There are some of us who feel like whoever is writing the big story of the universe has put us in the wrong chapter. We think we know just the way things should be and how to get everything to come right, but it doesn’t always work according to our plan. However, sometimes, if we manage to recognize it, we see what we get is better than we could have imagined. Some stay put and have a better outcome than if they had left. Others have to go looking for their personal paragraph in the correct chapter. That is the stuff of the story I want to share with you this time.
The Anchoress of Timber County
Wilburta Jenkins was an odd one, and she would have been odd in any group here in Timber County. Some folks thought she put on airs. “Gettin’ above herself,” they said. She wasn’t like all the other girls around here. She didn’t take to cleaning and cooking like other girls did. Her mother bought her a Little Homemaker set when she was five or so. You know, one of them sets with a little broom, kid size, and a dustpan—things like that. Well, Wilburta didn’t go around pretend cleaning like her mother expected. Wilburta left it all to lie outside until it rusted, and her mother had to throw it away. Wilburta preferred to sit under an old gnarled walnut tree in the front yard. She’d set there for all time, just looking at the clouds and the leaves and sometimes talking to a raggedy doll that she kept with her.
Of course, I didn’t see firsthand everything that went on in Wilburta’s life. I’ve pieced together the story, though, from this one and that one that’s told me what they remember. I was two years behind Wilburta in school so there were always stories left behind about her. Some of the teachers used to tell Wilburta stories. And, of course, neighbors would tell stories about her. And her mother’s friends, the ones that Mrs. Jenkins would confide in about her strange daughter.
I do remember how she looked. Not pretty. Interesting looking, maybe. She had always been on the plump side—like her mother. She had long black curly hair and deep blue eyes. People say she got that from her father, but I wouldn’t know. He ran off two months before Wilburta was born.
Ran off with a circus performer that came through Crossville that spring. She was a woman who, people say, could put her feet behind her head and walk around on her hands. I wonder what the fascination was for him. Anyway, he’d taken Mrs. Jenkins to the circus as a treat, or so it’s said, but left her in the parking lot. Just standing and waiting for him to come in the car and pick her up. He never did. I suppose she saw him in the divorce court, but who knows. Maybe she never saw him again. I never felt it proper to ask her.
So anyway, Mrs. Jenkins had Wilburta and lived off welfare for a while. Then she got a job right here in this same nursing home where I’m working. Old folks liked Mrs. Jenkins, I’ve heard. I also heard that Mrs. Jenkins tried to hold on to Wilburta long past the time that’s natural for a mother to hold on. She would never let her do anything that might have any danger in it. Wilburta never learned to ride a bike or swim. She wasn’t allowed to go camping or any of the things that other kids could do. I guess that’s why she was so bookish. Read a lot. Watched the old TV that Mrs. Jenkins managed to buy. Maybe that’s what ruined her eyesight. So by the time Wilburta was in her teens, and I remember this, she was plump, bordering on fat, with that long curly hair and black cat’s eye glasses. Oh yes, she never shaved her legs. That was a picture. In gym class, plump old Wilburta with her hairy legs sticking out of her gym shorts. She wasn’t any good in gym.
The strangest part of Wilburta’s story took place in 1965. Well, the strangest as far as I or anyone I know’s concerned. I was 15 that year, so Wilburta must have been 17 or something in that neighborhood. She was at the age when she wanted to pull away, and that just made her mother want to hold on all the tighter. I guess she knew that Wilburta had to grow up and she wanted one last chance to keep her little girl whose daddy she couldn’t. Well, you know what I mean.
It happened in the summer and, like I said, I’ve pieced together the story from here and there. It’s as accurate as I can make it, I guess.
Mrs. Griffin, the school librarian, swears Wilburta got the idea from an old book she found in the back of the library. That doesn’t surprise me with Wilburta being as bookish as she was. She didn’t read the popular teen romances like the rest of us girls. She was always looking for something that didn’t exist on the shelves. She would spend study hall time searching the library shelves for just the right book. After a while, we got used to her. Mrs. Griffin said she quit recommending the new books to Wilburta because Wilburta would thank her very kindly but leave the book on the desk in favor of some old tattered history or biography or something on philosophy maybe. The book that must have given her the idea was a book on medieval life. I’m not too sure what it’s all about, but I’ve heard that there were some women who used to live in the church until they died. Wilburta didn’t move into the church, just the tool shed behind the Methodist church that was next door to her mother’s house.
Reverend Marshall told how Wilburta came to him for advice. He had a hard time advising her, though. He knew how bad her mother wanted to keep her near and felt sorry for Mrs. Jenkins ’cause she had nobody else. But he knew Wilburta wasn’t going to be happy living her life in Timber County. Her mind was all out to places she’d never been, and she wanted so much more than she could expect to find here.
