Billy’s Girlfriend, Part 3.

My life would continue to intermingle with Billy and Shara’s during the time I lived in North End. However, I was having a difficult time learning to navigate my childhood through inner city living.

I can’t really say whether the visit with Shara’s family that day had any effect on me. I don’t remember being confused or understanding her any better.

The whole visit just got filed away in that deep cabinet in my soul, where I stored everything that my woman-child eyes took in.

I certainly noticed the contrast between her and her family, but that was minimal compared to the things I saw on a daily basis.

As children, my friends and I saw real life played out in its rawest form. It wasn’t like some sitcom, where children got sent to their room as adults played and fought. They did almost everything right in front of us, in plain view.

We would emulate them, using terms we weren’t sure of. “Let me go to my check-end account,” one girl said as we played. She was referring to a checking account, which most of us had overheard adults talking about.

Our eyes and ears gleaned much. We would stop by each other’s house on the way to school to “pick each other up” as we called it. During those stops, it was nothing to see some man asleep in an adjacent room. “That’s my mother’s boyfriend,” the child would say. She would tell you all she intended for you to know in that one sentence. It was placed before you like a sacred line you didn’t dare cross with further questioning.

Sometimes you’d stop by and there would be a sister or brother who looked almost as old as the parents. The kid would tell you that their big brother or sister would be staying with them now.

“Oh,” would be the way we would always respond.

As children growing up in the North End, we had problems of our own. I would occasionally think about my uncle, Shara and the boys when I didn’t see them, but I was more concerned about a huge dilemma I was having: I was being bullied. My tormentors were boys. It would start with them liking you, buying you wine candy (Jolly Ranchers) or Mary Janes on the way to school. They would walk with you, telling you they would “take up” for you, which meant protect you.

Then one day out of the blue, your “boyfriend” would approach you at lunch or on the playground at recess and tell you that you’d better run after school because he was going to beat you up. He’d tell the whole school for the rest of the day in a profanity-laced rant what he was going to do to you when he caught you.

So you’d run, maybe duck into a store and make it home unharmed. If you were really lucky, you could hide out for a few days avoiding him altogether. Sometimes you weren’t so fortunate and you would get into a fight.

One time a “boyfriend” had injured me and I got sent home with a huge white bandage wrapped around my elbow. The bandage made it look worse than it was. My suitor was proud of the bruise he left.

“I’M TIRED OF THESE BOYS BEATIN’ ON MY DAUGHTER!” Mom screamed at someone in the school office the next day. Funny how even back then, we didn’t want to tell on the boys for fear of something worse happening.

After everything would seem to die down, they would be back on the playground, trying to woo you again with candy.

Years later, the Holy Spirit brought this time period to my rememberance. He told me, the twisted form of affection these young boys were trying to express was what they saw in their homes.

Today, we call it domestic violence.

My experiences growing up there caused me to worry a lot. I was always weighted down with secrets-my own and others. Soon I was biting my nails, just like I’d seen Shara and her sons do.

That’s what I was doing the day Shara asked me the strangest question.

“Bay,” she said as she walked toward me. She had stopped by one day for a visit without Billy or the boys. “How would you like to go to church with me tomorrow? It’s Easter Sunday.” I was sitting on the living room floor, with my legs crossed playing with my Barbies. Periodically, I’d take a break, to pick at the skin around my nails.

Shara was standing over me, with her hand on her hip, looking directly down at my face waiting for an answer. I didn’t know which was more odd, her looking directly at me or hearing the word “church” come out of her mouth.

I couldn’t help but notice her facial expression. She looked sad and mad at the same time. Her pouty bottom lip was glossy as usual and the corners of her mouth were turned upward. Her facial expression looked like, “You better say yeah”. There was something about her that day that made her look like one of my peers. She had that you’re-suppose-to-be-my-friend look that one of your buddies would give you when they wanted to guilt you into doing them a favor. I was staring at her so hard, I forgot to answer.

“Yeah?” I replied which came out sounding more like a question.

“Okay, I’mma pick you up tomorrow at 10:30. So be ready!” she said, slamming the door.

“Shara be lyin'”, I said to myself. I sat there on the floor thinking about our brief conversation as I buried my nail-bitten fingers in a pile of Barbie clothes trying to find an outfit that resembled what I thought Shara would wear.

One day, I asked Shara to play with my Barbies with me. She grabbed one from my collection, teased her hair out in this wild style and picked this glittery mini dress for her to wear. After she dressed her, she made her do a wild dance that made my Barbie look deranged. I didn’t think it was very funny, but Shara was hysterically laughing. She gave me this look that said, “Girl, please,” before handing me my doll back.

Shara was a real trip.

I was happy about the chance to hang out with her the next day. “But to go to church?” I thought. I spent the rest of the day wondering why Shara would make something like that up. I almost forgot to tell Mom that I was going.

I was ready and waiting that Easter Sunday morning, just in case it wasn’t a lie. Imagine my shock when at precisely 10:30am, Shara rung the bell. “It’s Shara. You ready, Bay?” she shouted through the intercom. Shara came up to get me. She had on a bad Coco Chanel suit that was silk or satin. It was a peach or tangerine color and had a sparkly broach. She was together from head to toe as usual.

Shara looked like a first lady.

It was slightly overcast that day, Shara and I walked to church. We were walking because, she had totaled the car, the Buick Riviera, my uncle bought for her. I found that out one day as mom and I walked home from Mott Supermarket.

“You know he went to the scene of that accident and told that officer that he was driving that car?” Mom said sounding disgusted. “It’s a shame he is such a fool for that girl!” she said shaking her head.

I remember hearing later that Shara had some warrants and would have gone to jail that day, but Billy stood in the gap for her.

Mom couldn’t stand Shara, although she treated her okay when she came around. My mother and uncle would have many arguments with Shara’s name laced throughout. Once Mom accused Shara of wearing her one of her fancy dresses-one of the ones she wore to cocktail sips. She said Shara wore the dress, then hung it right back up in the closet.

