It was no place like home, but it was a place for families. They sat on metal benches in the processing room, waiting for their loved ones, hoping the next face would be the one they’d longed to see. As if to extend the suspense, the guards released inmates one by one through a gate in a chain-link cage. My niece BeeBee strutted out in a yellow t-shirt and chinos, and I stood up to hug her.
Like every woman I’ve ever known who’s done time, BeeBee had put on weight. This is usually a good thing; most women who get sentenced to prison have worked their bodies to the bone for drugs. When our hug ended, she stepped back and bounced on the balls of her feet like an athlete. Her thighs were thick with muscle and her arms were round, but her waist was still trim. When she lived on the outside, she’d made a living selling drugs and dancing in strip clubs; in prison, she made her way by winning dance challenges, and by winning fights.
We walked outside to the visiting area in the prison yard. Concrete tables squatted under a roof for shelter from the rain or the hot sun, but we didn’t need protection that day. The sky was clear, and the air was warming, but I already felt locked in and ready to leave.
Across the yard, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a massive concrete block building was going up, a construction project that wasn’t visible from the road. BeeBee told me it would be an addition to this women’s prison, and it looked as if it would be ten times as big as the current facility. The grapefruit I had for breakfast congealed in my gut, rose up, and burned my throat, as if I already knew that once construction was completed on this monster, it would rank as the largest women’s prison in the entire country.
Then she started talking about the times when I used to rent a beach house on Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia, and our whole family stayed together for a week. In those years, my nieces and nephews—eleven of them—were all children, running wild on the sand, rampaging through the ice cream parlor, and tearing up the rental house. I’d sometimes get the middle-class heebie-jeebies when they were too loud in a restaurant, or too daredevil on a playground, but mostly I sat back and admired their untamed joy.
BeeBee was the rowdiest one, even in that wild gang. She only stopped running from one thing to another when she dropped like a stone into the well of sleep, or once, when she came down with a twenty-four-hour flu. She lay in my bed sweating, with a trash can by her side to collect vomit. I sat with her during the day, wiping her forehead with a cool washrag, administering the baby Tylenol. “I wish you were my mom,” she said through her fever.
I’ve never reminded her of that. She’s loyal to her mother, even though she lived in foster care for part of her life because of her mother’s addictions, even though she ran away at eleven years old and lived in an abandoned trailer in the Ocala National Forest for a month, with no electricity or running water, in part because of her mother’s addictions.
Like the other children who were very young when I first met my family, BeeBee doesn’t remember a time when she didn’t have an Aunt Michele, a time when the family didn’t include me, the long-lost sister who lived up North. I was thirty-four when I reunited with my family, and for thirteen years, I drove south a couple of times a year to be with my family, leaving my home in New England where I practiced law, and later taught college.
My Southern family brimmed with affection and children and faith and sorrow. I worried about BeeBee from the day we met, when she and her cousin Alan Michael, both of them three years old, managed to start my brother Mike’s car, which rolled down the hill of my sister Belinda’s driveway, and t-boned the across-the street-neighbor’s cement block wall. They were both what we called “hyper” back then, as in hyperactive. I worried about her next when her parents both got on crack cocaine at the same time, and when, at five years old, she ended up back with her dad, my brother James. He’d stopped using drugs and, in what I’d later see as a pattern, had moved out to the country to get away from Savannah’s temptations. He painted houses, attended church, parented his three daughters, and made a home for them in a small wood-frame house balanced over brick pilings on a rural road.
I called that place the Deer House. More than once, a truck barrel-assing down the road left a dead deer in its wake, a deer that James would butcher and freeze, and later turn into venison ham or chili or burgers. A neighbor woman gave them homegrown vegetables from her freezer, and the ladies from the Pentecostal church they attended on Sundays showered the girls with lacy dresses their own daughters had worn.
So James had some luck and some help, but not the kind of help he craved: a grown woman or man to share his life and his bed, to partner with him to keep the home going. He’d been with a couple of women during that time, but one thing all my brothers were very good at was hooking up with women even crazier and more addicted than they were. Those Deer House relationships were brief, and after each one, James would swear he was sticking with men from then on, or just foregoing romance all together. His daughters adored him, and he could get by with their love, he’d say. But they were still very young then, and they needed more love than they could give.
