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Train up a child in the way he should go,
and when he is old he will not depart from it.
-- Prov. 22:6
When the doctor announced that my mother had given birth to a bouncing baby girl, my mother lifted her head up from her pillow and asked the attending physician, "Did you say it's a girl?" The doctor nodded. "Did you say it's a girl?" He answered affirmatively. "Did you say a girl?" Poor thing couldn't believe her ears. "Thank you, Jesus," she whispered leaning back on her pillow. "You finally came," she later told me. I was also my father's little princess. The date was October 8, 1964, and David and Delores Winans were filled with joy. Mom was especially happy because she could finally put to use the girl's name she had chosen sometime before: Priscilla, which to her meant calm, quiet, soft.
For a while it seemed as if Mom wouldn't ever get the chance to use such a pretty name. With seven high-spirited boys underfoot, Mom tried not to get her hopes up when she discovered that she was pregnant an eighth time. In those days before sonograms became a routine part of the prenatal examination, mothers and fathers had to wait until they got to the delivery room to find out the sex of their child. But the old women in the church had their own down-home ways for predicting the sex of the unborn: "Judging from the way that baby is sitting up high in your belly," they would say, "it's sho' to be a girl this time, Delores." But Mama was scared to hope. From where she looked it seemed to her that she'd carried all her babies the same: big and wide. A boy's name was already picked out. But the name Priscilla was secretly pinned to her heart...just in case.
Although Mom decided on Priscilla as her name for me, her first baby girl, as far back as my childhood days I have been known to family and friends as "CeCe." With as many siblings as I have, you'd think that someone would remember where the name CeCe came from, but no one does. As best as any of us can figure it out, my father's mother, Laura Howze, was the one to start the family tradition of calling me Sister, in honor of my position as the first girl in the family. The names Priscilla and Sister were much too dainty for my brothers' macho tastes. So Sister finally metamorphosed to "CeCe," probably because of my brothers' aversion to prissy words and Mom's tendency to shorten her children's names to something quicker to say in a fit of anger: "Peanut! Butch! Skippy! BeBe! CeCe!" If I shared some of the other family names here, however, I could be banned from the family. "CeCe" eventually stuck in everyone's memory, including Mom's. With ten children soon underfoot, she was content just to get the name CeCe out when it was time to bathe each of us and get us to bed at night.
Only those who are really close to me know the real CeCe: the quiet, reflective, bashful, I-don't-want-to-be-out-front girl from Detroit. Friends back home are surprised by the confident, outspoken CeCe who appears onstage when they compare her with the little Priscilla they recall always looking on bashfully. Even I sometimes have a hard time reconciling the two women. They're not different people, however. They're different sides of the same me.
There's the artist I've evolved into, the woman who is not only out front, but also singing alone, onstage, donning the latest fashions and glamorous in her makeup, making decisions (with God's help), pushing the boundaries -- and enjoying it. Then there's the me whose idea of a good time is plopping down in the middle of my bed on a Saturday afternoon in sweats and a T-shirt, surrounded by my husband, Alvin, and our two kids, Alvin III and Ashley: Alvin II reading the business section of the newspaper on one side; the kids at the foot of the bed flipping cable channels and arguing about what each wants to see and whose turn it is to give in; and me with some devotional or daily meditation in my lap, wearing earphones and listening to the sounds of soft music and ocean waves. There's bound to be a bag of hot buttery popcorn plopped down in the middle of the bed, spilling onto the covers each time one of us readjusts our weight.
I guess there's at least two sides to everyone. I'm just grateful that I've finally learned to embrace both sides of me. It took me a while, however. It took me learning to be myself.
For almost four years I was the sole girl among a litter of seven brothers, the different child. Growing up a girl in a house of seven brothers will make you become either aggressive and outspoken or quiet and retiring. You learn how to fight and tussle one of them to the floor, pin him down, or knee him until he gives up and cries "uncle." That's how you win the respect of a whole litter of brothers. But if you're like me and you're too small and smart to try tackling boys twice your size, you learn how to keep to yourself and play by yourself. For stimulation you learn how to create your own private inner world of fun, frolic, and friendship and not depend on the wild games boys play. My brothers were always getting into trouble, jumping up and down on the beds, wrestling one another to the mat, fighting. But I was apt to withdraw into some private corner of a room, creating imaginary worlds for myself. With the birth of my sisters, Angelique and Debbie, years later I gained playmates and soul mates, but until they were old enough to climb out of their cribs and crawl over to play with me I had to content myself with playing alone with my dolls. My macho brothers wouldn't be caught dead playing dolls with a girl.