“I know she did it, ’cause I could smell her perfume!” I remember her saying to my uncle during one of their riffs.

Mother would fuss about that dress constantly. At least she didn’t steal it, I thought one day.

I don’t remember having much conversation with her on the way to church. She was walking fast like she was going to hook or hustle. I had to double time my steps to keep up with her. She looked so pretty that day, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

The church was on Main street, which was approximately six blocks from our house. As we rounded the corner, Shara looked up towards the building and said, “This is my church! I went here when I was a little girl.” She seemed very excited, kind of like the day when she wanted to make the brownies.

I was so happy for her.

I remember passing the edifice before. It was kind of spooky looking; the kind of church where you hardly ever saw cars, even during the regular times of service. It had a tall black wrought iron fence around the building and the parking lot. The church set way back off the street. It was a huge building with beautiful long stained glass windows all around it.

Still, something about it reminded me of a giant tombstone.

We climbed the high concrete steps to get to the sanctuary. Once inside the foyer, I noticed there was no usher at the door and service had already started. The church just didn’t have that Easter Sunday feel. We sat in the second or third row from the back. Shara shooed me into the row so she could sit on the end. I scooted back onto the pew, she plopped down loudly on it.

I wasn’t prepared for what happened next.

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Billy’s Girlfriend, Part 2

It seemed like ever since the night Shara had the “seizure”, everything seemed to go downhill for her and my uncle. I’m not sure how long they lived in that beautiful three family house on Edgewood, but it wasn’t very long. They moved around a lot, like nighttime nomads, to neighborhoods that were seedy and steeped with illegal activity.

Shara seemed to walk slower on certain days. The sassy strut that she had so skillfully perfected was now reduced to a sloppy shuffle. Her coal black darting eyes, were struggling to peer through her weighty lids.

Some people say the eyes don’t lie. Well, I say neither do hands. I remember the first time I noticed Shara’s hands. It was during one of those weekend gatherings the adults would have at our apartment. When Shara talked, she was always loud and animated, especially with a few drinks in her. I looked up one night,to find her wildly waving her cigarette in the air as if it would lead to the point she was trying to make. It was then that I noticed they were shockingly different from the rest of her. They were the same Sugar Baby caramel color, but her nails were chewed right down to the skin. It was as if they had something to say; but she was punishing them, trying to keep them silent.

Now they were screaming out, they had become swollen and claw like from repeated drug use.

Her stocky son, who appeared to have most of her ways, punished his hands as well. He would eventually pull three of his nails right off the nail beds.

“Look what this boy did!” Shara said one day as they were visiting. She was holding his arm up by the wrist to show us the mutilation. The skin had already started to grow over where the nail beds should have been.

“Does it hurt?” I asked him that day. I imagined it did as my own nail beds were starting to throb from staring at his.

“Nope,” he said, clearly proud of his accomplishment. He seemed happy to have mastered that level of pain.

Shara dropped his wrist in disgust and walked off. She seemed to be upset only by the fact they he had gone too far.

The one thing that never changed was Shara’s fashion sense and cleanliness. She still kept her appearance together, along with her sons and her man.

As Shara was trying to juggle her growing addiction and domestic life, Billy was contending with a jones of his own:a love jones. Loving Shara seemed to be a full time job. He always seemed edgy and preoccupied. The playful, silly side I loved so well was barely seen now.

Before,he would stop by regularly to the apartment that Mom and I shared, as he still had a room there. He used to say things like, “Hey Tam, why did the boat tip over?”, giving me the beginning of some corny riddle. I would skip behind him, begging for the punch line. Most of the time he wouldn’t give it, telling me I had to wait until the next time.

Now when he came by, he always looked despondent, like a huge weight was on his shoulders. He’d barely make conversation.

Billy was always trying to cover her; to shield her. But she was hurricane Shara, whose ferocious troubled winds and torrential rains of anger could not be tamed. Where there was Shara, there was trouble.

Like a hurricaine, people were always having Shara sightings. The stories involved her cutting someone, lying, details of her last prison stint, or someone seeing her downtown boosting. They would always end their tales with a cold chilling laugh. Pretty soon I started turning a deaf ear to it all.

I wanted to see more of the Shara that giggled and wanted to make brownies that Saturday evening at their apartment, the girl with the frilly kitchen.

I wondered if they ever got tired of talking about her. Did they ever think she was at one time somebody’s little baby girl?

Billy, Shara, and the boys, came by one day to pick me up. They would do this occassionally taking us out for ice cream or to Riverside Park, a local amusement park locate near our town. I wondered where we were headed that day, as we were going in the opposite direction.

“We gotta make a quick stop,” Billy said to me and the boys, before we could ask any questions.
“We’re goin’ over Mommy’s,” Shara added. I don’t remember the boys’ reaction to this. I was too busy thinking about how funny it was to hear her refer to her mother as mommy.

Shara’s family didn’t live very far from me, yet the neighborhoods were worlds apart. Mom and I lived in North End, the northern section of the inner city. Our neighborhood was full of three-family houses; houses that looked like three small single family home stacked on top of each other. Smack dab in the middle of the block was our apartment building: 105, as we called it. It was a 30 apartment building that set behind the houses. It was odd shaped and kind of looked like a red brick cruise ship. I wasn’t a tall building at all,it only had three floors that held ten apartments each.

Our building was owned by Mr Doyle from Doyle Construction. It was the only one of its kind in North End, and you could tell he put alot of thought into it. It seemed like he was trying to make a pleasant affordable place for families to live. It had an enormous fenced in backyard with lots of green grass in the back and sides of the building. The yard was in tip top shape because nobody ever went back there. Everybody stayed out front on the stoop.

There wasn’t much grass in the North End and it was as if nobody trusted it. Everybody wanted to be out front where the happenings were. Even the neighborhood cat had her kittens right by the noisy stoop for all of us to see.

