Growing up, we always spent our summer vacations with my mother’s extended family in South Carolina. We would head north in our un-airconditioned car from Key West, the three of us kids squabbling in the backseat, my mother constantly trying to keep us from killing each other, and my dad at the wheel, clinching his jaw and patiently pressing on.
After an overnight stay with my paternal grandmother in North Florida, we would roll in to Spartanburg the next day to spend a week or so with aunts, uncles, and cousins – interesting characters that fascinate me even now: the snuff-dipping aunt and her ubiquitous spit cup, the uncle who sang “shaped notes” with the men’s quartet and insisted there was a goat under the house, the eccentric aunt who pretended to read palms, and the gruff uncle who we thought was the luckiest man on the planet because he had a plow horse named Molly.
One of my ancient aunts measured how much we loved her by the volume of food we could stuff in our faces at meal time: “Eat! Eat!” (Those of you from the South will recognize that as a specific love language.) I once ate an entire cantaloupe at lunch just to please her.
I was thrilled when one Sunday, some of the older aunts and second cousins pulled out pictures of my mother as a girl about the age I was at that time. In a flurry of excitement, they declared that I looked “just like her” when she was young and they dubbed me “Little Ernie”. (My mother’s name – which I don’t think she ever liked – was Ernestine.)
I had her green eyes, her curly brown hair, and there was something undeniably familiar about the facial expressions and body language mirrored in those faded pictures – even I noticed the likeness. I beamed with pride at being compared to my mother and basked in the attention of adults who usually overlooked us kids.
Mama was the oldest of seven and shouldered a heavy load of responsibility even before her parents split up. Her father died relatively young and her mother passed just days before I was born. Long after she married and moved away, Mama remained the glue that brought and held her siblings together.
I loved it that they called me Little Ernie.
I still see her in the shape of my face, in the way I fidget with my hands, in my reactions to certain people and situations. I even hear her voice in conversations with my own daughter. In a sense, she isn’t really gone because even now, she’s so much a part of me. I’m still Little Ernie.
My mother not only shows up in my physical characteristics to this day, she enters my mind when I relate to God. Hers was a real, raw, genuine faith and in retrospect, I understand and admire that. Like Jacob, she wrestled with the Lord.
She had a difficult childhood and sadly, it marked her. Doubt and fear were always just beneath the surface for her; I think it was her “thorn in the flesh”. But she knew God as her Father and Christ as her Savior. His Holy Spirit sustained her as she struggled in her own gardens of Gethsemane.
She talked to Him every day and studied His Word faithfully, often writing verses out by hand and taping them to the walls. Her faith was practical; it was for right here, right now, not reserved for “pie in the sky, by and by”. In the end, His grace was sufficient for her. As she lost her battle to cancer in this life, she clung to God desperately and oh-so-personally. She continued to believe in Him above all.
Mama was and is His beloved daughter and in my heart and mind, she bears a striking family resemblance to Him, just as I did to her in the eyes of those old relatives long ago.
She went home to her Lord almost 17 years ago and those aunts and uncles are long gone now, too. I don’t get called “Little Ernie” anymore. But as I think of my mother’s legacy, the way she loved and related to God with such honesty and intensity, this is my prayer:
May we be known as Christians because we, too, resemble the One whose name we bear. John 13:35
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