Spaceships to God: Being Famous in Your Family


My son scampered around the graveyard, having to be reminded not to be too rambunctious. I asked him to stop playing on the gravestone pictured below and got his happy, “Sure, Daddy.” I commented that I loved the shape of the marker, and he agreed. “Look at this spaceship, Daddy. I think it’s pointing to God.”

But this wasn’t the grave we came to see.

I have seen a few famous grave sites in my 35 years, but none of the graves I’ve seen in Arlington, Lexington, New York, London, or Durban quite measure up in importance to this one in Galax, Virginia. Lillie Cooley is not famous outside our family, but inside our family? She’s a central character in our story, an unrivaled heroine.

Lillie Cooley is –to me and many others– more important than many people who are internationally famous. Lillie Cooley was a faithful woman in my wife’s family (and therefore my family) and one whose leadership and example are celebrated years and years after her death.

Aunt Lillie was my wife’s Great Aunt, the second oldest of eight siblings. The oldest and only son, Edgar, died in his twenties. When their parents died as well, Lillie (then) Mabe took on the responsibility of caring for all the children. She was helped in this by Aunt Elva. Lillie didn’t want the kids parceled out here and there, because she wasn’t sure they would be taken care of properly. She decided to devote her life to the family. There were seven daughters, so the “Mabe Babes” are all famous, and Aunt Lillie was the star above them. She became a sort of humble matriarch for a vulnerable family. She worked hard gardening, taught school, and supported the family. She delayed her marriage to her beloved Lucian for many years in order to care and provide for her siblings. She kept them all faithful in church attendance, and raised them well. Her life was characterized by self-sacrifice, by devotion to God, and by holding the family together.

On a recent Sunday, we visited the church she faithfully attended for her whole life and her grave which is in the churchyard. We heard the grace of God preached faithfully in this country church, as I imagine Aunt Lillie did in her day. And in the cemetery, we thanked God for his grace on us.

Everyone in the family talks about Aunt Lillie as if she were a country saint. I think this is because that is exactly what she was. There are many people who have enjoyed Aunt Lillie’s kindness. They speak of her in reverent tones and with joyful tears, shaking their heads at the goodness they received.

My father-in-law is one of best men I’ve ever known. How different would he be if Aunt Lillie were not the woman she was (and is)? How different, then, would be his daughter (my wife)? How different would be the destiny of my little ones? What kind of hole would there be in the heart of the family if God had not given us Aunt Lillie? And it’s God who deserves thanks. For Aunt Lillie was a gift, a gift I am reminded of every morning when I wake up next to Gina Smith.

Gina and her dad both look like Mabes. Three of our four kids look like Gina and her dad –all little Mabes. So I get a visual reminder of the impact that Lillie (Mabe) Cooley has had in our family every day. I am grateful.

Instead of a hole in the heart of our family, there is a wholeness. The family is far from perfect (see my side for proof enough of that). But when I consider the goodness of God in giving us a wonderful, heroic character such as Aunt Lillie, at just the time such a character was needed, I am thankful for this story. I thank God for this incredible woman.

I have never met Lillie Cooley. But nearly everywhere I look I see the fruit of the work of her life.

What you love and live for matters, for more than just those you see with your eyes right now. Close your eyes and see the multitude you will impact, and love them as you love yourself. Love them as Aunt Lillie has loved me.

Then, even in death, you will point to heaven.


  1. dawngreen

    Oh my dear Sam, how beautiful is your family and how loving is your sweet soul.
    I have had the benefit of being loved by country saints as well
    (one was, in fact, my own Aunt Elva, my mother’s only sister).
    Your family is precious and we are blessed to have you share them with us.

    I have always told my children I wanted a beautiful grave stone with flowers, poetry and possibly even bubbles.
    Thanks for reminding me that what I really want is for it to point to heaven.

  2. Curt

    Please cue up “All the Way Home” by Andrew Peterson as a worthy soundtrack for this wonderful post. As always Sam, thank you for your literate thoughtfulness.

  3. Peter

    It is truly humbling to be reminded of how God takes the simple lives of His children and works in ways we can’t imagine. I yearn to live such a life and saints like Lillie are so inspirational. Thank you for sharing her story.

  4. Meghan

    Amen. My dad’s grandmother is my own personal hero. I was blessed to know her well, and regularly share stories of her with my own little ones. I can’t say how glad I am when my parents sometimes mention that I remind them of her. One of my greatest hopes is to live and finish as well as she.

