Child of the Heart by Bernice Willms
At age seven Joseph Lawrence Harrison’s mother dies and when his ageing father has to go to Florida for his health, Joey goes to live with his older brother James. Joey’s brother is already married and has three children Angela, Harold and Felicia Francine nicknamed Freddy, and it is Freddy who befriends Joey when she gets older and realizes that Joey is different. Despite her own heartbreak in her relationships, she fights to keep Joey out of prison when he is accused of murdering a child. Joey is mentally challenged but Freddy knows he is not capable of such a horrendous deed and seeks to find the one who did.
It was a time of innocence for me, those first years of growing up. A time of naiveté when I thought that “being different” simply meant the differences between being a boy or a girl. A wonderful time, when I still believed in happy endings and dared to dream. It was a childhood of joyful days spent with my Uncle Joey, or to be more specific, Joseph Lawrence Harrison. An impressive name for someone like Joey, who, totally unbeknownst to his parents when they chose his name, would forever remain a child in many ways. There were none of the outward signs usually attributed to a child like Joey. Labeled a slow learner by people who have been taught to be kind, and a retard by the not-so-kind. My parents have another label for him. To my father he’s an obligation, and to my mother he’s an embarrassment, but to me he’s Joey, my friend.
I guess those labels never meant anything to me then. I just thought Joey was the smartest person in the world. After all, it was Joey who taught me the difference between a flower and a weed. He showed me how soft the fuzzy fur on a caterpillar feels, when one day he gently picked it up and let it crawl on my arm. It was Joey who held a frog carefully in his hands and let me feel its smooth white belly. Every creature Joey touches, he touches with loving tenderness. That’s how I describe him if anyone asks: gentle, kind, and ever protective of the helpless.
“Be careful” he’d always say whenever I picked up a small animal to examine or pet. “You don’t want to hurt it.” Growing up with Uncle Joey I learned not to hurt or hate.
It’s only later, when I got older that I learned of those things, of the darker side of human nature; when people started looking at the child in a man’s body with suspicion. When the foreshadowing of Joey’s future scared me. I worry that people might think my uncle is even capable of hurting another living thing, this man who wept openly when my kitten died.
Now I’ve grown, and still live in the big old white house along with my parents, a brother and sister, and Joey. Mom always said that when she had me, she got two kids, since Joey came to live with us the same year I was born. I was a baby and Joey was seven, but the both of us were viewed as an embarrassment, especially to my mother.
I think my mother expected me to be like my sister, Angela Lorraine. Mom is into impressive names, just like my grandmother was. The problem with that is the impressiveness never stuck. With much disappointment on the part of the givers of the names, the implied greatness of such an impressive name was always reduced, inevitably watered down to be less of a mouthful. For instance, my sister ended up being called “Angie,” while my brother, Harold Leopold, became “Harry.” Even my dad’s name, James Henry, is shortened to “Jim”. Only my mother’s name, Margaret Ann, remains Margaret, at least when we talk directly to her. But behind her back, it’s always “Maggie”.
When I was born, my mother was determined to defy the tendency of those who love to shorten names, naming me Felicia Francine. However she didn’t take into account how difficult it is for a five-year-old to pronounce “Felicia,” and one day my sister discovered that it’s easier to simply say “Freddy.” From that day on, “Felicia” became “Freddy.” Only with my mother do I maintain the name originally given to me. Even so, to this day when she says that name I have to take a glance around the room to see if there is a Felicia present as my birth-name has become so alien to me.
My nickname was the first of many embarrassments to my mother, but by no means the last. The truth is, I looked more like a “Freddy” than a “Felicia.” I was born with wild red hair and the accompanying freckles, and from the very get-go, I was a tomboy. In both appearance and behavior I am the exact opposite of my sister, who inherited her natural dark beauty from my mother’s side of the family. My mother is beautiful, graceful, and can cause people to cease their chatter simply by walking into a room.
My sister and I were never what one would call close. While she went to ballet and music lessons I went out in the garden and dug up worms for fishing or plants for re-planting. Sometimes I just dug in the dirt for the simple pleasure I got out of it. My fingernails were always caked underneath with the black stuff, the white half-moons of my cuticles turned dark by the soil. It didn’t bother me, but it sure did bother my mother. In vain I attempted to play the part of the textbook “Little Lady.” I strove to be the over-achiever that mom always wanted, but whenever I tried it inevitably resulted in an even worse embarrassment to my mother than before.
