Despite my blond-hair, blue-eyes, and a dad who is a white supremacist, I have a black mom. Charlotte Lee adopted me while I was in my thirties because I asked her to. She called me daughter and it healed a part of my heart that ached for someone who loved me, to fill that “mother” void in my soul.
My biological mother’s love seemed predicated on my good performance. Growing up, I was an excellent student, a successful flutist, and involved in lots of organizations. If what I did made her shine as a mother, she would be kind to me. In those more frequent, human moments when I committed age-appropriate mistakes, my mother scorned me. She had good intentions, but a rotten husband: he sapped her energy and made her life hell. I do not know what our lives would have been like had my father been different. My mother might have been stronger, may have protected me, and might have delighted in my existence. But, that was not our story. My mother died in 1992, so I did her no injustice or insult by asking Charlotte to be my mom.
“Charlotte, I don’t have a mom. Will you be my mom?” I asked this of her in 1997. Surprised and a little shocked by my request, she welcomed me into her life and called me “Daughter,” instinctively knowing how much I needed that.
At first glance, Charlotte was a black woman in a motorized wheelchair. Her exuberant spirit was encapsulated into a body, which denied her the physical freedom her spirit felt and enjoyed. More likely to hear her long before you saw her face, Charlotte’s laugh was loud and true and impossible not to join. Often, she would try to stifle the volume of her laughter; but, it would not work and you would be glad, because it gave you permission to laugh loudly, too.
Because she attended a predominantly white church and was in a wheelchair and infectiously laughing, she was impossible to miss. That was a good thing, because Charlotte loved! Charlotte loved everyone and she demonstrated that with her kindness and joy.
Her chair lowered her stature, about eye-level to children, all of whom adored her. They flocked to her for her encouragement and high-fives. She gave rides in her wheelchair to the smaller children, as they giggled and squealed. Lots of those kids called her Aunt Charlotte and she was family to them. As the girls’ Missionettes director at First Assembly of God church in Emporia, she plunged her energy into serving girls from toddlers to teenagers. Her aspiration was to help them become Godly women and there are many women who will tell you that she was successful.
Mobility was interesting for Charlotte. She used her chair like a car, it certainly cost as much. The church van would pick her up for church on inclement days, but mostly, she would tool around town as she felt like it. Unafraid of speed, she was able to traverse Emporia quickly. After a health conscious friend beleaguered her about the harmful effects of the sun, Charlotte began wearing hats in the summer, which multiplied her charm.
Not everyone knew her name, but almost everyone knew who she was. “Do you know Charlotte Lee?”
“Oh, is that the lady in the wheelchair who rolls all over town?”
I still have these conversations even though she passed away in 2012. She was recognizable and cute. People fell in love with her immediately. After all, she exuded love.
Charlotte’s family adored her and nicknamed her “Shockey.” Her mother had no idea she was pregnant until Charlotte arrived in this world, thus she was a shock. At her funeral, Charlotte’s brother, Kent Lugrand, remembered fondly that Charlotte continued to earn that name. As she grew, she faced numerous medical challenges that she was not expected to overcome, but she would. She repeatedly shocked her family with her indomitable spirit and they kept calling her “Shockey.”
Why someone is in a wheelchair is a personal matter. But, Charlotte lived her life unabashedly; and, upon turning fifty, she wrote an auto-biographical essay entitled, Reflections. In it she explains a bit about her physical challenges, while revealing her invincible spirit. An excerpt is below:
A 2-1/2 pound baby girl was born premature on September 5, 1951; it was almost impossible to believe. I was born disfigured with a condition called arthrogryposis. The staff at St. Francis Hospital in Wichita, Kansas called me a “miracle.” The doctors did not expect me to live past my first few days, but God had a plan for my life! Although I was so small, I had a strong will to live. To my mother, it was love at first sight. God knew that I was born to a woman with courage, compassion, and strength to help me overcome any obstacle.**
Through over thirty surgeries during my childhood, I maintained a positive outlook on life. Although my childhood memories are filled with hospital stays, I have many positive memories such as playing in the sand with my best friend Lilly Sherrod (still my best friend even today); my sister pushing me in a wheelchair to Isely Elementary School; and going out to dinner with Daddy and ordering “fimp” (aka shrimp).**
Because the junior high school in my neighborhood was not handicap accessible, my mother found a school that could accommodate a student with disabilities. I was allowed to leave classes early so I could “click” down the halls (I wore leg braces back then). One of my proudest days was when I graduated from Wichita Heights High School in 1970.**
In 1977, with the love and support of family and friends, I moved to Emporia to attend Emporia State University. I had a new freedom and I lived it up. I enjoyed the learning and social experience of campus life. During my first year at ESU, I was famous for my falls. They were scored like the Olympic Games, #10 or a figure 8! That was when it was decided I needed to have a wheelchair to get back and forth from classes. I became involved in several organizations on campus and I was the Circle K president for two terms.