At the Deer House, BeeBee got thrown off the kindergarten school bus once, twice, three times, and with the third strike, she was out. James added the effort of getting her to school every morning to his struggles to get to his job as a house painter, to provide for his daughters as a single parent, and to stay away from the crack that stretched its smoky fingers toward him.
Having lived in the industrial Northeast for most of my life, rural landscapes looked idyllic to me, and whenever James or one of my other brothers moved out to the countryside west or north of Savannah, I shared their awe of the night stars, the tall longleaf pines, the silence, the clean air. It was only later that I began to equate the rural life with low wages, poverty, and a general shortage of jobs and resources, with the sort of hopelessness that leads people like my people into dead-end despair and back to drugs.
One winter evening during a trip down South, I pulled into the Deer House yard and parked next to the fire pit James had dug out in the front yard. The pit was lined with charcoal and ash from previous fires and a big metal pot tipped upside down beside it. James came out into the yard and hugged me, the kind of long, full-body hug my whole family favors, then hopped up the stairs and held the screen door wide for me to come in. He was proud of how he’d fixed up the place. Inside, the house was spare and orderly. A couch and an armchair sat kitty-corner to one another in the living room to the left of the front door. A bare hallway led to the kitchen. Four chairs pushed in tightly to their table. His oldest daughter, Theresa, who was nine, was finishing the dishes, and she came at me flapping soapy hands. Christina, at seven years old, was dreaming in a corner. BeeBee was out in the yard. I watched her through the back door for a minute. She ran back and forth between the back step and a camellia bush in full white bloom, bringing petals to something she was messing with that turned out to be a busted-up doll. She never stopped, a bee buzzing from flower to flower to flower, collecting all the sweetness she could.
After a dinner of smoked venison and Silver Queen corn on the cob, we all sat in the living room, me and James on the couch and the girls on the floor. I told him how proud I was of him for being such a good father, for taking on so much responsibility.
It was the wrong thing to say, unless I’d meant to break him down. He grabbed my hand and held it. It was all too much, he said. He had to get to work every morning, and he had to get BeeBee to school before that, and sometimes she got hardheaded and refused to go. If she missed another day, the school would send the truant officer, and then Social Services would be up his ass again. He’d fallen behind on the bills last month and the power had been cut off. He’d washed the girls’ clothes in that pot out in the front yard, heating the water over the fire. And the crack was just waiting to snatch him back. It craved his soul. He’d seen a man turn into the actual Capital-D devil behind a crack pipe once.
He pulled himself closer to me across the slim divide of the couch. I held him and felt his body go limp. Soon, he was crying in my lap, like a child depleted of all fussing. The girls, who’d been watching and listening, crept forward and petted his long blond hair and poked out their lower lips.
“Daddy, don’t worry.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
“Don’t cry, Daddy!”
I could have moved in to that house, could have been the sister who cared for her brother and his children. I loved my nieces and nephews, but I’d been childfree too long. I wasn’t brave, or strong, or unselfish enough for full-time parenthood.
And I wasn’t prescient, but still I could see what was next: if I came back to that house, I’d be looking through the window of the locked front door, seeing children’s clothes spilling from a dark green trash bag on the floor, and beyond that some empty quart bottles, maybe a leather jacket hanging on a chair, the one I’d seen my brother spin around in, its fringe splaying out like a tattered skirt. Whatever they’d bought or begged or borrowed or stolen would be dropped here in astonishment when the Devil blew their back door open again.
I left the Deer House later that night in a flurry of hugs and kisses, promising that we’d do the beach house the next summer. I went back to my life up North. And the Devil did, in fact, come for my brother, and the girls spun off to foster care again, and, eventually, back to their mother when she settled herself down for good in the Ocala National Forest.
When BeeBee was a teenager, a job offer made it possible for me to move to Jacksonville, Florida and satisfy my longing to be closer to my family as well as my longing to leave the cold of New England. At the same time, I took over guardianship of my brother Rudy’s daughter Candi, who was thirteen, three years younger than BeeBee.
BeeBee had already spent time in psychiatric hospitals and juvenile lock ups. She’d tried to kill herself more than once and had gotten deep into drugs. Candi and I sometimes drove from Jacksonville down to the Forest to see BeeBee and her sisters, who were all staying in and around their mother’s place.
