The Holy Epistles of St. Penny the Prolific

by Michael and Ann Usey

July 8, 2023

There are two versions of Penny Chambers, the Penny before her car accident, and the woman who emerged after it, like a butterfly from a cocoon, which is the one most of us knew and loved.  The hinge moment of her life when she was 26 years old, on the night of February 12, 1971.  She was driving her boyfriend’s convertible, not her trademark 1968 yellow Mustang.  Darcie showed me photos of a long-haired glamorous redhead who was quite the looker and who was dating Doug Carpenter, a hockey player with the Greensboro Generals.  (He went on to play in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins and NJ Devils, where he was a successful coach.  He faded away after her accident, but they still exchanged Christmas cards.)  On 421, old Liberty Road, she took a turn too fast, overcorrected, then ended up hitting a house in someone’s yard.  She hit the right side of her head on the upper lip of the covertible’s windshield.  She had damaged the part of her brain that controlled her right side, and had to have a steel plate inserted in her skull.  After weeks in a coma, she was never quite the same Penny.

Born in Wilkes County August 30, 1944, Hazel Marie was the youngest of four kids: two sisters named Darcie and Geraldean, plus one brother, Gene.  At a young age she renamed herself Penny because she didn’t like the name Hazel –possibly because it reminded her of the antihero Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood.  But I have to say that, like O’Connor’s Hazel, Penny too was Christ-haunted.  I playfully called her Dime because she was worth more than a penny.  And I dubbed both she and her sister Darcie the Glitter Twins at College Park, and the name stuck.

Once, when all four kids were children, her brother Gene tried to persuade the girls to play cards, which they did not want to do.  Impetuously, Gene slapped all three of his sisters.  So Darcie and Geraldean each grabbed an arm and held him down, while Penny beat on him.  Family bonding, Wilkes County style. 

Penny had two subtle scars above her eyes, one from a time they were all skipping stones in a nearby creek–and a rock got away from Gene and hit her right above the eye.  Another scar was from an errant swing of a baseball bat; that gave her the tiny scar above the other eye, a matching set, she told me once–and we know she loved things to match.

When she was 16, her family moved to Greensboro, and she graduated from what became Grimsley high school.  She was always good in math, always money smart, a trait that helped her get on with Southern Bell in their business section.  Penny was quite the fashionista, a devoted follower of fashion, and she shopped at the most expensive high-end stores, like Prego-Guys, whether or not she had enough money for the clothes.  She presented like a party girl, her sister Darcie said, “But there was always more to her than who she appeared to be.”

She also loved to dance anywhere, especially in places like Danceland; she particularly loved Elvis.  (I tried to get my colleagues to have us sing Heartbreak Hotel, but I was outvoted.  Penny would have liked that!)  When Darcie and Charlie bought their first house, Penny rushed around the place opening doors and running into rooms. She opened a door in their new house, one she thought led to a bedroom but was actually the steep staircase to their basement.  Penny toppled down the steps and sprained her ankle badly.  She was quite fearless.

All this was before the fateful car accident; there are few remaining that remember the before-version of Penny.  Darcie and Gene certainly do, as does her lifelong friend, Diane Bledsoe.  As I said, most of Penny’s friends faded away after the accident and her months in a coma, but not Diane.  They met at Southern Bell, when Diane was working in the Personnel Office.  She and Penny were true friends, the rare “ride-or-die” type we have too few of.

One of the counterintuitive lessons that Jesus taught his followers was the importance of failure.  Jesus wasn’t a big fan of success because success wasn’t a good teacher of compassion and kindness in the way failure and accidents can.  Failure can teach us empathy and understanding.  So what I learned was this: Penny’s terrible accident changed her in some positive ways.  Darcie explained that Penny before the accident could be mean; she had an edge and she was somewhat selfish. In fact, both her siblings called her “the spoiled baby.”  We’ll have to take their word for it because none of these traits would any of us associate with the Penny we knew and loved: she was neither mean, selfish. spoiled, nor edgy.  

Truthfully, her good personality traits carried over in both versions of Penny: she remained good with math and money; she was always, always stubborn and strong-willed; she retained a distinctive fashion sense. “Sweetly stubborn” her siblings called her. Penny was popular before and after her accident, but it was in a different way, with different friends, and for different reasons.  After the terrible accident that left her somewhat limited, she grew sweeter, more caring, extremely giving.  Even her handwriting changed.

Her rehabilitation took months.  She hated going to physical therapy, would refuse to go, and Darcie would have to make her.  The accident injured her brain on the left, which controlled her right side, so she had to be taught to walk and talk again. Progress was slow. Later, she would have a severe infection under her steel plate and so it had to be removed and changed in size.  Dr. Cloninger was her neurologist, and he so enjoyed her.  After a short while he didn’t charge her for any of her appointments.  Her friend Diane remembers visiting her in hospital after Penny was awake from the accident and coma.  Diane was upset and crying that Penny was going to have more surgery, yet she found Penny in good spirits and sitting up in bed.  Eventually Penny was able to go on disability.

