Miss Katie hadn’t been to church in weeks. The last time I’d seen her she’d looked exceptionally frail and small behind her walker. But her smile hadn’t faltered and her eyes still sparkled with the same chipper joy that had enchanted me when I first met her four years before. Now 97, she was undoubtedly the happiest elderly person I’d ever met.
“Hello, darlin’!” she’d exclaimed the last Sunday she came to church, releasing her walker just long enough to reach up and wrap an arm around my neck. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she turned to my mother and sisters. “Aren’t you all just beautiful this mornin’! And you look as young as your girls do.”
My mom had laughed and blushed. “Well, thank you, Miss Katie! You look beautiful this morning yourself.”
Miss Katie had beamed at the compliment. She always seemed to beam.
But now it had been weeks since we’d seen her. Her daughter, Miss Kathleen, gave us calm, quiet reports that communicated the truth without saying it outright: death was coming for Miss Katie, slowly but surely. If she survived another damp Louisiana winter, it would be a miracle.
“We need to go see her,” my mom finally said one day with a strange resolve—and I emphatically agreed. It was just a few days after Christmas. Mom brought a potted amaryllis as a gift while my sisters and I brought (and tried to hide) our anxious shyness. None of us had much experience in the presence of the dying. We weren’t sure what to expect.
But as soon as we rolled into Miss Katie’s driveway, our trepidation lost some of its grip. Thick-waisted oaks extended gnarled branches over the front yard; home-hewn furniture offered their own friendly invitations from the porch. As we piled out of the car, a couple of nimble young barn cats watched us with sharp, steady eyes—and as we approached the house, Miss Kathleen threw open the squeaking screen door.
“Hello, hello!” she cried. “Mama’s gonna be so happy to see you. Come on in, don’t mind the mess…”
“We won’t take up your whole afternoon, don’t worry,” Mom assured her.
“Oh, that’s fine. There’s nothing we like better than a visit, and it’ll make Mama’s day.” Miss Kathleen smiled a smile so like Miss Katie’s, another stubborn ounce of our anxiety dared to melt.
The house smelled warm and mellow; the wood floors creaked beneath our feet. Everywhere you looked you found a feast for the eyes. There were books everywhere: stacked in corners, propped between bookends, arranged on high shelves just a few inches from the ceiling. Portraits of Antebellum ancestors hung on one wall; photos of Miss Katie as a young belle and her husband in his World War II uniform hung on another. Paintings and artifacts fashioned by Miss Katie’s own children filled a spacious sunroom.
And just beyond the sunroom, I spotted a small, white-haired figure propped up in bed.
“Mama?” Miss Kathleen called. “The Barbers have come to see you.”
As soon as Miss Katie turned towards the door, there it was: that brilliant smile. And as soon as I saw it, whatever leftover dread I might’ve had that our dear friend would be unrecognizable hightailed it out the door.
“Oh, it’s wonderful to see you!” she cried, extending a blue-veined hand as we came in. Her gentle Southern accent—not the exaggerated twang you hear in the movies, but an old-fashioned, refined drawl—cracked with age. “Have a seat, make yourselves comfortable!”
Her excitement was as genuine as it was contagious. As we helped Miss Kathleen arrange a few chairs around the bed, conversation flowed quick and easy. So did Miss Katie’s stories. She brimmed with them—unsurprising after seventy-two years as a farmer’s wife. Regaling us with anecdotes that left us shaking with laughter, she even made sure we each took a chocolate from an enormous candy box given to her over the holidays.
Looking back, the memory feels like something out of an old novel: a gaggle of girls and women crowded around the bedside of a fading matriarch, all of us eagerly trying to figure out which flavors went with which pieces of chocolate. It’s a simple image. But it does seem such an appropriate one—because more than anyone else I’ve ever met, Miss Katie was the sort of person who took delight in a simple moment. It lent her a richness and a vibrance that still make my memories of her so clarion-clear.
Like the oaks in her yard, Miss Katie’s roots ran deep—both as an individual and as a member of our small rural community.
