I’ll call him Michael. It’s my brother’s name, a safe one for this real-life story.
Michael was four years old and new to church. His mother needed to work so they’d have a safe place to call home. Sometimes “work” meant that men, strange men, stayed over. Men who scared Michael.
Vacation Bible School was supposed to be fun. There’d be snacks, and crafts and games and music. Oh, it was the music that Michael loved more than anything. He loved how dancing made him forget, just for a moment, that there’d be a stranger in his house. Miss Sheila brought Michael and a bunch more kids to Vacation Bible School. She took all the kids in the neighborhood whose momma said yes when she offered to drive them. She’d bring a school bus full of kids if she had one, just to get these babies out of the house. On the way Miss Sheila reminded them how much fun they’d have. Michael was excited.
The church was big, the ceiling much taller than at home. Kids were gathered in groups, more kids than Michael had ever seen. Michael was told to stay with his group leader. He couldn’t remember her name. He wanted to go home to his Momma.
The music started and the leader stood in front of everyone. She held something that made her voice loud. But her face was kind. Michael liked her which is why he got up and grabbed her leg, clung to her. He didn’t mean to hit her when she asked him to sit down, but he did. She passed him back to Michael’s group leader who passed him to another when he hit her. Finally someone led him away from the sanctuary, needed to explain the rules of Vacation Bible School.
I’ve been volunteering with Vacation Bible School for many years and I’ve never met a child who touched me more than Michael. He was the child no one wanted to be around. He was an angel one moment, defiant the next. The first day with him was pure torture. I did not know his story. I did not understand his actions. Nor did anyone else, nor did they want to. He ended up with my group because, quite honestly, no one else knew how to handle him. I didn’t either. I don’t have an advanced degree in childhood education, but I do know there was a reason why Michael acted out, why he hit, why he crossed his arms in a tight cocoon around his body.
As I led him outside I said, “Michael, I understand it’s hard being in a new place; but we don’t hit. We just don’t.”
He looked at me in a way that sent chills up my spine. There was a meanness inside him. His brows came together, his arms crossed tight in what looked like defiance, but was actually the only self-protection device he had.
Then he said, “you’re not gonna be my friend. He turned, curled himself tight.” His voice, the whine of a broken child, pierced my big-bad-adult stance. I didn’t think. My heart acted out and did exactly what “the rules” say I shouldn’t do. I gathered Michael in my arms and hugged him. Hugging isn’t allowed these days. Heaven forbid we touch a child that isn’t our own.
The force of his hug, the desperate need for love knocked me off balance. Michael clung to me like a piece of driftwood in the ocean. I squeezed. He squeezed harder. He was strong. Releasing him I said, “Sweetie. I am your friend, but we don’t hit our friends. Got it?”
He said he did.
Returning to music class, Michael did all the moves better and faster than the big kids who made up my class. We formed a line and left the room heading toward snack time. Snack time is a sit down, cross-your-legs time where children receive goldfish on a napkin and water in a cup. Snack time is also story-time, when a volunteer reads as the children munch. Listening to stories keep them occupied. Michael didn’t have to tell me he was hungry, I knew it in my heart. I didn’t yet know about Michael’s home environment, but I would with the next class change.
After positioning the students in a semi-circle I took my place in a chair. As expected, the older boys in my group began getting into each other’s space causing me to sit in the floor with them. The moment I crossed my legs, Michael climbed into my lap. Picked up my hand, patted it, squeezed. We were friends.
Frowning, one of the elders said, “Miss Renea, Michael shouldn’t be sitting in your lap.”
I had broken another rule. Don’t hold children.
We finished snack and headed into the activity room where exercise is fun. This is Miss Sheila’s expertise. As the children were getting settled in I pulled her aside, said, “tell me Michael’s story.”She told me things that broke my heart, caused my eyes to pool, tears splash from my lashes.
Story time is the place where bible verses are read, repeated, and hopefully retained for years to come. It was obvious to the group leaders that Michael was too young for my class, but that didn’t matter. We were all about to learn that at 4 years old, Michael could already read. After story time was over Mr. Joshua took Michael’s hand and shook it, said “I love you little man.”
