About 20 years ago I attended a women's retreat at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest.
We had just bought the land that would become Down Home Ranch. I was understandably nervous about our impending move and all that implied–moving away from our daughters in Austin, selling our home, quitting our jobs, and setting out on an adventure that some gave a snowball's chance in hell of success.
I was not the only person in transition there. Mildred Sheldon had recently moved from Copperas Cove to Rockdale with her husband the Rev. Joseph Sheldon, newly assigned Vicar of St. Thomas Episcopal Church there.
It's no exaggeration to say that Mildred was in a grieving stage. She and Joe were a team, and they loved building a congregation from among the young, working-class military families in Copperas Cove that were their parishioners during Operation Desert Storm. They felt desperately needed as their families confronted separation, danger, lonliness, and financial insecurity.
Mildred had been in Rockdale for about a month, and anger was giving way–on some days anyway–to acceptance. During a sharing meeting she told how she had been standing at the ironing board one day scorching not only the clothes but God's ears as she railed against their new assignment.
“Then God broke through to me,” she said with a wry smile. “He said, ‘Mildred! You left Copperas Cove. I didn't!”
A few months later Jerry, Kelly and I moved out onto the Ranch, moving into a tiny mobile home and sharing our yard with about 30 cows finishing off the last of their owners' grazing lease for 1991. It was one of the rainiest years on record, and after Jerry left for work in Austin and I took Kelly to school each day I returned to the trailer to sit at our little Apple Mac and ponder our circumstances, while it poured rain outside hour, after hour, after hour.
One day I dropped Kelly off in Thrall and thought, I cannot go back to the land! I just can't!
I recalled the priest's wife from the conference and decided to keep on heading east on Hwy 79 to Rockdale to see if I could find her.
Finding the church was no problem, but nobody was there. I asked around and was sent to the vicarage, but nobody was home. I returned sadly home through the driving rain and called the Diocese offices in Houston. They gave me Joe and Mildred's number. She answered, remembered me well, and invited us over the next evening for dessert and coffee.
Thus was born a relationship that ended only with Joe's death several years ago and with Mildred's a few weeks ago.
Mildred and Joe became members of our fledgling board, and brought two lifetimes of wisdom to the job. In early '95 during a board meeting Joe declared, “We've got to get some programs going on out here!” So then and there we resolved to start Ranch Camp, which blossomed from a few dozen folks in tents to a full-fledged camping program attended by hundreds each summer.
St. Thomas parishioners became involved, too, helping out with camp and special events, serving on the board, guiding us along the way.
But however important Mildred was to the Ranch, it was her ministry to me in those early days that are the enduring legacy as far as I'm concerned. I don't know if I would have made it if not for her friendship.
She and Joe joined us for Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with our family. We laughed at our spiritual foibles and shared our struggles as women who had come of age in a challenging time, when roles were changing and one's duty nearest to hand was not so clear as it once had been. Mildred had an early, failed marriage with children, as did I. We both married exceptional men who accepted our children as their own. We shared so much and so delighted in one another's company.
After Mildred and Joe retired, eventually moving to San Angelo, we seldom saw each other, but she and I talked frequently on the phone. In one of our last conversations before Joe died, she said, “Judy, this is truly the happiest time of my life. Joe and I have so much fun. I think people walking by us must think we're lunatics.”
And that's how I remember of Mildred, and her Joe, now joined with all the company of heaven.