“And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain  poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all …'” (Luke 21: 1-3)

Terry Creek church is perched on a small knoll along the narrow valley bisected by a creek that gives the little church its name. The valley itself is nestled in the southern foothills of Appalachian’s Smokey Mountains. As churches here go, the brick structure is humble; but its shingled roof and white woodwork are sufficiently maintained by a handful of parishioners that live in the valley and know this building as their church home. The grass around the church and the boxwoods dressing its foundation are sparse but neatly trimmed and where the lawn ends, blue rug juniper, a cultivar that doesn’t mind neglect, flourishes solid and luxuriant, carpeting the bank between the church yard and Terry Creek Road.

Behind the church a cemetery runs up to the foot of the mountain in sloped terraces. Granite headstones are set in wooden borders with white gravel covering the beds inside. They bear the family names of the little community that had grown up in the valley during better times; Hamby, McDaniel, Waddell, and Thurmond.  Most of the markers are plain, polished stone, simply inscribed with a name and two dates. Too often, one or two smaller headstones accompany the larger markers inside a family’s wooden border; half-scale stones, with a lamb resting on top, bearing the names and dates of children who had come here early from sickness or accident.

Terry Creek church was founded and built by my wife’s grandfather during the Great Depression. Elaine and I had recently moved to Terry Creek from California. In every way we were strangers to the valley and to its culture; but to the people of Terry Creek the relation made us kin. Terry Creek church was the church of the community, making it our church as well.

I noticed Cora Lee on a winter Sunday morning during the second verse of Church in the Wildwood. Terry Creek church was small, even as country churches go, and not more than seventeen worshippers were gathered in the little sanctuary that day.

Cora Lee, two pews ahead of us – we preferred to sit near the back – stood with her head bowed as we finished the hymn.  I noticed the plait of her steel gray hair; one continuous braid, wrapped around the top of her head like a crown. I had seen the style in old photographs. Vintage black and whites of young ladies in cotton print dresses with hair, I guessed, that could have been waist long, meticulously braided and wrapped to form a circlet. I remembered that Corrie Ten Boom the Dutch girl whose family hid Jews from the Nazis during World War II, came to speak at our church when I was a child. She had the same hair and the same braid as Cora Lee.

We remained standing after the hymn.  Church custom was to stand during the singing. The congregation would rise when the preacher said, “Rise,” and we sat when he said, “Be seated.” Preacher Seawright always remembered to say “Rise,” but occasionally forgot “Be seated.” I watched Cora Lee, two pews ahead, content to stand until the preacher released her to sit. Her blue-gray cotton print dress, like the ones worn by the young ladies with braided hair in the old photos, was faded from years of washing and ironing. Around her shoulders she wore a shawl crocheted from sun yellow yarn. The yellow brightness and the sheen of the yarn told me that the shawl and the dress had not shared her closet for long. When I was in high school my mother started to crochet a sweater. The sweater was never finished but I saw the knots and loops of it enough to know hand-made from store-bought. Cora Lee’s shawl was hand-made.

After the preaching (it was never called a sermon just as preacher Seawright was never called a pastor) parishioners in the front pews turned to greet those behind them. As we were behind them all, we greeted those in front who were quick enough to catch us as we made our way to the aisle. Cora Lee seemed to hurry as she gathered her Bible and a paper grocery bag from the seat of her pew. As she made her way to the aisle she reached into the bag and pulled out a small stack of white. From where we stood I could see that what was in her hand was made from yarn, the same kind as her yellow shawl but white, with yarn tassels hanging down from the stack. She began to pass out one of these yarn somethings to each person she met. As she came to Ray and Anna Hamby she made sure that they and each of their five children received one of her gifts. Cora Lee caught up to us just as we reached the sanctuary door. Handing each of us a crocheted yarn cross she murmured, “Merry Christmas”; her eyes never rising to meet ours. We thanked her and tucked the gift into our Bibles as we left the church.

I didn’t give Cora Lee’s gift another thought until the following Sunday.  Bored with Ray’s list of announcements I thumbed through my Bible.  The cross fell out and onto the floor just under the pew in front of us. I picked the little cross up and then glanced around the room for Cora Lee.  She wasn’t there. Aside from the faithful core, attendance at Terry Creek could be spotty. It didn’t surprise me not to see her.