Writing those words just now cause tears again. Because I know in my heart that if God doesn’t intervene in Michael’s life he won’t hear those words often.
During crafts, Michael bounced into the room, touched every color, called it by name, then counted the numbers on the wall. While the older children colored outside the lines, Michael created masterpieces. He knew all his colors. Crayons quickly became a security blanket. I don’t need an advanced degree in Early Childhood Development to see that Michael has the potential for greatness.
“You’re a smart boy,” I said while he sat in the floor and colored. “How did you get so smart?”
Without looking up he said, “My Mommy.”
“What’s your Mommy’s name?” I asked.
Michael stopped. He lifted the crayon to his mouth, tapped it against his bottom lip and thought. “Hmm, I don’t know what my Mommy’s name is. Why don’t I know her name?”
I laughed. “That’s because it’s Mommy you silly goose.”
The next day I was running late. By the time I arrived, children were seated in their groups. The scowl was back. he was afraid. He had no friends. “Michael!” I said waving. He ran. I reached out. He placed his hand dark against mine. He is my friend. Rules be durn’d when it comes to a child who is living a real-life hell on earth. The rest of the week was a blur of hand holding, dancing, drawing and hugs.
“I want to adopt Michael,” I announced at the dinner table to my husband whose face bore the look of complete shock. I’d been reporting on Michael. Telling about his remarkable ability to reason, to memorize and recall words almost instantly. “I don’t care that his mother loves him. I love him too. He is special. Something bad is going to happen to him, I can just feel it..” I excused myself from the table and locked myself in the bathroom.
Now I know what y’all are thinking. Who am I to want another woman’s child? I wish I had an answer. The best way I can explain it is that I have a strong sense of despair about Michael. Perhaps this is because I worked for a criminal court judge, because I know the statistics; know what happens to young boys who have men walking in and out of their lives; know that some mothers have no choice, absolutely none, when it comes to feeding their children. I find myself glued to the television, terrified that I’ll hear about him on the news. I want them both in my home, safe, loved, protected. In all the years of meeting children such as Michael it is the way he clung to me, the way he made me love him that sears him into my heart. Michael’s mother is a good Mother. Any mother who has a child reading at four years old is a wonderful mother. She is doing everything she knows to do, which is why I wrote her a note at the end of Bible School telling her how much Michael loved her, how smart he is, how if she ever needs help she should call me.
But she didn’t call. She moved. Michael is gone. Relocated to the other side of Atlanta. For a short time Miss Sheila brought him to church. Michael would smile, wave, and run to me. I would kneel down scoop him into my arms and squeeze, pouring every drop of love I had into him. Those women, the ones who told me not to touch, hug, love, they frowned, but I didn’t care. The people who make those kind of rules can just get over it.
God tells us all that the most important commandment is love. He is the ultimate rule-maker. I am accountable to him.
I just wish that loving Michael didn’t hurt so much.
Michael has been on my heart a lot lately. When I ask Miss Sheila about him she just says, “he’s gone.” And I cry. Big ole heart-broken tears. I know I can do nothing, absolutely nothing, but pray for Michael. So I pray the prayer of someone who is powerless, someone who sees the potential in this child. I pray with my face on the floor, with tears wetting the carpet. Pleading that God protects him, keeps him safe, and that Michael will always knows that I am his friend. And so I ask you today, if you read this blog, please pray for Michael. God knows his real name.
Thank you for reading, for praying, and for sharing this post. Subscribers are always welcome.
Renea Winchester is the author of: Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia an ebook released September 2013, and In the Garden with Billy:
Mercer University Press will release her latest: Farming, Friends and Fried Bologna Sandwiches, in 2014.
Readers who have either met me briefly or who are life-long friends know that I am a champion for the printed word and Independent Booksellers. I’ll do just about anything to help booksellers which is why I dressed up in overalls and rode a stick pony while filming the Harlem Shake at The Book Exchange in Marietta, Georgia and why I delivered a jug of “the recipe” for the “Mountain Women” event at FoxTale in Woodstock. When I’m not in a bookstore, I’m in the library giving readers the opportunity to meet Billy Albertson, the man behind my first book. I am a self-appointed author cheerleader. I announce their latest releases and events the moment I learn about them. I prefer, without debate, a real printed book. So why did I release Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia exclusively through Kindle?
