Memoir by Michael Usey
February 15, 2000
Psalm 23, John 14, Revelation 21: It’s no surprise, really, that Harold chose these passages among the many that were Thelma’s favorites. They are classic texts to reflect on during the death of a loved one, for they speak to God being with us past, present, and future. And if God is with through all of time, what can overcome us? What should we fear? Nothing and no one, for God’s love is stronger than death and truer than life.
I love to hear Psalm 23 at services that are a witness to the resurrection. Think about it: how many times have you hear this psalm read? When I hear it, I think of all the places I’ve been when it was spoken. When I hear it read, I recall the people at whose funerals I heard it spoke afresh. It reminds me how many, many people have passed on to God, passing through the valley of the shadow of death, to dwell in the house of our Lord forever. As to the person who has died, the difficult times are in her past; Thelma has faced the shadow of death with God’s presence never deserting her. If we look back on the times we have lost people we loved deeply, we can face the great mystery of life and death, in the presence of the author of both, who loves us. God is with us in our past.
It’s easy to see God’s presence in Thelma’s past. Born Thelma Powell on December 13, 1910 to John and Rosa Powell in Mansfield, Illinois, they moved to a farm near Ames, Iowa, when Thelma was three. There she had a black pony she loved named Blackie. She had an older brother four years her senior named Harold, a sister five years younger named Doris, and another sister, Dorothy, eleven years younger. Like the pony, she loved them too. Evidently the family moved to Columbus, Indiana in 1928, where Thelma graduated from high school the next year.
In 1930, she started working for Reliance Mfg. Co, makers of Big Yank clothes. Little did she know she would, eleven years later, marry a big Yank. Because of her skill and leadership, she was soon a Foreman (then called a “Forelady”) in charge of a sewing line making men’s shirts. Again, she was promoted, being sent to Hattiesburg, Miss., to help open a new factory there. After coming back to Columbus, she was promoted to Reliance’s main office in Chicago in the Men’s Engineering department—not a bad place for a single woman to be.
There she met Harold Hugh Holler. This is one of the lovely ironies of their relationship: when Harold was first in Chicago, he was working in ladies dresses, and Thelma was in men’s clothes. You have to be very careful how you say that last sentence! As Harold likes to say, two small town kids found each other in the big city of Chicago. After meeting in the main office, they started dating in 1940, were engaged on May Day 1941, and married September 20, 1941, Thelma and Harold were married over 58 years—how many people can say that these days?—and knew each other for over 60 years. Remarkable.
In May 1942, Harold received his officer’s commission in the Army. The next year he took command of Army Salvage Repair Company that followed the rest of the army all over Europe. Except for brief times, he and Thelma were separated until December 1945. During the time of Harold’s absence, the main office sent Thelma to various places to help with engineering problems. After the service, the Hollers were reunited and found an apartment close to Lake Michigan. One of their favorite Saturday night dates was to have a hot dog from a vendor on the picturesque waterfront, and walk on the shoreline, dotted with lights, in the cool summer air. They spent many nights walking, talking, and listening to the big band sounds coming drifting over the water. They loved to go dancing at the Argonne ballroom on the north side of Chicago. This is my favorite memory of this couple who loved each other dearly.
Reliance moved them around some, even to Roxboro, N.C., before they settled in Greensboro in 1961. Thelma got a job with Belks in Friendly Center in the Ladies Ready-to-Wear dept. With her great taste in clothes and her extensive knowledge of their manufacture, she was a very successful saleswoman. She retired from there in 1973. She and her beloved husband loved both trips to Myrtle Beach and the Blue Ridge Parkway. She loved dogs, especially two cocker spaniels named Lady and Dutchy. She was a long time member of the Friendship Sunday School class, and filled in as teacher when needed, and was very active at College Park. She was a grand woman with a real sense of style—she dressed very well—and pink was her favorite color. She cared about her family and friends, and wasn’t afraid to show it. She was the last of her birth family. In the last years, she suffered much physically, but her husband was with her through it all.
In John 14, Jesus is reassuring his disciples that although he was going to die soon, he would not leave them alone. This passage speaks to our present situation. It’s Jesus’ promise to us in times of bereavement, when we miss those whom we love dearly. When we wonder how we survive without her, God’s spirit, the Comforter, will be with us. The spirit reminds that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, and receives Thelma into God’s presence.
Revelation 21 is a promise for our future. The brokenness of this world is too much with us, and we are without those whom we love. But the promise of God is that we will live with them and God in a new heaven, and a new earth. With God, the old things have pasted away—death, tears, pain, separation. What we are left with is this: a promise about our future in God’s great love that completes the circle of our lives–past, present, and future.