All right Lord, I’ve been reading about what a good Christian woman should do and how she should live her life, but I want to say to You that it’s not working for me. You promised me joy, You promised me peace, You promised me wholeness, and I’m not experiencing any of this. My life is a total disaster. There’s got to be another way. I do not doubt Your promises, but I don’t understand how to find them.
That was a long time ago — 1968. The country had just awakened from “Happy Days” and found itself mired in a full-blown cultural revolution. The Beatles had landed to fuel the fire that Elvis started, the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement reverberated throughout the South, hippies were tripping in Haight-Ashbury, the Vietnam war was exploding, President Kennedy had been assassinated, and women were just beginning to flex their political muscles in the fight for equality. Unbeknownst to her, a similar revolution was brewing in the hidden life of Betty Walthour Skinner. She was forty-two years old, mother of four, wife of a very successful businessman and community leader, suburban socialite, Sunday school teacher, civic volunteer — and crippled by debilitating depression. Her perseverance on her long and arduous journey through pain has led her to the limitless peace and joy we all seek. The world is still in chaos, but Betty is well and whole and a powerful force for love. Now she shares that journey with us in the hope that, as she says, “many, many people might be blessed.” This is how it began.
In 1926, Betty Walthour was born into the furnace of the Deep South. It was a time when oscillating fans held families together in the sultry days of summer. Children were obedient, fathers came home at 5:00, mothers wore aprons, and black maids shelled peas and cleaned the house for $2.50 a week. The Walthour house was one of the many grand and genteel antebellum houses in Birmingham, Alabama. Ceilings were high with fireplaces in every room, and there was a bedroom for every person — even the servants. Social standing was prescribed at birth and everyone knew his or her place. Betty’s mother, Annie Tartt Walthour, was one of the many steel magnolias cast in that fire, and she had no doubt that her two beautiful daughters would also fit neatly into that mold. She was short and rather plump, but charming, fun, and always meticulously well-groomed and coiffed. She understood and thrived in the culture where all proper southern ladies wore pretty dresses, went to parties with a lovely, shy smile, and never, ever did any kind of work. That was what the black housekeeper or, more accurately in those days, the maid was for, and she did all of the cooking and cleaning.
Betty loved her little brothers and sister but didn’t spend much time with them. She was, after all, the oldest, and Russell, who was closest to her in age, was always on the move with his friends, all of whom Annie Tartt hated. Charlie and Betty were closer because they were more alike. He was quiet and studious. He excelled at school because he had decided early on that he wanted a career in the military. Betty would sometimes wander into his room and they would talk for a while — it was just kid talk but it was talk and he was listening. Missie, the baby, was pretty — Annie Tartt’s ideal little girl. She loved ballet and all things feminine and twirled endlessly around the living room in her pink satin toe shoes with the ribbons that wrapped miraculously up her lovely, muscled legs without drooping down as Betty’s stockings did on Sundays when she got dressed for church.
To her mother’s great consternation, Betty refused to fit into the role that was cast for her and proved to be much more like her father, Russell. He was a quiet, unpretentious, introverted military man who loved the serenity of his garden and the security of the military system. Betty, too, was an introvert and would much rather spend hours alone in her cozy attic room building intricate plastic airplane models than dress up to go to the parties her mother scheduled for her. Annie Tartt paid little attention to her exasperating eldest child except to yell from the bottom of the stairs, “Betty, get down here! It’s time for your tap-dancing lessons!”
When Betty was ten years old, Russell moved his young family to Clemson, South Carolina, where he took a job at the university teaching military science. Betty loved to work with her father in the garden, planting seedbeds or jumping into the huge piles of colorful, crunchy autumn leaves they raked together. She kept her horse, Dixie, her billy goat, and her chickens in the backyard and delighted in running all sweaty and barefoot full blast through the cool, sand-bottom stream near their house.
“My father and I were very close because his quiet, easy manner wasn’t threatening to me. He could be tough and very disciplined, but he was my father, teacher, friend, and mentor all wrapped up in the spit and polish of a military uniform. One summer, he and I sat together for hours on the divan picking out my first saddle for Dixie from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. It was a very special saddle to me because by giving it to me, my father was accepting and affirming me in who I was.
“On Sundays, we always went to the Presbyterian church together as a family. Daddy insisted on that. In true military fashion, we would dress up, line up, and march in — third pew from the front, left side, every Sunday. Mama didn’t like it much and resented having to go. She much preferred her bridge and Junior League groups and was never interested in church activities of any kind. I loved the little gray stone church, though. It was all warm and cozy inside, and the graceful white steeple, with the little cross on top, seemed to me to be reaching all the way up to God. Enclosing the church grounds, the parsonage, and the old cemetery was a low wall made of the same gray stone and a narrow concrete sidewalk that was perfect for roller skating. The wall was made for resting, and the steeple — that pure white steeple — for me anyway, was made for gazing.
