From the Heart Friday: With My Soul

Are you looking for a heartfelt #weekend read?
Take a peek at this week’s From the Heart editor’s choice:

With My Soul

About the Book

Betrayed by her husband, Willa Jane Wilson and her daughter are left penniless and alone in post-war Germany. She returns to her hometown in rural North Carolina and prays that a new beginning will soothe the anger still raging inside her heart. But no matter how many miles Willa Jane puts between her and her shame, the peace she seeks is drowned out by ignorance and abandonment.


Her saving grace comes in the form of a new opportunity that she can’t pass up. Tasked with caring for children at a local orphanage, she dedicates herself to transforming the financially-strapped institution into a real home filled with love and faith. But when her fundraising mission lands her in the middle of Raleigh’s glittering social scene, she encounters PJ Townshend, a handsome young lawyer with a dedication to service that matches her own. There’s only one problem: PJ is on track to change the country from its political epicenter—Washington D.C.—and the closer they grow to one another, the farther apart their worlds seem to be taking them.


When a natural disaster of Biblical proportions threatens to part them for good, it also puts the orphanage and everything Willa Jane has worked for in peril. An offer for help arrives from the most unexpected source. Accepting it will require forgiveness of the past…but it might also reunite her with the person her heart desires most.

Take a peek!

CHAPTER 1

August 1946

Over the bow of the ocean liner, the gray-green expanse of ocean widened between the European coastline and me. In my twenty-one years of life, whenever I’d felt lost or alone, I could always find myself in the water. But now? What I had called lost before paled in comparison to now. Heck, I didn’t even know what my name was anymore.

Was I Willa Jane Wilson or Willa Jane Miller?

I shifted my gaze over the handle of the pram clutched in my right hand, my heart marveled as usual at the sight of my one-month old daughter. She had been lulled to sleep by the massive cradle rocking us both out to open waters. My left hand closed over the four dollars and fifty cents in my pocket, all the money I had left after paying the fare back to America.

Crossing the ocean to return home should have been a baptismal journey. Instead, it was an exodus, a retreat into hostile waters. I lifted my eyes back to the sea, searching for the part of myself that water had never failed to provide before.

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

Our church choir back home sang that hymn when our community faced times of trial. In a bucolic town full of textile workers and sharecroppers, we heard it often. Despite the bleak imagery, the words of the chorus somehow always managed to fill my heart with hope. I’d probably been about seven or eight the first time I remembered hearing those lyrics. It had been one of those oppressively humid summer mornings in North Carolina where the congregation crushed in the pews could suck every thick drop of air from the room. I’d tugged at the lace edging on the collar of my church dress, counting the ladybugs parading the pew in front of me.

The preacher had intoned about the meaning behind the words, but all I could think about was the relief of the river I could barely see from behind the dark-paned windows. As soon as the last notes of the organ sounded, the press of perspiring humanity had burst out the doors like the release of the Red Sea. By the time I was down the path far enough to be out of sight, I’d kicked off my oversized patent leather shoes by the side of the dirt road, flung my dress over my head, and run full tilt to the siren call of the water’s edge.

Once, when I was twelve, I actually paid attention to the sermon, repeated in the perennial fashion of southern Episcopalian pastors. The minister of my childhood, Pastor Norm, as we called him, had spoken at length to the theme of the lyrics in his monotone voice, soliciting yawns from each member of the flock at least once during the sermon. As my focus had drifted in and out like waves receding from the shoreline, the story he’d told played out behind my heavy-lidded eyes. A man stands at the bow of a ship, staring down at the swells of eternity that had stolen his children. Instead of renouncing God, he lifts to the heavens the words of praise that would take on new meaning for me in the years to come.

Pastor Norm reminded us that when we hoist our troubled souls to the cross, we run straight into the embrace of Jesus. That facing our troubles down alone gave them power, multiplied their oppositional force. Only love, shared and accepted freely, could conquer all the hardships this world could throw at us. So we had been taught to believe. The frenzied crests of white chasing us westward were all I could see now. I prayed with everything in my heart that the anthem to enduring faith would prove true after all. There was no semblance of peace in my life right now. None of the hope that had filled my heart a little over a year ago, the day I’d burst into our farmhouse to tell my family the most exciting news of my life.

