Can you look back at your life so far and pick out two or three people who helped make you who you are? Someone who perhaps mentored or touched your life somewhere along the way, putting you on a better path or direction? I can’t help but think of my Aunt Retha, departed but not forgotten. This post is a tribute to her.
Mostly I saw her at family get-togethers along with my uncle and my cousins. Aunt Retha would always greet me cheerfully, in a way that said “You are special to me!”, full of warmth and love. I always picked up on that: she was always genuinely happy to see us. She would ask us about our school work or band, and tell us how proud she was that we were doing so well, or that our grades were good, or that our ball team was winning. She was an encourager, and always finding the positive in everything we did. She was a teacher, mostly in physical education, so it seemed to come naturally for her, and since she always had kind words to say I found myself looking forward to the family events so I could visit with her.
My Aunt Retha steered me to my first college, Ouachita Baptist University. Several of her children had attended there, and at one particular Sunday afternoon gathering at my grandmother’s house she announced that she had to deliver some clothes and cookies to my cousin at OBU that afternoon, and would we like to come along. I had heard them speaking of OBU for years and was curious about it, so when my mother said she would go I volunteered to come, too. It was spring, as I remember it, so the weather was nice, and she rolled the windows down on the old sedan as we drove so we could stay cool. She and my mother were sitting up front, and I was in the back alone since no one else wanted to make the hour long drive to Arkadelphia. When we arrived she drove us around the campus, giving an impromptu tour of the school. It was beautiful, everything was green and/or blooming, and I was very impressed (I was only 11!). We met my cousin, dropped off the clothes and care package, and then she drove us to a dairy bar for a snack.
Giving an eleven year old a snack is, frankly, fraught with danger. I ordered a chocolate malt (my first one, ever! It sounded so tasty!), and when the food and malt were delivered I sat in the back seat drinking as we drove back to Little Rock. After a few minutes I thought it would be fun to try to blow bubbles in my malt… and the first bubble caused a geyser-like eruption of chocolate goo all over my shirt and the car seat. My mother was horrified, and gave me a look from the front seat that could curdle milk, but my Aunt Retha just smiled, pulled over to the side of the road, and chuckled with me as we cleaned it up together. Bless her heart, she was the only thing between me and a spanking from my mom at that instant, but after a few minutes my mom began to loosen up again and enjoyed the drive, too. We spoke about the campus as we drove back, and somewhere along the way she remarked, “You know, John, I bet you would be really happy at OBU”. Something about how she said it got me to imagine myself in that setting, and I never forgot that. When the time came to pick a college a few years later, I chose OBU.
So much of our lives depend on choices we make early; I am no exception. I did attend OBU, but ran out of money after three semesters. However, to this day I still see friends from OBU. I have business contacts in this town because of OBU. I even met my wife at OBU, and though I finished college somewhere else, I consider myself an OBU alumni because of all my connections there. While my parents always encouraged higher education, the decision about OBU had more to do with the seed of an idea my Aunt Retha placed in me than anything else. She has been gone a few years now, but I will never forget her and the encouragement and love she showed me, and the blessings I received because of it. Thank you, Aunt Retha!