What it was was that Wilburta wanted to go live with her aunt in Parkersburg so she could finish high school there and get classes she couldn’t get at Timber County High School. She wanted to study things that weren’t taught here so she’d have a better chance at a scholarship to the University over in Morgantown. Or just anywhere. Wilburta wanted to find bigger libraries where there might be books with things in them she didn’t already know. Oh sure, there were kids in her class bound for college, but those were kids from the “better” part of town whose parents had money and subscribed to the Wheeling paper. Those kids would just be carrying on their families’ traditions, just holding their place in line.
Reverend Marshall told her to pray about it and the Lord would answer in His own good time. Seems to me Reverend Marshall wanted to pass the buck on up the celestial ladder, if you know what I mean.
Mrs. Clooney told how Wilburta and her mother got into it on one hot Monday afternoon. Mrs. Clooney lived next door to the Jenkinses and could hear every word of the argument. Besides, Mrs. Jenkins confided in Mrs. Clooney all the time and filled her in on any missing pieces of the story. I got this from Mrs. Clooney’s son, Roger, who I used to date once in a while until he went off to Viet Nam in ‘69 and got blew up in some kind of blast there. Too bad, I think I could have liked Roger a lot.
So, anyway, Wilburta told her mother that she wanted to go away to Parkersburg, like I said, and stay with her aunt and go to school. She said—and I thought this was clever—she said, “I’m not leaving for good, Mom, just for better.”
“Well, I’ve tried to give you the best I could,” Mrs. Jenkins came back. “If you can’t appreciate what you have then maybe you should just quit school and get a job and help make some of the money around here.”
Wilburta tried to explain that she was grateful, but her voice was strained like she was trying not to yell. She said she wanted a chance to make a better life for both of them.
“How can my life get better if my only child can’t wait to leave me?” By this time, Mrs. Jenkins was screeching at Wilburta. Screeching, that’s what Roger said his mother called it.
There didn’t seem to be any way out for either of them.
Monday evening Wilburta moved into the Methodist tool shed. Nobody much used it for anything. It was empty except for a couple rakes and a hoe. Maybe there were two or three old metal flower baskets left over from a funeral sometime in the past. Wilburta swept out the building and moved in. She took a folding lawn chair with her. You know, one of those that has a place for your feet and if you lay it out straight it’s kind of like a cot. That’s what she intended to sleep on. She had a pillow and a blanket, too, I guess—nights can get cool even in the summertime around here. She took water and some non-perishable food items. She also had a Bible, a dictionary, and a one volume Works of Shakespeare—she had no intention of coming out until she was ready. She put a pad lock on the inside of the door. O, yes, in case you’re wondering she took an old slop jar with her. People always want to know about bathroom facilities. Or at least I do.
She moved right in and word soon got around. Reverend Marshall tried to talk to her. He stood by the door and tried to reason with her. “Come on out, Wilburta,” he said. “This is no way for a girl your age to act.”
“What about St. …?” It was some saint or other she asked him about. I never could keep those things straight. I guess he couldn’t either because he ignored her question.
“But your mother wants you to come out. She’s worried about you.”
“I’m worried about me too, Reverend. If I stay here in Timber County all my life, my mind will wither up in me. My brain will rattle around in my head until the sound of it makes me crazy.”
Most folks thought it was too late to prevent that already.
“Come out and we can talk about this.” Reverend Marshall was always a good one to want to talk. Ineffective talk, as you can see by now.
“I did talk to you. You told me to pray about this.”
“Yes. I plan to be gone in three days.”
“Yes. I told the Lord I’m ready to die. I can’t live here any longer like this, and I’ve asked him to take my life in three days. Three’s as good a number as any, don’t you think, Reverend?”
“Wilburta, you can’t mean this.”
“Oh yes I do, Reverend, and I mean it with all my heart.”
So word got around Crossville and all around the county. People began to drive by and look at the place where the girl had locked herself up in the Methodist tool shed. People came into town in cars covered with dust from the country dirt roads. People with kids who pointed at the tool shed and shook their heads. Nobody had ever heard of such a thing.
After awhile, some people would get out and walk to the edge of the church yard. Then some got bolder and walked to the tool shed.
Mrs. Abbot was the first to go to the little side window. “Wilburta. Wilburta,” she called softly, or so I’ve been told. “Wilburta, why don’t you come out of there? You know this is no way for a girl your age to act.”
“Why not?” Wilburta came back at her. Funny thing about Wilburta’s age. Her mother thought she was too young for a mind of her own and everybody else thought she was too old.
“Why, a girl your age should think about growing up and finding a nice boy to date. You should go to parties. Think about getting married and having babies.”
“Is that what you did, Mrs. Abbot?”
“Have you been happy? Have your dreams come true?”
That was an idea that you would have thought had never crossed Mrs. Abbott’s mind before. Had she been happy?
She went away and left Wilburta alone.
I’ve heard stories that other folks came and talked to Wilburta through the window. Some people brought her good things to eat. You know, fried chicken and biscuits. Cake and cookies. People wanted to be part of this strange happening so they could tell the story later.
