Sunday, December 12, 2010

SAVED (Chapter 1) Mama Finds Religion

Copyright © 2010
All rights reserved to Miamac

Even before the pianist broke into a holy mix people had begun screaming, jumping, and running up and down the aisles of the somewhat crowded sanctuary, forcing my young eyes and ears to compete. I’d only seen something like this on T.V., in some movie called the Cotton Club that showed black people jumping around wildly like their feet were on fire. Mama had explained they were doing a dance called the jitterbug. Amid heavy baseline grooves men would toss their female partners high in the air, then swing them between their legs, bounce into a quick split and get right back up dancing, never missing a beat. As a kid watching it had been explosive, but that was T.V. and this was real, up close and personal.

Our new church, Mt. Caramel Baptist, had become the place to be on Sundays. It had a young and hip vibe like its minister, Reverend William Thomas Valentine, who I swear on the Bible looked like he could be Smokey Robinson’s twin, green eyes and all. Many believed it was his good looks and boyish charm that had attracted so many. A few others thought it was the A-list of secular and gospel stars that frequented the services, or the show stopping performances of the choir or even the guaranteed, melodramatic sideshows the gays put on. Shamefully nobody once mentioned the word of God.

My cousin, Bryan, and brother, Junior, were crouched underneath the pew across from me drowning in laughter, only coming up for air when they needed a recharge. The feather tickling their fancy was an emotionally spent gay man, who hopping down the aisle was playing a makeshift guitar. His tensed facial expression resembled that of Jimi Hendrix’s when he gave his memorable performance at Woodstock. Using his left arm as the guitar’s neck and his belly as the body and strings, the man fanned his hand in sync with the hypnotic beats coming from the organ, shouting out an occasional hallelujah every now and then.

Wendall, the church pianist and musical director, always knew just the right chords to hit to ignite the congregation’s spirits. But it wasn’t his pianistic artistry alone that had gotten them all riled up.  Reverend Valentine also had played his part in the ongoing praise frenzy. Unlike the traditional preachers of his time, he liked to move about the floor, giving them more spins and turns than James Brown. He also could belt out his sermon with the best of them and on cue his sidekick, Wendall, would hit just the right mix of keys to help bring his message to a climatic finish. Together the two of them would create a roller coaster ride that gained momentum on each turn and just when you thought the car was going to take off flying, Wendall would slow the melody, releasing the hold on its riders and easing them back down to earth. This was usually about the time the good ole Reverend would open up the church doors to draw new members close to thee.

A lady sitting next to me looked like she was about to blow. Her hands were outstretched and her face practically in her lap while she progressively screamed over and over, "Thank you, Jesus."  A telltale sign of a person getting ready to lose it. I wanted to get away but there was no where to go. From where I was sitting it looked like just about everybody was getting in on the action. I was glad Mama was up in the choir stand. The last time she got ‘happy’ sitting next to me she almost squashed me to death.

Everybody was saying that she’d gained a lot of weight since coming to St. Louis. She’d moved here to be near her sisters after making the brave decision to leave my daddy, whose cheating and gambling ways had gotten the best of her. One late night while he was out doing God knows what, she packed up her bags and dragged seven of her eight children to the train station. For a while everything seemed fine, that is, until she got saved…..then all HELL broke loose.

I was too young to have gotten attached to the old her, the woman mama was before the change, before she’d gotten saved. But I can remember when she and my Aunts were thick as thieves and all of our cousins and us were just one big happy family. There would be a card party every Friday night that usually ran through Sunday. Talk about living for the weekend! We kids would run around rowdily acting like it was nobody’s tomorrow, while Mama and her sisters cooked up everything southern. I’m talking about some deep fried catfish, home made spaghetti, baby collard greens, golden fried chicken, sweet corn bread, steamed okra and everythang juicy in between. The sweet tunes of Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin would blast in the background, amidst the loud, rambunctious laughter of black folks having a good ole time.

