Everybody has a story. I’ve always found it so interesting to hear people’s stories. Biographies are some of my favorite books to read. Nothing, though, can compare to listening to someone tell their story…..their real life story. I’m not talking about famous people. I’m talking about common, everyday people like you and like me.
There is a story……an all too true story……that I have wanted to tell for a long time. A story of love, of sadness, of betrayal, and of ultimate forgiveness.
The story of Rachel and Leah. But not the Rachel and Leah you might be assuming I mean. This is not the Rachel and Leah story found in the Bible. No, this story is one that is all too close to my husband’s family. You see, this Rachel of whom I speak is Mama Rachel……the affectionate term by which Gary’s Grandmother, Rachel, was known.
Her story begins in the year 1905, when Leaketh Rachel Eller was born to Joseph Adam Eller and Florin Bavaria Moten. I include their full names because I find those mountain names to be so intriguing……so full of the rich heritage of the Smoky Mountains where they lived. It was in Weaverville, North Carolina, where Rachel was born. This little mountain community in western North Carolina was home to the Ellers.
They later moved to Flat Creek, not too far from Weaverville, where Rachel was raised……along with Robert, Roy, Mary Jo, Leah, John, and Jack. At the age of 12, Rachel went forward in their small country church and made a profession of faith, as it is often called. But Rachel would later tell everyone that she really wasn’t saved on that day. She made a firm decision to follow Christ two years later, at the age of 14, after singing in the church choir and being under great conviction about her sinful heart. That day, after she had washed the Sunday dishes, she went out behind the house. She walked up through the garden into a clearing in the pine trees. There she knelt on a large granite boulder and repented, promising the Lord to faithfully follow Him all the days of her life. Her commitment to follow Christ and His desires for her life that day never waned. She lived that life both publicly and privately before her acquaintances, her friends, and more importantly, her family. That decision to follow Christ totally changed her life, evident more than ever in the coming hard years.
There was a man in those mountains, a good man, named William Edgar Edmonds. Edgar had been in the army, fighting in Mexico against Pancho Villa. When he was discharged from the army, he became a structural steel worker. And somehow he met Rachel.
Edgar and Rachel, he twelve years her senior, fell in love and were married in 1922. Rachel was only 18. Edgar was 30. Edgar lovingly called Rachel “Puny” because she had appendicitis shortly after they were married. Another, deeper pain entered their lives when Rachel lost their first baby.
But more children followed. Willene, Jay, Betty, and Mary Leah were born while Edgar and Rachel lived on Balsam Avenue in Asheville, North Carolina. Edgar was a hard worker whose steel jobs took him far away from home for extended lengths of time.
Edgar left the steel jobs to take over a service station and garage so he could be home with his family. One autumn day he came home for lunch and told Rachel that he was going hunting with two friends. The three men later got in a small boat and proceeded to cross the French Broad River. Recent heavy rains made the river run high and the current strong as they set out in their boat. There is much mystery about what really happened that day, but the tragic end was the same…..Edgar fell, or was pushed, from the boat and drowned.
It was November 19, 1932. The first policeman who went to Rachel’s door to give her the horrible news couldn’t bring himself to tell her, so a second policeman broke the awful news to her. Rachel was holding 3 month old Mary Leah, and in her shock she threw the baby in the air. Rachel’s sister, Mary Jo, was there and caught Mary Leah in her arms.
The heartache was made even worse by the fact that Edgar’s body couldn’t be found. The raging river made it impossible for searchers to find his body, even after using grappling hooks and dynamiting the river bottom. Rachel’s grief was deep and unending. For weeks, she walked the river banks looking for her Edgar.
Finally, on April 8, 1933, three boys decided to go swimming in the French Broad. They held hands as they waded in the cold water, daring each other to get wet. One of the boys stepped on something, looked down, and told the others that he had found Ed. Later, one of Rachel’s brothers identified Edgar’s body. No one would let Rachel see him, though she tried. And so she began her life for real as a widow with four young babies to care for.
It wasn’t easy for a young widow in those days to provide for herself, much less for herself and 4 children. Rachel was fortunate to have a mother and father who were still living and who loved her. They built her a house on Flat Creek, where she moved and where she set out to raise her children.
There was another man in those mountains……a man quite the opposite of Edgar. This man’s name was Wayne, but he is known by family simply and disdainfully as The Preacher. He did go around the mountains preaching, but by absolutely no means did this man know the Lord personally. You will understand soon why I say that.
The Preacher carried the mail in those mountain communities. He was married to a woman, but one day he told her that he had met another woman that he wanted to marry. He said that her name was Leah. Leah……Rachel’s sister. But in the meantime The Preacher found out about Rachel, now a widow, and probably assumed that Rachel had insurance money. So he wooed Rachel, all the while seeing Leah. Rachel, unaware of any of this……and probably in some desperation over her situation…..married The Preacher.
