ELIZABETH Williams was walking gingerly in the Mondawmin Mall parking lot, just outside the Motor Vehicle Administration doors, when she spotted him. He looked like someone she hadn't seen in years, a co-worker from long ago. Yes, that was him.
She called out to him, several times. Her son finally caught up to him. She greeted the long-lost co-worker with a smile.
"I'm walking a bit slower these days," she said with a smile, leaning on her cane. "I've had back surgery and two minor strokes." She had injured the back on the job in 1972, she continued in a conversational tone. She hung in there working for another 18 years, retiring in 1990. Yes, she was moving slower these days. Since the former co-worker was driving, she wondered, could he, would he, possibly give her a lift to Reisterstown Plaza?
Consider it done, the co-worker and old friend said. So off he headed toward the other mall, where Williams hoped to cash a check at her bank. The car came to a halt just outside one of the mall's side doors. She eased out of the car, tapping her cane gently in front of her as she turned to her benefactor and asked, "Can you wait for me?"
"I think I'd better," he shouted back. "I have to use the restroom."
Williams and her son left the bank about 15 minutes later. Mission: unaccomplished. The bank required two photo IDs to cash the check. She had only one. Good thing, she mused, that she had kept her Sinai Hospital identification badge all these years. But that badge was at home. She didn't want to impose, she said to the friend, almost apologetically, but could he, would he?
"Take you home and bring you back?" he said. "Done."
She talked as they rode - about her years at Sinai, the fire that consumed her home in 1984, the 70 bucks she had to kick out for drug prescriptions the previous week. Two of the prescriptions had cost her $15 each. If she had to keep spending that much on drugs, Williams said, she would have to return to work. She had a line on a job that wasn't physically demanding - answering phones - that would pay her about $200 every two weeks. She would work four hours a day, four days a week.
After the check was cashed, she tried to press about $5 into the friend's hands. He declined, fearing acceptance might mess up his karma. He promised to visit her later in the week. When he reached forward to shake her hand after taking her home a second time, she brushed it off.
"You'd better come over here," she scolded, as the friend gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek.
Later that week, during the friend's visit, Williams sat on her bed, calmly recalling her blessings and her sorrows. The daughter who died of an aneurysm in December. The father who died five days later. That fire in 1984.
"It was Jan. 9, 1984," she said. "I never will forget the date. 2509 Quantico Ave. I came home, took a bath and went to bed. I was asleep when the little girl next door kept knocking and said, 'Miss Williams, get out of your house! Your house is on fire!'"
An oil truck had sprung a leak. Someone - probably a smoker, Williams thinks - ignited the oil, which caused flames to spread to several cars and homes. About 10 houses on her block burned. What was left of her abode wasn't much.
"Just a frame sitting there," she remembered. The frame and a dining room table, where a Holy Bible lay resting on a scarf. The scarf burned. The Bible didn't.
Raising herself slowly off the bed, Williams headed into the living room. She realized she hadn't shown her friend the Bible. Not a Bible. The Bible. The one that had survived the blaze that burned nearly everything else in the house.
She lugged it into the bedroom - a large Bible with a white cover, still besmirched by the soot that ran along the edges of the frame and pages. Within it were her marriage license, birth certificate and husband's death certificate, which also did not burn in the inferno. The Bible was open when the house burned, to the closing chapters of Job and the beginning of Psalms. Those two pages are completely black with soot, but the rest are intact and legible. The worldly will claim the Bible's cover and pages were simply made of flame-retardant material, but Williams sees divine intervention in its survival.
"You can't burn the word of God," she intoned.
Her church collected $5,000 for her. She got help from work as well.
"Sinai was good to me - all the bigwigs, all the doctors raising money for me," she recalled. The hospital came up with another $3,000. The church and work money, with the insurance money and another $5,000 from the oil company, allowed her to rebuild her home.
A smaller black Bible rested on her bed. Two more - one with a black cover, another red - lay on the top of her dresser. It's faith that has brought her the blessings and allowed her to endure her sorrows.
"I'm coming along pretty good, thank the Lord," she said. When things get rough, she said, patting the black Bible on her bed, "I get this and start reading."