Irma Nell Applewhite's "Fictitious" Wedding—Another S.B. Middlebrook Short Story
People at my church are looking at faith in a new way these days, thanks to Sister Irma Nell Applewhite. It's a night and day difference from what was going on in Rural Brown, our small community, a few years ago. Let me tell you, some of our "faithful" worshipers at Kingdom Come Baptist Church? They were awfully worried about Sister Irma Nell for a while there. But not her pastor. Nope. No matter how strange stuff got, that man remained Irma Nell's good and faithful friend-in-Christ. Through the whole thing.
He even had to remind me a few times to ignore all the gossip that got started. Gotta hand it to pastor, he was Irma Nell's rock through it all—and Irma Nell needed that. Oh now, don't get me wrong. Our dear pastor prayed for Irma Nell mightily and powerfully over the years, but he never got worried about her like a lot of others did. Not even for a minute.
Looking back now, I know the reason why he never worried (like they say, hindsight is always 20-20). The reason he never worried was because he knows the girl better than most. Knows her like family, no doubt about it. No matter who it was that brought what story to him about Irma Nell, pastor always based his decision about what he thought was going on in her life only on what he himself already knew to be the truth. He did that because he trusted not only her judgement, he trusted Irma Nell's faith. Oh, how I do admire our pastor!
Her Steadfast, Legendary Faith
I can tell you one thing. Pastor was right about Irma Nell being a true and faithful servant of the Lord. He mentioned that to me several times, back when all the fuss was going on. "That girl, Irma Nell," he said, "she has the type of faith that never waivers. She'll stand on that faith too, and you'll see. She's gonna make it through all this mess."
Let me tell you something else he told me that made me know he knew her better than any of the rest of us in our church ever could. He said even as a young child, that girl never just “attended” church. I wasn't living here back then. But Pastor said when she was a just a itty bitty child, Irma showed a type of understanding that you usually only see in Believing grown people.
He told me about how she had a little yellow, "pleather," bible. You know—plastic made to look like leather? Anyway. He said she brought that bible to church with her eeevery Sunday. And that it was the only child's bible he'd ever seen that always looked used and worn. Well it looked that way because, for Irma, it wasn't simply an adornment that she only picked up on Sunday. Oh no. She actually used her bible. He told me? The girl's parents had taught her to read using the stories in that bible. And Irma Nell? She never forgot any of those stories, not even one. And most important? Pastor said he'd never seen a child try harder than little Irma Nell to live the lessons the bible stories taught her. Every day of her life.
I must say. Throughout all the mess that happened over the years, pastor kept his cool, and he always stood up for Irma Nell. He did that because he knew her. He knew she was a person who put faith into action. Not like those churchgoers who jes pay “lip service” to God. Nah, she wasn’t like that. Even though, before it was all over, a lot of folks in our church? They seemed to be doing jes that.
But Irma Nell is not that way. You know the type. People who will confess to their sins and ask for forgiveness? But only for the benefit of the viewing public. Not Sister Irma. Uh Uh. That Irma Nell is serious about her relationship with the Almighty. Why, if she were here right now, she'd tell you. That kind of "public" behavior? She'd say it's for the “uninitiated.” For those who simply do not know or do not have the level of trust in God to truly believe Him for all things. And she might even add to that something her mother and father taught her. That a true Believer? Is one with a faith so strong it can move a mountain of struggles, no matter how wide or how high that mountain might be.
Yessiree. If she were here telling you this herself, you would see the conviction in her eyes. And you'd feel it too. But she's not here, so that's why you're hearing this from me. Why, if Irma Nell were here? You would feel jes like you were being told off but good the way she would be talking to you. But let me assure you, it's jes the strength of her confidence and the passion that comes out of having that "sho nuf!" kind of faith. It can get real emotional at times, see. When you feel your faith. I know a little something about that you see, because to tell you the truth? I feel the same way as Irma Nell. I feel my faith too. And I'm proud to say? It's gettin' stronger every day.
