Miss Hilda always sat in the front row of our church. The snow-haired woman was early to arrive, last to leave, and first to hug your neck.
Sometimes her daughter would be with her, clutching her arm, escorting her down the aisle.
During service, Hilda would sit through the standing parts. She always sang along with “At the Cross,” “Rock of Ages,” or “Amazing Grace.” And sometimes I would sit beside Hilda for the singing. Our eyes would be level with everyone’s belts. She would hold my arm. I enjoyed that.
My granny died when I was a child. And I never knew my father’s mother. I didn’t grow up with a maternal old woman. Instead I grew up with aunts and mothers who used hairbrushes as weapons.
What I always wanted was a grandma to love me. To make me fried chicken. And I know this sounds ridiculous, but sometimes I just needed an old lady to pat my cheek and tell me I was a sweet boy.
I remember one time our congregation was singing “Amazing Grace.” Hilda leaned toward me and whispered, “I love this song, but there’s one lyric I would change.”
I asked which one.
“Oh,” she said, “where the song says, ‘saved a wretch like me.’ God’s creations are not wretches. So I always sing, ‘saved a SOUL like me.’”
In many churches her opinion would have been high treason. I have Baptist friends who were beheaded for less.
But Hilda was her own woman, she was intelligent, and old enough to disagree with whatever she wanted.
I would visit her house on rare occasions. Once I did some fix-it work for her. The whole time she was telling me stories. Mainly, tales about meeting her husband during World War II.
Her first words to him were: “Do you jitterbug?”
In her day, every young person danced the jitterbug. And she was, by dog, not going to be seen with a boy who couldn’t jitter his bug.
I enjoyed her stories because you don’t hear many love stories anymore. Times have changed and the idea of old-school marriage changed with it. Love stories have become rarities. Divorce stories are bestsellers.
After Hilda’s husband died, she would walk down to the creek behind her house and look at the water scrolling by. She would stare at fallen leaves on the surface and swear the leaves meant something.
She started asking questions to heaven about this. At times, she talked to her husband at this creek, like he was right there. All the time the leaves kept making strange shapes in the water and drifting past. She believed he was behind this. This creek brought her comfort.
You might think this sounds odd, but if you’ve ever lost anyone, sometimes all you have left is creek water.
To deal with her husband’s death, she started taking piano lessons when she was nearly 70 years old. Hilda practiced for six hours a day until she could play “Stardust” and “Body and Soul” by the book. Sometimes she played through blurred eyes. Other times she played with sore hands.
Soon she began asking local restaurant managers for gigs. And they started giving her free suppers in exchange for a few hours of American standards. She played at every joint in town.
“Playing piano keeps me young,” she once told me.
Miss Hilda was always very concerned about me. I guess I have always been one of those kids everyone was always concerned about.
I was aimless. I sort of drifted on currents and never kept a schedule. I meandered from job to crummy job. I played music in beer joints, I worked construction in the daytime. My life operated on a gig-by-gig basis. “Calendar” was a four-letter word to me.
One spring afternoon, Hilda made a special trip to my house. She brought me a plastic shopping bag containing a huge calendar from an office supply store. This calendar was enormous.
“I want you to use this,” she said. “It will give your life structure. I got the biggest one I could find.”
She wasn’t kidding. The calendar was about the size of the U.S.S. Wisconsin. I did what she said. I hung it in my office and avowed to use this new, helpful organizational system for the rest of my life.
I lasted 12 hours.
Every Sunday, she would ask, “How’s that calendar working?”
“Oh, wonderful,” I would say.
I remember when she fell. It was bad. She didn’t come to church for weeks after her surgery. At the end of every service the pastor would remind us to keep praying because her recovery was going slow with a capital S.
Her first Sunday back at church came months later, and she got the movie-star treatment. She was skinnier than we’d seen her before, and she walked with a cane now, but she was the same old Jitterbug Queen.
When it was time for hymn singing, everyone in the congregation stood, like always. And Hilda remained seated. Like always.
I sat beside her. She sang without reserve. Not many people sing this way in church.
We sang “Amazing Grace.” And when we came to the “saved a wretch like me” part, she sang her own words. I sang them, too. Because no matter how aimless I was, to her I was no wretch.
When the song was over, she patted my arm and whispered, “You’re a sweet boy.”
I never forgot that. And I don’t think I ever will.
Happy 95th Birthday, Miss Hilda.
christina - August 28, 2020 7:21 am
Happy 95th Birthday, Miss Hilda. You’re a sweet lady! And Amen to your version
jacobygt1 - August 28, 2020 7:38 am
I think Miss Hilda and I are on the same sheet of music – never did like that wretched lyric, so I just didn’t sing that verse. Happy birthday indeed, Miss Hilda!
