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Stories You Might Have Missed

Doris & Caleb: A Great-Grandmother’s Love Story

by Robin Nelson

©2003 Conversations Magazine All Rights Reserved

Atlanta, GA — “There’s only two ways out of here — when you die or when you get arrested,” the officer reflected as he patrolled through the Bowen Homes public housing project on Atlanta’s west side. The low-income community of stark, yellowed cement block apartments just off Bankhead Highway is a tough place, possibly the most dangerous public housing in the city, he explained.

Drugs are ever-present. Few families in the dingy, cramped apartments have the benefit of a father’s presence. Homicide investigations are commonplace, if not always high on the police department’s priority list. Most killings are drug-related. “I don’t think there’s much hope in here,” the officer said.

But inside a dimly lit kitchen on the outer edge of this sprawling and dreary neighborhood, 89-year-old Doris Broughton sees it differently. For Doris, hope is even more real than the pot of turnip greens she’d been cooking for herself and her eight-year-old grandson, Caleb.

“Grandma,” as Caleb calls her, has been doing her best to make life as safe as she can for him, despite the crime and drugs that surround their tiny apartment. “Lord Jesus lives here, and He’s protecting us,” Doris explained.  The crack house in a nearby apartment is just another challenge to their safety, “but it’s nothing too big for God to handle,” she said.

The elderly woman and her young charge held hands as they bowed their heads in prayer before dinner. “Precious Lord, we thank you for providing all that we need. You are so good,” she said, squeezing Caleb’s hand. “And thank you for loving us,” Caleb added, squeezing her hand again. She had prepared a feast of fried chicken, biscuits and greens for the two of them. It was more than enough. Doris manages on less than $500 a month in Social Security income and food stamps. She is thrifty and frugal, and takes good care of her meager furnishings.

“I used to cook and clean for a doctor’s family years ago. I been cooking all my life. I don’t have much of an appetite anymore, but Caleb sure does. I’ve got to make sure he eats right and grows up healthy,” she said.

“Caleb’s momma had him when she was just a girl herself, but she didn’t want a baby around,” Doris explained. “She was going to give him up to the adoption people but I told her, ‘As long as I’m living and breathing you’ll do no such thing.’ So she signed him over to me to raise up. I’ve raised up so many children in my life. There wasn’t nobody else to raise Caleb. So the good Lord put him with me.”

Caleb was born several weeks premature and came to live with Doris when he was just a week old. Doris had just turned 81. He sees his mother only a few times a year. He’s never known his father.

Doris rises by 5:30 every morning to get Caleb ready for school. After she’s prepared a hearty breakfast of grits, sausage and eggs, they head for the A.D. Williams Elementary School a few blocks away. Though it only takes twenty minutes make the trip, Doris insists on walking with her grandson to the school and back every day. Rain, snow, even a bad cough, won’t stop her. They hold hands as they walk past the crack houses and dozens of young men with nothing to do but hang out.

“There’s so much bad out there. I don’t want this precious child mixed up in it. God gives me the strength to get him to school and back every day,” she said.

“I make sure Caleb goes to school clean. I try to wash his clothes every day. He doesn’t have much, but what he does have is clean. I can’t take care of this place like I once did, but I do the best I can,” she said, sweeping pieces of dried mud from the narrow entryway.

When the dinner dishes and pans were washed and put up, Caleb settled down to finish his homework. He’s a ‘A’ student, he’s on the honor roll, and her takes his schooling seriously. “That boy loves to do his arithmetic,” she said, smiling. “He wants to be a policeman or a fireman, maybe even a spaceman. I tell him he can do anything he sets his mind to, as long as it makes Jesus proud.”

“A man from our church told Caleb if he keeps his grades up and can get accepted to college that he’ll help him get there. I just pray the Lord lets me live long enough to see Caleb grow up , make something of himself, and get out of here.”

“I’m doing my best to raise him right. I know Caleb knows the Lord. Even if he strays, he’ll have Him to come back to. He’s been praying ever since he learned to talk. I’d be walking around here praying and Caleb would repeat what I said, but back then he didn’t know what he was saying or who he was talking to. Now he sure does.”

She beamed as Caleb repeated his favorite story from the Bible — the story of a man named Jonah who was swallowed by a large whale, and how that changed his life. Doris had read dozens of Bible stories to Caleb over the years, most of them at bedtime, just before prayers. They were the same stories she learned from her father in Monticello, Georgia, where as a child she worked the fields picking cotton, corn and peanuts with her sisters in 1920.

“I loved those stories my daddy told me. Once I learned to read, I wanted to know those stories for myself. I’ve been reading the Bible ever since.”

Doris meets with a dozen other women from Bowen Homes every Tuesday morning for a Bible study. They gather in a large circle in the community center where they are joined by visitors from suburban churches and ministries to pray, sing, clap and dance in praise and worship.  For two hours every Tuesday, the women forget  their dreary circumstances and focus on thanking God for all their blessings.

“As long as I got King Jesus I don’t need nobody else,” the women sang out on a recent Tuesday. Tears rolled down the cheeks of more than a few, Doris among them. The room  overflowed with hope.

“I don’t know how long I have left, but I know the Lord let me live this long so I could take care of Caleb. I know He’ll take care of that boy when I’m gone. He sure has taken good care of us up to now,” she said.

Doris put on her frayed hand-me-down coat and hurried back to her small apartment. There were Caleb’s shirts and jeans to wash and mend, and biscuits to make for that night’s supper.

“Caleb sure loves biscuits,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 15, 2010 10:42 pm

    This made me cry Robin! Beautiful….just beautiful!

  2. July 15, 2010 10:44 pm

    Would it be ok to put this on my blog site? I will put your link on the page so that they will come here..

    • July 15, 2010 11:31 pm

      A link is okay, but the content is copyright protected so I think it needs to remain intact here and not be copied.. thanks.


      • July 16, 2010 1:13 am

        I completely understand-I’ll just copy/paste your link in the address bar to bring people here to your site. 🙂 thanks

  3. July 20, 2010 5:35 pm

    I would like to talk with you about your work.

  4. July 21, 2010 12:55 am

    Robin it was a pleasure speaking with you…and a joy to read your story about a beloved grandmother. I look forward to meeting and future conversations. Katina

  5. Ray Fulks permalink
    August 14, 2013 12:58 am

    Hi thanks Robin Nelson for sharing this good story. I stumbled on this while thinking of my grandmother she passed last year and Calebs now 17 . Well appeciated. Doris J Broughton was a wonderful woman. Love Always

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