by Rev. Cheryl R. Thomas
When her sun freckled hand reached out to pick up the beautiful bottle with the yellow girl molded to the top, I gasped. When she put that bottle into the brown paper sack of groceries, I cried out, “Noo… Aunt Pearl, why would you give them that perfume?”
As “they” drove into the yard in their beat up rusty old car I never imagined that the beautiful Avon bottle doll I had coveted might end up going to them. Five adults and three teenage children were crowded into a brown four door sedan. I recalled the pictures I had seen of the dust bowl, when I looked at their dirty clothes and sun darkened skin. It was clear they did not have combs and had not seen a bath in days or even weeks. The hunger and thirst in their eyes was evident during the profuse apologies made as they asked for help. Their heads hung in shame and embarrassment as they handed us empty gallon jugs for water.
Aunt Pearl’s auburn hair shone bright red in the sun as she listened intently for a few minutes, then with a determined, “Let me see what I can do” she turned back to the house where she had raised six children and seven foster children, calling out directions for the three of us older visiting Thomas children to go to various parts of the house for supplies. My brothers were sent to the root cellar to get Mason jars full of plums, apricots, beans, tomatoes, pickles, relishes and okra. Every jar a testament to the hours of labor Aunt Pearl put into canning the vegetables and fruit she grew on her acre and a half of gardens. I was assigned to filling gallon jugs with water while Aunt Pearl arranged enough small jars to give the family for drinking. I saw her reach to the top shelf and pull down her “egg” money jar and put some coins and dollars in an envelope. I knew the money was from the job she held as the cook at the state hospital for children. Each cent was precious but I wasn’t surprised she would give the folks something for gas.
We were working quickly when she turned to me and sent me to the bathroom closet to “get some things for them to clean up.” I had always marveled at the stocks of supplies in Aunt Pearl’s closets. I reached for a new brush and combs, toothbrushes and bars of soap. I came into the kitchen with those as she was putting homemade bread and store bought cereal into the brown paper bags. She looked up and seemed disappointed with what I had brought out. She said simply, “I think we can do a little better than that.” She went to the bathroom closet and came out with deodorants, lotions and bottles of perfume for each person. I cringed when I saw the bottle shaped like a beautiful girl amidst the items.
I was still hoping she would realize that I deserved that bottle and not the dirty, teenage girl with the rats nest in her hair, when she reached for the bottle. “Why are you giving them that bottle of perfume?” I blurted out. Aunt Pearl suddenly stopped her constant motion and looked at me with her bright brown eyes as she realized how much I wanted that bottle. She smiled kindly at me as she patiently explained, “The most important thing you can give a person who has had to ask for help is their dignity. These items are just a way of helping them get their dignity back. That is something giving them food and water alone can’t do. This perfume will help them find their way back to dignity and being proud of themselves. Until they are proud of themselves their lives won’t change.” She then put the beautiful bottle of perfume into the bag of groceries.
Forty summers have come and gone since I heard those words in 1971 when I was eleven. I have spent most of that time helping people find their own dignity, as a battered women’s advocate, a congressional aide and then the last twenty five years as an American Baptist pastor. Every time I heard a request for help I recalled my Aunt Pearl’s words, “The most important thing you can give a person who has had to ask for help is their dignity back.” When I read Proverbs 31, I always think of Pearl Odema Thomas Tomlinson. She is now 96, living in a nursing home in Oklahoma City and while I have been unable to see her for three years, I know when I do go that I have to stay for lunch because it has already been arranged for all her guests to receive a meal. Being a woman of valor is all she has ever known.
Rev. Cheryl R. Thomas is an American Baptist pastor from Des Moines, Iowa.
This post is part of our Women of Valor series. Eshet chayil—woman of valor— has long been a blessing of praise in the Jewish community. Husbands often sing the line from Proverbs 31 to their wives at Sabbath meals. Women cheer one another on through accomplishments in homemaking, career, education, parenting, and justice by shouting a hearty “eshet chayil!” after each milestone. Great women of the faith, like Sarah and Ruth and Deborah, are identified as women of valor. One of my goals after completing my year of biblical womanhood was to “take back” Proverbs 31 as a blessing, not a to-do list, by identifying and celebrating women of valor. To help me in this, you submitted nearly 100 essays to our Women of Valor essay contest. There were so many essays that made me laugh, cry, and think I’ve decided that, in addition to the eight winners we featured in August, I will select several more to feature as guest posts throughout the fall.
We have honored a single mom, a feisty professor, a midwife, a foster parent, an abuse survivor, a brave grandmother, a master seamstress, a young Ugandan woman who reached out to a sister in need, and many more.