Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Heart and Soul of Mary Louise Davis — Random Reflections

When I saw the newspaper announcement that longtime Bryan native Mary Louise Davis had passed away, I saw that it happened on July 4, 2017. Wistfully, I smiled to think that the gates of Heaven had opened to allow a firecracker inside, rather than Heaven projecting fireworks toward Earth. Surely hers, though, would be the kind of fire that the Holy Spirit is often portrayed as showing in the fire of Pentecost we often see. The Methodist religion often is symbolized with a cross and flame as you’ll see it on virtually every church sign in Texas (and other states).

So, to identify Mary Louise with the 4th of July, flames, and faith would be something she likely would not mind me doing. Her blue eyes and her white hair and the tall, slim figure who moved with grace and dignity were the hallmark characteristics of a southern gentlewoman who spoke deliberately and brilliantly. Now, Mary Louise was most often considered a Baptist, but first she was a Christian, with no need for labels to secure her religion.

She had a commanding, yet genteel, voice and she waited until you’d completed expressing your thoughts before pronouncing her opinion. The first time I saw her was at a gathering where the topic of discussion was golf. She’d come from her retirement life in Austin, back to Bryan to visit family and friends here, and her presence was always a delight to all who knew her and loved her.

If you were going to see her, though, you’d probably be better suited to visit Briarcrest Country Club and don’t be late for your tee time! Punctuality was a benchmark of Mary Louise’s personality. She said it had to do with respect for another person’s time.

To those who knew her far better than I, they know more about the love story and life she had with her husband, Judge W. C. “Bill” Davis, who was a brilliant, handsome attorney, educated first at Texas A&M University and then, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he enrolled at Baylor and earned his law degree there.

In their early days together, Mary Louise and Bill called Bryan “home,” as Bill progressed through the local legal ranks to serve as Bryan Municipal Court Judge, Brazos County Judge, then was appointed judge of the 85th Judicial District Court by Gov. Dolph Briscoe, and was reelected for two more terms. He served as Judge, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals from 1978-1990, in Austin. He died in 1993.

Mary Louise chose to stay in the Lakeway area in the Austin hills, where golf courses abounded and sunshine was plentiful. She played golf as long as her eyesight would permit her to, and then she simply enjoyed being a part of the community there.

It was there that Mary Louise became an active part of education and Bible study for residents of Lakeway Church, a wonderful nondenominational church that overlooks a vista of Austin that seems like a small piece of Heaven itself. And so it was there that I really got insight into Mary Louise’s faith. She’d called a mutual friend here to invite her to a women’s faith seminar that was being hosted there, and my friend invited me to join her.

The program was lovely but it was at the luncheon afterwards at Mary Louise’s table where I first found insight into her faith. Life had been a challenge in many ways for this beautiful woman. The details are not important and if you know her well, you know what they were. I’d prefer to focus on her strength, her stalwart faith in God, and her inherent ability to trust in Him, no matter what all was going on around her.

After that luncheon, when Mary Louise came to Bryan, she’d call and we’d meet, or I’d be included where she was joined by longtime friends, and we had some great conversations about faith. Life and work had been so much of a challenging battlefield for me, and I felt outnumbered and weary.

One day soon afterwards, I opened my mailbox and found a small book by Bruce Wilkinson, “The Prayer of Jabez.” It was from Mary Louise and her note inside suggested that I pray that simple prayer each day and ask for strength and to follow the will of the Creator who’d made me. I was blown away…first that she had heard my concerns, my fears, and my worries, being outnumbered and powerless to right the wrongs I had not created, but were created around me.

Then, she went out and secured a copy of a book she was using as inspiration for her teachings of her group at Lakeway, and that a virtual stranger, now newcomer, could be showered with the protective rain of faith around me. She believed me and what I shared, something few people, even among my friends, did, even though it was the truth. Her being “older and wiser” meant she’d seen it all before and knew what I was going through. Her lovely low voice would ring, “Oh, I know!” and you knew in an instant that she did know.

The prayer of Jabez, and the story perhaps, have fallen by the wayside of shifting ultrapopular media minutes that have seen “The Secret,” “The Five-Minute Manager,” “Who Moved My Cheese,” Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life,” and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” They each took hold of the spotlight for a while, until the next thing came along and shoved it out of the list. But the prayer of Jabez remains, simple and true.

“Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil.”

Yes, that’s the one. Twenty-six words of wisdom and faith. And yet…it asks us to stop turning inside for answers, to look outside for instruction, guidance, and direction to a path that keeps us from evil and, therefore, harm. So often we are tempted to stop and pray, meditate, and demand that our world get better—immediately.

We beseech one whom we see as a Higher Power (one I’m comfortable in calling God) to pull the knives out of our hearts and the boulders out from our paths so we can get on with having fun and enjoying life. And our tones aren’t always particularly pleasant; they can be demanding, especially if you are a person of faith, where you expect that you are “owed” something for having your faith, and you can present a list of reasons why you should be immune from suffering.

The prayer of Jabez is one of the sweetest ways in which we are told to “Shut up, get in, sit down, and buckle up” for the ride of our life (you know you’ve seen the bumper sticker). Only when we ask to be kept from evil can we assure that we’re neither the perpetrator nor the victim of same. Only when we ask that we have our territory enlarged do we grow the kind of new and strong friendships that endure far superior to the possibly superficial ones we have here in the “now” of our lives.

