Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness. She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; Her husband also, and he praises her: “Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised.
– Proverbs 31:25-30 (NKJV)
Ola Mae Ellis McGuire went home to be with the Lord just six hours before her official 100th birthday. I say “official,” since she was orphaned at the age of two, and the courthouse containing her birth record burned to the ground soon after. Sent to live with her grandparents, who couldn’t remember her birth, only the day they learned of it through the slow communications of the time, October 12 was chosen as her birthday when she was a young girl.
There were many lessons I learned from her, my maternal grandmother, while growing up, but many of the deepest lessons came only after I became an adult; determination, hard work, godliness, dignity and femininity. Ola was the embodiment of the Proverbs 31 woman.
My grandmother was raised in Oneida, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains. If you have a hard time picturing that area during the early 1900’s, think of the television series Christy; that was my grandmother’s early life. Orphaned by tuberculosis, she was raised by her grandfather, who was a circuit-riding preacher, and her no-nonsense grandmother. With the man of the house frequently away, Ola learned how to work hard from the time she could walk. Many of the chores she carried were considered “man’s work,” involving hard, physical labor, but they had to be done.
By the time she was a teenager, grandma had left her grandparents’ farm to work as a cook in the local jail where her uncle was Sheriff. When her uncle was killed by moonshiners, Ola took a job with her aunt working at a boarding house in the West Virginia coal camps. It was there that she met my grandfather, whom she married in the spring of 1929.
And it was in her role as a wife and mother that she demonstrated the richness of Proverbs 31. As a child, my mother remembers her stripping and refinishing wood floors, tending to a huge garden, cleaning and cooking. She kept an immaculate house and would weekly shine my grandpa’s shoes, brush his felt hat and launder and press his shirts perfectly. That task was done so perfectly that she was often asked to take in laundry, which she mostly declined for lack of time. Tucked away at home, I have one of my grandpa’s old butcher’s aprons, still heavily starched and neatly folded, even though well over three decades have passed since it was last used.
She cared about her own appearance as well, always taking care of her skin, getting her hair fixed and dressing attractively. I remember her grieving over the size of her knuckles, caused by milking cows when she was not more than a toddler, and how they took some of the elegance from the look of her hands. Still, her nails were always neat and clean. She maintained this pride, dignity and grace until her last days.
Having lost her beloved uncle to moonshiners, the drinking of alcohol was an especially sore spot with her. However, you would find beer in her refrigerator. But everyone in the family knew that it was for rinsing your hair, not for drinking.
Ola had a huge, soft heart for children, for family, and for the Lord. As her children grew up and went their separate ways, she lived for the few days each year when they all returned home with their new families. When those days approached, she would spend a week cooking up a storm, preparing for the influx of those whom she loved so dearly. Many remember the weekly ritual surrounding her famous chicken dinner. It always started with her choosing a chicken and wringing its neck in farm country tradition. A few even remember the moments before, when Ola could be found holding and petting the bird, saying, “Poor chicken. Poor little chicken.”
Throughout her life, she maintained a consciousness of Christ that she passed on to her children, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She attended church every chance she could. In her later years, she shocked her children and tickled her grandchildren by preferring the upbeat contemporary services to the traditional ones, saying she could hear the music and the sermon better there.
That sharp mind and quick wit was with her to the very end. When asked how she was feeling just a week before she left us, she replied, “Oh, about like always – with my fingers.”
Ola Mae’s work is now completed. When we said our last goodbye, she was once again dressed as a lady – her hair, makeup and nails done perfectly. In her hands she held a single pink rose and a sonogram picture of her first great-great-grandchild, the first of a new generation already hearing the sound of the Gospel.