My doll time became my quiet and creative time. Sitting in a corner of a room, alone at a table with my dolls, dressing and undressing them, styling their hair in hairstyles I'd seen worn by movie stars and glamorous singers on television, kept me occupied for hours on end. I could lose myself in my play. From time to time my brother Ronald, the second oldest of my brothers, would have pity on me and wander over to keep me company. Of all my brothers Ronald was the only one who took time out and played with my dolls and me. I can still recall him pretending to sip tea with me and my dolls, with hands large enough to clutch a football but soft enough to cuddle a doll. Ronald is the one who came up with the idea of coloring my dolls' hair with shoe polish when he noticed me struggling to design new hairstyles for my dolls. Soon, with Ronald's help, every doll had red hair. The next day every doll had black hair. The next day white hair. I was grateful to my big brother for showing me how to change the color of my dolls' hair, but I had to use my own imagination to think of ways to change their lives. With each change of hair color came the opportunity for me to create a new attitude and personality for my dolls.
When Angelique and Debbie came along, four and six years later, I was thrilled to have sisters for company, but our numbers weren't large enough to make us a formidable gang against seven brothers. Nevertheless, three proved a large enough number to tackle one of the boys if he dared stray into our domain or dared to decapitate one of our dolls. But even with two younger sisters on my side, I still felt different: old, mature, wise beyond my years. With two sisters below me and seven brothers above me, I felt squeezed in the middle with the responsibility to be mature. Those two girls were looking to me as an example, and those seven brothers were looking down at me, testing my strength and my resolve. As the older girl I usually managed to earn Angie's and Debbie's respect pretty easily. But my brothers enjoyed reducing me to tears with their constant razzing and name calling.
My sisters' births brought the Winans clan to ten children: David, Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, Michael, Daniel, Benjamin, Priscilla, Angelique, and Debbie. "I'd only planned to have two children," Mom never tires of reminding us, "a boy and a girl. It's just that the girl was slow in coming." The truth is that Mom and Dad were products of a very strict conservative religious upbringing, which frowned upon birth control and took literally the scriptures that admonish us to "multiply and replenish the earth."
Having ten children was unplanned, but the ten children were not unwanted. As each child came along, each one more of a surprise than the one before, Mom and Dad made the adjustments in their hearts and in their living space to accommodate the fruit of their love. Although there were times when they didn't know how they were going to feed another child and where they would put the child, they were confident that God would make a way. And they were right. God made a way. "How come you have ten children, if you only meant to have two children?" one of us was always asking them. "Evidently, God had His own plans," Mom and Dad would answer back. My parents believed, like the good Pentecostalists that they were, that even the unplanned things in life can result in blessings.
I never imagined that my little gift for singing -- singing to my dolls as I styled their hair, singing as I poured them tea, singing myself to sleep at night -- would be the talent God would use to catapult me into the limelight. Certainly, there's much truth to the Bible's saying "Our ways are not God's ways."
One of my greatest joys has been looking back and tracing the hand of God patiently, wisely, weaving the strands of my life together.
Our house was always filled with music. It was nothing for Mom to strike up a song while standing in the kitchen cooking dinner, or for Dad to line a song as he stood in the mirror on Sunday morning, shaving and readying himself for Sunday school. Singing was the way we communicated, the way we entertained ourselves, and the way we made sense of the world. With seven boys and three girls, Mom and Dad, and a steady stream of stray cats and dogs who were taken in and given away on a whim, you had to sing to get your fair share of attention.
