J. Heather Leigh was a name chosen to honor a woman whose name was Fielda Hetherley. I used my first initial and added 'Heather Leigh' which is pronounced the same way as 'Hetherley." Who was this woman? It's nearly impossible to sum up her amazing personality on paper. Believe me, I've tried. Because she's so important to me I feel it's necessary to give it another try.
Her basic biography is notable, but it hardly comes close to summing up her character. Maybe if I share a few memories with you then you might start to get a glimpse of this wonderful woman.
She was a kindergarten teacher for 30 years. She never stopped offering instruction to people, invited or not. One day we had lunch together. On the way to our table, we passed a group of businessmen seated in a booth. They had removed the rubber protective boots from their dress shoes and left them partly in the aisle. She stopped at their booth and said sternly, "Excuse me, Gentlemen. You've left your rubbers in the aisle and someone might trip on them." Then she stood, hands on her hips, until they remedied the problem. I was old enough to grasp the hilarity of the whole scene.
I wish I could describe her laugh. It remains in my memory even though it's been well over 20 years since I last heard it. Her laugh was genuine, infectious and made me feel warm whenever I heard it. How I wish there were a recording of that sound.
She married a bit late in life. Her husband was one of the kindest and most patient men I've ever known. They were not blessed with any children and that hardly seems fair. She would have been a wonderful mother and he would have been an incredible father. They would have raised the type of children who went on to do great things. If you knew them then you would definitely agree.
However, in absence of children, she shared her love and attention with others. That's how she came to be a part of my life. When I was very small, she lived across the road. My parents had a terrible marriage and my dad was usually not present. My first memory of Fielda Hetherley was looking out the front window and seeing a woman marching down the driveway with an armload of Christmas gifts for me and my siblings.
Eventually, she talked my mother into attending a prayer meeting with her. My mother became a Christian that night and from that day forward, the Hetherleys were a part out of lives. They invited us to spend time in their home. I remember one particularly fun evening with a bonfire and lots of marshmallows. Mr. Hetherley got out his tractor and hooked up a wagon to give us rides through the woods.
I also remember taking car rides through the country where they would stop at a farm and talk to us about what the farmer was doing and explain the processes. They made everything a fun adventure. I quickly began to refer to them as "Grandma and Grandpa"-- titles they definitely deserved.
One day, I was leaving their house and said, "I'll see you for lunch tomorrow!" I think I was four or five at the time. She gave one of her perfect laughs and said, "I guess it's a date." The next day I put on my favorite dress and carefully crossed the street. She had the table set and a nice meal waiting. We had strawberry shortcake for dessert. I always smile at that memory because she made me feel like the most important person in the world.
She loved to shop and often took me with her. One of my favorite memories was when she took me to purchase a new dress for my piano recital. By the end of that trip I had a beautiful dress, new white patent leather Mary Janes, a pink spring jacket, and my very first pair of panty hose.
After we finished our shopping, she took me to a public restroom so I could change into my new outfit and then we went out to dinner at a fancy restaurant. I'll never forget that experience. There were candles on the table and the waitress brought us a personal size loaf of bread on a cutting board. How many grown women would take a nine year old out for the day and then to a nice restaurant?
Fielda Hetherley was a Christian, but to her it was far more than just an association with a church. She took me to a lot of religious meetings. Some were charismatic prayer groups and others were very formal services. She taught me that the body of Christ had a lot of different ways of worshiping and I learned to be comfortable in every setting.
I fondly remember one evening when she took me to a prayer meeting in an old storefront. She made me my very first cup of tea which consisted of lots of cream and sugar and a bit of tea flavoring. I felt so grown up. Most of all, I remember her voice in my ear as she sang, 'This is my story, this is my song, praising my savior, all the day long.' She sang very off-key, but she sang with passion. That really was her story and her song. For that reason, I requested that we sing that song when she was interned at the cemetery.
Her passing caught me off guard. I was in my early 20's, a single mom with three kids, and I had my back turned firmly to the Lord. I was hurt and confused about many things. I received the call that she passed and my world was shaken at the foundation. She wasn't sick, there was no warning, In fact, she had gone shopping that day and called her minister to say she was feeling great. Shortly after, she had a heart attack and slipped from this world into the presence of her savior.
At the funeral I was angry and weeping. I wanted another chance to tell her how much I loved her. I worried she didn't know how much she had mattered in my life. It was easily another thing I planned to hold against God.
The minister said they had found a letter tucked inside her bible. She had written it at a retreat only a few months after her husband had passed. It was a letter to God. Honestly, I expected it to be full of questions because her husband didn't deserve to die of lung cancer after living a good life. It wasn't fair. Since they had no children, it seemed cruel that the one real family member she had was taken.
The minister began to read, "My Dear Sweet Jesus, how much I love you..." The letter was full of praise, love, adoration for her savior. God truly does inhabit the praises of his people. Those words shot out and hit me like an arrow, shattering the wall around my heart. They took my breath away. I doubled over and cried with gut-wrenching sobs. Her words exposed my heart and shook me to the core.
Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in a church for the first time in many years. I committed my life to Jesus. Twenty years have passed and I am still walking with Him. Fielda Hetherley...Grandma...sowed into my life for many years. She showed me Jesus. She taught me to love Him. My life bears the fruit of her labor.
In closing, I publish using the moniker J. Heather Leigh, but it's far more than just a pen name.