By KATIE EUBANKS
When you walk into Bill and Charlotte Waller’s house, you know you’re going to be taken care of.
That’s not because the home itself is the color of a shortbread cookie, or because a cat nuzzles your leg before you reach the door. It’s because Charlotte offers you tea and homemade scones. Even if you’re there technically to work.
“I like (the Bible verse) ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Because I like to go and do. That whole story of Martha and Mary,” Charlotte says, laughing.
Much like busy Martha in the New Testament, Charlotte is prepared and hospitable beyond need. She barely stops serving photographer Deryll Stegall (and this writer) long enough to let Deryll take pictures of her.
But the similarities end there. Unlike Martha in that biblical incident, Charlotte has learned how to “be still” at the feet of Jesus. That’s where she received His guidance for her “heavenly” tea parties, which she’s hosted for children, church groups, brides to be, and many others since 1986.
Her love of serving started decades before that.
From Biggersville to the bigger city
Charlotte hails from Biggersville, an unincorporated town of about 200 people located near Corinth in northeast Mississippi.
“There were no red lights. We had a cotton gin, a school,” Charlotte says. “We went to a little Presbyterian church that would have maybe 50 on Easter.”
At 7 or 8 years old, Charlotte learned the act of serving from her grandmother Ardena M. Honnell, aka “Othermama.”
“She would get me to serve her (church) circle group coffee, tea, and a piece of (cake),” Charlotte says. The ladies thanked her enthusiastically, and that positive reinforcement stuck with her over the years.
In addition to “Othermama,” Charlotte grew up surrounded by loving Christian relatives who encouraged her.
“The words ‘Jesus’ and ‘God’ were (as common as) ‘Mother’ and ‘Daddy.’ I just loved Him with the mind and heart of a child,” she says.
At 14 years old, she attended a revival and, for the first time, understood her need to love Christ with her life.
“Yes, I knew Him and loved Him for what I knew, but I’d never given Him my heart. That (decision) changed my life forever … He kept me strong with good friends through college.”
She finished school at Mississippi State University and stayed on for her master’s degree in elementary education while teaching kindergarten at First Presbyterian Church in Starkville. After that, she was moving to one of two places: Jackson or Memphis.
Only problem was, neither city had an open teaching position in the public school system. “And see, I only knew public school,” she says.
“Then sitting on my dorm bed, I wrote down all the kindergartens — because I had an emphasis in setting up kindergartens — including Jackson Academy.”
She got an interview and ended up teaching for 11 years at JA: three years of second grade, then eight years of kindergarten.
Meanwhile, the girl from the little Presbyterian church in Biggersville started visiting a couple of churches in the Jackson area, including First Baptist Jackson.
“I lived at North Hill Square (Apartments in Jackson). I would go down North State Street in my Volkswagen (which we still have in the carport to this day). I was afraid to go on the Interstate, afraid I’d get knocked off the road.”
One day she called her mom:
“Mom, what would you think if I joined First Baptist Church?”
“Well, I think you should go wherever God leads you.”
One Sunday a couple years later, “I was walking up the stairs and (Bill) was coming down, and he reached out his hand and (introduced himself),” Charlotte recalls.
She and her roommate at North Hill Square hosted a tailgate party one day. The roommate asked Bill to the party, and Charlotte asked another guy. But things happen.
“Bill got to know my grandmother (who had a connection to his family),” Charlotte says. “(He) loved the food, and (afterward) he started calling me and asking, ‘Is there any of that food left?’ Then he kept coming over. Then when the food was gone, he brought a Mississippi State cheese and said, ‘Why don’t you make us a sandwich?’
“It was a slow growth of the relationship.”
After dating for a year, Charlotte and Bill got married.
All the ‘heavenly’ tea
Ever since serving her grandmother’s friends tea and dessert in Biggersville, Charlotte loved the idea of serving people via tea parties. The first time she hosted one was for daughter Jeannie’s fourth birthday, in 1986.
“Her (preschool) class came over. We iced cookies,” Charlotte says. The girls got dolled up at “salon stations,” while the boys had their own games and activities. (Charlotte also has hosted a couple of more boy-friendly “cowboy teas,” complete with red-checkered tablecloths and bandanas.)
Counting Jeannie and 12 nieces (including Bill’s side of the family), Charlotte has hosted close to 50 tea parties over the years for female relatives alone. The girls have each gotten a tea party when they turned 4 and 10, when they graduated high school, and a “bridal tea” if they got married.
For little girls’ parties, “we’ll make a bead bracelet, polish their nails, do blush and shiny lips — and we’ll talk about manners. By the time we do their tea party, it really settles them down,” Charlotte says.
“I put a little sparkle on their cheek when they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ because ‘that means you’re a special princess.’ (At one party) that whole table was ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And the mommas thank me.”
The tea parties started out being just for fun — but soon, God added His aroma to the brew.
“It all triggered from me doing my tea parties for young children and doing fluff and (feather) boas and saying a prayer or blessing — but that prayer touched the hearts of those parents and grandparents (who were there). And from that, I was just really convicted that I wanted to use (tea parties) to glorify the Lord,” Charlotte says.
“One day I was having my morning devotional on Psalm 19:1, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands,’ and (God said to me) ‘Do it with a tea party. You love tea parties. Use it to glorify Me.’
“And the Lord just began to give me different symbols for the parts of the tea party that I use,” she says. “So that’s what I share.”
Part of the appeal of a tea party is getting to drink out of a beautiful teacup — usually one of a matching set. But while Charlotte does have matching teacups from when she got married, she never uses those for tea parties. Instead, each teacup at her parties is different, just like the people using them.