My parents' shared love for music brought them together back in 1950 when both were members of a local singing chorale in Detroit known as the Lemon Gospel Chorus. The founder, Louise Lemon, was a gospel great who had sung back in the 1930s and 1940s with Mahalia Jackson and the Johnson Singers of Chicago. Louise Lemon inspired young people throughout Detroit with her rousing, soul-stirring musicals, and young people everywhere flocked to join her citywide gospel choir. Music brought them together, but their shared love for each other and their mutual love for God are what persuaded David and Delores Winans to join their hearts in matrimony in 1953. She was seventeen years old and played the piano; he was nineteen years old and played the saxophone. Mom had been a member of the Lemon Gospel Chorus since she was thirteen and a member of the Good Will Youth Choir before then. She had played the piano for small storefront churches in the city since she was a girl. My father was the grandson of a Church of God in Christ pastor and loved music. For a short time, while both were members of the choir, my parents got a chance to travel and sing, if only in a limited fashion. Every Sunday afternoon, and sometimes on an evening during the week, they were somewhere across town in Detroit or somewhere across the country in Louisiana, North or South Dakota, singing at some church anniversary service, or, if they were lucky, as the opening act for some well-established recording quartet. But soon their love for each other won out over any aspirations they had to become traveling performers.
My parents passed on their love for music to their ten children, as God would have them do. Music disciplined the mind, they believed. It also nourished the soul by providing something to muse and meditate on. Just about the time other children were sitting on their parents' laps learning to talk, each of David and Delores Winans's children were sitting around learning to sing. Singing was always such a natural part of our Winans household that I never gave it much thought, and in Detroit it seemed as if everyone sang -- whether or not they could sing, they did. Music was in the air. It's amazing to me to think that there are people who go for long stretches of time -- days, weeks, perhaps months -- without so much as humming a tune! in the Winans house someone was always singing.
No matter how limited the space in our house we always had a piano, and it always seemed to be in need of tuning. Mom and Dad taught us gospel songs first, as a way of keeping us ten kids entertained. But then they taught us such songs like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "God Has Smiled on Me" as a way of teaching us about faith and hope, and as a way of instilling reverence of and love for God in our hearts. They succeeded. Gospel music at home softened our hearts for the sermons and Sunday school lessons we would later have to listen attentively to, sitting in those hard church pews.
All seven of my brothers grew up singing: David, Ronald, Marvin, Carvin, Daniel, Michael, and Benjamin (BeBe). Some girls' brothers fix cars and excel in sports -- mine sang. I can't recall the first time I heard my brothers singing -- it would be easier to try to come up with times when they weren't singing. Those were the times when they were goofing off, cutting up, or into some mischief around the house. My older brothers were always coming up with songs; some they made up, some they learned at church. They were good about leading the family in song at special gatherings for all the family and extended family. Each brother had his own style and distinctive sound, which lent a special sound to their harmonies. Together their rich sound made you think they were angels sent from God. That's if you didn't know any better. Together their voices blended and melded and created a sound that soon would leave churches and other audiences spellbound. Their harmonies and powerful lyrics combined to make them a highly sought-after teenage quartet known in the early and mid-1970s as the Testimonials. So first the boys in the Winans family sang, and then the girls in the Winans family sang.
With ten children in the house there was always a steady drone of noise. The challenge for a quiet introverted child like me was to figure out what noise to shut out and what noise to embrace. The sound of slamming doors, clanging pots, and quarreling siblings -- those were sounds I could safely ignore. The sound of Mom humming a tune from church, Dad praying in song, or one of my seven brothers banging out a tune of his own creation on the piano -- those were the kinds that left my soul tingling. There was singing throughout the day and into the night. After teasing one another back and forth about whose head was shaped the funniest, who was the clumsiest, whose feet stank most from their gym shoes, and who had holes in their underwear, we'd sing ourselves to sleep. It was like a big camp. Something was always going on. Usually the last song we'd sing at night sometimes was:
"Thank You for Your love so sweet.
Thank You for the food we eat.
Thank You for the birds that sing.
Thank You God for everything...good night!"