Her True, Living God
In fact, let me step aside here and tell you a little something about my God. My God is not some kind of mysterious entity that’s nothing more than a musty thought a thousand years old. Some big old outdated force of nature that only resides inside a book, or on a Hollywood movie screen. Oh no. I'm the same sort of person Irma Nell is when it comes to having faith in a true and living God. We put our faith into action, she and I do, in our lives, and it's through our works that we show what we believe. Doesn't mean we're perfect, or that we always get it right. We're human too, so we make mistakes and get off track sometime too. But we ask our God for forgiveness, do our best to sin no more, and after that, we keep on walking in faith. Because that's what we've been taught to do by the true and living God we serve. No need to ask us about how or what we believe in. Jes look and see for yourself what we've committed our lives to doing.
Oh yeah. If she were here? Sister Irma Nell would straighten you out good on the topic of the God she and I serve and about how we serve Him. Only she can't do it right now, because like I told you before, she's not here. But she gave me her blessings though, when I told her I wanted to tell you this story. Yessiree. Gave me her blessings without one minute of hesitation. So now it's time. I'm gonna tell you a story. A little story 'bout how all this mess got started. But. Before I do that? First I have to tell you a story about Sister Hattie May.
Her Neighbor: Sister Hattie May Bowman
Oh my Lord. Sister Hattie May? She became the worst of the bunch when it came down to the spreading of all the worry and talk about Irma Nell. She might have meant well, at least in the beginning, but she became the ringleader. Eventually. She did what she did, she said, out of being concerned about Irma Nell's mental well being. You see. It was Irma Nell's second hummingbird sighting that got Hattie all discombobulated. But put a pin in that point, and I'll tell you about it a little later.
Right now, jest know that Sister Hattie May, at first, called herself to be looking out for Sister Irma Nell. Still and all? Seems true to me sometimes that the road to you-know-where? It jes might be paved with a lot of good intentions. I'm jes saying. As time went by? Hattie May got way too involved in trying to mind grown people's business. It might have started out as a kind of "motherly concern" for Sister Irma Nell? But later. Truth be told? It jes became a bunch of meddling.
Let me go back a bit, because you need to know the context of the story. You see, Sister Hattie May took it upon herself to look in on Sister Irma Nell, to be a kind of "mother" figure over the years. Why? Because, ten years ago or so, that young woman lost both her parents. Bad car wreck it was that happened and took away Irma Nell's momma and daddy on the very same day. Right sorrowful thing it was. And Sister Hattie May? Well, she had been a lifelong friend to Irma Nell's momma. So. She felt it was her duty to be there for Irma. Through all the grief that came with losing both her parents. So quick. So tragically.
Hattie May and Irma's folks were neighbors you see, 'bout the same age too. See. We all live in the same little neighborhood. Here in Rural Brown. It's a sleepy little countryside suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Hattie still lives 'cross the street from the church. And that's jes two doors down from where Irma Nell's parents lived. Jes a little ways down from where Irma Nell lives today.
Let me tell you this story. Honey child. During Irma Nell's darkest days of mourning? Hattie May Bowman did her godly duty. Did all she could for that girl, God bless her soul. She was always looking in on her. Took food, made sure Irma Nell's house was clean, you know. Did all the things good neighbors do. Things concerned friends will do in times like that. She made sure her old friend's only child was cared for, you know. Like family.
We try to be like a loving family in our church. And that's something I'm real proud of as a member of Kingdom Come Baptist. Pastor always reminds us it's our duty as Christians to love and to care for one another. Well, after her parents passed away, Sister Irma Nell truly needed her church family. She needed us more than ever before, because you see, Sister Irma is an only child born to two only children. No kidding. So you see. It was awfully sad for us all. Knowing how alone that young woman must have felt losing both her folk in the way she lost them. But I have to tell you. Sister Hattie May was there for that girl. Made sure she was all right through some pitch black dark days. Yessiree. Everybody here at Kingdom Come Baptist? We were right proud of Sister Hattie May for doing that.
Her First Hummingbird Story
Now we're at a critical place. Now I need to tell you another little story. The one about the first hummingbird that visited Sister Irma Nell. After her parents passed. It happened about eleven years ago I suppose, about a year after the accident. Irma Nell told her church family the whole story, and Sister Hattie May stood right by her side as she was telling it. We were all proud of Hattie for doing that too. You see. A lot of people will tell you they believe God can and does use his creations as messengers. But the truth is? When it comes down to it, a lot of folk don't believe that. Oh, they'll say they believe it. Because they don't want you to think they're disputing God's Word as it's written in the Bible. After all. According to the Good Book? God used a dove as a messenger to tell Noah when the land had started drying out from all that rain.