Some years after her recovery, she decided she’d travel to Australia, even over the objections of all her siblings and mother.  Determined, she called a travel agent, made the arrangements and stayed for a full month with friends who’d moved from Greensboro, and had a lovely time.  She had a ball, and never regretted her wanderlust, and stayed in touch with her “down under” friend via mail the rest of her life. Gene remembers her getting off the 36-hours of connecting flights with her shoes in her hand since her feet had swollen so much–but her make-up was perfect.

Penny threw her life into her family, friends, and church. Her family hired an Elvis impersonator for her 50th birthday. (I tried to get one for today!) She may have been the happiest with her father; they connected on a deep level and enjoyed each other immensely.  His death hit her so very hard. She actually passed out from a panic attack at the funeral home.  I believe she was lonely in a new way after her father’s death. Charlie and Darcie included her in everything they did.  Penny was probably originally closest to Geraldean, her sister closest in age but who lived far away.  Her death racked Penny too.  

She deeply loved College Park and its people.  When Kathy Kristner was our office administrator, Kathy recruited Penny to come and help in the office.  Kathy said, “I never bought a folding machine because we had Penny. She would come and fold whatever we had that needed folding. She was a dear friend. Once when Penny’s niece died, she was folding bulletins in my office and kept apologizing for crying. I told her it’s fine to cry–and fold, which made her laugh and laugh. She laughed about that every time I saw her after that. I will miss her cards and her smile.”  As will we all.  I know that when it was time for her to go to church and do her volunteer work, she’d say to whomever she was with, “It’s time for me to go and hang out on my corner.”  A subtle wit.

Early on my tenure here, I recruited her and Darcie to write to all visitors, which she gladly did. On top of that, she wrote many College Parkers, remembering their special occasions.  She considered all the children of College Park her grandkids.  When she died, we found pictures of David Lojko, Isaac Cravey, the Kirkman boys Ben and Grant, and Hannah Usey in her wallet. For years, she and her sister Darcie shopped for our Sunday night Greensboro Urban Ministry meals, and boy were they so thankful when the elevator was finally installed.  This was once a month, but it was no small task as we were cooking for over a hundred hungry men.  

She and Darcie did the same shopping for our Wednesday night meals too.  This was a labor of love and never easy.  And Penny made oceans of sweet tea for our dinners and potlucks.  She also served on the bereavement committee, to care for families when their loved one died.  She was an usher too for many years.  This is but a fraction of  the many things she did here to show her love for God and people.  Every healthy church needs people like Penny to do the small but crucial things that keep people feeling cared for and prepared for.  I regret not telling her more often how significant she was to everyone here.

She had some vices, like all of us.  She smoked, which of course shortened her life.  But she was raised in NC at a time in which most adults saw it as no big deal and perhaps as their economic duty. When her sweet kind loving thoughtful pastor would occasionally poke fun at her, she wasn’t above telling him to “kiss her ass.”  She loved to shop, especially for earrings with matching shoes, shirts and shoes. She did have a temper, and if she didn’t like someone, she’d say so. And she really hated going to her doctor, which was strange since she adored her dentist and ophthalmist, and went to them religiously.  Had she gone to her physician sooner about her recent swollen leg, I wonder if she might still be with us today.

She loved people, deeply and completely, and people just loved her.  I can remember specific conversations with her telling me how much she loved certain people, like Wayne and Susie, Patsy and Frank, Kathy and Georgia,  former office administrators. She considered David and Mark as heart-of-her -heart, and she was especially close to Dan Cottrell.  I recall her glowing after Ron and Jan’s wedding, as well as Lin and Carey-Ann’s, both of whom she thought were absolutely wonderful.  She kept up with her lifelong friend Diane’s entire family, even her grandkids. This is just a fraction of the people she loved and kept up with.  As Diane told me, she learned from Penny this lesson: Always tell the people whom you love that you love them, and tell them often.

The two enduring symbols of Penny are her earrings and her letters.  Large colorful dangling earrings of every shape and size.  Darcie graciously made hundreds of her pairs available to all last week at the back of church, so many of you are honoring our Penny by wearing a pair you chose–many of you a loud, dangly pair.  I’m enjoying seeing them.  Earrings have remained popular for more than 7000 years, and originated in ancient Asia. Egyptians would once wear earrings to signify the fact they were wealthy or of a higher class. However, in ancient Rome, earrings were worn only by servants, and in ancient Greece by prostitutes–probably not the meaning Penny intended.  But what I think they DID symbolize for her was unbridled joy and outrageous style and zest for living.  She came to live out loud, and we who knew her were encompassed in her gusto for life and love.

Penny wrote to a bewildering array of individuals, couples, and families. She wrote to the Stocks family when they first went to Hungry with CBF in 1995.  She kept writing them for the next 28 years, until now.  She still wrote Dorisanne Cooper, who left College Park in 2002.  She wrote to so many people. Raise your hand if you ever got a card or letter from Penny, please. Gene said she burned through 300 stamps in the first five months of 2023; the post office may go under without her.  I want to close briefly considering her letters; they weren’t Jane Austen but they were profound in their own right.

