The Stratton Family of North Carolina 

Charlotte, North Carolina

          It had seemed so close. They had come so close to getting the Mitchell children returned to John and Helen. Coop hated to think about it. When he looked into their faces he felt like he was burning with shame. Even though they had told him it was not his fault, and it wasn’t, at least all of it, Coop still knew that it had been the unwarranted trust he had given all too freely that had allowed this to happen. It embarrassed him that his trust had been invested not only in strangers but in people who should have known he should question more closely. 
          The woman had seemed so credible. Initially, she had gotten in touch with Dirk Smithers. Coop had met Dirk while he was helping Dirk out with Dirk’s own case. Dirk was bright and eager to get involved in the organization Coop was building. Soon, Coop had appointed him his second in command and let him do fundraising in the name of the nonprofit they had founded. Dirk became the out front guy, talking to the public and the media. Coop was glad to let him do it; he preferred training people to do the work in court. That was the way they had organized it and it seemed to be working well until Frederica La Fond arrived.  
          Coop had found himself somehow obligated to pay for her ticket for her first trip into Charlotte from their organization’s account. He had not liked that. Initially, Frederica had told them she would be flying in on the corporate jet but then it had become inconveniently unavailable. Frederica had her own organization that sold short flyers giving advice on how to handle pro se law suits and how to deal with the DSS when they began their machinations. Later, Coop discovered that all of these well written pieces had been lifted whole from the excellent book by the woman who had helped Frederica out when she had gotten into trouble with the DSS herself. No credit was given to the author who had done the work.  
          Frederica had come into Charlotte, creating tremendous excitement and making enormous claims. But she immediately begun criticizing the work Coop had done to reunite the Mitchell kids with their parents. This had been bad enough but it got worse.  
         Frederica had shared her own tragic story. According to Frederica she had been in hiding from an abusive husband for years. He was in jail serving time for raping a 14 year old girl. The outpouring of compassion and awe that she had been able to survive in the face of this kind of pain brought her into town on a wave of enthusiasm. The first trip had been filled with excitement. Coop had immediately been concerned because her stories did not seem to make sense to him, but he deferred to the others he had been working with. If they wanted her he would try to see the good in it.
         But when she came back the holes in her story had turned into chasms deep enough to hold a regiment. Instead of a jet her second arrival was in the driver’s seat of a U-haul with her ten children occupying the back illegally and without being allowed bathroom breaks. Coop learned from the people at the commune where she had been living for the last year and a half that there had been serious problems - and she had left the commune with a big slice of their property in the back of her U-haul. Even at that they did not want her back. They were just glad to get rid of her. Frederica’s children, ages a year and a half to ten, often urinated on the floor according to the people at the commune. This observation was confirmed by those she stayed with in North Carolina. The kids were filthy, unhappy and badly raised.  
        Coop was appalled. While he had not reported them to the authorities himself, when asked had been truthful as to what he and others had observed. It had been the problems with Frederica that had caused the DSS to withstand their attempts to reunite the Mitchells with their children. Frederica’s attack on his credibility had been bad enough but what followed was worse.
The event and the aftermath had taught him not to trust without checking. That aftermath had abruptly altered the make up of his then growing nonprofit foundation. He had lost the case and he had lost someone he thought of as a friend.  
        Coop had found out that Dirk was sleeping with the daughter of a family they had been helping. Coop had gotten the call from one of the other litigants he had trained on his cell phone while he was doing a brake job for the old man who lived two lots down in his mobile home park. The old man could not afford to pay for having it done. Coop wanted to make sure he had a car that would get him where he needed to go and home safe. Decent people help each other, that was how he had been raised and what he believed.  
        Sighing, Coop looked over the records he had finally extracted from Dirk. The man had been falsifying tax donation records to benefit the girl’s family. Cleaning up the mess would be no small matter. But it must be handled, and honestly.
  Coop ejected Dirk from his position. The man’s charm had only been exceeded by his greed and bad judgment. The aftermath had been nasty but that must be shouldered. Coop never had a problem shouldering his load. That is what a man did and he would never be anything less than a man.  
Charlotte, North Carolina

       Helen walked out on the back porch. The sun was shining and the air was filled with the sounds of a late summer afternoon. The bees dipping into the heart of flowers and a chorus of birds trilled and sent their songs of challenge and ardor through the wind rippled leaves of an ocean of air.  
       Helen could barely stand to hear any of it. Each sound carried with it the echo of a child’s voice raised in the excitement of discovery. Reaching out, she ran her finger across the surface of a lemon, hanging heavy and ready for picking. Memories of fresh lemonade heightened her pain until she felt as if her hear would surely break. Even her breath was hard and heavy within her. The days and months and now years had piled up like clods of dirt filling the deep grave of her hope. Her husband had now suffered two major heart attacks, the last while in court fighting for the return of their children. His strength and determination had sustained her. She had been at once so afraid for him and so proud. She knew, beyond doubt, that there was nothing that he would not do for her and their children as long as there was breath in his body.  
        It had been him who had managed to get their oldest son returned to them finally, though the now nineteen year old boy still lived in fear that DSS would come and take him back, even as he wandered through the house asking and looking for his brothers and sisters.  
       Glancing upward into the gleaming gold tinted light, Helen prayed for a sign that all hope was not dead. It had been a bad week, with the death of former President Wallace piled on the word that the court was preparing to sever their parental rights forever.  
       Squeezing her eyes shut Helen prayed. When she opened them, a butterfly had landed on the leaf next to her hand. Slowly she moved her fingers and the butterfly moved, not away from her hand but lightly fluttering to rest on the uplifted palm. Slowly raising her hand she looked closely at the lovely wings and the tiny face. 
Then, in the house, she heard the phone ring. The butterfly rose like a spark of life into the air, rising into the branches of the lemon tree. Helen turned and went into the house.  
       “Hello?” The voice on the other end of the phone was young and a little breathless when it finally spoke.
“Mrs. Mitchell? My name is Mark and I live in the same foster home as your son, Zeb. He wants to know if…..if you want to talk to him.”
         Helen’s throat constricted. “There is nothing in this great world that I want more.”
         Then suddenly there was another voice on the phone, one that was now a little deeper than she remembered.  
         “Mama? I was afraid you wouldn’t want to talk to me. They said you didn’t and that was why I have not seen you for so long.” 
         The next ten minutes filled Helen’s heart with hope. She devoured every word, hearing his fears and hopes and telling him over again how very much she loved him and all the small things she remembered and held in her heart. Then, all too soon someone was coming and the line went dead.  
         The butterfly had told her Zeb would call, she realized. It had always been Zeb who brought butterflies in for the family to see; Zeb who collected them, carefully cataloguing his finds in the notebook on zoology he had started when he was just five years old. Helen knew in that instant that in the blackest moment of her despair God had given her this small miracle to sustain her, and in so doing He was telling her that she was not working and hoping in vein.  
        Small miracles are enough if you have the faith to believe and the courage to endure the trials life sends.  

Part One               Part Two              Part Three               Part Four