The street where Shara’s family lived was quite the contrast. The streets were lined with beautiful trees and the homes had rose or azalea bushes out front. The grass reminded me of green shag carpeting that had been freshly vacuumed for company. The whole neighborhood looked like it was expecting us. Almost every house had those huge picture windows, as if they wanted everyone to look inside to see how happy they were.

Shara’s mom greeted us at the door. “Well, come on in. How’s everybody?” she said, holding the screen door as we slid past her. Miss Bea was a nice soft spoken woman, with press and curl hair, who was Shara’s complexion.

“Hi Mommy,” Shara said as she brushed past her mother. Her steps were loud and deliberate against their beautifully polished hardwood floors. She did her strut and she stomped her way straight back into the kitchen. I don’t recall her ever sitting down during our visit. She just cased the place like she was looking for something.

Shara’s mom pretended not to notice. She sat talking to us in the living room with her hands folded on her lap, like someone told her to sit still, just like that.

A lady once told a family member of mine when Shara was a teenager, there was a bus taking kids to New York City to a dance. As the bus was about to take off, Miss Bea stopped the bus and got on looking for Shara. She told the driver that she needed to get her daughter off the bus as she was not allowed to go. Shara and her mother argued and the whole scene ended with Shara fighting her mother like she was fighting someone in the streets.

That’s the first time I had ever heard someone tell a story about her and not laugh. I couldn’t imagine her fighting this saintly looking lady.

The first thing I noticed at Shara’s mom’s was where she got her cleanliness. Their home was so spotless, it didn’t look lived in. The hardwood floors and windows sparkled and the lacy curtains glistened. Everything seemed to be some shade of blue.

Over time, I would visit Shara’s family several times, eventually meeting all of her siblings. She had two brothers: an older brother named Rodney and a younger teenaged one named Kevin, who Shara seemed to adore. She would talk to her younger brother using that same baby voice that she used when she talked to Billy and her boys.

Her brother Rodney was a quiet serious looking guy who was a principal of a school or something. He had that same soft spoken voice the mother had and same carmel complexion. Something about him reminded me of Shara’s son, the sensitive one.

Then there was Shara’s sister Barbara. From the first time I met her, I could see that she was someone who seemed to vacillate between two worlds: Shara’s and the rest of the family. There was something about her that looked up to Shara and wanted to be like her. The family would eventually win and Barbara went on a get her degree in the medical field.

And last but not least was Shara’s fraternal twin sister, Sigrid. Meeting her was the most shocking of all. She had that same quiet soft spoken voice but she was the opposite of everything that Shara was. She was married homely, plain and very religious. She wore long dresses and wasn’t into styling her hair and all. She also had a college degree but was a stay at home mom with several small children.

It seems like every time I was around them I noticed something different. There were several frames on the wall which displayed graduation pictures, degrees, and the family’s credentials. There were none for Shara.

Everybody talked in the same low voice except for the sister that wanted to be like her. Her voice was midway. It was almost as though they believed if they talked any louder, they would reveal a secret.

Whenever you saw any of her family members, you could tell by their conversation, they were trying to distance themselves from her. Most times, there wouldn’t be any mention of her even though she was the only thing you had in common with them.

There was something Stepford about them; something mechanical, like they were trying too hard to be perfect. They seemed slightly hypocritcal.

I met Shara’s dad, Mr. Neil the day I met her mom. He was a dark skinned man who her stocky son resembled. He had Shara’s darting eyes and kept his hands in his pocket. His shoulders were not broad or square; they were rounded with a downward slope that gave him a guilty look.

I could tell Shara’s visit made her parents uncomfortable, although they were trying their best not to show it. They talked mostly to my uncle. They seemed to like him and appeared to be relieved that he was in Shara’s life.

I’m not sure what our visit that day was all about. It seemed more like Shara was making an appearance. Perhaps she was wanted to show off her own family, which included someone who was on her side.

Billy’s Girlfriend, Part 1.

Another snapshot. Billy’s girlfriend, Shara.

I’m not sure how they met; I can’t believe I forgot to ask him during the months that I was his caregiver. But Billy loved Shara. She was in his blood.

Shara was caramel colored from head to toe, and there was something about her that screamed HOLLYWOOD. When I think of her, so many people come to mind. She dressed like one of the Supremes everyday and had the sassiness of Jackee Harry from 227 or Beyonce’s altar ego, Sasha Fierce. She didn’t look like these women at all and I never saw any talent displayed; still, her persona said, “I’m a whole lotta woman!”

I never heard a nice thing about her. Ever. Shara liked big hair and fast living. She seemed to have a wig that matched every outfit.

“That’s because she doesn’t have any hair,” someone said one day as they discussed her. “I’ve seen her without her wig…she’s bald,” she continued with a wicked laugh.

It seemed like nobody liked her but I think most people were afraid of her and some secretly envied her. She was a free spirit who did many risky things but always seemed to come out on top.

Shara was just one of those people who didn’t intend to get the short end of any stick.

She was what we called a booster back then, which basically meant she was a professional shoplifter. She would take orders, go downtown to some of the finest department stores or boutiques, then come back and sell her goods to the neighborhood.

She had lifted a few things for me before, although I can’t remember what they were.

It was also said that prostitution was her side hustle. I’d hear people saying that when she and my uncle would go to Providence, Rhode Island on “business,” that was the reason.

Sometimes, I would overhear her talking about Providence like she had gone to the Hamptons or something.

She was also skilled with weapons. Shara had been known to cut a few men and women in her time. If you said or did anything she didn’t like, she’d cut you, plain and simple.

Shara was wild and unpredictable, and she made people uncomfortable. She was like a California brush fire, fierce and bellowing. You never knew where she was going to strike next, and if she got to your home, she’d destroy it.

One night, as my uncle and Shara came home from a club around 3 in the morning, a man rung our doorbell to tell my mother the two of them were in the parking lot fighting. Mom said, “The man said, ‘Your brother is out here whipping Shara’s (expletive). I would tell you to come out here and stop him, but Lord knows, she needs it’.”

