Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
She was well over forty, overweight, and depressed when an unexpected gift from a kindhearted lady turned everything around. That’s the essence of Fanny Flagg’s account of Evelyn Couch’s unexpected turn of events in “The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop.”
Fannie Flagg (born Patricia Neal on September 21, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama) was already writing and producing television specials in her hometown at age nineteen. She distinguished herself as an actor, game show panelist, comedian, and writer.
Flagg’s best-known novel, “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café” spent 36 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. She later wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for the film, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” released in 1991.
“The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop” takes a nostalgic look back at Whistle Stop, Alabama in the days when, according to Dot Weems in her weekly newsletter, thirty or more trains came through town every day. “Now there are maybe only four or five.” Kudzu vines grow all over the buildings, covering most of the block where the old Whistle Stop Cafe used to be.
Evelyn Couch, who finds therapeutic help by listening to the stories of Ninny Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, reappears in The Wonder Boy in a delightful chapter entitled “An Unexpected Turn of Events.” Flagg recounts Evelyn’s new life following her encounters with Ninny.
Ninny Threadgoode not only shares with Evelyn the stories about the two women who used to run the Whistle Stop Cafe in the 1930s, but also gives Evelyn Couch the greatest gift one can give; words that encourage and build up. Or, in the language of the King James Version of the Bible, words that comfort and edify another.
When Evelyn Couch, well over forty, overweight, and depressed, met Ninny Threadgoode, her life would never be the same.
Everything about Evelyn’s life lent itself to low self-esteem and insecurity: A cold mother, indifferent father, a social outcast in High School, and now a husband more interested in football than marriage.
One day, out of boredom, Evelyn accompanied her husband, Ed, on one of his weekly visits to his mother in a nursing home. While Ed visited with his mother, Evelyn sat in the visitor’s lounge. Soon an eighty-six-year-old lady sat down beside her and introduced herself as Ninny Threadgoode from Whistle Stop, Alabama.
Ninny loved to talk, and before long she began sharing stories about the Whistle Stop Cafe. A friendship developed, and for weeks after their first meeting, Evelyn sat and listened to Ninny’s delightful stories while Ed visited his mother.
As their friendship warmed, Evelyn confided in Ninny about her depression, hopelessness, and weight problem.
But Ninny saw her as healthy and pretty, with a great smile and personality. She even encouraged Evelyn to get out, meet people, and “maybe get a job selling Mary Kay cosmetics.”
Bolstered by Ninny’s encouragement and challenge to improve her life, Evelyn signed up with Mary Kay and became one of their top saleswomen. Soon, she was driving a pink Cadillac, living in a new home, and enjoying a vacation home at the beach.
By the time Evelyn reached 51, she was appearing at Mary Kay seminars all over the country as one of their most inspiring leaders. Even Ed jumped on board and drove Evelyn to her engagements in their new camper.
This unexpected turn of events didn’t stop there. As a saleslady at the dealership where she’d bought her pink Cadillac, she rose to branch manager, and eventually bought the dealership.
And there’s more. Couch Cadillac was so successful that someone called and offered Evelyn over a million dollars to buy her out.
“All of this,” Flagg writes, “because twenty-five years earlier, she’d happened to sit down next to a kind lady named Ninny Threadgoode.” Ninny Threadgoode who gave Evelyn the unexpected gift of a few kind words that built up what an uncaring world had torn down.
Christmas is a celebration of God’s gift to us. But how little we think about giving to Him. What do you give to one who has everything? Let’s ask Jesus. What can we give to you, Lord?
Jesus answers with a list of kind deeds on behalf of others in need. And then adds, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).
A kind deed, an unexpected gift in an increasingly unfriendly world, amounts to giving unto the Lord.
Of all the gifts of kindness one might give to another, the Ninny Threadgoode gift of encouragement might be not only an unexpected gift, but a perfect gift. A gift that costs nothing but, as we’ll see, is more valuable than silver or gold.
Paul knew when to upbraid, and when to build up. Because of the times, Paul knew the congregation at Thessalonica needed building up. They needed to build one another up.
Wherefore comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
The two words, comfort and edify merit a closer look.
Comfort translates from the Greek parakaleō, which means to encourage, strengthen, exhort, and comfort. Christ uses the same term to describe the Holy Spirit, Whom He calls The Comforter (John 14:16, 26; 16:7). He uses it in the context of His approaching departure.
The disciples would need one to stand by them in a time of confusion, disappointment, and hopelessness. “I will not leave you comfortless,” Jesus assures them. “He (the Comforter) will help you and be with you forever.”
Next, the word edify is even more interesting.
Edify in the King James Version derives from a Greek word used regarding building a house or restoring a neglected building in disrepair. Here’s what the Oxford says about its origin: Middle English from Old French edifier, from Latin aedificare ‘build’, from aedis ‘dwelling’ + facere ‘make’ (compare with edifice).
The word originally meant ‘construct a building’, also ‘strengthen’, hence to ‘build up’ morally.
Edify belongs to the same word family as edifice and literally means to construct, build up, or restore a building. When we read the word, edify, we should think of an edifice.
Paul applies this to human interaction and appeals to his readers to build each other up. The whole passage literally reads, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”
When giving such this unexpected gift to another, it’s usually a matter of reconstruction and restoration in the face of so many life experiences that break people down.
The Apostle writes in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”
Proverbs 18:21 makes a remarkable point. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
Imagine that. Words have the power to build up and tear down. To construct and destroy. To enliven or kill the spirit. What a profound gift one gives when one uses words for “that which is good to the use of edifying.” Building up. Yehuda Berg offers insight into the positive and negative use of words in “The Power of Words” (Huffpost, 9/14/2010).
Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.
Paul holds that in edifying (building up) others, one ministers grace unto the hearers.
Grace. Cháris. A favor done without expectation of return as the free expression of the loving kindness of God. Grace. A gift that brings joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness into the life of another.
In his New Testament Notes on Ephesians, Albert Barnes writes about the use and misuse of words.
He who talks for the mere sake of talking will say many foolish things; he whose great aim in life is to benefit others will not be likely to say that which he will have occasion to regret.
The gift of words costs the giver nothing, requires but a small investment of time, and has the power to change things beyond what the giver will probably ever know.
Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest king of his day, wrote that “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” (Proverbs 25:11 ESV).
Appropriate, well-timed words can be as attractive and valuable as a fine piece of jewelry or art. Few things in this world are more powerful than an appropriate and uplifting word spoken at the right time.
Fitly derives from a Greek word meaning to turn like a wheel. A word fitly spoken may well be a turning point for a recipient such as Evelyn Couch.
Fannie Flagg writes: “For the first time in Evelyn’s life, someone saw things in her she couldn’t see herself. Ninny didn’t think she was too heavy at all, she thought she looked healthy. Ninny also thought she was pretty and had a great smile and personality.”
Not only did Ninny think these things, she told Evelyn so, and the fitly spoken words were the turning point in Evelyn’s life. An unexpected gift turned into “an unexpected turn of events.”
Such a gift rewards the giver as well. If nothing else, the gift becomes an everlasting monument to the giver in the mind and heart of the beneficiary.
“Even now,” Flagg writes, “so many years after her friend Ninny Threadgoode has passed away, Evelyn still kept a picture of her on her desk, and sometimes she even talked to it.”
Please consider giving encouragement and edification to one for whom it might be a word fitly spoken—a turning point. An unexpected gift. A perfect gift. And a gift perhaps more valuable than you will ever know.
(Also read The Greatest Gift, Heartfloss, 1/9/2020