AFTER 45 YEARS…
We have not seen Roberta for about 45 years. Then, by miracle of Facebook, her sister, Robin, finds Larry, then me, and soon Roberta contacts me, too. And all the memories rush back. From her profile picture, I know I’d have recognized her anywhere. She’s still the pretty, dark-haired girl with big, brown, all-seeing eyes I remembered on her as a 10 year old next door.
She seems to be a delightful woman now, but it’s hard – actually downright impossible – for me to think of her as separate from her heartbreaking family history. We’d been on the fringes of that tragedy, we knew the family. It’s not fair, because now she’s an adult, and no one should have to live with wearing their parent’s bad choices like an invisible mantle. Now a pastor’s wife, a mother, and a grandmother, she’s so much more than her past. But I admit. It’s where my mind goes first.
WHAT HIDES BEHIND THE SMILES
Rewind to a tiny town called Mendon, Michigan, 1971. Population about 850. Larry and I are youth group sponsors and I teach a high school Sunday school class at our church, Wakeman Chapel. Roberta’s two older brothers, Bob, 14, and Mike, 13, come each Sunday morning to my class and almost always to youth group. There are 6 children in all. Greg, Roberta, and Renee attend a junior high class. When two year old Robin comes, she attends the nursery. Often, their mother brings them, sometimes they ride with a neighbor. Their parents don’t attend.
She’s the fourth child and the oldest girl, but even at 9 and 10 years old, wields the power of a mother. She does her best to make her more rambunctious brothers behave. Sometimes they even listen to her. At 20 years old, I’m not that much older than they.
I hear that their mother has once attended the church, so I drive the few miles out of town to their house to meet her and, perhaps, encourage her to attend again with her children. The boys are outside playing in the big yard when I arrive. The old farmhouse misses a few pieces of siding here and there where tar paper shows through. Roberta opens the back door to my knock.
“Is your mother home?” I ask.
She seems reluctant to tell me, or surprised that I’m there, maybe a bit embarrassed, I’m not sure which. I step inside a large, eat-in kitchen. The room is sparsely furnished, the wallpaper old and water marked, and I see a broken window in the door, a big dent in the wall. I’m taken aback. I have no idea the family is so poor. A few seconds later, her mother comes from another room. At 20, I am pretty naïve in reading people, but there’s no mistaking how uncomfortable I’ve made her mother, who’s also named Roberta.
I try my best to put her at ease, stick out my hand and introduce myself. I say something inane like, “I’m just trying to meet all the parents of the kids from our youth group and I wanted to come out and invite you to come join us at the church.” I feel her distress, but I burble on, trying to ease the situation. I make small talk, talk to Roberta’s baby sister, Robin. It takes a few minutes, but the mother relaxes just a bit and even smiles a couple of times. But her tension never fully eases. I don’t stay long, it’s too awkward for all of us. On the other hand I know one thing for sure, this woman needs a friend.
I go back outside where the boys are playing baseball in the field. It’s my favorite sport. I play pretty well, for a girl, so I join them. We bat and chase balls, run the bases. And then a car drives in. I see the boys look at each other, instantly feel the same tension descend on the boys. I’m not so naïve that I don’t recognize their reaction as fear. I’ve just become unwelcome, the game is over. Bob, the oldest, tells me it’s his dad. I ask if it’s time for me to go, he just nods. I know their dad has a drinking problem. Watching them tells me he is, probably, also a mean drunk.
Today, I tell myself I was not much more than a kid myself with almost zero experience with drunkards. How could I have understood everything I was seeing? But my heart hurts to realize how bad things were for them. They always looked reasonably good and clean on the outside. I never guessed they sometimes went to bed hungry.
One never knows the load of distress that lies behind the smiles and laughter of children. When the boys arrive in my class every Sunday morning, I haven’t an inkling of what has gone on that weekend – every weekend.
I’d talked to their father a few times and could easily believe he wasn’t a nice dad. I didn’t know he was also dangerous.
SHE MARRIES A PREACHER
And now we meet again. We came to Louisiana for a different reason, but for me, it’s mostly a good excuse to meet Roberta again, just to see for myself how she was doing. I’d wondered about all of them, but I thought of her and Robin often. After her aunt and uncle took in the extra children, they moved to the much bigger house right next door. We bought their small one, and lived across the yard from them for about two and a half years. Because Roberta was older than our children, we did not see her as much, but we have old Super 8 movies of Robin and our two girls playing together. We and they adored her. For that short time, she was like our third daughter.
Roberta and I had written notes several times on Facebook Messenger, and I knew the basics about her present life and family. But after 45 years, how would it be to meet in person? Would it be awkward? I needn’t have worried. She, her husband, Lee, their family and their whole church have been the epitome of southern hospitality. Lee says, “Y’all are family!
Over the weeks we’ve gotten to know each other better than ever, and I’m happy to say there has not been a single moment of awkwardness. We have enjoyed their company immensely. It’s been so fun getting to know each other as adults. I’m pleasantly surprised to see how similar her and my tastes and preferences are; from décor, to food, to child rearing, to our faith.
And her old story? We talk a lot about that, and she doesn’t hesitate to do so. That’s a big part of her emotional health, I think. She does not see herself as a victim, but as an overcomer; a recipient of God’s grace. She believes she can write a new story, and she is. But best of all, she is home. She belongs. She is loved and greatly admired. She fits into this family like she was born to it.
She came from a tragic childhood, yes. But wait…there’s more – lots more.