Nevertheless Billy was madly in love with her. His eyes said it. It was something about the way she purred his name. She would poke out her bottom lip, which was always glossy. It reminded me of butterscotch candy and in this soft baby sounding voice she say “Billy,” which sounded more like “Biddy,” and his face would melt.

I had never seen anybody have that effect on him. He was sprung and everybody knew it.

I loved her because he loved her. No matter what anyone said about her, it never changed my opinion. I had hoped it wasn’t true but I had witnessed so much firsthand, nothing surprised me.

I always wanted to be around her, mainly because she was so girly and fabulous. I was always trying to impress her. One time, we had company at our house. The music was blaring and the kids were running around acting silly and doing all the latest dances. Shara was sitting at our dining room table with the other adults. She was holding her Kool high in the air and nursing her scotch on the rocks. She was talking a mile a minute, which most of the adults would say were lies.

“Shara! Shara! Look at me!” I shouted over Gladys Knight’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” blasting from our hifi. I twisted and turned, showing her this new dance called The Boston Monkey.

“Oh, Oh, Oh! Shake it, baby!” she shouted over and over, leaping from the dining room table, hysterically laughing. The more she shouted, the more I pranced around.

Soon I was hysterically laughing, too, feeling triumphant: I had gotten Shara’s full attention.

Everytime I saw her, I’d run up to her, “Hi Shara!” I’d say practically yelling wanting her to hug me. “Hey, Bay!” she’d respond barely touching me and not looking at me. Bay was short for Baby. Shara barely looked at anybody when she talked to them. When you were in her presence, her eyes always darted around like she didn’t trust her surroundings. Her calling me Bay was the only way I could tell she liked me.

Needless to say, Shara wasn’t affectionate.

She had two sons that my uncle was helping her rear. One was a dark skinned, stocky boy who was one of the baddest little boys I’d ever seen. The other was her complexion, sullen and sensitive. The latter one’s eyes looked like he had seen too much. The former one looked like he wanted to see more.

She dressed them to the nines. They looked like the sons of rich folks. On the outside they looked nourished and well cared for.

Their behavior proved they weren’t.

The boys would trail behind her like two rolling suitcases, making just as much noise. They always sounded like there were a lot of folks with them when they’d visit, but it was just be Shara and her sons.

She told someone one time that she didn’t have time to wash their clothes; she would just steal new ones.

Once, Billy and Shara were keeping me for the evening. They had moved in the bottom floor apartment of a three-family house. It was spacious, airy, and tastefully decorated. I was happy for them, and the normalcy seemed to calm the boys.

It seemed like everything was going well. I had hoped they could live like that forever.

“Let’s make brownies!” Shara said during my visit. I thought it was nice that she was home and seemed peaceful. It was a Saturday evening, and the boys seemed excited to have her attention. She reminded me of an actress who had been touring but had taken a few days off with her family.

The whole scenario reminded me of the type of article you see in People magazine of your favorite celeb.

Her wig was understated, her makeup basic. She had on a cute knit top and slacks, dressed just the way an actress would for a pictorial.

She pulled out a frilly pale yellow apron from a drawer in the pantry. Even the apron was chic. It seemed to match the kitchen curtains. The kitchen was complete, well stocked and immaculate. She had purchased everything she thought it should have. To my surprise, Shara looked really domesticated.

We gathered all the ingredients to make the brownies, when all of a sudden, Shara started trembling all over. Her body shook and writhed and, before she collapsed on the floor, Billy caught her.

Carrying her like a bride over a threshold, he kicked the bedroom door open with his foot, placing her on the bed.

I followed him, trying to take in as much as I could with my eyes before he closed the door in my face.

I was scared to death. The boys never turned around or flinched. They actually looked disapointed that we might not be able to make the brownies.

After only a few minutes, Shara and Billy emerged from the bedroom. Shara was slow like a zombie and didn’t look like herself.

“Is Shara okay, Billy?” I asked.

“Yeah, she just had a seizure and I had to give her medicine.” There was a grimness about him. His face looked like he had just lied to me.

“Let’s get an apron for you, Bay,” Shara said, picking up right where we left off. I wanted to tell her it was okay, that we didn’t have to make the brownies; but, somehow I knew, she needed to. She shuffled towards the pantry to retrieve a matching apron. “Here let me tie it” she said, grabbing my shoulder turning me around. Her hands seemed too heavy for her.

After she pulled the ties tight behind me, I felt no movement. I stood there for a second afraid to turn around. Shara had gone into a deep nod; a stupor of sorts, with her eyes closed and mouth parted.

I may have only been seven, but I knew that nod anywhere: Shara was strung out.

Life With Billy, Part 2

It was cash. Large denominations, some with paper bands around them like they came fresh from the bank.

Looking back, I’m certain I was committing some crime. I could have been robbed by some young hoodlum in that dark inner city hallway that day. Some of my neighbors’ activities were just as questionable.

I believed God winked at me, dispatching angels to protect me as I transported hundreds of dollars in cash.

My eight-year-old mind couldn’t fathom any of this. I was just a niece doing a favor for my beloved uncle.

I don’t know why Billy would entrust that much cash to a child, but he did. Perhaps he knew I wouldn’t follow him in his activities. Maybe he knew I’d have no interest in it.

Several years passed and I moved back to the midwest with my mother. Billy remained on the East Coast. Not sure what happened in the years we were apart but we wound up together again, living at my grandmother’s house. I was 13 years old.

Something had changed between us. We were worlds apart now, but yet there was something we had in common: we were both depressed. I never asked him what happened to his luxury vehicle, fine clothes and cash. I could only speculate. Life in the fast lane leaves as swiftly as it comes.

What I knew for sure was that he was mourning his girlfriend, who was long gone. I was mourning my own losses. I had lost all my friends when I relocated. I had lost my privacy, as my grandmother’s house was always bustling with activity, and I had the body of a woman, though I was still a child. I was perplexed as to how to deal with all my new stressors.