  5. Loren

    What a beautiful testimony and heritage. I am so thankful for the “Lillie Mabes” in my family and my husband’s. Their impact is mind-boggling.


    “Close your eyes and see the multitude you will impact, and love them as you love yourself.”






  7. Hal Hanks

    Lillie Cooley’s legacy lives on. My grandparents (Gina’s great grandparents) lived just up the road from Lillie’s place. I remember, as a child, visiting her with my parents and playing around the big tree in her front yard. Everyone knew “Aunt Lillie”.

    Fast forward to August 3, 2002. My wife, Heather and I were married that day. We spent our honeymoon at Couple’s Resort in Jamaica. One evening we decided to take the bus to Rick’s Café to watch the sunset. As we were pack tightly in the bus, we engaged in conversation with the couple sitting next to us, Stan and Kristen Cole. We discovered that we were married on the same day, within a few hours of each other. With the small talk out of the way the conversation went something like this:

    Me: Where are you from?
    Stan: Around Raleigh, North Carolina, and you?
    Me: A small town in Virginia.
    Stan: I have family in Virginia. What town?
    Me: Galax.
    Stan: I have family in Galax.
    Me: Who?
    Stan: Lillie Cooley.
    Me: I knew Lillie Cooley.
    Heather: Hal, stop it. You really don’t know this person!
    Me: I do too! She lived in a brick house with a big tree in the front yard.
    Stan: Yeah, she did.
    Me: My uncle married into her family.
    Stan: Who is your uncle?
    Me: Masil Hanks.
    Stan: Masil Hanks? J.C.’s dad? (J.C. is Gina’s Dad)
    Me: Yeah, J.C. and I are first cousins.
    Stan: So are we.


    Stan: So, J.C. didn’t come to my wedding, because he was at YOUR wedding!!!!!

  8. Amy C.

    LOVED reading this! I imagine Aunt Lillie is smiling down from Heaven as she sees the impact in your family alone she had simply by living a life devoted to serving God & others. What a treasure!

  9. doug cline

    Thank you! What a great reminder of our heritage. I love our whole big family and speak proudly of the Mabe Babes. I hope my little Lillie can leave such a great legacy. thanks again

  10. Loren Eaton

    I remember when we went to visit my father’s grave a year after he died and my little one ending up dancing all over it. Somehow it felt appropriate.


    Loved reading this, Sam. Thanks for such an inspiring tribute to my great Aunt Lillie! And Hal Hanks– great story about Stan and Kristen! They are my cousins.

  12. James Witmer

    They say most of us will be forgotten in three or four generations. I say, “Three generations! Goodness, what an opportunity.”

    I don’t think I’ll ever forget my great-grandmother’s memorial service, though I was hardly a teenager. She loved well, and there was nothing but thankfulness in those she left behind.

    Then, even in death, you will point to heaven.


  13. Africa S

    What a wonderful reminder to give thanks for those who have gone before, and remember their character so that we, too, may learn from them!

    My mother (something of the family historian) would take my sisters and myself to the old Congregational church graveyard in East Machias, Maine. As children, we’d study the gravemarkers and listen as my mom would recount each ancestor’s history, and how it relates to us. We’d always specifically make sure to keep my Great-Great-grandparent’s marker clean – a way of saying thank you.

    As my mother told it, they had my Great-Grandmother Elsie, who was possibly one of the most kind-hearted, loving women in the world. Her love and compassion deeply influenced my mother, who obviously has raised me. As of right now, I can’t say that I’m half the woman my Great-Grandmother was, but I can only hope that one day I can.

  14. Eowyn

    Wanted to concentrate on the words, but I kept thinking…that’s Galax. That’s just over the hill!

  15. Kay Cole

    Thanks so much for this story and the love that you share with us all. I remember when I was taken by my future husband, LD Cole, Jr. to meet Aunt Lillie. (LD is the son of LD Cole and Martha Mabe Cole=Aunt Lillie’s sister) I was told by LD that I had the distinct honor of being the first “girl friend” to be introduced to Aunt Lillie and that this was a huge honor. It was! She welcomed me into her home and fixed a delicious meal that evening! I too am grateful to Aunt Lillie and the difference she has made in my life and the life of my whole family.

  16. Ashley Barber

    “Instead of a hole in the heart of our family, there is a wholeness.” Thank you for this beautiful line!

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