But like all Lewis family gatherings the night would end in chaos. Just as soon as the booze would run low, the card game would heat up and somebody would start cursing and fighting, busting up the party and leaving a few members hot under the collar. But come Thursday all would be forgiven right in time for the upcoming weekend. You see in our family blood was thicker than water. And if anybody messed with one of us, they knew they had to deal with all of us and baby, our numbers ran deep. Yeah, we were tight like that…..back then, before Mama got saved.


The nurse stopped by to give mama her daily dosage. She’d been in the mental ward for almost two weeks. Still groggy from the drugs, she reached for the nurse’s hand.

“Miss, can you tell me where my children are?” The nurse could tell she was really concern and felt sorry for her. She couldn’t imagine raising two children by her lonesome let alone eight.

She gently patted my mama’s hand. “Sweetie, don’t worry about that right now. You just get some rest so you can get better.” Although she'd meant well it didn’t keep mama from worrying. The nurse released the medicinal cocktail into mama’s IV and walked away.

Unwelcome memories too washed in.  Angie Lewis-Carter was back in Atlanta in a heated argument with her husband. Like always he was drunk and had gambled away his paycheck, and the rent was already two months behind. And to pour salt inside an open wound, she’d caught him cheating again. The drugs had disarmed her defenses, forcing her to watch the unedited slideshow playing forever in her head. 

Her final words to him had been venomous.  Deeply wounded he’d stormed out, giving her no choice but to make good on her threat of packing up the kids and leaving. 

The empty platform at the train station made it all feel so binding. She’d made sure she’d had a window seat just in case, but he never came to stop her, them from leaving, opening her scars even wider and deeper.  Did he even care?

She could feel herself slipping further into the darkness.  Scared of what was waiting she again tried to fight but her screams were muted, rendering her helpless and breaching her floodgates. 

The tears flowing felt as real as that day, the day she’d faced the towering, dismal buildings of the Parkside projects for the first time and had to enter inside the disgusting elevator cage transporting all of them up to their new apartment. She’d remembered holding her breath, not wanting to inhale the strong stench of urine marinating in waste on its floor. She again looked into the whites of her children’s eyes as they too sensed the violence trapped inside the cold brick walls of the place they would be forced to call home.

Not wanting to see more mama squeezed her eyes shut but still they came. Too vivid was the wild card parties with relatives and friends that had always become overheated, making those who’d had too much to drink curse and spill words that cut deeper than any two-edged sword.

She quickly slipped out and back into consciousness, awakening to the pain-stricken face of her eldest son, Darnell, who lay bleeding on the hospital’s bed after being shot by a robber while he’d waited for the elevator. A part of her too had bled on the inside. No! She cried within. “Stop! I don’t wanna see any more. Please,” she pleaded to nobody in particular. But the memories just kept coming.

She’d heard the horrid tales but had not wanted to believe them. But now it was her son and they were planning revenge, but she didn’t want any part of it. But she’d not said anything to stop them and now a man was dead, stripped naked and killed in cold blood. Did his kids find him? What about his poor mother? The guilt flowed freely deep from within her soul.  She wondered how long she would be tormented … and then she heard Him, "All is forgiven." And just like that, she remembered how she’d gotten to this awful place. She exhaled and willingly surrendered to the darkness … and peace … awaiting her.


“Boy, get your retarded black ass down off that electrical line!” I heard the white lady scream at my little brother, Gary. She really didn’t give a rat’s behind if he got hurt. She just didn’t want him messing up the T.V. signal, interrupting her beloved soaps, something she watched all day, every day, while we kids cleaned her house like we were slaves.

Gary, who was only four at the time, was weird like that, climbing up live wires and such. And Junior thought it was funnier than hell. “Stupid, yo’ butt gon’ get electrocuted,” he’d joked.

But that silly boy didn’t care one way or the other, and with sparks flying and all, Gary jumped down like he was some wild monkey on a tight rope.  Not only was he not hurt but he was totally unaffected by the harrowing experience.

There were just five of us staying at the home. Sandra, my eldest sister, had convinced mama to let her stay in Atlanta to keep an eye on daddy.  My two older brothers, Darnell and Steven, weren’t home when it all went down.

