This is the eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral on November 29, 2010.
Evelyn Dowdy Ross was born May 10, 1918 in Pitts, Georgia, a tiny little town in Wilcox County. She was raised mostly in Fitzgerald. She was one of eight children in a loving and lively family that worked hard to scratch a living out of South Georgia’s sandy soil. There were two older brothers—Carl and Oliver—and then six beautiful girls: Leone, Aline, Irene, Judy, Evelyn, and Audrey. Evelyn was the one with flaming red hair—a slip of a girl with a ready smile and blue eyes that were quick and kind.
The story of how Evelyn learned to play the piano tells quite a bit about who she was and where she came from. On her eighth or ninth birthday her brothers—who had gone away to Florida to seek their fortune—sent her a little money for her birthday. She spent it on a correspondence course to learn to play the piano. This in spite of the fact that her family had no piano.
But Evelyn loved beauty, and she believed as firmly in things she couldn’t see as in the things she could. When the correspondence course arrived in the mail, she found a plank and measured and marked the 88 keys of a piano—the white keys and the black keys containing every musical possibility there is…but only in the imagination of a little girl who heard music where others heard silence.
Every day she pounded away on that plank, as faithful to the work as any concert pianist. And every day she prayed that God would give her the gift of musicianship, that she might give the gift right back to him for his glory.
In time her father, seeing how hard his daughter had worked, figured out a way to buy a used piano on installments, and little Evelyn filled that dusty farmhouse with the hymns of the faith. She was never a great musician, but she was faithful to her promise. She gave her gift back to God, serving for years as a church pianist.
The brothers convinced their parents to move with the girls to South Florida, where the Land Boom of the twenties was creating more opprontuities than there were people. It was a short sojourn in Florida, but it was eventful, and Evelyn often told stories of that time.
She told, for instance, of their move from Georgia. The family’s household goods were piled in a pickup truck, and she was perched on top of the pile like Grandma Clampett, facing backwards as the truck drove southward. Trundling through one little town, she waved at the locals as if she were the Rose Bowl Queen and the piled-up pickup were her float. The locals waved back and smiled. As they got further down the main drag, the people waved more enthusiastically. Evelyn stepped up her waving, pleased at the townspeople’s reception. A few locals started waving with two hands. Some pointed, some laughed, and some yelled something to her, but little Evelyn couldn’t understand what they were saying. Sensing at last that something was amiss, she turned around just in time to duck beneath a banner stretched across Main Street (it was advertising a Tomato Festival or something) that the townspeople were trying to warn her about. Evelyn loved to tell that story. She didn’t mind being the butt of her own joke, as long as it was a good joke.
While in Florida, Evelyn was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean. She also spent a night in jail. (Now is not the time to keep secrets). They hadn’t been in Florida very long when a terrible hurricaneblew through–the still-famous Hurricane of 1926. She was staying with a cousin whose father was the sheriff of the little town. He decided the jailhouse was the safest place to weather the storm, so he sent his family there along with little Evelyn. As far as I know, it was the only night she ever spent behind bars.
I love to picture that little girl having these adventures so far from home. The Florida adventure didn’t even last a year. The Dowdys were Georgia people, and farmers, and the prosperity of the Florida Land Boom was no match for the hardscrabble comforts of kith and kin back home.
Her next big adventure was college—as far-fetched a scheme as the piano lessons. She got accepted into Norman Junior College in Norman Park, GA, but it wasn’t at all clear how she was going to pay for it. Some of the money she borrowed from the bank, but every term it was an adventure figuring out how she was going to pay. Her sister Judy paid some of her tuition. Leone made the clothes she would need. She scratched and fought to go to college. When she got there, however, she was terribly homesick. “If I could have just seen a yellow dog I recognized from Fitzgerald,” she said, “I would have cried for joy.”
It wasn’t long, however, before she settled in. She made friends at Norman Park who remained her friends as long as they lived.
From Norman Park she went on to Tift College in Forsyth. She started her teaching career in Fitzgerald in the 30s. That first year she lived in a house with three other young teachers. The four of them remained close for the rest of their lives. You may notice a pattern emerging. Everlyn had a gift for deep and abiding friendship. She wasn’t just personable, though she was certainly that. She was a true and faithful friend. She was genuinely interested in other people and she genuinely hoped the best for them. She was generous with her time, generous with compliments and good will.
She made everybody feel better about themselves, especially men. Anybody who came into contact with her thought, “Well, maybe I’m more lovable than I realized.” Which is to say, Evelyn was truly an agent of grace. She was eager for everybody she met to know that God loved them unconditionally, and she treated people in a way that it wasn’t so hard to imagine that it might be true.
One Sunday in 1940 or 1941, a young man Evelyn had never seen before came to her Sunday School class. He was new to town, a salesman for a meat packing house. His name was Abe Ross. They married on December 12, 1941, just five days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Evelyn taught school that day; she also made the chicken salad for the reception.