On one of those day trips, in the summer of 2004, my plan was to pick up the girls and their kids at their mother’s trailer in the Forest, and then take everyone swimming at Juniper Springs. By that time, Theresa had a son, Austin, who was four years old, and Christina had a baby, too, a little girl named Alyssa.
When I got to the trailer, we all sat around on the back porch for a while, listening to the swamp life that encroached on the back yard. BeeBee, who’d been out of a juvenile facility for a few months, looked as if she were losing her sturdy-girl body for the first time in her life. She’d cornrowed her hair so tightly that her facial skin was pulled back over her cheekbones, which stuck out almost as sharply as her notoriously stubborn chin. I figured she had to be either selling drugs, or working in some capacity in the sex industry to get the money for drugs, or both.
When we went inside to gather everyone’s belongings, the girls’ mother started ragging on BeeBee for her drug use. But then she turned saccharine for a minute and started praising BeeBee’s dancing. “Show your Aunt Michele that move,” she said.
BeeBee got into a low squat—what’s called Goddess pose in yoga—and started shaking her hips. The shaking was rhythmic and rapid, and at every seventh or eighth beat, she’d shift slightly to the right or left. It was the sort of move that demanded very strong glutes and quads, a move that even a skilled athlete could only keep up with for a short time. BeeBee was that skilled. Josephine encouraging her to show off this hypersexual move made me uncomfortable, though, and I was afraid of how BeeBee might be rewarded, or punished, for her skill.
On the way to Juniper Springs, BeeBee sat in the front seat with me as I drove, and she told me the drugs sometimes scared her. If she could only stick to weed, which worked better to calm her down than the psych drugs she’d been prescribed in the juvenile facility.
I’d represented kids in juvenile facilities in New England who were medicated. Like a lot of other people, I was sympathetic to the kids’ dislike of the meds they were given, often a Thorazine type of drug meant to slow them down, and to make it easier for staff to manage them. Unmedicated, kids like BeeBee could gather themselves into a swarm of honeybees full of energy, with the ability to sting.
I told her smoking weed wasn’t bad, but possibly dangerous. The same people who sold the weed often sold meth or crack or pills, which would put her in the way of too many crazy Forest people, and put her at risk for another arrest and incarceration.
“Maybe you don’t need any medication at all,” I said. “Maybe you’re just a unique and lovable person, and other people need to have patience with you.”
She shook her head. “No, Aunt Michele. There’s something wrong with me. I need something.”
She’d been told all her life that she was trouble, she was uncontrollable, she was crazy, and she was wrong. I wondered how all that telling had contributed to all her problems. What if she’d not been marked in kindergarten as a behavior problem? What if her home life had been more stable, and she’d been able to get a good night’s sleep?
Not long after that visit, she disappeared back into the underworld for a time, and she surfaced again in prison. And I disappeared, too, in my own way. I moved away from the South for seven years to follow my new husband’s career trajectory. Off and on, BeeBee and I wrote to each other or talked on the phone. She was released from prison. She was rearrested on a felony gun charge and went back to prison. Two years before I moved back to Florida, her sister, my niece Christina, died from injecting bad drugs she’d bought from a dealer in the Forest.
Six months after her sister’s death, in the spring of 2014, BeeBee was paroled to a Christian discipleship home in Ormond Beach. By the time I moved back to Florida in 2015, BeeBee had been at that home, Radical Restoration, for a year.
She started calling me from the discipleship home about once a week, and in those calls she spoke nonstop, but very slowly, reaching for the right words to explain who she was. “I love God like he’s a person,” she said. Sometimes she talked about prison life, or how she got there. “All I knew was dancing and stripping. I had the gun because I was cooking meth. I can’t tell you how many people, I held that gun to their head.”
She asked me to come visit her, but I wasn’t sure it was safe. I’m afraid of guns because they’ve been pointed at me and held to my head. So I put her off, but kept taking her calls.
She told me how she found a housekeeping job at a resort on Daytona Beach a few months after being released to Radical Restoration, how she rode her bike to work over the sand in the early mornings and saw the glory of the sunrise, how she’d walked right into a bank like a normal person and opened an account, and how she saved a certain amount of her paycheck every week in case she needed it in the future. She explained her budget to me. Every detail was new and important to her. She told me about Pastor Dawn, the ex-convict and recovering addict who’d founded Radical Restoration. I listened.