Neither of us understood what had really happened, like why and where they’d taken our mama and why we had to stay at some strange white lady’s house. The day it went down was hazy:  mama and some church ladies were screaming and jumping up and down in our apartment; mama was walking around on the porch with her hands behind her back like a chicken speaking jibberish; and the next thing we knew, some men in white coats came and took her away. A social worker had gathered us kids up and told us that our mama was very sick and that we would have to go stay in a home for a couple of days until she got better.

Like any kid in a strange place we kicked and screamed the first few days, but after nobody came to save us we shut our mouths and did whatever Massa told us to. And just in case we got any ideas about calling somebody for help, she’d hidden all the phones. You always hear that weird stuff be going on in foster homes.  Well, it’s true. Our caretaker enjoyed throwing her nasty, dirty panties in the dish water. She’d stand in the kitchen, pull them off and throw them in same sink where my sister was washing the dishes we had to eat on. It wasn’t like we could call anybody and report her, so of course we kept it to ourselves. I used to pray every night we were there, “Lord, please save us.” But days turned into weeks and weeks into months. I couldn’t tell you how long we were trapped in that place, but I know it sure felt like a lifetime.

Mama did eventually get released and we all got to go back home, to our Parkside projects’ apartment…..and that’s when everything really began to change.

“Demons, get ya’ll behinds in here, right now!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, cutting off our oxygen.

Since she’d given up cursing, when she got angry we’d be reduced to the bile of hell, demonic spirits with little hands and feet. We knew she’d just hung up the phone with Miss Johnson, her religious sidekick, church guru and new best friend, which meant we were in big trouble.

We raced into the living room and lined up like dominoes, something we were getting use to doing. Daddy had kept mama pregnant and barefoot for half of her young 34 years, making us just a year or two apart. And standing next to each other we looked like a winding staircase, each a step higher than the next.

“Which one of you demons answered the phone earlier and left Emma on hold?” She folded her arms across her massive chest while awaiting the guilty party’s confession.

Just hearing that woman’s name weakened our young bladders. And even though we’d all heard Junior knock on the bathroom door and tell mama that she was on the phone, we were too scared to speak up. Who was she going to believe, us or the woman that saved her? It didn’t help any that mama, acting on her new faith, had gone cold turkey giving up both cigarettes and liquor, leaving her edgier than a crack head in detox.

“So ya’ll demons ain’t going to say nothing, hunh,” she snorted. “Then I guess I’m going to have to whip all ya’ll behinds. Go get me your black belt!” she ordered Steven.

For a small kid Gary was pretty tough and took his whipping like a little man. Us girls, Lynette, Darcy and me cried way before and after.  We particularly felt sorry for our brothers, Junior and Steven, who always seemed to get it much worse. For every lash you could feel the pain pouring out of her. It would be like she was beating our daddy for all those times he’d hurt her. And poor Junior….he was a spitting image of daddy so he got it raw. When she would grow tired, she’d send us to our rooms. I remember hearing my sister, Lynette, sobbing, “She was never like this before.”

By the time Darnell came home mama was sitting alone at the kitchen table in the dark by herself with just a blank look on her face. He knew it meant trouble and tried to walk lightly back to his room.

“And where the hell have you been?” she fired.

He knew she was looking for a fight and not wanting to be her spark, said the first thing that came to mind. “Ugh…I was ugh…shooting ball with Ed.”

Eddie was my mama’s nephew, her sister Shirley’s oldest boy, who 17 was about the same age as Darnell. The both of them, my mama and Aunt Shirley, had gotten pregnant real young and within months of each other so our Big Mama, their mama and our grandma, stepped in and practically raised both boys by herself. It made them as close as any two brothers could be.

Mama eyes burned with anger. “You mean to tell me that after what that woman and your Aunt Esther did to me, you’re still messing with those folks?!”

She was talking about when she was hauled off to the crazy house. Miss Johnson had supposedly overheard my Aunts plotting against mama on the porch that day, the day she’d gotten saved and filled with the Holy Ghost and was speaking in tongues.

“You don’t know if it was really them,” Darnell argued. “Shoo, I heard it was a lot of people on the porch who thought you’d gone crazy, including your neighbors. Anyone of them could have called those people. Anyways, I can’t believe you going to take the word of some woman you just met over your own sisters, when they’ve had your back from day one.”