I moved into Horizon Plaza in February 1980. Most of you know I did not want to live there, but God had this in His plan for my life. One Sunday, I attended the church on the corner, First Assembly of God, and my life was never the same again. Since I accepted God’s gift of salvation, Jesus is real to me. He healed my broken heart and took away my loneliness and disappointments. I know His unconditional love is real. My heart’s desire is to give Him the glory, honor and praise for my life.
So celebrate with me the good things God has given us… life, family and friends. May you always be blessed with His love.
Love, Charlotte 1
I met Charlotte at that same church, although it was in a new location by the time I got there. She was one of the first people I met, which was common for newcomers.
I ended up on the praise team playing flute. My oldest kid was extraordinarily well-behaved, and could sit alone, anywhere, anytime, no matter what the circumstance. My youngest was in the nursery. But, my five year-old foster kid needed supervision of the intense nature. Charlotte would look after him through worship, allowing me to play flute. Deshawn’s busy behavior did not dilute Charlotte’s praise; and, he was not the only kid to get her special attention during church.
As with many moms and daughters, Charlotte and I “fell out.” We didn’t have a fight, but we disagreed about something that led to many years of silence between us. I am not particularly proud of that time, but it led us both to a deeper place. When we reconciled, it was a sweet time as we shared what we had lost and what we gained from that separation.
Charlotte’s capacity to love broadened immensely. Her acceptance of others widened. Her compassion grew. Because of her own suffering, she was uniquely aware of the anguish others felt. She took that understanding and applied it to people’s hurts, many of which were small compared to what she had faced. She did not mention that: she did not equivocate her experiences with others. Instead, she addressed the sorrows and needs of the person she was comforting.
Charlotte would listen intently. Her joy and giggles would pierce the pain in moments when she could find something appropriate to laugh about. But, she would cry with folks, too. That brought healing.
People in town, strangers, would seek her out: it was if her empathy was visible. She would pair up with hurting people, most often women, and tenderly partner with them as they faced a tragedy in their lives.
She became their mom, too. At the end of her life, most of us called her mom, or at least felt like her child. When nobody else would love you, Charlotte would make you feel like the person who deserved love most. It was a unique gift.
Occasionally, she and I had conversations about what it was like for her being one of only a few black people in a church full of white folks. I worried about her when inappropriate statements were made, or when things we would now label as “micro-aggressions” happened. She would wave me off and say, “I know who I am. Jesus knows who I am,” and she would dismiss it. My favorite phrase was, “I’m not going to hell over you!”
She encouraged us to call her “Chocolate Momma,” and saw no problem with the title. Perhaps her awareness that we all had a “Vanilla Momma” somewhere else made this her way of acknowledging that reality. It was certainly her way of making herself more approachable, while recognizing the beauty of her race.
In a rare, but sincere moment, she shared with me that she felt marginalized in almost every situation in which she found herself. That information helped me to understand the incredible depth of her love and caring for people. Despite her personal feelings, she continued to reach out to others.
Charlotte used a story to illustrate the way she viewed the beauty of people. She would invite you to imagine all the flowers and the different colors of each bloom. Would you want all the flowers to be one color only? People are like those flowers. They come in all different colors and they are all beautiful. That is how she saw everyone, lovely in their own way.
Even so, Charlotte was not color blind. She enjoyed being black, was very proud of her heritage, and dearly loved her family. Yet, she embraced a very white population of Emporia and loved them with the perfect love that she found in Jesus. Unlike Him, she had flaws and would be the first person to tell you that. Still, she tapped into His exquisite love and allowed it to permeate her life; and, she infused it into mine. She was my black mom. She is my black mom.
One Saturday, she was feeling ill, so she took a nap. Having loved hundreds of people, having remained open to possibilities, her heart finished its task and stopped beating. Charlotte left this earth to be with her Savior.
I miss her. Her laughter and giggles still echo in my memory. The way she called me daughter still resonates in my soul.
Many people talk about Charlotte walking now that she is heaven; but, I believe that as soon as she got there, she started running. I do not know if she has slowed down yet, but she might have. After all, she can dance now.
1 Charlotte Lee, A Celebration of Life: Reflections (Emporia, Kansas: Life Church, 2012).