Take the time when I was about eight, and the community playhouse was putting on the popular production of the Broadway play Annie, and I auditioned for the lead role. I figured, heck, if landing the part depended anything on looks, I was a shoo-in, for sure! My mother even cut my red curly hair short, so it looked just like Annie’s. Except for the whole not-actually-being-an-orphan thing, I was Annie–at least, until I was told to sing. All the notes of the song followed this neat little pattern. That’s how the director explained it, and all I had to do is follow one note after the other, kind of like cars following the lead car. It sounded easy enough; though I tried my best, when I opened my mouth, all my metaphorical ‘cars’ went in the opposite direction, bumping into each other, squeaking and squealing, clashing and colliding, creating a horrible mess of the song. Even though I botched the entire thing, I will admit that my volume and projection were good. After my pitiful attempt at singing I wasn’t allowed to remain long enough to demonstrate my acting abilities, and so I never found out how good of an actress I might have been. That didn’t happen until years later, when the day came that I had to tell Joey that what people say doesn’t matter-when in my heart I knew it did. But that was after I grew up, leaving Uncle Joey behind and locked in a state of permanent childhood.
Joey was born late in life to my grandparents. After having my dad they tried for more children, but they were perpetually unable to reap the fruits of their love. Grandma would always have a miscarriage, until finally her womb couldn’t even produce another stillborn. It was at the age of forty-three and in the midst of her final change in womanhood, just before menopause, that she got pregnant again. It came as quite a surprise to everyone involved that this time she stayed that way, and carried the child to term. My dad was already twenty-two and married to my mother, and they were expecting their first child. This served as yet another item to add on the long grocery list of embarrassments for my mother. Imagine going to your ob-gyn, eight months pregnant, and meeting your mother-in-law there, every bit as pregnant as you are!
Grandma didn’t get to enjoy Joey for very long, though. She died of cancer when he was six, leaving my grandfather, already in his fifties, to raise Joey. My grandfather tried his best with the boy, but his arthritis was getting worse, and staying in the Midwest climate only aggravated it further. That’s how Joey came to live with us. Grandfather went to Florida one winter, in the hopes that the warmer climate would improve his deteriorating health, and he never came back. He met a widow there; she wanted Grandpa but not Joey. So Grandpa signed over the garden store, the landscape business, and even the house to my father, in exchange for my parents’ taking over the responsibility of caring for Joey. My mother agreed, mainly because I think she was afraid that if she didn’t accept the opportunity when it was offered, that would be that, and they would end up regretting it later. She knew that, should anything happen to Grandpa, the widow would end up with the business and the house, but she and my father would be stuck with Joey.
It would certainly appear this way, and there was even gossip which suggested that the only reason mom took in Joey was for the money, but that’s just not so. My mother loves Joey; it’s just some of the things he does that she doesn’t like.
For example, take the time when Joey urinated all over the church steps. I was just a baby then, but that story will live on in the annals of our quiet, conservative Midwest church’s history forever. It inevitably gets elaborated on with each telling. Anyway, this particular incident happened after church. As usual on a beautiful Sunday morning, much of the congregation stood outside and chatted. My mom and dad were standing and talking to the minister, where a small crowd had gathered around, when Joey announced to anyone who would listen that he had to go to the bathroom. Involved in conversation with the minister, Joey was ignored by my parents, not just once, but a couple of times, until finally he became weary of asking. His full bladder became too large a burden for a small boy, and so Joey just whipped it out and peed, looking every inch a statue of the little boy “peeing” water into that fountain in Brussels.
Joey just kept going, yellow liquid trickling down the steps like a miniature waterfall. Totally unaware of the terrible breech in etiquette, he ended up splashing on anybody within range, including the minister. By the time my father could pick Joey up and carry him over his shoulder to the car, the boy’s zipper still undone, there was a little puddle pooled at the bottom of the previously immaculate steps, and a severe red shame spreading rapidly across the whole of Dad’s face and neck.
The last words heard that bright Sunday morning as we drove off were my mother yelling at the confused little boy in the back seat, “Then pee in your pants next time if you have to! Just don’t ever do that again!”
Joey never did do that again, at least not at church; there are times when I’m working with Joey, digging in the dirt, or helping him get a yard ready for planting, that Joey “waters” it, first. I never say anything; I just turn my head politely away. I don’t share the same opinion as my mother. It isn’t better to “pee in your pants.” Hell, there were times there wasn’t a bathroom around and I had to go where I simply squatted down and did what I had to do. I was more discrete about it than Joey, always taking care to go behind a bush or tree before I dropped my pants. That was when I was still just a kid. It was all so innocent, so natural, but when you’re a kid, you have no idea how innocence and childlike ignorance can be misconstrued as ‘bad’ things by adults. My problem now, is that if Joey gets in trouble, I might not yet be wise or old enough to comprehend this aspect of what I am still learning to be ‘harsh reality.’
