Our family of eight arrived in Cleveland in August, 1949, and in September, the oldest child, Philip began first grade. There were five pre-schoolers still at home. No one could have known that six more children would be born in Cleveland, bringing us to an even dozen.
Mother had her first child when she was 23 and the last when she was 41, so we were born over an 18 year period, with no multiple births. All of us were born at home, and a couple of us arrived before the doctor did. Mother was never in a hospital as a patient in her entire life until a few weeks before she passed away at the age of 78.Here is a listing of the twelve in the order of our birth:
Philip Wesley - January 4, 1942
Sarah Elizabeth - September 21, 1943
James Stephen - January 26, 1945
Charles Paul - December 23, 1945
Sharon Lois - April 29, 1947
Raymond Andrew - August 3, 1948
Camilla Ruth - April 9, 1950
Frederick Mark - October 30, 1951
Mary Catherine - November 12, 1953
David Bruce - December 18, 1955
Peter Jeffrey - January 18, 1958
Melody Anne - February 22, 1960
Before Mom and Dad named us, they wrote each of our names down, studied it carefully, considered the meaning of each name and all the ways in which that name could me used, and thought of every possible nickname. They wanted each of us to have names that would wear well our entire lives.
My first name was for James the Apostle as well as James the brother of Jesus. My second name was for Stephen, the first Christian Martyr. I was also named for J. Stewart Brinsfield, a former president of Lee College, and a man Mom and Dad highly respected. I have signed my name using the first initial J. and my middle name, Stephen, since I first learned to spell it in the first grade.
Each of us had at least one Bible name by design. Philip was also named for John and Charles Wesley. Paul bears our father's name, but not as a "junior." Each of our names has some special significance.
I absolutely loved growing up in such a large family. There were always lots of interesting things going on and plenty of playmates for any adventure that came to mind. I've often heard my dad say that the only way a person can stand the hubbub of such a large family is to either be born into it, like we children were, or to let it grow on them gradually, as was the case with him and Mom.
Dad traveled extensively in his ministry and on his trips he sometimes met people who did not know he was a Pentecostal preacher, but learned he had 12 children. He loved it when they exclaimed, "Oh, you must be a devout Catholic." This set him up for his stock reply, and he would say it with a grin: "No, just a passionate Protestant."
People have sometimes asked me if the rumors were true that my mom had a vision when she was a single young woman that someday she was going to have twelve children. I asked Mother about that once and she told me that when she was a teenager, she had asserted she would never have any children. She said, "God never would have entrusted me with such a vision. If I had known I was going to have 12 children, it would have scared me out of getting married. The only vision I ever had was of sugarplums dancing in my head."
Mother didn't believe in birth control. She always recognized this as a personal conviction, saying it would be wrong for her, but that others must do what they felt would be right for them. She never pushed her personal convictions on others -- not even her own children. Long after I was an adult, Dad told me of a time he tried to use birth control. Mom literally kicked him out of bed, saying, "If God doesn't have a chance, you don't either." If there was no possibility for her to get pregnant, should that be God's will, then there would be no sex.
Mother never planned to have twelve children. She told me how she cried when she learned she was expecting Paul, her fourth child. It was not that she didn't want Paul; but I was so young she still wanted me to have the opportunity to be the baby a little while longer. Mother had the unique ability to make every one of us children feel we were her very favorite child. Some people have only one child; Mom had an only child, twelve times.
Mother often spoke of Susanna Wesley, who was her role model. Susanna, a very godly woman who lived in 18th century England, was the mother of 19 children, including John and Charles, founders of Methodism. In an interview, Mother once said, "What if Susanna had decided that fourteen were enough? Then John Wesley would never have been born, and there would possibly never have been the Methodist Church. Or, what if she had decided 18 were enough? Then Charles Wesley would never have been born, and the world would never have been blessed by his magnificent music."
I've also heard Mom talk about how Susanna, even with 19 children, set aside regular times to be with each child one-on-one. Following Susanna's example, Mama regularly made it a point to spend time with each of us children on an individual basis.
My mother never had a "kid." She considered that a slang term and forbid us to use it around her. Kids were baby goats; she only had children. Once we had a box of Cheerios with bold red letters on the front that said, "Hey Kids!" Mom turned the box to face the wall, and when it was empty, she was eager to throw it into the trash. She was sorry that such an uncouth influence had come into our house and hoped we would not be contaminated by it.
