March 6, 2013

By the time my family and I moved to Pascagoula in 1995, Bessie Ham was homebound. A legend to several generations in the community, Bessie taught English at “PJ” (Pascagoula Junior High, since renamed Trent Lott Middle School) to hundreds, yea, verily, thousands of students who all carried the highest regard and utmost respect for this lady.

Bessie could not get out, and made only a few excursions from time to time for Doctor visits and the like. Her Women’s Circle (what Presbyterians sometimes call a Bible Study) would meet in her home on rare occasions, as I recall, simply so she could be included.

Bessie’s husband had died years earlier, and she lived in this simple little, concrete-block “Navy house” (so called because when the community grew fast during World War II thanks to the ships needed and built for the Navy) with her son Robert.

Robert can be the subject of a number of other postings in the future, for the record. A great guy, but with some seeming developmental challenges. But Lord, his mind could hold information. OK, another day.

I would stop by and see Bessie from time to time, always calling in advance to make sure it was a good time or day, and always found her mentally alert, in full command of her faculties, but trapped in a body that was worn out and breaking down.

Bessie had been in the hospital for a few days, and been released, but not to her home, to an assisted living facility across the street from the hospital. I learned this as I tried to visit her, so after I left the hospital, I went across the street, found out which room she was in, and headed in that direction.

As I approached her room, I could hear a conversation that was going on in there, recognizing her voice, and easily hearing that of the person who was addressing her. Bessie was a little hard of hearing, you see, so one had to raise one’s voice. . .

As I turned and eased through the door—of the two-bed room, nodding a greeting to the person in the other bed as I moved toward Bessie in the “bed by the window,” I grasped what was going on. The Occupational Terrorists (ah, ‘scuse me, “Therapists”) were working with Bessie. Apparently Robert had been feeding her, and they were working to get her to feed herself. As I saw Bessie, she was in the hospital bed with one rail up, and the tray in front of her, lunch on it. She was slumped over, listing to starboard (the right), with a fork dangling weakly from her right hand, a small bit of creamed spinach about to fall off it. Her eyes were half open.

The conversation I heard went something like this:

Therapist: “Would you like some dessert? I believe we have some sherbet.”

Bessie: “Yes, some sherbet would be nice.”

“What flavor would you like?” The young man listed several flavors, and Bessie made a choice. I don’t recall what she chose, it really does not matter. I stepped up alongside the Therapist as he said, “OK, I’ll go find it, I don’t know where it’s at.”

I cringed and winced.

Bessie, in her early 90’s (she died soon after this at 92), suddenly shook off about 35 years of aging! She sat straight up, her eyes opened wide, and with a strong, firm, and Teacher’s voice, looked at this poor therapist  and said, “Young man, you never, but NEVER, end a sentence with a preposition!”

The guy turned and looked at me, and I simply raised my hands, palms out, and shrugged my shoulders. I saw it coming the minute he said it.

“Yes ma’am,” he said, as he slunk away to find some sherbet.

Bessie stabbed the spinach into her mouth, chewed and swallowed it, and looked at me.

“You know, Chuck, there ARE times when it IS proper to end a sentence with a preposition; ‘What were you thinking OF?’”

“Yes ma’am,” I said, laughing to myself, thinking that this was going to preach one day at her funeral.

And it did. At the graveside, after we’d left the Church with a long string of cars creeping into the cemetery for the interment, the Funeral Director told me that after Bessie’s most famous student, Trent Lott, was elected to the United States Senate, he sent her a speech he had delivered on the floor of the Senate chambers.

Bessie marked it up with a red pencil, and sent it back to him.

What a great lady


  1. John Willett Says:

    You always had a way with remembrances. I had to stop and say a prayer for you and Robert after reading this. I just wanted to let you know that another of the LOL ( little ole ladies) of First Pres Pascagoula, Margie Best, has been promoted to the Church Triumphant. She was a charmer and sharp as a tack until she left this temporary place. She loved the church, and even loved you. I remain, a disciple.

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