Arlee Canter White
Memoir by Michael Usey
April 25, 2000
In his most scathing letter, Paul reams out the church in Galatia for lots of behavior and attitudes that he knows is beneath them. He goes on about these bad behaviors at some length, but, for just a moment at the end of the letter, he takes the high road and points out to them:
The fruit of the [God’s] spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. [Gal 5.22-23]
What he was trying to say to his charges was that, if you try to live life with God’s wild spirit, then your life will show it. You will become more loving, more joyful, peaceful and patient, Paul said, knowing that the ones who received his letter really needed to be more of all those things. Live into God’s wild spirit, he said, in the one passage that whispers in a letter full of shouts.
In Arlee’s obituary on Easter Sunday, Joe wrote that she was “patient, quiet, and selfless,” having “devoted her life to her family.” These are words rarely spoken about a person’s life, and even more rarely are they true, as they are with Arlee. But Joe ought to know, since they’ve loved each other for over 64 years.
They met in 1936, when Joe was fresh out of high school and had just started working at Revolution Mill. Joe noticed immediately Arlee, who was a couple of years older, and who was quite noticeable: she had striking brown eyes and dark hair, and excellent posture. If she noticed Joe at all, she didn’t let on. Joe says she probably thought he was a joke, a young man five years younger who liked her a lot.
After about six months, Joe made the preemptive strike: he bought her a Christmas present of a beautiful floral print bathrobe. This softened her and she said yes to a date. They agreed to meet downtown and go to a movie at the Carolina theater. Joe was standing on a street corner waiting for her. Nell Ray, Arlee’s close friend (and Janice Kirkman’s aunt), was driving Arlee downtown to meet Joe. Nell say him first; “There he is!” she said. Arlee said, “Keep going! Keep going! Drive on past him.” Nell disagreed, “No, go on and meet him.” And she did.
They dated about a year. A hot dog and a piece of pie at the lunch counter at Kress, followed by a movie or going for a walk: this was their average date. She was a woman of good taste, a sense of class, and who didn’t need expensive things to convey that elegance. Her favorite colors in clothes were brown, which set off her olive complexion, and red. They married. Joe left the mill, went to Southern Dairy, then the Navy, and finally to the gas station that he owned and ran for 37 years.
Arlee worked for a couple years more after they were married, until Don was born. She wanted to stay home with her children, and Joe liked that idea too. It wasn’t always easy. In 1943, Joe was in Florida with the Navy, and she had two boys, Don and Terry then aged 7 and 1, plus her grandmother to care for, and no driver’s license.
It was as a mother (and later as a grandmother) that she really shined. To make a go at the gas station, Joe had to work 60 to 75 hours a week. So the responsibility for raising the boys fell on her. Joe’s real mother died as an infant, so he really didn’t know what a real mother was until he saw Arlee in action. Arlee had 7 sisters and one brother—she was the next to last, and the last one living—so she knew a lot about parenting from her own family.
Her favorite language of love was cooking. She prepared a big breakfast, a hearty lunch for Joe to come home to, and a wonderful dinner. Sunday noon was the big meal of the week, at which Don remembers that had one of the big three: fried chicken, country fried steak, or pot roast.. Terry’s favorite was cornbread dressing. And she was thrifty. She spent money carefully and never on herself, even though Joe encouraged her to occasionally. She was smart, and knew how to make a grand meal on little money. Her dishes featured many vegetables from her own garden. Arlee and Joe loved to have a huge vegetable garden, and they grew enormous and delicious tomatoes that I have received on many occasions. She grew vegetables, and God grew the fruits of the spirit in her.
She loved her sons deeply. Terry remembers being so proud of her at school functions that Arlee looked younger than the other moms. Terry was the rowdy one, and got lots of spanking growing up, but she loved him deeply. She loved Don especially, as her first born son. She kept his picture handy and would say, “That’s my boy.” She was loving, faithful, and loyal, especially to her family.