But let me go on. Now. You got to understand. Irma Nell grieved real hard and real deep for a while after losing her parents. Anybody can understand that. It was an awful time for that girl, and for the rest of us too in our church. But they were her folks, and, well. It took a while, but, in time, Irma started coming back to us.
That's how we all found out how strong and courageous she is. Sure is, a real strong girl. Went through that deep and dark time pretty much all alone. But she came out of it stronger than ever. Believing more than ever in the Word of God. A tragedy like what happened to her? That's something that could shake anybody's religious or spiritual foundation. And no one would have blamed her if it had jarred her faith a bit, but it didn't. Didn't even shake it—not even a little bit. Because Irma Nell was looking at death the same way the bible describes it. It's like pastor always says. "People of faith, when our souls are absent from our bodies, we're present with the Lord."
Now you have to understand. Irma Nell's first hummingbird sighting? It happened a while ago. But at Kingdom Come Baptist? We remember it like it was only yesterday. Irma told us the story, you see, about how a hummingbird had helped her find her way out of all that grief: A hummingbird. She told us she'd never seen one before in her life. Other than in pictures. Even though her mother kept beautiful flower gardens around their home. Humming birds can be rare in some places. At least that's what I'm told.
Anyway. The way Irma Nell told the story? She was suffering deep in what felt like one of the darkest holes of her life. Feeling lonely and scared about how lonely and scared she was. Upset. Lonely. Missing her mamma and daddy. Oh, she was thirty-two years old. Not a baby. Not at all. Still. To her? Felt like she was gonna be alone in the world forever. Without her parents or any other blood kin, for the rest of her days. So there she was. At her parents' house about a year after they passed. Forcing herself to get some of their things ready to give away to charity. We had all offered to do that for her, but she said she wanted to do it herself—that she needed to do it, to say goodbye.
She told us that, on that day, what she was doing was almost too hard to do. So she sat down on the bed after packing up a big box of clothes from her daddy's closet. Said something touched her heart hard when she closed the lid on that first box. Loneliness jes spread all over her and all throughout the room. Jes filled up every space until it was squashing all the air around her. Until she jes felt completely alone in the world. She said tears started streaming down her face like Niagara Falls. Before she even knew she was crying. Well, let me tell you. Jes about everybody in church that evening? We were all balling like babies by the time that girl got through with that part of the story.
She said she musta' looked a fright with water coming from everywhere on her face. And that's when she said a little hummingbird came to the window of her parents' bedroom. Said that little bird jes hovered at that window pane. Like he wanted her to see him there. She'd been balling like a big old baby for who knows how long. Oblivious to everything except her sad thoughts. Right up until that tiny little bird got her attention. She said he jes stayed there. Hovering. For what seemed like ten or more minutes. Then, after a while? She said she finally stopped crying.
The reason she stopped was because that bird had brought something to her mind. It was a story her daddy told her. Henry Applewhite was his name. He told Irma Nell about how a hummingbird had once saved his life.
You see, Irma's father grew up in foster homes. Never knew his real folks, and was always told he was an only child. Anyhow, the last foster home he lived in, the folks running it were mean and nasty. They beat the kids til they were black and blue and dared 'em to tell anybody about it. Well Irma's dad, when he turned seventeen, he ran off from that place. And who could blame him? After he ran away, he said he lived on the streets for about four years. For four horrible years, he said. He was homeless and helpless. Living in the streets of Birmingham. Stealing and living any kind of way he could. After four years? He said he'd had enough. He was jes about ready to give up and join a street gang. Jes so he could be part of something. And the only reason he didn't join that gang? Was because the day before he turned twenty-one, a hummingbird saved him. He said he was sleeping in an alley when that little bird came and hovered over him. Near the top of the newspaper he was sleeping under. A tiny little creature he said it was, but it didn't seem to be afraid of him at all. Henry said he'd never seen anything like it in all his life.