Ray stood as preacher Seawright petitioned the floor for prayer requests. “Remember sister Queen,” Ray spoke up. “She’s sick in the hospital with pneumonia.” Sister Queen, Ray volunteered to us after the service, wasn’t doing well. An ambulance had taken Cora Lee to the hospital on Thursday after a neighbor stopped by and found her in bed, weak and dehydrated from three days of coughing and not eating or drinking. Cora Lee had been a stop on Ray’s regular Saturday hospital visitation.

During Ray’s visit she had stressed to him that she needed to get home to take care of her chickens.  No one would feed or water them while she was gone and some critter had been sneaking into the coop during the night killing the hens.  She was upset and needed to do something about the chickens before they were all gone.

Hearing about Cora Lee and her chickens concerned my wife. Monday afternoon Elaine drove to the hospital. Cora Lee was awake and sitting up in bed when Elaine entered the room. She had an IV needle in her arm and looked weak, but she brightened when she saw Elaine.

“Oh Honey, I’m so glad you came to see me” Cora told her as Elaine pulled the chair closer to the bed. “I know I’m not leaving this place except to go to my heavenly home.”

“That’s not true,” Elaine began. But Cora stopped the protest by placing her hand on Elaine’s and giving it a soft squeeze.

“It’s alright Honey, I don’t mind.  I’m looking forward to it,” Cora reassured her. “I’ve been here long enough.” Cora stopped and a sudden concern darkened her face. “My chickens,” she pleaded. “Someone needs to look after my chickens.” Elaine saw the worry gather in Cora’s face as her eyes began to fill with moisture.

“I can take care of your chickens while you’re here, Cora,” Elaine reassured her. “Tell me how you feed them; we’ll be sure they’re all right until you come home.”

“I told you honey, I’m not going back to my chickens.  When I leave this place I’ll be going to see Jesus. I just need someone to go get my chickens and care for them.”

Elaine surrendered.  She took a breath to calm her own emotions. “Cora, I will take care of your chickens. I have chickens of my own. We will put yours in the coop with ours, they will be fine together.”

“Oh honey, thank you.” Cora’s face relaxed and lightened again. A noticeable weight had been lifted from her. Her eyes were wet, but now with relief. Then suddenly her face darkened again. “There’s a fox. He’s been sneaking in at night taking my girls off and eating them one-by-one.  That old fox started coming by a week before I came here. I tried to cover the fence where he was crawling in, but I was just too weak to fix it right. Honey I know that old fox is still after my chickens.” This time the moisture in her eyes escaped and ran down her cheek. “Please, honey, go get my chickens and take them to your house; don’t wait.”

“I’ll take care of it Cora, don’t worry about your chickens anymore. I’ll take care of it”. Elaine’s words calmed Cora and she relaxed in the bed. Cora started again, this time about some plants in the yard Elaine could have if she would just dig them up. A nice Hydrangea and a Rose of Sharon, they were so pretty in the spring, they shouldn’t go to waste. Cora’s eye began to close as she was describing the blooms on the rose of Sharon. Quietly, she drifted into sleep. Elaine slowly took Cora’s hand from hers and placed it on the bed. She slipped from the room and down the hall without Cora waking.

I was standing in front of the barn when Elaine’s car turned into our driveway. The barn was across the road and down in the bottom, a few hundred feet from the house. As she opened the car door I yelled up to her that I needed some help. A pipe had frozen and burst in the night and now the temperature had risen and the thaw revealed the break with a spray of water. It was late afternoon and my shift started early the next morning. This would be my last chance to get the pipe repaired and insulated in daylight for the week.

Elaine shut off the water to the barn and brought a towel for me to dry from my inadvertent shower. I cut the broken pipe and did a quick inventory of parts I would need to make the repair. Luckily I found the fittings in my box of saved plumbing pieces and didn’t need to make the twenty-minute drive to town for parts. Just as the sun had given up its last light I finished insulating the repaired section of pipe. Elaine turned the valve releasing water to the barn plumbing. I scanned the section by flashlight – no leaks – excellent, we were finished.

That evening Elaine talked about her visit with Cora Lee; about Cora’s resignation that she wouldn’t be coming home from the hospital, and about the chickens.  Elaine would need my help to get the chickens.  I said that we could probably pick them up Saturday morning.  This was just Monday, but we couldn’t get them in the dark and I couldn’t get off work to get chickens. She was concerned that they wouldn’t survive until Saturday, but I reassured her that chickens know how to forage and they would be all right for four days.

Continued next week …