Idyllic Beginnings

Each morning it was as if angels attended to each of us as we started our day. The warm rays of the morning sun seemed to gently touch our faces like soothing fingertips. The symphonic sounds of the season were perfectly orchestrated.  Birds chirping, the wings of hummingbirds hovering over the honeysuckle vines, and the buzz of bumblebees flying from flower to flower.

Henri Whitfield

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Children see life in vivid colors and soothing sounds that have a way of stamping good memories on their hearts and minds. The place I remember most from my childhood is the place I was born, Morristown, Tennessee. It is an idyllic town in the hill county of East Tennessee. The epicenter of my existence there was 323 Branner Street which was my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s house sat just below the summit of a steep hill. The fields cascading down from the crest of the hill ignited in the spring with, deep yellow sunflowers, vibrant blue wildflowers, pink, yellow, and orange dandelions. Each flower yawned and basked in the warm rays of the sun like small birds waiting to be fed. On windy days the tall grass would bend gently with each gentle breeze.

In the back of the house was a garden and beside the garden was a  trail that was bordered by wooden fences that stretched across grandmother’s back yard creating a safe barrier from the sloping hill that led down to wild blackberry trails and untamed woods. Each year in the spring, the fence would become entwined with emerald green vines from which violet, white, and pink honeysuckles budded and bloomed throughout the season. The honeysuckle vines were most memorable because their sent started and ended each day. Mornings were glorious times there atop Branner Street.

Each morning it was as if angels attended to each of us as we started our day. The warm rays of the morning sun seemed to gently touch our faces like soothing fingertips. The symphonic sounds of the season were perfectly orchestrated.  Birds chirping, the wings of hummingbirds hovering over the honeysuckle vines, and the buzz of bumblebees flying from flower to flower. The garden and the fields seemed to be in perpetual motions as the moths, butterflies, bees, and other colorful insects moved about amongst the plants and flowers.

The only thing that paralleled the beauty of the living colors and the accompanying sounds were the smells. The sweet aromas of jasmine, lilac, honeysuckle, and roses. After lying in bed for a few minutes the scent of nature gave way to the smells of breakfast. The rich aromatic smell of my uncle’s coffee pot, fresh toast, bacon and eggs lured us downstairs for prayer and a time of the family conversation.

After breakfast we all headed out to grandmother’s garden. We planted green beans, corn, and tomatoes. Once we finished the garden and our chores we headed out to play. We spent days hunting for beetles, butterflies, and moths. We sought after chances to hold friendly ladybugs, and when we finished, we lifted them up above our heads watching them fly into the wind. The Lillies, dandelions, and beautiful wildflowers made significant gifts for grandmother, mom and our aunt.

“…See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” (Matthew 6:28)

Each day we played until time for dinner, chasing June bugs during the late afternoons and in the evenings.  During the warm summer months our favorite pastime was capturing fireflies in jars. Each night we were fascinated by their illuminating ability to light up a dark room. Each night ended with a prayer and a gentle kiss from mom and grandmother.

 Winters were spent indoors near Uncle Robert’s enchanted fireplace, or at grandmother’s gas space heater waiting for hot chocolate, made with powdered chocolate and fresh milk. When the snow came it either crept in during the silence of the night or as a blistering noisy winter storm. No matter how it happened, the effects were always the same.  It lay a thick, soft blanket of pure white snow over the houses and the meadow. Every blemish on the landscape became a perfect ice menagerie. The old houses turned into warm, cozy lodges. The broken-down “outhouse” became a place of nostalgic beauty. The rusted car hidden behind my uncle’s house became a perfect remodeled ice mobile. The scrap wood piles, the rugged rocky hillside and everything that was unsightly became beautiful. It was smooth, pure white, glistening and reflecting the light of God. It was a glorious redemptive sight that transformed our existence into an even more perfect paradise.  When the sun raised the temperatures, it converted the snow and ice into nutrient-laden water that nourished the surrounding land and the garden. The surplus of water that came from the melted snow replenished the ponds, streams, and the local Mayes Lake reservoir

     

The atmosphere  atop that hill on the street named Branner Street at grandmother’s house was serene. It was a winter haven, a summertime retreat, and a place our family went to rejuvenate from the exhausting troubles of life. This place, is the place of my beginnings, it was here that I came to know tranquil peace. I learned to appreciate the beauty of nature…the tall grass, mustard greens, wild blackberries, strawberries, small animals, insects and the beautiful night sky which seemed within reach on clear fall nights.

