Planting the Seeds
My childhood was a story of discouragement, belittlement, and unthinkable abuse, and yet I rose above. There was no way I could have found any kind of happiness, hope, or vision if my mother, Maxine, and my aunt Mae hadn’t shown me the grace of God. They, as well as other powerful souls, were my spiritual role models. They didn’t have great mansions or millions of dollars to leave me when they passed, but they planted the seeds of grace, the invaluable gift of knowing God.
As I look back over my early years and as I walk along my path today, I am grateful for those seeds planted in my childhood. From their powerful inspiration grew my unshakable desire to keep reaching higher and my devotion to help all people do the same.
Learning God Is in Control
By the time Fridays rolled around I was itching like poison ivy to get as far away as I could from Edgar P. Harney Elementary School. It was especially agonizing knowing Mamma was parked right outside waiting to drive us straight to heaven on earth—Aunt Mae’s house in Greensburg, Louisiana.
Sometimes life travels a complicated route, as it did with Aunt Mae and our family. Mae was really a sort of adopted grandmother, but that information didn’t get to my ears until I was older. I say “adopted” because my father, Emmitt, was abandoned and discovered in a drainage canal at the age of two. He was taken to Mae so that she could raise him. What an extraordinary sign of fate’s fierce power, considering that Mae was only fourteen years old at the time. Years later this extraordinary soul helped save me, too. In Aunt Mae’s presence I could breathe deeply in the sanctuary of nature, the freedom of unconditional love, and the benevolence of God’s embrace.
Lucky for me we went to Aunt Mae’s a couple of weekends every month and also during summer vacations. Emmitt came along with us in the summer. Ordinarily, that would have meant living in anxiety and fear, but my father was a different kind of man when he was around Mae. Instead of boiling up in anger and violence, he was a placid lake. He would even brag about what a fine son I was and about our happy life in New Orleans. Never mind that he beat and belittled Mamma and me all the time, that lies poured out of his mouth like fine grains of sand from a golden sieve.
But Emmitt wouldn’t be joining us this weekend, and I just couldn’t wait to be with Aunt Mae. Every few minutes I’d be checking the classroom’s wall clock, tapping my pencil on the desk, or sliding my sneakers on the wood floor. When our principal finally ended the torture by ringing the copper dismissal bell, I joined the rush of fourth graders grabbing books and papers and breaking through the school’s double doors to hit the sunshine.
New Orleans summers are a hot and humid mess, and the thick air can feel like a heavy-handed slap against your face. Standing outside on the school steps, I’d take a minute to catch my breath and get my bearings. Once I’d hear the familiar honk of my mother’s car horn I’d fix my gaze through the sun’s glare.
There she was: Mamma in her 1969 powder blue Cadillac Coupe DeVille, waving out the window. Sometimes I could see the weight of the world in her face. Today, though, Mamma’s radiating her thousand-watt smile, and her joy makes me feel carefree. Knowing she’s happy and my green suitcase with the metal snaps is packed for the weekend and locked in the trunk means all is right with the world.
When I reach the car Mamma leans over and swings open the passenger door. I slide in and settle down on the roomy, hot-as-a-radiator vinyl seat. She’s wearing one of her usual outfits, jeans and a cotton floral blouse, her café au lait skin glistening in the heat. I’d watched her set her hair in rollers the night before and now it’s brushed forward in a “push do.” Mamma isn’t flashy; she doesn’t have to be. She never wears much makeup because she’s a natural beauty. I always thought my four aunts were jealous because Mamma’s the sister that God gave knock-your-socks-off looks. She’s the one turning heads.
“Ready to go? Did you pee, Junior?” she asks, flashing another smile.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. I hadn’t, but didn’t want to take time before hitting the road.
Mamma doesn’t waste another minute, either. She turns the ignition key, guns the gas pedal, and we’re off. We head out to I-10 then onto I-55, leaving New Orleans behind us. Once we are free from the city, she turns up the volume on the eight-track player in the dashboard and belts out the blues, singing along with Z. Z. Hill, Denise LaSalle, and Betty Wright. I don’t join in but quietly set the lyrics like an easy poem into my memory.