Irma told us. See. Her daddy said he shooed that thing away several times. But every time? It jes came right back and hovered over the same spot on that newspaper. That made Henry decide to look at the spot on the paper where the bird was hovering, and don't you know? It was an advertisement encouraging young men to join the military. Henry said he had thought now and again. About possibly joining the service. But he didn't know how to go about doing it, so he was just drifting around on the streets. He was on the verge, you see. The verge of getting into some real trouble. Because he had become acquainted with a few guys who were mixed up with a street gang. And those guys? They had told him they were going to teach him how to make some "real money." Well, Henry had never had anything in his life, so he was planning on joining that gang the next day, on his birthday. He said he knew it was not the right thing to do. But he was going to do it anyway. Because he was sick and tired of sleeping under newspapers and eating out of garbage cans. All while trying to go to night school to get his G.E.D.
So. That morning he pushed the newspaper away, to see if that would make the bird leave him alone. When he pushed it away, the paper flipped over to another page, and the bird flew away. Once the bird left, Henry pulled the newspaper back on top of him again, and used it the same way, again. For cover. And that advertisement? It was right-side up again. And guess what? That hummingbird came right back and started hovering over that same spot, again. Well. He said he and that bird played that back-and-forth game for several more minutes. After that? He realized that darned bird wasn't going anywhere. So Henry got up and started walking, to get away from that darned bird. Come to find out? The Navy recruiting center? It was jes several yards from where Henry had been sleeping, on the same side of the street.
Henry Applewhite told Irma Nell the whole story. Said he'd never noticed that place before when he'd slept in that same ally. But he decided to go in that morning, jes for a look-see. Long story short? He ended up enlisting in the service the next day, on his birthday. Instead of joining that street gang. And he always credited that little hummingbird with saving his life.
Well, after telling Irma Nell the story about his hummingbird? Her daddy then told her if he got to Heaven before her or her mother? He was going to send a hummingbird to her. To let her know he was there. In the Holy Place. And that he was doing jes fine.
Now you need to know this: Irma Nell's daddy died first in that car accident. Her momma lived long enough for the paramedics to get there, but died on the way to the hospital. So Irma figured her daddy must have gotten to Heaven first. Thinking about the hummingbird story and what her daddy told her? Irma Nell said she got to feeling a little better that day. She wasn't sure her daddy had sent the hummingbird, but she said it felt good to see the little bird there anyway. Because he was there, she was able to stop crying and got a few more things packed up before she left the house that day.
The next day, Irma said she was back at the house in her parents' bedroom packing up a few things from her mother's closet. She said she cried that day too, but no hummingbird came to the window. That's when she started looking at it different. Even though she was glad she'd seen it, she felt it was jes a coincidence. You know. That the hummingbird had come to the bedroom window the day before. Or maybe it was God's way of reminding her. Of that story her daddy shared with her and her mother so long ago. But she decided that's all it was. Jes a wonderful reminder from God. One that gifted her with comfort when she needed it.
Well, on the third day, Irma Nell went back to the house to finish packing up her daddy's closet. She had stopped half-way through the first day. She said you could have knocked her over with a feather too. When that hummingbird came back to the very same window. And he did it as soon as she closed the lid on another box of her daddy's things. Said that little bird stayed and hovered around that window? Til she finished packing up two more boxes of her daddy's clothes.
Now here's where the story gets even more interesting. On the fourth day? Irma went back over to her mom and dad's home again, this time to work in the kitchen. To pack up dishes and utensils. On that day, there was no hummingbird sighting. But the day after that? She went over there to start packing up things from the garage. Tools her father used to fix things around the house, and guess what? That hummingbird came back again, this time hovering near the entrance to the garage. That's when Irma Nell said it became clear to her. That little bird only appeared when she was packing up things belonging to Henry, her father. And that's when she knew. It had to be. It was a message sent to her from her father. He was trying to tell her that he was all right, and was doing jes fine up in Heaven.
After that? Once she started believing she had been sent a message from God? Instead of feeling joy and peace over it? Irma Nell said she spent that whole night worrying about her mother. She was sure her mother had made it to Heaven too, but couldn't help but wonder why only her father had sent her a message. She said she didn't get a minute of sleep that whole night. She was lying awake wondering: If her mother could send her a messenger in the form of a bird, what bird would she send? It was an easy question to answer, because Irma knew her mother loved red cardinals. Even had curtains made once for her den with that particular bird printed all over them. So that's when Irma decided: If her mother were to send her a message from Heaven, she'd send a red cardinal.
