Meher Baba once said, “Elizabeth is unique.” She was that, obviously, or he wouldn’t have chosen her to find, develop and run his home in the West, the Meher Spiritual Center in Myrtle Beach, SC.
In partnership with Norina Matchabelli, Elizabeth found the property in the mid-1940s, had roads cut through the semi-tropical jungle, water available, cabins built, Meher Baba’s House erected and two meeting places built in time for Meher Baba’s first visit in 1952. She said that people couldn’t possibly think she would have chosen this kind of work on her own; she did it because Meher Baba asked her to. She did it with an extraordinary focus on Meher Baba and his wishes for the Center.
I worked at the Center’s Gateway office for seven years, the first five while Elizabeth was still alive. I still count those five years as an invaluable education in how one should serve Meher Baba. Elizabeth was a total “hands on” manager, checking every detail right down to counting the silverware in the kitchens to make sure there was enough. She also gave complete instructions to employees, and in the beginning, I felt perhaps she overdid it. I was in my 40s, I had been a newspaper editor overseeing 25 people and here I was being treated like — I thought — a teenager with a first job. But I knew enough about Elizabeth and how much Baba trusted her with his home in the West, that I had to pause and consider this situation carefully. I decided I had two choices: I could resent the scrutiny and quit or I could make a game out of this, watching and listening and learning how Elizabeth’s mind worked, with the goal of one day being one step ahead of her. I chose to play the game.
After some months, a plain sedan pulled into the Center and stopped at the chain across the road. I went out to see who it was. The man in the car said he was from the telephone company and that the phone at Happy House was out of commission. I asked for his ID and a work order, took them back into the Gateway and called Elizabeth. “How do you know he’s from the telephone company?” Ah, the day had finally come! “I have his ID — he’s a subcontractor — and his work order.” There was a short pause and a bit of a laugh. Elizabeth knew exactly what I was doing. Our working relationship changed in that moment and she more and more started asking me what I was going to do about a situation, rather than telling me what to do. That hard-earned trust is something I still treasure.
One of my best remembered incidents of seeing how unique Elizabeth’s mind was had to do with a young man who brought marijuana into the Center with him. This of course was an absolute violation of Baba’s order that there were to be no drugs on the Center. This order was deemed so important that even most Center guests never hesitated to report any violations. In this case, the young man’s roommate found out about the marijuana and called me at the Gateway. I called Elizabeth and she was short and to the point: “Call him up to the Gateway and have him leave the Center at once. But make sure you arrange to keep in touch with him.” I did as I was told and the young man left the Center. Later that day, when I saw Elizabeth, she said, “I am not angry because he broke Baba’s order, because that’s between him and Baba. I’m angry because I’m the responsible person here and he forced me to break Baba’s order.” I don’t know anyone else who would have looked at it that way.
On the other hand, Elizabeth had unusual instincts about the difference between deliberate and accidental breaking of rules. One day, a Center guest called to tell me he had found two bottles of beer on one of the kitchen shelves. I told him to leave them there, while I called Elizabeth. I checked to see who was using that particular shelf and then called her. “Bring it,” she said, and down went the phone. I got the beer and took it to her. “Hmm,” she said, “expensive.” Instead of anger, she smiled and said, “Put it in one of the bathrooms, go back to the kitchen and leave a note for the guest. Tell him if he wants his beer back, he should call Elizabeth. Tell him to call Elizabeth in any case.”
I did so and the guest called Elizabeth. As it turned out, Elizabeth’s humorous reaction was right on. The guest was moving from Myrtle Beach, had everything he owned with him, and had simply not thought about bringing the beer into the Center. He apologized and Elizabeth stored the beer for him until he left.
Elizabeth died more than 20 years ago, and I still remember everything she told me about the Center and what Baba wanted it to be. I don’t remember anything of what other people told me, which tells me I did recognize the authority which Baba had conferred upon her, and her total focus on him and his wishes. I never heard any muddled thinking from Elizabeth Patterson. Early on in the years I worked there, she said, “When you run into difficulties — not problems, because there are no problems — look to what Meher Baba said about the Center. He didn’t say a great deal, but your answer will always lie in what he did say.” I found that over the years to be true. And most of those answers lay in one of his first statements about the Center. He said. “It is for rest, meditation and renewal of the spiritual life. It is for those who love and follow me and for those who know of me and want to know more.” You can’t get any clearer than that.
One of my last conversations with Elizabeth took place shortly before she died. She had invited me to dinner along with a couple who had been very helpful to the Center and who were moving away from Myrtle Beach. As we were leaving after dinner, Elizabeth shook hands with them and said, “It’s been a pleasure to know you.” Then she turned to me with a twinkle in her eye, took my hand, and said, “And it’s been a pleasure to know you.”
Ah, Elizabeth, the pleasure was all mine.