Mother fully expected each of her children would become a leader in the cause of Christ. She believed it so strongly that she felt it her solemn duty not only to train us, but also to instill the Love of God in us, and protect us lest some evil should cut short our destiny. For example, once when two of my brothers and I asked if we could go swimming at Parksville Lake without an adult or lifeguard, she would not hear of it. "What if something should happen and you should drown?" she said, "To let you go without someone to watch out for you would put the future leadership of the Church of God in jeopardy."
Although not all of us have remained in the Church of God, few would say that Mom fell short of her goal of rearing sons and daughters who would be of service to God and mankind. She and Dad produced two university presidents, a college dean, a university professor, two ministers, a preacher's wife, a missionary, several school teachers and administrators, and a wealthy businessman/philanthropist. Their 31 grandchildren are also charting similar courses, among them being teachers, missionaries, ministers, a research scientist, an attorney and more.
I'm sure it must have been a matter of concern with Mom and Dad as to how they would house, clothe and feed so many children, but I never heard them discuss it, except to say that the Lord would provide. I took it all totally for granted. When we moved to Cleveland, it was into a two bedroom white frame house, behind the Church of God Publishing House, on 11th Street. It must have been built before the days of indoor plumbing because our only bathroom, which was in the back of the house in a little hallway, seemed to have been added after the house was built.
Dad's starting salary in Cleveland was $250 per month, plus the parsonage was provided. Although money went further then than now, things were still very tight. When the old Plymouth that had brought us from Missouri finally wore out, we went without a car for two years. Just about everything in Cleveland that was important to us was within walking distance, and if unusual circumstances demanded a ride, a taxi could be hired to take you anywhere in town for fifty cents. Dad's main concern was how he would get to out-of-town preaching appointments, of which he had many.
For those two years, he had to limit himself to accepting invitations to places he could reach by bus or train. Traveling and preaching was not only something he enjoyed doing, it was a part of his calling. Also, the love offerings he received were the only way he had to supplement his meager income.
I was very excited and proud when the day finally came that Dad decided he could afford an automobile again. He brought home a beautiful second-hand Buick Roadmaster. It was a monster of a car and in my favorite color -- blue. I loved the design with little holes along the front fender on each side that looked like they may have been the work of woodpeckers, except that they were lined with chrome.
In our 11th Street house, the larger of the two bedrooms was just big enough to hold two double beds, each pushed against the wall on opposite sides of the room, with a narrow passageway between them. Five of us children shared that bedroom, with three boys in one bed and two girls in the other. Raymond, the baby, slept in a crib in Mom and Dad's room.
We had been living there for well over a year when early one Easter Sunday morning, Dad came into the bedroom to awaken us. He seemed excited, and told us all that the Easter Bunny had brought a very special present. We had a new baby sister, Camilla, named after one of my Mother's aunts. Dad lined us all up and we marched single file into the bedroom to have a look.
Of course none of us really believed in such things as the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. We were taught that such things were only make-believe, but it was okay to pretend.
Later I was to learn more details of Camilla's birth. That very Saturday afternoon, my mama had walked about 8 or 9 blocks to the doctor's office in downtown Cleveland. The doctor had stopped delivering babies in homes, sending his patients to the hospital instead. However, he made an exception for Mom since she had already given birth to a half-dozen children at home.
Mother was about two weeks past due with her seventh child, and the doctor wanted to admit her to the hospital and induce labor by artificial means. She balked, telling him that the baby would come of its own accord; she wanted to leave everything in God's hands.
The doctor scoffed at my mother, treating her as if she were an ignorant bumpkin. After all, he was the doctor and felt he knew better than she. Mom was quite sure he didn't. In a condescending tone, the doctor told her to go home and call him when she went into labor. Mom cried as she walked back to the house because she felt so belittled by the doctor. She prayed through her tears that God would cause the baby to come soon.
In the pre-dawn hours of the next morning, Mom said she felt an unusual pressure as she got up to go to the cold unheated bathroom. And suddenly, as she entered the room, she felt one sudden sharp pain and realized that she was not only in labor but that the baby was actually already coming. She eased herself to the floor and called for Charles.
Dad hurried to Mom’s side and assisted in the delivery of his new baby girl. He placed the baby on Mom's tummy, umbilical cord still attached, and then called the doctor. All of us children slept soundly throughout the entire episode. By the time we got up, the doctor had already come and gone, and Mom and baby had been pronounced fine. For her last five pregnancies, Mother found a new physician, Dr. Stansberry, who treated her with respect.
