July Has Ended and There Was No Story of the Month?

One of my monthly writing goals is to share a story with a theme that corresponds with that particular month. Well, today is July 31, and, though I tried to make the goal, you will not find a July Story of the Month posted on my website — but for a good reason!

I began my July story right after Juneteenth, imagining a newly-freed young woman and her reaction to the news. I decided to use the first name of one of my ancestors, who was born in 1845. Our family records list her without a last name.

My tentative title is “Tell Her About Freedom,” a theme in line with the Fourth of July holiday that we celebrate in the United States.

As I wrote the story, I also researched the origins of Juneteenth and came upon one Texas plantation owner’s reading of “General Order Number 3” to his slaves. The dispatch from Union Major General Gordon Granger was issued on the morning of June 19, 1865, in Galveston from the Union Army’s Texas headquarters. The details were fascinating, so I decided to incorporate some of them into my story.

The more I wrote, the more I did not want to rush to finish it. So, I didn’t.

But I will finish it soon, and it will be a better story without the rush. Here is a sneak peek:

My name is Aldine, born somewhere in Virginia in 1845 and taken to Texas when I was a little one. That’s what I’ve been told. Right now, it is July in 1865. That makes me 20 years being a slave. I chose June 19 as my birthday because I don’t know the real one, and this one is the day that I was made free for the first time. I got free for a second time, and I will tell you about that later in my story.
The only ones who got treated well — if you can call it that — were the old ones. They just smiled, got along, and made no trouble, knowing that soon they would be departing for that land called heaven, what we all wanted once we had learned about it. I remember helping to pick up old Ethel in the field one day. That was tough because I was just a girl, and she was heavy. Jacob, one of my brothers, was helping, too. And, oh, she was dead and she was smiling. Only way to do that is if you knew where you were going. It looked to me like she did.
You can call me Aldine Woods. I chose that last name because I like the woods. There, everything is dark. In a beautiful dark kind of way. Usually.

Reading and writing about slavery is tough for me. The humiliation, cruelty, and violence that I learn about often overwhelms me. But, when I think about what my ancestors had to endure — and endure they did — I find the courage to write stories that will give them a voice, respect, and the happiness and opportunities they deserved to have as human beings. Aldine was born a slave, and I can’t wait to finish the story with her experiencing true freedom.

June Story of the Month: Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing

There are potato chips all over the rug, and I think about how brave Dad is not to care about the mess he’s making.

Crazy. I’m afraid to make Mom mad like that. She’d come and get at me behind my knees with a switch.

Dad’s not afraid. He’s taking his time on the Soul Express, that radio show he likes where the deejays yell and laugh and blow whistles all the time.

“It’s tiiiiiime for the Mighty Ten Ninety, Dee Dee!” And he just goes with it, dancing around the living room, stepping on anything in his way: that bag of chips, paper plates, comic books, the newspaper, his jacket. My sister’s cut-outs, too. She worked really hard to make those clothes for her paper dolls, but I see her smiling while Dad does his thing.

It’s like he’s in a dream.

Mom is at work. I watched her leave wearing the pink and gray uniform with her “stand all day” shoes. I don’t think she heard me yell goodbye to her from my bed because she didn’t say anything back.

Dad works at night as a janitor. He cleans the junior high school, and his picture is even in the school yearbook. He is the best-looking one of all those men who make that school shine. No one is better looking than my Dad. I checked all the pages of that yearbook. Nope. Not even the principal.

First weekend of Christmas vacation! Having Dad home and awake is my favorite thing. He plays cards with us and cooks really good breakfasts. And because it is Saturday, he won’t get drunk until later. He is wearing that brown V-neck pulled over his light-green turtleneck sweater. It’s my favorite thing for him to wear.

“Look out! Misto is comin’ and goin’!” He dances across the rug, his right arm out to the side, and his left hand across his belly, acting like he’s holding a fine woman real close.

Here he comes my way. I’m up against the side of the hi-fi with a cup of Kool-Aid, legs crossed, with my cat book open on my lap.

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell start singing, and Dad says, “It’s my man! Turn it up!” He moves quickly to the hi-fi and fills the room with the song.

I begin to sing along. “Ain’t nu-thin’ like the real-thing-bay-beh.” Eyes closed, fingers snapping, rocking side to side.

