Last Monday following my weekly post the day before, “Swimming Lessons,” I thought about ideas for upcoming posts. I never know when the ideas will come, so when they do, I pay attention. I’d just completed a draft of my preface and Chapter I of the sequel to my memoir, He Heard My Voice, published in April of 2019. I’d mailed that manuscript to a friend who agreed to be a Beta reader. According to a Reedsy.com blog post, “Beta readers review finished manuscripts before they’re published, and provide the author with feedback from the reader’s point of view. They can be friends or family members — anyone who will approach the book as a casual reader, pointing out things they liked and disliked, and highlighting the elements writers become blind to during countless revisions.”
I’ve been trying to push forward on this sequel, but have been interrupted by going through a divorce during the ongoing distraction of the pandemic. One of the reasons I wanted to get back to it was a devoted reader, my friend Delores’s mother, and my friend, Mattie Belle. It occurred to me that I could ask her to be one of my Beta readers. She would get a copy of the book, in portions, before anyone else.
When my memoir was published, she bragged to me about how she read the book, then she’d shared her copy with her friends in the Holly Springs Baptist Church community.
Her enthusiasm tickled me and I responded, “Mattie Belle, you’re cutting into my profits!”
She mailed me a card. Her note touched my heart and became my bookmark in my copy of the book, and a reminder to keep working toward completing that sequel.
At that time, Mattie Belle was 89 years old. While she was in pretty good health, I felt the clock ticking on getting a book out in time for her to read it and pass it on to her friends. I didn’t want to disappoint her.
I’d formed a bond with Mattie Belle over the years through our shared adversities. Back in 2000, when I was forty-five and went through breast cancer treatment, Delores asked me to join her, along with her mother and another friend, Peggy for a weekend trip to the North Carolina mountains. I hesitated going because I’d just finished my second round of chemotherapy and had lost my hair. I was uncomfortable with my bald head and couldn’t stand the heat of wearing my wig all the time. But the desire to get away won out and I joined them.
On the drive to the mountains, I learned a lot about Peggy–whom I didn’t know before. She’d been through treatment for a brain tumor and had lost function–causing her face to draw and partial paralysis on one side of her body. Peggy described the overwhelming impact of the cancer. She was embarrassed from the way her body had changed.
We four women shared a large room and when it was time to get ready for bed, I had to take off my wig. The only people who’d seen my bald head up to that point were my husband and sons. Back then, no woman went out in public with a bald head and few women wore just a baseball cap for cover.
Later, in my memoir, I told about this in Chapter I (p28):
The first night when we got ready for bed in our lodge room, I prepared them for my unveiling.
“Okay, are y’all ready for this?” I asked, and looked at them watching me.
“Go ahead, Connie. It’s fine with us,” Delores encouraged.
I pulled off my wig and started laughing. They laughed with me as I turned around like a model showing every aspect of my bald head. I was relieved to step beyond my embarrassment.”
When the memoir was published, Delores bought a copy for her mother at my Book Launch. When she read this section aloud to Mattie Belle while they were sitting on her back porch, Delores said her mother smiled–remembering our time together. Years later, Mattie Belle had breast cancer and seemed comforted when I talked with her– that shared experience that brings two people together.
Later on, we’d share another experience: divorce.
When I met Delores in 9th grade, her parents were going through divorce. Back in 1969, it wasn’t as common as it is now for marriages to split up; Delores was the only friend I’d ever had in that situation. Over our high school years, I knew some of the struggle and strain that placed on her mother. Now, I understand much more of what she went through. When Mattie Belle learned of my divorce– so late in life, she was very empathetic and made a point of saying how we both knew heartbreak.
Last Monday, excited about my idea to have Mattie Belle as a Beta reader, I checked my calendar for a time when I could go with Delores to see her mother. I’d take a photocopy of my preface and Chapter I and ask her to just read it and see what she thought– what would be interesting to her and her friends.
I was at the point of sending a text when a text came from Delores; Mattie Belle had died suddenly the day before.
I was shocked, then saddened to hear about the passing of my friend. I’d so hoped we’d get to share more times together, this woman who’d known and weathered pain, this woman who loved to read and encouraged me to write. She’d been in my life at critical points–helping me through the difficult days of chemo and going bald, sharing the pain of divorce, sharing the joy of a dream realized in the publishing of my book, anticipating with me the next book. In all of those junctures, we also shared that our faith in Christ had been the way we’d made it through.
Now, all I can write is what I hope is a fitting tribute to Mattie Belle. She was such a real person, not hiding the difficulties of life, and not backing down from moving forward no matter what. I will continue to work on that sequel, and hope that she would enjoy the next one as much. And when it’s complete, when it’s published, I’ll be glad to circulate a copy among the women of Holly Springs Baptist Church, that faithful reading group of Mattie’s that meant so much to her.
Thank you, Mattie Belle, for all you gave to me and all those who knew you.