I am sixteen now, and as sometimes happens moving from childhood to young womanhood my life has taken some twists and turns. My hair isn’t quite so wild anymore, but it is still red and curly– really red and really curly. I still have the freckles, and they’re real, too. My idea of appropriate dress is different from my mother’s, and even though I’m still an embarrassment, it’s a different kind of embarrassment. Arguing with my mother about almost everything is one of the twists and turns I’ve taken since those wonderful days of growing up with Joey. When I thought digging in the dirt was fun, and Joey was the smartest person in the whole world. I still dig in the dirt with Joey, but now I do it working for my dad, who has taken over the garden store. It was part of the deal for us taking Joey. I believe my mother was right when she said that if we didn’t take when the taking was good, we’d be left out in the cold.
My grandfather died shortly after my birthday, leaving the widow woman his whole inheritance, with the exception of one condominium in Florida, and money sufficient for them to care for Joey for the rest of his life, provided that wouldn’t be too long. Luckily, Joey’s needs are simple, and Dad decided to build a little house on our property especially for Joey so he can have some semblance of independence. At this point Joey is twenty-three years old, but mentally he remains a child. It is a big step for Joey to be on his own, so I do my best to help him adjust.
Every morning before school I go to his little house and have breakfast with him, and every evening I carry dinner over for him. I always eat something with him, even if I’ve already eaten at home with my other family members. It’s a wonder I don’t get fat from eating all those extra meals, but thankfully, all the fetching and carrying I do back and forth helps me to work off any excess calories. Recently my dad’s opened another store, so it isn’t just the fussing over Joey and going to school that keeps me running, but also working for Dad in his new store on weekends and in the summer. The summers are easy for Joey when I’m around, the two of us digging in the dirt, planting something or other. And now that I have my driver’s license, I can take Joey with me when I make deliveries for my dad. It’s the time when I go to school that’s hard on Joey. I convinced Dad to add a little greenhouse onto the back of Joey’s place, so he can putter with the plants when he gets lonely. They’re his only friends in my absence. And as things sometimes happen, unforeseen benefits emerge. My idea for the addition of the greenhouse turned out to be a good investment. Joey is second-to-none in his careful nurture of plants and we are able to harvest and sell those flowers and vegetables that Joey so lovingly looks after, actually making a small profit.
Life has always been pretty predictable for Joey, working with me for my dad. And except for the days it rains we’re usually outside working in somebody’s yard. Today is no exception. It’s summer, it’s not raining, and Joey’s arguing is predictable when I drop him off to start work, while I make a delivery.
“I don’t want to stay, I want to go with you,” Joey argues, and I force myself to be firm when I tell him, “You have to get started, Joey. It’s going to take all day to get everything that’s come in planted. If we let those plants sit around any longer, they’ll die. You don’t want those plants to die–do you, Joey?” I say, putting emphasis on the word die.
Noooo–” Joey says slowly, like I just said a dirty word. “But we can work real hard, Freddy, even if I go with you. It won’t take long.”
“But if you get everything ready, by the time I deliver the rest of this stuff, I’ll be back to help finish up. I’m going somewhere tonight, Joey, so we’ve gotta finish early.”
“Ooookay,” Joey agrees, reluctantly opening the door and stepping out to help me take the flats of plants off the back of the truck. “But you’re no fun anymore–not since you started having to go places early,” he says with pout in his voice.
I feel a twinge of guilt as I begin the task at hand.
I’ve been going places early, ever since I started going out with Erik. But I’m sixteen, for crying out loud; why shouldn’t I be hanging out with kids my own age? Mom says that I should. Dad says I should. So why, I wonder, can’t Joey share their opinion? But then I remember that Joey just doesn’t understand about dating. Joey doesn’t understand anything about this boy/girl stuff, and so, once again trying to find some compromise, I say, “Look, Joey, tomorrow night we can go to the movies–okay?” But no sooner have the words left my mouth than it occurs to me I might run into some kids I know, so I change my proposition a little.
“Better yet, I’ll rent a movie and we can watch it on your new VCR. Would you like that, Joey?”
“Well, what kind of movie?” he asks, absently picking the dirt from under his nails.
“I don’t know, what do you want to watch?” I ask, picking up a box of plants off the back of the truck.
“The Three Stooges. I want The Three Stooges,” he answers, taking the box I hand him.
“But you watch them all the time. Don’t you want something different?”
“But I don’t watch them with you. It’d be more fun with you,” he says with a smile, and I can’t help but give in. It’s always hard to say no to Joey, especially when he flashes me that sweet, genuine Joey-smile, his secret weapon that almost never fails.
By the time we get the whole movie issue settled, we’re finished with taking the plants off the truck, and I help Joey set the flats by the flower beds, making sure he knows what goes where.
“Are you going someplace early with Erik?” Joey asks with obvious hurt in his eyes. Ever since Erik started working for Dad, Joey has that hurt look in his eyes.
