Sometimes they cry because they miss their other mommies. • That makes Ruby Brown cry, too. She tells them through the tears that she knows how they feel. Her own mother had been a young teen and gave her to an older sister to raise. • Ruby had wondered as a child: Why would my mother give me to my aunt? • There are 10 now, siblings and cousins, the children of Ruby's four great-nieces. • She takes them into her wood-frame home, built in 1918 and sagging from its seams. Five boys in one room, five girls in another. Anthony, at 13, is oldest. Emony will turn 2 on Christmas. • If she couldn't keep them, she wonders, who would? • She's not young anymore, she reminds them gently when they act up. She is 66. • "We've got to do this as a team," she says. • The team started seven years ago with the first four. The last four came seven months ago. • They call her Mama Joy. • She calls them her ministry.
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Soon after 6 a.m., Anthony pours coffee and mixes in a teaspoon of brown sugar and cream. He takes it to Mama Joy in her room, where she spends a few minutes in devotion. She prays hard before each day, and the children let her have this time. The older ones help the younger ones get ready for school.
The day will get hectic with 10 kids.
Sometimes the other mothers cause trouble. Then Mama Joy gets a stream of social workers and police officers through her door, counting beds and looking in cupboards.
Still, Mama Joy never gives up on the mothers. When she took their kids, they made an agreement. Each would get an education and a job and come back to get her kids.
"Your mom will be back one day," Mama Joy tells the children. "She's going to get her act together. You be ready."
She looks into each and sees a lovely soul. You're a good artist. You're a good reader. You're special. One day you're going to be a doctor or a lawyer or a football player.
Still, kids are kids.
One morning last week, Blair, who is 7, had taunted Anthony: "Your mom is not around."
So they had a talk about talking about mothers. Be the better person, Mama Joy said.
"You got to stop him and say: 'Look, we're not going to talk about each other's parents.' " she instructed Anthony. "Blair does not know your mom."
She calls from Miami once a year. She tells them — Anthony, Kayla, Kenneth and Keon — that she's coming.
Anthony prays for that every day.
• • •
Long ago, Mama Joy learned an important lesson. She was in her 20s when her aunt gave her a house. Mama Joy thought is was squalid and ugly. She didn't want it. Her aunt was devastated. She said she hadn't raised her to be unappreciative. Her aunt told her she could paint a tent and make it a home.
"I never forgot that," Mama Joy said.
Her aunt left her the house where they now live. The county property appraiser values it at $27,500. Its ceiling panels droop and floors creak and tilt. It has one bathroom and no closets. The light switches don't work, so they use lamps. The kids unplug the stove to use the microwave.
Yet it is a home.
She keeps it tidy and comfortable. Her son brought her a live tree last week, filling the house with its scent. The children decorated it.
She hopes that one day these kids will see their lives as she does hers. God chose her to be there for them, she said. She was chosen like her kind and wise aunt, the woman she called mom.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.