Brenda Copeland has little to give but her love.
At 61, she is adapted to discomfort. Her aging house sits off a seemingly misplaced dirt road in Brunswick’s Arco community, hidden from all but the trains that pass nearby. The home was built in 1910, and has been in her family since, property records show.
Three cramped bedrooms narrowly accommodate Copeland, her brain-injured son, 43, and disabled daughter, 41.
The floors sag beneath the weight of generations, and linoleum tiles shift like loose puzzle pieces. Faded photographs and Bible verses hang in frames on living room walls.
The home’s 803 square feet were crowded — even before the boy arrived.
Copeland had seen the boy, 17, and his parents before. Her backyard abuts theirs. Occasionally, she would see his white mother or father checking the mail. The family, who asked not to be named in this story, had exchanged pleasantries with Copeland, but never names.
When the boy’s family stopped checking the mail early this year, she noticed. The car in the front drive had not moved, although days had passed. The scene gnawed at Copeland, until she did what any good neighbor would.
“I just came to say hey,” Copeland, who is black, told the boy’s mother when she answered the door. “Something told me to stop by and see how y’all doin’.”
The boy’s mother stood silent in the entryway.
“What’s wrong? You got a toothache?” Copeland asked.
The woman shook her head, no.
“What? Have you lost your voice? Are you hoarse?” Copeland pressed.
Again, the woman shook her head, no.
“Well, what’s wrong?” Copeland asked, bewildered.
The woman looked back inside her house, and waved her boy to the front door. A stroke had stolen her speech, he dutifully explained. To boot, the boy’s father had gone into nursing care, leaving the mother and son alone.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God. That’s why God was telling me to come by this house,’” Copeland later recalled.
She left her phone number and told the boy to call if they needed anything, day or night. Guilt-ridden, Copeland returned home, again forgetting to exchange names with the boy and his mother.
In her cluttered living room, she pondered.
“Maybe I could have saved her from having a stroke,” Copeland recollected. “Maybe I could have walked in that house and gotten her to the hospital in time. I don’t know, but it seem like I was to blame for it.”
‘THAT’S THE WAY MY MIRACLES CAME’
Days passed, and Copeland went on about her life. She cooked meals for her son, whose childhood brain injury also stole his speech. She took her daughter to Bible study at their church on Norwich Street, and fed her son’s pet turtle, “Little Rascal.”
Raised without a mother or father, Copeland is eager to love her children. She knows full well the disappointment of abandonment. Her youth was spent shuffling between family members after her mother died and father left.
Her life story cascades from abandonment to abuse into tragedy without skipping a beat.
“My life is a big ole’ ball of confusion,” admits Copeland, the youngest of three siblings.
She did track down her father in Jacksonville, Fla., about 30 years ago, but he died shortly after, she said. She knows little about her mother beyond her name, Ertis Mae.
“All I know about her, they say she was a red-bone,” Copeland said. “That mean she was a bright-skin lady. Nobody can tell me anything but she was a beautiful woman with freckles. I had her ways, that all I knew about her.”
Her earliest memories are scant. She does remember living with her parents in a house on Gordon Street.
“They call it a ‘shack house.’ Only thing I remember about that was I used to roll a car tire as a toy,” she said, laughing fondly.
When her son was born, he weighed just 3 pounds, 2 ounces. She cradled him in a shoebox and made diapers from white bed sheets, she said.
“He wasn’t acting like a normal child,” Copeland recalled, fighting tears. “I believe it came because his daddy beat me up and wouldn’t let me take — wouldn’t let me call the police after my son was found — three months old, being a premature child, being found upside down between the wall and the bed. I think the blood rushed to his head.”
Doctors told Copeland her son would never walk or talk. But she believes in miracles.
“My first miracle came when he was 7 and a half,” Copeland said. Her son was staying with a friend in the Brooklyn Homes, a housing project, while she worked cleaning houses. She went to pick to him up that afternoon, and as the friend readied him, she stepped outside to hear a band play.
“All the sudden, a bunch of voices yelled out, ‘Brenda! Brenda! That your boy?’ They was speaking of my son,” she said. The child had crawled out of the apartment.
“And he crawled all the way down that long sidewalk, until he got to the edge of that concrete, to the dirt, and he stood up and began to walk,” Copeland remembered. “That’s the way my miracles came.”
‘I’M GOING TO GOD ABOUT THIS’
Outside Copeland’s Acro home, railroad tracks bound the property’s west side. Box cars wait on the steel ribbons, their destinations unknown.
Inside her home, Copeland slept one mild evening last January. It had been weeks since she’d given her phone number to the neighbor boy and his mother.
Finally, the phone rang.
Another stroke had hospitalized the boy’s mother. Alone, the boy had found refuge at Safe Harbor Children’s Center, a nonprofit on Gloucester Street that champions destitute minors.
The voice on the line, a social worker, asked Copeland if she knew the boy and his mother, calling them by name. But Copeland knew her neighbors only in passing. They had never exchanged names, and Copeland assumed the late-night call was a misdial. She went back to sleep.
Something nagged at her, though. Days later, she called the number back. The social worker answered.
“Yes, my name is Brenda Copeland,” she told him. “I had a man call me a little while ago about some white people, do you know what I mean?”
Yes, the man did know. He explained the boy was still with Safe Harbor, and yes, he was the boy from down Copeland’s street. A search for a place the boy could live had proved fruitless. They had exhausted a list of names and numbers the boy had. There was no one to take him.
“They was trying to throw the boy in a foster home,” Copeland said. “That did it for me. I know what it’s like to live with different families, different places, being mistreated. So I say, ‘Well, I tell you what. Let me pray about this. I’m going to God about this, and I’ll call you back.’”
To God she went, praying over the matter for a few days, then deciding. The boy would live with her for as long as he needed.
“I went to my daughter,” Copeland said. “We sat at the kitchen table, and I said, ‘Look, we about to have a guest with us. He’s a young man. Would you be willing to give up your room, and let him stay in your room, and you sleep with me?’”
“Mama, I can handle that,” Copeland’s daughter replied.
‘YOU’RE WELCOME TO IT ALL’
The social worker soon made the arrangements for the boy to move into Copeland’s home. His mother, still in the hospital, signed paperwork, and space was made for his belongings. On January 14, a date the boy quickly recalls, he moved in.
“The only thing I ask of you is honesty and trust,” Copeland told the mild-mannered boy upon his arrival. “In this house, it’s a whole lot of love. It ain’t much, but it’s what we got, and you’re welcome to it all.”
As the months have passed, the boy’s mother’s condition has complicated. She remains hospitalized, and Copeland ferries the boy to visit her. She takes him shopping and ensures he is fed and cared for. The situation is not ideal, she admits, but it is the best she has to offer; it is her love.
“I did a lot of crying all my life, because I was always in pain,” Copeland said. “Always hurting. Never had nobody to, you know, love me and be there. Do you know what it feels like when you out there in the world and you don’t have family members?”
Copeland does. It is a pain she hopes to spare the boy.
“I wouldn’t want any child to live the way I live, without a mother and a father, or a place to live,” she said. “So I say I’m gonna’ take care of him.”