She was a short woman, big as a minute. And each Sunday, she used to hug my neck hard enough to suffocate me.
She had fuzzy white hair, and she wore the same shoes, every week. Red Converse.
She cut hair. Her beauty parlor was a double-wide trailer which she also lived in. Once per month, she lowered my ears and told me Bible stories while she snipped. There, I learned about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Baalam’s ass, and Zacchaeus.
The last time I saw her, she was hugging unsuspecting Baptists after church service. She hugged too much, too many, and too often.
I knew what those stiff Baptists thought of her. They thought she was “touched.”
A few mushrooms short of a rice casserole.
Maybe she was, Lord knows she was different. But I liked her. She cut good hair, she told nice stories, and the neighborhood dogs followed her.
Her father had been a Holiness preacher. He beat his kids. Like many Pentecostals, she’d grown her hair waist-length as a girl. But by her teenage years, she’d wandered astray.
She started listening to Elvis. She stayed out. She took up cigarettes.
She cut her hair off.
Her father kicked her out. He wouldn’t even let her take clothes with her. Sixteen years old; on her own.
She never darkened the doors of a Pentecostal congregation thereafter. And I understand she hardly ever spoke to her family.
That’s all I know about her.
Except that she often claimed she was too loud to be a good Baptist; too quiet to be a good Pentecostal.
Her husband was neither. He fixed cars for a living. He wasn’t religious, but he attended for her.
After service, he’d smoke cigarettes on the church stoop. He’d roll his sleeves and show us younger sanctified brethren the pinup-girl tattoos on his scrawny biceps. I liked to hear him talk. His voice sounded like a bass violin.
When my father died, she arrived at our home, unannounced. She held a jar of peanut oil—the kind used for frying. She marked our door jambs with the oil to keep evil spirits out.
She started chanting in gibberish. I’d never heard that sort of thing before. I asked what that was.
She touched her chest and said, “Sometimes words can’t say what’s in here. So I use other words.” Then she commenced to rattling off what sounded like frantic Japanese.
She liked the Sunday-school story of Joseph. I remember her talking about how Joseph’s family tried to kill him, how they rejected him. How they hated him. Then she cried.
I guess she knew about rejection.
“You know what I like about Bible stories?” she once said. “Them was ordinary nothing-people like us. Maybe one day, someone’ll write about litte ole you’n me. Maybe WE’RE a Bible story right now and don’t even know it.”
Rest in peace, Miss Tilly.