The Remarkable Sister Pettifog
This morning I arrived on my bicycle at the local Starbucks early, before the intensity of the Texas sun boiled to full blaze rendering me a soggy, wrung out mess.
I took up my perch on the outdoor patio in the shade, eager to work on my book of short stories. This will be my 3rd book and I’ve been enjoying the process daily.
That’s when it happened--a group of 3 older ladies at one of the other tables outside rose to leave and one of them walked over to my table and spoke something to me. I was wearing earbuds at that moment and didn’t hear. I popped them out and asked her to repeat herself.
“That’s a beautiful bicycle you have there. What a great way to stay healthy!”
I responded perfunctorily and tossed off a few uninteresting statistics about how many days I’ve ridden my bicycle without relying on an automobile.
As I spoke, I could see she was scrutinizing my face like a private investigator rummaging for clues. The analytical part of my brain went on alert at that instant. What was she doing?
“I think I know you. It’s been a long, long time ago when last I saw you. I don’t expect you’d remember me but I remember you because my great grandmother use to tell me how much you reminded her of her favorite movie star, Randolph Scott.”
Straightaway, I put 2+2 together! I knew exactly who she was talking about--after all, nobody else in the whole world had ever said I looked like Randolph Scott but one lady!
“You’re talking about Mildred Pettifog, aren’t you?”
This lady about fell over when I pulled that rabbit out of the hat!
“How in the world--I mean--that’s impossible you should say that. How--how do you know that?”
I explained to her my instant connection and invited her to sit.
She was probably in her 50’s but who can really tell, right? She was jovial, keen-eyed and pleasant. All the while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m a former Jehovah’s Witness and that is a ticking time bomb in one of these conversations. It only means the other person--if they are an active current JW--will flee in terror at the very idea a so-called Apostate might be talking to them.
It came as a huge relief when she took the initiative to tell me she had escaped from the clutches of the Organization (the monolithic designation for the main autocrats in charge.)
We swapped horror stories and gossipy tidbits for awhile until she was just about ready to leave. Then she stopped and gazed out into the middle distance and dredged up a memory to relate to me. After I heard it, I sort of sat dumb with my jaw hanging open. This nice former JW told me a little story about Sister Pettifog, her great grandmother.
The first time I encountered Mildred Pettifog she performed as a full time Pioneer knocking on stranger’s doors. (All that word “Pioneer” really means is that she engaged in a neighborhood ministry over a hundred plus hours each month.) Yes, she was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and had been brought up as a Bible Student since the year 1880. In case that date means nothing to you, think of it this way, the Civil War was fought 15 years before Mildred was born. To gain a perspective, just think about the day airplanes flew into the World Trade Center in your own lifetime. That was 15 years ago! Okay?
By the time I was introduced to her (1960), this interesting little bundle of dynamite was 80.
In today’s world, older women chase after eternal youth cosmetically in ways which hide or disguise the aging process. Hardly anyone actually knows what an old person would look like without this lavish attention to diet, exercise, Botox, facelifts, and youthful stylishness. However, back in 1960, when I first attended the Fort Worth Kingdom Hall as a guest, old ladies looked like old ladies.
For example . . .
Sister Pettifog sported a funny little purple hat riveted to the back of her head by a long hat pin with an improbably large pearl on its end about the size of a Robin’s egg. Her hair was mostly silver-white tinged with an incomprehensible blue tint.
What a face this lady had!
This elderly Sister flashed a crinkled smile and large brown eyes like a puppy in a pet store window eager for adoption. Her skin was quite pale and her cheeks radiated a pinkish orange circle of something she said was “rooj” (rouge) a proper style back in the olden days. Once seen, Sister Pettifog was not soon forgotten!
Her dresses appeared to be handmade on her old Singer sewing machine using striped or polka dot patterns prudently selected at the local fabric shop. The steel rimmed bifocals framed her wide-set eyes perfectly and bestowed an impression of quiet intelligence and wisdom.
Sister Mildred always wore so much perfume you could tell if she was within a half mile of where you stood. Her favorite scent, Jungle Gardenia, had replaced her previous all-time passion, Chanel No. 5. I was told all this on the spot, of course, by the lady herself within 5 minutes of meeting her.
Although everybody who met Sister Mildred loved her instantly, the effect of that powerful perfume was devastating! It was like taking a large stone and tossing it in a small still pool of water--the splash and waves and ripples seemed to reach out in all directions tossing people’s nostrils hither and thither in pandemonium!
The most remarkable aspect of Mildred Pettifog’s persona was the fact she was one of the elite anointed members at our Kingdom Hall.
What does THAT mean, you ask?
Sister Pettifog had what was known as “the heavenly calling.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses largely don’t set their hopes on going to heaven when they die. No, not at all! The vast majority aim for an “Earthly hope.” Scant few possess the interior tingle of self-aware frisson. If you’ve never been a Jehovah’s Witness, you’ll be scratching your head about now wondering aloud just how cuckoo this denomination really is.
Don’t worry about that right now, suffice it to say Mildred Pettifog was a rare individual viewed with almost “magical” specialness (although no JW would ever employ the word “magic.”)
