In the inaugural post for this blog, in March, 2021, I wrote that my mother and father taught me and my brothers everything we know about holy discomfort.
“My mother dreamed of tending her own home, raising a family,” I wrote. “She always joked that she honestly had wanted the picket fence! And yet she married a man whose immense moral integrity matched her own and practically guaranteed they would get into trouble. She and my father made every decision together, walked alongside and encouraged each other, for 64 years of marriage. Her courage, while quieter than my father’s, was nevertheless a powerful force in his life and ours, one I never truly honored at the time.”
Today, June 16, is her birthday. It would have been her 89th birthday, had she not died in 2016. Letting go of her life with characteristic lack of fanfare, one moment here and the next gone, slipping out the back door. I like to think that she is celebrating this birthday with my father.
It is the truth that, as a young woman, I never truly honored my mother’s courage. Her restraint stood in contrast to the outspokenness and passion I admired in my father. She was never a crusader like he was, never wanted to be out in front carrying the banner. But, “just like a tree that’s planted by the water,” as the spiritual says, my mother could not be moved when she believed something to be God’s will. When she stood on principle, she stood firm.
A black and white photo of my young mother greets me every morning from the front of my refrigerator. In the picture, she is a newlywed, sitting on the couch she chose for her new home. She loved that couch: it was a deep wine red with a raised design of roses, leaves, tendrils, vines. Her arms are folded low across her torso, her legs crossed. She raises her eyes and gazes steadily at the camera, with a slight smile. You could call it a shy smile–but there is something defiant in her gaze. Defiant, and triumphant. She is a woman who knows her own mind and her place in the world.
As the newlywed wife of a young farmer, the woman in the photo welcomed a man who worked with my father out in the fields, a Black man, into their home. Cleveland reluctantly accepted their invitation to join them at the table for lunch, at a time when to do so was considered an act of defiance and civil disobedience and could get any one of them killed. 50 years later, she recalled, “It just didn’t make sense to me—if they were out there in the field, they’d be eating lunch together in the truck, wouldn’t they? So why should that be any different if they came back up to the house?”
The house in which the photo was taken, the house where they broke bread with Cleveland, the one built by Grandpa Murden to one side of the farm, is still standing. The farm is gone, replaced by a big and shiny high school, but, although the house has gone through some cosmetic changes, the basic structure is still there.
My mother was not destined to live long in that house. She thought she married a farmer. Turned out she married a minister of the gospel, a man of conscience.
While Dad was going to college and seminary, we moved around a lot, living in rented spaces. Until at last we moved into a parsonage built for us by a small church just west of Wake Forest, NC. My mother was ready to settle down. She planted cuttings from Granny’s azalea bushes behind the house, next to the woods.
She was not destined to live long in that house either. We welcomed what the community considered “the wrong people” into our home, to sit and eat at our table.
After the shooting in Wake Forest, my father suggested that my mother take my brothers and me to Norfolk, VA, to live with her mother. “And where will you be?” she asked.
“Oh, I’ll be here finishing up at the seminary,” he answered, casually. He had only one semester to go before graduating.
Her response was immediate and adamant. “Oh no. I’m not going anywhere without you. If you’re staying, I’m staying.”
We moved into one half of a large old manse in town, offered to us by a white couple who risked their home and reputations befriending us, while Dad completed seminary.
In the five months after the shooting, my father was invited to speak at Black churches across the state of North Carolina. The whole family went with him.
I remember that first Sunday. My mother left a beef roast slow-cooking in the oven so that we’d have something to eat as soon as we got back to the house. At the end of the service, one of the men of the church came to Dad and quietly said, “Rev. Shipp, we know you’re a busy man, but the ladies have prepared a little something for you, if you’d like to stay and have lunch. —Of course, we understand if you can’t.”
A look passed between my parents, and I knew my mother was thinking about that beef roast. Dad smiled broadly, “Well, I don’t know if the ladies expected to have to feed the whole family, but…”. He laughed. “If there’s enough food, we’re hungry.” The beef roast went to charred pieces in the oven, and from then on, Mom never prepared a Sunday meal. Everywhere we went, the ladies of the churches had always “prepared a little something.”
Which always turned out to be a feast. At first, the deacons and ladies wanted to seat our family on a dais, lifted up and away from the church members. My parents made it plain that we wanted to eat at the tables with everyone else.
As I was recently going through news clippings and letters Mom collected over the years related to the shooting, I was astonished to come across the draft of a letter my mother wrote to Warren Massenburg, my friend and the editor of The Voice. Written in the spring of 1970, her words cover five typed, double-spaced pages, with notes and additions scribbled in pencil, in the margins and between the lines.
She writes, “We have lived here in this town for over three and one half years…. How many times were we told what outstandingly fine children we had? But somehow their acceptance of black friends and the events of the past several months have changed all this…. The real heartache has not come from strangers but from those we loved and trusted and thought loved us, those we thought were our friends but who, when the going got tough, turned away, some believing and even telling lies. We are deeply grateful for those few who did not turn away!”
She writes about how, one night when Dad was away, “my 9-year-old son…came to my bedroom after he should have been asleep and said, ‘I can’t sleep because I keep hearing loud booms.’ And his eyes began to fill with tears as he said, ‘I’m scared and all I can think of is Daddy isn’t here and about the shooting.’ He prays often, ‘Please, God, keep Daddy safe and help him to protect us.’ Or ‘Help people who hate other people to stop hating and start loving other people like you do.’
“Do you wonder,” she asks, “why I must pray for the strength to love?”
Mom’s concern was not only for her family. “We are not the only ones in Wake Forest to live in fear. Why is this true in a town that has as many churches as Wake Forest? How can we call ourselves Christian? …I don’t wonder why some black men hate all white men. My real amazement and wonder comes from the realization that, after all they have suffered, some black men are still able to love and forgive white men. They far exceed my ability to love….”
My mother knew that our stand did not come without a price tag. In her closing paragraphs, she writes, “An attempt was made to murder us and it could be tried again. One of these may succeed—people have been killed before for practicing Christian love and probably will be again—but let me go on record with this statement: We may be killed and thousands more like us, but the cause for which we stand—Christian love and equality for all men—will not be killed because this is God‘s will and therefore it is right! God will have the final word. It may not be in my lifetime or yours, but God will be triumphant!”
She ends with words that echo Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I continue to pray for the day when a man will be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.”
There were times over the years when my mother grieved over the house she would never own, all the houses she had tried to make into homes. “Just once,” she lamented, “I’d like to have furniture that matches.” And she cried. It was not a joke.
There is so much more that I could write about my mother, about the ways in which she steadied and stood with my father, the way she supported him and our family. She supported us all, the way a load-bearing wall supports a house. Quietly. Without fanfare. Without calling attention to herself. Essential to the structure.
I guess that’s why, wherever our parents lived was the place we called home. Whatever house my mother tended, whatever home she made.