How great is Your goodness, Which You have stored up for those who fear You, Which You have wrought for those who take refuge in You, before the sons of men! You hide them in the secret place of Your presence from the conspiracies of man; You keep them secretly in a shelter from the strife of tongues. Blessed be the LORD, For He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me.                                                     

                                                                                                                             Psalm 31:19-21

 

Returning Home

However, I soon realized that we were not bound by Grandmother but by faith which superseded her physical presence. Faith: The fabric of our life,

I soon realized that we were not bound by Grandmother but by faith which superseded her physical presence.

Henri Whitfield

Branner Street

My mom had been married for two or three years now and to my suprise we were headed to Morristown, Tennessee. It was a sad time for us because unlike other occasions we were returning to Morristown to attend a funeral….Grandmother’s funeral. Despite the reason for our return the ride up Branner street was always the same.

As we asended the steep drive up Branner Street, looking through the front window from the back seat of my mom’s car, it seemed as if the road led straight up to heaven. All I could see was a cloudless clear blue sky. As a child, I would sit anxious and silent until we neared the crest of the hill where the ground leveled out. As always, I was boiling over with excitement. To the left of the car… there it set… grandmother’s house! It was a light brown brick colonial style house with different dark speckled brown shingles that fit perfectly on the roof. Next to it was my Aunt Irene and Uncle Robert’s house nestled under a dense green canopy of giant maple trees. The tree line casts a shadow of security over the homes. The trees also created a natural boundary that separated my family’s property from the meadow that flowed upwards to the summit of the hill.

 

The beauty of this place will always be etched in my heart. It was the one place in my world that true love really existed. Grandmother, Mom, Aunt Iren and Uncle Robert were the guardians of my soul. Whatever I came to believe that the world was, was always based on my experiences in Morristown, Tennessee. Little did I know that my life would forever change after this trip to my family’s homestead. Branner Street is a gift that God gave to me which is a foundation of security and love.

The smells, sights, and sounds, of Morristown were different this time. As I made my way into the house I ran from room to room looking for grandmother…but she was not there. Grandmother had died! Although I had been told that Grandmother had passed I was hoping that somehow I would get a different outcome. At that moment, all that was stable in my life suddenly became unstable. I quickly understood, with the selfishness of a child, that there would no longer be hot chocolate on the cold winter nights, no more special birthday cards, and no more trips to the garden to pick tomatoes and fresh vegetables. At that moment I wondered what would visits to Morristown be like with Grandmother gone. The visits to Grandmother’s house came to an abrupt halt. Once that reality set in my life changed.

With Grandmother’s death, the fabric of our family was torn and for a season we drifted apart. However, I soon realized that we were not bound by Grandmother but by faith which superseded her physical presence. Faith: The fabric of our life, is the story of how hope in an ancient, unseen, yet relevant God cultivated my life into a man of God.

The death of my grandmother was a pivotal time in my life. Grandmother was my mentor and the one person I longed to please no matter what. I wanted to be like her in so many ways. She was smart, strong and she had influence. She was the pastor of Youngs Temple AME Church at a time when women clergy was not common. For as long as I can remember I said I would become a preacher. This unique fact made my bond with grandmother even greater. Because of God’s gift of faith I grew in knowledge and wisdom beyond my years. The words of the Psalmist are real, “Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it…” (Psalms 127:1) Our family had been built by God through faith. All that we were was based on His sovereign gift of faith.

As I grew in faith it seemed that the idyllic lifestyle of my childhood was a thing of the past. Everything changed! My security and comfort gave way to insecurities, disappointments, and emotional pain. My new reality, from hindsight, was happiness mixed with suffering and pain. Until the age of eight I only knew comfort and joy after eight I began to experience life!

The Crucible

God is not the author of trials, temptations, and vexations but He uses them to refine His chosen into trophies of His grace.

Henri Whitfield

Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Jas 1:12.

After my grandmother’s death, my home became a crucible. It was a cul de sac of confusion, emotional pain, and instability. What happiness I hand in the world was often offset by my life at home. Once celebrated as a refuge, the home became somewhat of a dungeon of fear and anxiety. I feared my stepdad to the point of sickness. I was anxious because I never knew what would happen next.

