From today’s Columbus (OH) Dispatch:
Even at 86, she keeps working for God
by Mike Harden
JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — If Betty Massimer closes her eyes, she can yet see perfectly the drowned Navajo boy lying on the table at the mission in New Mexico as his elders built his casket.
“I took the shoe off the little boy,” Massimer said Thursday, “and the pond water ran out onto the table.”
The word table caught in her throat and, for a moment, she said nothing.
When she resumed, she explained that the 4-year-old had been playing with older boys when they decided to see whether an old, upturned automobile hood they had scavenged could float.
The little boy sat down in it and was pushed from the bank. He was in the middle of the pond when it began sinking.
Some memories defy scouring.
Massimer was a widowed mother of two working on an assembly line in Pennsylvania in 1963 when God whispered that he had something more important for her to do than bag candy bars for the Hershey Co.
“I talk to him like I’m talking to you,” she said. “I tell him, ‘If there is something that you want me to do today, please tell me clearly enough that I won’t make a mistake.’ He was leading me toward something he had prepared for me.”
She might not have been sure what the deity had in mind when she piled her two sons into a station wagon and set out from Hershey for the Four Corners region of northern New Mexico. All she knew for certain was that the Grace Brethren mission there needed a cook for the young Navajos attending the mission school.
She arrived three seasons before the elders among the Navajos’ wisest men predicted that the winter of 1967 would be “a winter of the left-handed wind” — brutal and deadly.
Both cook and undertaker, Massimer remembered, “We often had to go out into the back country and bring back the dead.”
The winter of the left-handed wind dumped 4 feet of snow on the ground and made drifts twice as deep.
Navajos stranded in far-flung hogans died.
In her four decades on the reservation, Massimer said, she never tried to force-feed her faith to the Navajos.
“Some were very strong in their old beliefs,” she said. “They would go out in the morning and pray to the sun.
“They were a people who had been treated terribly by the white man. They had no trust in him.”
Often, that mistrust included the white man’s God.
Undaunted, she relied on kindnesses, on tender mercies, on the example she tried to live to win them over.
“Mom, when are you coming back?” she is asked in the phone calls from Navajo women who are now approaching age 50 and were children when she served them meals.
She weeps. They weep. She aches for the sight of the mesas amid the cacti and yucca, the blue-flowered lupine and the ubiquitous tumbleweed.
In Johnstown now, not far from her son Pat, Massimer, who will be 86 next month, volunteers 20 hours a week at Goodwill.
“She mops. She scrubs,” the store’s manager, Cathy Mann, said. “She has more energy than workers half her age.”
“Don’t glorify me,” Massimer cautioned. “It’s about the Lord.” The Lord and the Navajos.
“Lord, anytime you want me,” she prays, “I’m ready to go.”