With each phone call, she spoke with less hesitation, with more confidence and clarity. Stories knitted together, and the one she told me most often was about how she came to what some people call a moment of clarity: “I was in ‘lock,’ for fighting. I was having my period. The guards wouldn’t give me any sanitary pads. All the blood. I kept remembering the day I was gang-raped. I lay down on the floor. I had come to the end, and nothing seemed worthwhile anymore. I was full of shame. I heard God say inside my head ‘I do love you. I do forgive you.’”
I decided it might be safe to go see her.
The bridge curves up over the Ocklawaha River like the shell of a giant box turtle. On the down side, it rolls me out into the Ocala National Forest and onto Route 40 for a straight shot to Ormond Beach, past the mile markers of family memories. Here’s the bar where BeeBee danced. Here’s the BBQ joint where her sister Theresa waitressed. Here’s the cinderblock house where her sister Christina gave up her baby to a childless couple. Here’s the Pac ‘n’ Sac convenient store, where I’d turn to meet the girls at their mother’s trailer, back down toward the swampland where the bull gators roar in spring. And here’s the entrance to Juniper Springs, where the girls and I dove into clear water.
I keep driving on Route 40 through the Forest toward Ormond Beach, trying to keep my expectations neutral about what BeeBee’s life is like now, living in a discipleship home. I don’t trust any religion, but there’s no doubt religion has sometimes been good for people in my family.
The capacity for faith that so many of my people have in abundance is not a part of me. Instead, I weigh the signs and the evidence, which includes previous fails. I can’t believe BeeBee is really off drugs until I see it with my own eyes. Sight unseen, I can’t believe this “Pastor Dawn” is legit.
I breathe into the risk of places where people are mired in active addictions. There’s just no telling what can happen in those places. But I’m hopeful, too: I’ve read about studies showing the neural circuits that fire up during drug-seeking also fire up during prayer. Belief in God, or a Higher Power, can substitute for getting high. Prayer is certainly safer and healthier than meth.
I pull into the driveway of the discipleship house. It’s a two-story building that sits behind a small bungalow, just one block from the beach. This close to the ocean, there’s no oak canopy, no shade, and the light bounces off the pale concrete and sand.
When I shift the car into park and turn the ignition off, BeeBee is coming out of a door. I jump out and wrap my arms around her. In the embrace, I can’t tell if she is really off drugs, but I can tell all the things I absolutely need to know. She’s alive. She’s healthy. She can still love.
She’s anxious to show me her home, and she pulls me by the hand to follow her inside. The door opens onto a hallway with a poster assuring me “You are beautiful!” I like the affirmation. A tiny Yorkshire terrier yips happily from the stairs. “Angel,” BeeBee says, “this is Aunt Michele.” The dog is adorable, groomed, and ribboned. Someone has put the needs of this little animal above any need to get high. An excellent sign.
I watch BeeBee bounce up the stairs ahead of me. Her body looks strong and sturdy, and that’s another sign that gives me hope. At the top of the stairs, a combined kitchen, living, dining area space opens up. On the walls are other positive posters telling me what a good person I am, and how much Jesus loves me. Other than the posters, the décor is minimalist and immaculate, remarkable because six women live in this small house, plus Pastor Dawn.
I ask to use the bathroom, which is also clean and minimally decorated except for another plaque telling me I’m beautiful.
So far, it’s all looking good. I ask for something to drink, and then follow BeeBee to the refrigerator. The crisper drawers are jammed with leafy greens and broccoli, the doors are jammed with low-fat milk and 100% juice, the shelves have plastic-wrapped bowls of leftovers, and there’s a case of yogurt.
Back in the living room, we sit together on the couch and I pull out the old photos BeeBee asked me to bring. She goes through them, one by one, talking nonstop in her new voice, which is slow and careful and devoid of vulgarity. I put my arm around her shoulder and squeeze her to me. She grins.
I’ve made a collage of some photos: her dad when he was in his early thirties, with long, wavy blond hair, her and her sisters and some cousins standing under a live oak, and one of just BeeBee straddling a sand gator we’d sculpted on the beach at Tybee Island.
