‘Be Like Pearl’: A Woman So Admired She Inspired New Year’s Resolutions Was Felled By COVID-19

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FORKLAND, Ala. — If the Wizard of Oz had known Pearlean Slay, he would have called her a “good deed doer.”

In the movie, that line was targeted for the Tin Man, who had come to the wizard in search of a heart.

To hear her friends and loved ones tell it, Pearl Slay’s heart was as big as the Emerald City.

That heart stopped beating on May 29, two months shy of Slay’s 71st birthday, after a month-long battle with the coronavirus, and she entered a lineup of grim categories covering the nearly 2,300 Alabamians who have died after testing positive for COVID-19:

  • Fourteenth person from west-central Alabama’s Greene County
  • One of nearly 900 Blacks
  • One of more than 1,000 women
  • One of more than 1,750 men and women 65 years of age or older

But Pearl Slay was much more than a number, much more than a category. She was a wife, mother, grandmother, cook, seamstress, caregiver, counselor, confidant, line dancer, minister, organizer and someone whose laugh, as her husband described it, came from the heart, not just the mouth. She also was a mood-changer, a wig wearer, an Episcopal deacon and perhaps most of all, a golden-rule follower, someone to whom friendship meant making the effort to know someone in a meaningful way.

Friends thought enough of her that when she and they were dining at a Mexican restaurant in Demopolis, they would ask the eatery’s mariachi band to play “Brown-Eyed Girl” in honor of their brown-eyed Pearl.

Born in east Tennessee, Pearl Slay spent decades in Chicago. After she moved to her husband’s native Alabama in 2004, she drew raised eyebrows and “Where are you from?” inquiries from Alabamians when they first heard her speak.

She met her husband in the Windy City, but it took a while before they got together. Even before then, the man she would call Will had been struck by the way she carried herself. She was a lady, she never did anything halfway and she had a great singing voice. They married on Nov. 28, 1975, and they would have two children, Cathy and William, and later, three grandchildren, Ryan, Rory and Reva.

Pearl would sew blouses for Cathy and trousers for William, and she urged them to never be hypocrites. In word and deed, she sought to show them what was good for the goose was good for the gander — or as a dictionary says, “what a man can have or do, so a woman can have or do.” She also prized an orderly household, but she was not a homebody, and Will knew better than to try to put her on a leash.

Finding Home

When the children were grown and on their own, Will and Pearl moved to the Greene County town of Forkland. There, Will, a skilled carpenter, went into the building and repair business. Members of his family and old friends provided a ready-made community, but Will and Pearl also wanted a spiritual niche, and Pearl found it one weekday morning, while working out at a fitness center in Demopolis.

On that morning, Cindy Reeves, who was working there, talked up her church, Trinity Episcopal. The following Sunday morning, Pearl and Will were in one of Trinity’s pews. On the following Sunday, Will said, he and Pearl helped make breakfast for the congregants. A few months later, Pearl, who had been a Baptist in her youth and an Assemblies of God cup-bearer in adulthood, was confirmed as an Episcopalian.

From that point on, it was like a bow string had been pulled taut and then released. Pearl became part of an Episcopal Church Women’s Group, eventually becoming the ECW president for the Alabama Episcopal Diocese. She helped organize a chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians and was a recurring presence at the Episcopal Diocese’s Camp McDowell, its Cursillo retreats and its now-famous Alabama Folk School. She was part of the Kairos Prison Ministry at the federal women’s prison in Aliceville and joined in a regular Sunday bingo group at a Demopolis retirement home.

Pearl Slay’s husband Willie, whom she called Will, at a pearl bush at the family home in Forkland. (Photo by Tom Gordon)

On a smaller scale, she had a knack for showing up with a word, a touch and maybe something she knew that someone liked because she had gotten to know them and their life stories, or simply because she knew that using your ears to hear and your eyes to see are part of a life of service.

Sometimes that meant pulling a shy man onto a dance floor; making a suggestion that brought to life a quilt that had stymied its makers at the Folk School, making a fuss over her friend Martha Barger’s husband, Thomas, telling him how handsome he was; popping into the bank where Martha worked and leaving a key ring from New Mexico on the counter that had Martha’s name on it; sending copies of a magazine on raising chickens to her chicken-raising friends Jim and Joyce — her way of saying, as Joyce put it, “Hello, I like you.” Even in the grocery store, she would notice things on the shelves that ultimately ended up in someone else’s cupboard.

In light of all these things, it’s not surprising that Cindy Reeves’ husband, Stan, made “Be Like Pearl” his New Year’s resolution for 2020.

On Oct. 1, 2016, Pearl was ordained as a reverend deacon for the diocese. She started her deaconship work at Trinity but, ultimately, she was serving the small congregations of St. John’s in Forkland and St. Wilfrid’s in Marion. Beyond the sanctuary, her responsibilities included visiting the sick, the needy and the home-bound. When it was necessary, she also would take them food or clothing or pay their utility bills.

Decades before, she had felt a spiritual calling, but the call was vague, ill-defined. Now, she knew that what she was doing was what she had been called to do.

On a Sunday afternoon in late April, she and Martha had been texting and then talking about church-related matters — things the women’s group could be doing for others, what to do for a member who recently had been diagnosed with cancer — and they were punctuating the conversation with moments of laughter. It was not unlike other conversations Martha had had with Pearl over the years, except for one thing: Pearl was hoarse. Martha expressed concern, told her to get tested for the coronavirus, but Pearl’s response was, “It’s just a summer flu, and Martha, I love you.”

Not The Flu

Of course, what was making her hoarse was more than a summer flu, and Will had it, too. As the illness worsened for both of them, he drove them to DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa. After a while, Will was able to go home, but Pearl was transferred to UAB Hospital.

Cindy and Martha eventually took her home, but it was after she had been cremated.

On Sept. 6, during a private service, the urn containing her ashes was placed in the columbarium at Trinity. The outgoing diocesan bishop, Kee Sloan, was there, as was his successor, Glenda Curry. So was the diocesan archdeacon, Marti Holmes.

Life had begun moving on by then. Will had resumed working, and he was hearing more often from the kids and grandkids. Not surprisingly, he and others have been feeling Pearl’s absence, but there also are times when they have felt her presence. Cindy Reeves felt it not long after Pearl’s passing, when she was puttering around her garden and she noticed some coneflowers “popping out.” Pearl had given her the seeds.

And Will talks about the day outdoors that he tried to shoo away a brown butterfly that was flitting around him, but he finally gave up and let the butterfly land on his shoulder, where it remained for a while.

Will knew that Pearl loved butterflies, and he was glad to have the company.


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