Me and Billy were always pals. We grew up on the same side of town and started hanging out as soon as we were out of diapers. Before our mamas would even let us go off on our own, we’d sneak out our windows at night and go fishin’ down by the riverside, bathin’ in the moonlight...and sometimes the river too.
Once my mama and daddy split, I spent less time at home and more time over at Billy’s. His parents always let me come whenever I wanted and they even let me help out eatin’ meals. I was welcome any time, even on school nights.
Back home, mama remarried but things weren’t ever quite the same. My big brother went off to war and it was just me an’ ol’ Kipper, my coon dog. When I started showin’ up at school with bruises on my arms, the teachers started askin’ questions ‘bout where I’d been and how things were at home. I didn’t tell them that my step-daddy wasn’t all that nice or that I didn’t talk to Mama much anymore ‘cause she was usually asleep with a liquor bottle in her hand.
But over at Billy’s...that other stuff didn’t matter. He and I, we’d head down the road to pick strawberries for Mrs. Thompson, or go to that ol’ pond down at Mr. Franklin’s where he’d let us go swimmin’. We’d come back red as lobsters but Billy’s mama would fix us up with some homemade remedy. We’d smell for a week, but it soothed our burned hides.
The day finally came when I went home one evenin’ to find the sheriff’s car out front. Wasn’t but a few days later, we buried Mama out at the cemetery behind the church. My step-daddy was gone for good and I was on my own. The county wouldn’t have none of that though, and they tried to get me into one of them orphanages. I remember there was one night in particular that I knelt at the window and I prayed so hard I cried. I didn’t want to go.
It was the next day I knew I’d believe in God the rest of my life. He’d answered my prayer all right and I was gonna get to go live with Billy’s family. For the first time, I had a real routine of gettin’ up in time to make it to school, makin’ it home to a real warm meal every night, and I didn’t have to leave right when the good shows came on their television set. Billy and me shared a room and we got to stay up late under the covers of the bed with our flashlight and read the comic books he got from his granddaddy. I got to go to church every Sunday and get all cleaned up and nice and sit on them hard pews. But after God had answered my prayer, I got to enjoyin’ bein’ in His house once a week.
And it was in that year that I learned what family truly was. My folks were gone, and I never heard from my brother again. They were the only blood relation I had. But it was Billy and his mama and daddy that were my real family. The other kids at school sometimes picked on me ‘cause I wasn’t like all the rest of them. But I knew that it didn’t matter. I knew what they didn’t - that family was more than blood. I didn’t have to be related to Billy to call him my brother and I didn’t have to be his mama’s son to call her Mama. Family was what we were and what we always would be.
Billy and I drove up to see his grandkids today. The little tykes call me Uncle Jim. I think I like it.
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