One of the great characters of the South
Can I have gone so long and not told you about Miss Lily? Lily was not a Holly Springs character, but was one of the great characters of the South. Certainly one of my most unforgettable.
I think about Lily whenever I see a homeless person. Well, Lily was not exactly homeless, but let’s just say that she was a bag-lady with a pedigree. She was a true Virginia aristocrat! Lily Wilson was descended from the same family as President Woodrow Wilson. I forget exactly how, but if you saw her you would not doubt.
An Episcopal priest who was my minister in Richmond, Virginia, wore his aristocratic heritage lightly, and was once approached by Miss Lily on the campus of the Presbyterian seminary in Richmond. There she proceeded to recite Tad’s entire ancestral pedigree. As she walked away, muttering, as she typically did to bushes and lamp posts, Tad (actually, the Rev. Ernest August de Bordenave III), turned to me and said with astonishment, “She is exactly right. My DAR mother would be impressed!)
Lily was also distantly kin to two of our school’s most prominent faculty members. Thus, despite her oft-irritating ways, she was assured of benign tolerance and occasionally even of genuine affection — though Lily had a way of spurning the most stalwart gestures of acceptance and inclusion, so that those who knew her best understood that the kindest way to care for her was to leave her alone and allow her to chart her course as best she could.
Lily was a fixture on the campus of Union Seminary. Somehow that great red brick quadrangle of leaky Queen Ann Gothic buildings was a perfect place for a ranting, but etiquette-obsessed old lady of consequence. Lily was perhaps four-and-a-half feet tall, with a memorable way of pursing her lips and, of course, a dowager’s hump. She always dressed in black. As the story went, she had studied music at the Sorbonne when she was felled by a fever and left partially unable to function in ordinary society.
The music part was true. Sometimes when the seminary organist was unable to keep his appointment for chapel, Lily would sit down at the piano and play the hymns with great beauty and force. “Onward Christian Soldiers” was her favorite! — this in an era, post-Vietnam, when a sort of religious pacifism pervaded the place. But that is what Lily played, so it is what we sang. Lily was not given to negotiation nor did she appreciate the fine nuances of ideological argument.
Her brother was a local physician who tried to keep her up as best he could, but Lily’s fate was that disease left her in a state of hyperactive frenzy. No care facility could keep her within its walls. Like a moth she was drawn to religious organizations and institutions, and being reared in the bosom of the Presbyterian Church, she frequented those most, although not exclusively.
When the seminary library opened in the morning, Lily was there, seeking warmth — always muttering softly as she leafed through the magazines in the reading area or rooted around in the large sack that carried all her worldly possessions. After chapel she would be in the coffee lounge; nobody checked to see if she put her dime in the bucket for the doughnuts.
Lily frequented the seminary, for her passions were theological. Her great crusade was to have each new class of students sign a little written pledge card she carried about that required a lifelong commitment to refrain from all use of alcoholic beverages and to preach only from the King James Version of the scriptures. With that you might assume Lily was a fundamentalist, and she was — but she had other concerns that were decidedly liberal, for despite her love of “Onward Christian Soldiers” had violently opposed the Vietnam War. Hers was a spiritual warfare, and so some called her a fundamentalist with a social conscience.
Long discussions ensued with anyone who chose to engage her. She would tell you her beliefs. She would not tell you where she slept at night. Some curious students surreptitiously followed her once, and found she had a room in the “Fan District” downtown — this provided by her physician brother. The apartment’s location placed her near the old Second Presbyterian Church, in which she had been reared and where she scrutinized every sermonic word of her pastor Dr. Albert Winn for any whiff of liberalism or heresy.
Naturally, everybody in Richmond knew Lily. Richmond, Virginia functioned as a small town, although with aristocratic pretensions that even England never knew, but after all President Davis and General Lee had walked its hallowed streets, and given her own family ties Lily was not cowed by anyone or the supposed prestige their family tree might have bestowed.
Boys like me from Mississippi were beneath her interest; few of us ventured that far into the parochial world of Richmond, and except for one futile attempt to get me to sign “the pledge,” Lily viewed me with a wary eye, no doubt quite sure I would eventually end somewhere up north, which of course I did.
Lily was ecumenical in an era when the word was still new to the ears of ordinary people. Accordingly, she was wont to attend St. Paul’s, Richmond, around the corner from Second Presbyterian, but closer to the State Capitol — but only when there was some preacher worth hearing in its pulpit. St. Paul’s was the Episcopal sanctum sanctorum of Virginia (there was no point designating it a cathedral as higher honor had already been bestowed in 1861 when the above-mentioned President and General had taken pews within its walls).
Dr. John Shelby Spong, a name known even in Mississippi, the colorful, self-proclaimed Episcopal heretic, who delighted in enraging generations of the comfortable and the convinced among the tidewater elite who retained pews at St. Paul’s primarily for their daughters’ weddings, had long served as rector there before assuming a bishop’s miter in New Jersey (there’s that northern bit that Lily always said was the fate of the unworthy), and so contented that she had refuted Dr. Spong, in all his evil ways, Lily only went ‘round the corner’ when there was fresh meat to be skewered by her razor sharp homiletical critique.
Saint Paul’s in Richmond had daily noonday services in Lent, and Lily always went to hear the guest preachers. One day when I went to hear one of Manhattan’s finest (with the obligatory British cant that Presbyterians of the era demanded in their more urbane pulpits), the minister came forth in all his scarlet-robed finery (Dr. Read had been a chaplain to the Queen in the old country) — with Lily trailing behind — muttering—as he ascended the brass-railed staircase of the huge wineglass pulpit.
Meanwhile, in front of God and Richmond, Lily took her seat in the bishop’s chair and waited to see what the good Reverend Doctor David Haxton Carswell Read, of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in the City of New York might have to say about Jesus. (Thank God he read from the King James!)
In the last few years Lily’s appearances have been less frequent. The last I heard of her was when a friend whose pastoral instincts had been sorely tried gathered up his frazzled spirit and took his wife to Montreat, the Presbyterian retreat in the mountains of western North Carolina. There they would spend a week to quietly sort out the future direction of his calling.
All went well until the second morning, when David went out on the patio that was shared with the adjacent apartment. Who should be on that porch but Lily — Lily, remembering all the while that poor David had never signed her pledge. (She was a savant in many ways.) David said there was no point in trying to find God in Montreat and so he went on back down to Meridian to face the devil head-on in his own parish.
When Miss Lily passes away in Virginia, I can assure you that she will have a larger crowd at her funeral than the governor.
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