By Doug Jackson
She was born into poverty in the tiny Texas town of Chillicothe up on the Oklahoma border. Raised by a single mother, she married at twenty to a cigarette-smoking, hard-working oilfield roughneck. On her wedding night she discovered that the Jackson Pollock-splatter of tattoos that rioted up and down his arms also sprouted across his thighs as well. But he soon came to Jesus and led her to follow then took to the pulpit as God’s called preacher. She followed him over three states and bore him six children, five of which survived. She knew hardship and she never knew wealth.
And her name was Cleo.
In Greek mythology, Clio was the muse of history, and thus the muse of fame, because the famous make history, or at least make it into the history books. Today the Clio Awards celebrate excellence in advertising, the ultimate irony of making someone famous for making something famous.
Cleo Philley was never famous.
She yearned to be a teacher, but never got past the ninth grade. Still, among her five children she counted five bachelor’s degrees, three master’s and a Ph. D. She wrangled her three sons and two daughters for weeks at a time while “the Preacher,” as she called him, hit the Sawdust Trail for lengthy summer revival meetings that brought souls into the Kingdom and a little money into the home for school clothes and supplies in the fall. She fed them on the equivalent of five loaves and two fish more than a few times when a lesser soul would have given up. She dealt with the backbiting and gossip of small towns and Baptist churches and never said anything worse about anybody than that they were “kind of funny-turned.”
I never really knew Cleo Philley.
She died the spring before Becky and I married and comes to me through the stories my wife tells of summers spent with her grandparents, of treats and meals made to her every request, hymn-singing sessions, and Mrs. Philley’s own version of Edith Bunker when, at lunch time, she would scamper through the house rejoicing that, “The Preacher’s home! The Preacher’s home!”
Clio never visited Cleo, and Cleo never cared.
Cleo lived her life expecting nothing more than the chance to love Jesus and her husband and her children and grandchildren, all of which she could afford on a limited budget and a dearth of formal education. But then, the muse, for all of her fine work in holding up examples for us to imitate, sometimes misses the masses of more accessible models. Volume, I suppose: Even a muse can’t be expected to handle the heavy traffic of everyday heroes who riot across the lives of ordinary folks.
Cleo Philley never, to my knowledge, read a novel by George Eliot (though she read her Bible through every year and kept detailed notes of her husband’s sermons in its margin). But I cannot think of Cleo and Clio without thinking of the closing lines of Eliot’s Middlemarch:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More, is available from Finishing Line Press.