“I got the (teacup symbolism partially) from the Emilie Barnes book ‘If Teacups Could Talk.’ Teacups are all different, and they all break,” Charlotte says.
“We all have stains and cracks, and so I like to use old teacups and stained ones and cracked ones and all kinds. … and I have collected them I guess now for 34 years. So I do have a collection (of about 40),” she says.
“If they break, it’s not a big deal. And I have glued some back together, because that’s part of the analogy. When we are broken with whatever breaks us in life, then God puts us back together.”
The tea tray symbolizes a believer’s foundation in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “We live in a fallen world. But the tray still holds the teacup,” she says.
The teapot symbolizes God, and the tea represents His Holy Spirit, whom He pours into believers. “(God says) ‘If you come to Me, you’ll overflow.’”
In Biggersville, “we didn’t have sugar cubes,” Charlotte says, laughing, but these days she uses them to symbolize “the sweetness of growing in Jesus.” She encourages tea party attendees to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) and to fill their lives with sweet things that bring Him glory.
The cream represents the choices we make. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” Charlotte says, quoting Joshua 24:15.
On the day she started receiving all this tea-related symbolism from God, Charlotte was sitting on her back porch with her tea, her devotional, and a rose, which had dried up since she cut it. God reminded her of John 15:5, where Jesus tells His disciples, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” So the flowers at her tea parties symbolize our growth in Christ as we stay rooted in His love.
“Keep a flower in the ground and it’ll grow and flourish,” she says. “After a day or two (of not spending time with God), I’m not a good wife, grandmother or friend.”
Also with Charlotte that day was a simple white Kroger napkin. God brought more truth to her mind: “I wash your sins away as far as east is from west, and I cover you, and you are as white as snow.”
Some folks put lemon in their tea, but nobody wants to be told to expect “lemons” in life. Still, Charlotte includes the lemon as another symbol at her tea parties.
“We don’t want to upset anybody, but I think I tried to protect (my kids) too much. I wish I had told them, ‘In this world you will have trouble,’” she says, quoting Jesus in Matthew 16:33.
“Sour things happen to people all the time, sometimes by choice, and sometimes it’s just part of life. But if you take a lemon and squeeze it in your tea, it enhances the flavor of the tea. (God says) ‘When the sour things come, squeeze My hand and keep walking.’
“We pray not to get bitter, but to turn around and look for someone we can help.
“Just in our family, there have been disappointments and heartaches. My dad went through Parkinson’s really bad. You’re never the same, but if you know who the Lord is, you can step forward.”
Her own lemons
Charlotte has seen dear friends lose loved ones far too soon. She herself lost her father to Parkinson’s, and her mother is currently receiving hospice care in Oxford.
“God doesn’t bend us and break us just once. We all have crosses. Some seem heavier than others,” she says. Even the everyday struggles of a mother are nothing to sneeze at, as she and Bill have raised their three kids to adulthood:
“I think as a mom, the hardest thing for me is to let my children go and let them make their own decisions,” she says. “But I think God has grown me in that. (He’s said) ‘I gave them to you. They’re not really yours. They’re on loan.’”
Over the last few years, she says, “if anything’s changed my life … it’s been hiding God’s Word in my heart. I tried to memorize one verse a week, and after a year you have 52 verses.” Spoiler alert: She does not have all 52 verses memorized. But she’s still working on it.
“I hope it’ll keep my brain sharp,” she says with a laugh.
In all seriousness, she says, “When you don’t know where to go or what to do, that’s where to go. In this day and time, everybody has something they stand on — but the truth is the Word of God.
“We have to have that daily quiet time, ask Him to fill us, put on His armor, and just pray — and leave the rest to the Lord.”
Bill’s campaign for governor
When Charlotte and Bill first got married, he was practicing law with his father, who had served as governor of Mississippi. Bill also wound up working in state government: After 20 years of law practice, he served 21 years on the Mississippi Supreme Court — 10 of those as chief justice.
When he retired in January 2019, he and Charlotte planned simply to retire to Oxford, to be near grandkids and Charlotte’s mother.
“But as he announced his retirement, he had people begin to call him and ask him to consider running for governor. And so after much prayer — and we talked about it, and sought wise counsel, (and) prayed some more — we decided that he was very qualified, and I was behind him, because everything he’s ever done, he does with all of his heart,” Charlotte says.
“So we stepped out in faith, and we claimed Proverbs 3:5-6, to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and lean not on our own understanding, but in all our ways acknowledge Him, and He would direct our paths.
“I knew he would do his very best and let God do the rest. He’s done that in all our 42 years of marriage. … And my favorite thing is, I’ve always loved cheering him on, whatever he does or seeks to do.” (No surprise there: She was a cheerleader at Mississippi State.)
They always tried to worship somewhere every Sunday, and they checked on Charlotte’s mother and the grandbabies anytime they were near Oxford. But Charlotte’s favorite part of the campaign — again, no surprise — was meeting people from all over Mississippi.
“In my mind, Mississippi is a wonderful place, and I truly believe hospitality rang true from every town as we traveled the state,” she says.
While Bill did not advance beyond the Republican primary runoff, “it was a wonderful experience, I have no regrets, (Bill) has no regrets,” Charlotte says. “I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that you’re just always available and you try. (God) opens doors and He closes doors.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “all of Jeannie’s babysitters had to go home,” Charlotte says. “Bill said, ‘We need to help her.’” With both Jeannie’s family and Charlotte’s mother in Oxford, the Wallers have been spending half their time there, but Charlotte isn’t quite ready to sell their Jackson home, which they’ve lived in for 36 years.
“It hasn’t felt like the right move yet. It’s going to take a little. I get attached to stuff.”
In the meantime, she’ll keep pouring tea — probably until the last teacup is packed.