My parents worked hard to create a home environment in which love took priority over things. Discipline was second to love. Laughter ran a close third. We didn't have a lot of the things we wanted, but there was always more than enough of the things we needed. Mom, the soft rock of the family, with her quiet but firm ways, worked all day as a medical transcriptionist at a local hospital and came home to her second job in the evening: cooking, mending, and praying for her large brood. Always even tempered and naturally soft-spoken, she seemed always to know what to say to make the pain go away. I admired her for her calm. She had the patience of job, as they say, but when that patience ran out she wasn't hesitant about taking things into her own hands -- even if that included one of our behinds.
One thing for sure, my seven brothers were always into something. Boys always need to test their strength, prove their strength, or challenge someone else's strength. They are always fighting, about to fight, or just getting over a fight. Most of the fray in the house was around the older boys (David, Ronald, Marvin, and Carvin) ganging up against the younger ones (Michael, Daniel, and BeBe). The "top half against the bottom half" is the way they described themselves. Fights always broke out about who drank the last bit of Kool-Aid, who broke what, who ripped whose pair of pants, or whose turn it was to sleep on the floor. My parents never knew their children fought. We laughed behind closed doors when we heard one of them boasting proudly to a friend, "Our children never fight." Boy, were they wrong. They never had a clue because, despite our differences, we all saw to it that furniture, appliances, and windows were pieced together, taped together, glued together, stuck together, or just prayed together before our parents got home. If we didn't, everyone would have to pay.
No doubt about it, Mom and Dad were strict disciplinarians. Dad's floggings were the worst, or so it seemed. My brothers' howls from the basement could be heard from every corner of the house as Dad landed his belt against their backsides. But Mom's soft manner was not to be mistaken for weakness. A short, soft, caramel-complexioned woman, with wide sloping eyes and a warm engaging smile (which I inherited), Mom wouldn't stand for any mess. She said what she meant and meant every last word that she said. She was not one to spare the rod and spoil the child. But when she whipped her ten children, it was as much to teach us discipline and self-control as it was to express her disappointment over something we'd done. Raised in a disciplined home herself, Mom was convinced of the virtues of discipline. She was determined that her children weren't going to grow up as wild puppies, which in our home meant acting as if you didn't have any home training. Above all, "home training" meant respecting your parents, respecting elders, no talking back, and having a fear of God. I learned a large part of what it means to be a parent from watching my parents teach us discipline and respect. In those early years, with seven boys to rear, Mom was forever having to whip someone, it seems. "Perhaps she'll be too tired to whip us when she gets home," one of my brothers would wish out loud whenever a plate, a window, or knickknack had gotten broken. But if Mom was too tired to get you that day, she was sure to get you the next day. She never forgot. Nothing was worse than a whipping that Mom had put off for a day. No matter how much we had it coming to us, Mom was always fair. She dispatched her duty with the belt, ironing cord, shoe, or whatever was handy with more a sense of responsibility than hysterical outrage.
Being quiet and observant I took note and learned from the scoldings meted out to my siblings. Not that I was an angel. It's just that when you weighed my misdeeds against those of my siblings, I ended up looking like an angel.
"CeCe gets away with murder," my older brothers complained. They thought I was spoiled.
"When you came along, everything was different," Michael offered. "Stuff Mom and Dad beat us for, you got away with, scot-free."
It wasn't that I was the favorite. It's just that by the time my sisters and I came along, Mom was finally too tired to keep up the beatings. "When CeCe, Angie, and Debbie came around, I was plumb out of strength," Mom likes to say with a smile on her face. She loved her sons, but she loved having daughters even more, and it took her a long time to finally have a girl. Raised with only a sister as a sibling, Mom had a soft spot in her heart for her daughters. But not even her love for us would make her spare the rod when the time came to discipline us. My brothers only think I had it easier than they did. And I, of course, think my younger sisters had it easier than I did, that they're the ones who got away with murder. That explains why Angie and Debbie are more outspoken and daring than me. Things I only dreamed of saying and doing, they said and did and got away with.
I was more reserved than my siblings, but I was still no angel. I did my share of arguing, fighting, and breaking up things. The few whippings I do recall were always the result of my trying to hang with my brothers. One whipping stands out in particular because it emblazoned on my mind the different expectations placed on girls and boys.