Anchoress. That’s what Reverend Marshall began to call her. He said that’s what the idea was that Wilburta had come up with from that dusty old book in the school library. He’d checked with Mrs. Griffin and knew all about the book. It was about a woman in the middle ages, he told us, who felt a calling from God to shut herself off from the world by being walled up in a part of the church building. She was called an anchoress. This was a new idea for people around here. The only anchors we’d heard of were on ships in the sea miles away from here. People began to think that maybe Wilburta was meant for other places after all.
People began to ask Wilburta to pray for them. Mr. Looney wanted to get a bank loan to improve his farm. Wilburta said he could pray for it as good as anybody, why did he need her to pray on his behalf. She used words like that all the time—we’d got used to the way Wilburta talked years before. He answered that since she was living in the Methodist tool shed, he guessed she might be a little closer to God. “No, just further away from my mother,” she answered him, but said she could mention him in her prayer next time she prayed. However, couldn’t he find some way to make some improvements without signing over his life and belongings to the bank. Mr. Looney said he would try a little harder to think of some other way that would leave his property clear.
I guess he did. Because he did make some improvements to his farm and didn’t have a big mortgage like some others did that lost their places back in the ‘70s.
Lori Cambridge told later that she was trying to decide whether to marry John Schoolcraft or Larry Donovan. She said she went up to the shed at night and talked to Wilburta. Wilburta gave her good advice. She didn’t marry either one. It’s a good thing, too, because John went to the pen the next year for car theft and Larry Donovan became the not so proud papa of Sally Beacon’s baby boy in six months time. I asked Lori how Wilburta talked her out of it. “I’m not sure,” she told me, “but Wilburta told me that I was young and had plenty of time. She said if I couldn’t be sure which I wanted without asking her then maybe I didn’t want either one. She told me to take my time and look the situation over. Well, I did, and I began to see those two boys for what they were. John had a wild streak, I noticed, and Larry had a roving eye. I just began to see things I had ignored in the past.”
It’s a good thing too. Lori met the new druggist who came to town a couple years later. They got married and live in a new house out in the Parker Addition. That’s the place with all the fancy homes. They got a couple nice kids too. One of them just started medical school.
It went on like that day and night. People coming to talk to Wilburta and going away thinking they had an answer for their problem. Maybe they thought that Wilburta had a direct line to God with her living there in the Methodist tool shed.
But I wondered what she really thought. I wondered if she lay there at night and thought about dying in three days. Did her hands turn clammy at night when she was alone? Did her stomach churn? I would have been scared to make such a deal with God. I would have been scared that it would happen.
People kept coming to her for advice, and after a while she began to give them Bible answers. Nothing specific. Somebody would ask her a question and she’d open the Bible to just anywhere and read them a verse. “Go home and think about that. You’ll find your answer,” she’d say. Mrs. Griffin says that after a while she got to using the Shakespeare and folks didn’t really know the difference.
So things went on like that for three days.
Thursday at six o’clock would be the end of the full time. Reverend Marshall had a church full on Wednesday evening for prayer meeting. There were so many in attendance that he decided to take up a special collection. He collected in over $100.00. More than the take on any given Sunday morning.
But Thursday at six, that was the time that over 75 people gathered in the church yard waiting to see what would happen. It must have been a lot of pressure for Wilburta. Would she die? Would God give some sign of what he expected from her? Her mother had tried to stay out of the way and not talk to many people. I think she was just plain mortified by the whole situation. She waited on her back porch on that Thursday evening. I happened to be there. I saw the whole thing.
Promptly at six when everything was quiet except for the night bugs beginning their song and an occasional whippoorwill cry. Like I said, the people were all quiet like they were one person holding their breath. From inside the shed there was a little rattle—the pad lock—and out stepped Wilburta Jenkins dressed in a tropical flowered muumuu. She stood on the top step and stared down at the crowd. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. We waited. Would she walk away? Would she drop dead? It seemed like forever that she stood there looking down at us. The three days plus 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, were up. Wilburta came down the steps and headed for home. It didn’t look like she was going to die. People began to talk to each other and laugh easily and walk away.
Mrs. Jenkins came over to the church yard. I heard her say, “You have embarrassed me to no end. How will I ever hold my head up around here? We’ll have to move. I’m going to take you to live with Uncle Frank in Weirton. I’ll have to sell the house. I’ll have to get a different job up there. Well, what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?”
“I think I’d better brush my teeth. They feel a little fuzzy after three days of eating in the tool shed.” That’s what she said, I swear. I have always thought it’s the funniest thing and so typical of Wilburta.
So, anyway, they did move away. Mrs. Jenkins just rented out the house and came back to it in a few years after some of the memories of that summer had died down. Wilburta did get a scholarship and go to college. Not the university but a good enough state school near Wheeling. She went on to some university out west after that for graduate studies. She studied drama—wouldn’t you have guessed? She ended up a college professor of drama or communications or something like that. She acts in local theater where she lives over in Ohio. Her mother brags on her now.
And Reverend Marshall still takes visitors round to the Methodist tool shed if they ask him about it. He looks like he thinks something important might have happened there but maybe it’s one of God’s mysteries, and he doesn’t quite understand it