I also know our route to Aunt Mae’s by heart. We ride along a vast bridge called the Bonnet Carré Spillway that takes us across the murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain. I stretch my arm out the window and let the steamy breeze cup my palm. Even though I’ve never seen an ocean, I think this must be what one looks like: water everywhere with no end in sight, big waves sloshing back and forth.
“Mamma,” I say, spurred by a sudden sense of wariness. “Just look at all that water.”
“Yeah, baby,” she says.
“Why don’t it overflow and cover the bridge, Mamma?”
“Because, baby, God’s got it in its banks. He’s in control. He’s in control of the water. He’s in control of the sky, and the birds, and you and me . . . and God is good, baby,” she says.
“God is good.”
Mamma’s words settle deep in my heart: God’s got it in its banks. He’s in control.
My fear disappears like so much dust in the breeze. Now I can settle back in the vinyl seat, feel the warm wind and sunshine pressing against my skin, and simply watch the world unfold.
• Surrendering doesn’t mean giving up or not caring. It means trusting and allowing things to be tended to by God. When have you done this in your life? What happened?
• When you don’t surrender, what keeps you from letting go of control and trusting that God has you covered?
• Consider Proverbs 3:5–6 (ESV): Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.
Talking to Jesus
To help make time fly, I count the trees as we speed by on our way to Aunt Mae’s. When they’re rushing faster and faster and I can no longer keep up, I know we’re getting close. The “Amite City” sign is our exit, and once we turn off the interstate we enter a whole new world, one with no concrete sidewalks, no buildings higher than one single story, only one or two red lights, and miles and miles of open land.
There’s a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that’s where we stop for a quick bathroom break and, of course, a meal of chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes, and creamy gravy. Our stomachs full, we hit the road again. The sun is lower in the sky, but dusk has yet to cast its fading shadows. About ten miles later the Cadillac glides over a steep hill, and for miles and miles there are only red dirt roads and fields planted with cotton, sugar cane, soybeans, wheat, corn, sweet potatoes, and acres of strawberries. Two more turns and at last, at the end of a rock-pocked road, I see Aunt Mae’s place.
It was obvious to me even as a child that her house had been through tough times. Whether it was because of fierce storms or seasons of neglect, it was battered and worn-out. The wood frame was covered with some sort of material that appeared from a distance to be brick, but up close was thick slabs of gray-colored asphalt shingle, probably mixed with asbestos; the roof was rusted tin, and the whole structure tilted dramatically to one side. I had the thought “One day this raggedy old house is going to fall to the ground.”
As soon as Aunt Mae hears our car pull up, the screen door snaps open and she appears with arms stretched wide like angel wings. She runs into the fenced-in front yard, shoos away the chickens and any other critters underfoot, unlatches the rickety gate, and makes her way to us as fast as her skinny legs can travel. She gets me in her grasp, squeezes me close, and cries out, “Lord, my children are here. My children are home.”
It’s true I was big for my age, but even at ten years old, Aunt Mae still had to reach up to hold me because she was a tiny woman, maybe no more than five foot three inches, as delicate looking as a China doll. Mae was thin and exquisite with high cheekbones, brilliant gray eyes, and shoulder-length gray hair. Her face never showed a wrinkle. She looked like she was part Native American. She had an odd fashion sense. I still wonder to this day why Mae wore so many clothes even during the summer’s heat. There she is, standing under the sweltering sun, her petite frame completely covered in a long-sleeved blouse, skirt, apron, and pants, staring up at me with God’s love in her eyes and offering the healing power of touch, all under a heap of fabric.
With our arms still wrapped around each other, we climb the shaky front steps up to the wood porch and walk through the screen door into the living room. These were far from fancy digs. This house was one story high, only four rooms in all, with windows made of a wavy kind of old glass, and worn pine boards on the floor. Black-and-white newspaper comics were stuffed into the holes in the walls to keep the warmth or cold away. I loved the faces in the comics, but I learned at a young age that if I tried to pull them out, my hand would get slapped.