Until fairly recently, the millions of Jehovah’s Witnesses all over the world were under the impression the “anointed” got direct messages from the heavenly realm tipping them off about sacred secrets and advance prophetic divinations.
Certainly this was the case when I was introduced. The person introducing me had a sudden and respectful hushed awe in their tone of voice when Mildred’s name was intoned. This created a funny feeling inside of me too. The psychology of awe is quite contagious!
Now you may be wondering why I’m telling you all this about one little old lady, right? In the grand scheme of things, it means nothing to you, right? Well, don’t be so sure. Give me a couple of more minutes to relate my story and you might just change your mind. Fair enough?
Let’s begin . . .
Before I met him, my future best friend Johnny had gone through a sudden ‘conversion experience’ after a conversation with Mildred Pettifog. He was only 9 years old at the time.
Sister Pettifog had knocked on his door and his mother Jenny had answered. Much to his surprise and horror, Jenny started cussing out the old lady and slammed the door in her face!
Johnny felt his world crash about him. After all, Jenny was NOT that kind of person. She was a charming, affable, and kind woman. Why had she been so vulgar and rude to the old lady?
Johnny told me the whole story one day many decades afterward.
Johnny’s parents had moved to Fort Worth from South Texas and had dressed up to go to the nearby Baptist Church for the first time and had taken all their kids with them (5). Upon arrival, the Pastor of the church pulled them aside and not-too-politely instructed them to go to the “Mexican” Baptist Church three miles distant. Why? “You folks will feel more comfortable there.”
Johnny’s father was from a Spanish family and his skin was deep hued in an era in which race relations in the South were testy, judgmental, and volatile.
Following this hurtful and embarrassing rejection, the parents disavowed religion in righteous indignation and nursed their wounds isolated from fellowship of any sort.
The arrival of Sister Pettifog that day was ill-timed at the “worst possible” moment for raw emotions and the unfortunate outburst of Jenny Santa Cruz.
The 9-year-old Johnny ran after the old lady and apologized to her for his mother’s tantrum and insults. Sister Pettifog was jovial and forgiving. She invited Johnny to sit with her once a week for a private Bible study. He lept at the offer being of an especially open and intelligent mind filled with natural curiosity about the Divine. So powerful was the teaching and personality of Sister Pettifog, in no time at all she was studying with the rest of Johnny’s family, overcoming all objections, answering questions and amazing them with her uncanny grasp of all the spiritual secrets of the Almighty Jehovah!
The upshot of this incident will now make more sense to you with this background in place. For, you see, Johnny became my best friend some 3 years afterward and he began bombarding me with religious conversation and questions and such. When I attended the local Kingdom Hall with him that first time, it was my first meeting with Johnny’s favorite person in all the numinous world of Jehovah and anointing: Sister Pettifog! It was Johnny’s tone of hushed awe which made my spine tingle when Sister Pettifog took my hand and told me, “You remind me of my favorite movie actor, Randolph Scott!”
We’ve now squared the circle on all the background, haven’t we? Yes, I think so. I became a Jehovah’s Witness 3 years later. Within 20 years I’d be an Ex-JW while Johnny remained stalwart and immovable for the rest of his life. (He recently died at age 69 and we had not spoken for years because of his religious shunning practices.)
Back to the story Sister Pettifog’s great granddaughter related to me this morning!
At this point, I’ll try my best to give you the story as told to me by the great granddaughter. . .
“The first time my great grandmother said one bad thing about the WatchTower organization I thought I was going to have a heart attack! It was like a bomb went off in my head! Granny Mildred is the one person most able to turn a Bible study into a Baptism. She had a way about her. She was not just the best; she was the best of the best. But, as you well know, the Truth, so-called, of the WatchTower organization has a way of changing infrequently with a strange anonymity to the process. Granny Mildred noticed it and used the word, “Sneaky.”
This shocked me. I didn’t believe my ears. I asked her to explain. When I heard what she had to say, I wished I hadn’t! She stood there in the kitchen helping me wash dishes like she always insisted on doing and at the same time started ticking off a long list of horrible things she claimed the Organization had done over the years to prove they were NOT the true religion! I kept telling her not to continue. I was panicking! I immediately thought of rushing her to the hospital. It was obvious to me--or so I thought--she had suffered a stroke and wasn’t responsible for her words!”
“It took her almost a year to deprogram me! We moved to Oklahoma and started going to a new Kingdom Hall. All the while, she kept going to all the meetings and out in Field Service, door to door, like nothing was different. I asked her how she could stand it. How could she pretend this was still “The Truth”?
“Granny smiled and explained she could do a whole lot more good ‘undercover’ than as an Apostate, because nobody was allowed to listen to an ex-member. But everybody would listen to her as an anointed remnant!”
At this point in her story, I was laughing out loud. This was amazing me! I begged for more details. The granddaughter glanced at her watch. She had to go shortly but she said she’d tell me this one thing Granny always did when she was around young Witnesses.
Sister Mildred Pettifog would wait until she was in the car with a trapped audience who couldn’t go anywhere. Then she’d start talking about her life as a Jehovah’s Witness. . . .
