Monday, November 28, 2005
Just a Man
Just a Man
Pamela J. Tinnin
So…you want to hear the story of how it all began… Come closer, child… cataracts have nearly taken my sight, and your face is in the shadows. I still have my memory though, thanks be to God.
I am daughter of Jonas the fisherman and Sabina, the laundress. Even as a small child I could not understand how two honest, decent people suffered such bad fortune—no sons in all their years of marriage and me, a child of their old age. For a long time, it seemed their bad fortune was my inheritance. My father died in my tenth winter, and my mother followed him soon after. With no family, I became a child of the streets, one of those faceless beggars people pretend they do not see.
Things were hard for me in the years after my parents’ death. Some people were kind—I knew which ladies would slip me a piece of bread, and which shopkeepers would let me pick through the last of the dates and figs.
But as I grew older, some of the men began to look at me differently. Then came the day when Hamah, who ran the brothel called The Secret Garden, approached me with an offer. If I went with him, I would never have to work again. I could spend my days in silk, eating sweetmeats, and with my own servant to fan away the heat of the long afternoons. But I was fourteen and no child—I knew what he meant, and so I stayed in the back alleys, and avoided his ugly gaze.
The weather grew colder, and the coins fewer. Hunger was no stranger, but I would starve before I would sell myself to such a one. Word came that Caesar had proclaimed that all those under Roman rule must travel to the place of their ancestors to sign the tax rolls. The Romans were not ones to miss an opportunity for gold. I did not trouble myself with the news—my name would not be missed from the rolls.
Bethlehem filled with people come to register—they crowded the streets, and the inns had long ago run out of rooms. It was like festival time—peddlers shouting that they had the best prices, acrobats tumbling about—some said they were pickpockets. They moved so fast, it was possible… In the middle of the square there was a stage where two men dressed in satin robes and wearing great masks made of polished bronze told the old stories—Jonah and the Whale, David and Goliath, Moses parting the waters. A wealthy woman, her face behind a dark veil, tossed coins to the storytellers. I was quick to grab the few that dropped in the dust.
Once Caesar’s proclamation was heard and the city began to fill with strangers, life became a little easier. I had made friends with an old cripple, and at night he let me sleep in his hut. But one night, a night when the shutters and roofs were white with frost, I went to the hut, and Hiram was gone. Two rough looking strangers were seated on his mat, gambling with bones, passing a skin of wine between them. I knew better than to ask questions, and when they invited me to stay, I knew well enough to run.
I wandered the streets, clutching my cloak to me. The sky above was filled with stars—but there was one so bright, so big—its light seemed to stream down from the heavens, touching the ground near the city. I couldn’t seem to look away from it, and found myself stumbling down a strange street, following the light.
Against the hill, there was a crude shelter, a place for animals. The strangest thing —that is where the star’s beams rested, bathing the hillside in pale light. When I was almost there, I heard a noise—at first, I thought it was a lamb or young goat. It came again. When I stepped inside, I saw from where it came—there in the corner was a young girl near my age, and in her arms, a baby, no more than a few minutes in this world, wet and squirming and wailing with that thin new cry. There was a man, too—older than the girl by some years, he knelt nearby, a look of such relief and love on his face. When they did not seem to mind, I sat down in the straw, grateful for its warmth.
Some men came in, shepherds from their rough dress, blowing on their hands to ward off the cold. The shepherds knelt down there in the hay, bringing with them the smell of wood smoke and wool and manure. The young girl began to sing to the child, a song like none I had ever heard, one that she knew by heart, for the words came easily to her. She sang about how this child, this scrap of a baby, would one day set the world on fire—how he would throw down the rulers from their thrones, send the rich away hungry, and raise up the poor from their lowly places. I remember how I looked around in fear—dangerous words, then and now. As the girl sang, I thought I heard music like a thousand bells, and the light in the stable grew even brighter. It felt so warm and safe there, like I would never be cold again.
I fell asleep listening to that song. In my dreams that night the world was a very different place, a place where all were fed, where each one had a place of his own, where no one ever felt he was alone. I remember how in that dream, I had found the peace it seemed like I had been looking for all my life.