She was an outlandishly faithful wife to Abe. He was a big-hearted man and one of the funniest. Evelyn lived to serve him. I don’t suppose he ever saw the bottom of an ice cube in his tea glass from the day they married to the day he died. That marriage was a picture of grace if ever there was one. Surely Abe wondered every day what he had done to deserve such beauty and such devotion. The only answer, of course, was that he didn’t. Nobody could.
Together Abe and Evelyn raised three children—Betsy, Dan, and Nancy—whom Evelyn never spanked. Having taught for ten years, Evelyn took ten years off to be at home with the kids while they were little.
In 1955 the Rosses moved to Warner Robins, Georgia. I think it might have been the best thing that ever happened to Warner Robins. Evelyn taught for a year at Thomas Elementary, then she settled in at Lindsey Elementary. She taught there, mostly third grade, for twenty-three years, until she retired in 1979. For the rest of her life, it seemed, every time she went to a restaurant or any other public place in Warner Robins, somebody stopped her to say she taught them in third grade. For her family, it is always a pleasure to hear “Your mother (or grandmother) taught me in third grade.” We never fear what the person might say next.
Evelyn had a gift for handling difficult students. She always gave the hard ones a job to do and praised them for handling their responsibilities so well. And soon they were great friends. As a former student told me at the visitation, Evelyn was never punitive, but she always communicated to her students what she expected of them. And they always met her expectations—eventually.
I’ve also spoken with more than one former colleague who said, “Evelyn taught me how to teach.” She was as generous to her peers as she was to her students, and they loved her for it.
Evelyn made everything seem easy. But things were never as easy as they seemed. Abe ran a sausage plant on Ignico Drive and later on 247 near the banks of the Eecheconnee Creek. That was a hard business, and at times it seemed all the money Abe made had to go back into the business. Many were the days when Evelyn got up, got the kids off to school, taught a full day of school, came back to the sausage plant to work a few hours, cooked and served supper, put the kids to bed, then graded papers. Not to mention the Wednesday evenings when she had to play the piano for choir practice and prayer meeting.
But she never complained. She never looked harried. She carried on with that almost otherworldly serenity that came from a deep and abiding faith in a God who loved her and had a good plan for her life. She was truly graceful. I mean that literally. Her life was full of grace—grace received and grace extended.
Evelyn scattered beauty wherever she went, and everyone she knew was better for it, whether they deserved it or not. She had a dignity about her that had nothing to do with her outward circumstances. Whether times were hard or relatively easy, she was just Evelyn. She dressed beautifully even if she had to make the dresses herself, and she always wore her lipstick—and strongly recommended that the women she was close to wear theirs too. She had the same ready smile and gentle laugh; her beauty seemed to deepen as her red hair faded to white. Even as her body declined, she never lost that dignified bearing of hers. And she never failed to honor the dignity of others.
Evelyn had seven grandchildren and nineteen grandchildren, each of whom had reason to believe that he or she was her favorite. Every one of us was her sugar baby, as she told us every time she saw us. She never failed to tell one of her children that she loved them every time she saw them. She loved well, and she was well-loved.
Evelyn was the last of her generation. Her brothers and sisters all went on before her, along with their wives and husbands. Abe died in 1983; his five brothers and sisters and all their wives and husbands have died too. Evelyn loved that wild rumpus of a family, and they loved her. But they were all gone in her last years—every one of them.
For twenty-seven years she was a widow—twenty seven years! Shortly before I got married myself, she told me, “It’s a hard thing not to be the most important person in anybody’s life.” She never quite understood how much she meant to so many people. But look around. This room is full of people to whom Evelyn Ross was exceedingly important. And, by the way, she thought you were exceedingly important too.
For ninety-two years Evelyn kept reaching out beyond herself. She never grew tired of loving people. If she was physically able, she was in church every time the doors were open. She was traveling all over the country with her roving band of tourists until not very long ago. For nine years, well into her eighties, she taught English as a second language in Central Baptist’s language school.
She always had time for anyone who needed her time and attention. She was a joy to the very end of her life. As her body failed, she could have gotten grouchy and no one would have blamed her; but she never did.
Evelyn Ross was a woman of deep faith and remarkable faithfulness her whole life. She was always that little girl who took piano lessons without a piano. She lived by faith, not by sight.
But she doesn’t live by faith any more. Now her faith has become sight. And things she only glimpsed in a glass darkly she now sees fully and face to face. Yes, she was faithful, but as she knew all along, what really mattered was God’s faithfulness in Christ, who has now received her into his rest. The work he began in her long ago is now complete.
After twenty-seven years of widowhood, Evelyn is a bride again, feasting at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And her beauty here is nothing to her beauty there—where the beauties of her youth combine with the beauties of her old age and beauties that we can’t even imagine yet. Her hair isn’t white there, but red again, blazing with the brightness of a dozen suns.
As Frederick Buechner said, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.” What a joy it is to think of Evelyn reunited with those she had lost—her parents, her sisters, her husband Abe, her son Dan, all those friends. After so many goodbyes, there she is, waiting to welcome us into the Long Hello.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.