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Steal Away to Jesus
Martha Greene Eads

Having done virtually everything else (pay a hospital bill by phone, text my brother and a babysitter about upcoming events, switch out winter for summer clothes in closets, skim the student newspaper, list tasks for the day), I come guiltily to meet my Lord. Guilty because if I were going to dally this way, it should have been to grade papers.

I strike a match, and my candle’s wick flares.

“You are the Light of the world. What do you have to say to me today?”

Before I open the Word, a memory surges: my eighty-seven-year-old dad’s recent account of his father Mansfield’s confession.

On a boyhood journey home with his dad after selling produce in town, young Mansfield had to ask for shelter in a barn during a violent summer storm. Kindly, the lady who opened her door invited them instead into her house, brushing aside their protestations about tracking in mud.

Probably they were ashamed. They were bedraggled, not only from their wet wagon ride but further from the harvesting they’d done before dawn. They were poor. Mansfield’s dad, Harv, was nearly debilitated by arthritis and spent more and more time in bed. Mansfield’s mother had died giving birth to his youngest sister, so already, at age seven or eight, he had shouldered significant responsibility on the mountain-side farm. He’d had so little schooling that he could only write his name. (That’s all he would ever be able to write.) The lady welcoming them spoke as if she might be educated, and everything about her shone.

Her family had already eaten, but she urged Harv and Mansfield to sit at her table. No cornbread-and-milk supper in this kitchen; she piled blue and white plates high with fried chicken, green beans and new potatoes, creamed corn, cat’s-head biscuits, gooseberry cobbler. When she saw that they were beyond satisfied, she led them to an unused bedroom. For young Mansfield, coming from a simple shelter, children-crammed, the sight of a spare room stupefied.

The bed’s crisp sheets smelled of sweet grass and sunlight. On a small table sat a cream-colored pitcher and a matching basin. Beside them were an oil lamp and a tiny matchbox, beaded in red, blue, green, and white. When Harv wasn’t looking, Mansfield slipped that box into his right-side overall pocket. He didn’t mention it—not that night before sleeping for the first time on a feather bed, nor the next morning when he feasted on country ham with red-eye gravy and stewed apples and more of those biscuits, nor when the lady and two of her children waved to them from their doorstep. Mansfield watched them over his shoulder from the wagon, feeling the weight on his lap of the lunch she had packed him and the jab in his thigh of the matchbox corner through his pocket’s fabric.

Mansfield never saw that lady again, but he remembered her always—certainly long enough to tell my dad about her. He didn’t say what happened to that matchbox, but he did tell Dad that it never gave him a moment of pleasure.

I ache for my grandpa Mansfield as that poor boy, and I admire him as that honest man. I ask my Lord, who looks with love from beyond time upon us all, to have mercy on that boy and to honor that man for his willingness to reveal his shame to his son for the sake of both their souls. I thank my Lord for that great-hearted hostess, who opened her home to wet and dirty strangers, who gave them her best and bore more loss than she had planned. I imagine her forgiving them her loss and perhaps even telling her children not to mind. Maybe one of her children had given her that matchbox, but she soothed that child’s angry crying, pointing out that Mansfield obviously had so little, and they had plenty. I ask my Lord to bless her for her kindness, fighting my fear that she or that child turned bitter and never welcomed a stranger again.

And then I remember visiting my own much older cousin and his wife when I was seven or eight. A kindly neighbor of theirs whose daughter was grown loaned me her dolls during my stay. A darling white doll purse caught my fancy and found its way into my pocket, even though I, unlike Mansfield, had plenty of toys back home.

My cousin and his wife are in their eighties now, and I am nearly fifty-three. Maybe the neighbors moved far away long ago or have even died. Did their daughter ever notice the disappearance of the purse with which she no longer played? I, like Grandpa Mansfield, cannot forget the kindness of strangers, and I wonder what debt I owe.

As an English teacher, I remember Tennessee Williams when I think of the “kindness of strangers,” but I don’t linger long on him. Instead, my mind races back from the twentieth-century South where Williams lived and wrote and where my grandfather and I lived, and I stole, past my grandfather’s boyhood theft (circa 1892), across the Atlantic to Little Gidding in the seventeenth century. I envision George Herbert’s hostess from “Love (III),” and the meat she serves is fried chicken. Then I travel on to fourth-century Hippo in what we now call Algeria, where another youth stole pears, not out of hunger, but just because he could. His memory persisted, too, even after he stole away to Jesus.

And so must we all come: poor or privileged, muddy or clean, illiterate farm-boys and their Ph.D.-granddaughters. We steal away to Jesus, our Lord, who looks upon us all with love. Who has paid our debts and bids us, smiling, to go and do likewise.

Martha Greene Eads is professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.

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