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I haven’t seen her in 30 years. I doubt she’s still alive. Yet a month never passes that I don’t think about Mattie.
We met at a Weight Watchers class in Ashland, Ky. I’d recently lost 40 post-pregnancy pounds, and fearful I’d backslide, I stepped forward to become a Weight Watchers lecturer. With the fervor of the newly converted, I set out on an evangelical mission to save northeastern Kentucky and nearby West Virginia from the demons of obesity.
In fairness, I should note that our little river town had its share of women who could walk the plank in a bikini with the best of them. Like the Duchess of Windsor, they believed a woman can never be too thin or too rich. But they weren’t the people who’d plopped us on the medical map in the center of “Coronary and Gallstone Valley.” At its roots, Ashland was a home-fried sort of place, seasoned in bacon grease, and nobody loved a potluck supper more than we did.
I’d been proselytizing for about six months when Mattie joined one of my classes. As I watched her sitting at the registration table filling out our many forms, I realized that her weight would exceed the normal range of our balance beam scales. I remembered that we had additional weights to attach to the scales that would allow us to accommodate individuals up to 600 pounds, but I’d never had to use them before.
Discreetly, I began searching for the seldom used weights in the clutter of our supplies, and to my relief I found them. Then I began worrying how I would get the weights in place on the scale without making a to-do. If I were to save this woman from the devil that would destroy her, I couldn’t begin by embarrassing her for her sins.
In my memory, I was smooth as silk, deftly adding the additional weights while keeping up pleasant chatter with Mattie as she stepped onto the scales. In reality, I probably gushed like a broken fire hydrant as I always do when I’m nervous and, ever clumsy, I probably clanged the extra weights against the beam so hard everyone in the room turned their head. But Mattie was a woman of generous spirit and she never let on that she knew I was adapting the scales for her. Instead, she gave me a smile that lit up her handsome and intelligent face, and I immediately liked her. She weighed in at 394 pounds.
I quickly realized that vanity had not brought Mattie to Weight Watchers. A tall, big-boned country woman, her skin was weathered by decades of work in tobacco fields, and her particular brand of religion required her to wear her waist-length gray hair pulled back in a simple bun. Her homemade dresses hung loose from her shoulders like the Hawaiian inspired muumuu in vogue then, but her frocks were subdued in color, gray or navy, without flowered patterns or designs. No — Mattie simply wanted to keep on living. Wife and daughter-in-law, mother and grandmother of a vast clan, she’d joined my group under doctor’s orders.
Over the course of the next year, Mattie see-sawed with her weight. Some months, she’d drop a sizable number of pounds, and I would celebrate with her, exalting her efforts in front of the class, praising her by clapping and pinning milestones on her chest. The next month, she’d re-gain weight, and I’d go to the mourner’s bench with her, imploring her to reform her ways.
In my trendy knee high boots and cutesy sweaters, how naïve and young I must have seemed to her, and yet she never patronized me. Instead, she shared her life with me in weekly installments, offering me a roadmap of what lies ahead for most of us.
The point of her stories, I inferred then, was that tuna fish and lettuce were not sufficient fuel for her when struggling with the challenges of life. A lifetime later, I think she was simply telling me in her gentle way not to be so cocksure that I knew all the answers.
“Uncle so-and-so died last Friday,” she’d begin “and everybody in the family piled in for the funeral and ended up at my house and stayed till the next morning — nothing would do them but I fix homemade biscuits and gravy and fried ham for breakfast…” and then she’d tell me about the complicated lives of her people.
The next week, her son would be in an accident or a grandchild in the hospital with pneumonia. Sometimes, the occasions would be happy ones, like weddings or births or celebrations, but these too required sustenance and nurturing from Mattie’s large spirit.
One day, telling us about the vat of gravy she’d fallen in the previous week — gravy whipped up to fill a gaping hole in her family’s well-being — she laughed her huge laugh, and said, “Oh Lord, let me live long enough to get bored.”
Her timing was perfect. Young and old alike took her meaning, and we laughed together until we cried. Reverently. Because we understood.
In time, I lost interest in saving Ashland from its appetites, re-gained some of my own, and fell away from Weight Watchers. If Mattie ever reached her goal weight, it was long after I had left. But I’ve never forgotten Mattie’s prayer for a little boredom, please.
My plate is overflowing now with happy things, scary stuff, and a long to-do list. I, too, could use a little boredom, time to go searching for a good movie or a thick novel to read. But if boredom is not mine to have in this life, thank you Lord that I have had the chance to meet and laugh with women like Mattie.