Tired of being left out of my brothers' loud, boisterous games, I decided this one afternoon, after getting my hair done, that I wanted to be a part of the fun. I could hear Michael, Daniel, and BeBe playing downstairs in the basement, and Mom and Dad weren't home. Now we all knew that we weren't allowed to have water fights in the house, but that didn't stop them. I was bored that day, and I wanted to join the fun. I stopped whatever I was doing and made my way down into the basement. When my brothers saw me, my presence was met with groans and furious shakes of the head. "No way," they said. "Get outta here." I begged to be allowed in the fun. "Your hair," BeBe reminded me. My mother had paid good money to Sister Walker the beautician for me to get one of those hard presses that little black girls got back then in order for their hair to stay nice and straight for weeks. "No girls," said Daniel, not buying it. I begged and finally convinced them to let me join in.
Within a few seconds water was all over my face, and I was squealing with delight. The rules to my brothers' games were always clear: no mercy given, no mercy gotten, even to girls. Someone handed me a water bottle (a discarded bottle of Windex filled with water), and the game was on. Soon water was everywhere in the basement. I gave as good as I got, and the fun went on for what seems like hours. Everybody forgot about the time, and everybody forgot about my hair -- including me. No one gave a thought about the wet puddles that were gathering around our feet. After we had finished playing, when all the water was mopped up and everything was back in place, BeBe looked over at me and yelled, "Look at your hair!" I reached up and felt my hard-pressed hair frizzing all over my head. I knew I was in trouble. Mom would be home soon. I ran upstairs to see what I could do and found some hair oil and began applying fistfuls to my hair. I took a brush and stroked my hair repeatedly to the side. By the time I heard Mom come through the door downstairs, I had begun to like what I saw in the mirror. My hair was a mass of thick, curly waves lying to the side of my face. I was so proud of the new hairstyle I'd stumbled on that I covered my head with a blanket and proceeded downstairs to show off my new do.
Don't ask me what I was thinking; I must have been out of my mind to think that my mother would be impressed by my efforts. "What are you doing, CeCe?" Daniel asked when he saw the blanket on my head. I jerked the blanket off my head and yelled, "Surprise!" Mom took one look at me, and I knew from her expression that it was over. Her eyes never left my head. "Girl, what's wrong with your head?" she screamed. She was in shock. All I could get out of my mouth was, "Michael, Daniel, and BeBe were having a water fight..." Before you knew it, all four of us were beaten that day. Mom beat Michael, Daniel, and BeBe because they were supposed to know better than to start a water fight in the house, even if it was in the basement. Mom beat me because I should have known better as a girl that time and money had gone into getting my hair done. I did remember, but I had completely forgotten about all those things once the water fight began. I couldn't help myself. Mom was determined to help me.
That whipping taught me many things, among them that water is the bane of little black girls' hair. It was a lesson I would have occasion to learn again and again throughout my childhood. I resented the limitations placed on black girls' fun. Boys never have to worry about what water does to their hair. From that day, I've had a love-hate relationship with hair, especially my own. I'm always fretting over it and wishing it would just let me have my way.
For all her tough discipline, what struck me most about my mother is that she told you the truth, disciplined you, and then left you with the feeling that everything was going to be all right. Give her a few hours, after her anger had subsided, and she could be heard singing some gospel tune on the other side of the house. Eventually she would find you in your room and stand in the door and give you one of her special mother looks that said, "Now, baby, you know Mommy loves you." Your heart had to soften, even if your backside still stung. I was fortunate to grow up in a very forgiving home. Neither Mom nor Dad held a grudge for very long. As quickly as their anger rose, it subsided: They disciplined you and moved on. Neither of them made us feel as though we had to beg for their love, beg for their forgiveness, or beg to be a part of the family. Love was free, but with it came responsibilities and accountability. I trusted my parents' discipline when I was a child, and I never doubted their love. They prayed for us when we were sick, and they disciplined us when we were wrong. They beat us as a way of protecting us from the things they knew awaited us as young black children, and they prayed for us, like so many black parents before and after them, asking God to save us from the things that preyed on black children, things they had no way of protecting us from.