Mom often said that Camilla’s birth was the easiest she ever experienced. All the others were much more difficult, especially me with my broad shoulders. Camilla was Mom’s second largest baby, weighing in at an even ten pounds. Coming near the center of the twelve, Camilla was a gift to the entire family. She grew up close to all of us, and it is she who has kept us all connected to this day.
With the birth of Camilla, baby Raymond was pushed out of the crib and moved in to sleep in the same bed with his three brothers. This presented a dilemma. Three boys in a double bed had been a tight fit, but four was even more of a challenge.
Here's how we solved it. Three boys slept as usual, one on the right, one on the left and one in the middle. Then, because we were still small, there were a couple of extra feet of unused bed space at the bottom, so one of us slept crosswise at the foot of the bed. Mom set us up on a rotating basis so that each of us had to sleep at the foot only once every four nights, and also every fourth night we each got the favored spot in the middle. There you didn't have to fight for the covers quite so hard.
We didn't sleep in this arrangement for long before we got a roll-away bed that was stored in the hallway, and set up in the living room every night. We boys took turns sleeping alternately in the living room and in the bedroom.
Our only source of heat in that house was a single coal burning furnace which was set up each fall in the living room, and taken down again in the summer. On school days, Mom or Dad would get up an hour before they awoke us children and start a fire. Our bedroom became ice cold on many winter nights. I soon learned to sleep with the clothes I was going to wear the next morning laid at an easy arm's reach beside the bed.
When we were called to get up at 6:30 a.m., I would grab my clothes, and while still under the covers, pull my pajamas off and slip into my school outfit. Then, I would make a mad dash for the living room and stand as close to the furnace as I possibly could, being careful not to get too near the pipe, lest I singe the hair on my head.
When we first moved into the 11th Street house, there was a long white frame building directly across the street from us which served as a girl's residence for the Church of God Home for Children. The home was in process of being relocated to Sevierville into the facilities once occupied by the Church of God Bible Training School. The Children's Home remains in Sevierville to this day and is called Smoky Mountain Children's Home. The Bible Training School was moved from Sevierville to Cleveland when the Church of God bought the former campus of Bob Jones University, which had been in Cleveland but relocated to Greenville, South Carolina. With the move to Cleveland, the name of the School was changed from BTS to Lee College, in honor of F. J. Lee, an early church leader.
Not long after the Children's Home vacated the building across the street from our house, I was playing on our front porch with several of my siblings. A man came up the walkway, holding a little girl by the hand. The girl, who was about my own age, was barefoot and wore a tattered dress. The man had a sad, defeated countenance about him, like someone to whom life had been very unkind. I went inside the house and announced, "Mama, we have company."
Mom came to the front door where the man told her he was there to place his little girl into our orphanage. Mother explained to him that the orphanage used to be across the street but had moved. The dejected man gestured toward all of us children, as we looked on wide-eyed. He argued, "If this here ain't no orphanage, then what are all these kids doing here?"
Mother said that we were her children, but that's not what he wanted to hear. He became upset and the little girl began to cry as her daddy insisted he could no longer take care of her. Mother gently pointed the man in a direction where he might be able to find some help. He walked with heavy, shuffling feet up 11th Street, his little girl clinging to his hand. That experience left an indelible impression on my young mind. It made me feel very blessed, and rich, to live with my family in such a nice house.
We stayed in that 11th Street house for four years. In 1952, Dad was elected by the Church of God General Assembly as the new editor of the Church of God Evangel, and Editor-in-Chief of all Church of God publications. It was a very big promotion for a 32-year-old preacher, especially since, according to the denominational structure at that time, it meant he was now on the Church of God General Executive Committee, the youngest man ever to serve in that lofty position.
The biggest change to me as a child is that this meant our family moved two blocks up the street to a much nicer parsonage, on the corner of 8th Street and Montgomery Avenue. There we had five bedrooms and two baths, but I wasn't happy about the move at all. The yard was much smaller than on 11th Street, and there was no creek or Weeping Willow tree. I had to sacrifice all of that just for the advancement of Daddy's ministry.
Even the 8th Street house became too small as more children were born and the rest of us grew, so Dad created a sixth sleeping area in one corner of the basement. It wasn't a real room, having book cases for partitions on one side and a curtain forming the other wall. There was no door or window, but we did have a rug covering the unfinished concrete floor. Paul and I shared that basement room. I loved having my very own bed for the first time, and as an adolescent I also liked the spaciousness and privacy it provided us. Dad continued in his position as Editor-in-Chief for ten years and we lived in that house until the beginning of my senior year in high school.