But when I awoke, the world had not changed. Like every morning, the sun was spreading light across the eastern sky. The shepherds were gone; the baby’s father was preparing the morning meal, while his wife and tiny child slept on. He invited me to share their food, but I could tell they had little enough for themselves. Besides, if I did not go to the streets early, how many chances for a spare coin would pass me by?
The years passed by and the curse of bad fortune finally left me. I met a sandalmaker, a widower with three sons. He took me to wife and we moved to Jerusalem where there was more call for his trade. We were never rich, but he made a decent living, and the boys with the dark curls and mischief in their eyes became like my own sons. They are good boys, learned their father’s trade. As the years passed, they have cared well for me.
I almost forgot about that other life, almost forgot the night in the stable. How quickly thirty years goes by. Then I began to hear of this one they called Jesus, some said he was a rebel, some said the messiah, others that he was nothing more than one more pretender. Word came that he had been born in a stable in Bethlehem. When I heard that, I went to see for myself. There were thousands there that day. I kept trying to stand taller, to look over the heads of the crowd, but I was an old woman, and people only shoved me out of the way.
I kept looking for a warrior, a prince in shining armor, a helmet with a tall red plume, a sword of sharpest metal. A man began to speak, so quietly, at first no one was listening—certainly no warrior and nothing to make me think of that baby so long ago. The crowd hushed. At first the words made no sense, but they, too, sounded dangerous to my ears. “Those who would be first, shall be last,” he said. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he said. “When you do it for the least of these,” he said, “You do it for me.”
But all that he talked of came to nothing. He was just a man—and in the end he died like one, crucified for the whole world to see, his blood staining the earth, his last breath a gasp of anguish. I was there, hiding in the crowd. Though my sons had said I was asking for trouble, I could not stay away—I stayed until the end, until there was nothing left to see.
When I turned to go, there were some women in the shadows. They had fallen to their knees in the mud. One of them turned and I saw her face, the tears on her worn cheeks, a lock of hair caught by the wind. There was something so familiar—her gentle mouth, eyes as sad as any I’d seen. Then I knew her…the young girl who sang to her firstborn in a tiny stable just outside Bethlehem.
Walking away down the rocky path, as the sky turned dark and lightning split the clouds, I began to see the truth of it, to see that I had been wrong. The world has seen too many kings and warriors, too many wars and death that change nothing. Perhaps what was needed was a baby, a tiny baby, born to bring love and light and life into the world. Perhaps what was needed was a man who knew all that it is to be human, a man who could teach what it is to live as God would have us live.
So many years have passed, but I remember it all—the stable and shepherds, the mother’s song and a star that lit up the sky, …three crosses and a crown of thorns. I remember how my sons at first ridiculed what I told them, but how our lives changed once we joined the believers—how we welcome all who come to us; how we care for the poorest. And, oh, the joy of our singing, the comfort of sisters and brothers, the wonder of knowing that no matter what comes, we will never be alone.
Just a man, you say? No… the son of God. The very son of God.
Written by Pamela J. Tinnin
Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Whoever Receives This Child
Whoever Receives This Child
Pamela J. Tinnin
Did you read in the papers bout that woman in Africa who was going to be stoned because she had a child outta wedlock? Seems this woman’s husband had left her, thrown her outta the house. Well, she musta got lonely, cause she took up with some no-count who told her he’d marry her—some women seem to have a way of findin’ the worst kinda men. I imagine he had his way with her and she was left with nothing but a baby and hopes for a second start that came to nothing. Somebody, some nosy neighbor more ’n likely, turned her into the priests, and next thing she knows, she’s locked up in prison—was there for a while, too, cause the baby that caused all the trouble’s near two years old, leastways that’s how the tv tells it.
Course, the Bible tells of women who got caught foolin’ around and were stoned. One Sunday Preacher Allen told how they would bury the woman up to her neck, just so’s her head was stickin’ outta the ground. Then they’d pick up stones—not little rocks, big stones, boulders more like, and start throwin’. You know, how could they do that, her head there in the sand, starin’ up with her eyes all sad and scared? How could they look at her, at the blood and all, and just keep on?
