“Grace is not something God gives; grace is who God is.”
—Father Richard Rohr
The forest behind my childhood home changed my life forever. In my earliest memories I stood in our backyard, listening to the enormous pines whisper to me from the other side of our chain-link fence. By four, I couldn’t tolerate being cooped up one more day and scaled that barrier to play hide-and-seek with neighbors and my two big brothers, Jim and Roy. After that, it was impossible to keep me out. By six, I was helping Dad in the construction of my first tree-fort, but when I was ten and Jim was twelve we built one of our own, deeper in the woods. I was allowed to spend the night in our hallowed fortress as long I was with Jim. He always called it the Citadel, as if we were cadets. Knowing the Citadel refused admission to girls, I just pretended I was a boy. The forest gave me enchanted adventures and painful lessons. It was as much a part of raising me as anyone inside my house. Ultimately, what I learned in those woods saved my life.
I was thirteen in 1960 when I finished eighth grade, and prone to deep thoughts and mood swings. I often roamed the narrow paths through the towering pines and pondered the crushing atmosphere of my life. The entire country was like a kettle about to boil over, and Cheskamy—our town outside of Norfolk, Virginia, near the Chesapeake Bay—was no different. As the tension grew hotter between the whites and blacks, my father became angrier, my home more foreign. Like patent leather shoes two sizes too small, it all gave me brain blisters. In the forest I could spread out.
But I’d been warned since I was four that if I walked into those woods far enough, I’d reach Nigger Town. As a young child, I had no idea what that meant, but it seemed scary, like if I ever found myself there, my life would never be the same. That part turned out to be true.
I know you may question how much a twenty-three-year-old could possibly know about life, but you’ll need to have a little blind faith in the beginning. That’s what we all start off with, isn’t it? I know I did. But by thirteen, standing on the threshold of womanhood, I almost lost all of it; forced to face realities I didn’t even know existed. I ran helter-skelter toward those truths and away from them until my entire world collapsed. My story is about loss and about those who are holding us up even when we’re unaware: Our friends, God, and our mothers—all of them—from human to divine to Mother Nature herself. Because from the beginning, even when all else failed, in the forest, I could always find grace.
Fri., June 17, 1960
Somehow on that fateful day, I missed the split in the trail toward home and headed deeper into the forest. Before I knew it, I had arrived at Crystal Creek. I wandered along the edge, peering down at the water rushing over the boulders until an unusual noise shook me from my daydreams. It sounded like the cries of a baby, coming from the other side of the creek.
I froze, not wanting to rustle a leaf. The yowling continued, so I moved to the fallen tree that formed a natural bridge and surveyed it. I’d only crossed this once with Jim, and never ventured beyond the other bank, but I was determined to help. I crept across it, one careful step at a time. When I reached the other end, I took a heavy breath and cocked my head to listen. I only heard birds twittering at first, but then it resumed—the cry of an infant, like Maryann’s new baby sister, Maggie. I travelled on, anxiously, beyond where I’d ever gone before, through thick leaves, over fallen trees, toward the colored part of town.
The disturbing wail pulled me forward until I saw what was making all the fuss. It wasn’t a baby after all, but a black and white kitty-cat clinging to a high branch, mewing like he was screaming out his pain to the world. “Jeez,” I said, amazed at how much a kitten sounded like a newborn. “It’s okay. I’ll get you down little buster.”
I glanced around for something to give me a boost, when my eyes fell upon a jet-black cat, teats still swollen with milk, swinging by the neck from a tiny noose that was deftly tied to a nearby tree.
Terror seized me. I stood frozen, a statue with darting eyes, searching the landscape. What if the killer was still here?
After a few moments, the mewing kitten dragged me from my paralysis, as he clutched the tree limb twice as high as me. I searched the ground for something to use as a lift and then heard someone coming. I crouched down in the leaves, hid behind scraggly shrubs, and peeked out. The sight of a girl about my age made me leap to my feet. “Hey you! I need help.”
Her mousy brown braids bobbed as she ran to me. When she came upon the scene of the mama cat, her eyes widened. Her voice trembled. “Who did this?”
“I don’t know. You see anyone?”
She shook her head and peered around in quick, jerky movements.
I pointed to the kitty that had been watching us warily. “Look.”
She glanced up. “Aw, we gotta help him.” She turned in a slow, deliberate circle, scanning the area, and then whispered, “You think we’re safe?”
My heart raced as I placed my finger to my lips. I stepped up on a rock and circled, surveying the area for anything out of the ordinary. “I don’t see anyone. We have to get him down.”
“Let’s look for something to get a boost, but be careful.”
We fanned out and searched the ground. It was getting darker and time was running out when a short, moss-covered log came into view. “Hey, come check this out.”
She ran to me, leaping over anything in her path, with her long slim legs like a deer.
“You think we can lift this?” I asked.
“Let’s see.” We each grabbed an end and lifted, but it was too heavy.
“Let’s roll it,” I said, and we flipped and shoved the log until we got below the poor animal where we collapsed, exhausted, huffing air.
“Are you going up?” she asked.
“I can do it.”
“Good, because I’m not a great climber.”
Then, using the stump, the girl’s cupped hands, and a big knot in the trunk, I was able to reach the branch opposite the scared kitten. I waited to catch my breath, then stepped over to the limb where he sat shivering and wailing. I perched there and clung to the bark with one hand then reached out to the young cat with the other. I grabbed him, but he dug his sharp nails into my bare arm. I screamed in pain and dropped him, watching helplessly as he plummeted.
But the girl with the bobbing braids reached out her arms and cradled the kitty as they both fell to the ground.
“Is he okay?” I yelled.
She examined him, watched him crawl about, and hollered, “Yes. We did it!”
I climbed back down and gave her a big smile. “We did it.” I knelt and picked up the poor fella, rubbing his fluff against my cheek.
She grinned, showing off her straight white teeth. “What’s your name anyway?”
“Charlotte—my friends call me Charlie. What’s yours?”
“Violet, but some folks call me Vi. Just moved here from Maryland. We live over there.” She pointed in the direction of Lincoln Heights, the colored neighborhood that I’d been warned about all my life.
I studied her face—warm beige skin, mousy brown hair and hazel eyes—full lips, but she didn’t look colored and she talked white. I’d have to figure this out later; right now I had to get home. “I won’t be allowed to keep him. Will you?”
“I’ll take him.” Violet lifted the baby from my arms and motioned with her head to the mama cat dangling in the air. “But what about her?”
I felt frightened and nauseated as we studied her in silence for a moment, her gaping bloody mouth…her tormented stare. It was impossible for me to imagine who would torture a cat like this. I turned to Vi. “I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell my mom. I think she’ll come tomorrow and bury her. You want to come?”
“Yeah, what time?”
“I think so. I’ll sure try.” I pointed to the mama cat. “This makes me sick. We should figure out who did it.”
“Yeah, let’s. See you tomorrow, Charlie.”
“See ya,” I yelled as I leapt over a stump.
I decided on the way home that these events would remain secret. That being settled sparked a mixture of fear, anger, and strength that shot right up my spine. I sensed my world expanding, and was thrilled by the extra room.