From among the least of these come great life lessons
I’d missed seeing her in the breakfast line for several Sundays. And when I stopped to think if I’d seen her walking downtown, or sitting on the bench outside Walgreens, I couldn’t remember the last time I had. But I only knew her first name, assumed she was homeless, and had no idea how I might check on her. I hoped she was OK.
On Oct. 27, my friend, Candis Rodgers Hicks, director of Somebody’s Rusty, a ministry for the hungry, hurting and homeless, posted on Facebook Wauneva Irene Horn Benson had died. “Her lonely pavement days are behind her,” Candis wrote in the text of her post. “Now she’s walking the streets of gold.”
Candis also shared a memorial essay by Wauneva’s daughter, who briefly attempted to explain the inexplicable. How one day, some 20 years ago, her mother had been happily playing with her grandchildren, and, within the week, had broken all family ties and erased them from her emergency contact list.
Wauneva is a familiar figure near and around downtown San Angelo. Quite distinctive. Tall, with straight posture, and closely cropped silver-gray hair that never looked unkempt. I was always struck by her seemingly vast wardrobe of flowing, vividly colored skirts or tunics and long duster-like over shirts. Her clothes never looked new, but they looked clean, put-together with thought. My serving buddies in the breakfast line agreed with me that she was a street fashionista.
On Sunday mornings, we serve breakfast to about 150 hungry and homeless at First United Methodist Church in downtown San Angelo. Many, like Wauneva, are regulars and we know their names. Some are fighting obvious demons, and we know those. Should those demons cause any misbehavior whatsoever, those misbehaving are escorted out. But typically we serve people who are hungry, and who are banking on the fact the breakfast will be their only meal that day, maybe until Monday, when the soup kitchen serves lunch. They are grateful to receive. We are blessed to offer.
I made Wauneva sort of my heart’s icon of who the hungry and homeless are. They all have stories.
Usually Wauneva was calm, almost serene. Some Sundays she would be muttering scripture and bits of nonsense. But she always only took as much as she needed for that meal, was gracious and grateful to get it. Once or twice, on a Tuesday, my friend and I would be at Sonic, getting our half-price cheeseburgers, and Wauneva would be sitting at the table. We’d always offer to buy her a burger, and each time she would decline, saying she’d already eaten.
One bitter cold morning last year, I was stopped at a traffic light, and watched a glove-less, coat-less Wauneva cross the street downtown. A clerk from the corner store ran to catch up with her to give her a tall to-go cup of coffee or cocoa. It warmed my heart. Hers too, I like to think.
“Mental disorders are similar to a mirror dropping on cement,” her daughter shared. “Shards of glass are what remain. Nothing is ever put right again. … It’s grieving for a loss, knowing the person is still in front of you. (Our mom) was locked in a prison that she didn’t choose. Her children could see the bars, but were unable to remove them from her mind.”
And so, in the wake of her death, her daughter blessed us by sharing her best and happiest of memories. A mother who played catch with her sons, rooted the loudest at their ballgames, made the best homemade chocolate cake that never needed frosting, picked apricots from the family’s backyard trees and made amazing turnovers.
“She could play every round of Jacks – from normal pick-up to round-the-worlds to pigs-in-the-blanket and never miss,” her daughter reminisced. “My friends and I would sit forever waiting our turn. She loved yard work and could help make a school assignment from practically nothing.”
I found myself reading the post over and over again, encouraged by the acts of kindness we’d shown this stranger, but grieving for the lovely lady I didn’t really know. I found myself reciting to myself bits of the Beatitudes I’d committed to memory and applying them to the Wauneva I thought I knew, and the one I got to know through her daughter’s memories.
I will remember Wauneva for a long while, and think, when I feel compelled to consider the least of these, one who most surely could be counted, who is now whole, in heaven. I want to believe that.
Editor’s note: Candace Cooksey Fulton, formerly of Brownwood, is an instructional assistant and freelance writer now living in San Angelo. She writes weekly bi-weekly columns for the Brownwood Bulletin. She can be reached at email@example.com.