Lottie Cotton cared for me and my siblings as if we were her own kids. When she died this summer at age one hundred, a piece of me died too.
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WHEN LOTTIE COTTON WAS BORN, on September 6, 1902, in the tiny southeast Texas town of Liberty, there were no airplanes in the sky. There were no SUVs, no superhighways, no cell phones, no televisions. When Lottie was laid to rest this past July in Houston, there was a black Jesus looking after her from the wall of the funeral chapel. Most biblical scholars agree today that Jesus, being of North African descent, very likely may have been black. But Lottie was always spiritually color-blind; her Jesus was the color of love. She spent her entire life looking after others. One of them, I’m privileged to say, was me.
Lottie was not a maid. She was not a nanny. She did not live with us. We were not rich rug rats raised in River Oaks. We lived in a middle-class neighborhood of Houston. (My mother was one of the first speech therapists hired by the Houston Independent School District; my father traveled throughout the Southwest doing community-relations work.) Lottie helped cook and babysit during the day and soon became part of our family. I was old enough to realize yet young enough to know that I was in the presence of a special person. Laura Bush, my occasional pen pal, had this to say about Lottie in a recent letter, and I don’t think she’d mind my sharing it with you: “Only special ladies earn the title of ‘second mother.’ She must have been a remarkable person, and I know you miss her.”
There are not many people like Lottie left in this world. Few of us, indeed, have the time and the love to spend our days and nights looking after others. Most of us take our responsibilities to our own families seriously. Many of us work hard at our jobs. Some of us even do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But how many would freely, willingly, lovingly share the architecture of the heart with two young boys and a young girl, a cocker spaniel named Rex, and a white mouse named Archimedes?
One way or another for almost 55 years, wherever I traveled in the world, Lottie and I managed to stay in touch. I now calculate that when Lottie sent me birthday cards in Borneo when I was in the Peace Corps, she was in her early sixties, an age that I myself am now rapidly, if disbelievingly, approaching. She also remained in touch with my brother, Roger, who lives in Maryland, and my sister, Marcie, who lives in Vietnam. To live a hundred years on this troubled planet is a rare feat. But to maintain contact with your “children” for all that length of time, and for them to have become your dear friends in later years, is rarer still.
For Lottie did not survive one century in merely the clinical sense; she was as sharp as a tack until the end of her days. At the ripe young age of 99, she could sit at the kitchen table and knowledgeably discuss politics or religion—or stuffed animals. Lottie left behind an entire menagerie of teddy bears and other stuffed animals, each of them with a name and personality all its own. She also left behind two live animals, dogs named Minnie and Little Dog, who had followed her and protected her everywhere she went. (Minnie is a little dog named for my mother, and Little Dog, as might be expected, is a big dog.)
Lottie is survived by her daughter, Ada Beverly (the two of them have referred to each other as “Mama” for at least the past thirty years), and one grandson, Jeffery. She’s also survived by Roger, Marcie, and me, who live scattered about a modern-day world, a world that has gained so much in technology yet seems to have lost those sacred recipes for popcorn balls and chocolate-chip cookies. “She was a seasoned saint,” a young preacher who’d never met her said at her funeral. But was it too late, I wondered, to bless the hands that prepared the food? And there were so many other talents in Lottie’s gentle hands, not the least of which was the skill to be a true mender of the human spirit.
I don’t know what else you can say about someone who has been in your life forever, someone who was always there for you, even when “there” was far away. Lottie was my mother’s friend, she was my friend, and now she has a friend in Jesus. She always had a friend in Jesus, come to think of it. The foundation of her faith was as strong as the foundation for the railroad tracks she helped lay as a young girl in Liberty. Lottie, you’ve outlived your very bones, darling. Yours is not the narrow immortality craved by the authors, actors, and artists of this world. Yours is the immortality of a precious passenger on the train to glory, which has taken you from the cross ties on the railroad to the stars in the sky.
By day and by night, each in their turn, the sun and the moon gaze through the window, now and again reflecting upon the gold and silver pathways of childhood. The pathways are still there, but we cannot see them with our eyes. Nor shall we ever again tread lightly upon them with our feet. Yet as children, we never suspect we might someday lose our way. We think we have all the time in the world.
I am still here, Lottie. And Ada gave me two of the teddy bears that I sent you long ago. As I write these words, they sit on the windowsill looking after me. Some might say they are only stuffed animals. But, Lottie, you and I know what’s really inside them. It’s the stuff of dreams.