My husband Murray says I think too much, but last week the pastor read in Mark how Jesus said that if a man puts away a woman and divorces her, then remarries, well, he’s guilty of adultery, just like a woman would be—course you don’t never read about a man gettin’ buried in sand up to his neck and the life knocked out of him cause he got caught messin’ around on his wife, do you?
And over there in Africa, the man she said was her father’s baby? Turned out to be married himself. Nothing happened to him, specially after three friends said he never touched her. Guess that’s been the way of the world for a long time.
But Jesus is gettin’ at something in that scripture. He’s sayin’ that if there’s a sin, both folks are guilty. Then I remember that story, the one of how some men brought this woman to Jesus and demanded that he go along with stoning her. Remember that? First off, Jesus drew in the sand, then he reached over and picked up a rock, and he held out that rock and said, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.”
When I read that story, I half expected one of the crowd to take the stone and hit her, what with folks havin’ a way of bein’ blind to their own faults. But they all snuck away, ashamed of themselves. Jesus is sayin’ is that we all sin in relationships, men and women—it’s just human nature, and one sin is the same as any other. Thing is, we got to learn to forgive, we got to learn to make things right.
Course, we don’t stone folks any more, cause Jesus spoke up and changed the law, right? But thinkin’ on the scripture this week, I got to rememberin’ somethin’ that happened a long time ago, back durin’ the Vietnam War, when a lot a the boys round here went off to the Army. Murray had himself a punctured eardrum, so he was safe from the draft, but five or six outta our class got a letter not a week after graduation.
Murray and me had got married in a double weddin’ with his cousin Delmer and his girl, little Racine Hopkins. Delmer shipped out three days later. He was the best shot in Kent County, so the army had got themselves a ace sniper.
Racine was awful young, only 16, so she lived with her folks while Delmer went off to fight in the jungles. She helped out in their feedstore and put her Army checks in the bank cause she and Delmer was savin’ up to buy a house. About a month before Delmer was due home, him gone more ’n twice the 11 months he’d told her at first, I stopped by the feedstore for some cracked corn. Racine hadn’t been in church the last few Sundays and wasn’t in the feedstore either. I asked her momma if she was to home. Mrs. Hopkins said yes, she was, but that she was too sick for company.
I started to walk on home, then thought, well, I’ll just stop by and say hey. The Hopkins lived in a little wood house a block over with climbin’ roses at the gate and honeysuckles growin’ all along the fence that smelled so sweet in the evening. I knocked and knocked—finally the door opened a crack. Raceen’s voice came then, soft and whispery. “Just go on, Tawana,” she said and I could tell she was crying. Then I saw her belly—bout five months along looked like to me, and I knew then why she hadn’t been comin’ to church or workin’ at the store.
I walked home cryin’ myself, not knowin’ what to think, nor what to tell Murray, he and Delmer bein’ close as brothers. By Sunday the whole town had got wind of the situation and the whisperin’ that mornin’ in church sounded like a bunch a old hens in a chicken coop.
In the weeks after that, I shoulda gone back, shoulda wrote her a note or somethin, but I didn’t. Racine’s folks stopped comin’ to church; when you saw ’em at the feedstore, they didn’t have much to say, and to be honest, no one said much back. I heard tell that Preacher Allen went to the house and told Racine that she needed to come to the church and stand before the congregation and confess her sin. “Then you could get right with the Lord,” he told her. We all heard how Racine’s daddy invited Preacher Allen to leave and used his boot to help him along.
Then the day come that Delmer was to come in on the bus from Lexington. He was gonna go right to his folks, thinkin’ that Racine would be there waitin’ for him, along with the rest of the family, includin’ Murray and me. We crowded into his folks’ living room, hardly bigger than the porch it was, one of the houses built by the company back in the Twenties, but Racine—well, she was nowhere to be seen.