* * * *

March 1945

“I’m getting married, y’all!” I announced the moment I walked through the door. The sixteen-year-old twins, my sisters Elinor and Esmerelda, screamed in girlish unison and dropped their mirrors and hairbrushes on the floor. I could hear the clanging of sticks from the backyard where my brothers, Virgil Homer and Julius Caesar played. The set of twins, younger than the first set by almost eight years, were engaged in a duel of pint-sized gladiators. Eighteen-year-old Cordelia was at the stove, holding a pot with  the edge of her apron. At my entrance, she set the dish down with an ungraceful crash, the hot broth of her chicken n’ dumplings splattering over her blouse. She wiped it clean with the checkered print tied around her waist, then ran toward me.

“Willa Jane, are you serious? I didn’t even know you were seeing anybody. What’s his name? Where’s he from? Is he handsome?” Her questions peppered forth, all while nearly yanking my left arm out of its socket to bring my ring finger up to her outdated prescription glasses.

This might have been the most words I’d heard Cordelia speak at one time. Given the opposition of our personalities, Cordelia and I had never been particularly close until my first two years of college allowed some fondness to spring up in the patches of absence.

“Yes, he’s very handsome, not that that matters, really. He’s a lieutenant in the Air Force linguistics department named Jack Wilson. He’s from Oklahoma originally but he’s travelled all over the country and studied music all the way out in Los Angeles, California!”

Worry creased Cordy’s forehead. “Does this mean you’re moving to California?”

“Goodness gracious,” I said, affectionately pinching my little sister on her upturned nose. “I reckon we’ll figure that out after he comes back home. He’s shipping out to Germany on Monday. We were hoping to have a little ceremony here at the church on Saturday, with Mama Jo and Tom’s blessing, of course,” I added, shooting a look at MamaJo.

Everyone called my mother Mama Jo, her given name of Josephine being like the fine china stacked on the highest shelf, too good for everyday use. Even her students in the one-room schoolhouse where she taught every child from six to sixteen couldn’t bring themselves to call her anything else. She was Mama Jo to all. The only time we ever heard her Christian name was when she got going on one of her ritual tirades, the subjects of which could vary from politics to religion to the plunging necklines Miss Sally Mayfield  sported at church functions. One of my earliest memories was Daddy sneaking behind Mama Jo, wrapping his arms around her waist and saying, “Miss Josephine, it’s about time you came up for breath.”

Daddy always was a man of few words. However, when he did air the dust out of his vocal chords, folks paid attention. He was known for starting his rare speeches with, “I’m not about to tell you what to do, but if it were me…” He would then give you specific instructions for what to do, proven right often enough that we knew better than to argue.

With his mane of golden hair and blinding smile, he was the sun around which our family orbited. Long stints working in the coal mine two hours north of home took him away from us for weeks at a time and when he returned, the slow uncurling of his long frame cracked like the wooden floorboards of our three-generations-old farmhouse. No matter how weary he felt, he gave everything he had to us children. My brothers spent a good deal of their formative years perched atop his lofty shoulders, but like Atlas, there was no weight too formidable to bring him to his knees. The boys would use his enviable locks as a bridle, guiding their steed to chase the rest of us around the house, their high pitched boy screams of glee ringing through the house. After a victory lap, we would collapse in Daddy’s favorite rocking chair, overflowing with children and love.

It was in that chair Mama Jo sat as I announced my engagement. Her book flapped open at the spot that had commanded her attention before I entered the room. I could see her counting to four in her head before responding, her method of keeping emotional reactions in check. She had tried to teach it to me as a way of controlling my own outbursts. I would get to about two and a half before the empowering rush of fury would  smash my mental egg timer to the ground, then stomp on it for emphasis.

“Girls, go out back and make sure your brothers still have both sets of eyeballs intact, please,” Mama Jo said to my sisters, her eyes never leaving my face.

“But Mama—” was as far as Ellie and Essie got before Mama Jo’s eyebrows jumped to her hairline and Cordy rushed them out of the living room and to the back door, glancing back at me with the sympathy one affords a death row inmate.

Mama Jo closed her book and addressed me in a tone of exhaustion.

“Darlin’, how in the world did this happen? Please tell me you’re not pregnant with this man’s child. I know I taught you better than that,” she lectured, my stomach in the center of her crosshairs. If anyone could will themselves into having the power to see a growing baby through fabric, skin, and bones, it would be Mama Jo.

“No, Mama Jo, I’m not pregnant. We met last month at a USO event and we’ve scarcely spent a moment apart since. He’s amazing—brilliant and funny, brave, and so talented. He’s a musical prodigy and studied composition in college before his number got called up.” I took a fortifying breath and drove the railroad spike into the ground as hard as I could.

“Mama, I love him. He’s going off to war, and if something happens…”

I trailed off, unable to put into words the nightmares that had plagued my sleep since our first meeting. 

Mama Jo sighed like Job facing the line of bad news bearers. 

