Williams column: That Old Phareeeoh

  • Posted: Monday, April 29, 2013 12:48 a.m.

Children always know who their true friends and advocates are, those, who without affectation, go about their daily, heart-dictated business of seeing to the nurturing of children. Oftentimes, the most sympathetic and empathetic hearts involved in that important task are those which have been beating longer than others.

When my daughter Rachel was a child, she would sit out in the church congregation with a tall, slender, elegant, white-haired lady, since both my late wife Diane and I were members of the choir. I remember her giving Rachel a present on a seasonal occasion or birthday. The lady was in her late seventies and soft-spoken. Her soft-spokeness extended to the soft pronunciation of the letter “r,” in that manner of true, genteel Virginians; and she also pronounced the word “house” as only they do.

When my son Jeremy was a child, the church’s caretaker of young children during the service was a lady by the name of Mrs. Tensch, but she always referred to herself as “Tenschie,” and encouraged the children to do so as well, so they happily followed suit. Tenschie, like the lady with whom Rachel had sat, was also white-haired, but unlike her, was much shorter and somewhat rotund. I can still picture a chorus of toddlers excitedly exclaiming “Tenschie! Tenschie!” while jumping up and down in testament to how much they loved her. If she had lived during the Middle Ages, I could have easily imagined an old woodcut of Tenschie leading the children out of the town of Hamelin, even without the playing a pipe. (Hamelin’s children’s absence would then have been due to a life-long, happy outing with Tenschie, instead of being the result of death from the plague, as supposed by later conjecture concerning the origin of the “Pied Piper” tale.)

There was a day care provider in another county where I lived who always made it a point to publicly profess: “I care about the children of the county.” But I never saw those children in her “care” jumping up and down, as I did with Tenschie.

After a brief illness, Tenschie passed away; and when I learned of her passing, it reminded me of my first hearing of the passing of that old television “child care provider,” Captain Kangaroo.

As a small child, my own personal connection to a similar church caregiver, also blessed with a cumulative wealth of sympathetic heartbeats, was in the person of Mrs. Viola Odell at Saint Paul’s Lutheran Church.

Mrs. Odell was one of that select group, whose absence would have resulted in the sizable reduction of God’s work on this earth — in other words: “The Women of the Church!”

I remember being part of a group of young children gathered around Mrs. Odell for her reading of stories from the Bible at Saint Paul’s.

I seem to want to think that Mrs. Odell might have also been one of the very few of those older ladies who always fixed persimmon pudding for Saint Paul’s Homecoming. I’m not exactly sure; but as with one of those word association tests of psychology, whenever I say or hear the name: “Mrs. Odell,” her Bible reading first comes to mind, immediately followed by an image of persimmon pudding in a serving dish. (For those of you who may worry about me when I mention “psychological tests,” my familiarity with these things comes solely from being a psychology major at Appalachian, and not from ever being “someplace” else.)

Mrs. Odell was thin, and was somewhat delicate in her demeanor and voice, but also seemed to have a persevering spirit. Thinking back now, she reminds me a little of the similarly delicate, old-time actress Lilian Gish, especially in the scene where she was reading the Bible to a pair of orphaned children to whom her character had given shelter in the old movie “The Night of the Hunter.”

Of the many Bible stories read to us by Mrs. Odell, I particularly remember the story of Moses and the Israelites’ Exodus from their bondage in Egypt. Though the Exodus was epic just in itself, I always associate Mrs. Odell with it (another psychological association) due to a slight peculiarity of her pronunciation of the name of Moses’ nemesis, ”Pharaoh.” In her reference to that Exodus-specific ruler of Egypt, she would invariably call him: “Phareeeoh” or “Old Phareeeoh” (“Phareeeoh” being my closest semi-phonetic approximation to what she said). After reading each time that “Phareeeoh” had decided to let the Israelites go, she would then follow with: “But Old Phareeeoh’s heart was hardened.” It was a great credit to my self-control (but perhaps, more due to the manners which my mother and father were teaching me at the time) that I contained myself from correcting Mrs. Odell (although I did think about it every time I heard “Phraeeeoh”).

Some years later, and not long after my father’s death in 1966, I drove my mother over to Mrs. Odell’s home, as she had some sweet potatoes which she wanted to give us. Those potatoes, true to their name, were sweet, but as I remember it, the quality of their sweetness suffered in comparison to the “sweetness” of Mrs. Odell.

Thinking back to my self-repressed (more psychology) correction of Mrs. Odell’s pronunciation, I realize now that if I had rudely and publicly pointed out such a minor fault in so sweet a lady, it might have hurt her feelings; and it would also have made it seem that my young heart had become almost as hardened as the heart of “Old Phareeeoh” himself.

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