The car drove up outside, Delmer and his daddy. They came up the walk real slow and I could see that Delmer had a cane and was favorin’ his right leg. He was dark as an Indian and terrible thin. Worst of all was his face—looked like it was carved from stone, his eyes angry and sad all at once, with the mark of tears. He tried to act like there was nothin’ wrong, but we knew his daddy had told him the news. Murray hugged him long and hard, but Delmer stood there like he was no more alive than the statue of the rebel soldier that stands in front a the courthouse, blank eyes starin’ off into the distance.
We tried to make a party, but it was no use. Suddenly Delmer stood up, told us he appreciated all the trouble, but he couldn’t stay…he just couldn’t, and he went out the door and got in his daddy’s pickup, throwin’ gravel as he drove away. We heard later that he bought a quarter of white shine whiskey from old man Toller and drove up highway 19 into the mountains where he’d gone huntin’ when he was a kid. Stayed there all night.
We heard later it was early the next mornin’ when Delmer knocked on Racine’s door. “I was still in my robe,” she said, “my hair all in knots, and there he was, standin’ at the door, still the best lookin’ man I ever seen. I could smell the whiskey on him, and hoped he wasn’t crazy drunk, but he just stood there, lookin‘ at me, and me lookin’ at him. Then he walked over to me and knelt down, right in front a me. He touched my face, and my arm, and placed his hand real gentle like on my belly. Then he asked me, “Do you love me, Racine?”
Then I told it all, Tawana. “I done okay for a while, Delmer. Then you sent that letter sayin’ how you were gonna stay over there another year. I got to feelin’ like you didn’t wanta come home, like you didn’t wanna be with me. I felt so alone and lost, like nobody wanted me,” I told him, “but Delmer, I never quit lovin’ you…never.”
Then Delmer said the strangest thing. “The Lord knows I have seen enough death to last me the rest of my days.” Then he was quiet for a long time, Racine said. “He took a long breath and told me, We are gonna have ourselves a baby,” and he put his arms around me and put his face in my lap, like he’d come home at last,” and Racine smiled then, a smile that had enough light and love to fill that room.
That next Sunday they come into church, Racine with tears on her cheeks, havin’ a hard time lookin’ at folks, but Delmer straight and tall, aholdin’ her up, his eyes darin’ anyone to shame her. Funny thing—when the baby come, a lot of folks told Delmer the boy looked just like him.
Life is so hard sometimes—people get lonely and afraid…they forget who they are and do somethin’ stupid. But the Muslims ain’t the only ones that turn against you with a hard heart, and they ain’t the only ones that pick and choose the scripture to live by. It beats all how human beings can be mean as snakes, any one of us. What we all gotta remember is what Jesus kept tryin’ to tell us over and over…that more than laws and rules and blame, we got to learn to forgive, to make things right, We got to learn to be like a little child who don’t hold on to his anger.. It’s either that, or livin’ mean, waitin’ for an excuse to throw stones. And who of us hasn’t sinned? Who?
Looking for Christmas
Looking for Christmas
Pamela J. Tinnin
Soon as I started school I learned that my brother James Allen wasn’t like other kids. I was only five—my birthday didn’t come til November 14th, just one day before the State of Kentucky said you had to turn six.
I remember how Mama fussed over me that first mornin’, braided my hair so tight I thought my eyes’d pop right out a my head. I had three new dresses made from flour sacks she saved. She always had a way with a needle and thread—almost looked like they come from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. She’d torn apart an old coat and sewed me a jacket with a little fur collar made from a rabbit skin my daddy give her from his traps.
We set off down the trail, me, Mama, and James. It took us the longest time. James’d wander off, lookin’ at the sky and rockin’ back and forth like he does. Course, we didn’t know about autism back then—when I asked why James Allen was like he was, my Gramma Mamie, who had taught school, read all kinds of books, and had some strange notions, told me that God had made life to be like a dance. “James Allen just hears different music, Merrilee,” she said. I wasn’t sure what she meant, not for a long time.
I remember that first day of school, walkin’ down the trail hearin’ the songbirds and the low hum of bees in the early mornin’ air. Like always James stopped at the old footbridge that crossed over Blue Crick. Mama had to coax him across. The old log was slick and mossy and he’d slipped off when he was little. Was carried downstream a couple hundred feet before he grabbed a hold of a limb that hung out over the water.
