After death, a stranger's life is brought to light
Only after her death did I learn a little about the life of Marie Burns Powell. After he responded to a column I wrote, David Allen and I became friends via email. When Marie Powell died, David wrote that he had been sending my columns to her. Now, he sends them to her son. David attached a speech Marie had delivered in a small church. She told stories of how the world was more than 80 years ago. Following is the heart of her informative, moving talk:
"Here we are again on beautiful . . . Green Hill. The older I get (I just turned 90 in February), the more precious this little church and cemetery become."
She said Sam Burns, a Methodist minister, was her father, who married a second time to Iona Rexroad, her mother. He died of a heart attack in 1928, leaving a widow and seven children.
She said, "His casket was placed here."
Only 6, Marie was the youngest, and her brother, Reese, 16, was the oldest.
"All of the Burns relatives attended the funeral. Good, poor Christian people making room for one more in their families. 'I'll take that one.' 'I'll take this one.' "
Judy Burns was Marie's grandmother. Her combination living room-bedroom was also the Hettie post office. Marie said, "A cabinet sat against the wall and held the mail. Everyone came to collect mail and sit by the fire . . . My grandmother sat in her chair . . . and after a while she would say, 'It's time for you to go now.' Wouldn't you like to say that to your guests sometimes? They would politely get up and go.
"We children were separated, going into homes where aunts and uncles had . . . children . . . We learned to take whatever was given us, quietly getting used to being second best . . .
"Reese and I lived with Billy Burns, a Methodist minister in Jane Lew. In 1930 . . . hobos came to the kitchen . . . They were given fried egg sandwiches and cups of coffee. Grateful, they . . . worked to pay for it . . . Then came Memorial Day. My grandfather would bring us here for the summer. We'd be together again for 3 months . . . and not wear shoes again until Labor Day when we left our beautiful Green Hill for 9 more months with our relatives.
"In 1933, on Thanksgiving, our wonderful grandmother died in her sleep at 87. I was 10. In those days, they had 'wakes,' an all-night watch kept beside the corpse.
"The casket was placed in the parlor. Above the parlor on the second floor was a bedroom . . . I (slept) in that room. The women around the fire began talking about omens — and the talk became weirder . . . There was a birthday cake for my grandmother with one candle burning. A hand mysteriously came out of nowhere and snuffed out the candle. After this, they knew my grandmother would die. I lay in that bed scared to death . . .
"Her relatives came for the funeral. Her casket was placed here.
"In 1941, Harold, my brother, and I were graduating . . . from Lost Creek High School. On May 5, after playing a basketball game, he became ill and died of meningitis . . . Harold had a 4-year athletic scholarship to Salem College. The Jane Lew baseball team and West Milford . . . basketball team came to the funeral wearing their school jackets. Our Lost Creek team were pallbearers. The senior girls were flower girls . . . who lined up on each side of the hearse carrying flowers. When he died, the church bell tolled 18 times to let everyone know an 18-year-old had died. There were no phones in Green Hill.
"His casket was placed here.
"In the fall of 1941, I entered Salem College. On December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt spoke on the radio. It was Sunday. 'We have been attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. We are at war!'
"In January, every able-bodied boy left Salem College, also the Lost Creek boys with whom I had graduated. Salem's 400 students dwindled to 150 girls . . .
"My senior year . . . Senator Jennings Randolph brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Salem on the B&O Railroad to be our commencement speaker . . . I was assigned to meet her in the auditorium and bring her on stage. I tried to think of something kind to say. 'Mrs. Roosevelt, are you tired?'
'No,' she said. That was our total conversation.
"One night President Roosevelt was traveling from Cincinnati to Washington, D.C., on the National Limited train. Truckloads of soldiers . . . formed a human chain on both sides of the R.R. track . . . We gave them hotdogs . . . At 1:30 the president's train came through.
"During the war, the young men on Green Hill left for the war. The families moved to Ohio and elsewhere to work in factories. Every summer I worked in the General Electric War Plant in Erie where they made turbines for the ships. I drove an electric jitney (a forklift) on the midnight shift.
"At the end of the war, the people did not return to Green Hill. They had established their lives elsewhere. Since then, many other members of my family have been laid to rest in this precious hillside cemetery. Today, all of us here are the community of Green Hill. Precious memories have brought us here because we hold the spirit of Green Hill in our hearts."
Marie Burns Powell was a Rosie the Riveter before they were recognized as contributing to the successful outcome of WWII. I wish I could have met her. I'll always wonder if someone in the future will speak of her in that little Green Hill church and say, "Her casket was placed here."
Contact writer Dolly Withrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.