I once heard a man say, “I know I gave my word, but the rules changed, so I’m off the hook.” His words had a profound effect upon me, because I am who I am because of someone who didn’t abandon his promise when the rules changed.
My father, Sam and his younger brother, David were very close. They owned and operating a small trucking company. When Sam was diagnosed with advanced inoperable brain cancer, his greatest concern was for my mother, Riferlee, and his ten children. He asked David to help take care of his wife and children. David and his wife, Bessie gave their word that they would help my mother rear us. After Sam’s death, David and Bessie kept their word and helped my mother. Then, the rules changed. My mother contracted terminal leukemia and died a year after my father.
David was left with a dilemma. He and Bessie had one child, nine year old Doris, but he
had promised to take care of his brother’s ten children. He thought that meant helping my mother. Now it meant adopting all ten of us. David was a man of his word. He had to fulfill his promise to his brother, even though the rules had changed. He knew that, in Chicago in the early 1950’s, ten orphans would certainly be separated and could grow up not knowing each other’s whereabouts. As wards of the state, we would be sent to orphanages in surrounding states in groups of two or three, in hopes that some would be adopted. No one would adopt all ten, nor would anyone want to adopt one or two, leaving the others behind.
David and Bessie welcomed all ten of us, ages 1 ½ years to fourteen, into their home. They remodeled their two-flat on Chicago’s Southside, building four large bedrooms upstairs for the girls, and three bedrooms and a bath in the basement for us boys.
They were devout Christians, who raised us up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord. Church attendance was not optional. Every situation was a life lesson. They both led by example, helping the poor and down-trodden, and living lives of integrity and honor. We ate our meals together as a family at our dining table. Each of us was required to have a verse of Scripture to recite after my uncle said grace.
They provided us with a great childhood, with many experiences. My uncle was a great outdoorsman, and taught us to fish, hunt, track and trap game, etc. My aunt made sure that we treated each other and others with the love of the Lord. She was a very wise, intelligent woman, although she had only been allowed to go to school through the third grade in her native Mississippi. Children eight years old and up had to work in the fields, but, that’s a story for another time.
David and Bessie kept their word to rear us to adulthood. Following my freshman year in college (my younger brother was then in the Marine Corps), she died of stomach cancer. One year later, Uncle David died from a stroke. At age nineteen, I was orphaned for the second time.
My cousin, Doris refused to allow us any inheritance, stating that she had shared her parents, and enough was enough. I understood her position, realizing that she had, indeed, sacrificed an idyllic life as an only child to being one of eleven children. I explained that the things of real value that I received from her parents were the life lessons they taught me, and that I would apply those lessons to my life. That was my inheritance.
I began my adult life with nothing, but the things they taught me have served me well. I try to live in a way that shows appreciation for what they did for me. I always try to keep my word, because they kept theirs. I strive to never bring shame to their memory. They were ‘angels’ that God brought into my life when I needed help. They lived Isaiah 1; 17 “…Seek justice, Reprove the ruthless, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow.”
By James J. Jackson