We both seemed to be having a difficult time adjusting to life’s changes. We were like two cars that wound up in the junk yard. We needed to be reclaimed, restored, and put on the road of life again.

We didn’t know how to help each other. One afternoon, after watching me mope around, looking the way he felt, my uncle practically shouted, “You need to get on with your life! Get out of the house; all your friends are out there!”

I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or himself.

It didn’t take very long, but things began to change for Billy. One fall day, as I was coming home from school, I could hear the radio blaring as soon as I stepped onto the porch. There through the three-paned window on the front door, I could see Billy strut back through the kitchen, singing at the top of his lungs as he mopped my grandmother’s kitchen floor. I smiled to myself as I stood there watching him as he begin to ballroom dance with the mop.

Before the song’s end, the mop transformed into a microphone as he leaned forward and put the finishing touches on a song that sounded like he was singing at the Apollo.

It felt good to see life come back to him. He had just landed a good paying job at a utility company in town and had found a new love interests.

“I told the man on the job, ‘ I won’t lie to you, sir, I did some things in my past but I’m trying to reform my life’ ” he said, smiling broadly at his truthfulness. He proceded to tell me how that supervisor told him that he seemed like a good man, and he was willing to take a chance on him.

“It pays to be honest with people, Tam” he told me that day.

More time passed. I was now an adult and mother. I had become a Christian and was proud of my newfound faith. Billy was now married and had moved back east. We didn’t see each other much except for at family reunions and milestones.

I noticed that he was now drinking heavily. It seemed that whenever I’d see him at family functions, he didn’t seem to like me as well.  He would make sarcastic remarks. He had become someone I no longer recognized. 

 One evening after attending a family affair, we all gathered at my grandmother’s house. Billy had been drinking heavily and whenever he did, there was no end to any conversation you had with him.

I was still very excited about my Christian beliefs and would gladly share them with anyone I saw. I felt compelled to share them with Billy that night.

We were discussing current events, which were his favorite topic, when I started talking about the faith we all needed to have to sustain us during these challenging times.

“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE…PREACHING TO ME?!” he hissed through his slurred speech. I guess I should have known right away to blame it on the alcohol. I didn’t. I was shocked and hurt. He had never talked to me like that.

I apologetically explained that I was just sharing my faith. He fussed back and basically told me he didn’t want to hear that coming from me.

I thought the incident would die down, that he would forget about it all once he sobered. It was quite the contrary; he told a family member the next day that I had disrepected him by talking about “religious things with him.”

That night drove a wedge between us. Although I was always polite when he came around, we hardly ever talked.

But none of that mattered, several years later, when my aunt walked in the house, telling me that Billy wanted to talk to me. He was in the hospital. He had come home by Amtrak for Memorial Day and fell ill. The doctors said he was too sick to go back to the East Coast. I had been staying there at my aunt’s home to help with his care.

I was living in Baltimore, when I heard the news that he was ill. I took the subway downtown to Penn Station and traveled to the Albany, New York train station, where his car was parked. Then, I drove it to his home in Connecticut. Once there, I packed his belongings, closed up his home and drove his car and things to Michigan.

He had been living alone in a small suburban New England town. It had been a year and a half since his wife had passed away. He had become a bonafide square. He still had that boyish strut and was still a dapper dresser. He spent his days going to the store for the evening paper and Newports, watching heavy rotations of CNN or riding a couple of blocks to the town square to the listen to the summer jazz concert series.

All his neighbors adored him. He had become a cool grandfather type, who wore round wire rimmed glasses and a Gilligan style hat. He had even grown a garden of collards greens, peppers and melons and would help neighbors with theirs.

“Oh, we wish all our neighbors were like him,” one of his upscale next-door neighbors told me one day.

On the way to the hospital in Michigan, I thought about how surreal it was watching him suffer. To me, he was always a boy wonder, a Peter pan type who would never die.

I wanted to talk to him about spiritual matters but everytime I thought about it, I remembered the awkward experience I had with him at my grandmother’s several years prior.

Entering his hospital room that day, I noticed he had a face I remembered very well: the face of depression.

“You talk to my doctor?” he asked almost soon as I walked in the door. I’m not sure what I said; I was trying to make it seem like I didn’t know he was dying.

“Don’t think I’m gonna make it out this time, Tam,” he said staring straight ahead.

“Oh you’ll make it” I said trying, my best to sound optimistic, “You always do.” He’d had been hospitalized for practically nine months several years ago, due to complications with minor surgery.

“No, not this time,” he said, his voice trailing off. We talked about a few of other things. I was trying hard to change the subject.

Inside, I prayed silently that the Lord would help me lead him to Himself. We sat for a good while. I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he couldn’t look at me.

“So they got mansions up there?” he asked, looking me directly in my eyes. “I heard that once and never forgot it,” he said, trying to sound tough.

I told him yes and explained what the scriptures said in John 14. I reminded him of how much he enjoyed family reunions and told him that he would have one of the best reunions if he went to heaven.

“Yeah, that’s what I want… to see my family” he responded, flashing what I thought was a faint smile.

So right there in his hospital room that crisp fall afternoon, I led Billy to Christ. The first thing he noticed was that he was no longer afraid. “I’m ready now,” he said, relaxing his shoulders. We sat for the next 45 minutes in total silence as he enjoyed his born again bliss. His countenance was peaceful.

Shortly after, he had a visitor who entered the room and sat silently as well.

After a while, Billy said, “You all can leave now.” We did.

During the weeks that followed, my uncle would tell anyone who visited him that he had said the sinner’s prayer.

“Close the curtain, will ya? My niece is here and we are going to have prayer,” he would say to the nurses. We would pray practically every time I visited him and I would read him the Psalms.

“I know that it’s not enough just say a prayer, you have to serve Him…I didn’t do that.” he said sadly as we discussed his life.

His transformation blew me away. Once, on the drive to the nursing home, he told me that someone had invited him to a local eatery, to listen to jazz. “I don’t think I want to do that,” he told me that day. It was as if he didn’t want anything to taint his newborn soul.