Her husband, Mr. Albert, descended from one of our church’s founding families. Miss Katie, however, hailed from a larger town further up the Mississippi River. Her father was a dentist, her mother a church pianist. During the Great Depression, her father’s patients paid him with fresh eggs, vegetables, and even artwork. But in spite of an alarming tendency to rant about politics with his clients and simultaneously get a bit violent with his dentist’s drill, he made a point of never charging the poorest in the community.
His sensitivity must’ve filtered down to Miss Katie: even as a child she was known for her kindness. From befriending a disabled schoolmate to welcoming with open arms (and in her old age) this community-starved young writer, she brimmed with love and hospitality. But she had her father’s feisty spirit, too. In spite of persistent bouts of depression, she transitioned from “town girl” to “farmer’s wife” and raised a family of godly, hardworking children. She defended her African-American friends from neighborhood racists. And except for a period of following her husband from base to base during World War II, she made her home right here and never left it. Her fingerprints remain all over the church where her husband grew up, where her children were baptized, where she served in the choir, and where, at last, her own funeral was held.
Her life echoes that of a Wendell Berry heroine and sounds almost too good to be true. Yet these are facts confirmed by those who knew her best. She was one of those remarkable souls who couldn’t help leaving a bit of light wherever she went. She is the kind of woman I aspire to be.
But I do wonder: what makes a woman like this? What forms a sterling yet tender spirit that finds fulfillment even in the smallest sphere? Miss Katie was whole. Her life resonated with something that made her a touchstone within our community.
What was it? And how do I grasp it for myself?
I think the answer stemmed from two places: her trust in a sovereign, loving God who placed her in this space, in this time, for a very specific purpose…and her deliberate, daily choice to “reach into the heart of the ordinary.” That last phrase comes from a creased and yellowed booklet from Belhaven College, the school she attended as a young woman. In 1941, when she was elected “Miss Belhaven,” it was because she embodied this ideal (among others):
LOVE OF THE BEAUTIFUL: “Not bounded by the classic beauty of great music, art, and literature, but reaching into the heart of the ordinary and finding the loveliness hidden there.
In the short time I knew Miss Katie, her faith plus this superpower (because it is one) of reaching into the heart of the ordinary were the qualities that stood out above all others. Only a woman who trusted the Lord with her days and leaned fully into each one could live so long and still find pleasure in commonplace gifts like music, stories, flowers, and chocolate. Only a woman who embraced the whole of life—the good and the bad, the grim and the whimsical, the ugly and the beautiful—could reach the end of her small, no-frills life with a quiet, cheerful peace.
Miss Katie died less than a month after my mom, sisters, and I visited her house and said goodbye. The church was packed for her funeral, and a host of family filled the choir loft to sing a hymn. The mood was somber, but not unhappy; there was, instead, a deep awareness of a journey well-ended and a life well-lived.
That night I tucked Miss Katie’s funeral program into the front of my Bible. Two years later, it’s still there. I see her photo every day as I settle into my morning devotions. I’ve even underlined sentences in her obituary, phrases like “She applied herself diligently in preparation for her life’s vocation”—“She loved with devotion, genuine interest, and personal attention”—“She maintained lifelong friendships”—“She was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside.” These words remind me of my own spiritual goals. They remind me to persevere and pursue wholeness even when my own life seems rather insignificant and directionless.
She lived a small life, yes—but she found purpose and loveliness within the boundaries God had set for her. Because of that she was a complete woman, resounding with joy. So in Miss Katie’s honor—and for the Lord’s glory—I, too, will pursue the beauty in the heart of the ordinary. For this way lies contentment. This way lies fullness.
The images shared here of Katie Mills are used with gracious permission from her daughter Kathleen Davis for Cultivating.
Maribeth Barber is a small-town Southern girl captivated by stories, the beauty and lovingkindness of her Savior, and the power of the contemplative, Christ-centered life. During her years as a homeschool student, she developed a fierce love for history, literature, and film; these passions have inspired her own writing as a novelist and a blogger. She reviews books, movies, and television from the angle of a Christ-saturated imagination at maribethbarber.com while also pursuing publication of her debut novel. A hobbit at heart, she lives with her parents and six of her eight younger siblings on their hobby farm in Louisiana.