“Erik thinks I’m beautiful I say, avoiding a direct yes to his question. “He says he doesn’t mind my freckles at all. He thinks they’re cute. No boy ever told me I was beautiful before, Joey,” I explain, but despite my best efforts to avoid hurting him further, Joey knows my feelings for Erik are more than friendly. It’s a common misconception that, just because Joey is a little slow he is also stupid, but I’m one of the few who knows better.
“You are beautiful, Freddy,” he says, real serious. “Yeah, sure–and maybe cows fly, but I haven’t seen any flying–have you?”
“Cows can’t fly, Freddy,” Joey says, still serious. Then, doubt creeping in, he asks, “Can they, Freddy?”
“Of course not, you silly goose!” I reply, laughing, a kind of laugh with him, not at him laugh. I give his shoulder a loving pat just to make sure he understands the laugh. “It’s just an expression, a figure of speech. You know, like when Mom says, ‘it’s raining cats and dogs,’ but it’s not really raining cats and dogs, just really hard.” He’s silent for a moment, eyes downcast, seemingly studying the flowers he’s going to plant, like he’s through with talk, but then, yet another question.
“Then–why does she say it?”
I take a deep breath, wishing he didn’t take everything so darn literally. I wonder how I get myself into these conversations anyway. I’ve explained this all before to Joey, all of it! Maybe not the cats and dogs thing, specifically, but definitely similar stuff.
“Sometimes people just say dumb things, Joey,” I say, hoping he catches on to the note of finality in my voice. But, of course, Joey doesn’t let it go, not yet.
“You’re not dumb, Freddy,” he protests.
“I said people sometimes say dumb things, Joey, not that I’m dumb. And anyway, the issue here isn’t how smart I am. What I said was that I wasn’t beautiful; that when I look in the mirror, I don’t see beautiful. Take this hair, for instance,” I say, removing the baseball cap from my head and fanning myself with it. “Why do you think I always wear this baseball cap?”
“Why?” Joey asks innocently, and I take another impatient breath before answering.
“Because, Joey, I hate my hair. Because Angie has beautiful black hair and I have this crappy red hair,” I say, tugging on an unruly lock for emphasis. “Because Angie has beautiful everything, and I have beautiful nothing,” I finish, and I hope Joey is finished with his questions because these negative thoughts are starting to piss me off.
“Your heart is beautiful,” Joey says softly, in earnest, and now I really feel guilty, not just for losing my patience, but for everything in general. Before I do something I know I’ll regret later, like say I’ll break my date with Erik and take Joey to a movie instead, I head for the truck.
“Boys aren’t interested in the heart, Joey, it’s the body they’re after,” I say just before I step up into the truck and drive off. With mixed emotions, I watch Joey in the rear-view mirror as he starts digging in the dirt: a lonely figure against the backdrop of blue sky.
I rush through deliveries, feeling the usual guilt of abandoning him whenever I leave Joey, but when I get back to the Claytons’ I discover he’s not alone. He has most of the flowers planted, but at some point while I was gone Joey acquired some help. A little girl is digging along with him, and I feel a little jealous thinking of how familiar it all looks. Wasn’t that me not so long ago? Why did I have to grow up and leave Joey behind?
When I go to help Joey finish up, throwing the empty flats into the truck bed, Joey tells me that his new friend’s name is Karen, and that she lives in the house where we are working.
“Hello, Karen,” I say, doing my best to forget my jealousy in order to be kind to the little girl, who can’t be much older than six or seven. “You’re very good at planting flowers. I bet Joey told you the names of everything the two of you planted.” I smile at her, but it doesn’t quite reach my eyes.
“I even told her that some plants have to have sun and some need shade. That she will have to water the flowers or they will die. I told you all that, didn’t I, Karen?” Joey says, real proud- like.
“Yes,” Karen says with a nod. “He knows lots about flowers. He’s real smart.”
“Yes, he is,” I say, thinking that Karen is a lot like me ten years ago, except for the hair and freckles, that is.
Karen looks pleased, Joey looks pleased, and maybe I don’t look it, but really, I’m pleased, too. I’m sixteen years old, and I still like to think Joey is the smartest person in the world. Not only that, but he has a beautiful heart, too.
I am a wife, mother and grandmother, and consider my writing time as my sanity time. Of course there are some after reading my books think it a bit odd that I call it sanity since there is mystery, conflict, drama and romance in my work, but at least in my writing I do have some control. Anyone who has experienced being a wife or a parent, or has been in a romantic relationship, a mystery or drama, knows there is sometimes very little we can control.
In all honesty though there are times that even I as the writer do not know exactly how the story is going to end, and there are times I write a character out of the story when in fact I do not want to. But so goes life, even if it is only a story.
and can be purchased at Amazon:
SNEAK PEEKS are our way of helping readers find new authors and books or get great previews! Please share and/or comment. Thank you!