Billy’s doctors had done all they could to make him comfortable, but his organs were failing. He went to his sister’s home to die.

I had to go back to Maryland, as I had accepted a work assignment and was scheduled to report to California by the end of the month.

By the time I’d returned to Maryland from California, Billy had died peacefully at his sister’s home, with loved ones around him.

I chose not to attend his funeral. I went to work instead. I didn’t need to pay my final respects. I had done so by providing care for him for almost two months.

I heard it was a beautiful service. Full of laughter and life. A real celebration of a soul who loved folly, family…and faith.

One night I dreamed of him. He was living in a penthouse way up high. His place was so far up, the tree tops that could be seen below resembled green grains of sand.

I was visiting him and sitting at his dining room table with other family members. He was rearranging the furniture in the rooms, telling us that he was going to make the living room his bedroom and his bedroom, the living room.

We sat there befuddled as we watched him drag a huge antique mahoghany headboard out to the living room. A relative asked why he wanted to switch the rooms. Billy simply said it made more sense to do it that way.

He always had a logic only he understood.

“It’s his place; let him do what he wants,” I said to the family member with a smirk on my face.
I woke up pondering the dream. It didn’t need much interpretation.

Billy had found his mansion.

“Don’t know why Billy was making his living room a bedroom, but he did,” I said to myself laughing as I rose to start my day.

Life With Billy, Part 1.

Life Through Me is a new category that will be featured here on the Well Report. I’ll write about my current feelings or past recollections. Feel free to post your comments. God Bless!

A few days ago, I posted a facebook status that was like opening a dusty chest in an attic full of old photographs. It said:

I woke up this morning thinking about a childhood memory. My uncle used to take me to his favorite neighborhood bar, sit me at the bar and I would order a Shirley Temple or soda and eat potato chips and listen to this band called the Hot Tamales…he used to think that was hilarious! Don’t know why that popped in my head… it just did. I was five.

That was over 40 years ago but as I stood in my kitchen preparing breakfast, I was there in my mind, in the Rockabye Bar and lounge. I could still smell the Kools and Camels that hung in the thick midday air. It was dark in the daytime.

It never occurred to me at five years old to wonder why these grownups weren’t at work or why they didn’t turn on the lights. That was their work. They were small time hustlers and number runners. Pimps and factory workers who’d just got off the night shift and gathered there to place their bets and discuss the latest street happenings.

I was too busy focusing on the band. The Hot Tamales. I had never heard a live band before. They were doing a full set, during the day. I remember crying the first time I heard them because the music was too loud. Soon, I became a regular, so to speak. The barkeep knew me by name and the local pimps would give me a dollar or two.

I don’t know why my uncle thought it was funny to take a child to a bar for a drink but he did.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed when he babysat. There was never a dull moment.

Once I heard a deep suction sound coming from him that ended in a loud PLOP! Next thing I knew, he was chasing me around the living room with his “eyeball”, telling me he wanted me to see things. I’d giggle hysterically running around our tiny apartment, occasionally turning around to see if he was gaining on me.

Before long, my mood would turn serious and I would be sad that he had plucked out his eye. “You need your eye!” I would cry. Soon he couldn’t contain himself . He would be doubled over in laughter, showing me that what he had been chasing me around with the top of his Bic pen.

Billy liked talking, like I did. He would tell me numerous stories of all the entertainers he met during his military career.

“YOU REALLY MET JAMES BROWN AND THE FAMOUS FLAMES?!” I screamed one day.

“Aw, sure I did…we were gonna beat them up!” he replied, sticking his chest out. Then he proceded to tell me this long story about how he and some of his military buddies decided to jump them as they left a nightclub one night near Boston.

“We chased them to their tour bus throwing rocks at them; they were runnin’ like crazy,” he said laughing hysterically.

I don’t know why Billy thought it was funny to tell me he was going to beat up my favorite group, but he did.

My uncle was one of the best ballroom dancers, in his hometown. Some days we would dance. “Here, you stand on top of my feet,” he’d say, holding my arms steady as I would place my tiny feet on his huge, nylon-socked feet. There, we would glide smoothly across the living room floor. He would scat like Ella Fitzgerald on the radio, while I giggled and concentrated on staying on top of his feet.

I never realized he was dancing for both of us; I would feel like Cinderella on those days.

Billy was babysitting the day that Rocky, a petty neighborhood thief who lived across the hall, broke into our apartment to steal all of my uncle’s clothes. We were just returning from an errand, as Rocky was rounding the corner from the bedroom towards the sofa with an armful of Billy’s finest suits. He hadn’t noticed us yet but as he plopped down the last of his stolen treasure onto our sofa, he froze.

I don’t remember their exact verbal exchange that day, but Bill told him if he put every item back where he got it, he wouldn’t call the police. Rocky did just that.

A short time later, I was downtown with some adult, and who did I run into? Rocky. “Hey, Tam!” he yelled towards me, trying to sound like nothing happened.

I remember turning up my nose and rolling my eyes, as I dramatically turned my head. The adults I was with howled in laughter. I didn’t think it was funny.

Any enemy of Billy’s was an enemy of mine.

Billy was also the manager of a local pharmacy. “Get anything you want!” he’d say smiling down at me whenever we went there. I’d go with him in the mornings to open up the drugstore.  I thought he owned the store. I would happily skip through there, filling my arms with as many snacks as I could carry. He would top each visit off with a huge fountain drink from the ice cream counter.

We would always stop there before he took me to another babysitter. “You never liked going there” he’d later recall.

“One time I took you to the pharmacy and as we were leaving, you grabbed the stool and screamed over and over, ‘Don’t make me go there!'” His eyes pleaded with me that day to tell him what was happening to me there.

He would probe periodically over the years, looking for a satisfactory answer. I would change the subject. I wasn’t ready to tell him of all the cruelty I experienced there. I couldn’t find the words.