“I was born the year after the WatchTower was first published. My parents were among the first Bible Students to subscribe. Pastor Russell taught the Time of the End had begun in 1799 when Napoleon took the Pope hostage. You don’t know that, naturally. The organization finds that embarrassing. Pastor Russell taught Jesus returned in 1874 invisibly. You don’t know that either, of course. Pastor Russell used measurements on the Great Pyramid to predict 1914. The Pastor assured all of us, 1914 was Armageddon! Until the 1930’s Judge Rutherford continued that nonsense! Guess what? We were all surprised when everything we had been taught--everything we had been teaching or friends and neighbors was no longer the Truth anymore! By that I mean this. Judge Rutherford finally changed everything by moving all those dates forward just like it was nothing--game pieces on a board! Lots of Brothers and Sisters fell away over the years because they were more loyal to the Bible than to the changes the WatchTower kept on springing! Can you imagine that? Just think how I felt as a young girl and then as a teenage woman to have to erase everything I was told was true and just pretend it never happened! But let me tell you--I was not faithful to the Bible--no sir! I stayed faithful to the Organization! I knew I was going to heaven no matter what the Governing Body decided was true! I didn’t graduate from High School or go to college. You know why? Because Armageddon was coming in 1914--what good would a worldly education do for me? But it never happened! Then, when I was 45 years old, Armageddon came again. By that I mean this--it did NOT. But, once again, we stayed faithful and loyal to Jehovah’s Organization--never mind the Bible. The Bible says “No man knows the day and hour.” Well, that didn’t seem to faze Brother Fred Franz! He came up with 1975. We all knew time was short by the time I was in my 90’s because the anointed were dying off. That was the Generation of 1914, you see? It was our Countdown Clock. Each year, more of us anointed would die and that proved Armageddon was getting closer and closer. I’m 98 years old. I was 95 the last time Armageddon didn’t come. You understand? That was 3 years ago we were taught the world was ending because of Earthquakes, famine, wars, and I suppose the heartbreak of psoriasis too--except IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. So many have gone away now. They lost faith in Jehovah’s Organization. But, not me! I’m faithful and loyal to the bitter end.”
The granddaughter shook her head in wonderment at the words she related to me and added, “How she got away with that--I just don’t know. You could see the young kids’ faces. They didn’t know if she had lost her mind or what! If a young person were of college age, she went out of her way to talk to them. She’d get them off by themselves and say: I never got a proper education because the world was ending. It ended over and over and over.
I have friends who never married because of that, too. They have no kids or grandkids because we were assured we’d all be in heaven or Paradise. Many people now are old, bitter and unhealthy thinking they never lived a real life just waiting around for Armageddon. But, I went ahead and married and I had beautiful kids and grandkids. Do you suppose I’m sorry? Well, I am sorry I didn’t go to college. I could have earned enough money to give my children and grandchildren a start in life. But don’t listen to me. I’m just a grumpy old lady and my mind isn’t as clear as it used to be.”
Then Granny would walk away leaving those young JW’s with a dazzled expression of pure horror and puzzlement behind.
I asked if any Elders ever gave her a good stern talking to.
“Oh for heaven’s sakes! Are you serious? Granny was to slick for that! She knew her scriptures and she’d start quoting them one after another until the busybody would shrug and give up. You see, she knew they had too much respect for her to get mean--like they do with most members who have loose tongues.”
I asked what happened to Sister Pettifog.
“Granny died peacefully in her sleep 10 days before her hundredth birthday. She had written a long letter to be read to the congregation at her funeral. She mailed it to the Presiding Elder and a copy to WatchTower headquarters a few days before she died. Do I need to tell you, that letter disappeared and was never read or mentioned by anybody. I was asked if I knew anything I needed to tell--about Sister Pettifog’s state of mind. I told them she had only grown more loving, kind, cheerful and open=hearted the older she got. I told them what she had said about loyalty to Jehovah’s Organization, too. They didn’t catch the irony.”
Then, the granddaughter had to leave. I thanked her for stopping to talk to me.
“How long after your grandmother died did you start to fade?”
She turned to go and stopped. Her tongue flicked out to lick her lower lip reflectively.
“It was probably the day after her funeral.”
I didn’t catch the lady’s name although she probably told me. I hope she returns. She really made my day!
I sat and shook my head for awhile.
Her great grandmother was directly responsible for my best friend Johnny’s captivation with Jehovah’s Witnesses. Johnny, in turn, was responsible for my indoctrination and eventual imprisonment later on during the Vietnam War. I, in turn, was a Pioneer who held many Bible studies and had several baptisms occur. The chain-of-abuse was finally broken, of course.
I became an Activist. I’ve written books whistleblowing the inside story of WatchTower deceit.
Yet--I really have to hand it to the old lady who thought I looked like Randolph Scott. She takes the cake! She was a secret agent activist for the last years of her life and she got away with it. I’d love to know how many young people she spoke to whose minds were changed or jarred or awakened by her cunning testimony?
She really and truly was the Remarkable Sister Pettifog!
**Note: I have changed the lady's name at the request of her granddaughter. I told her I wanted to write about her. She is still 'estranged' as an ex-JW fader. I've honored her request.