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.