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Rest in Peace, Miss Mable Oxendine, age 95.

An elegy by Lumbee writer Vinita “Cookie” Clark:

“She’s Playing In The Angel Band”

The other day in heaven the orchestra leader when to God and said “I need another piano player to play in the Angel Band. Someone with those talented miracle hands.” Mable’s BFF Evelyn heard the rumor, she went to God and said ” my BFF who is still on Earth has those talented miracle hands and I know in my heart she would liike to play once again. My friend Mable has always played for you and I can tell you that to you she has been true.” So, God looked in the Book, found her name and said “go down to Earth Evelyn and ask her if she wants to come and play in the Angel Band.”

The other day Mable got an unexpected vistor when she got a knock on her hearts door. It was her BFF Evelyn whom she was so glad to see. She looked in her BFF’s eyes, at her smile and asked “have you came here for me?”

After a moment, Evelyn look at her childhood friend and said “Do you want to go to heaven and join the Angel Band? They need another piano player because they are singing up there all the time.” Sitting at her home, most of the time alone. Mable decided she would journey to heaven and play at foot of God’s throne. For countless years, she played at Berea Baptist and saw many come to the altar.

Upon her reply of “yes”. Mable found herself in a long white dress. Her once crippled hands no longer felt any pain. “This is classy” she said. Of course sis, we are going to heaven and there we have only the very best.”

Now, Mable’s hands are healed and she is playing once again. Think of the joy everyone feels in heaven when they see her as the new piano play in the Angel Band. She is sure the piano player at Berea Baptist Church will play “Amazing Grace” especially for her once again.

R.I.P Miss Mable, thank you for reminding me everytime you saw me that you never forgot my father Chase. You will be missed by so many. You made all of us proud.

I attended Miss Mable’s wake on Friday night, February 12, with my mother Louise. Mable was my cousin on my dad’s side–she and my dad were first cousins. I’ve known her all my life. She had important connections to my mom’s family too. As Cookie’s tribute above indicated, Miss Mable was a wonderful piano player and choral director–she directed the all-Indian Pembroke Men’s Chorus and Pembroke Ladies’ Chorus since their founding, in the 1950s. Both of my mother’s parents sang in these choruses, which performed at gospel singings all over the state, for white, black, and Indian audiences. My mother has many memories of Miss Mable and her distinctive piano style–bright, with an unusual syncopation that was her signature. Occasionally my mother would whisper these memories to me during the evening. In fact, one of the singers that night was Robert Earl Jacobs, the last living member of the original Pembroke Men’s Chorus.

The wake was held at Miss Mable’s church, Berea Baptist in Pembroke, right across from “the college,” or UNC-Pembroke. One elder told me that night that the land for the church and the orphanage that sat next to it (the Odom Home, an orphanage originally founded for Lumbee children) was given to the Indian community by a white man from the Robeson County town of Saint Pauls, back in the 1940s. This man was deeply disturbed by the fact that Indian orphans were sent to the Indian-only section of the state prison, because there was no Indian-0nly orphanage provided by the state of North Carolina, and children could not live at orphanages for blacks or whites. With the encouragement of Miss Mary Livermore, a white lady who served as a kind of informal social worker and missionary in the community (my mother lived with her during college and has lots of stories about her too), this gentleman from Saint Pauls decided to donate the land adjacent to the Indian Normal School (now UNC-P) for an orphanage and church. Members of the Indian community themselves then raised the money to build the orphanage and church, and the state only stepped in much later, after the Baptist Convention became involved in running the Odum Home.

But I wasn’t thinking about this bit of history when my mother and I sat down in a pew towards the back of the church, after viewing the body and hugging family members. Rather, my attention was immediately on the socializing and people watching that makes Lumbee wakes so lively and enjoyable in a case like this one, when the death was not unexpected. A quick joke set the tone for the evening–the lady sitting behind us with her husband was a breast cancer survivor like my mother; they had known each other for years. My mom asked the lady how she was recovering, and the lady told a little story about how when she saw the doctor after her mastectomy and he asked how she was doing, she said, “it was my titty that had the cancer, and it’s gone now! I’m fine!” I thought this was hilarious, having watched my mother undergo two mastectomies, but fortunately no chemo or radiation. The surgeries and recoveries were painful, but the idea that the cancer is gone, detached from the body, offers a lot of hope and humor to what is otherwise a terrifying disease. The joke was a perfect example of how many Lumbee elders handle such health situations and old age in general–with tremendous optimism.

