My mother, Bernice (she preferred Bernie), drove a 1920s-era Stevens touring car, striking in every detail right down to the polished oak spokes on each wheel. It was in this car that my mother would drive Aimee Semple McPherson when she preached at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium, at the time an imposing, recently completed, Renaissance-style building in the heart of California’s state capital.
As they drove, Sister Aimee and my mother must have had many conversations about the Lord, their families, the world and their own lives. I would have loved to be a fly inside that car just to know what they discussed on those long drives to downtown Sacramento from our ranch in the sleepy farming community of Winters.
I was privy to one such conversation that would become legend in our family. My mother was a graduate of Stanford University and worked as a private duty nurse. During one of these drives to Sacramento, Sister Aimee asked my mother to be her nurse and companion on some of her many crusades and international itineraries.
But I’m getting ahead of my story—more about that conversation later.
Although Sister Aimee had a room at the Senator Hotel in Sacramento, she preferred to stay with our family at the ranch. It was quite a drive, but well worth it. The ranch was restful and far from the busyness of the city.
It was over 75 years ago, and I was just a young boy at the time, but I remember being completely smitten by the presence of this elegant, dignified lady. She was quite a presence—and yet I was intrigued by her genuine humility. She wore makeup, I recall, but not like some women of the day who wore far too much. She had a natural look that never appeared overdone.
I followed her around our house. My mother scolded me and told me to leave her alone, but Sister Aimee told me to stay. She must have liked having me around. Maybe I reminded her of Rolf, her son, who was back in Los Angeles while Sister traveled and shared Jesus Christ with the world.
As she prepared for her services, Sister Aimee sat in front of a mirrored vanity in our guest room, and I watched her brush her hair. I had never seen hair that long. To a little boy, it seemed almost to reach the floor. She would comb it carefully and twist strands into perfectly symmetrical braids. Some professional hairdresser must have trained her to do this because, like everything she did, it was done beautifully. When she was finished, you never saw one hairpin.
When she arrived at the auditorium in Sacramento, Sister Aimee would don a flowing white gown and carry a bouquet of red roses as she walked down the aisle to the platform. It was the height of the Great Depression, and people thronged to see this lady evangelist and to hear a message of hope from the Word of God.
As Sister elegantly walked to the platform, I remember her handing out roses to people in the congregation. When she returned to our house each night, my mother would help her with her gown and find dollar bills that people had slipped into her pockets as she walked by.
Offerings were received each night using tambourines instead of offering plates, and the people gave generously. Local businesses and area churches seemed to roll out the red carpet for Sister Aimee. It was an honor for us to have such a servant of the Lord among us, and even as a child I knew there was something very special about this woman.
I don’t remember exactly what year it was, but Sister Aimee’s son, Rolf, visited and stayed awhile with us in Winters. He spent his time between our home and the home of my adopted aunt and uncle, Lucy and Jimmy Pleasant. As I remember, Lucy Pleasant was the woman who introduced my mother to Sister Aimee.
Rolf and I sat in front of the fireplace in our home for hours, building things with an Erector Set Rolf’s mother had given him. Never having had a brother of my own, I enjoyed having an older boy to spend time with.
One of the highlights of Rolf’s visit was the arrival of Rivets, a horse trained for the movies that was a gift from Sister Aimee to her son. Until she came to live in Winters, Rivets had been stabled in Los Angeles, not far from the McPherson residence. Rolf spoke of how Rivets would play tricks on him, such as when he would visit neighbors and tie her up, only to find she would untie the knots and go home, leaving him to walk home alone.
Our father raised riding horses, and eventually Rivets became a part of our family stable. He was an amazingly agile and friendly horse. I always thought of Rolf each time we took Rivets out for a ride.
Speaking of my father, he owned a general store on the corner of Railroad Avenue and Main Street in downtown Winters. He was working in his store one afternoon when Sister Aimee decided to pay him a visit.
This is the event I referred to earlier, and this is the story our family chuckles about to this day. Sister Aimee wanted my mother to become her companion and nurse when she traveled. It must have been a very tempting offer considering all the exciting places she visited during her ministry!
My mother was hesitant, feeling a strong commitment to her home and children. But she agreed to allow Sister Aimee to pose the question to my father. When she asked if he would agree to such an arrangement, my father politely but firmly denied her request.
With a slight smile and a glint in her eye, Sister Aimee replied, “Well Mr. Culton, I must say you are the first man to ever say no to Aimee Semple McPherson.”
She was quite a presence indeed!
This article was adapted from a video interview with Sarshel at his home in Sacramento shortly before his death in Nov. 2005.