The moment I laid eyes on Miss White I suspected I’d made a mistake. After graduation from Bible College in Peterborough, Ontario, I accepted an invitation to assist the female pastor of a church in an isolated fishing village on the east coast of Newfoundland. After a flight from Toronto to Gander, I traveled hours by car over rugged but stunning rocky terrain.
On arrival, I expected a cheerful welcome from the middle-aged woman I would live and minister with. Miss White stood on the stoop, arms crossed, eyeing me. It wasn’t a welcome-to-the-end-of-the-world smile she offered me but a well-look-what-they’ve-sent-me this time look.
We settled into three cramped rooms tacked onto the rear of a clapboarded, ocean-front church. Noting the arrival of a newcomer, an Atlantic fog drifted into the bay and smothered the village. Continuous drizzle kinked my hair. At Sunday services, Miss White pumped an ancient accordion and sang with gusto hymns I knew well but her renditions made them almost unrecognizable. The congregation consisted of a half-dozen women with young children, one sixty-something bachelor and two or three senior couples, sturdy people all, accustomed to hardship. And to Miss White’s hymns. From the first service, I became known to all as “the girl from the mainland,” a title that separated me from them in a way I, as a young woman alone in a strange place, found heartbreaking.
Miss White ruled in the church and in our mist-covered parsonage. No first names allowed even in private conversation. “If you calls me Nellie, and I calls you Rose, then Miss McCormick, it’d only be a matter of time before you slipped and called me Nellie in front of the church members.” That slippery slope would lead to parishioners calling us by our first names – a huge sign of disrespect.
No wearing of pants permitted. And jeans? Dear God, wasn’t the devil’s hand in the making of those? No make-up. “If the barn needs painting, I say paint it. But this barn,” Miss White ran her fingers over her wrinkled cheeks, “needs no paint.”
In my opinion, Miss White, every barn looks better with a fresh coat of paint. That’s what I wanted to say.
No visiting parishioners alone. “We goes together or we don’t go at all.” The appearance of unity was Miss White’s top priority. We took turns cooking but the menu was hers. We cleaned, studied, prayed and slept on her schedule. The manse had two bedrooms but “no need for you to have your own room. You can share mine. Saves on the heat bill.”
For the first time, I experienced true homesickness. This ailment should be listed in medical journals. It muddled my mind, ruined my appetite and stole my smile. I longed for sunny days and the fresh smells of home. My tears mingled with the depressing fog that refused to lift. I berated myself for naively believing that a seldom-seen corner of my home country wouldn’t feel as foreign to me as Mongolia. I longed for time alone to shed my tears and sob out my sadness but Miss White was ever-present. And God seemed distant.
I didn’t confide my misery to family back home because private phone conversations were impossible. But I expressed my loneliness in a letter to Carolyn MacVichie, a college roommate from the “mainland” who was teaching in Gander. We’d been friends since age fourteen. One weekend she drove to visit me at the end of the world. We talked for hours about people and places we both knew. We cruised around the area like young girls should and visited a few historic sites. I laughed with her. Before Carolyn made our driveway vacant again, she laid her hand on my shoulder and prayed out loud for me.
After Carolyn’s departure, Miss White, lips pursed, said “You should’ve invited me to go with you two when you went for a drive.”
I was trying to get away from you.
“I’m a fun-loving person. Everybody always says I’m youngish looking for my age.”
Would you like to know what I think?
Christmas neared. I used what little money I had saved to fly home. Before leaving, I packed my belongings in boxes and shoved them under the bed. If I don’t come back, it’ll be easier for Nellie to send my things.
After two weeks with normal people in familiar surroundings, I decided not to return to Newfoundland. I phoned Miss White and asked her to send my things. She tried to talk me into returning. “It won’t look good, Miss McCormick, if you don’t come back.”
It won’t look good for you, you mean. “Sorry, Miss White, I’ve made other plans.”
Four months of fog, drizzle and isolation was endurable; four months with Miss White wasn’t.
That desolate church on the edge of the Atlantic would’ve become a short scene in my history but Miss White kept re-appearing. She wrote letters. In some she apologized for not understanding me. It’s a little late for apologies. She sent trinkets as peace offerings. I tore up the letters, despising even the sight of her handwriting, and dumped every gift in the garbage.
I sent no return letters, no thank you cards, nothing.
I moved to a new city, got a job in a downtown office and found a church. But by then I’d started to sour on church. I found fault in everything from their dress styles to the way services were conducted. I stashed my well-worn Bible in the glove compartment of my blue Datsun and, except for an occasional visit, quit church. New friendships with co-workers meant that I spent more time in their worlds and less in mine. Miss White’s letters stopped.
About five years after I left Miss White, three important people crossed my path, my future husband, Doug, and two co-workers. Because of them, my faith revived, not instantly but gradually over a two-year period. One day while reading John 10, I saw myself as the stray lamb, the one rescued by the Good Shepherd and brought back to the flock. Thankfulness welled in my soul. And then, for no reason at all, I thought of Miss White for the first time in years. Unlike other thoughts of her, this one wasn’t repugnant. Instead of hatred, I felt affection for her.
That day, I wrote to Miss White. In my letter, I mentioned God’s kindness to me and asked her to forgive me for the hatred I’d felt toward her. When that letter dropped into the mailbox at the corner of our street, a literal weight lifted from my shoulders.
Miss White wrote back – “I enquired about you and knew you had drifted away from God. I felt so responsible. I’m overjoyed to hear that all is well between us.” Miss White and I corresponded for many years. Her letters, no longer torn up, but treasured, became symbols of the holy work of forgiveness God did in me.
This story is an excerpt from my book, One Good Word Makes all the Difference.