“Do you remember that day?” I ask.
BeeBee knits her eyebrows together and her gaze turns inward. “There’s a lot I don’t remember.”
“You would have been very young then,” I say. “Maybe six years old. No one remembers much from when they were very little.” But she’s sure that drinking and drugging wiped some of her memories away.
“When I came here,” she says, “there was so much I had to learn. I didn’t even know how to order food at a restaurant. The prison said I was almost illiterate.”
“That’s not true, honey. You wrote me lots of letters. You’re a very good writer.”
“But I didn’t really know how to read. Now I read the Bible every day.”
“That’s good, honey. The more you read, the better you get at it.”
Someone is walking up the stairs. Angel, the tiny dog, wags her tail frantically. A blond woman with a deep tan, a big smile, and incredibly white teeth appears. Later, I will learn that her smile is the product of great dental work; a rapist knocked out her teeth when she was living on the streets.
BeeBee jumps up. “Pastor Dawn! This is my Aunt Michele!”
I get up and shake the woman’s hand. She, too, is sturdily built, as if she works out regularly.
By this time, I’m in a daze of amazement. The evidence overwhelms me: BeeBee is sober, healthy, calm, and happy. This house, where she’s lived for a year, is a clean, peaceful, well-provisioned home full of positive messages. I see it must all be true—her sobriety, her job, her bank account, and her completely new life. It’s all a fucking miracle.
“It’s a miracle,” I say out loud, censoring my potty mouth.
Pastor Dawn has taken a seat across from us in a comfy chair. BeeBee turns her head toward me, smiling.
The air in the room turns white, like a fog, and BeeBee transforms into her sister Christina. It’s not that she reminds me of Christina, or that I see Christina’s features in her face. She becomes Christina, back from the dead.
“Holy shit!” I yell, “When did you turn into Christina?” As the words leave my lips, her face turns back to her own. I start to cry. If I hadn’t said anything, maybe Christina would have stayed.
“I know, I know,” BeeBee says. She’s holding both of my hands in hers. “It’s okay, Aunt Michele. I look like her now.”
“Maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see,” I say. “I need a Kleenex.” The tears won’t stop running for Christina, for her death at only twenty-seven, just a few months after she’d given birth to her third daughter, the one she meant to keep, for her sad eyes, for how she’d press her face against mine when we hugged, for the way she said “Ant Michele.”
After I stop crying, BeeBee picks up a photo from the beach house days, an especially adorable one of her cousin, my niece Candi, when Candi was three or four. “Let’s go see Candi in Savannah,” she says. “I miss her, but I’m afraid to go to her house.”
I’m afraid, too. “Let’s ask her to meet us halfway,” I say.
Thanksgiving weekend that year, I pick BeeBee up in Ormond Beach for the drive up to Savannah. We won’t be meeting up with Candi though, because she’s gone to rehab. She brought her children with her to the homeless camp where James and Theresa were staying, a place of desperation and chaos, and her six-year-old son, standing on the margins of a drunken brawl, was injured. The State of Georgia gave Candi a choice—go to rehab or lose your kids.
It’s the third time BeeBee and I are getting together since I moved back to Florida. I’m hoping she doesn’t talk about Jesus nonstop for the whole three-hour drive, and that doesn’t happen. Instead, it’s family gossip and her dreams for the future—teaching at a missionary school in Africa, where she imagines herself helping women and children.
I suggest learning about the history of missionary outposts here in America and elsewhere so she’ll be aware of the abuses. Then she won’t be confused if people she meets in Africa mistrust her. She’s surprised. Missionaries did bad things? I tell her about one example—a recent settlement by the Catholic church for sexual abuse committed by priests in Indian schools, and then I explain the term “cultural extinction.”
BeeBee listens intently. For balance, I also tell her about Alice Seeley Harris, a British missionary in the Belgian Congo in the 19th century who photographed dozens, maybe hundreds, of children and adults who’d had their hands cut off by rubber plantation overseers. Harris’s photographs were a powerful force in raising an international outcry over the brutality of Belgian colonists and the suffering of the Congolese people. She made a difference, and that’s BeeBee’s dream, to make a difference.
