When I was four years old, my parents enrolled me in a kindergarten class that was being offered at a small church on Indian Spring Street. The class, taught by the pastor’s wife, Mrs. Billy Ring, would become the place where I would make a number of my earliest friends, many of whom I would go through school with over the years. One of them, however, was not a student but she would become a very special friend, mentor and role model for me and her name was Miss Nora Ball.
Nora and her husband Levi lived in a large white house next door to the small church, surrounded by beautiful old trees and a long row of plants that formed a hedge that ran down the side of their yard, providing a lush border between the two properties. As I remember, it wasn’t very high but it was high enough to keep a bunch of rambunctious four-year olds from wandering out of the church playground and I would sometimes see Mr. Ring talking to the man next door, each standing on one side of the hedge opposite of each other.
Being curious like I have always been, it wasn’t too long before I decided to go exploring one day at recess. Mr. and Mrs. Ring were usually pretty effective at keeping track of all the children when we went outside for recess but that particular day there was enough going on outside to keep them occupied as I explored a small but noticeable hole I found along the border of the hedge. I decided that this must be investigated!
I crawled through the hole and found myself staring at a car port and a sizable back yard. Suddenly the kindergarten yard seemed far away, like I had travelled Narnian-style into another place completely different from the world I had just come from. I wandered into the backyard, enjoying the change of scenery and the beautiful yard around me when suddenly, the silence was broken.
“Well hello there”
I jumped at the sound of the crisp voice and then turned to find myself face-to-face with Miss Nora, wearing a pair of gloves and holding a pair of clippers. It would be our first meeting and many more would follow. I can’t remember everything we talked about that day but I was a talkative child and she seemed to like being in her yard and that made for many a trip through the hedge in the months to come. What I do remember is getting in trouble with Mrs. Ring since I missed being called in from recess and they were now missing a kid.
Over the course of that year, there were more excursions through the hedge and the Rings came to know where I was likely to be. Miss Nora always made sure we stayed close to hedge after that first meeting and she probably did that to make sure I knew when it was time to go. We talked about all kinds of things that probably bored her to tears but she always listened and she always gave me the benefit of her time.
She had a very distinct, authoritative sounding voice, but there was always an underlying kindness to it that was conveyed when she spoke and I felt completely comfortable telling her all about the woes of singing “one little, two little, three little Indians” and the “ABC song”. She had me sing it to her a couple of times and decided I had a decent voice, one that she would encourage me to use in later years.
I remember then that I thought she was old because her hair was beginning to turn gray. The irony of that is that as I write these words, I realize she was only 49 years old, the same age I am now. I only hope I seem as wise and knowing to the young today as she did to me then.
Eventually school ended and my trips through the hedge did too but that was ok because I had discovered that year that she and Levi actually attended the Jackson United Methodist Church, the same one I did and even though I wasn’t attending “big church” yet, I still would run up to the sanctuary to say hello in the interim between Sunday School and church services. She was always with a circle of friends and these ladies and their husbands soon became the elders who guided me and my cohorts on our path through church life, some as Sunday School teachers, others as mentors in one way or another.
Two years later, my family and I moved into a new home on the corner of Woodland Way and Watkins Street. As I ventured out and explored my new neighborhood, I found a familiar white house where Watkins Street dead ended at Indian Springs Street and for the very first time, I walked up to the front door of the house and knocked.
“Well, what are you doing here?” she said, as she opened the door.
“I’m your new neighbor!” I said, as she ushered me in.
It was the first time I had ever been inside her house and I would visit there many more times. When they weren’t outdoors, she and Levi had a den as I remember it in the rear of the house where they spent most of their indoor time. She also had a cat whose name I can’t remember anymore, a friendly fellow and there may have been a dog as well at some point over the following years.
Those years were special ones because of growing up in a neighborhood with people like Nora and Levi, plus many others. They were our guardians, our advisors, our counselors, sometimes our doctors and in a pinch, our playmates. The relationship that I had with Miss Nora however was special even among all the others, because she was the first of them.
Over the years, our friendship remained strong and her influence steady and reassuring. When I went to school at Piedmont in Monticello, she made it a point to tell me that her granddaughter Jennifer went to school there too. Thirty years later she would make it a point to tell me that my son Ethan was going to be in the same kindergarten class as her great-granddaughter Flemming. I also met her son Bobby there for the first time, when he filled in as a substitute teacher during the illness of my math teacher (I probably made him ill).
She encouraged me to sing in the choir, even though she knew I wasn’t a big fan of singing. When I became the Liturgist at church almost 20 years ago, she encouraged me there too. She always told me that she enjoyed it when I spoke at church because she could understand everything I said. Compliments from Miss Nora were always appreciated and treasured and on those Sundays where I spoke from the pulpit of the church, I was always reassured to see her sitting in that same pew she had always sat in, a few rows from the back on the east side of the sanctuary.
On some Sundays now and then I got to fill in for the pastor and preach and she never missed one. Those who knew her though, knew that she rarely missed a service no matter who was in the pulpit. She would have been there if Ronald MacDonald had been preaching. Attendance at her church was foremost on her mind, even in her last months here on earth. No matter what role I might have been in on any given Sunday, I made sure that every Sunday I was there, I went by her pew and spoke to her and Celeste Lawrence, another neighbor who lived in our neighborhood. She would have noticed if I hadn’t and I wasn’t alone. Many stopped by to say hello to her and she always was gracious and welcoming.
Miss Nora did a lot for the church and for others too. Oftentimes, I would see her at Jimmy’s Steak House for lunch with a number of ladies who were older than her and who could no longer drive themselves. She would pick them up and they would all go out to lunch and eat. Just as we respected her for being an elder, she too respected her elders and made sure they got where they needed to go, even though she herself was in her eighties then.
She coordinated meals for families at the church when a member died and made sure to call people and ask (tell) them what to bring for the meal. I’ve always known that behind every good church meal, there was a number of drill sergeants running the show and Miss Nora was one of them. She wasn’t someone you could easily say no to.
Friends like Miss Nora are rare, to be treasured, to be enjoyed and to be respected. I treasured her, enjoyed her and above all, respected her for the many ways that she impacted my life and helped to guide me over the years. We Methodists take an oath each time children are baptized and when they are confirmed into the membership of the Church. We promise that we will be a part of the spiritual upbringing of the children and that we will guide them in that journey. Miss Nora was there the Sunday I was confirmed and she made that pledge then and every time new confirmands were brought in but she was already way ahead of the curve where I was concerned.
She was many things to me. She was a pillar of the church and an example for me and others on the tenets of living a good Christian life, though she was much better at it than I have ever been. She was a cheerleader, in her quiet, reserved manner, yet I never doubted the power of her sincerity in the words she spoke to me. Above all else though, she was, quite literally, my oldest friend. I met her as a child and knew her in nearly every stage of my life from that point on. Forty five years is a long time to have such a friend and I am thankful that something led me into her yard that day so many years ago.
She was the “Lady through the hedge”, the term I used to describe her to my parents the day I got in trouble for going over there. I am thankful to this very day that I found that gap and climbed through to find a true friend. Be at peace Miss Nora and thank you for being my friend.