He said, “I knew it was something. I came to pick you up one day and she had sat you outside in the cold. Alone. You were sitting on the front steps shivering, and I grabbed you and left. You never went back there.”

I smiled at him that day with my eyes, thanking him for rescuing me.

I guess that’s how I started hanging out with him everyday.

It seemed as I begin to grow, I started noticing Billy’s popularity in our neighborhood. He and his girlfriend had just purchased brand new 1969 Buick Rivieras right off the showroom floor. His was a wine color and hers was silver. It was the talk of the neighborhood. It was nothing for me to walk home and see a local street hustler driving the car. Billy was free hearted.

“That’s my uncle Billy’s car you are driving, you know?” I would boldly say to the young thug, loudly enough for all my friends to hear. He would laugh and shake his head. “I know” he’d reply.

Then there were the shopping trips. It was nothing for him to stop by the apartment I shared with my mother (and him too when he and his girlfriend had a fight) and announce that he was taking me downtown.

I’d drop whatever I was doing and skip happily towards the car, knowing I was coming back with all the latest fashions.

Billy never had children of his own. I was the closest thing he had to having a daughter; he was the closest thing I had to having a father.

So with the bond we had, it seemed quite natural for him to ask me for a favor.

“Come here, Tam” Billy said one day as he pulled in front of our apartment building with some of his cronies. “Take this box upstairs and DON’T LOOK IN IT!!” he said, with his eyes piercing mine as he gave the instructions. “Put it on the floor in my closet and close the door.”

I immediately dropped my end of the double dutch rope and abandoned my friends. Billy needs me.  This must be something very important. He’s never asked me to do him a favor before. I thought to myself.

Walking swiftly towards the car, I grabbed the cigar box, he was handing me and raced up the stairs.

“Oh, I’m lookin’ in this cigar box,” I sassily said to myself.

My eyes swelled like water balloons when I saw what was inside.

Be sure to stop by later this week to read Part 2 of Life With Billy!

Weight Watcher, Part 1.

Being overweight is like being in a tumultuous relationship. I had always been pretty thin, but around age 30, I found myself with about 40 extra pounds. How did you get into my life?, I’d lament. Mr. Extra Pounds wouldn’t answer; he would just woo me with more of my favorite treats and I couldn’t resist him.

Before long I got used to him being around. Deep down, I was miserable and he knew it. He would listen to my incessant inner murmurings about the issues that I felt were the source of my grief.  Laughing at my muttering, he’d notice that I never blamed him.

He had deceived me. He told me I looked good thick. We’d go shopping together and I would select fashions that seemed to complement him.

Sometimes he’d frighten me. He told me I would look sick if he left. People would look at my face and make up lies about the reason he departed.

I hated him. But I was afraid to let him go.

I didn’t plan to break it off with him on April 25 of this year; it just happened. He had enticed me to buy a Marie Callender peach cobbler. After the first bite, I was already thinking about when we could get together again. (smile)

I’m pleased with the treat Mr. Extra Pounds encouraged me to buy, I thought smugly. After deciding to have seconds, I thought I would get online first and surf the internet. I don’t know what happened exactly…. maybe I just had an epiphany, but I turned to Mr. Extra Pounds and blurted out, “You have to go! Tonight! ”

“What about the pie?” he asked. He sounded so pitiful.

I hesitated before replying. That pie was better than the sweetest kiss. “I’ll deal with that tomorrow,” I said with uncertainty. In the back of my mind, I was secretly toying with how I could keep it around.

The next morning, with my mind set like a flint, I walked courageously into the kitchen and threw that six-dollar cobbler in the trash.

I had a plan. “When he tries to tempt me, I just won’t be home,” I said to myself. I decided to take long walks.

So every day, I set out, taking 45- to 60-minute walks, determined to keep Mr. Extra Pounds at bay.

Mr. Extra Pounds was very quiet. He understood, I guess. He and I had been together for a very long time. We had broken up before several times but he would eventually find a way to woo me back.

Some nights I would sit alone, wondering if I could keep him out of my life for good. He was frightened too. He knew that underneath all his delectables, I would eventually tap into the incredible will power I was born with.

We grappled with each other back and forth but soon I discovered I was winning. Mr. Extra Pounds was growing weary. He loved to hold me tightly around my waist, sometimes so tight, it affected my breathing.

Why did I allow this so long? I wondered once as I climbed a steep hill in the sweltering heat. The only answer I could come up with was, I had suffered in so many different aspects of my life, I didn’t want  to give up another thing that brought me a measure of comfort. During this time, I hardly had any friends and wasn’t able to shop or travel like I wanted so food became my constant companion.

Initially, during my daily walks, coming uphill felt like I was carrying a cinder block on my shoulders. Still, I was determined not to quit. Even when there were days I would occasionally see my distorted image in a building window and catch Mr. Extra Pounds mocking me.

Others were starting to notice, particularly strangers. It was nice to pass the neighborhood bus driver , who would now wave, smiling with his eyes. Or the young guys, who were now starting to take a second glance, playfully flirting, asking if they could join me on my walk.

Some would stop and chat briefly, often times asking the same question. They wanted to know what was my motivator. What was the one thing that caused me to end it with Mr. Pounds? I could never give them a clear answer; all I knew was that it was time for our relationship to be laid to rest.

Hebrews 12:1 says, Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which doth so easily beset us and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,

The writer of the book of Hebrews addressed his epistle to a group of people who depended on things other than faith in Christ alone. Because they relied on religious rituals, they were becoming weak in faith and their spiritual growth was stunted.

Have you ever read something in the Word of God and were puzzled by how the saints of old could miss a fundamental principle?

Christ is clearly the better way, I’d think, giggling at their lack of understanding.

Before long, I’d come to realize that I was behaving like them. I was relying on other comforts, like my relationship with Mr. Extra Pounds, instead of relying on the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

In Hebrews 12:1, the word weight is an interesting one. The Greek word is ogkon, which means a bulk or mass, an encumbrance, a heavy burden that has a hook so that other hindrances can be attached. Ogkon also means a swelling tumor or pride. You get the picture of a person carrying something around in addition to or in place of that which he or she should be dependent on.

