I came by an interesting book the other day. It’s called Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, and it’s part-memoir, part-religious meditation, part-biography.
The story is this. The author, Dean Robertson (despite the unorthodox first name, Dean is female) had occasion to stay for some months at the Lydia Roper Home, a home for elderly women in Norfolk, Virginia, while recovering from a fall. During her time at the home, Robertson led a Bible study group with some of the women who lived there, starting with four and gradually growing to around a dozen. She also became curious about Lydia Hand Bowen Roper, the home’s namesake and inspiration. Some might say “curious about” is an inadequate phrase, preferring “obsessed with.”
In Looking for Lydia, Looking for God, Robertson draws together three threads: her personal journey from ailment to recovery, from withdrawn-ness to engagement; the stories of her Bible study group, the women who made it up and their encounters with Biblical texts; and the teasing-out of the sparse details of the life of Lydia Roper, whose husband, a wealthy lumberman, endowed the home shortly before his death in 1921. The result is an odd, charming, occasionally frustrating, immensely enjoyable book.
The women of the Bible Study group are a varied group, some inquisitive, some uncommunicative. Robertson portrays them vividly. For a sort-of memoir, the book is less forthcoming about Robertson herself. We learn that she is a retired academic who grew up in north Georgia, and not a whole lot else. This reticence is unusual for a memoir, and I found myself wishing for more internal revelation. Lydia Roper also remains stubbornly inaccessible to Robertson’s efforts at inquiry; she left little written record, and her family’s memories are vague. Robertson describes her frustration at her efforts to uncover more about the elusive Lydia:
At this point, the result is uncertainty, and all I can find is that sometime in 1920 or 1921, Captain John Roper either “built,” “established,” “donated,” or “founded” the Lydia Roper Home. The Home either was, or was not, intended as a haven for Confederate widows. Two sources say yes; a local historian who grew up in the area says, “The Confederate widows twist likely came about as a result of rationalizing having a Damn Yankee establish a very useful and needed charitable home in an extremely Confederate area. Even one hundred years after The War, partisan feelings about Northerners were still quite strong.” A family member says the original charter more likely read something like, “ … for impoverished white women in the city of Norfolk.”
Anybody who’s engaged in research into an obscure historical figure or event can relate to that “Well.”
What holds these three threads together? To me, it’s the searching and the losing. The women of the Bible study group work their way through Old Testament and New, responding to the stories in conventional and unconventional ways, searching for meaning, consolation, and explanations, all the while growing older and more frail. They lose their faculties, their health. Dean Robertson keeps looking for Lydia, even as Lydia continually recedes on the horizon. Memories fail; stories prove untrustworthy; yet the effort rewards itself. The writing is literary and highly crafted, but not overly so; the characters of the women shine through.
The book contains a lot of discussion of the various characters in the Bible, particularly women. I’m just about the least qualified person in the country to talk about that element of the book; Bible study has never interested me. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the originality and soundness of the exegesis. I’m more interested in the human stories of the elderly women who gather in the second floor parlor of the Lydia Roper Home. And these stories – warm, touching, and often sad – are well worth the reading. Looking for Lydia, Looking for God is a lovely book, especially for the spiritually-minded.