I learned about the healing power of music from observing my parents. I would watch Mom in particular come through the door after a day's work at Metropolitan Hospital, and it seemed that the world was upon her shoulders. Nevertheless, she rarely complained. I remember her staying up all night, tired, sleepy, at her sewing machine, determined to make one of us something to wear for the next morning. I longed to make her smile and chase the sadness away. But there's some sadness only Jesus can chase away. Until then, a good song can lift the heart. We could always depend on an uplifting favorite hymn, like one my grandmother sang at church, to lift whatever cloud loomed over our hearth.
He's got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
He's got the Holy Ghost and fire
And it sho' will make you true.
He's got better things for you,
No one on earth can do.
So place your mind on Jesus;
He's got better things for you.
As with many of the songs I heard around home, I must admit that I didn't always understand what I and others were singing about. What did I know about the Lord having better things for me? What did I know about God's amazing grace? Some of the lyrics of "Amazing Grace" (like "wretch") sounded dangerous to me. But you don't always have to understand the words in order to feel the emotions of a song. I could tell by the inflections in my mother's voice, or the way my father rocked and rejoiced during certain songs, that music had the power to transport you back or forward into secret places. Even though I didn't always understand the words, music's power to arrest the emotions was enough to make me stand in awe.
Only a quiet, easygoing temperament like Mom's could survive being married to a hyperactive, outgoing, no-one-is-a-stranger man like my father. Mom's steady spirit was the anchor that kept my father from floating right off the face of the earth. David Winans Sr., also known as Elder "Skip" Winans, never met a stranger in his life. Within just a few minutes, all strangers are bosom friends to Dad. A barber by trade, Dad wasn't above taking odd jobs in order to make ends meet. To keep food on his family's table, he worked a stream of jobs in his lifetime, from driving a taxi to selling cars. His humor kept the family laughing, and his abundant energy kept us too busy with chores and games to complain about what we lacked. Dad was the kind of man who had to be busy doing something. He was always thinking of something new. Always talking and keeping things going. If Mom was always a steady source of support and strength for us kids, Dad was our motivator and inspiration. He was always one dream ahead of the rest of us. Although he was an elder in the church and his grandfather founded the church he had grown up in, Mack Avenue Church of God in Christ, Dad never felt any calling from God to pastor a church. Dad used his talents for ministry in inspiring others and motivating us kids to be our best. He always had to be active, moving, and doing.
When one of us complained about being bored or that we didn't have anyone to play with, he would remind us that there were ten of us: "You get tired of playing with one sister or brother, there's always another child in this house you can play with." Laughter was often Dad's best tool for inspiring and encouraging others, and no matter how tight things got at home he would never let us wallow in what we didn't have. Even the most difficult times could be laughed at. "There were times we were so poor, I opened up the icebox and all I saw was a light," he loved to tell everyone. Both of my parents, being very godly people, set down strict rules that outlawed dancing, parties, makeup, and movie going, but still I credit both of them with enormous wisdom.
Dad in particular never lost sight of the fact that we were young and needed something to do. He was always coming up with something for us (and himself!) to do. He showed us that a saved life was not a bored life. When we weren't bowling, we were skating. When we weren't skating, we were playing baseball or running track. If we weren't playing sports, we were having concerts. Dad was always organizing something for youth: youth at church and youth in our neighborhood. You'd think that he had enough kids of his own and wouldn't want to be bothered with any more, but Dad has always been young at heart.
As far as Dad was concerned, there was always room in the Winanses' house for one more child. Kids from the neighborhood and from church were always dropping by and hanging out at our place. They often came under the pretense of hanging out with my brothers, but most of the times they just wanted to see what Dad was up to -- they wanted to challenge him to a game of ball, listen to him talk, or have him tell one of his funny stories that left them laughing and feeling better about life. Dad inherited his wit and humor from his mother, Grandmother Howze, and remains one of the funniest men I know.
As poor as we were, with ten children to clothe and feed, Dad was always finding money to organize teams -- baseball, bowling, track teams, anything to keep us young people occupied. Dad always made sure that there was always something for us to do. He encouraged each of us to achieve our potential, then to reach further, and always to trust God. Even though Dad had to work two, sometimes three jobs in order to keep food on the table, even though there was never enough money to go around, Dad kept us motivated to take our minds off what we didn't have and to thank God for the things we did have: each other, our love; our faith, and our rich legacy as Winanses.