Gary - August 28, 2020 9:46 am
Wow 95 ! Happy, happy Birthday, Miss Hilda !
Sandi. - August 28, 2020 10:12 am
What wonderful remembrances you have of knowing Miss Hilda for so many years, Sean. May God bless her with many more happy birthdays. Ninety-five years is quite a milestone! Tell her you’ll dance at her 100th birthday celebration, and make a vow to do just that. It might just be the impetus for her to keep on keeping on.
Leia Cathey - August 28, 2020 11:40 am
I saw your you tube interview of Miss Hilda. She is a lovely soul. Happy Birthday Miss Hilda.
Perri Williamson - August 28, 2020 11:52 am
Happy Birthday Ms. Hilda.
Betty F. - August 28, 2020 12:11 pm
Great story. Also, Loved the Facebook interview with her. You are such a sweet boy.
Rhea Wynn - August 28, 2020 12:12 pm
I had both of my grandmas (one made fried chicken and one always had a ham), but I remember the older ladies at church, too. They were such a blessing and a wonderful example. We still have many with us at our congregation; I am getting closer and closer to being one of them, and I pray I can be the example to others that they were to me. Happy Birthday, Miss Hilda.
Karen Erwin-Brown - August 28, 2020 12:17 pm
Happy birthday Hilda. I am 66 and started piano lessons in November 2019 pre pandemic. I still play daily but haven’t returned to lessons. My first song I played was Carole King, “I feel the earth move under my feet.” The piano has given me lots of enjoyment during this quarantine. I won’t be playing any gigs.
Mary Ann Gilbert - August 28, 2020 12:40 pm
Thank the Lord there are still women like Miss Hilda! And she’s right, you are a sweet boy, Sean!
Christopher Spencer - August 28, 2020 12:43 pm
Happy 95th Birthday Miss Hilda!! I would love to know a granny like you and I love your version of that great old hymn. I just turned 66 in July and I bought myself 2 guitars, acoustic and electric.Teaching myself for now. I pray I have the same success you have had on your piano.
Phil (Brown Marlin) - August 28, 2020 12:44 pm
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Miss Hilda! God bless all the Miss Hildas of the world. Sadly, they are becoming less and less, along with men like her WWII husband. We just lost a member of our church who was a bomber pilot in that conflict. He was 101. But, all is not lost as long as people like Miss Hilda leave a legacy of love and create sweet memories in folks like you, Sean. Keep writing about them, my friend.
Dianne - August 28, 2020 12:51 pm
Sean, again you have started my day and made by day with Hilda’s wonderful story of kindness, concern and love for you. By the way, I never liked “wretch” either……….”soul” is much, much better.
Steve - August 28, 2020 12:57 pm
I really miss my memaw.
Robert M Brenner - August 28, 2020 1:20 pm
“What a friend we have in Sean”! Could be a song…❤️ Bob
Martha Black - August 28, 2020 2:01 pm
Oh my heart is full. Never forget the feel of her hand on your arm or her words “sweet boy”……..
She’s one of God’s anointed “souls” and you’ve been “touched”…….. through her.
Warren Evans - August 28, 2020 2:04 pm
Thanks for this beautiful touching story. As a 72 year old man I have known several “Miss Hildas”. Each one has been a blessing to me and everyone else whose life they have touched.
Thomas E Wallin - August 28, 2020 2:05 pm
Happy Birthday Miss Hilda. We love you too.
Heidi - August 28, 2020 2:36 pm
Happy Birthday Miss Hilda! I hope I live to be as full of life and love as you! You are precious & strong and have so many that love you! Truly blessed and a blessing to others as well!
Betsy - August 28, 2020 2:46 pm
Sean, your stories are such a comfort to me. I look forward to reading your column each morning. Please know how important you are to many people and never doubt your impact on so many of us. Thank you for all you are doing to make this world a better place!
Bill Strawn - August 28, 2020 2:52 pm
As always you bring the story to life so well that I found myself in church alongside you both, and standing next to Ms. Hilda at the creek. Plus, I wil sing Amazing grace with “SOUL” for the remainder of my life. Thank you, dear man. Keep it coming.
Randy Dunlop - August 28, 2020 2:54 pm
(Most of) the congregation of the Mt. Brydges United Church – no Methodists here in Canada – read your wonderful columns daily, and chat about it at our weekly on-line ‘Coffee With Pastor Beth’ zoom socials. I thank my Low Country friend Nancy for the introduction.
