a minute, and she heard her name again. So she got outta that bed and she walked out onto the back porch, which her daddy had screened in so they could keep food out there, and also they let hobos sleep there when they came through on the train from Roanoke.
“She said she knew right where to walk to. And she rounded the house and went out past the barn, and she saw an angel standing there, just waiting. And that angel told Aunt Betty that she was to be a healer. Like a doctor, except there weren’t any doctors up around Henry County in those days. And from that day on, Aunt Betty would ride the family horse across three counties, just a girl. She birthed just about every baby in those counties, and she tended to the sick, too. All her life, I reckon, until she got too old.”
Here, six generations later, I sat on my grandmother’s bed in stunned silence. In fact, I’ve been turning that story around in my head for over a year now, and here’s what I’ve finally decided. The important part of that story isn’t the angel. Maybe angels appear in the night bringing messages of great import to seemingly insignificant people. There are lots of things I don’t know or understand, so I’m willing to add that to the list. However, the most important thing about those stories is what happens after the angel leaves. Do we follow that star? Do we mother the holy in our midst? Do we get up on the family plow horse and ride out to those in need, even though we feel ill-equipped for the task?
Angela Dove is an award winning columnist and author of the memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder. She welcomes the stories of your encounters with the holy at http://www.AngelaDove.com