We finally got to the school and there was my very best friend Molly Kennedy jumpin’ up and down in front, her red curls bright in the sun. That girl still has more freckles than you can count, but her hair went plumb white before she was 40. Well, she started squealin’ my name and I broke away from my mama and run to her.
Molly and me were huggin’ and laughin’ and that’s when I heard Corey Hargrove. The Hargroves had lived just up the trail from us since before I was born, seven kids crowded in that little cabin and Corey the oldest. Like his daddy, Corey’s voice could cut like a whip. “Hey, Dummy,” he yelled. “Hey, you—dummy!” There was a crowd of big boys with him—Ralph Teeter, Andy Watson, and my own cousin, Donald Arthur. They were all in fifth grade, same as my brother, if he had ever gone to school, that is.
James Allen had bent down and picked up a maple seed, called ’em airplanes, the kind with two little wings. He held it high, then let it drop and followed it with his eyes, round and round, he watched it flutter to the ground.
“Retard!” Corey Hargrove shouted, then Ralph and Andy joined in. “Retard.” I saw my cousin Donald give a quick look towards my mama, but then he yelled it, too. “Retard, retard.”
It seemed like ever person there stopped and looked at my brother, that name ringin’ out across the playground. Worst of all, James Allen never paid no mind, just kept pickin’ up that maple seed, holdin’ it high and droppin’ it, watchin’ it float to the ground. Before I even knew I was gonna do it, I ran over and started beatin’ on Corey with my fists, hittin’ him over and over, and kickin’ at him.
He just held me off, then I felt somebody grab ahold of me. It was my mama and her face was so red, there was no mistakin’ she was mad as an old settin’ hen. “Merilee Wilcox—do you know Jesus is watchin’ you right now? How can you disappoint our Lord? Don’t you remember his words about turnin’ the other cheek?”
My mama was the most devout Christian you have ever seen, more faithful even than her own mama who some said had the gift of healin’. Talkin’ to Jesus was as natural as breathin’ to Mama. After all, she told us, Jesus came to earth to show us how to live—why not go to him with our troubles?
Right then I was more worried about my troubles with Daddy when he heard how I had spit on Corey’s boots and kicked him in the shins, and it bein’ the first day of school. I was gonna get a lickin’ for sure.
“But Mama,“ I started, “They called James a retard…”
“Hush, girl,” she said, and I knew she meant business.
I didn’t get a lickin’, though waitin’ for it through supper was almost as bad as gettin’ it. Mama never told Daddy, not then and not later. Ever day after that Mama walked me to school; ever day James Allen went with us. I begged her to let me walk on my own, but she didn’t, not until I was nine years old and in the fouth grade.
Well, I kept turning’ the other cheek. Finally the boys got tired and quit callin’ my brother names, but I saw the way the kids looked at ’im, and year after year I heard the whispers. Truth is, I was ashamed of him—By the time I was in high school, I had lived for a long time knowin’ my only brother was never gonna make the winning basket at state or place first in the science fair, much less remember to tie his shoes. But the year I was 16, I made a big mistake— brought home papers that told about a place where people like James Allen could stay. Mama was as mad as I’d ever seen— threw the papers in the fire and told me not to bring it up again.
By the time I started senior year, I had the prettiest little promise ring from Hubert Mason and we was plannin’ to get married come summer. That year started out slow, what with me thinkin’ it was a waste of time, me feelin’ all grown up, bein’ engaged and all. Halloween come and went, then it was Thanksgiving. We piled in the truck and drove over to Gramma Mamie’s. Daddy had shot a turkey and nobody could make sweet taters like my gramma. Mama had baked two dried-apple pies and a mincemeat.
After that, Christmas seem to come on us all at once. Maybe it was cause of the bad news—Daddy come home the first week of December and said the bosses back East had closed down the mine. Put near every man in the holler out a work.
