One of the 10 People from Heaven You Meet on Earth

Monday, October 11, 2010

On a dour gray day at the end of my first semester of college, I mounted the steps of the great white columned house of Berry's founder and pressed the doorbell.  Someone shouted for me to come in, and when I pushed open the door, I realized it was the large jovial man on the ladder who was disassembling an antique brass chandelier in the carpeted front hall.  He smiled and asked if he could help me.  I told him I was looking for Vesta Salmon in that tentative way of a green college freshman who isn't certain what she's just stumbled into.  "Kitchen," he answered.

In the kitchen - where I would spend almost as many hours during my college years as I did in my dorm room.  Where the white painted door was propped open, there was a long metal table where an army of college girls were seated with rags and toothbrushes and tubes of foul-smelling pink goop that they were applying to pieces of the antique chandelier I'd seen in the hall.  Among them, scrubbing and buffing with the best of them sat Vesta.  I don't know that I exactly remember that she said it, but I know she would've looked up, seen me standing there all lost and confused and said, "Whatchya need, hon?"

I needed a job to rescue me from the dreck of the college dining hall.  And ever since I'd seen a picture in the newspaper of a local girl who worked as a tour guide at Oak Hill and donned a beautiful hoopskirted dress, I'd wanted to be an Oak Hill girl, too.

The interview was brief; I don't remember if Vesta even asked me about my skills.  I would guess instead that she shrewdly assessed my puny spirit and decided somebody needed to look after this poor waify thing standing in front of her.  And by the grace of God, she decided that somebody would be her.

For the next three and a half years, I worked under the supervision of Vesta.  I dusted and vacuumed and scrubbed and polished every inch of that house.  I gave tours, dutifully telling the stories of the house and its owner.  I served lunches to potential donors and the college president.  Those were all the requirements of the job.

But more important than all that, I observed.  I observed Vesta in her provisions.  She cooked biscuits and hot tea for breakfast for the morning girls.  She made cornbread and big pots of vegetable soup when it was cold and blustery outside.  She made lunches for visitors and lemonade for the grounds crew.  When I was sick, she'd buy oranges and slice them for me to eat at lunch.  She fed my body.

She prayed for us all - including the poetry professor who dared give me a B on an assignment, assuring me that we just needed to pray for him.  (For the record, I ended up with an A in the class.)  She talked to us about her faith - one that she demonstrated in so many ways: by baking an endless number of lemon poundcakes (for which she is famous) for birthdays, anniversaries, sympathy and get well wishes; by inviting those without family to her home for Thanksgiving and Christmas; by being involved in all sorts of causes that helped others.  She was the essence of moral fiber.  I never knew her to say no when someone needed her.  She fed my spirit.

Having lost my biological grandparents at a young age, I was thirsty for her wisdom.  She offered guidance in such simple and sage ways.  She hugged me close and dried my tears on more than one occasion.  Going to work became my refuge in times of turmoil.  I could always count on Vesta for advice or support or encouragement or a hot cup of coffee and a hug.  She fed my heart.

She once met Martha Berry.  And her cooking was featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.  One of the professor's established a scholarship in her name.  Yet, she's always humble, always embodying the Berry mission - not to be ministered unto, but to minister.

I graduated from Berry almost 10 years ago, but Vesta and me have kept in touch through letters and cards and phone calls and the occasional visit to the alma mater.  I cherish the times I get a Vesta hug and get to hear her ask, "How are you doing, hon?" in that marvelous way that you can't wait to tell her and hope she's proud.

When I think about the lessons I learned in college, some of the most important ones were from Vesta.  She taught me so much about integrity and character and spiritual strength and just loving people so much that you can't stand but to do something to help them.  I know she's touched about as many lives as there are stars in the sky.  And I feel so lucky that mine is one of them.

Captain Fail Pants Goes to Washington

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Traveling with me is like traveling with one of the three Stooges - or maybe all three wrapped into one prat-falling package.  Case in point: last week's trip to Washington, D.C. for a conference.
  • We were greeted by the Head of the Conference who hugged me and asked how I was feeling.  How am I feeling??  And then it registered that she had me confused with the other woman of the same name who works on the account and is pregnant.  Oh, sweet fancy Moses.  She think I'm pregnant.  Do I look like I am with child?  
  • After dinner, the waitress brings a rather sizable glass dish mounded with blue cotton candy.  One of my dinner companions has a few bites.  And then I proceeded to eat all of it.  All.  By.  Myself.  And no one stopped me.
  • This lead to the mother of all stomachaches at roughly 2 a.m.  Like, fetal-position-whimpering-praying-to-God stomachache- a prayer in which I prayed that God would smite me for my gluttony.
  • Tuesday I woke up very late with a very serious spun-sugar-over.
  • Once dressed, I stood sideways and gazed upon myself in the full-length mirror for confirmation that I do not, in fact, look pregnant.
  • At Tuesday's dinner, I vowed to be very good and not overeat.  Instead, I stood up to go to the bathroom, dragging the tablecloth with me, and turning over an entire glass of water.
  • Later, I lost my cell phone - my precious 3-year-old Nokia flip phone with the busted front.  We were assisted in our search by the waitress whose attention was no doubt captured by me on my hands and knees with my head under the table in this very nice restaurant.  When she finally located the phone under the table, she told me she felt compelled to just leave it there, thereby deducting all the cool points I had in reserve.
  • Wednesday morning, I'm wearing a dress.  Which reveals the lovely blue goose egg on my shin, origins of which remain unknown.  Perhaps from crawling around in the restaurant?
  • I added to the attractiveness of my legs later while using industrial packing tape on a package and slipping the serrated edge against my knee.
  • My dress nearly gave me a heart attack at the self check-in kiosk at the airport.  Because when I bent to retrieve my credit card from my bag, I realized that the two most crucial buttons were gaping wide open.  In the middle of the airport.  Classy.
  • I thought I would be done with dress mishaps at this point - until I was also flagged by security for my "decorative belt loops."  Yeah, you have to watch out for synthetic bamboo.  It's a killer.
  • Once seated on the plane, I took a deep breath and hoped for a quiet flight back to Georgia.  Instead, I got teeth-rattling turbulence on a flight that I decided to brave without Dramamine.  By the time we landed, I had a greasy oil slick in the bottom of my stomach that would've made BP look like amateurs.
It's no wonder nothing gets done in Washington.