What led to my instability was my mon’s marriage to my stepdad. It started out well but it ended in horror. He was over six feet tall, a dark-skinned black man that had a sideways grin and a style that captured my mom’s attention. His voice was like that of a southern Alabama drill sergeant.  He was ex-military, college-educated, and a well-trained radio and television repair instructor. His pledge to care for my mom and her four children made him a perfect specimen of a man. His credentials were so perfect he seemed to be an answer to our prayers.  As a result, this made it very easy for him to announce that he would be moving us to Savannah, Georgia. We were moving from the serenity of Morristown, Tennessee to the noisy banks of the Savannah River in Savannah, Georgia.  The time leading up to our departure was an exciting and strange time.

The marriage and the move to Savannah shifted us. The transition to Georgia from Tennessee was a mysterious journey, to say the least. The beauty of Morristown and the crisp clean air blew into our faces as we departed and headed to Savannah. We were so excited when, after eight or more hours on the road,  the announcement came that we were in Savannah. Like baby eaglets falling from the safety of a high cliffside nest, we had made the descent into Savannah landing within earshot of the Savannah River. Immediately I noticed that the air was no longer thin and fresh. The smells of wildflowers were absent.  In exchange, the air was thick with humidity. The atmosphere smelled of diesel fuel and decaying fish.  The quiet serenity of Morristown gave way to the sounds of cars, boats, and trucks. Everything was very different but I was content with the changes because I was with my family.

Within a few weeks of our arrival in Savannah, it was time for us to go to school.  My mom had taken us shopping for new clothing, and we were excited about going to school. I would be attending preschool and this would be the first time I spent a significant amount of time around people who were not related to me. In Tennessee, I was cared for by my grandmother, aunts, uncles, or older cousins.  In preparation, the Sunday afternoon before we went to enroll in school, Mom gathered my siblings and me together after dinner, and she explained that we would be attending school. This was great news! What followed was confusing to me. I was only five at the time and my naive understanding of life was challenged.

As my mother spoke to us she began to explain that she was going to be taking us to different schools and there were going to be some name changes. When she spoke of the changes it was not a big deal. I knew that I would no longer be called my nickname but my legal birth name. Then she went on to say that our last names would change due to her marriage to my stepdad. The changes were received without hesitation initially, but I had no idea that there was more to be said. As the discussion continued my mother explained that because my stepdad’s name was different from our original name she had decided to change our names to match his. Somewhere in the conversation, it was made clear that he was not my biological father. He was her husband but not my father. Something about my mother’s explanation that the man I was so excited about calling Daddy was confusing. He was not my Daddy but he was my stepdad. I was so confused that I cried. For the first time in my life, I had a question about my daddy’s identity. I had concluded that my dad had come home when in fact he had been replaced. I left Tennessee with a daddy only to find out that he was a stepdad. This event led to a lifetime of a strained and troubled relationship between my stepdad and me.  My world was confusing and there was nothing I could do about it. The name change was minor in the grand scheme of things, but the most significant thing about that day was that the man I called my “Daddy” was in fact, not my daddy.  Everyone else took it in stride, but I was concerned because if he was not my daddy then who was? Where was he? This was a lingering question that haunted me. To add to my dismay I later learned that when we were given his name, there was no legal adoption, no court paperwork, just an illegal name change.

Over the next few years, my concerns were realized. He began to go through a gradual metamorphosis from a sought-after Daddy to an evil stepdad. What should have been a blanket of security became the foundation of my insecurities in humanity.  As the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned into months and the months turned into years, I realized that my stepdad was a mix between a blessing and something sinister. He seemed to be wholly evil, and he was difficult to love. I never bonded with him. My attempts at bonding with him were horrible fails.  All efforts were met with disillusionment because of his dark, twisted abusive hostility. I was called dumb, drag-ass, sorry-ass punk, and other degrading names. As a result, my siblings adopted many of those names in the absence of my mother.

I learned to compartmentalize my stepdad’s aggression, my mom’s lack of strength, and my siblings’ childish tormenting. I learned early to depend on God for my own personal happiness because, despite my mother’s love for me, I could not rely on her for my total comfort. When she tried to intervene, matters were complicated, and she was often abused for challenging my stepdad. At this point, it was bearable until my grandmother’s death. The funeral is a stored memory that I find difficult to access after all these years. After the funeral, we prepared to return to Savannah.

