The inscription on the modest wall hanging tells the story of a family in need and a church that opened its heart.
“In appreciation to Waterville Baptist Church for being the Hand of God in our time of need during the summer of 1973,” the italicized wording reads. It is signed, “The Children of Mr. & Mrs. Clyde Truelove Sr.”
The pastor’s eyes watered as he told of the telephone call from Cleveland resident Pat Holcomb weeks earlier. Holcomb had asked permission to visit with the man of faith, along with her grown siblings, in the church sanctuary to make good on a promise to say “thank you” that the family had made long ago.
“I’m overwhelmed by it,” Lovelace said after the emotional presentation from inside the church’s new sanctuary. “I was in tears when Pat first called me and relayed the story. I was just in tears.”
Joined by her sister Juanita, and her brothers Walter, James and Lee, the longtime Cleveland resident arranged to meet with the pastor at the church just a few days before Thanksgiving. There, the five grown siblings relived a time long ago when the congregation at Waterville Baptist may have saved their lives.
Three weeks before the sanctuary reunion, the story unfolded in an editor’s office during an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner.
Forty years ago, Patricia Truelove Holcomb and her three little brothers and sister — whose ages ranged from 2 to 11 — were typical youngsters in the Waterville community.
Like other kids, they played. Sometimes they laughed. Oftentimes they cried. They had dirty faces in the summer and runny noses in the winter.
Yet, their lives took a road less traveled. Over a two-week period, maybe three, they almost starved. It happened in 1973.
Had it not been for a wild green that grew in the woods from which they made polk salad, and later for the kindness of a church whose doors they had never entered, Holcomb believes to this day they might have died.
That’s because hunger knows no borders. It is a time. It is a place. It is a circumstance.
And in the summer heat of ’73, it became painfully real for five impoverished Kile Lake Road siblings whose unemployed Dad and hospitalized Mom — in spite of their painstaking efforts — struggled to care for their babies.
The family’s plight was dire.
The mom — Charlene Truelove — had just given birth four months prematurely to a sixth child. The infant, whose name was Dwayne, lived only six hours. Her baby’s death, compounded by the family’s poverty and series of misfortunes, overburdened the young mother. Suffering what family members described as a “nervous breakdown,” she was institutionalized — a circumstance that further alienated the children.
The dad — Clyde Truelove Sr. — had lost his job. At about the same time, the engine in his vehicle stalled. With no income for repairs, he was forced to walk everywhere ... looking for work anywhere that he heard might be hiring. He traveled on foot to hunt for work to places as close as Cleveland and as far away as North Georgia. He walked everywhere, except to the grocery store because he had no money for food.
Having moved to Cleveland a short time earlier from Cohutta, Ga., the Truelove family found themselves in a small rental home on Young Road. Unable to pay the rent, they moved again to an aging, vacant little house on Kile Lake Road but had no money to have the electricity turned on. They lived in darkness, the rooms lit only by windows, a fireplace and a wood-burning stove.
Her mother now in the care of Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute, it fell to Pat’s father to provide on his own. But without a job and without transportation, the family’s plight grew beyond desperation.
Four decades later, Pat — and her four grown siblings — remember the conditions.
“We had no income coming in,” Pat recalled. “We were attending the old Waterville Elementary School, but this was in the summertime so there was no free lunch. There was nothing to help us. And Dad was walking everywhere trying to find work.”
She added, “Everything was going wrong all at once. There was no food. There was no car. There was no electricity. And we had no way to get any of these things.”
To feed his hungry children, Clyde did what parents do. He improvised. Almost daily, he and one or more of the children would walk the woods and along roadsides foraging for pokeweed, a wild green whose sometimes bitter taste is best described as akin to turnip, collard or mustard greens. A perennial, pokeweed (which is used to make polk, or what some know as “poke” salad) — in spite of its natural toxicity — is edible when properly prepared. In the South, it is washed thoroughly in cold water, boiled, drained, rinsed again with cold water, and boiled again. Finally, the greens are again rinsed and drained in cold water.
In some Southern households, pokeweed that has been cleaned, boiled and drained is then fried in bacon fat or is mixed with scrambled eggs. Seasonings like salt, pepper and vinegar are also added.