The house on Woodingham and Seven Mile, where my parents moved their family of what at the time were eight children, will always be home to me. My older brothers have their own memories of living and growing up in the projects of Detroit, where life was harsher and space was cramped, but those are not my memories. By the time I was born, my parents had scraped and saved enough money to move their expanding family to safer and better quarters, in a little framed house in West Detroit. Of all the places I've lived, that house is where my memories of what it means to be safe and happy were first formed. By anyone's standards, there's nothing breathtaking about the house: it's your typical brick, two-story home built just after World War II, neither grand nor spectacular, but it was wanted. In fact, the one thing it had going for it was the fact that David and Delores Winans wanted it so deeply for what would eventually be their family of twelve. With many of their friends living in the projects and in small apartments my parents felt blessed to be able to find a single-family dwelling they could afford. What more could any house ask for than that it be appreciated by its owners. In exchange for appreciation and gratitude, even a modest house will do what it can to make its inhabitants feel at home.
With three bedrooms, a basement, and one and a half baths, our Woodingham home gave us more space than a lot of other people had: one bedroom for the girls, one bedroom for the boys, and a bedroom for Mom and Dad. I drive through the old neighborhood now when I go back home, and I wonder how in the world my parents managed to raise ten children in that little brown brick house with the tiny, tiny lawn. I know their answer without asking, "Only with the help of God." Company was always dropping by, someone was always dashing in and slamming the door in a rush to get to the bathroom, someone was always out playing ball in the yard, someone was always knocking on the door bumming a ride to church. The house was often filled with friends, classmates, extended family -- as though ten children were not enough. There wasn't enough room for anyone to have privacy, but there was always enough room for one more. With seven boys in one bedroom, my brothers took turns sleeping on the floor. That's the way it was done -- not only at our house but at every other black or working-class home I knew where there were more children than there were beds. It didn't seem strange back then to us. Fighting each night for your turn to sleep in one of the bunk beds was a way of life. If you lost the fight or if you showed up late for bed, you slept on the floor -- period. The three of us girls had it easier, with a queen-size bed between us, but when it came to twelve people trying to get into one and a half bathrooms, it was every boy and girl, and man and woman, for himself and herself. Still, with all the laughter, love, and singing that took place at 19131 Woodingham, no one thought to equate a shortage of space with a shortage of happiness. One simply had nothing to do with the other. That distinction was one that Mom and Dad made sure was stamped on our minds, and I'm glad they did. Now that I'm older I've learned that Mom and Dad were right: just because you live in a big fancy house doesn't mean you're happy. It might just mean that you have more rooms in which to be miserable and lonely. I look at the home in which I now live -- with its big, spacious rooms, high ceilings, and state-of-the-art technology -- and I know that I can't afford to equate luxury with happiness. I thank God for all the comfort, believe me, but I also thank God that long before I found comfort in large living spaces, I embarked on a path to find peace of mind through prayer, song, and laughter within my soul.
There were so many things that we didn't have when I was growing up, but at the same time, there were so many other things that we had in abundance: we had one another, we had music, we had parents who loved us, we had family and friends who surrounded us with their prayers, and we had parents and grandparents who were always around to guide us. We had memories in the making. For instance, my father's mother, Grandmother Howze, was a positive influence and my very best friend. She was my girl, and I was hers. One of the things I loved most about Grandmother Howze was that she never tired of me. She was the kind of grandmother every bashful girl needs in her life: someone old and patient enough to see beyond a child's misguided questions to her hungry heart on the other side. "God's got His hands on you, CeCe. Just keep your hands in His hands, and you'll be all right." I loved my grandmother's wisdom, and I loved to be around her. She simply had it going on. She was short and golden brown with long beautiful salt-and-pepper hair that she always wore in a bun. (I remember wondering as a child why Grandmother Howze would never wear her beautiful hair down.) She looked and spoke as though she knew more than she was telling. But she always told you just enough to keep you coming back for more. She had an infectious laugh, and when she cried her eyes twinkled as she spoke to you. She was one of the funniest people I knew, full of wisdom, wit, and gaiety. For instance, she was always buying things to help Mom and Dad out with their ten children. One time she bought an industrial-size box of toilet paper for the family, clearly expecting it to last several months, only to discover that it was gone after a few short weeks. Grandmother Howze, who'd only had one child to raise, my father, was shocked to discover how quickly a family of twelve goes through an industrial size box of toilet paper. "Y'all act like you have two butts a piece!" she replied.