Well, bless God, Irma told us all it was as if she'd sent that thought directly to God! The next morning? She went back to her parents' house jes to make sure she'd packed up everything she intended to give away to charity. Said she wasn't in her parents bedroom even ten minutes before that hummingbird came back to that window. But. This time? He wasn't doing his regular hovering. This time he was slanted a bit toward the right. Like he was pointing his little beak at something he wanted her to see. She said she had to walk close to the window to glance in the direction he was pointing, up and then over to the right. Sure enough, she said, high up in a tree almost out of her sight was a beautiful red cardinal. No joke. A red cardinal was jes sitting there. All peaceful and calm like. Looking in the direction of the hummingbird.
Irma Nell and The Hummingbird House ...
Bless God, that's the story Irma Nell told her church family about the first hummingbird. Now I guess I need to tell you that Irma's folks left her real well off, they truly did. Irma Nell's never been money crazy. So. She didn't look at her inheritance as an opportunity, like some would have. She never started spending money like there was no tomorrow. You know, the way a lot of young folks would do. Naw, that's not the type of person she is. See. She's solid and sensible. Always been that way.
Did I tell you she used to be a CPA? Sure did. Got her B. S. college degree in accounting, master's too, and worked up until her folks died. Over in the city, she worked for a big old corporate headquarters of a chain of hardware stores. Then, about six months after the funeral, Irma Nell left that job. Sure did. Then, after she saw that first hummingbird? That girl started a non-profit organization to help the homeless. Yes ma'am. And guess where she put that organization? She put it right there, in her parents old home, right next door to our church. Gave her parents' home to the church, in fact, and made it a halfway shelter. Named it the Henry James Applewhite Hummingbird House for the Homeless.
Now, before I tell you Irma's second hummingbird story, first I need to tell you something else. You need to know. When Irma Nell turned her parents' home into a half-way house for the homeless? What she did started something a bit foul smelling inside our church. A lot of God-fearing churchgoers were not at all happy, you see, to have a homeless shelter right next door. In fact, some were truly outraged.
"Why is she bringing those people to live right next door to this church?" I overheard two of our hardest working deacons talking. Asking our pastor that very question one day after church.
"Why shouldn't they live next door to the church?" the pastor asked them right back. "Do you know of a better place for 'em to live?" I'll have you know? Those two men looked at our pastor like he'd jes told them he was completely convinced. The moon? It truly was made out of green cheese and polka-dotted pineapples.
"The least of these," pastor kept saying, over and over. "The least of these. What you do to the least of these, you do unto me. Now. Which one of you?" he asked them. "Wouldn't want there to be a place you could go for help, right next door to a church? If one day you became one of the homeless? The people we help at Hummingbird House? They are human beings, like the rest of us," he said. "No better, and no worse. They're not perfect. They sometimes do the wrong thing, and they sometimes make big mistakes. And you want me to run them away? Why don't we help them?" he asked, "Instead." He pointed to one deacon, then to the other. Then he spoke. "Why don't you and you, and me? Why don't we all become good examples for them? Instead of trying to close down the place they came to for help?"
Okay. I got you this far. And now we're getting to the meat of Irma Nell's story.
I guess it's been a little over two years ago now, since Irma Nell had her second encounter with a hummingbird. This time, mind you, she didn't tell the story to anybody but Sister Hattie May. It was because of all the uproar that got started in the church over Hummingbird House. She didn't feel it was the right time to tell the congregation about the second bird. But don't you know, that second story didn't set too well with Sister Hattie. You see, a lot had happened in the years since Irma Nell told us all about the first hummingbird. A lot.
When I say "a lot," I mean, well, there were some "incidences" over the years, over at Hummingbird House. Prudence? It precludes me from going into great detail. But I will tell you this. Some of the details were "R" rated. Others were jes bad people doing bad things.
The church was closely involved in all of it, you see. Because Sister Irma had given her parents' home to the church. By that time? It had become one of our pastor's favorite church ministries. And no matter how outraged his congregants got. When something happened over there? Pastor told them there was no way he was going to give up on helping the people who came to that ministry for help.
"You don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," pastor kept telling us all over and over. Oh honey child! Some of his congregants? They had formed groups and had started petitions, a time or two, to try to close down Hummingbird House. It was no easy task, but pastor finally was able to get the church to quiet down. His most convincing argument? It was telling them that if they ever managed to close down Hummingbird House? He would take it to mean they were asking him to resign from his position as pastor. Well, nobody wanted that, so things got better for a while at the church and at Hummingbird House.
