Keeping Up with the Jameses

March 9, 2018

Me, during my dance school days.

Many people know God as a savior, a king and a healer, but He’s also a hitman. He did a job for me once.

I met Storm James at my dance school. She was 6 years-old; I was 8.  It was her first day, and she was afraid to go into her classroom. I took her hand. “Let’s go,” I said, marching her into her first ballet class. 

This was back in 1990, when no one could touch MC Hammer; when girls wore biker shorts and bamboo earrings; when the dopest 20-something year-olds drove fluorescent-colored Jeep Wranglers with “boomin systems,” like LL Cool J rapped about.

While Storm and I took our ballet, tap and jazz classes on Saturday mornings, our mothers went to a nearby diner for breakfast. They became fast friends and eventually sisters. So when I needed a place to go after school, because my  mom had to be at her second-shift job before my dad was released from his first-shift job, Storm’s mom, “Aunt Rhona” welcomed me to their home with open arms.  

The James family lived in the heart of the hood. Their neighborhood was known for drive-by shootings. There was a church on one corner and drug dealers working on the next. When my mom dropped me off to their house, there were kids running up and down the sidewalks yelling “Not It!” before starting a game of freeze tag. There were girls standing in driveways playing hand games like“Sliiiide 1-2-3-4” and others double-dutching in the street.

Storm had an older cousin, Katarah, who could do back flips while she was jumping in the ropes. Whenever it was Katarah’s turn, all the girls in the neighborhood, including Storm, would run over and watch her. I could never go. My mom and dad gave me strict instructions that I was not allowed to go past the limits of James’ front yard. I adhered to their rule because I was afraid that my dad would come driving around the corner to pick me up at the exact moment that I decided to venture out. So there I was, the only one, standing on the James’ front porch, in my blue, plaid school uniform and my patent leather tie-up shoes, watching everyone else lose their minds as Katarah soared between the double-dutch ropes.

There were only two times I left the yard. Once, I spent the night at the James’ house, and we went to church the next morning. Another time, Storm and I took a walk with her dad, “Slack,” to a huge brick building. While Slack stood in line, Storm and I joyfully interviewed one another and filled out carbon copies of forms at a counter in the back. We pretended to be “professional ladies.” Years later, I found out that we had visited a welfare office.

The James family included me in everything that they did. Storm had five brothers – three older and two younger. She was the only girl. When I was there, I was just one of the many kids in the house. No special treatment. If Slack fried Spam for Storm, then I ate Spam too. If Aunt Rhona had to run upstairs real quick to get medication for the baby’s surgery scar, and she asked me to watch him, then I watched him. If the toddler fell down the steps in his walker, all of us got fussed at for letting it happen again.

While Aunt Rhona was caring for her kids, or frying chicken, or cleaning the house, she didn’t notice when Storm and I played “house” with her brother Ronnie upstairs in an empty bed. Ronnie was seven years older than Storm; five years older than me. During the game Ronnie was the husband. Storm and I took turns playing the wife. Under the covers, the three of us lay side by side – Ronnie, then Storm, then me.

“Who wants to be the mom?” Ronnie asked.
It was my turn, so I switched places with Storm, now laying in the middle. Ronnie reached under my dress. I scooted back towards Storm. 
“Are we supposed to be doing this?” I asked Storm, looking for a way to divorce Ronnie.
“He’s just touching our butts,” she said matter-of-factly.
I searched Storm’s face for doubts, but she didn’t have any. She was younger than I was, but so certain about this game.

Ronnie reached his hands under my dress again. This time I didn’t stop him. He slipped his hand under my tights and under my cartoon-printed panties. The next time we played, it was Storm’s turn. He did the same to her.

I said if it was ever my turn again, I would tell my parents. I didn’t tell them the first time because I didn’t want to be the snitch. I was already considered the scaredy-cat that couldn’t cross the street with them and watch double-dutch. I was already the goodie-two-shoes that couldn’t go next-door and play with the neighbors. And when the other James kids heard the music from the ice cream truck and ran outside, I watched them from the porch. I didn’t want there to be one more thing that separated me from them.

One day it was my turn again. I had to play the wife.

I wasn’t sure if this was just kid business or if this game was wrong. I was certain that if one of the men in the house tried to be “my husband.” I should tell my parents right away. I knew that if Slack, Storm’s dad, tried to lure us into bed, I should run and kick and scream like my grandmother taught me. I knew if Storm’s Uncle Tram, who always sat in the living room chair in his gray basketball shorts, said anything to me about being “his wife,” I should call my parents on the phone right away to come get me. I didn’t say anything because we were all kids. Ronnie was a kid…an older kid…but still a kid nonetheless. I wasn’t sure if I was being peer-pressured or being molested.

The next time it happened, I swore to myself that I would tell my parents. I made a promise to myself, the same way people always promised to start eating better on Mondays. I guess I had taken too long to do something about it, because there wasn’t a next time.

Aunt Rhona had brain cancer. 

I had no idea that the last time I was at the James’ house was going to be the last time I was at their house. I didn’t know that would be the last time I would ever see Storm or any of them ever again.

Aunt Rhona died.

I remember riding in the car with my dad to her wake and refusing to go inside the church. If I would have gone inside, I would have seen Storm one last time. I would have seen Slack one last time. I would have seen her brothers one last time. I would have seen Ronnie…one last time. I chose to stay in the car.

Ronnie died.

Someone shot and killed him the year after Aunt Rhona died. He was 16-years-old. “He shouldn’t have been in those streets,” Slack told one of the local reporters. 

I was convinced that God killed Ronnie…or at least let Him die. I knew God wouldn’t kill a kid, unless he had done something terribly wrong. Ronnie’s death was confirmation that he was violating me and Storm. I changed my mind about telling my parents. They probably would have wanted to shoot and kill him anyway. God had already handled that. It was the first time I ever felt relieved by someone’s death. I couldn’t even consider Storm’s feelings and how much she had already been through.

Slack died the following year.

Over the next 20 years, I wondered about Storm and how she was doing. I couldn’t find her on social media or in the phone book. Then one Christmas eve, I bumped into one of her aunts while I was shopping. Her aunt called Storm right there in the store. Storm and I talked and exchanged numbers. 

We got together a couple of times after that. She showed me pictures of her brothers all grown up. I met her daughters. She told me that Aunt Rhona didn’t die from brain cancer, but an illness that she and Slack shared. We never talked about Ronnie.

To this day, I still can’t wrap my head around everything I experienced with the Jameses. Looking back, I think this was a story of mothers doing their best, and God stepping in when they couldn’t do more.

My mom wanted to make sure I was taken care of while she went to her second-shift job, yet bad things still went down. Aunt Rhona tried to take care of a bunch of kids, work part-time, keep her house together, and be a good wife…but everything just completely fell apart for her family. Yet, God kept Storm and I throughout all of it.

Now that I have a baby, I want to protect him from everything, but I know that I can’t. It terrifies me. He’s going to have his own experiences to navigate. Some of them are going to be between just him and God. Hopefully they will teach him to trust Him. God intervened when I was too afraid to tell anyone about what Ronnie was doing to us. He stopped things from continuting…or even getting worse. God kept Storm strong after both of her parents died.

Many people know God as merciful, kind and forgiving, but I also know Him as my protector, and He leaves no job unfinished.

More about Stacy

On this blog, I’m sharing some of my personal memories of pain, shame and embarrassment. Hopefully they help you in some way.

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