“Stand up, girl!” I look up and he’s grinning. I love his mustache. It’s like those fuzzy black caterpillars that turn into pretty moths.

I jump up and take his hands. I place my feet upon his. He holds me up and stomps around as we sing the duet.

Dad makes silly faces when it’s my turn to sing, and I try not to laugh so I can do a good job.

“I got your picture hangin’ on the wall

It can’t see or come to me when I call your name

I realize it’s just a picture in a frame.”

Dad looks right at me while he sings, and I just know he means it, every single word.

“I got some memories to look back on

And though they help me when you’re gone

I’m well aware nothing can take the place of being there.”

The song ends, and I step off his feet. “You are good, girl,” he says. I tell him his voice is better than Marvin Gaye’s, and he laughs. He goes off to the kitchen, his body moving to the radio’s beat. I go back to my spot and think about being a on TV.

When he returns, Dad has a can of beer in his hand. “Dee Dee, get something and clean up the rug before your mama gets home.” He turns, opens the door to the backyard, and I don’t see him again until dinnertime.

We’re having beans and cornbread again, but I don’t mind. Mom spices the beans just right and puts enough sugar in the bread to make it taste special.

Dad tells my brother to say the usual family blessing:

“Thank you for the world so sweet, thank you for the food we eat, thank you for the birds that sing, thank you, God, for everything. Amen. Jesus wept.”

The TV set is close enough for us to see and hear the six o’clock news. My brothers are talking about this morning’s cartoons and what will happen on Sea Hunt tonight. Dad says he’s going to see a movie with our neighbor. His eyes are shiny, and I wonder if he hurt himself again. Mom looks mad.

One by one, we ask Dad to excuse us from the table after we’ve eaten everything on our plates. That is the rule in our home. Don’t even think about getting up from the table before Dad says you can.

I get my permission and join the others on the living room floor in front of the TV. My sister turns up the TV so we can hear the show and not the yelling going on in the kitchen. Dad comes through the living room, whistling and doing his dance steps. He grabs his jacket from the floor and almost trips over my brother on his way to the front door. He winks at me as he’s closing it.

Right then, I make up my mind to be a singer when I grow up. I tell Mom, and she says that Dad isn’t coming back.

That’s okay. I’ll tell him in the morning.


“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” © 1967 Jobete, BMI

STORY NOTE: One of the treasured memories I have of my Dad is this incident — singing a duet while I stood on his feet. Writing this story as creative nonfiction was a way for me to relive the memory, and also to roll a bit of my family life into one day. Ten-year-old “Dee Dee” — his nickname for me — adored her Dad despite the things he did or did not do. Whenever I hear “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” I think of my dance with him, how he moved away a few years later, and what a father’s presence and absence can bring out in his child. Three days before he died at age 73, I had a chance to tell Dad to his face, as he lay dying in his bed, that I loved him, I forgave him, God forgave him, and I would see him in heaven.

May Story of the Month: A Mother’s Day

The United States celebrates Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May. That’s this weekend, and it’s a perfect theme for this month’s Story of the Month.

While researching the Great Depression (1929-1940) for one of my stories, I found this photo and it is an amazing one. The joy this woman shows, despite her poverty, is the perfect picture of motherly love.

Inspired by the photo, I imagined myself sitting with this woman to learn about her typical day.

Cotton picker with her baby, Maricopa County, Arizona, November 1940. Photo by Dorothea Lange

Look at her.

My child don’t know nothing about life. Oh, how that makes me glad.

All she knows about is me, Daddy, her brothers, my bosom, my arms, my whispers. She knows my smell, my smile. And when she wakes, when those eyes open and she jabs my soul with her brown eyes, oh, so deep, dark brown — she knows the love of God through my ragged self.

My day is cotton picking, metal pans, and hot dust. Then I come home to feed my folk. If Daddy don’t come home with some food, I’ll be cooking with weeds and what I can find hiding under a stone. Sometimes I feel sorry for the critters. They hungry, too. It don’t take me long before I get over that sorrowful feeling and aim that club. Daddy says I should just think of them as gifts from God and then do the deed.

