My cousin Rae Stribling died over the weekend, and one of God’s most unique people has made the transition from corporality to memory.
Rae was my grandmother’s sister’s daughter and a favorite of her Aunt Van (short for Savannah), who bequeathed to Rae the gift of removing warts. Rae got such a kick out of people believing she had the power of dewartification that she cultivated a reputation as a “voodoo woman” who could cure various ailments or make an unwanted husband disappear like an ugly wart.
I’ve always been skeptical about the warts, but any number of people in Lincoln County, Georgia swear that Rae charmed their unwanted protuberances away.
And I was never sure whether Rae believed her own voodoo business or just enjoyed the attention, but there were plenty who believed in her powers. Alas, no amount of voodoo could counteract the brain cancer that finally did her in at age 81.
Rae went back to church a few times after her diagnosis, but decided that she didn’t want a funeral. She talked her son-in-law into building her a pine box coffin of reclaimed wood from an old cotton gin, and was specific that she wanted the word “cotton” stamped on it somewhere as a reminder of how hard she had worked in the cotton fields as a young woman.
She gave her children instructions to hold a “viewing” at which she’ll be laid out in one of her favorite party dresses with full makeup. She told them to “clean up and wear your dancing shoes,” wanting the occasion to be more celebratory than mournful: whether the funeral home will provide a DJ, I don’t know. She’ll be cremated afterward so there won’t be a grave to visit, but if Rae gets a chance to be the one making visitations as a ghost, she certainly will.
A few years back I published a book of sermons entitled Telling Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2008). It consists of original short stories — often of the fantastical sort — that I wrote to set the mood for getting into particular biblical texts. Only one of the stories was true, and that was a mini-biography of Rae, entitled “How Rae Got the Voodoo.” It was told with her encouragement, and was perhaps one of the more unbelievable stories in the book. I used it to introduce a meditation on the so-called “witch of Endor” who called up the spirit of Samuel for King Saul in 1 Samuel 28. Both Rae and the ghostwife who assisted Saul used approaches that many would consider sketchy, but their intentions were good.
I don’t know if there will be more warts in Lincoln County now, but there will be one less colorful character. I suspect that tales about Rae will grow taller with the telling, however, and it’s unlikely that she’ll be forgotten.
I, for one, will often recall one of God’s most singular gifts to the world, and am grateful to have known her.