“Tom’s at the rectory office, working on this week’s sermon. If you’ll stay here with your brothers and sisters, I’ll go talk to him.”

I clasped my hands over my heart when she added.

“Now, now, don’t get too excited, yet. I can’t promise anything and I’m not saying I approve. But if you’re bound and determined to marry this young man, I’ll see what I can do to make sure that it at least happens in the Lord’s house,” and with that vague response, she walked out the front door, not even stopping to give me a welcoming hug.

I couldn’t stand still for the next three hours. Instead, I paced between the backyard and the kitchen. My little brothers whizzed back and forth in a blur of dirt and noise while my sisters watched from the safety of the staircase. Their faces poked between the bannisters in anticipation of a show that was not to be missed. At last the front door opened with an ominous creak and Mama Jo marched in, followed by my stepfather, the new pastor at our church.

“Well, young lady, your mama tells me that you intend to be married and you hope to have a ceremony in the church. Is that true?”

Even his casual statements sounded as rehearsed as the ones he spoke from his weekly pulpit.

I nodded, afraid to speak, in case anything I might have to say would sway him in an undesirable direction.

“While we have some serious reservations about you being engaged to someone you’ve only known such a short amount of time, I have no objections to your being married in the church.”

My shoulders dropped about four notches below my earlobes. I opened my mouth to thank him, but he wasn’t finished.

“We will, of course, have to meet this young man and you will both have to complete the premarital counseling sessions I require of every couple. The classes are one night a week for six weeks and the next round will be starting in September.”

Blood pulsed hot and thick in my skull at the addendum.

“September? That’s six months from now. I don’t even know if he’ll be back in the States by then. I can’t send him off to a war without getting married first. There has to be something you can do!”

My breath was coming in erratic bursts, warning of the explosion to come.

Mama Jo interjected next.

“Now sugar pie, we only want what’s best for you. You barely know this young man and we’ve never met him at all. I agree with Tom. If by September you and this…Jack character, still really want to get married and you go through the classes together, I don’t see why we can’t have a lovely church wedding after you’ve had time to think it over.”

With that, my internal timer rattled its signal that the calm Willa Jane would be leaving now. In its place, a volcano of indignation would be spewing its contents over the room and anyone unfortunate enough to be in it.

“I am sure. I love him. He’s going off to fight for his country and you want us to think it over? Mama Jo, please, talk to him. He may not know anything about being in love, but I know you felt the same way once. Would you have waited a year to marry Daddy, knowing you might never get the chance?”

The floating heads crammed between the stair rails vanished. An army of footsteps crashed on top of each other to miss the ending of the show before it got scary.

The hard line along Tom’s jaw tightened.

“Listen here, young lady, there is no need to be disrespectful to either your mother or myself. Marriage is a serious enterprise, not to be entered into lightly—”

The eruption of Mount Willa buried the rest of his admonition in its resentful flow. 

“You have the guts to talk to me about marriage? You only married Mama Jo so people wouldn’t gossip about why you stayed single all that time, and Mama only married you to have someone to help with the farm and her brood. You’re married out of convenience and you want to lecture me about the holy sacrament? To hell with both of you. If we can’t get married in the church, we’ll go to the courthouse and be done with it.” I hollered before brushing past them both, slamming the screen door behind me.

 The rage pouring from my heart cooled, encasing its throbbing in obsidian as my feet pounded on our long downhill driveway. I threw open the gate, running blindly until I reached the edge of the river, the site of so many of my happiest childhood memories. At the bank, I leaned against a beechwood tree and sank to the ground. Everything came pouring out, all of the heartache and bitterness, all the sheer unfairness of life that kept coming no matter how hard I raged against it.

If you asked anyone in our small town, my well-known rage storms were nothing more than the clichéd side effect of being a redheaded middle child. But there was more to it than what they saw from the outside. I was blessed or cursed, depending on how you looked at it, with an acute sensitivity to injustice. It didn’t matter whether the inequity was real or perceived, whether it was happening to me or someone else. Any affront to my sense of fairness, and it felt like my skin was peeling apart at the seams. At times, I wondered if it was because of how I entered this world in the first place. Every year on my birthday, after the cake and before my present, my mother used one sentence to describe both my delivery and my personality. “Willa Jane came into this world the hard way, and it’s how she’s done everything else since.”

I was a breech baby, the only one the midwife had seen survive the perils of childbirth done backward. Supposedly, the first words my mama let out after I finally emerged were “Lord, have mercy but I am NEVER doing that again.”

Either the Almighty didn’t quite hear her, or He has a wicked sense of humor. 