Out there, that’s Clarence and Cecil. Good boys. I bring home the critters and make a teaching out of it. I teach my boys how to spell as we skin and cook. R-A-B-B-I-T. Rabbits, squirrels, birds, snakes. Use what you got, I say. Even those hoppers can taste good when you know tomorrow might be empty. My boys did get good with the club, too, so I can care more for my baby girl. So thankful for the bags of flour we get. I can always make do with some of that. Salt, pepper, roll it around ’til the critter is covered, thick. Melt the grease and fry up what I got. If the only thing that tastes good is the smell, then at least that’s something.

No meat tonight, though. Fried dough. See that? Flour, lard, water. Roll it up. Stick it in the grease. Eat. And those rations, they don’t last long. Especially the salt pork. Men trade that for cigarettes and anything else that’ll ease their pain. Oh, they are sure bold about stealing. Daddy don’t fight about it. He asks me “Salt pork or be dead?”

He’s a wise man, a good man. Love him so. Clareen looks just like him. When she opens her eyes, you’ll see.

Daddy brings home our dollar twenty-five, tired as a dog. When he looks at her, I see his face rest. Not in a happy way, but a satisfied way.

He works for something better than a meal.

We built our house from scrap piles of junk. Now, this is our home for I don’t know how long. I know folk who don’t have a roof overhead, so I’m not complaining. Can’t keep out the dust, but what it settles on is clean.

Our washing and relieving are in the pail and the ditch. Now that he’s older, Clarence got charge of the clean-out. I help him get ready with the bleach and send him on his way. Can’t have none of those germs around my baby. I’ve watched too many of my folk losing their own because they don’t take time to be careful.

Wonder what she’s thinking. God knows I love her. I sing her this song every day:

Jesus loves me, this I know,

For the Bible tells me so,

Little ones to him belong,

You’re so weak, but he is strong,

Yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me; yes, Jesus loves me,

The Bible tells me so.

Singing is how I take my babies on trips. Leave this dreary ol’ Buckeye place. I sing that we’re riding on a train, new shoes, drinking a peach Nehi. We get to California, the orange trees heavy with fruit. We just pick them, don’t have to pay, nobody chasing us away. Juice running down our faces. My babies love that song, never tire of it. And I sing about the ocean and how they can swim in it, if they want. We read the papers and plan for the day. Reminds me of what the Bible says — the promised land.

Oh, yes, my day is more difficult with her, yes, it is. All my business stops when she’s awake. My boys don’t like it, I know, but they had me, too, like she do now.

Joy, joy, joy. Look at her. Clareen. My first baby girl. Oh, when I’m out in that field, picking, bending, and I feel her breath against my neck — that just grows me. My legs get stronger, my hands get tougher, my aches don’t weigh me down. There’s a reason for all this, I believe.

I’m hoping I have the answer before she starts to asking what it is.

There you are, baby girl. Hush, now. Hush.

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy;

at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Psalm 16:11

April Story of the Month: I Heard the Clouds Say Something That Easter Morn

Easter Sunday, Late 1960s

The Lowe Family did not miss church on Easter Sunday.

Mom and Dad didn’t think twice about skipping it every other Sunday of the year, but attending the Easter service was a must do. It was like they figured the liveliness of Spring stirred God into bursting from his year-long patience with them. It was time to get into the pews before they felt his wrath.

Plus there was that whole “sin” and “Jesus died, but he’s alive” thing that they told us Easter was all about.

Mom and Dad had both been brought up to know God and the Christian faith. They shared those beliefs with us (me and five other siblings) in unique ways. For example, Mom told us that all the bad things we did until we were teenagers counted as sins against her. We felt crummy about that. So, Mom had a flock of well-behaved children; we lived in fear of being responsible for her being sent to hell.

I love my Mom and Dad. With all that life had handed to them, at least they tried. Besides the guilt they felt for not attending church throughout the year, perhaps they thought sitting under a fire-breathing pastor on Easter Sunday would burn off the thick layers of sin we had piled on all year.

As a child, Christmas was our main celebration of Christianity. My mother loved Jesus through her Christmas celebrations, and she made sure her children did, too. My young self cared little about my parents’ guilty feelings and only a bit more about Jesus’ death on the cross. Better than that, Easter meant new clothes and shoes, and the tangy smell of vinegar. Boiling water steamed up the windows and we’d draw pictures with our fingers. There was that miracle of colored drops transforming a stupid egg into a thing of beauty. That was Easter for me.