Her passion, says her granddaughter Dana, was taking care of little people. Dana remembers many, many times just hanging out with Arlee. They would cook together, and “she let me believe that I was helping her,” Dana remembers. They played dress up together, Arlee calling Dana her princess. When, as a child, Dana’s parents told her that she was going to her see her grandmother, she quickly announced, “I’m ready to go!” All good grandparents are confederates in crime with their grandchildren, and Arlee was no exception: she got Dana hooked on coffee as a child, with lots of sugar and cream. Arlee was happy, and her happiness spilled over to others.
She loved her home, where she lived for 50 years. She planted flowers and tended them, especially scarlet sage. She was extremely hard-working; she didn’t have a washer or dryer until after Joe retired. She loved her church, and worked hard here too. Arlee headed up the College Mother program, and had several college girls into her home as well. She picked up many of the older women, and brought them to church. She was strong volunteer with the Red Cross, working on the Blood Mobile. Her friendly personality set all whom she met at ease. She read her Bible daily—more than Joe—and studied her Sunday school lesson. For 30 years she sang in our choir in that very loft, praising God and living into the beauty of music. She and Joe only sat together on Sunday nights since she was always in the choir loft on Sunday mornings.
She was here every Sunday. She was hearty of disposition, and she would have none of this “retiring from church” business that some do. She was a minister to me, as she came by every week on the way out with a smile and a joke. She loved to say to me on the way out from service, “Preacher, I’m okay, but I don’t know what to do with these two,” pointing to Don and Joe. Or, “Preacher, I believe you’re getting better …’course I don’t hear too well.” Or this gem, “Each sermon you preach is better than the next.”
She adored Joe, and he did the same to her. The first thing they would say to each other when they woke up was “I love you.” They were committed to each other, and pulled as team in the hard parts of life. In the last couple of years, she had Alzheimer’s disease. It was hard on both of them, especially Joe, who said to me on several occasions, “I had many, many good years with that woman, and I’m not going to leave her now that things are rough.” Alzheimer’s is difficult on the caretaker; many call caring for a person with it “the 36-hour day.” Joe thought that “for better or worse, and in sickness and in health,” meant just that so he cared for her. They had promised each other that the one would send the other to a nursing home if such a thing ever happened. But Joe could not give her up to people who did not know her or love her. After a couple years of tears, Joe’s sense of humor reappeared. Arlee said to him one day, “You’re very good to me, but I think my first husband was better.” Joe saw that for what it was: a supreme compliment.
Arlee had moments of recognition. You know that she and Joe walked all over creation. Until they were in their late seventies, they walked 10 miles a day—5 in the morning, 5 at night. In their eighties they had to cut it back to 6 a day. They went walking last Thursday; after 100 yards, Arlee told Joe she had to go back. She could not make it all the way back; he had to help her up the driveway. On the morning that she died, she and Joe spend part of the morning telling each other how much they loved each other. She knew who he was. She was weak from the walk the day before. Joe has bathed her, and changed her twice. He was outside in the garage, getting ready to finish mowing the yard, when she called his name. He came in quickly, and he picked her up from the sofa. As he held her, she went completely limp like a doll. She died in the perfect place, being held by her beloved husband.
The timing of her death was nearly perfect. Before her own health degenerated, before it broke Joe’s health, she died quickly, almost instantly at home, on a sunny spring day, on Good Friday, the day of her Lord’s death, and in her husband’s arms, after they had 62 good years together. Death is always hard on those left behind, but hers was a good death. In her the fruits of God’s spirit grew large and mature.
One last story. Arlee use to walk around her neighborhood often in the last few years. Joe worried about her at first, either going with her, or following her in the car. Then he noticed this: she always came home. She always found her way home, and most often with a handful of flowers that she had liberated from a neighbor’s yard. Sometimes she was later than Joe wanted her to be, but she never got lost, and always came home, rain or shine. A couple of weeks ago, the weather turned bad and Joe went out to look for her. He went all over the neighborhood, until he came home, and found her—seated, completely dry and waiting for him. She had gone home ahead of him, with a handful of flowers, and was waiting for him—as she does now.