Many years later the 8th Street house was torn down to make way for the construction of the Church of God Theological Seminary. Where the 11th Street house once stood is now the lower parking lot of the North Cleveland Church of God.
Feeding twelve children must have also been a challenge for Mom and Dad. I never heard them complain, although I was aware of some of the sacrifices they made. We were rationed, but there was always plenty to eat. For example, if we had fried chicken, my favorite dish to this day, we children were allowed one good piece like a thigh, leg or wish-bone from the end of the breast, and then we could also have a bony piece, like a neck, wing, or back. If I was lucky, I got the gizzard, my favorite of all. Chickens were only sold by the whole bird in those days; there were no pre-packaged chicken parts at the grocery store.
Chicken also sometimes came on the hoof. I remember once when Dad went somewhere to preach, a part of his "love offering" was a live hen. I was fascinated to watch Mom butcher the chicken and stew it with dumplings, although I had also seen this done by my Grandmother Conn in Atlanta.
Along with the chicken, there were always plenty of other good things to eat, like potatoes, beans, macaroni-and-cheese, and fresh vegetables. Sometimes for supper our entire meal consisted of Mom's incomparable cornbread, baked in a heavy black cast-iron skillet, and a big pot of beans -- navy, pinto, or great northern, seasoned with a ham bone.
Another favorite dish was "Daddy Soup." Dad made a big production out of presenting this dish, which was the only thing I ever remember him cooking. "Daddy Soup" was home-made vegetable-beef soup, with huge chunks of vegetables and small whole onions. I thought it was much better than "Mama Soup." Maybe I thought so because Daddy was the king of hype, and he told us his soup was the best in the whole wide world.
Although Mom and Dad had grown a garden in Leadwood, there was no time or place for that in Cleveland. Even though we had a big back yard when we lived on 11th Street, it flooded when the creek overflowed its banks after every big rain, and was not suitable for gardening. We didn't forage for food often, but occasionally we did. One early summer day when Grandmother Minor was visiting us from Alabama, she said she was craving some poke greens. Most folks called it "poke sallet." The way Grandmother described them, poke greens sounded delicious.
She rounded up all of us children who were old enough to walk and led us down behind the house to the creek bank. There she showed us how to find and identify this most desirable edible weed. We gathered a big bunch of it, proudly carried our bounty back up the hill and into the house, and watched with amazement as she cooked them up. Grandmother explained to us how you had to pick the greens young and cook them in two waters, or else they might be poisonous. To me, they tasted like something between collards and spinach, and better than either. To this day, I scout the woods near where we live and watch for the first succulent sprouts of poke as they emerge in the spring. Every time I eat a "mess" of them, I think about Grandmother Minor.
Another food for which we foraged was wild blackberries. Not only was it a great adventure, but we always enjoyed a good blackberry cobbler. We used some of the blackberries fresh, but most of what we found we froze for winter use. There is absolutely nothing better on a cold winter day than a bubbling hot blackberry cobbler, fresh out of the oven, with vanilla ice cream on top. My brothers and I were only too eager to keep the freezer stocked.
Blackberries grew abundantly in an overgrown field which lay between our house and the railroad tracks. Mom's primary concern in letting us go there to pick berries was that we might encounter the hobos who sometimes camped beside the tracks. With ample warnings to be careful, we took Mama's biggest kitchen pots to fill with berries and went to gather our prize.
One very hot, sticky summer day while Paul, Raymond, and I were in the blackberry patch, Raymond accidentally stepped on a hornet's nest that was hidden in the briars. Paul and I were both standing within twenty feet of him. Raymond was immediately stung and began to perform a wailing dance right on top of the hornets, slapping and screaming bloody murder.
Paul ran for all he was worth, and was soon out of range of the stinging insects. Although I was as close to the hornets as Paul, I froze dead still in my tracks, having heard somewhere that if you are very still the hornets won't recognize you as a living being and will ignore you. It wasn't easy standing like a mannequin, seemingly for a solid hour, while dozens of angry hornets buzzed by so closely that I could feel the wind from their wings.
The end result was that Raymond received more than 30 stings. When we got him home, he was covered with huge red whelps and was violently ill. I didn't get a single sting and Paul got two. From that day forward, none of us was as eager to go pick blackberries again, and Mom was just as pleased that we didn't. But, I did miss the cobblers.