In a word: Money.
Writing those words make me feel dirty. But I purpose to live a honest life, so there it is: money. Life isn’t supposed to be about money, but sometimes reality shakes down to the number of coins jingling in your pocket. Very few authors make enough money to pay the bills. And while I don’t have pie-in-the-sky notions about becoming independently wealthy with sales from Mountain Memories, I know that readers will enjoy this collection. Honestly, I am very nervous about this e-book release. My tummy is all queasy, I have been weepy. I am just not myself. I want in my heart, to release a printed version, but there is a conundrum authors’ experience; time and the fear of loosing readers. It was easier (and faster) to create an e-book.
My first )printed) book came out in the fall of 2010, a lifetime ago in the publishing world. Then I wrote Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice, a book for fledgling authors. I spent a year teaching authors how to market their books. During that time I knew that I must act, must engage readers who fell in love with my first book In the Garden with Billy. I had spent over a year building a family of readers, yet I knew if I didn’t release a book soon readers would forget about me. That is the cold hard truth we authors don’t discuss at the dinner table. It takes a year or more to see a manuscript become a book, and you better have two books written when your first is accepted. But I didn’t have two books and I can’t, simply can not churn out a book a year.
This May my critique buddy, (and pretty fantastic author) Carmen Slaughter, noted that it was National Short Story Month. I already had the twitch to return to short stories, where I cut my teeth and first put pen to paper. Yes, I write every single word on paper first. I can’t help myself. While I worked on my collection, Amazon established a new division for “shorts.” Acceptance into the shorts program requires approval. An employee reviews your work first. They are currently looking at another collection I penned. Like them or not, Amazon recognizes trends, or perhaps sets them. I dunno. I have long said the trend is toward more short books, What with our constant interruptions and no-time-to read, short stories are (I believe) the future.
Mountain Memories gives voice to my people. My people aren’t stereotypical southern folk; we’re rural Appalachia. There is a difference. I also realized that no publisher, unless it was a vanity press, would print my regional collection. I know this. Independent Booksellers know this. You, the reader, now know this. My words had no home and y’all know how desperately I need a home. You, my readers are my family and without a home I am lost.
As Carmen monitored my progress, I challenged myself to write words that might surprise readers. I want to grow, remain fresh, unpredictable. Feeling like I was handing her a chunk of my heart, I sent a story to Carmen, then a different story to Beverly, and a chunk of stories to Laurie, who is a bookseller. While they read, I polished Mountain Memories which I intend to release in two short works. If Amazon Shorts doesn’t take the stories I submitted, I’ll release the second installment come January. The voices you’ll find in Mountain Memories are strong, shocking even myself. Some are true. Some are not. I will leave it up to readers to decide. During all of this writing and editing, a miracle happened. Mercer University Press accepted Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches. Cue the Peanuts Happy Dance and Hallelujahs!! I am over the moon, humbled, honored and deeply indebted to Mercer University for taking a chance on this terrific book, which is a sequel to In the Garden with Billy. The publisher is excited. I am excited. Billy is excited.
However, the book won’t be ready until late 2014; and 2014 is a long way away my friends, which brings us back to money. The difference between writers and-oh let’s say, any other employed human being- is that published authors can not count on continuous income. We have no health insurance, no retirement plan. I must rely on you, the reader, to take a chance on my work. Yet, writing is my job. Like you I have, dental bills, car repairs, and the high cost of everyday living. Not to mention the emergency garage door repair (don’t y’all breathe a word to my husband about that….promise?) I know I am preaching to the choir. I know that some of you are nodding as you read this. And (hang on here comes more honesty), authors only receive about one dollar per copy of every book sold. Doesn’t it always come down to money? And don’t we always feel punched-in-the-gut about our lack of money. So there you have it, more of my heart, served up for you.