As I struggled to rid myself of the mass Mr. Extra Pounds bestowed; I’d soon discover the hooks holding other weights, caging me.

Stay tuned for Weight Watcher, Part 2.

What are some of the weights in your life that impede you while running the Christian race?

Tamara D. Brown © Copyright  August 2011

Lessons In Losing, Part 1

I used to hate losing. Whether it be an important document, my keys or my train of thought, losing would generally send me into a state of  extreme frustration. Whenever I would lose something, my family or friends would make comments like, ” That’s not like you; you don’t lose anything.”

At first I would marvel when they’d say it. Is it that noticeable? I’d wonder. Now, it’s not like I was some sort of neat freak, because I wasn’t. But even when things were cluttered, I’d still knew where everything was.

I was proud of this fact.  I started saying, ” ‘Cause you know, I don’t lose anything,” whenever I’d find an item I thought I’d lost. Before long, the Holy Spirit showed me that the things that I boasted of never losing were never lost to begin with. They were only misplaced.

If I came into the house with the keys, they had to still be in the house.

Over time, the Lord had to take me through  seasons of losing ; time periods that were so convoluted that I wondered if the mental anguish would deplete me.

At the time, I couldn’t see the need for such experiences. I came to realize, it was more about what He needed. God needs a people in this day and time who understand what it means to truly lose.

With natural disasters and heinous crimes coming at rapid speed, He needs those who will reach out, with compassion, helping mankind to recover from loss.

I’d like to share with you some of the lessons He taught me about losing.

THE LOST SHEEP

Luke 15:4-6 says:

What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

And when he hath found it, he layeth  it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbors, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.

During biblical times, shepherds had personal relationships with their sheep.  They knew their temperament and would assign them certain names. For example, if one had a speckled ear, he might be named after that feature.

He could have replaced the sheep when one went astray but he didn’t due to how attached he’d become to him. Because he cared for the animal every day, he felt the loss. He valued him.

The bible doesn’t tell us the method a shepherd would use to recover lost sheep so I’ll use my imagination (smile).

Perhaps in his recovery efforts, the shepherd may have spent some time thinking about where he would go if he was one of them. Watching him graze and frolic everyday, he would know that that particular sheep liked to play close to the edge of an embankment near the swamp.

I can envision him, braving the elements or an inky darkness, running the risk of being attacked by some wild animal, all in an attempt to reclaim his possession. Once he got close to where he thought he’d be, he would call out to him, “SPECKLED EAR! SPECKLED EAR!” knowing that if he were anywhere in the vicinity, he would respond to his name.

Speckled Ear would recognize the shepherd’s voice; knowing this was someone whose bosom he had laid in as he had his fleece combed and his wounds mended.

Just imagine how frightened he must’ve have been; alone in the slough that would soon engulf him. He could probably hear the growl of the wolves, waiting at the top of the embankment for him to rise so they could devour him.

Think of how confident, Speckled Ear felt, hearing the voice of his loved one, remembering that his shepherd had rescued him from danger before.

Tuning his ear, the shepherd could  hear him faintly respond “BAAAH, BAAAH.”  He could tell by his cry, Speckled Ear was in trouble.

Lifting his torch high in the air, he spotted Speckled Ear, struggling in the swamp. He pulled out his rod, beating away the ferocious beast as he prepared to deliver his precious one.

Without hesitation, he would use his staff to somehow pull Speckled Ear from the slimy quagmire. Once he had his little one in his grasp, he’d place him in the safest place: high upon his shoulders. It didn’t matter to the shepherd that he was also covered in the slime from the mucid pit, all that mattered was that he had found his prized possession that was lost.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more spiritual shepherds today, had that same passion?  Sheep (people) can be missing for weeks at a time, before anyone even notices. In our day, you rarely see leaders go after the one, not even with a phone call.

I am reminded of a story my former hairdresser told me about her brother.  Her brother is a pastor who came to the United States from Sierra Leone.  His denomination assigned him a congregation in the Baltimore area.  Once here , he discovered that the church  had, at one time, a couple hundred members but the congregation had now dwindled down to a tenth of that.

I’m not sure how far back he went or how long it took, but he comprised a list of the membership and visited each home, compelling them to come back. This was highly effective! Not only did most come back, they brought others with them. The church had to start additional ministries to accommodate the growing congregation.

That’s the heart of a true shepherd!

Let’s review the parable again.

V. 4 says the shepherd went after the sheep until he found him.  He didn’t give up. Sometimes you won’t be able to recover all that have gone astray. The bible says a brother offended is hard to be won, still God will bless your efforts and will give you the fruit of your labor.

His stubborn love working through us will compel them to return to the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.

.

V5 says he layeth the sheep upon his shoulders, rejoicing.  Shoulders  represent responsibility.  The shepherd took personal responsibility for why the sheep went astray. He didn’t punish or scold them or keep them locked up for fear that they would leave again, instead he rejoiced.  The Greek word for rejoice is Chairo; it means a joy that is the direct result of God’s grace.

The joy that was in him as a result of finding the sheep caused him to be gracious towards the precious one.

I believe he cleaned him up and gave him fresh food and water. He probably poured oil on his head to soften his fleece and to destroy the bugs that pestered him.

I have heard pastors talk about how hurt they were when someone or a family left their church. They would sometimes allow that hurt to become an offense, causing them to act differently towards the sheep. God forbid!

I believe the majority of those who leave or stray going back into the world could be recovered if they knew how much they are loved and valued.

Leaders, if you are gracious towards God’s precious ones, He will be gracious towards you!

The favor and influence you desire to see over your life and ministry will begin to over take you, if you focus on recovering souls and not substance.

Min. Tamara~

QUESTIONS OF THE WEEK:

What are some of the things, you think the local church could do to recover the lost?

What methods have you personally used to restore broken relationships?

Please share with us!