Then we go back to family gossip, and Jesus pops in every so often. Then she notices the rainbow forming over I-95.
At first it’s not much more than a sun dog, but then the arc begins to take shape. She snaps dozens of photos of it with my phone. It fades out, then fades back in, and finally the colors deepen as the arc completes itself.
“We’re going to have a good visit,” I say. The rainbow is a hopeful sign in my pagan philosophy as well as in BeeBee’s Christianity, and it reassures both of us a bit. Theresa is only a few months sober, and her baby son, Samuel, is someone we’ve not met yet. Neither of us voices the fear that he will be somehow damaged because Theresa used drugs during her pregnancy.
When we get to the house where Theresa is staying, a stout red-haired woman is holding Samuel. I avoid looking the baby in the face for a minute, but then I start to study him in the other woman’s arms. She coos over him and tells me how good he is. “Do you want to hold him?” she finally asks, and I take his squirmy little self. He’s ten weeks old, alert, holding his own head up, focusing, smiling, gurgling. He’s used to being held and touched. Later, he gets fussy and cries, and is soothed by Theresa, a pacifier, a bottle. He’s healthy. For now, he’s safe.
Theresa comes out of the bathroom and fusses over him for a few minutes. She’s worried that he spits up too much. She’s thirty-one. Samuel is her third son. Austin, who she gave up for adoption when he was six, died at fourteen. Theresa had his name tattooed on her neck. Her second child was stillborn. Samuel is not just a second chance for her at mothering. He’s a third chance, perhaps a last chance.
As the sun sets, we pile in the van and drive to the Eastside, where BeeBee and Theresa’s daddy, my brother James, is camped out in an abandoned bungalow around the corner from my sister Belinda’s house. The house is surrounded by a chain link fence. Two quiet pit bulls pace around the yard. They are thin, and their eyes glint with passive hunger, the kind that waits for scraps to be dropped.
“This house has good bones,” James says once we all get up on the porch. He’s carrying a Coleman lantern because there’s no power. “And look at this floor—oyster shell! It’s dirty now, but when it’s clean, it sparkles like stars.”
He’s come into this neighborhood from the homeless camp near the railroad and he’s taken an abandoned building with no water or power and made it borderline habitable, a step above the tents and tarps of the camp. A place where people can stay dry this November, and maybe warm, where they can close their eyes. And the people have come.
A woman with hair a foot high is sitting on the porch, perfectly still. I notice her because the streetlight bounces off the black shine of her wig. James introduces me; they went to high school together. I offer my hand and she takes it in hers. Our hands, both small, match up perfectly. She nods, slightly, and her tall wig shifts a bit.
“She’s a good woman,” James says. “She only takes those Oxies when she really needs to.” I don’t see the very still man sitting across from her until James introduces him. Hanging off a chair, another, smaller wig.
Inside, another Coleman lantern sits near a doorway. James picks it up and waves it over the floor. “Hardwood,” he says, “under this damn vinyl.” He guides us to his room with the lantern. A high bed, a quilt he says he salvaged from a closet. “Most of the stuff in here was covered in mildew because the power had been off for so long, but this quilt survived. It’s real old.”
All is neatly arranged. On the wall, an embroidered sampler of a poem. “Theresa gave that to me,” he says.
“Yeah, I got it out of a lady’s yard sale,” she says.
“What does it say?” BeeBee asks. “I can’t see it.”
We crowd around, but there isn’t enough light for all of us to read it. They ask me to recite. It’s one thing I can do well. The poem is about how God took qualities from nature to make a masterpiece: a dad.
I rent two rooms in a hotel near the airport, one for me and my middle-aged introversion, and, across the hallway, one for BeeBee, Theresa, James, and baby Samuel. They can use some time to themselves as an immediate family, I tell myself—infant, mother, sister-aunt, father-grandfather.
But first, we hunker down in their room for communal baby time. Samuel is an easy baby, happy to be passed between me and James, happy to be fed, happy to be slung over a shoulder and burped, happy to have his little back rubbed. But happiest of all when his momma emerges from her primp session at the motel room’s sink and coos his name. Then, his face fills with joy and longing. She scoops him up in her arms, and her t-shirt rides up with him, revealing the tattoos on her belly, which is flat and smooth, even though she gave birth ten weeks ago. I’ve seen the tattoos before, but don’t remember when she got them. “What kind of paw prints are those?” I ask.
