The fourth of five daughters, she was named for her grandfather but never really liked it, thinking it sounded too much like a boy’s name in her mind. Nevertheless, Jessie Lou could outrun, out-jump and outwork most boys of her day, especially after her father died when she was young, leaving her and her sisters and their mother to keep up the family farm near Hillsboro all by themselves.
She hated picking cotton, and looked for any excuse to get out of that backbreaking chore, but with one sister crippled by arthritis and another still too young, she usually couldn’t avoid it. So when push came to shove, she took her turn in the fields, chopping and bagging those tender tufts of mallow, even while singing alongside of her sisters the tunes they had all learned at the Methodist Church, her alto voice easily finding the harmony in every song.
To go to high school she had to leave the farm and move in with an aunt who lived in another town, but it’s pretty clear that the farm didn’t really leave her, or at least the lessons she picked up there never did. You get what you plant and nothing more. If you don’t nourish it, it dies. Sometimes there’s too much water and sometimes there’s not enough. And a good storm can pretty much wipe out everything, but it can’t blow away your faith unless you let it.
Following her graduation, it was onto nursing school at the Scott and White Hospital in Temple, and it was there that Jessie Lou found her true calling. Her steady hands and quick impulses made her an excellent surgical nurse, a skill she was one day to employ alongside the famed DeBakey heart team in Houston. And in medicine too she found maxims for life. Caring may be the most important compound in any treatment. Real healing takes time. And the life is always in the blood.
She fell in love, married, and within a year she was widowed when her husband was killed while fighting in The War. And then another wounded veteran—a sailor named Charlie—wound up in the hospital where she worked and when he was discharged he drove his car along beside her as she walked home each day, endlessly offering a ride until one day she finally gave up and got in.
The two were married and began a forty-three year journey through life, raising two sons along the way who quickly became the focal point of Lou’s emerging interests. She taught them how to pray and made sure they were in church every Sunday, checking to see that their shoes were shined each Saturday night, in fact. Likewise, she wrote out scriptures and posted them by the doorway so the boys would have to read them whenever they left the house. This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.
And then long before she was ready for it, Charlie died as well, following what was supposed to have been a routine bypass surgery. So Lou began yet another chapter in her life, throwing herself into what was to be her defining role, at least in the eyes of her sons and grandchildren: she became The Nana, a grand dame indeed who somehow managed to meld the characteristics of Queen Elizabeth, Henry Kissinger, and Auntie Mame.
Cancer came along, and then dementia. But though the ravages of time tried their best, The Nana remained in charge to the very end, essentially choosing to celebrate her 87th birthday with Jesus rather than wait two more days to do so here on earth. For though she never liked her name, she always lived up to it, for the meaning of Jessie is simply “God’s gift.”
Today would have been her 93rd birthday and I still think of her all the time. For the faith lessons which my mother modeled have stayed with me through the years of my own journey in life, too, including what was perhaps the most important one she ever taught me: Family really is everything.
And the family of God is even better.