Rachel and The Preacher lived at Flat Creek where a son, Wayne, was born to them. The Preacher began moving his other chidren to Flat Creek. Yes, there were other children up in those mountains……children that Rachel knew nothing about……children that she began to care for.
The Preacher eventually moved the family down to South Carolina for a period of time. He made the children work in the cotton fields…..hot, hard work in the summer sun. Then he moved them all back to Flat Creek, where later a son was born to unmarried Leah. Rachel and her mother were both with Leah when her son was born. Unmarried Leah…..but they all knew that The Preacher was the father of this new baby. And in anger, justifiably, Joseph Eller disinherited his daughter, Leah.
The Preacher moved Rachel and the children to Bryson City, west of Asheville, deep in the Smoky Mountains. Then came the war, and The Preacher moved to Akron, Ohio. Rachel finished training as a machine operator so that she could help during the war, so The Preacher sent for her and some of the children to come to Akron. Rachel boarded a bus for the long trip to Akron. She finally arrived, exhausted no doubt, and stepped off the bus. There stood The Preacher…..and beside him, to Rachel’s shock, stood Leah…..holding a baby.
Leah lived there in Akron with Rachel and The Preacher. It’s hard to imagine how difficult that was for Rachel. At some point, The Preacher came back to Bryson City. Later, he told Rachel he had a heart attack, so she returned to care for him. Leah returned to Flat Creek.
The following years were full of great hardship and terrible times. When he was home, The Preacher was mean and selfish. Then he would be gone for long periods of time, saying he was preaching revivals. Rachel did what she could to make ends meet. She was a mail carrier, even traveling over the mountains to Asheville. She was a seamstress……a maid at a hotel…..worked in factories……and gardened and canned at all hours so that she could feed her children. And feed The Preacher’s children, whom she still kept with her.
Finally, one day Rachel had lived in that desperate situation long enough. The Preacher came home, yet again, but this time Rachel told him to be gone when she got home from work. Whether it was in the way she said it, or some other reason, The Preacher did leave and never came back.
Years later, Rachel and Leah’s mother, known as Granny Eller, decided to try to find Leah. She was ready to ask law enforcement for help, but guess who stepped in and found Leah? Rachel.
Rachel contacted Leah, living in Arkansas with The Preacher, and told her that she needed to contact their mother, now very old. Leah eventually came home to North Carolina for a visit. None of the family wanted anything to do with her, except for one sister. Rachel.
Over the remaining years of Leah’s life, Rachel kept in touch with her. The one person that you would think would never want to talk to Leah again, much less see her, was Rachel. But Rachel had learned some lessons since she gave her heart to Christ at the rock behind her parent’s house on Flat Creek. That young 14 year old girl never dreamed the turn her life would take, but she had given her life to Christ and by doing that, she walked on a narrow path not traveled by many.
It was a path of some joy, yes, yet for much of her life it was a path marred by pain and hurt for which she could never have prepared herself. But she was kept on that path by the God she knew and loved, to Whom she was always faithful, and Who taught her about forgiveness. His forgiveness of her, and so her responsibility to forgive those whom had hurt her so deeply.
I met Mama Rachel in 1978, when Gary and I were dating. I loved her from the start. She was kind and she was wise. She loved telling stories, with a sparkle in her eye and her mouth turned up in a grin before she would often let out her wonderful laugh. She was a faithful saint, a woman of prayer……and her prayers and her love are the reason that Gary came to know Christ. I never detected an ounce of bitterness in her.
When later I listened to this story of her life, I was stunned. Just stunned that she had endured such awful things, but more so that she wasn’t angry or bitter. She wasn’t angry or bitter because she had learned how futile and disobedient it was to live that way. To follow Christ meant you let Him have charge of it all, even forgiving the ones that to us were the most unforgivable of all.
To follow Christ also meant loving everyone, including Leah’s three boys. Mama Rachel always let them know that they were cared for by her and welcomed in her home. She also did the same for the preacher’s other children, laying aside any heartache she may have felt in order to help each of them. They sometimes lived with her and continued to visit her for the rest of her life. The fruits of her forgiveness were seen in the love that these children had for Rachel.
On January 21, 2005, Mama Rachel celebrated her 100th birthday.
Then 10 days later she entered heaven, free at last from age and pain and the hurts of her life. She was truly an amazing woman in so many ways, but none more so than in her ability to live her life in forgiveness…..and model to all of us how to do the same.
Well done, Mama Rachel! Such a good and faithful servant.