In my mind, bringing my second baby home from the hospital and meeting Mrs. Ophelia Alexander for the first time have merged into the same event. Thirty one years ago Mrs. Ophelia Alexander entered my life when I called her about helping me with my children. But really, I have the odd sense that she was sent to us by some act of divine intervention. My son, the baby thirty one years ago, said it was as though “we won some cosmic lottery”.
Ophelia Lytle Alexander died this past week, on the same day that my baby granddaughter took her first step. I was on vacation with my family on a sun struck beach when I got the message. I cried from self-pity, knowing we’d shared our last laugh, our last story. And I’d lost the best source I’d ever known of unconditional, unwavering love. If Miss Ophelia loved you, there was nothing you could do to make her un-love you. Every time my mind returned to her that day my heart sank. The sky was deeply blue and there were enormous white clouds like mountains. I painted the clouds, telling myself Miss Ophelia was there.
My tears were only for me, because Miss Ophelia was a person of such deep and constant faith that she most likely had no fear or despair over leaving us. Over the course of thirty one years I had watched her lose her husband, and then her son, and then her young grandson. She had borne things that would have crushed my spirit to dust. Through inexpressible grief she had kept her heart busy loving those of us who remained.
Miss Ophelia had grown up in my then rural community. She had distinguished ancestors who had accomplished much. She had attended a Rosenwald school less than a mile from my house. She was keenly intelligent, loved learning, and had graduated from Torrence Lytle High School in 1953. She had shopped, as a young girl, in my grandpa’s general store, and she knew all the folk of our community, living and dead. She had an easy way of talking about race, and told me many stories about the way life had been in the 40’s and 50’s. I got to hear the histories of the community’s African American families. She knew how their histories fascinated me. One of her final gifts to me was a book written by a local African American writer about those families. Somehow she was able to cut through the eternal awkwardness of our racial divide.
Because she was so completely disarming and also shrewd, she knew how to corral us into her church upon occasion. In her mind I think we were always inadequately churched, so to save our souls she would have us join her at her favorite place. I don’t remember the messages, but the music was always breathtaking. Because of that, when I attended her funeral, her church was not an unfamiliar place.
I am a grudging church goer. Impatient, uneasy, going in and out of consciousness during the service. But I went to Miss Ophelia’s funeral as though I were climbing onto a life raft. I didn’t want the service to end. After a lifetime of avoiding open caskets I truly wanted to look at her face one more time. I wanted to know how this saint’s passage would be acknowledged by her community, her family, her church. I wanted to be in the company of others who loved her. I felt orphaned and that sanctuary felt like a sanctuary.
The music was inspired. There was piano and a subtle trumpet. A powerful singer sang a solo. People moved in time with the music and I was so glad I could too. The message was not about humanity, but about Miss Ophelia’s communion with divinity. The final song was “I’ll fly away” delivered with the power of a rock anthem. I entered the church crying. I left the church smiling, my heart having flown away with her.
A man sitting on the end of a pew reached out to me and handed me this picture he had made of Miss Ophelia. It was so perfect. Miss Ophelia and her strong mind, her huge heart, and her sassy ways, with the pair of wings that had always been invisible, suddenly visible. And behind her those clouds– just like I figured.