Peace lasted a while, but only until Irma Nell's second hummingbird came to visit. And this time, she didn't even tell the whole church about the bird. But, she made what turned out to be the big mistake of telling the story to Sister Hattie May.
Irma Nell's Second Hummingbird . . .
I still believe. It was all the stuff that happened up to that point. That stuff was the reason why the second hummingbird story got Hattie May all fired up. And you know what she did? She allowed her anger to propel her. To push her to tell other folk the hummingbird story when it was something Irma Nell told to her in confidence.
Hattie said she did it out of "concern" for Sister Irma Nell's well being, and I can only take her word for it. Still, it wasn't long before a lot tongues were wagging underneath some of the biggest hats in our church. After that? The concern for Irma Nell's well being? It turned into a mob that seemed ready to tar and feather the girl before riding her right out of our church on a rail.
Now it's time for you to hear the second hummingbird story: The one Hattie May told? The one Irma Nell asked her to keep secret? man, you see. Named J. E. Dalton. A young man in his late thirties. A man that ended up over there at Hummingbird House. He had been a career soldier. A Marine. He had served in the war, in Iraq. In the war? Guess he went through some close calls, watched some friends die and all that? Well, he ended up with that PTSD thing that a lot service people get. When he got out of the service? He tried to get back to his normal life, but couldn't. So. he ended up turning to alcohol when he couldn't find any peace inside his mind. Well. All that alcohol put him in trance or a stupor or something. Whatever it is alcohol does to the brain. And that went on for years. It went on so long? J. E.'s folk finally gave up on trying to save him, and he found himself unemployed, homeless and helpless. For quite a few years. Then, somehow, a little over a year and a half ago? He found his way to the Henry James Applewhite Hummingbird House for the Homeless. Irma Nell runs the shelter, so it's only natural that she meets and gets to know all the people who come there for help. Well, she met and she helped J. E. Dalton.
You see, even with all the protest from the church? Over the years pastor and Irma Nell never gave up on the shelter or on the people who came to the shelter for help. That girl worked hard. Learning all she could about running a non-profit. Then she used what she learned to turn that place into a show stopper. Pastor kept the congregation at bay so she could do her work in peace. Oh, that girl's smart, so she got a lot of grant funding, and eventually was able to hire folk to help her help the homeless. If you were to go over there now? You'd see teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, nurses, doctors. All kinds of folk are there you see. Big-time experts, all helping the homeless.
They got plenty of room over there too. Because a few years back? Irma Nell bought the two-story house next door to her parents' house. The she had the two structures joined together and renovated. Turned that second house into the Hummingbird House Vocational Training Center. A place where people learn to use computers. They learn auto mechanics, barbering, and cosmetology too. I have to tell you, pastor and Irma? They turned that place into something special. Yes siree.
Well, after J. E. Dalton had worked over there for a while. With the psychologist and psychiatrists and social workers? He was able to stop drinking. Once that happened, he did what a few of the other Hummingbird House residents have done. He joined our church. A short while after that, he enrolled in college and started working on his degree. As time went by? Irma and the young man seemed to be getting even more "friendly" with one another. I guess some people? Thought she was showing a little too much interest in one of the residents of Hummingbird House. Now. Here's where the second hummingbird comes in. One evening, Irma Nell and J. E. were sitting on the church steps together. They were talking, and a hummingbird came and started hovering around them. Particularly around the young man.
Irma said it happened over and over again. That hummingbird coming to them whenever they were together. Then Irma Nell told Hattie May about the hummingbird, but she didn't tell Hattie all she knew about J. E. Dalton. Big mistake. I said to pastor a while back that it was a mistake for Irma not to have told Hattie May the whole story. Jes remember. I'm saying it to you now. Irma Nell should have told Hattie May the whole story about J. E. Dalton.
Instead, Irma jes told Hattie how she tried her best to ignore the hummingbird. But it kept coming back when the two of them were together. Said she wasn't going to let it influence her relationship with the man one bit.
