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Anderson: A true story worth telling

At a newspaper, part of our daily routine is fielding the emails, phone calls and visits to the office for an obituary. It’s the worst part of the job and the best part.

We get to learn so much about the fascinating residents in the area or those who were born here and moved away. Obituaries are a historical document, and we take this part of the job very seriously. It’s humbling, the trust that’s put in us by the families and funeral homes to help share the stories.

The sad part is the emotions and reading an obituary wishing we knew the person when they were alive and had the chance to tell their story before the obituary.

Obituaries usually do not come through the mail.

This week, Josette Garrett received a large envelope, and inside was nothing she had seen before. She drops everything during the day to meet with family members putting in an obituary, along with Sherry Shoemaker and John Baggett. But Josette is the first person who greets you.

She gingerly opened the bubble mailer and pulled out three items. One was thick wrapping paper. Unfolded, it was 2 feet long and 17 inches wide. There was a note and another large page. With four small photos, the pages were filled with words of passion.

The life and death of Mary Frances Helm Wallace Woods. It was titled, “A True Story Worth Telling.”

The passion came from the keyboard of her daughter, Arlene Todd, and it came with a message about being careful and wearing masks, as her mother died of COVID-19.

Arlene’s words would have to spill over at least three pages to make it in the paper. She didn’t want that, but she wanted it to have this. And my co-workers placed it on my desk and sent me a text, “You’ll know what to do with this.”

Life was not fair to Mary early on, but she never stopped praising God.

She had five siblings pass away, dying from whooping cough, rheumatic fever, smallpox and diphtheria. The family was living in Timpson, picking cotton each day, when a tornado came, lifted their house and destroyed it. A new house was built and another tornado came. As the family braced, the home lifted again. The house was blown away again, except for Mary’s grandmother’s room, where they huddled by the fireplace.

The family would not only pick cotton on their farm, the 10 children would help the neighbors. Mary’s best friend as a child was a black neighbor. They found him dead under a pile of trees. It devastated her.

A few years later, she had a boyfriend, and her father threatened to beat her. Her younger brother, 14, said, “You have to get through me, first.” He beat them both. So at age 17 with her younger brother, they walked 10 miles and moved into the Rusk Hotel to start a new life.

Mary worked at Mom and Pop Hewitt’s Cafe where Elvis would frequent for the famous chocolate pie.

She became a mother, raised a family and did all the things a family would do in East Texas, making events and places a tradition and she grew beautiful roses.

Arlene, in her beautiful, insightful and humorous tribute said, “Mary always loved, respected and admired everything about the military. So she was married three times to men in the service. But they did not give her that same respect so she moved on!”

The East Texas work ethic ran strong in the family. She worked a 10-hour day on her feet and always had time to play with the kids, make sure they went to church and raised everyone with strong values to treat every race the same.

Later in life she spent time in three nursing homes and when she felt well enough, she spread the word of Jesus, reading from her large-print Bible. Those who were mean to her, she prayed for them. She would ask her family members to bring gifts to her, but the gifts were for residents of the nursing home who did not have family visiting them.

Because of the coronavirus, she spent her last six months alone, fighting the disease and she died alone in her hospice bed, clutching her Bible and a photo of herself with her mother.

Arlene writes 40 paragraphs about the disease, how it robbed the family of their mother and the importance of masks. But the part I hope makes it in the right hands is paragraph after paragraph thanking every person and hospital including the funeral home. The thanks are never enough.

On Sept. 18, the family was able to hold a memorial service and say good-bye. It was simple, full of prayer, music and food. And of course, Mary had one last wish. In her memory, donate to Hospice of East Texas in Tyler or to the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.

Or, simply visit that loved one you have not made time for, which could be the greatest gift of them all.

— John Anderson is the regional editor of the Longview News-Journal and Tyler Morning Telegraph. Email: . Twitter: @23johnanderson .

Today's Bible verse


“And when I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come as someone superior in speaking ability or wisdom, as I proclaimed to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”

1 Corinthians 2:1-2

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