But Clyde Truelove Sr. had no money for seasonings, nor for oil or shortening. So the greens were properly cleaned, boiled, drained and rinsed — and served to his five small children three meals a day, for what the grown children 40 years later remember to be two to three weeks.
“There was a creek down by the house so we carried water to the house by the buckets,” Pat said. “We all carried what we could ... but it was mostly laid on me and Walter.”
The creek water was for bathing and cleaning. The only time the family ever asked for help was for tap water from a neighbor. That was used for cooking and drinking. The house had access to well water, but the well relied on electricity to operate.
Because the family couldn’t afford to have the electricity turned on, water for bathing was heated on the wood-burning stove. It is also where water was boiled for the polk salad’s preparation.
“Dad was a proud man ... as far as not wanting to ask for help,” Pat recalled. “He always said, ‘I can make it on my own.’ He wouldn’t even ask his parents for help.”
Although it was keeping the malnourished family alive with boiled polk salad, the wood-burning stove was creating a problem.
“You’ve got to remember this was in the summer,” Pat said. “When you’re building a fire in a wood-burning stove ... you’re heating up the house in the summertime when it’s already hot.”
She doesn’t remember everything that was going through her mind as an 11-year-old, but now as a grown woman, Pat tears up thinking about how desperately her father worked to feed his children, while clinging to hope for some kind of miracle and that his wife, and the mother of his kids, would one day be allowed to return home.
“I do remember Dad did go to work helping this man who had some kind of small shop,” Pat said. “He would walk to work every day. But we had no food ... except for the polk salad ... so we had nothing to pack him a sandwich. We had no bread.”
Behind glistening eyes and staring into the distance, she added, “We were just very, very poor.”
Clyde Truelove’s miracle finally arrived.
“I remember the night they came to our house,” Pat described. “It was in the late evening, but it was not dark. I’m assuming they were deacons because they had probably been informed of our circumstances. I saw the men shaking hands with Dad and they were talking to him. I don’t know what they said.”
She added, “They left after awhile ... but shortly they came back. That night they came back with weiners that could be cooked in the fireplace. We ate that night, and the next day the electricity was turned on. And the ladies from the church, they brought food that was already cooked and some food that could be cooked.”
Sister Juanita remembered the night as well.
“Those hot dogs that night ... they were like T-Bone steaks,” she said laughing. “To a family that had had nothing but polk salad for three weeks ... those hot dogs were like T-Bone steaks.”
Pat described how her father and the kids went outside and cut twigs from trees that were later sharpened and used as skewers for roasting the hot dogs over the open flames. No one recalled how many packs of hot dogs were delivered by the church deacons, but all agreed plenty were roasted and most, probably all, were eaten.
As she thinks back on the night, Pat believes the deacons came to their dark home to verify that need truly did exist in the small house. What she doesn’t know is who told Waterville Baptist Church of their family’s plight. It could have been the neighbor who gave them clean water. It could have been a church deacon named Charles Howard who helped them find the lower-rent house on Kile Lake Road.
Whoever did report it, the siblings agree, may have saved their lives.
Times remained tough for the family, but at least they had food to eat. The family eventually received food stamps and in time they moved again to a small home on Chippewah Avenue on which they paid $50 per month rent, but which went toward its purchase. The kids’ mom returned home, but suffered the heartbreak of two miscarriages in years to come. Said Pat, their mom continued with health struggles until her death from a brain aneurism in 1984. She was only 39. Their dad died 13 years later.
In adulthood, the siblings now have children of their own and all but one have grandchildren. Pat works on the production floor at Whirlpool Cleveland Division. James works a night shift at the Johnston Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and Juanita is employed at Life Bridges. Walter and Lee are both disabled following a serious automobile accident years ago while working in Georgia.
All believe their time on earth is a direct result of the 1973 outreach by Waterville Baptist Church.
For several years now, and especially near Thanksgiving, the siblings have wanted to find a way to say thank you to the church. On the 40th anniversary of their rescue, the family opted to contact Pastor Lovelace to share with him the difference his church’s congregation had made in the life of one Waterville family four decades earlier.
“We have felt this way for several years ... that this is something we need to do,” Pat explained. “Some of those people who helped us [from the Waterville Baptist congregation] may still be alive. We wanted them to know their actions made a difference.”