Why I called home the crucible has everything to do with the darkness that surrounded our “Christian” home. It seems that once my grandmother died my eyes were open. It was as if I had eaten of the forbidden fruit. My eyes were opened to the knowledge of good and evil. My stepdad made me realized the people can be harmful. I never got over his antics because he seemed to time his activity at the time when my mom was most vulnerable.

Immediately after we arrived back in Savannah from my grandmother’s funeral, my mother’s relationship with my stepdad took a turn for the worst. A tense but bearable relationship eventually turned into a tale of victimization. We endured verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. A few weeks later in an unforgettable event, I sat in my bedroom and I heard my step-father’s harsh voice. Alerted by what I perceived as my mother in distress, I cringed as I heard him shout over her crying… “Your mom is dead now so who you gonna run to now?!” Shut up before I throw you and you damn kids out of my house!!!  Those words covered the whimpering cry of my mother as she tried to get out of their bedroom. It seemed as if I was awake all night listening to them struggling about throughout the night.

The days that followed only seemed to get worst. We lived double lives. At church, we were Deacon G’s family and through the week we were the dysfunctional family in Savannah. We lived in an extended trial of faith. We lived in that place that crushed us on a daily basis. We were in an emotional cul de sac with my stepdad guarding the one way in and the one way out. Eventually, I learned to move my emotions aside and ignore his presence.

As time went on he, became indifferent towards me and me towards him. This was noticed by my mother and my siblings, who made light of it at times. Once my relationship with “Daddy” began to spiral downhill my mother spent a lot of time keeping me away from him. I never bonded with him. My attempts at bonding with him were horrible failures.  All efforts were met with disillusionment because of his dark, twisted hostility, and senseless abuse. One memorable event when I was nine years old sums up how I was treated by him.

I always sat to his immediate right at the dinner table. From time to time he would play and hit me jokingly, so I thought. This time he hit me, and I laughed and playfully hit him back. In an unexpected turn of events, with no time for thought or action… all I saw was his big black hand splitting the air towards my face. At that moment, he had backhand slapped me so hard that I fell back from the table with my mouth bleeding. I was embarrassed, hurt, disoriented, and filled with rage and disappointment. As my emotions wrestled within me. He stood towering over me… and in his menacing Bama, drill sergeant, voice, said… “Don’t ever hit me back when I hit you!” As I attempted to crawl from beside the table, my brother and sister sat silently, frozen in fear. “Nate!” My mom screamed… “That was not even necessary.” Unable to collect myself from beside the table my body immediately jerked and heaved, and everyone gasped in disgust as I instantly vomited my meal of rice and gravy, green beans, pieces of chewed beef, bread, and red Kool-aid on him and on my place setting. The fact that I ruined his meal was poetic justice because of his brutal assault on me. As I attempted to make it away from the table, I was aided by my mother who had rushed from the other end of the room and began to help me from the table. My brother and sister thought it was funny after they realized what had happened.  My mom ignored him as he commanded… “leave his sorry ass alone!”

At that moment, I was dizzy and numb. I could not hear anything around me. It was as if he broke something inside of me. What purity was in me… left that day. I had been violated for no real reason. I was shattered with only an inkling of faith. I had been given just enough confidence to exist through my abuse. God began to move on my heart, drawing me closer to Him in my brokenness. My beautiful world had turned to darkness. The Georgia sun shined on our home, and it lit us every corner, but it felt as if it was always pitch dark there.

Our morning optics were different there. Instead of bright sunshine and beautiful colors, we awakened to pale fog-laden mornings with limited visibility. The air was not filled with the sweet aromas of honeysuckles, jasmine, and lilac, instead, we smelled the diesel fuel from the boats, the foul paper pulp from the paper factory, and the fishy stench of the Savannah River. In contrast to the quiet noise of the mountains, we were startled from sleep by the fog horns of the tug boats on the Savannah River. The warmth of the crisp clean mountain air was replaced by the thick humid atmosphere of an industrial port city. I had gone from the lap of comfort and freedom into the confines of a life-altering crucible.