A 'Miss Sweetie' Sunday Influence: Their matriarch may be gone, but Sarah Matthews' kin keep her dedication to God and family alive.

September 28, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

Her name was Sarah Evangeline Scott Matthews, but everyone called her Miss Sweetie.

This was a woman who laughed often, loved furiously and feared God, who smoked a couple of packs of Kools a day for four decades but still lived three days beyond her 98th birthday. She was the product of a generation that believed children should be seen, not heard, and who was a matriarch in the quiet Bayside village of Shady Side as well as to her seemingly endless family.

Sarah Matthews was the mother of 11, the grandmother of 50, the great-grandmother of 121, the great-great-grandmother of 64 and the great-great-great-grandmother of 11.

"Ain't nothin' like family," she used to say. "Praise the Lord for this family of mine."

With her hands on her bony hips and her wrinkled index finger wagging at anyone who would listen, Matthews held her massive family together, and she knew it. She liked knowing everyone's business, and in a family this size, there was a lot of business to be known.

So, for the better part of a century, at Matthews' unquestioned insistence, her family gathered after church every Sunday for a late breakfast. Then lunch. Then dinner. You set aside Sunday for God and kin, no questions asked, or there would be hell to pay with Miss Sweetie.

"Families need to get together to stay together," she would tell them.

Now, Miss Sweetie is gone.

Two weeks after her death, everyone -- from her big family and her tiny hometown -- is still getting used to that.

But yesterday, immediately after church, even without the longtime guest of honor, the legacy of Sarah Evangeline Scott Matthews carried on as dozens upon dozens of daughters and sons and grandchildren gathered for fried chicken and deviled eggs and crab cakes.

There was just something about Miss Sweetie.

Born in Shady Side at the turn of the century, on Sept. 9, 1900, Matthews was one of William and Maggie Scott's four children. She would outlive them all, witnessing a century of change that more often than not made her shake her head and ask, "Oh my, what's this world comin' to?"

Never a complainer

Always, her life had been hard.

She would talk about raising 11 children -- Ellis, Calvin, Alexander, Thomas, William, Preston, Lucille, Jean, Sarah, Thelma and Mary -- in a four-room house with no electricity or indoor plumbing.

Matthews' husband, also a lifelong Shady Side resident, was a waterman, leaving her home alone with the children often. Sometimes the family lived just above poverty, and the Great Depression made things even worse.

But Matthews never complained: "Never heard her say a negative word in my life," said her youngest son, Preston. "Never once even heard her say she had an ache or a pain or a worry. Sweetie just was a happy woman, a truly happy person."

But Matthews could be strict. Children were not allowed to listen to grown-ups talk. "Outside, children," she would say. "You know better than to try to overhear us."

And when the family would splurge on luxuries -- such as fresh peaches -- she would give the children only the skins of the fruit, feeding the rest to the adults. "Shouldn't waste good fresh peaches on little ones," she would say. Same with crabs -- grown-ups got the best meat while little folks made do with the claws.

Devoutly religious, Matthews rarely missed a Sunday at St. Matthews Methodist Church in Shady Side, an all-black church said to have been named for her husband's family back in the mid-1800s.

"The secret of a long life," Matthews' daughter, Lucille Brown, said just days after her mother's funeral, "might be nothing more than a loving family and a strong faith in God."

Too busy to sit

When she was just 75, Matthews' family gave her a solid oak rocking chair for her birthday, and she exclaimed in disgust, "I don't know who you think is going to be sitting back in some ol' rocking chair like she don't have nothin' better to do, but it sure ain't gonna be me."

And that was the truth. There wasn't much Matthews didn't consider her business.

Premarital counselor

When her granddaughter Laureen Offer was planning to get married, Matthews sat the bridegroom-to-be down at the kitchen table and grilled him about his intentions:

"Well, do you love her," she asked straight out, never one to mince words.

"Yes, ma'am," he answered.

"No, I mean do you really love her," the old woman pressed.

"Yes, ma'am, I really do," he said again.

"Well then," Matthews said, launching into her favorite lecture, one her family knows by heart. "Don't let your love be like water, turning on and off, running hot and cold."

The wedding took place several months later, and the couple rewarded Matthews with two great-granddaughters.

Lessons learned

Matthews had analogies for everything. "Grannyisms," her family called them. When she thought anyone was worrying too much about life's material things, Matthews would mutter, "I don't take no wooden nickels, cause they don't spend."

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