“A new kind of animal,” she says, and laughs. “I was after lion’s claws, but the dude didn’t know how to do them.” I tell her they look like the prints of a baby bear to me: round, long-clawed. Bears are fierce mothers. The claws circle below her navel, as if they protect her womb.
BeeBee has her own share of tattoos—Austin’s name tattooed on one shoulder, her niece Alyssa’s on the other, and “Honeybee” in script on the back of her neck. We drive around the next day looking for a baby swing that BeeBee has promised to buy for Theresa. “Maybe I should just give her the money for it?” she asks me when we’re alone for a minute. Then she answers her own question: “That’s probably not a good idea.” Even a little bit of money can tip the sobriety seesaw in the wrong direction.
When we leave the hotel the next morning, I hold Samuel one more time and kiss his chubby little neck while BeeBee strokes his head. “Let’s take him back to Florida with us,” I joke, forgetting that for Theresa and me this is not a joke. I once refused to bring her son Austin back to her. She snaps her long arms out to grab for Samuel, and I hand him back quickly, meeting her halfway.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “That wasn’t funny. I’m so sorry. You’re doing a great job with him, Theresa. You’re such a good mother.”
BeeBee’s dream of going to Africa comes true the following spring. She’ll set off to work in a missionary school in Mozambique at the end of May. I drive out to Ormond Beach to spend one more afternoon with her before she departs. She hopes to prove herself useful on this trip, and then continue to work with Iris Global, a Christian humanitarian organization.
We walk down to the beach and spread blankets on the sand, anchoring them against the blustering wind with our shoes. We talk about how she’s uniquely suited for working with people in poverty. In her childhood, her family sometimes stayed in tents in the woods, or in a house with no electricity, or they didn’t have enough to eat.
“When we did the beach houses in the summer with you,” she says, “I’d look around and see other families and other kids, and they were just different. They all had houses to go home to, and their parents had jobs and cars, and I could never have that life because that wasn’t the kind of family I came from. My family was always poor, always moving, always back and forth between crazy and getting clean. I thought that’s all I could ever be, too.”
The wind picks up, and dried-out sand crystals sting our faces.
“Did I ever tell you, Aunt Michele, about being in that room in Savannah? In that place that was being turned into condos? I was only fifteen.”
I’ve heard the story, but I just nod because I can see the story means something new.
“I was so high. I’d done so many drugs. One man after another came into the room and raped me, and when I finally got out of that room, I stood in the street and just bled, the blood running down my legs.”
I nod again.
“I was only fifteen. I could barely stand. I stood in the middle of the street and I just knew no one would help me.”
I hug her, and then sit back.
“All the men were black men, and for a long time I hated them, I hated all black people, even women.”
In Mozambique, where she’s going, she tells me there will be many black men at the mission. She prays daily for the hatred to be removed, and it is being removed, little by little. She’s excited that the Iris Global staff will teach her how to respect other peoples’ cultures.
“Did you know Daddy had promised to be a missionary and go work with poor people? And Aunt Belinda, too?”
“Yes,” I say. “But they were just kids when they said that.”
“When I step foot onto the African land, it’s going to help our whole family. It’s going to lift the curse we’ve been under. I’ll be keeping the promise they made.”
This sounds a bit crazy to me, the kind of self-righteous crazy that can come with religious zeal. But who am I to judge? And haven’t I reached back toward some magic that would make things right, or suspected I being led on a path? Those inklings of something greater than me, though, have never been more than vague impressions. Like BeeBee, I’ve survived the violence of men. I’ve been left in a room with nothing but my own blood to assure me I was still alive. Unlike her, I’ve never heard the voice of a personal God. BeeBee hears that voice, and it shelters her like one of those homes she imagined other kids going to when they left the beach, but her home travels with her. She invites me in every so often, but it’s a place I’ll never see.
Her next mission will be in the Philippines, where she’ll live again in poverty, beside a massive dump where children scavenge to survive. She’ll carry her home with her there, too, and I’m grateful. It keeps her safe, that home she calls Jesus.
Rumpus original art by Megan Goh.