The book, the prayer and the thoughtfulness was a life-changer at the time and when she came to town, which was less frequently as the drive became longer and harder on her to make, we’d visit. I saw her now and then; once when I was over in her part of town, I went to her home and met Chauncy, the white ball of fluffy joy who ran her Austin life (are we not better off when we are owned by fur babies?). She showed me on her desk that she was in the midst of preparing her Bible study materials for the coming week's lesson. Mary Louise was effervescent as she told me about what she’d been teaching for the past several months. She may not have been driving around town much, but she certainly didn’t retire from teaching, inspiring and guiding her friends at Lakeway Church.

Her sense of humor was subdued, very ladylike, but the one-liners she’d deliver were priceless. We kept in touch, at least at Christmas. I loved her wisdom and her confidence in my ability to solve anything that life may throw and as she listened intently, asked relevant and poignant questions, she helped me hone in on the feeling that I’d been heard, validated, and that she had imparted a new level of insight into my challenge at the time. In fact, she cared deeply about hearing what I had to say. How many times do we really look at the people who are talking to us, face-to-face without distraction or our mind wandering to something we simply “must do”?

Friendship, true friendship, is defined by our ability to care about our friends’ lives, keep track of the people and situations and circumstances that envelop their hopes, dreams, challenges, and then to stick around to celebrate victories or offer encouragement that “This too shall pass,” and offer the true gift of staying in touch when times are good, just as when time are bad. She called at random times, just to check on me and hear what I was doing. I cherished each call. I wrote her cards and notes and sent them by mail, not knowing when a "best time" was for her schedule.

Which brings me to another chance gift, out of the blue. A decade after our first meeting, we had the chance to again connect in person for a gathering and she learned that I was balancing caregiving for my Mom while working, volunteering, and enjoying life. There’s a certain feeling of helplessness naturally that comes along with caregiving. You’re doing everything you can and yet you can’t reverse the course of aging, no matter what they tell you on television. And it’s frustrating to feel useless to make things “better” for your loved one.

So, the day I opened my mail and found Mary Louise had sent me “God Calling,” the book by A. J. Russell, was a day that a major smile was on my face. With its simple black leather-like cover, the tiny tome was slightly larger than the average paperback book and half as thick. Each day, labeled, had a particular devotional contributed for the day, and it was helpful to read and find a simple reminder to be encouraged. When we have hope, you know, we have joy. When we have faith, we have knowledge. When we have hope and faith together, we have power to do what we need to in order to keep on going.

That was Mary Louise—she knew just what, and when, you needed an infusion of faith and she delivered it. Every Christmas, after her Christmas season birthday, she’d address her Christmas picture collage of son Craig, and her beloved grandchildren, Amanda, Jeff, and Dean and, of course, Chauncy. Mary Louise was a larger-than-life figure and role model to be sure, and her family was reassured of her love, every day of their lives.

She was fortunate to be surrounded with incredibly loyal, loving and caring friends throughout her life, the kind you’d want a loved one to have “if anything should happen to you,” to be the advocate and protector to secure your future. It’s funny to describe, in this day and time, that women of any age need advocates as the perception is that women can handle anything that is thrown at them, but face it, men and women alike cannot master all that life has to offer at all levels, and friends need friends, period, to help them make long-range decisions. Mary Louise had those, without question.

Even though others didn’t realize it, because I never spoke of it, she never failed to call or e-mail on my birthday, and we talked near Christmas each year (until the most recent years) and one day she was on my mind so strongly…long story short, I reached Amanda and I told her I had been thinking about her so much.

Amanda understood what I meant and I said, if I mail her a card, will you make sure she sees it and she assured me she would. So, I promptly sat down and wrote what I felt confident that the people in my world whose life is near ending (whether imminent or eventual) will know the difference they’ve made in my life, without ever hinting of impending end-of-life. And, I know Amanda got it to her, so I felt good about that.

It would be a holiday weekday when she passed away and I was grateful that the family had included her obituary notice from Austin in the local paper. So many who live here would want to know, and despite all the modern conveniences of electronic communication, we’re grateful to still see important things in our newspaper.

The fact that she was 93 wonderful years old is heartening—she ate healthy food carefully and for some reason, I remember her extolling the benefits of eating Wasa Crispbread, as opposed to the usual loaves of preservative-infused white bread. Funny what we recall.

I remember her invitation to have lunch with her in Austin at the Headliners Club when I was going to be in the city on business. It’s a prestigious and historic club about 62 years old and in the world of exclusive clubs, it is. By invitation only, based on references of two Resident members in good standing, you’re either in, or you’re not. She had been a member for years, courtesy of the Judge’s revered status in Austin, and more business deals have reportedly been made in that building than in many others.

Those who follow Texas news know of The Headliners Foundation, who fund journalism scholarships and award prizes for Texas print and broadcast journalists, many of whom were responsible for major, well, headlines, in the best days of Texas journalism before others came in and bought up the big papers and replaced investigative reporting with Nordstrom’s ads (I think she’d like that I said that, ha). Mary Louise knew I was a budding writer and wanted me to have a view of our state capitol that put things in perspective for me. She, of course, made no attempt to let me know what an honor it was to be there. Instead, she claimed they had a marvelous salad. That’s just “classic” Mary Louise.

So, as I sit here today, a writer that she always knew I would be, I smile to think of her. I see her quiet smile and her dancing blue eyes, I hear her voice and feel her prayers of strength and encouragement for whatever it was I choose to dream. With that kind of friend, you don’t need daily contact to feel the connectivity of regard. But there were gracious reminders that our friendship still endured, through distance and health challenges.

Today, I feel certain she has her own “best seat in the house” with “her” Bill, in whatever the Headliners Club might look like up there, and most surely there’s a golf course on site, and the words “happily ever after” seem most fitting. I’ll never forget her kindness, her consideration, her example of grace and acts of faith. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

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