We all knew there wasn’t gonna be much Christmas, but even at 17, I still had hopes. On Friday I had seen the Christmas things Mr. Clayburg had put in the store window. Molly had her eye on a plaid pleated skirt, but I wanted this blue angora sweater set with tiny pearl buttons.
The night before Christmas Eve, word went around that there was a giveaway down at the First Methodist. Church folks up to Cincinatti had sent boxes of toys and clothes. I heard my mama and daddy arguin’ in whispers—Mama said, “These kids is gonna have a Christmas whatever it takes.” They went down there, though I could tell Daddy’s pride was hurt somethin’ fierce. I knew how he felt—back then I’d do without before I’d wear folks’ charity and hand-me-downs.
About 8 o’clock there came a poundin’ on the door. Like always James Allen paid no mind. When I opened it, there stood Corey Hargrove.
“It’s my mama,” he said, “Dadddy went to the giveaway, but she wasn’t feelin’ good. Now the baby’s comin’ and somethin’s wrong.”
“My folks is gone,” I told him.
“Somebody’s gotta do somethin’,” he said. “She’s gonna die.”
We bundled up and followed Corey up the trail. Inside their cabin, the kids huddled near the fire. There was with a little bedroom off to the back with a big high bed and Corey’s mama in it. I could see the sheets dark with blood.
I went to her and took her hand. Her eyes was wild with the pain of it and she was talkin’ crazy. I hadn’t never been to a birth except for the calves and the kittens that come every spring, so at first I just kept strokin’ her hand.
That’s when James Allen stepped forward, his eyes as wild as Mrs. Hargrove’s, his hands shakin’ like he had palsy. He reached out and put a hand on the mound of her belly and closed his eyes. I could probably count on my fingers the number of times James speaks in a week, but he surely did that night. “Jesus,” he said, his voice as gentle as a breeze. “Save them…save them.“ I just closed my eyes tight and prayed and prayed, sendin’ the words silently up to where I hoped He was listenin’—“My mama says you’re always with us, Jesus—be with us tonight.”
That was it, that is until the baby slid right out on the bed, silent and still. I bent over and wiped its little face, then put my lips on the baby’s mouth and breathed as soft as could be; then again, just like I knew what to do. The baby let out a cry, at first as weak as a new lamb, then gettin’ louder and stronger. I put the baby girl in her mama’s arms. I was cryin’ and so was Mrs. Hargrove. Corey turned away from me, but I could see him wipin’ the tears.
I got things cleaned up, put the little kids to sleep on the pallet up in the loft, and then told James Allen it was time to go. He was settin’ at the kitchen table, twirlin’ a bowl round and round, watchin’ it spin. I called him again and he pulled himself up from the table. Corey come up—he put out his hand to me and shook mine, sayin’ “Thank you, Merrilee…thank you.” Then he put out a hand to my brother, but James Allen was looking at the fireplace, watchin’ the flames.
Corey put his hand down, but he didn’t turn away. “Thank you, James Allen,” he said, though James never looked up. “Thank you.”
Walking down the path toward home, I saw the first flakes of snow. James Allen kept stoppin’ to look at the sky. Down by the big elm tree, he stopped and pointed up through the branches. Sure as I’m standin’ here, there was one star brighter than all the rest, way up in the sky right over the Hargroves’ place.
“The Jesus star,” James whispered. “The Jesus star.“ Then he began to rock back and forth like he does. I put my arm around his shoulder real careful, knowin’ how he hates bein’ touched. I just held it there, lookin’ up at that star and then back at my big brother standin’ there in the snow, his tongue stuck out to catch the icy flakes.
Right then I thought about Pastor Hodgkins always preachin’ how Jesus was comin’ again. He’d pound the pulpit and shout, “You better be ready…you better be ready.” You know, ever since the night Merilee James Hargrove was born, I know as well as I know anything that Jesus is here with us, as real as you and me, and like my Gramma Mamie told me, he never gives up on us—not a one of us—just keeps invitin’ us to listen to the music and join in the dance.
Now you be careful goin’ home—and don’t forget—Jesus loves you and so do I.
copyright 2005 Pamela J. Tinnin
All Rights Reserved