Winifred Brown - August 28, 2020 3:14 pm
Paul Alge Moore - August 28, 2020 3:48 pm
I was blessed with two grandmothers that were very special. Never new my grandfathers. One was gassed in WW1. The other died of Hank Williams disease. But those old women made up for it. Miss them. Thanks Sean
Helen De Prima - August 28, 2020 3:52 pm
So glad you had an authentic grandma experience — priceless! My grandmother raised me when my mother died in childbirth. Nanny wasn’t a cookie-baking hymn-singing granny, but she gave me a love of books which has sustained me for more than seventy years.
Linda Moon - August 28, 2020 4:45 pm
I like Miss Hilda. Like you, I grew up with many aunts. I knew and loved one grandmother for a brief time. I celebrated her LIFE at your LIVE Event at the Historic Ritz Theatre, and I’ll always be grateful to you for bringing me there. Thank you for your stories of older people like Miss Hilda. Miss Connell was my childhood Miss Hilda who led me to believe that we are souls, not wretches, through the beautiful hymn she taught me, “Whispering Hope”.
Tammy S. - August 28, 2020 4:50 pm
Aww, Happy 95th Mrs. Hilda!! 💜
terry - August 28, 2020 5:28 pm
Neither of you are wretches. Beautiful story. HBD to Mrs. Hilda.
Linda Kim Rector - August 28, 2020 6:40 pm
Aww my friend…oh no I am not a wretch…God called me from my Mama’s womb. I have a guitar I don’t pick up enough… I have been too sad my. But I must… this music is for Him. And I hear Dennis in the wind 🤗
Mary - August 28, 2020 8:20 pm
EVERYBODY needs a Ms. Hilda — whether she’s your grandma by blood or whether she’s your grandma by heart. God puts these wonderful people in our lives as a blessing that only He can give. Happy Birthday and God bless you, Ms. Hilda! My bet is that you aren’t the only ‘adopted’ grandson, Sean.
Tom - August 28, 2020 9:37 pm
Happy birthday Miss Hilda. I can relate to this, there were several “Miss Hilda’s” in the country church where I attended as a kid. These ladies were the backbone of the church and community.
MAM - August 28, 2020 11:34 pm
Sweet! I’ve know some Miss Hildas around these parts. I’ve interviewed quite a few of them. Putting them into a book now, along with the Misters of an older age. I’ve missed seeing a certain Miss Hilda at church because of “the” virus. She’s 94. The book’s Miss Hildas and Misters were born between 1908 and 1945 – all talking about the “old days” in this area.
Kathy Croft - August 29, 2020 2:59 am
Happy 95th Ms Hilda! Listening to how you reach & love others reminds me so of my grandmothers & neighbors of grandparents. Those memories we never forget. Popcorn balls at Halloween were a favorite that a friend behind my Grandmother’s would make us each year. We loved her like our grandmothers.
Anne Arthur - August 29, 2020 3:05 am
Happy birthday, Ms. Hilda. You saw the “sweet” in Sean before he did, it seems.
Amazing grace that saved those two souls. To many happy more years!
sandy preb - August 29, 2020 3:25 am
Such a heartwarming story. I am turning into her and wish I could go to church and sit through the service and sing old hymns and have a sweet kid beside me. Those days for me are past so every Sunday I sit in my favorite chair and watch Sunday service live on the internet. And sing.
Larry Wall - August 29, 2020 3:13 pm
Sean, You’re a sweet boy. No cheek pat and not from an older lady. Just from an older man. Kindness means a lot to everyone and most especially to older ladies, who truly appreciate being considered. And Happy Birthday, Miss Hilda!
Kay M - August 30, 2020 1:21 pm
So glad to read about Hilda. Haven’t seen her in a long time and use to go to church and a restaurant she would play during dinner. What a delight and how enjoyable it was for us. Happy Birthday you sweet soul!
On another note my husband’s mother passed away this last week at 103 yrs old. We drove and attended a graveside service in Illinois. Our son was unable to attend concerned over flying but sent a basket of beautiful flowers. He was very sad he wasn’t there…as all 12 of us sat there masked, a hummingbird circled and landed on the flowers and stayed for quite a while. So yes, I believe in creek water, leaves and hummingbirds that let their grandson know they will miss him too.
Arthur Portas - September 1, 2020 9:52 pm
Long live Ms Hilda! The story of Amazing Grace is worthy too. I was written by a Yankee Captain with a cargo of slaves for the East Coast. He had an epiphany and wrote the poem during the last part of the voyage. He became an abolitionist thereafter.
raggedyjane - September 12, 2020 2:22 pm
I’ve been asking God where do I go from here. I want to model Miss Hilda. I sure need one of those calendars.
Barbara Rhoades - September 12, 2020 3:27 pm
I love this story about Miss Hilda…What a sweet elderly lady she was!