Amen

This story is about my beloved second mother, James Ella, who brought a dash of Christian prayer and a new moral standard to our home.

It was not long before James took on the role of second mother. She brought a traditional sense of discipline into the house, trying her best to tame the chaos engendered by my father’s shifty business schemes, wild older brothers, and a general sense of laissez-faire circulating in the house. My mother, who initially wanted nine children, assumed we would be cut from her compliant, rule-following cloth, only to be surprised by a flock of hellions. While she took to her bed—the only quiet place in the house—with migraines, James chased my brothers, sent all five of us to our rooms, forced us to apologize to each other and to her. She even washed my brother Oran’s mouth out with soap after he called her a bitch under his breath, claiming all the way to the bathroom, “I said witch! I said witch!”

James never had children and it was not long before we heard that the people in her church were referring to us as her “white family.” Differences aside, she and my mother shared an intuitive understanding about mothering. They formed a partnership in which words were never exchanged. James struggled to manage our mouthy, disrespectful behavior, and years later told me she prayed every day she would live long enough to see how we turned out.

James was the first person who ever prayed in our house; she relied on the Lord for all requests. My mother, who did not believe in prayer, began to say things like, “It must be so comforting for her to have something to believe in.” My father, an agnostic, made a joke of it by saying, “I wasn’t expecting so much Jesus in our house.”

James brought a new moral standard to our home, where truth was often as slippery as black ice. She never lied. Evenif she cheated at solitaire, she’d say, “I won with two cheats.”

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