A Thread of Grace: Uncle Tommy

For those of us who have endured childhood trauma, we may find ourselves still struggling in regard to identity and purpose, regardless of age or gender.  Parental observances on the calendar and emotionally warm familial posts on Facebook can be a trigger for painful memories that exacerbate our struggles. 

In times like these, it is helpful and Biblical to turn our thoughts and to focus on good and lovely things as Philippians 4:8 instructs us to do.  However, as my husband shared with me upon his recent return from a trip to Haiti, it is sometimes necessary to come face-to-face with the dirty and ugly things of life in order to discover the good and lovely fingerprints of God.

Recent transitions in my own life have forced me to revisit some ugly and traumatic events in my childhood and young adult years.  Much of the emotional pain I suffered emerged from a profound desire for parental love.  In fact, I actually allowed my desire for parental love and affirmation to become a god that proved to be a deep, empty well in my life that only God can fill. 

On some days, especially when I’m tired, stressed or suffering disappointment, I still struggle.  However, the older I get, the more clearly I see God’s beautiful threads of grace that have been woven into the tapestry of my less-than-perfect life.  One of those threads was my adoptive father, Tommy Bohannon.

Uncle Tommy was married to my biological mother’s sister, and he became my father by adoption when he was sixty-four and I was six.  He had raised six children on his own and had just entered his retirement years when he and my aunt adopted me; a little scraggly, thirty-four pound project kid.  Though at one time, my biological parents had served in ministry in the Nazarene church, the enemy of all families devised a plan of destruction, and my parents fell prey to it with divorce and multiple dilemmas following. 

My parents signed the adoption papers on me, the youngest of four children, after more than twenty years of marriage, when they were both well into their forties. 

I remember the day of my adoption upon which I wondered if I was suppose to begin calling my adoptive parents Mom and Dad.  However, Uncle Tommy clearly explained to me that he was forever Uncle Tommy to me because my parents still loved me in their own way and that they did what they felt was best for me at that particular time in their lives.  He further stated that it would be wrong to take the title of parents away from them because the whole process had already been painful enough for them.  Uncle Tommy was always the voice of understanding and reason because he cared deeply for hurting people.

Because Uncle Tommy taught me to respect my parents, I maintained a relationship with them throughout the years.  Though my mother could never quite bring herself to talk about the adoption, she strove to show love to me in other ways.  And hours before her death, I was able to pray with her and tell her that the adoption had all worked out for good.  And my dad did express his regret on more than one occasion.  Between the years of 1989 - 1991, my dad was a servant of empathy and encouragement to me as I dealt with a very painful divorce and the death of my sixteen-month-old daughter.  During this season, I got to hear my dad preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the Nazarene church once again.

God, the Restorer, was truly at work in his life.  I got to experience my parents in affirmative ways because Uncle Tommy taught me to respect them, no matter what.     

Uncle Tommy was the hands of Jesus on me in more ways than I can ever recount.  Though he was a small man in weight and stature, he stood confident and bold when he needed to.  Once after I had been physically whipped by someone within the family, he noticed that my demeanor was off, and he called me aside to discover my badly beaten back. 

He said nothing except, “Stay here, Neka”, and he came back and gently rubbed Vaseline into each wound and just held me close. 

To this day, I remember the feel of his little bony chest and the faint scent of Old Spice within his embrace.  And then he faced my abuser and told them that if it ever happened again,  he would call the police. 

Never again did I suffer physical abuse of that magnitude.

Uncle Tommy instilled within me a love of learning and encouraged me to read.  We would sit in front of a little gas heater in our project home on cold winter evenings and read the newspaper together, though I didn’t understand much of what I read. 

In the summer months, we mowed grass together for hire in order to supplement his Social Security earnings so that I could have new school clothes in the fall.  Upon returning home, we would often eat a boiled-egg and tomato sandwich and look at library books while sitting under the shade of a big sycamore tree. 

Uncle Tommy was a music man.  He wrote music, taught Stamps Baxter music schools, and began teaching me to play the piano in the first grade.  Music was important to him and not to be trifled with.  If a song was to be played publicly; it was to be practiced privately.  And for thirty-seven years as a church pianist, his admonition drove me to do the best I could possibly do.  And if I ever became sloppy, the guilt drove me nuts!

Uncle Tommy loved to garden, and upon harvest, he would give at least half of his vegetables away.  The garden was a sacred place for him just like music.  The tilling, planting, weeding, and harvesting were to be regarded as honorable work for the Lord. 

He taught me to embrace a strong work ethic which sometimes drives my husband crazy when he wants to pamper me!

Uncle Tommy was a thread of grace. 

He was beauty even in the ugliness of a difficult childhood.  I challenge each reader of this blog to look for beauty among the ashes.  Despite any trauma that has visited your life, God’s fingerprints are spread over the pages of your life.  Don’t be afraid to revisit the dark places, for therein you are bound to discover Jesus, the Light of the world. 

Something to think about…