We walked straight into a small living room, maybe only 10 × 10, where Mae’s grandfather, whom we called Papa Rod, would be in his bed. There was also a sofa, a chair, and a chest. Mae had a lot of chests in her small house, and every one was filled with carefully folded quilts and blankets she had sewn herself. Pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Bobby Kennedy hung on the wall.
My aunt had things I had never seen before, like an old washing machine on the back porch where you fed clothes through the wringer. One time I got my hand caught in it and the pain shot straight from my arm into my brain. I never did that again. There wasn’t any indoor plumbing, either, just an outhouse, and in the cold winter months, a lone fireplace barely kept the chill out. But who cared? I was made comfortable by the sweet power of Aunt Mae’s wide smile and open heart.
Friday and Saturday nights were full of laughter and stories. Some Sunday mornings we went to church, but unlike in New Orleans, where we never missed a Sunday sermon, at Mae’s we didn’t go to church regularly. On one of these mornings when we weren’t hurrying out, the aroma of strongly brewed coffee and freshly baked teacakes gives me a lazy wake-up call. From my cozy bed, I hear Aunt Mae singing gospel hymns:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on,
Let me stand.
I am tired,
I am weak,
I am worn.
In my little-boy mind, I didn’t know what Mae was singing about; all I knew was that I loved the sound of her sweet, soulful voice. On this memorable morning, I creep out of bed and without saying a word tiptoe into the kitchen and listen to Mae’s singing. I’m not sure if she knows I am spying on her, but if she does, she waits a few minutes before greeting me.
“Good morning, baby.”
“What you doing, Aunt Mae?” I ask in my still sleepy voice.
“Talking to Jesus, baby.”
“How can you do that?”
“Did you say your prayers last night?”
“Then you were talking to Jesus, too,” Aunt Mae says, with her bright eyes and that orange slice of a grin.
My heart feels heavy but in a good way. Aunt Mae plants a seed inside my heart and pats it down with her loving words. I know something sacred is going to grow there. Jesus made Mamma and Aunt Mae happy, and now I want to know Him for myself. The season of my yearning for God has arrived.
• What was the first spiritual seed that was planted in your soul?
• Recall a time in your childhood when a friend or relative helped to change you in an important way.
• Consider 1 Corinthians 3:6 (ESV): I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
Compared to the light-filled, loving times I had with Aunt Mae, weekends spent in New Orleans were doomed to turn dark and grim. On Fridays my father, Emmitt, would come home from work and walk through the door with an easy gait. His week’s pay would be folded into the back pocket of his overalls. He’d reach in, unfurl the bills, and with an air of pride and self-importance, dole out our allowance.
Then he’d take a long bath, put on his dress-up creased jeans and freshly laundered plaid shirt, splash on sweet-smelling cologne, and then, without fail, start yelling at us to find his shoes. “Where’s my damn shoes?” We’d scurry around the house like rabbits looking for clover. It was always one shoe in one place, the other one hidden somewhere else. I swear he misplaced them on purpose. But once they were on his feet and he walked out the door, we knew any generous mood wasn’t going to last. Storm clouds were bound to return.
Sure enough, a few hours later he would be back home with his jeans and flannel shirt stale and stinking of alcohol and cigarettes. The emotional storm would build like a swirling tornado, and before long he would be crazed and violent, belittling and beating my mother. I didn’t escape his wrath, either. He was over six feet tall and muscular from his work as a carpenter. You could sense his physical power even if he wasn’t touching you. To me he looked like a terrifying giant. He’d stomp through the house in his heavy work boots, yelling about everything we were doing wrong. If anything got in his path, he would explode and his fists would fly. Almost in a supernatural way, his anger would turn his brown eyes into an electric green, and when that happened I knew the worst was still to come. This was our hell on earth, and Mamma and I were burning in its flames.