Martha Manning and Raina Graves appeared to have little in common. They certainly didn’t look like members of the same family.
Manning was a white, middle-aged professional, a clinical psychologist with a good marriage and a comfortable lifestyle.
Graves was a black, single mother in her late 20s who struggled financially and had even been temporarily homeless. She had only recently moved into a two-bedroom, partially subsidized apartment with her three children, her mother and her niece. Her children’s father had left her brokenhearted and provided no financial support.
Manning first became aware of Graves and her children in 1995, when she received their names and Christmas wish list. She purchased gifts for the struggling family and planned to leave them with the charitable group that would deliver them.
“My idea of a perfect charity was to help people without actually having anything to do with them,” she said.
Her plans quickly changed when the group’s delivery schedule lagged behind and they asked Manning if she would mind delivering the gifts herself. While their initial meeting was somewhat awkward, the two women were inexplicably drawn to one another. Graves called Manning to thank her again for the gifts; then Manning called Graves a few weeks later to see how things were going.
They began exchanging details of their everyday lives, talking regularly. Soon Manning began babysitting Graves’ children, even taking them for sleepovers at her house. The children, all preschoolers and including a set of twin boys, were a handful, but Manning seemed somehow energized by spending time with them.
Her husband remarked after one of their visits, “You know what, I haven’t heard you laugh like that in a couple of years! They bring something out in you that I haven’t seen in awhile.”
Manning and Graves spent time alone together, too, deepening their unusual bond. After one lunch where they had splurged on dessert, Graves mentioned that she still needed to shed a few pounds from her pregnancy with the twins. Manning agreed that she did, too.
“Guess you’re taking it real slow,” Graves replied. The two women enjoyed a comfortable laugh, because Manning’s only child was a college student at the time.
Manning eventually confided to Graves that she had struggled with severe depression for some time. Immediately compassionate, Graves said, “I’ve known you carry burdens you don’t talk about. I’m sorry you’ve had such hard times.”
Before long Graves’ children began calling Manning and her husband “Aunt Martha” and “Uncle Brian.” Months and even years passed, and the unlikely group became a family. And like family bonds often are, theirs were both tested and strengthened by tragedy.
In September 1998, one of Graves’ twin sons, then 3, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, an often-deadly cancer which had spread to his bone marrow, stomach and kidneys. Though the prognosis was poor, Deven underwent almost unbearable treatments, during which Manning was a key caregiver, along with his mother.
The news got better. The treatments had been successful, and Deven’s cancer went into remission. And Raina Graves and her family were accepted as a partner family with Habitat for Humanity. After investing the required sweat equity, Graves would become a homeowner.
But in March 2001, Deven’s cancer returned. That August, Manning was with Graves and her family in the living room of their home when Deven died. The family—all of them—joined hands and prayed, thanking God for Deven’s life and for the love they shared.
A Place to Land: Lost and Found in an Unlikely Friendship (Ballantine, 2003) is Martha Manning’s account of how a charitable act she hoped to keep at arms length resulted in a new family, one that defies conventional expectations but is as real and natural as any other.
It’s also a pretty good picture of how God’s will redefines the nature of family, enriching it to connect us not just to God, but also to everyone who follows Christ.
What makes a family? Jesus said everyone who seeks to know and do God’s will are part of God’s family. We all belong to God, and to each other.
Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.