Grandmother Howze kept us laughing. She knew how to make a joke out of poverty, sickness, fights, and even heartache. She taught me things that have stayed with me for a lifetime, things I try to pass on to my own children and try to impart in my music: peace, wisdom, joy, and hope.
My most vivid memories of my father's mother are much greater than the many things she gave me: the toys, the money, the trips across the city, and the favorite foods she cooked just for me, whom she called "Sister," her first and oldest granddaughter: And my, my, my, Grandmother Howze could cook! What I remember above all is her spirit, the power she possessed in her very presence. So convinced was I of her powers that I loved following her around. The only house where my father allowed me to stay overnight was hers. I especially enjoyed sitting around with her and the other older women in the church, listening to them regale one another with stories of their days as younger women, their dreams for their children, and their faith in God. Convinced
that my grandmother was the most special person in the whole world, I was certain that her prayers got through to God quicker because only her prayers managed to make the stomach pains I chronically suffered as a child as a result of a hernia disappear. She was definitely the only person who could calm my dad. Grandmother Howze brought peace wherever she went. If things were in an uproar in our house -- my brothers fighting, Mom and Dad disagreeing on a matter, or if things were just plain out of sorts -- we knew whom to call. When Grandmother Howze approached, the spirit of peace and calm would fall. It's the part of her soul that I've tried to take with me wherever I am. Whenever I'm home, surrounded by ringing phones, humming fax machines, ringing doorbells, arguing children in the background, or whenever I'm in the car trying to make a dash to the airport in rush-hour traffic to make it to the West Coast for an evening awards dinner, or whenever I'm in the studio for ten hours working with producers and musicians who are uptight about our twelfth take on the same song, I try to recall Grandmother Howze's calm. I don't always succeed, but I try. I pray for that inner peace that transcends all understanding. I want my husband and children to remember me the way I remember Grandmother Howze, namely that when I walk through the door, the family can breathe a sigh of relief, not because of what I hold in my hands but because of what I bring in my heart.
I thought my grandmother would be with me forever. But that was the wish of an adoring granddaughter. In those final days of her battle with cancer, when it became clear that she couldn't take care of herself, God did exactly what she had wanted and prayed all along: she hoped God would spare her family the toil of caring for a dying old woman and would take her quickly on home with Him. She lived to see my marriage to a man she approved of greatly, and she was the only one who suspected that my flu symptoms were those of pregnancy, still she died before she had a chance to see my career take off and before she had a chance to get to know my children. I know she would have added richness to all our lives. But when I saw her beginning to decline before my eyes I prayed with her that God would heal her or take her home. As much as it hurts years later to say this, I'm glad God heeded our prayers. I'm glad God took her home, where she could witness the progression of my life and career from a better, safer vantage point.
What I learned from those very early formative years in my parents' house, surrounded by my parents, brothers and sisters, and grandparents was that not all blessings can be touched, stroked, and clutched with the hand. Some blessings must be experienced only with the heart. The love of parents, the warmth and laughter of brothers and sisters, the special companionship of a big brother who stoops to enter the world of his little sister and sip tea with her and her dolls, the gift of music to inspire the soul, and special time with a grandmother who gives presents from the heart are part of those intangible tokens of God's grace that stay with you a lifetime, filling you with memories of love, security, hope, and possibilities.
Home and Family
Blessed quietness, peace and rest,
Noisy, crowded and being surrounded by people you love is simply the best.
A safe environment, my refuge, my house was my hiding place,
A solid foundation. I could stand on Godly principles, and the teachings of God's grace.
Home and family, two gifts often taken for granted,
But Lord, I'm thankful and grateful for them both.
You have shown me your love abundantly,
I am blessed to have precious memories of home and family
Copyright © 1999 by Priscilla Love