The gentleness of Christ
its tender warmth of feeling
its warmth of affection
its love in all its depth and delicacy
caresses and fills me
like soft white clouds
around a mountaintop.
“My grandmother, Nannie, came with us to church when she was visiting from Birmingham. She was quiet and almost deaf, but she and I would sing our hearts out during the services, particularly at Christmas. She read mesmerizing stories about Jesus and different missionaries to me at night that gave me a deep sense that maybe one day I might be a medical missionary in a faraway country. They seemed to lead such exotic and wonderful lives. For as long as I can remember, I have felt the warm drawing power of God’s love and wanted to serve Him in some way. I had a sense that God loved me just as I was.”
When she was twelve, Betty was finally old enough to be confirmed in the church, and she was very excited and serious about the ceremony. Her mother dressed her up in a short, lavender smocked dress with a matching lavender, satin sash that tied with a big bow in the back. She proudly recited her vows with a strong, clear voice and all of her heart. At the end of the ceremony, Pastor Crouch gave her a sweet form letter that he gave to all the confirmands commending her on her commitment to Jesus. Betty was so proud of it that she took the money she had earned selling eggs from her chickens and rode her bike down the dirt road to the general store to buy a frame for the letter. It is still hanging on her bedroom wall sixty-seven years later.
My Dear Betty,
It was a fine thing you did when you stood before the pastor and promised to love and follow the Lord Jesus. My heart was full of joy and pride as you stood there and answered those serious questions. I pray that you may always live up to the vows you took. You are now a follower of the greatest King of all, our Lord Jesus, and if you are willing, He will use you every day in His service.
Ralph A. Crouch
When Betty turned fifteen, rumors of imminent war were clouding the horizon. Colonel Walthour was called to active duty, so he moved his family to Union, South Carolina, where he was put in command of an infantry division. He became so devoted to the men in his division that when the governor of Alabama offered him a promotion, he turned it down because it meant he would have to leave his men and sit behind a desk in Montgomery. Annie Tartt was beside herself when he declined the prestigious post because it would have meant a significant pay raise, a silver star on his uniform, and white-gloved dinner parties in the state capitol.
Russell and Annie Tartt lived in separate worlds. They were so different in every way, and neither seemed to be able to understand the other. They didn’t know each other because they didn’t know themselves; their hearts were hidden from each other. He was quietly slipping into a corner emotionally and shutting down, but she was so caught up in other things that she couldn’t see that he was struggling with depression and that their older daughter carried his genes.
For most of my life, I have been a seeker, searching and longing to live from a deeper place. On a rainy day many years ago, I stood silently and gazed at the mist that had crept in and covered the inside of my window so completely that I could barely see outside. As I contemplated the patterns the fog created, several tiny droplets came together and formed a single drop of condensation that slowly made its way down the pane of glass, clearing the mist from a narrow strip on the window and allowing me to see with clarity the astonishing beauty of my rain-refreshed backyard.
As I look back on my life’s journey — and retrospect is such a beautiful view — I have learned that, just as the mist of our uncertainty coalesces and then opens us to glimpses of brilliant hope and vision, so, too, our times of darkness and pain reveal and illuminate the mystery and beauty of our true self hidden within. As you’ll see, I have been through the dark and lonely places. I know the suffering and the pain of this inner journey, but I also have come to know the One who continues to lead me through it. As we choose to embrace the joys and the sorrows of each necessary season in faith and trust, the fog shrouding our soul slowly lifts and we behold, as in a glass, His glory and our glory in Him. Gradually then, we begin to mirror this eternal light of Love, claiming our true nature (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). After almost eighty years, I still can’t explain it, but I can tell you that it is so because I have experienced it.
Jesus is not primarily a teacher of information or morals. His teachings go much deeper than that. He is a teacher of a way or a path that leads to change and transformation and a new heart brought about by a surrendered life deeply centered in God. Jesus challenges us to abandon the wide, easy path of conventional wisdom and embark on the long, difficult, and narrow path of divine wisdom that leads those of us who choose to follow away from temporal values centered in ourselves toward eternal values centered in God. He is always lovingly and compassionately inviting His followers to a different way of seeing and living.
Prayerfully, may my story and the illuminations that close each of these chapters be an encouragement and a light on the path for your journey home.
From the tears of my own confession
That flowed with the touch of His kiss
It was this
His caress, His compassion
That compelled me
To journey deep inside
Where all the beauty of forgiveness hides
Asleep and silent, still
Until aroused and summoned at His will.
At times it seemed I journeyed all alone.
’Twas I that lost my way.
For faith and trust eluded me
And fear engulfed me
In a darkness so profound
That all my senses rose then fell
And mocked me with their falsehoods.
Then died to temporal things
In silence, without a sound.
Yet, in this darkest midnight,
My only light, that of my heart’s desire,
My every substance melted by its fire,
I recognized the Stranger, my Beloved,
My Companion through the years.
For sense and intellect were gone.
In His eternity of forgiveness,
My faith grew strong, my fears grew dim
And there was nothing, nothing, nothing.