Friday, May 08, 2009

Welcome Home by Jaye Lewis

Hello friends,

This is a true story from my childhood. It's not a perfect story, but it does have some beauty. It's a story of my mother, a woman who did the best she could with the life that she was given.

So, Mom, if you're listening, please believe me now. I love you. I always have. I'm glad that you are home.

Welcome Home by Jaye Lewis

It was not long after we moved from Florida to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1958, that my Dad was caught embezzling from his company. The story goes, that he had taken the money to move his family up to Louisville, and he was paying it back, little by little. When the company auditors arrived, my Dad, being the “honest” person he was, refused to doctor the books to save himself, and he just waited to “take a licking,” which meant the loss of his job and the impoverishment of his family. Supposedly, the authorities were so impressed with his honesty, that they decided to just “let him go,” without criminal charges.

At the age of eleven I found this very confusing. He was without a job, because he did something wrong, and he was too proud to go on welfare, so we went hungry. We ate until the food ran out. My Dad was able to find a job at a diner, but we had two weeks to wait before he would see a paycheck.

The food supplies were rationed for over a week. Each meal became smaller and smaller. We lost weight, especially my mother, and I can’t help but wonder just how much she sacrificed for me. I’ll never forget that last meal. Hard biscuits. Chicken gizzards and livers. I hated that stuff! And rice. Oh yes, there was that lovely dessert of canned pie cherries and chocolate syrup made with cocoa, water, and a small amount of spilled sugar that was brushed from a shelf. It was just awful! I refused to eat anything but the rice. My brother was glad to eat my gizzards and livers, but I had such a small amount of rice, that my plate was nearly empty.

My mother looked at my plate, and she quickly scooped up all her rice and put it onto my plate. Then she picked out all her chicken livers and gizzards and distributed them around the table to my father and brother. I was so aware of her pain, that I wish now that I could go back and tell her just how heroic I thought she was.

“I’m so stuffed!” she lied. “I picked while I was fixing supper, and now I’m just not hungry. You go ahead and eat this. I don’t want it.” It was our last meal for two days. We had already pulled in our belts, and now there was nothing left to pull in.

The next day, my Dad went to work. He ate at the diner, so that there would be one less mouth to feed, but there was still no food in our house. That was a hard day. I would have done anything for a sandwich. I didn’t understand, at the time, where the food went. I remember a terrible empty feeling and a stomach that ached to be filled. The ache turned into a gnawing pain, and my mother became terribly anxious. She begged my father to let her go to the church, so she could ask for money. But my father was proud. He wouldn’t accept charity, and I never understood.

Finally, after two days without food, my Dad agreed to ask his new boss for an advance on his pay. He came home with a five dollar bill. That would feed us inadequately for a week if we were careful. I believed that if I went with my mother and brother to buy the food, I could control the outcome. I begged and pleaded, but to no avail. So, when I was ignored, I flew into a rage. Perhaps it was the hunger speaking. Perhaps I thought I could control how the money was spent. My Dad drank, and everyone in my family smoked, except for me. In my childish ignorance about addiction, I resented every beer and cigarette that ever came into our house, and I guess I hated them a little for needing such things.

My Mom and brother returned with bologna, bread, milk, a jar of instant coffee, and a pack of cigarettes. I knew it! I just knew that they would buy cigarettes! I was so angry about that pack of cigarettes. In spite of warnings to eat slowly, I wolfed down a sandwich and a glass of milk. When that food hit my empty stomach, it recoiled. Instant agonizing pain! I screamed! I grabbed my stomach, and rolled on the floor, half blind with pain. I just kept screaming. I’ll never forget the terror in my mother’s eyes. Finally, I threw up all over the floor! There was relief as my stomach emptied, but I was in bed for days.

Somehow, miraculously, my mother got extra food. I was put on a diet consisting of soft boiled eggs and dry toast. I never knew if she went to the church or if angels showed up at our door. Knowing my mother, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised about either possibility. It took me over a week to recover.

One day, while I was still recovering, there was a knock at the front door. My mother hurried down the inside stairs and opened the door. My bedroom door was just above the landing.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a man said, in a quavering voice. “Do you have some food you can spare for me? I’ve been walking and walking, and no one can spare even a piece of bread.” There was a long pause. Curious, I tiptoed out of bed and peeked down the stairs. My mother’s face looked pale, and she was so thin.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “We don’t have any food to spare.” She pointed her finger, in the direction of town. “Try the restaurant, down the block. Surely, they will have enough to spare.”

The man shook his head, sadly, and turned away. I watched as my mother slowly shut the door. She stood there awhile, with her face pressed against the glass. Her shoulders began to shake. I thought she was laughing, but when she turned to come up the stairs, I saw her tears. I tiptoed back to bed, and I never breathed a word about it. I can still hear the sound of my mother’s sobbing, as she sat on the stairs.

“I’ve missed Jesus!” she sobbed. “I’ve missed my Lord. He came to my door begging, and I’ve turned him away!”

She sat there for a long time, my mother in her grief. I had never doubted her love for Jesus. I knew that whatever she did for the “least of these,” she did for Him, and now she had to turn the “least of these” away. I’d seen her in terrible circumstances. I’d seen her reach into empty pockets and give away all she had. I’d seen her angry. I’d seen her on her knees. But I had never seen her cry, until that day.

Something left my mother that day. I believe that it was hope. Little by little I watched her slip away from me through the years. She still loved Jesus, and she clung to Him, like a drowning woman. She could still be a force to reckon with, but she quit the fight too soon. I didn’t understand then, but I do now. When God’s grace began its pull upon my life, I remembered, and I decided to allow Him to change my course.

Years later, after I got tired of being battered in my own marriage, I made the choice to change my course, at first for my children, and then for me. Each time that I felt as though life would overcome me, I remembered my mother’s defeat, and I refused to give in. The best part of my journey is that God never gave up on me. He drew me to Him, and He convinced me that, as I trusted in Him, He would transform me. Somewhere inside of me, He found courage, and through His grace, I began to change.

By the grace of God, after two failed marriages, God stepped in, and He brought Louie and me together. It’s been a wonderful marriage. We’ve shared joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, but nothing could shake the love we have for each other. I’m amazed that God loves me so much that He would care enough to bring us together. But then, that is God ― He is a God of tender mercies.

I do not blame my mother for the defeat that she suffered on this earth. She was from another time, when women had few options. Knowing what I know of her life, I realize that she didn’t know she ever had any. My mother died in October of 1982. She would be the first to tell you that she never accomplished much. I disagree, because I would not be here without her, and I would not choose to miss my memories of her. There were no accolades. She was buried in a plain pine box. A woman of simple tastes, she would have wanted it that way. She made mistakes. She was not perfect, but she clung to her faith.

I have no doubt that my mother was joyful to be able to cast off the things of this world. She must have run into the arms of her Savior. I can almost hear His words as He greeted her. “You’re safe now, Margaret. Welcome home.” © Jaye Lewis, 2004

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