December 19 06:36 AM

Nellie and the giant cross

September 05, 2018
Nellie grew up in Indian River. I grew up in Warren. She never stepped foot south of Flint. My furthest trip north was to Prudenville with my high school cheerleading squad.

Nellie and I couldn't have been more different that January day we moved into our dorm room.

She smoked. I loathed the stench of cigarettes. She ratted her red shoulder-length hair. I wore my mousy brown cut short. She drank her tea black. I drank mine with milk.

Her cigarette poised between two fingers, Nellie declared, "What? Are you crazy? Nobody drinks tea with milk!"

Had I one British neighbor or been better traveled, I could've countered, "Tell that to the English."

No. Nellie's menthol Salem carried authority, her firm grasp on the world. A teenager of Appalachian roots, what did I know? My granny drank her tea iced and sweet, for Heaven's sake. She wouldn't approve of Nellie's thick makeup and profanity.

Yes, my first roommate intimidated me at times. A comedian, she joked about life in Indian River, the northern hamlet famous for the giant crucifix.

I'd never heard of Indian River or its crucifix. "How big is it?"

Nellie laughed. "How should I know? I've never seen it."

She must be kidding. I determined to see for myself the largest Jesus on the largest cross in the world.

One night I heard Nellie crying in her sleep—a broken-hearted whimper. A sound sleeper from a household of seven family members, I'd never heard anyone cry in bed.

Poor Nellie. She wept with her back to me and didn't move a muscle. Should I ask what was wrong, if there was anything I could do to help?

Not a good idea. That would embarrass Nellie. So I prayed for my roommate and never revealed I'd heard her cry.

Later, in a rare, tender moment, Nellie confided her boyfriend had jilted her.

"Mine did too."

Afterward, she invited me to visit with her and her older, married sister. We drank tea together. Black.

Years later, Nellie welcomed me into her home in Mt. Pleasant. I turned the pages of her wedding album. She married a local Tuma of The Embers family. I had waitressed for the fine restaurant as a student and was glad to see Nellie settled and content.

"Iris, I always felt sh#&&y when I stole your snacks with the other girls," Nellie confessed.

I had forgotten.

Several years later, Nellie died in a car crash.

These intimate memories lay mute until last Friday. In earnest, I sat before the Cross in the Woods in Indian River.

There, with the blue sky and white clouds a backdrop to Jesus' suffering, I saw Nellie at her desk in our dorm room. She laughed with a lit cigarette. I heard her cry in the night.

Dear Reader, I now see we were more alike than we knew to admit. Lonely, broken, and seeking true love, neither of us had a grasp on the world.

That's why the Cross.

Email Iris at

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