Well, bless God. One day? I was standing on the front steps after church. I was getting ready to have fellowship with some of the members of our congregation. Then, I looked up and saw Irma Nell and J. E. walking from the church over to Hummingbird House. She was still in her Usher uniform, but the young man? Decked out real fine. First time I'd ever seen him wearing a suit. And sure enough, it wasn't five minutes later that I saw it for myself. That hummingbird flew over and it fluttered its little wings. Started to hover steadily as you please between the two of them.
Before long? Brother Murphy came over to me and whispered in my ear. "She acting like she's a little touched in the head," he said. "Up all hours takin' that man to school, picking him up. Sister Bowman told me? The man done signed up to work on a degree. Yeah. Now he goes to the university at night. After he gets out of auto shop training."
"And what's wrong with that?" I asked him. I'm looking at him now like he's the one seeming a bit "touched" in the head.
"You don't think it's strange?" He asked me. "A young, educated woman like Sister Irma? Spending so much of her time with a man like that? Probably just pretending he wants a degree, to be with her. And look at her. She's all involved wit him. All because of a misguided hummingbird."
"A man like what?" I asked. I know my eyebrows must have crawled way up, real high. Because that's what happens when I'm about ready to tell somebody off. I was ready and set to go off on Brother Murphy, to set him as straight as a board holding up the top window on the attic. I was steamed. Jes thinking of what was getting ready to fly out of his big old mouth. I was ready to hang him out to dry, I tell you. But I didn't. I got a hold of myself, and I jes stared directly into his eyes and said, "That man is a member of our church."
"Never mind," he said, and then he shrugged his shoulders and walked over to talk to one of our deacons. I guess he realized. At that point? I wasn't quite on-board with the direction his conversation was heading in. So that was the end of that particular encounter with Brother Murphy.
Her "Fictitious" Engagement
Let me tell you. It wasn't a whole month after Irma Nell told Hattie May about the second hummingbird. That's when the rumors got started. The ones about Irma Nell and J. E. Dalton. Being engaged.
I had noticed Irma Nell had started wearing what looked like a child's play toy ring on her left ring finger. The band was gold tone and adjustable, and it had a big shiny glass diamond on top. I thought it was something she'd found in a box of Cracker Jacks, and jes liked it enough to wear it for a while. But Hattie May? She said it was what J. E. had used to propose to Irma. Told her one day he was going to replace it with the ring she deserved.
Hattie May told me about the engagement even before Irma Nell told pastor. Irma trusted Hattie, you see. Based on the friendship Hattie had with her mother. At that time? Irma had no idea Hattie May was telling folk she hoped the engagement was going to be as "fictitious" as the ring. And that she was sure the whole thing was nothing more than make believe. Irma Nell was lonely, Hattie said. Maybe even a bit desperate. She told everybody she advised Irma to let the engagement last a long time. Said she believed whatever it was Sister Irma was feeling would wear off. That the girl would come to her senses. Irma was in her early forties by then, you see. And Hattie May? She was sure the girl was scared of being alone for the rest of her life. So. Hattie May told a bunch of us women. One night we were all standing around after prayer meeting, and that's when she said it. "Women who want to get married? Those that want to have babies? They can go off the deep end, in the head, when they past forty. When things ain't looking good for ever finding Mr. Right." After that? Hattie May said to us that, "hummingbird messenger or no hummingbird messenger." She didn't want to see her dear friend's daughter make a colossal mistake. Marrying some man who, until recently, had been a homeless alcoholic. One living on the streets in Birmingham.
Well. It wasn't long before Irma Nell started making plans for her and J. E.'s wedding. Oh, I'm sure she'd heard the talk around the community, but she didn't let it stop her. No matter what Hattie May said or did. And believe you me, Hattie May did and said a lot. Even had a lot of other people in our church calling Sister Irma Nell's wedding plans "fictitious."
"She won't go through with it" That's what Hattie May said. Anytime anybody asked if she thought Irma would was gone marry the homeless man. "It's jes, well. She's nearly forty two. She's lonely, and she believes the hummingbird is another sign from her parents. When I can muster up the nerve? I'm gonna ask her to spend some time with the psychologist they got over there at the Hummingbird House. Because she's taking this 'God's messenger' thing way too far. And. Well. It's time for some direct intervention."
