Dear friend, activist, inspiration and incessantly loving wife, mother, sister, and Mamaw Becky Simpson died earlier this month at age 77. Here is a letter I wrote to her on the plane to Chile on July 11, the day before she died.
This is a note to thank you for all that you have given to your family, your community, the world and me in your 77 years of life. I can’t tell you how much you’ve meant to me in the nearly quarter century since we first met in the summer of 1989, when I spent a weekend unloading fruit with Bobby, working on the Couch’s home near the post office on Route 421 and attending a Saturday night service that Lydia led.
I am so glad that Beverly May had us work and stay with you that weekend.
As you know, I enjoyed the time so much that I called you a year later when I was unable to find a teaching job to see if I could stay with you.
“We can’t pay you,” you told me. “But we can put you up and feed you.”
I’m tremendously grateful I took you up on your offer.
The months I spent living with the rest of your family and you in the fall of 1990 and the visits I made in the years after were some of the most meaningful of my life for many reasons.
I loved being around all of you and being included in the activities.
I loved traveling to pick up food and clothing with Bobby, trying not to get caught by his asking about what had happened to “that box,” yelling “Mountain Dew,” hearing him call a state trooper who thought we were running moonshine “Honey,” and being in a place whose purpose, as you always said, was not to give a handout, but a helping hand.
I also loved spending time with you.
I treasured hearing the stories you told me about your early life in the holler.
About how your first memory was of your brother Buford dying when he took sick during a big rainstorm and your father didn’t want to travel over the mountain because it was too dangerous.
About how, the next two winters, you fixed a cup of coffee and stayed up all night with Old Man Joe Hensley for two winters so that you wouldn’t let your sister Annie, or as you called her, Booger, die.
About how you used the poultice with crushed onions on her chest to nurse her back to health.
About how you had no shoes and didn’t go to school after third grade,
And about how, when the wealthy neighbor told you that she wasn’t in the habit of borrowing or lending the sugar you had asked for, you looked straight at her and told her to give it to you.
I appreciated your telling me about marrying Bobby and living in very humble circumstances, about what it was like for you when the floods came and Rickey died in the car accident, and about how your mother was a snake handler who got bit and didn’t suffer a bit while Preacher Shorty almost died after his bite.
I was honored by your sharing with me about what happened when the flood came, and how, bad back and all, you still managed to pull the children to safety, about how you lost everything, then began to fight at the state and federal level to have the companies take responsibility for the damage the strip mining did to the land, about how you fought for years before getting $1.25 million awarded to dredge the creek, but weren’t allowed to participate in the discussions about what happened to the money.
I remember the time you told me about how you were sitting there crying with Mary Beebe on the side of the road most of the way up the mountain when she said, “You can’t come to them and they won’t come to you, maybe you can find another way.”
That was the moment when the vision came for the Survival Center, when you told Bobby that you’d have a mountain of food, a mountain of clothing and a molehill of money.
All three came true.
I will always remember how you stood up to Sindey Fee when he tried to keep you from seeing your family’s grave and when you stared down the people who had trapped Sowhali when he was walking down the holler with a white woman.
You showed me how you can start with so little in a material sense, but, powered by love and justice and a desire to do good, can help tens of thousands of people.
I remember how you never, ever said No to helping someone in whatever you could, how you gave and gave and gave, to your children, their spouses, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the tens of thousands of people who came from youth and church and family groups from all over the country to learn and help and pray and give.
I’m thankful that I got to see and know and spend time with you in the kitchen, to share a pop and see how, despite pain in your teeth and back and jaw no person should ever endure, you just kept giving.
I’ll also remember the lighter moments, like your love of professional wrestling and your relationship with your twin Hiram, who always seemed to have a special place in your heart, and how you’d get dressed up and wear heels and do your nails.
Becky, I’m sorry that I never brought Dunreith and Aidan to you and that we didn’t complete the project about your life the way I had hoped.
But I do want you to know that I will continue to tell people about you, about your fearlessness and kindness, your tenderness and exquisite generosity, your knowledge of who you are and where you were from, about the grace and strength and grit with which you lived and the glorious legacy you are leaving behind.
I’m sad that I’ll not see you again in person and sorry that you have been suffering with lung cancer. It’s a hard way to end what has been such a beautiful life, but at least it gives many of the people who have known and loved and been touched and moved and changed by you a chance to share and reach back out to you.
I am one of them.
I thank you.
I’ll miss you.
I love you.