I met her when I was a boy. It was a double-dog dare. I drew the short straw—I have a history of drawing the short straw.
She was standing outside the supermarket, ringing a bell, wearing a Santa hat. I’d heard my mother say she was a little “off.” My father called her plumb nuts.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. She handed me a dollar bill, smacked my hindparts, then shook her bell.
I ran back to the gang. They hollered, “Did she give you a dollar? Did she smack your hiney? Is she REALLY crazy?”
Yes. Yes. Not sure.
We inspected the George Washington. On it were hearts, drawn in red marker. And red words: “For prayer, call this number…”
She must’ve handed out mountains of those bills to folks coming and going. People all looked at her with confused looks.
When I hit college, I had to write a semester paper on misunderstood people who were “different.” Miss Martha was the first who came to mind.
I found the old woman through a friend of a friend. The woman’s daughter answered the phone and said, “Mama’s been gone for years now, but I can tell you about her.”
It went like this:
She worked as a custodian. And one December, she volunteered to be a bell-ringer.
Her first day, she ran into a young man who said he was depressed. She took the man aside and prayed with him for an hour. Before they parted ways, she wrote her number on a piece of paper and said, “Call me, anytime.”
The man never called. He took his own life days later.
It changed her. She started cashing paychecks into one-dollar bills, scribbling her number on them.
“Mama,” her daughter asked. “Why not write your number on plain paper?”
“Folks throw away paper,” she said. “Nobody throws away a dollar.”
She was right. Phone calls trickled in for nearly a decade. All kinds. All hours. People with problems. Men whose wives left. Children who were grieving parents. Heartbroken teenagers.
Sometimes at night, her daughter recalls her mother shuffling into the kitchen, half asleep, answering a phone, then praying until sunup.
“How’d you get my dollar?” the old woman would ask.
Answers were always different.
The farthest phone call came from Wyoming. A woman who’d been diagnosed with cancer. She prayed long and hard.
She prayed for anyone who dialed the number. The desperate, depressed, degenerates, and snot-nosed kids calling from curiosity.
Anyway, she quit doing it decades ago. Age caught up with her. Age catches everyone.
She died of pneumonia, in her own bed. And I understand a varied lot attended her funeral. Some from church, others from support groups.
“She’d wait in parking lots after A.A. meetings just to pray for folks. They’d stand in line to let her lay hands on’em.”
There were so many dollars in her casket, you couldn’t see her dress.
“Mama was a different woman,” said her daughter. “I can accept that now. She wasn’t perfect, but she taught me how to care.”
Sometimes, I wish I’d never spent that dollar she gave me. But then, I hope it found its way into the hands of someone who needed it.
I got a C on my college paper.
Miss Martha got an A plus when she met the one who listens to all prayers.