The Lowe kids looked sharp as usual on that Easter Sunday: Three girls in frilly dresses and pressed hair, and three boys in button-down shirts and pressed pants.

As we climbed into the car, I noticed the clouds. Cotton candy thick, the type that stirred a child’s thoughts and imagination. They were not unusual for the season, but on that particular morning, when I looked at those clouds, I felt like their fullness and brilliance were saying something to me. Something about God.

And right then I wondered: Did God ever think about me?

The preacher’s sermon was about Nicodemus, and he would shout and pound on the podium when he said the name:

Nicodemus! He came to Jesus at night.

Nicodemus! Didn’t want nobody seeing him there.

Nicodemus! You must be born again, Jesus said. Nicodemus!

He went on and on about this man who was afraid of his friends and didn’t understand a mystery. I wasn’t impressed: Okay, so, this Nicodemus man believed in Jesus. Good for him. I want my Easter basket. When will this be over?

And then the preacher started talking about Jesus coming back, and that Jesus would use the clouds to get here.

Clouds? I perked up.

“He died, YES! he rose, YES! and one day, I said, ONE day he will return!”

Return?

“To take you home to heaven, children!”

Heaven?

“He’s coming in the CLOUDS, brothers!”

The clouds? I looked out the window.

“In clouds of GLO-ry, sisters!”

Sisters? Me?

I had heard it all before, but this time that return in those clouds to take me sounded both scary and … wonderful.

The preacher was a sight. He was yelling about a rapture and a new earth, and he was taking throaty breaths between sentences, and he was slapping the podium, harder, harder, faster, faster, like it was the devil telling him to stop preaching, stop it, STOP IT!

Because someone’s heart was being moved.

“The Crazy Part” was my childish name for what came next. Everyone started singing with the choir. Men, women, and children were up, clapping, shifting, and stomping. Soon the Lowes were, too. It was infectious. Since church wasn’t the norm, I was a bit wary of acting that way in God’s house, like it was our living room with the Top 40 hits blasting from the radio.

The piano player was moving side to side, his shoulders working into a chunky rhythm of soulful song. Women were hopping on one leg, up and down the aisle and in the front of the pews, doing that dancing, “slain in the Spirit,” where those women would let go and let God.

This both frightened and humored me, especially when the old ladies fell to the ground, shaking and writhing and screaming. And I was embarrassed because they were sharing all of their female garments while they were down there. They didn’t seem to care. I looked at Mom, her eyes focused straight ahead on the preacher like nothing unusual was happening.

My brothers and sisters were trying hard not to laugh because we knew to whom that sin would go.

Soon the fans were fanning and the women were settled. The congregation was excused. The Lowe Family had appeased their God for another year.

We went home to the Easter baskets and all was well. Except, I kept thinking about those clouds. I walked to my bedroom and went to the window.

I looked out.

The afternoon sun was shining through the clouds just so. Majestic, soft and inviting. Glory!

Was he coming today?

I tried to imagine what home would be like in heaven. “Happy” was the word that settled in my heart. Things in my earthly home had not been going well. Mom and Dad were yelling, cussing, hitting, throwing. They talked about Jesus like he was something special, but their lives showed me another story.

I stayed there by the window, nesting in the hope of a safe and happy Day. Then the clouds moved on and I gave in to the enticement of kitchen smells and sibling voices.

Things were back to normal. Dad was fixing lunch and singing along with the radio. Mom was in the yard with a cigarette and a neighbor. Brothers and sisters were in front of the television, satisfied with their jelly beans and marshmallow bunnies. I grabbed my basket and joined them.

Easter Sunday. Tomorrow’s Monday.

It took me decades of selfishness and sorrow, topped with the frustrations of motherhood, to finally listen to a God who deserved my attention. When I made the great exchange at age 30, and gave my life to Jesus Christ for his, I remembered that cloudy Easter morn. Through the clouds, the preacher, the singing, the rolling-around old ladies — even our rare church attendance — Jesus the Risen Savior had been calling my name.

My greatest regret is that I did not answer him sooner.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
‘Tis all that I can do.

(From the hymn “Alas, and Did My Saviour Bleed?” by Isaac Watts, 1707)