Now you know, the reason why I chose to release Mountain Memories: True Stories and Half Truths from Appalachia as an e-book via Kindle. It is not on Nook, but that’s not a problem, you can still get an electronic copy. This link allows you to read my book using other electronic mediums. I’m no technical guru. I don’t own an iphone or any thing that starts with an i; but a little birdie told me that you can also read Mountain Memories by other avenues. Amazon has links that allow you to read using Windows 7, Windows 8, Mac, ipad, iphone, or even your eyeball (haha). Click the link here to choose the medium that works for you. And know, truly know, that I appreciate every single one of you. I do not take lightly your purchase. $ 2.99 might not be much for some, but for me, it is and I am thankful for you. And for those who don’t have any of those electronic devices, I’ve added a PayPal button on my website www.reneawinchester.com.
For $ 2.99 I’ll deliver the same book to you in PDF format. And you’ll even get a couple of photos which will help you determine which story is a true-story, and which is a half-truth.
To show my appreciation, for everyone who leaves a comment on Amazon, I will send you another short story, delivered to your email, for free. Cut and paste your review or comments into the comment section of my website. The link is here. In appreciation, I’ll deliver another story to your inbox. Don’t forget to include your email.
Here’s a little tease. An example of a true tale and half truth.
From: Remembering:[this is a true tale] We are here. Here, where wild hogs have ploughed the ground and the ditch doesn’t drain well anymore. Here, where Cinnamon ferns throw spores to the wind, where fronds unfurl and ferns grow tall; already four feet even though it is only mid-May. Here, where our ancestors rest in peace. The gardeners in the group covet Mother Nature’s ability to hide treasures such as this. Mother Nature does an excellent job hiding the graves of our people behind a hedge of brambles. For that we are thankful. Otherwise their resting place might be disturbed by folk who don’t understand the importance of heritage. We are here, in our place heart longs to visit, where our soul finds rest. We are here, where we our people expect us to be each year at this same time. We are in a place others know as western North Carolina. In a place millions know as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We are here, in a place our people fought to save; in a place they never wanted to leave. We are home. Feeling their spirit, I quickly wipe away tears and gather the flowers made of tissue paper, just like Aunt Edna used to make. I think she’s pleased her tradition remains. Each year I assemble the flowers using recycled paper and pick buds from my own garden. I am unwilling to adorn graves with plastic, partially out of concern for the environment, but primarily because I want to honor the old ways. There were no plastic flowers back then; only fresh-cut stems placed in glass jars, or colorful paper twisted around pipe cleaners. The hike to the cemetery is strenuous. Even the youngest family member stops to rest or beg the nearest adult for a piggyback ride. As we ascend, native flowers such as Jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium, greet me. As does the rose bush my great grandmother planted where the combination church and schoolhouse once stood. Again I smile. There is still something left of her in these woods, even if I am the only one who remembers. The government may own the land, but I own my memories.
From: Nathaniel Preston’s Funeral [this is a half-truth] Mittie Cleveland walked down the aisle of the First Baptist Church like she once had many years ago. Fifty years had passed since her feet last touched the maroon-colored carpet. On that day her future husband had fiddled with his watch while she marched slowly toward the minister and a man she adored, a man who would never return the adoration. Mittie interpreted the gesture−a toe tap anticipation−as eagerness, that her future husband was excited about their new life together. As she inched forward the baby growing inside her womb kicked for the first time. Smiling then, she had looked into the pale blue eyes of a man she barely knew and pledged her life to his, until death parted them. She had not known then, because it is impossible to know ones husband well on your wedding day, that impatience, not eagerness caused him to wind his watch. Mittie quickly learned that neither patience, nor fidelity, was her husband’s strong suit.
Renea Winchester is an award-winning author. In 2014, Mercer University Press will release Farming, Friends & Fried Bologna Sandwiches. She loves hearing from you. Contact her through her website at www.reneawinchester.com
Regular readers know that there are three things I’ll defend to the death: my God, my family, and my country. I stand -weeping- while the National Anthem plays. I’m the lady who will say (not so nicely either) Boy, you better take that hat off your head. Don’t make me do it for you. I place my hand over my heart and say the pledge. I stand (in my own living room) during the National Anthem. I go out of my way to shake a veteran’s hand and thank them for their service (that is the least I can do). Up until my recent Northern visit, I considered myself a patriot.
