A few days ago, July 3 to be exact, was Ms. Bessie's birthday. Ms. Bessie was a cafeteria lady at Clemson when I was a student there almost 20 years ago. She worked in the dining hall at Clemson House, mostly swiping students' meal plan cards at the front entrance. She also worked part-time as a janitor cleaning one floor of one of the large education halls.
I most vividly remember that Ms. Bessie would let TJ into the dining hall for free, even though I would ask her to swipe my card twice to cover each of our meals at Clemson House. She may have occasionally swiped twice, but mostly she just waved TJ through the line so he could eat with me. Because those were our dating days, every meal together felt special, even in a college cafeteria. I think the free entrance for TJ was Ms. Bessie's way of rooting for us.
I don't remember specific things we talked about with Ms. Bessie in those few passing moments before meals, but over time, a relationship developed. It was not only a relationship between TJ and me, of course, but also a friendship between Ms. Bessie and the two of us. When TJ and I got married in Clemson just before Christmas in the year 2000, Ms. Bessie came to our wedding, and I remember feeling so honored that she would come.
Ms. Bessie never had her own wedding, as she had never been married. She grew up and lived her entire life in the tiny town of Pendleton. She lived down the road from a couple of her siblings and enjoyed watching their families grow up, even though she never got to experience having a family of her own. As far as I know, she worked (hard) for many, many years at Clemson and continued until she finally was able to retire. It was then that her health began to decline and we found out she had cancer.
After I graduated from college, got married, and moved away, Ms. Bessie and I continued to correspond with letters over the years. We would occasionally talk on the phone, but it was mostly through writing letters to each other that we kept in touch. I would send pictures of my kids, as I had each one and as they began to grow up. Ms. Bessie would often apologize for her handwriting, but I never found it nearly as bad as she must have imagined. She would start many of her letters by letting me know "I'm doing just fine." Even after her cancer diagnosis, she would still consider herself "fine." She would ask me to pray for her and she would ask how the kids were.
I sent Ms. Bessie a birthday card every year at the beginning of July, and she would send my boys a couple dollars for their birthdays in late summer. One year she sent $5 a piece for Bauer, Cash, and Story. I know she didn't have much money but she wanted to be a blessing anyway. She lived in a trailer in Pendleton, which is where we visited her a couple different times when we would make our way back to Clemson during the thirteen years that we were living in Orlando and Naperville. Wanting our kids to meet Ms. Bessie and for her to meet them, we would show up on her front steps and wait with anticipation for her to answer the door. We sat with her in her tiny, crowded living room and talked. She showed us the picture albums in which she had saved all the pictures I had sent her through the years.
It was two Julys ago that I sent the last birthday card to Ms. Bessie. I knew she had been in the hospital earlier that spring, and I had even talked to her on the phone in the hospital at one point. In early 2015, just a few months after we moved to Greenville, I remember that I had tried calling Ms. Bessie's house and kept not getting an answer, which was unusual. I started to wonder even then if she had passed away without me knowing. I tried to search obituaries online and tried not to cry.
We finally made a point to stop by her house in Pendleton on our way to the Clemson Orange and White Spring Game in early April of that year. No one answered the door so I walked down the street to a neighboring house that I assumed might be a family member's. Her sister told me Ms. Bessie was in the hospital in Anderson and gave me her room number. I wish now I had gone to visit her in the hospital, but I am so thankful that I was at least able to connect with her on the phone during her hospital stay. That was the last time I spoke to Ms. Bessie, and then in late June I wrote and mailed her birthday card as I always did each year just before July 4th. I sent her pictures of Bauer, Cash, and Story.
Because I was doing my one year Letter Writing project during this time, I documented and took pictures of each card I wrote. The one I sent to Ms. Bessie was this Trader Joe's birthday card, along with these photos of the kids.
About a week after Ms. Bessie's birthday in 2015, I received a typed letter from her niece, a lady by the name of Debbie. Debbie's letter, which informed me of Ms. Bessie's passing in April, is one of the most meaningful pieces of mail I have ever received.
I was sad to hear of Ms. Bessie's death but extremely grateful that our correspondence and occasional visits allowed me to experience a sense of family with her during those fifteen years since graduating from Clemson. I see now that God was able to bless the tiny, most ordinary act of going through a cafeteria line, and later the tiny, most ordinary act of writing letters here and there and sending a photo or two. Who knew that these simple things, over time, would carve a shared path of love and friendship that I will never forget?
RIP, Ms. Bessie, and Happy Birthday in heaven. I miss knowing you are just miles away in Pendleton. I miss writing you letters and sending you love and birthday cards.