Our usual weekday breakfast fare was oatmeal, or cold cereal. However, on weekends, when we weren't rushing to get off to school, we usually had grits, eggs, bacon or sausage, and toast or biscuits, with gravy. Here again we were rationed to one egg, one slice of bacon or sausage patty, but all the grits, bread and gravy we could eat. Sometimes we had pancakes, which was always a special treat.
I showed an interest in cooking from an early age, and Mother let me help her in the kitchen. Saturday breakfast was my specialty. By age twelve I had reached a level of proficiency that allowed me to tell Mom she could sleep late and I would take care of Saturday breakfast.
I took great pride in cooking for a dozen people, starting the grits first, then the bacon or sausage, using the drippings as a base for my gravy. I never mastered the art of making scratch biscuits, so I used the canned variety, but with the gravy over them they were fine. The eggs, usually scrambled but sometimes fried, came last. The trick was in making all of these elements come out hot and tasty at the same time without burning anything. Mom must have thought I did okay because I never remember her turning down my offer to let her sleep late and leave it all up to me.
I also enjoyed baking, partly because it was fun, but also because I loved sweets and we didn't have them on a regular basis. The reward for baking a cake was getting to help eat it. My favorites were chocolate and coconut layer cakes. I enjoyed scratch cakes more than those made from a mix, so Mama let me experiment with making them.
One afternoon shortly after I had baked a coconut layer cake from scratch, we had unexpected company drop by for a visit. It was Brother and Sister G. R. Watson, Dad's former pastor and wife from Atlanta. When we had company in those days, Mom and Dad ate with them in the dining room while we children either ate in the kitchen or waited until the grownups were done. Then, Mom would serve us in a second sitting in the dining room. There simply wasn't room for all of us around the table at once.
That night for dessert Mom served the Watsons a slice of my freshly baked cake, explaining that I had made it with flour, shortening, eggs, butter and sugar. I had even whipped up the icing from scratch. I was only 13 and Sister Watson acted so impressed that she demanded I be brought into the dining room at that very minute so she could brag on me in person. I was so proud it almost made me want to become a chef.
Some of my other siblings also became adept at making fudge or cookies, especially my older sister Sarah. She could even make lemon meringue pies, which I considered something of a miracle. No matter who did the baking, when there were sweets in the house they were strictly rationed. There was no such thing as saying, "I think I'll have another cookie or another slice of pie.” Mom was custodian of the sweets, and she saw to it that whatever we had was divided evenly between all of us.
Besides housing and feeding us children, our parents had to work hard at keeping shoes on our feet and clothes on our backs. Shoes were not much of a problem during the summer. Each spring I eagerly looked forward to the first warm days so I could go barefoot. I prided myself in developing tough calluses on my feet, and when I was younger there were many weeks in summer when I did not see my shoes between Sundays, except for taking them out to go to Wednesday night service at church.
Our family was the only one I knew of that used to get surplus clothing from an orphanage. It didn't happen very often, but on a couple of occasions a big woolen mill gave the Church of God Home for Children more socks or some other item than they could use. So the Home sent some of their windfall our way.
Being the second son in the family meant that much of what I wore was hand-me-downs from my older brother, Philip. We also sometimes got second hand clothes from members of our church who had older children. When we bought new clothing, from J.C. Penney or Parks-Belk department store, it was usually Sunday clothes. These were nicer than what we had for everyday wear.
I still remember the Saturday morning when the phone rang, and after Mom had finished talking to the caller she told me to go three blocks down the street to the Johnson's house on the corner of Trunk and 8th to pick up a sports coat. Paul Johnson, a friend of mine, was a husky guy about a year or so older than me, and he had outgrown his sports coat. I was 15-years-old at this time, and my only blazer was getting too tight and was ready to be passed on to a younger brother anyway.
The sports coat I got from Paul Johnson was the nicest one I had ever had. It was of a tweed design that could go with either green or black slacks. With money I had earned from my part time job in a grocery store, I bought a pair of each. That jacket was what I wore when I preached my first sermon about a year later. And with the two different colors of slacks, it was the dress wardrobe I carried with me on several of my early weekend preaching trips. I wore the green slacks for one service and the black slacks for the next, and hoped that they looked like two different outfits.
The above photo is one of the few we have of all twelve children together. It was taken in our kitchen at the 8th Street house in Cleveland, circa. 1960.