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Spaceships to God: Being Famous in Your Family

My son scampered around the graveyard, having to be reminded not to be too rambunctious. I asked him to stop playing on the gravestone pictured below and got his happy, “Sure, Daddy.” I commented that I loved the shape of the marker, and he agreed. “Look at this spaceship, Daddy. I think it’s pointing to God.”

But this wasn’t the grave we came to see.


I have seen a few famous grave sites in my 35 years, but none of the graves I’ve seen in Arlington, Lexington, New York, London, or Durban quite measure up in importance to this one in Galax, Virginia. Lillie Cooley is not famous outside our family, but inside our family? She’s a central character in our story, an unrivaled heroine.

Lillie Cooley is –to me and many others– more important than many people who are internationally famous. Lillie Cooley was a faithful woman in my wife’s family (and therefore my family) and one whose leadership and example are celebrated years and years after her death.

Aunt Lillie was my wife’s Great Aunt, the second oldest of eight siblings. The oldest and only son, Edgar, died in his twenties. When their parents died as well, Lillie (then) Mabe took on the responsibility of caring for all the children. She was helped in this by Aunt Elva. Lillie didn’t want the kids parceled out here and there, because she wasn’t sure they would be taken care of properly. She decided to devote her life to the family. There were seven daughters, so the “Mabe Babes” are all famous, and Aunt Lillie was the star above them. She became a sort of humble matriarch for a vulnerable family. She worked hard gardening, taught school, and supported the family. She delayed her marriage to her beloved Lucian for many years in order to care and provide for her siblings. She kept them all faithful in church attendance, and raised them well. Her life was characterized by self-sacrifice, by devotion to God, and by holding the family together.

On a recent Sunday, we visited the church she faithfully attended for her whole life and her grave which is in the churchyard. We heard the grace of God preached faithfully in this country church, as I imagine Aunt Lillie did in her day. And in the cemetery, we thanked God for his grace on us.

Everyone in the family talks about Aunt Lillie as if she were a country saint. I think this is because that is exactly what she was. There are many people who have enjoyed Aunt Lillie’s kindness. They speak of her in reverent tones and with joyful tears, shaking their heads at the goodness they received.

My father-in-law is one of best men I’ve ever known. How different would he be if Aunt Lillie were not the woman she was (and is)? How different, then, would be his daughter (my wife)? How different would be the destiny of my little ones? What kind of hole would there be in the heart of the family if God had not given us Aunt Lillie? And it’s God who deserves thanks. For Aunt Lillie was a gift, a gift I am reminded of every morning when I wake up next to Gina Smith.


Gina and her dad both look like Mabes. Three of our four kids look like Gina and her dad –all little Mabes. So I get a visual reminder of the impact that Lillie (Mabe) Cooley has had in our family every day. I am grateful.

Instead of a hole in the heart of our family, there is a wholeness. The family is far from perfect (see my side for proof enough of that). But when I consider the goodness of God in giving us a wonderful, heroic character such as Aunt Lillie, at just the time such a character was needed, I am thankful for this story. I thank God for this incredible woman.

I have never met Lillie Cooley. But nearly everywhere I look I see the fruit of the work of her life.

What you love and live for matters, for more than just those you see with your eyes right now. Close your eyes and see the multitude you will impact, and love them as you love yourself. Love them as Aunt Lillie has loved me.

Then, even in death, you will point to heaven.


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