Then. When the wedding was only several weeks away? Instead of throwing a bridal shower for her old friend's daughter? Hattie May planned and even went through with an intervention. That's right! She had a group of women and men from the church go with her over to Irma Nell's house. And they all sat down and talked to her, trying to reason with her not to do what she was planning to do. They told Irma she could do better, that she could have so much more. Sure, J. E. Dalton was probably a good man, they said to her. But he just had too many problems. Represented too many "unknowns." Nobody knew him, no one knew his folks, and even his folks had abandoned him. He was too big of a "risk" they told her. Why, they asked, would she take on such a risk?
Well. Even though Irma's feelings got hurt a bit. To say the least. She still managed to ask her fellow church members if they had any idea about what it meant to have faith. She asked them if they believed prayer changes things. She asked if they knew, and if they believed it was true? That any Believer can do all things through Christ, the One who strengthens them?
Oh, she was hurt, no doubt. But she let them all know right then and right there. She had heard about them calling her engagement and her wedding "fictitious." She said right to their faces that she had already forgiven them. Because, she said they "knew not" what they were doing, nor what they were talking about. Then, after telling them off oh-so-calmly? She told them they didn't have to come to her "fictitious" wedding if they didn't want to. But that she was going to get married in our church, to J. E. Dalton, no matter what any of them thought.
Her "Fictitious" Wedding
I guess you can call this part of the story my Epilogue. Bless God! It's that, because here's where I tell you what Irma Nell Applewhite did jes a few weeks later. She married J. E. Dalton, in our church! And today, her name is Irma Nell Dalton.
Now it's time for me to tell you what Irma Nell should have told Hattie May, that she neglected to tell the woman. Remember? I told you before. I believe it might have made a difference (but maybe not). If Irma Nell had told her mother's old friend the whole story about J. E. Dalton. But Irma Nell didn't tell Hattie May this part, so the church folk didn't have these facts. Granted, none of them ever tried to find out anything more than what came to them as rumors, but . . . truth is, they still did not know the whole story.
The truth was, Irma Nell Applewhite did not meet J. E. Dalton for the first time at Hummingbird House. She met him when she was in college, more than twenty years ago. You see, he was a freshman at Alabama State when she was a senior. But they knew each other and had taken a P.E. class together. They became friends, for a short time, before he dropped out of school and joined the service. They didn't know each other well. But they were not complete strangers when J. E. showed up at Hummingbird House.
Irma Nell knew him, you see, before he became a homeless alcoholic. She knew at least something about the man he was. And God used the hummingbird to open her eyes. To the possibility that her friendship with J. E. could be something more. And now it is—a lot more. Turns out, J. E. is a twin, and twins run in his family. Don't you know, it was his twin sister that ended up helping Irma Nell with all the wedding planning? She convinced his family he was a changed man. And then his big, loud, educated, musical, and military family. A family that had once given up on him. Believing they couldn't help him in the state he was in. Well, they all asked him to forgive them for abandoning him in his time of need. And guess what? He forgave them. And then they all turned out for the wedding!
Oh, and by the way, it was my husband. The pastor of Kingdom Come Baptist. That joined Irma Nell Applewhite and J. E. Dalton in holy matrimony. See. I saved it for last, on purpose, to tell you who I am, but now you know. I'm the First Lady of Kingdom Come Baptist. I'm the pastor's wife. And I must tell you. That lovely reception they had? I helped to plan it, and it turned out be one great big wonderful and memorable event.
But all that was nearly a year ago now. After Irma Nell and J. E. got married, pastor and I sent them on a two-week honeymoon to Hawaii. And when they got back? Irma Nell looked happier than I'd seen her look since her parents went to live with God.
You might think I'm jes somebody who loves to tell other folks' stories. And I do. But Irma Nell? She would'a told you all this herself if she were here. But she's not. You see, she's in the hospital. But she called pastor and told him she's coming home tomorrow. So he and I are going over to her and J. E.'s house, in the morning. To see them—and their "fictitious" babies. You see, Irma Nell is no longer alone or lonely. She and her husband? J. E.? They jes became the proud parents of twins. A boy and a girl. And they named them Henry James and Emma Anne, after Irma Nell's father and mother. Irma Nell says these two? They jes the start of her "fictitious" family. Because she and J. E.? They planning to have at least two more children.
© 2014 Sallie Beatrice Middlebrook PhD