Penny’s letters were short but orderly.  She had pristine penmanship and they followed a well-honed formula she favored (Ann kept her weekly letters from her from 2021.)  She always began with a carefully crafted salutation that wove in her love and valuing of you.  “Good morning to you good people … and you are good friends; I’m thankful for that.”  or “Good morning to a very nice family … and I love all of you … I really do.”

Next, she issued forth a general exaltation designed to be uplifting over how life was worth living.  Her favorite to write was “Good Mornings! Good Morning!  Good Morning! And a good morning it is!  Great day to be alive!”– or the less common refrain: “Any day above ground is a good one!”  This glorying in simply being alive was her authentic habit of happiness. She then proceeded to glory over something on a smaller scale: her humble cup of morning coffee.   “I just had a sip of coffee, and it’s sooooo good … You know how I love my coffee.  I think I’m a coffeeholic!”Then she moved onto a combination of three issues. 

First, what she’d been up to recently or was anticipating. “Going to Darcie’s on Friday to get our hair fixed” or “We got a new washing machine Thurs and it’s pretty too.  I love it.  I do!” or “I’m pleased with the raise in my Social Security check!  Boyee!  Blue!”  

Secondly, her commentary on the weather.  She loved winter, sunny brisk weather best; it went well with her hot morning coffee and letter-writing rituals, although she acknowledged rain was needed and had to be welcomed.  She often anthropomorphized the sun.  “I like Mr Sun.  He’s my buddy.”  

Thirdly, College Park people and news. She gloried in interacting with other church members and either exalted in her love for them, or grieved alongside people going through hard times: “I’m sure you’ve heard Dan Cottrell went in the hospital and I’m feeling sad about that.  He’s such a good man and I love him so much”  “I  got a very nice call from Mark File and David Soyers yesterday afternoon and we had a very nice chat. I’m tickled that they are my friends.” Or, “And Ann, I’m sorry about your student taking out her anger out on you–and just 13 years old!   But, like I said, I’m glad she didn’t hurt you, because I’d have to hurt her if she did.”  

Penny had a great sense of humor and threw shade on herself, ending sentences with phrases like “so I’ll keep my big butt at home!” followed by writing the word “Chuckle!” She wrote in one letter, “Went for my teeth cleaning last Thursday … No cavities!  Except between my ears!  Chuckle!”  In fact, she often closed her letters with the weird repeated phrase that tickled us: “Well, no news here, so I’ll shut up my face for now.” 

Overall, Penny avoided stewing on downers, but instead chose to focus on the positive, adding levity whenever possible.  She amplified her contentment of simple life pleasures and rituals–reading, letter-writing, getting her hair done, sharing holidays with family–by reciting them in written form, and infused her own life and others with the healing power of love for one another.  

This was how she ended every letter.  She closed with genuine good wishes for you, and folded those wishes with an assurance that she loved you: “Love you good people” or “I’m proud to know you” “I think of you every single day that goes by… Good thoughts too.” or “Just want you good people to know that I love you … And I have for years now.”

As Penny’s life narrowed, especially once she became a serious fall risk, there was an unapologetic admission of little news on her end to tell, but she never questioned the value of her letters.  Why?  I think because she knew what she simply wrote were love letters; it gave her joy to remind both herself and you that there were oceans of love between you that needed naming and rehearsing, so she offered that as regularly as the tide: an undulating rhythm of what bound us all together. 

About Dan Cottrell, she wrote on September 4, 2022: “I write him a little note each week, and he loves them.”  She wasn’t being prideful, but she understood what matters in life: the giving and receiving of care and love.  In April of this year, she wrote to Ann and me, “Darcie tells me you save all of my letters. I think that is very nice.”  Again, she didn’t question why we would value them so; she just intuited they were of value.

Her final letter dated June 11 (Ann read it only an hour before she heard of Penny’s sudden seizure) pulsed with pleasure over her week of good mail from others, quite karmic: “Last week, most days, I got good mail, one from Isaac Cravey, one from Elijah Pickard, and one from David and Mark, and the one from David and Mark, they were having coffee and breakfast from some town in Italy! Lucky them! I need to write to them.”  Not a bad final week for someone homebound.  Like Emily Dickinson, Penny’s environment was limited, but her heart remained uncontained.  Emily once wrote:

The brain–is wider than the Sky–

For–put them side by side–

The one the other will contain 

With ease–and You–beside– (632)

The mind’s capacity–even Penny’s with metal plate inserted–has a capacity for imagination and wonder and expansive thought to a degree that is unfathomable.  More than this, our minds and hearts give us the ability to read and think and empathize with others, allowing for the expansion of our inner world.  Penny’s life was well and fully lived; she modeled for us the ability to take whatever life throws at us and find contentment, service, and joy–and certainly the wonder of authentic genuine love that transcends time and space and even human thought.  Penny’s life shimmered with simple wisdom and the pulse of God’s eternal love, and we are so blessed to have been loved by her.