She added, “Had they chosen just to look away, I truly believe we would have starved. But someone stepped up and said, ‘I won’t look the other way. These children are worth my time to see what can be done to help them.’”
Still moved by that experience 40 years ago, Pat now serves as youth pastor at the Kinser Church of God and works to emulate the work of that Waterville Baptist congregation. And Lee pastors a small, nondenominational church on Wildwood Avenue called “The Wings of Love.”
The Truelove siblings agree the night the Waterville Baptist deacons visited with their father marked a change in their lives.
“The one thing that we’re thankful for is that God, through the hands of men and women we had never met and did not know the names of, chose to sustain our lives by feeding us when we couldn’t feed ourselves,” Pat stressed.
She also spoke to the spirit in the men’s voices and hearts.
“I do know if those men had come in the wrong spirit and said to my dad, ‘Why are you letting those children starve ... we’re gonna call Human Services,’ they would have offended my dad,” Pat offered. “But they came in the spirit of love. And that’s why at Thanksgiving, more than all the other holidays, I have this on my heart. That is the one thing that I am so thankful for, as well as my brothers and sister ... that God chose to help us through the hands of strangers.”
Late on a rainy Friday afternoon preceding Thanksgiving, Pastor Lovelace accepted the plaque — the family’s way of saying “thank you” — on behalf of all Waterville Baptist Church congregations, past and present.
“There’s a lot of great churches, but I am biased because I pastor this one,” he said. Speaking to the Truelove siblings, he pointed out, “You’ve made me very proud in the things you’ve said about our church. We haven’t just morphed into this church. What you’re telling me is we’ve always been a good church.”
Of Waterville Baptist Church’s new facilities and sanctuary on Dalton Pike, Lovelace offered, “It has nothing to do with brick and mortar and stained glass. It’s the people.”
Lovelace admitted in an interview with the Banner that he has never before accepted a “thank you” on behalf of those who came 40 years before him.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “It wasn’t just [a case of the family] wanting to stop and say thanks, it was the recognition of this single moment as a marker that they could all point back to and say ‘... our life turned around because of that.’ I don’t think that I have ever seen anything like that ... other than the miracle that takes place in everybody’s life when they come to know Christ.”
Waterville Baptist’s 14-year pastor also stressed, “I don’t want this to be a pride thing for our church. I want it to be a way to reflect the glory to the Lord because it’s what He was doing in the hearts of our people to make them recognize that we’ve got to take care of one another.”
Perhaps the Almighty does work in mysterious ways, as evidenced by Juanita’s lighthearted comment in the church sanctuary during the plaque presentation.
“After eating that polk salad for so long, I swore I’d never eat polk salad again,” she laughed. “But when I got pregnant, I craved polk salad! God made me eat my words!”
... And the polk salad.
Truelove family thanks congregation
for life-saving outreach 40 years ago
To Waterville Baptist Church:
The year was 1973. I was 11 years old.
My family was dealing with the death of a baby, born prematurely. Mama was in the hospital with a nervous breakdown. Daddy had lost his job.
I was the oldest of five children. This had proved to be the worst summer of all time.
We had moved to the Waterville community where the house rent would be cheaper. We had no electricity and no water because of it being well water which had to have electricity to operate.
The motor of Dad’s car had locked down so he was walking everywhere trying to find work. Our food supply was depleted and we were living on wild polk salad for every meal. We cooked it on a wood-burning heater without any seasoning.
Water was carried from the creek for washing dishes, bathing and doing laundry by hand. We asked only for water to drink and cook with from our neighbors.
Thankfully, someone informed Waterville Baptist Church of our conditions, and they came to our rescue.
The electricity was turned on. Food was delivered, both cooked and to be cooked. Praise be to God. We had endured two of the worst weeks of our lives.
Now with food in our house, we had hope we would make it ... thanks to the Waterville Baptist Church and the community that chose to not look away.
Both of our parents are resting in the arms of Jesus now. These five children are all grown with children and most of us have grandchildren.
We have never forgotten the love of God delivered through the hands of Waterville Baptist ... even though we had never been inside the building, we have seen the love of God in action.
Thank you so very much.
— Patricia Ann
(Written on behalf of the late Clyde and Charlene Truelove, and their five children: sons Walter, James and Lee Truelove, and daughters Juanita Breedlove and Pat Holcomb.)