It was true, blood had always been thicker than water in the Lewis family, but this was before it had left a bloody trail to mama’s own door. She wasn’t about to let him drag her back into her past, a past filled with painful memories. No, she was done with that life and had now become a new creature like it said in the Bible with a clean slate. She badly needed him to see the truth…her truth.

“And why would I take the word of some cold blooded murderers?” The blood slowly drained out of his face. “Now baby,” she coaxed, “I know your Aunt Shirley and Esther may not have pulled the trigger, but we both know they were behind it. Shoo, Eddie and the others were only doing as they were told.”

He’d heard the rumors after he’d gotten out of the hospital but had never tried to get at the truth. After being shot in an attempted robbery, he’d accepted his own truth; he lived in a war zone and that with war came casualties. A reality every tenant in the Parkside projects understood and accepted. But more important were these soldiers had been his family and they’d put their lives on the line for him.

His eyes became ice cold. “So what!” he finally mustered up enough nerve to say. “That nigga didn’t give a damn about me. Why should I give a damn about him?”

His callous reply chilled her soul. She’d never imagined this kind of life for herself or her children and never in her wildest dreams thought any member of her family would approve let alone be involved in such a gruesome murder. Yes, they’d all been raised on the ‘I got yo’ back, you got mine’ mentality and back then like her family, believed it was an eye for an eye. But now things were different and she was a born again Christian turning the other cheek.

She looked at him long and hard. “Now boy, I know I told you there ain’t going to be no more cursing in this house. And whether you like it or not, I don’t want you hanging ‘round those heathens any more!”

“So you just expect me to cut off my own people just like that, like they’re some street hoodlums….some criminals? Is your life so perfect mama that you ain’t ever made no mistakes or done something wrong for all the right reasons?”

Guilt struck a nerve and she lost it. “Boy, who do you think you talking to?! I’m the one who birthed you!” she screamed. “I carried your nasty behind nine months….”

“So what!” he fired back. “You may have birthed me but you sure as hell didn’t raise me!”

He was sorry he’d said it even before he’d finished the last word. It was a low blow and from the glazed look on her face, he knew he’d hurt her.

After a cool minute she stood to her feet and locked her hands on her hip. “Well, I’ll be. So I guess now you think you grown, hunh? Boy, the devil sho' got you tricked.” She slowly shook her head and borrowed a few words from Miss Johnson. “Well, son, the devil is a liar and the truth ain’t in him! So Mr. Man, if your stupid butt wanna keep hanging with those devils, then I suggest they take care of your ungrateful black behind.”

She knew she’d said the words but was shocked they’d come out of her mouth. Darnell was her first born and had been more like a brother than a son to her, and at times, her best friend. Before she would have never thought of putting her own out in the streets, but she had to let him know she meant business and it was either going to be her or them.

The burning sensation in his nostrils was like a spray releasing water into his eyes. She was making him choose and threatening to put him out if he didn’t make the right choice -- her choice. This person was not his mama. The mama he knew would never turn her back on her family or put any of her children out in the cold. It was simple, he was right and she was wrong. He just couldn’t back down now, even if it meant leaving the only family he’d ever known.

He stared her down. “If that’s the way you want it, then fine, mama.”

She could hear him bagging up his things. She wanted to run into his room and tell him she didn’t mean it but then that would make her a weak willed woman, like the ones Miss Johnson dutifully warned her about in the Bible. No, this new her was a strong Christian who was not afraid to stand on the word of God, even if it meant losing loved ones. Shaking and fighting off tears she whispered, "Angie girl, stand firm." The same words she knew her new best friend and spiritual advisor, Emma Jeanine Johnson, would have said to her.

Carrying two paper bags full of his things he walked over to the kitchen table and laid down his key to their apartment. He turned and looked at her one more time hoping she’d stop him. But she didn’t, so he kept his head erect and walked out the door a man. The striking sound of the heavy steel door slamming behind him made him think of a wrongly convicted prisoner having his life as he once knew it forever stripped away.