By the time I started school, I had heard the story so many times, I began to think I was put together backward too. The other children in town made it clear they thought so. Whether the taunts were aimed at my incorrigible curls and green eyes that tilted in an unmistakably feline direction, my nose perpetually stuck in a book, or simply the fact that our family took up an entire pew and a half in church, they hit the bullseye every time. My earliest memory of school was not sitting in the classroom; rather, it was being carried out under Mama Jo’s arm, kicking my comically small feet at the indignity of getting in trouble for something I could no more control than the sun in the sky.

Needless to say, not many people wanted to be friends with the local landmine.

One week after my sixteenth birthday, Daddy came upon me deep in the throes of one of my episodes. I was sitting on the bench swing hanging from the oak tree, clutching the society pages of our local newspaper and sobbing. The chains of the swing groaned as he sat next to me and waited for my howls to dissipate.

The article in question featured a girl from school who had moved to Durham when her father had gotten a management position at a textile company there. The upwards trajectory of their status had resulted in her earning a coveted spot at this spring’s series of debutante galas, to be presented to the elites of southern society as one of the belles of tomorrow. Jealousy ate away at my insides and as I’d been taught better than to store my treasures on things of this world, my shame and guilt upgraded the storm exponentially. I swiped my burning face with my sleeve, turning away from his eyes. Taking a glance at Virginia Kelly’s smug face beaming up at me in black and white glory from a mud puddle below the swing, Daddy didn’t have to guess. He draped his long arm across my shoulder, then pulled at my left ear until a giggle escaped.

“How about you quit your yowling for a minute, barn cat, and hush up. I got something important that you need to hear,” he said reassuringly. I put my head on his barrel chest. His soothing baritone reverberated against my ear down to my soul.

“These girls? Well, good for them that they might get gussied up and go to a few parties. Next thing you know, they’ll be married to some fella and saddled in a big house, kids wrapped around their legs, barking orders to a maid and wondering how they got so old so fast. You’re not like one of them, Willa Jane. You’re different.”

I lifted my head in righteous indignation.

“But I don’t want to be different. I don’t want to get so angry over things all the time. I try to count like Mama Jo taught me, I try to be sweet to everyone like Cordy, but nothing works. What’s wrong with me?”

A guffaw rose from the center of his belly. “Well, puss, I reckon nobody wants to be different, but God made you who you are for a reason. There’s a fire in you that not everyone has. You put it to good use for a controlled burn and there ain’t nothing that will stop you from changing this world. Fairness doesn’t mean everyone gets the same; fairness means everyone gets what they need. And the world ain’t fair for a whole lot of people. If you set your mind on trying to make it better for those folks, that’s when you’ll get everything you could ever want or need.”

Those would be the last words my father ever spoke to me.

Four days later, two miners alighted on our front porch to tell us about the explosion. They twisted their caps in their hands as they spoke, their coal-masked faces like minions from the dark realm that had swallowed the light of our family forever. They offered their condolences and stayed at our stoop as Mama Jo stood, unmoving and noiseless as the pillar of salt formerly known as Lot’s wife. When she floated upstairs to her bedroom, we heard her make a sound at last. An inhuman scream muffled by her pillow so as not to alarm the little ones.

The next several weeks were a flurry of casseroles, indolently fragrant lilies, and unwelcome lipstick smears pressed into my cheek by the ladies of the church auxiliary. I was one giant pincushion of raw nerves and with every sympathetic pat and well-intentioned hug a thousand tiny pinpricks dug deeper into my body.

The boys, who were five at the time, didn’t comprehend the permanence of the loss. Daddy had spent so much time away for work anyway, the only thing that seemed to have changed in their world was an influx of quick breads and cheese grits. My oldest sister Juliet lived in Annapolis with her husband as he completed his training at the naval academy. The rest of us older girls hovered back and forth between twelve-year-olds,

Essie and Ellie, while Billie at the tender age of eight took up permanent residence in Mama Jo’s arms. Since her overheard cry of anguish, Mama Jo’s lips had sealed shut in a line knifed across her face. She lost the will to rant. 

Staggering in the fog of loss, I dove into my schoolwork, deciding that a career in the highly competitive field of law would be the most effective vocation for a fire breathing she-dragon destined to defend the voiceless and the weak. Female lawyers were few and far between, but I’d read about a law school in Washington D.C. founded specifically for women. I set my sights on that goal like a hunter trained on an unsuspecting buck, and my efforts were rewarded with a partial scholarship at a women’s college in Greensboro. It was the first stepping stone on my plan to make my Daddy proud of me or die trying.

There had been nothing in that plan that could have prepared me for

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