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They Loved Us
Our parents called them "the Bible Club girls," even though Hazel Simonton and Jean Clark had strands of grey sprinkled through their dark hair by the late 1940s. That's how people referred to women, especially single women, back then.
Every Wednesday after school, the Bible Club girls came to our church in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. The pastor had built a fire in the cast-iron furnace in the back corner of the church, but the building was still bitter cold when we arrived at three-thirty. We perched on the first two rows of cold wooden pews, little kids with rubber boots, winter coats leaking dirty mittens, stocking caps, and, frequently, cold sores and runny noses, which noses, if they were wiped at all, were wiped on the dirty mittens.
Miss Simonton and Miss Clark knew all our names. And remembered them forever. We could meet them in a store in Missoula ten, fifteen years later to be greeted by name and flooded with love.
Because they loved us. Truly did. And we warmed to that love the way little plants do to sunshine.
After the class session was over, Miss Simonton and Miss Clark asked, "Who needs a ride home?"
A forest of hands went up. Mine usually didn't, because Mamma usually sat in the back of the church, ready to take all children from around Willow Creek. But sometimes she couldn't come, and I was one of the children who piled into the Bible Club girls' little car. I sat up front, as I got carsick, and six or seven children crowded into the back, poking and pinching each other. "Who's closest?" Miss Simonton would ask.
"Me," a hand went up. And we were led through mile after mile of icy dirt road with ruts frozen into place, past cold, forlorn farmhouses and barns and bare trees and chilly looking cows and horses with long winter coats, while the snow-covered Rocky Mountain peaks looked down at us in the deepening gloom.
"Turn here," a little voice would command from the back seat, as the car jolted and jumped and skidded over the roads. "And here."
Gradually the crowd in back dwindled. Until there were just a little girl and a little boy. A freckle-faced boy with tears streaming down his face. "Why is he crying?"
"Because he's lost," said the little girl solemnly. "He doesn't know where he lives."
"Do you know where he lives?"
"Does anybody in here know where he lives?"
"Nope." (The little boy began to sob deeply and hopelessly.)
"Don't cry, sweetie. We'll find your home."
Not the highlight of the little boy's week or theirs, but eventually, after hours of travel, the little lost boy was home again.
Why did they do it?
Not for money. They came West from New Jersey with just $40 per month pledged to them. But their idea was never to get, but to give. The things they did, they did for love: the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Which love they poured out on all of us, year after year.
They died in the 1990s in Montana, which had become their true home. Shirley Rasmussen Downing describes Hazel Simonton's death:
"Cathy called me in Arizona and told me that Miss Simonton had just passed away . . . on the hospital heart floor. At 4:00 A.M. she spent ONE HOUR talking with Miss Simonton, as Miss Simonton wanted to tell her about me -- the Daily Vacation Bible School years and helping at camp, all the many, many verses I had learned at Bible School, and the Bible drills I had won.
"Then, after her long visit with Cathy, Cathy left for a bit, returned to check on her, and she had died."
How like her to die thinking of one of her children -- for we were all her girls and boys.
Her family back East sent a nephew to represent them at the funeral. He arrived at the church early and was seated in a front pew in the almost empty auditorium. He had said he couldn't give a speech, but the pastor didn't know that and called on him. He bravely went to the front of the auditorium and turned around. And gaped to find the church now packed, the balcony filled, and people standing at the rear.
All the little boys and girls Hazel Simonton and Jean Clark had loved all those years had grown up and had children and grandchildren, and hundreds of them were there that day to show their love and respect.
Because Hazel Simonton and Jean Clark loved us. And we loved them right back.
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