My friends, I have failed.
Traveling through the two-lane roads of Maine my heart could barely contain the patriotism I saw on display. I’ve already established that I grew up in rural western North Carolina and admittedly don’t get out much, so I was unprepared for what I saw in Maine.
My southern friends, the Yanks fly Old Glory all the time!
Now I know some of y’all (y’all meaning Southerners) fly the Red, White and Blue daily. I bet my Southern friend Shellie Rushing Tomlinson has a flag waving on her front porch every single morning. She starts her radio show with the pledge and shares my stance on defending the aforementioned three things. But some Southerners need to step up and get their flags out.
By way of example let me share what happened when my husband and I went to a small public park. It was dusk and someone was lowering the flag. Hedge bushes circled the flagpole, prevented me from seeing who was lowering the flag. Moments later a middle-age man carrying carried the flag in one hand. His limp was noticeable. The other hand was wrapped around a cane, the leash of his trusty Labrador laced through his fingers. His gate slow, with purpose. Let me clarify. This man was a real public servant. He was not a government employee, but a patriotic public servant lowering the flag. I presume he did this daily where by comparison, the flags in Atlanta stay out every single day.
That my dear friends is love in action. That man personified the patriotism of the people in Maine, a love for country beyond compare. Still at the city park, I brought my hand to my heart, turned to my husband, whispered, “did you see that?” We both stood, tears stinging our eyes. We, the son of a Marine and the daughter of a Sergeant in the Army. We whose patriotic lineage can be traced back several generations were so touched and humbled by this man’s dedication that we fought back tears. To this man I say, “Thank you. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for showing me how a true patriot acts.”
Writing this now, I am still moved to tears.
Back on the two-lane road, pride filled my heart . I, a Southerner to the plank-house-shack born, longed to be a New England Patriot. I began noticing the numerous specialty car tags with the word “Veteran” pressed into metal. It seemed like every car boasted a veteran tag. Again my eyes again grew wet as we passed under flags draped from the power poles. We stayed in Stetson, Maine where Old Glory waved from almost every single power pole. This was common. There were flags painted on rooftops, flags painted on trucks, flags on mailboxes. Homeowners painted buildings red and God provided the blue and white.
With each passing day I became more embarrassed. I didn’t fly a single flag. Even though I don’t live in a subdivision or near a road where people would see a flag on my porch; they can see my mailbox.
My friends, Some gave all.
The greatest gift.
Everything. The most sacred thing, an unselfish act. Some gave their life for my freedom, for your freedom. And they weren’t sitting in an air conditioned home when they offered this gift. They were hungry, sleepy, exhausted, and most-likely afraid. These patriots wanted to be home with their family, but instead they listened to a calling, something my pitiful words can not adequately describe. I know that being a patriot is more than hanging a flag. Many strangers, whom I shall never meet, were duty-bound to keep me free just so I could write this post. Can you feel the gravity of their sacrifice? Someone died so I could have free speech and for that I can never thank them enough.
Momma’s lost their children. Dad’s punched walls with grief. Wives mourned their husbands and the children of these brave men and women . . . well, isn’t it the fatherless and the motherless children who suffer the most? Isn’t it they who stumble through life with a hole in their heart?
So today I want to thank the people of Maine, the Patriots of Maine, for showing me that patriotism isn’t just one week in July, or Memorial day, or Labor Day, or on September 11. Being a patriot is everyday. So let’s dust off Old Glory and fly her with pride.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes and Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author. In 2014, Mercer University Press will release: Farming, Friends & Friend Bologna Sandwiches. She loves hearing from you. Visit her website at reneawinchester.com or follow her on Twitter at Reneawinchester
Why literacy and libraries are important throughout the world: One book, one teacher, one person can change the world. Watch the video and be inspired.
Renea Winchester is the award-winning author of In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes and Stress-free Marketing: Practical Advice for the Newly Published Author. Her latest release: Farming, Friends & Friend Bologna Sandwiches will be released in 2014. She loves hearing from you. Visit her website at reneawinchester.com or follow her on Twitter at Reneawinchester