Sage green corduroys and bell-bottom jeans with frayed ends hang next to the three shirts in the empty closet. All of thirteen and I stare at them like paintings I am tired of looking at on my wall. It isn’t until my mother catches me going through her drawer to find something different to wear to school, that she realizes I only have five pieces of clothing.
My mother wakes up with bags under her eyes and swollen fingers from the manual labor she does at the shoe factory on most days. I sit on the edge of her bed; weave my fingers through the cigarette holes in the blanket while we talk. Reassure her that I still love her, even after the events of the night before.
The guilt lingers over her like the sour smell of cheap wine and ash trays lying around the house.
We eat a lot of boxed macaroni and cheese. Trips to the grocery store make my stomach hurt when we push the cart down the liquor aisle. But all that changes the day she decides to go see the Reverend Bill Cunieo.
The first time I met Bill, I sat in a pleather chair next to my mother in a church office that smelled of Old Spice aftershave. His smile, like the crisp collared shirt he wore. Every hair slicked back perfectly, sitting stiff behind his brown particleboard desk.
I was sure he would get tired of us like everyone else. Wear that hospitable Christian smile, and then weary from the neediness we wore like rags. He proved me wrong.
After that meeting, my mother and I began attending church regularly. I exhaled a bit easier, worried less about the frenetic afterschool scenes.
When we moved away from that small Midwestern town a short time later, all those connections ended like the internet dropping in the middle of an upload. Until one blustery day in a hotel room in Greensboro, North Carolina, thirty years later.
After H’s responsibilities in front of the crowds finish in the grand ballroom, we kick off our shoes. Change into jeans, grab the wine opener and welcome friends into our suite. Laugh until the eyes see blurry and then do it again the next evening.
During one of those gatherings, in my socked feet, I extend my hand to welcome the Air Force chaplain I heard about from H over a dinner conversation.
“Steve Cunieo,” he says as he shakes my hand firmly.
Memories filed away decades ago suddenly open to a tab forgotten in the familiar tone of his voice. Words roll off my tongue like I am in a magician’s trance. “I once had a pastor by that name Cunieo,” I recall, “at a little church in Missouri called Faith Assembly of God.”
He looks down, then back up with a smile and says, “That’s my Dad.”
I take a step back, lean onto the back of a chair and my chest rises and falls heavy. I can’t decide if I want to laugh or cry. And now all eyes in the room are on us, including those of my daughter, tucked next to her Grandma on the couch.
We went to the same church in a town I would just as soon forget. Moreover, his Dad, he introduced me to Jesus. What are the chances we would meet here in this hotel room in North Carolina? That my husband is his endorser.
So I asked him again. Just to make sure.
Steve admits his Dad often questions the fruit from his time at that little church. Says he grapples with wondering why God had him there.
He steps out of the room into the hallway, dials his Dad on his cell phone, hands it to me.
I remind Bill of the house where we lived, the one at the top of a dead end street with tilted floors and cockroaches crawling out of the walls. He remembers it. The one he visited with a bag of groceries under his arm a time or two.
Maybe it gave that humble man, the one who made Jesus so desirable, some comfort knowing my life took a divine bend on the journey because of his faithfulness to the call of God.
Nothing is lost in this life. Every minute, every word, every circumstance is useful in God’s divine plan. Because God calls out the beauty of our redemption in the most unexpected places, to extract the best of who we are.
Have you been surprised by redemption?