From knowing Miss Mable, I would say she carried this kind of optimism as well. She had such a long life that the oldest members of the crowd were at least 15 years her junior, and all remembered her like a mother, an aunt, a mentor, a guide. She had no children of her own, and many of the speakers commented on how she treated them with intimate, loving kindness. She called everyone “sweetie” (“especially when she couldn’t remember your name!” my mother whispered), or “love.” “Bye, love,” “Hey, sweetie,” was how she greeted me and many, many others. She just said it in such a way as to make you feel you were her only sweetie. Miss Mable was a strikingly beautiful lady throughout her life, and of course the men who spoke at the wake all joked that they believed they were her only “sweetie.” Though she was twice widowed, in many ways Miss Mable bucked the trend of women who were beholden to their husbands. She had her own life, her own work, her own music, her own voice, way before such things were widely valued in American culture–her husbands knew this and must have respected these attributes. In fact, I was surprised that no one, throughout the entire evening, mentioned her husbands at all. This signals not a lack of regard for her mates or her relationships with them, but instead, Miss Mable was truly part of the community and everyone felt that she belonged to them. She reciprocated that feeling with her warmth, openness, and selfless giving to our musical life.

The spiritual message of the evening was held in prayer and in music. In spite of the fact that she called everyone sweetie and treated everyone sweetly, by all accounts Miss Mable’s two true loves were Jesus and gospel music, especially the “old songs,” not modern Southern gospel but old (probably 1930s, 1940s) Baptist choir songs that were written for performance rather than congregational singing. Often wakes are held at the funeral home, but the church was a better setting for the musical groups that the family included as a tribute to Miss Mable’s talents. At least four groups and one or two soloists sang, all of whom had worked with Miss Mable through the years. And almost all of them sang the “old songs” that she loved: “I Hold a Clear Title to a Mansion,” “Heaven’s Jubilee,” Beulah Land,” “Jesus Holds the Key,” “What a Day That Will Be,” and others. Before singing, each talked about Miss Mable and the influence she had on them, or the moments they remembered. One that touched me in particular resonated with the prayers that were held throughout the evening. This soloist was with Miss Mable when she died, and she told the crowd, “it’s such a sweet thing when you know someone has left to be with Jesus.” The prayers and scripture reading –1 Corinthians 15 (“we’ll be changed in the twinkling of an eye”)–focused on the transformation of death, and the victory that is had in death, the kind of transformation that Cookie’s elegy describes.

The music and its performance also focused on transformation, on substance rather than on style. Because many of the singers were (well) over 65, and those that weren’t had been closely trained by Miss Mable, I felt like I was hearing the music as it had been performed 40, 50, or 60 years ago. This was not like watching a Christian version of American Idol–the singers did not imitate styles heard on the radio and showing off would have been out of line. Rather, they were up there to pay tribute to Jesus and to Miss Mable. For the most part, soloists had a strong, clear, solid tone, they didn’t sing around the melody or waver from the tune, and some of their intonation was about as near to perfect as you could get. The choirs who backed them up emphasized a clear communication of the lyrics–it was the message of love, salvation, and gratitude that they wanted you to hear. You could hear all the harmony parts–the melody didn’t drown out the harmonies but all were balanced and unified. There was no shouting, no hallelujahs, no hand-raising like you see in some Lumbee churches; this service was all about restraint, moderation, and careful praise, everyone playing their role and no one standing out. It was about the experience of the group singing and praising, and I think Miss Mable would have been proud.

One Response to “Reflections on a Lumbee Wake (aka “Settin’ Up”)”

  1. Mental Health

    Mental health issues are very important in my family. We have depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety (PTSD) from the long wars, and just plain old alcohol problems. I am convinced my family has bad genetic material for so many of us to be this messed up.

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