There are people you meet that you know are going to be in your life forever. Nene is one of those people. She was the girlfriend of a guy we call Bean, a nephew of my adopted mom. One Sunday Bean and Nene came to church with their adorable baby girl. Someone mentioned to me that I should go over and make Nene feel welcome, after all, we were the same age. So I walked up to them to say hi. Now, I had no idea Nene had been told about a previous encounter between Bean and a girl with my name. Of course, he didn’t bother explaining I wasn’t *that* person. So when I said hi, “I’m Taunya”…her thought was, “So, you’re the one who slept with my boyfriend.” It didn’t take long for us to get that cleared up. And ever since, Nene has been one of my best friends.
A short time later, Bean and Nene were getting married and she asked me to be her maid (matron) of honor. And then she showed me the dress she wanted me to wear. The dress was beautiful, but it was NOT Body standard. When I explained that to her, she simply said, “Well I’m not having a body wedding.” And that was that.
Hindsight, I REALLY should have known her bachelorette party was going to end up differently than I thought. At age 22 I was beginning to rebel and drinking with my friend sounded fun. The problem was that I really didn’t like alcohol and I could only handle one drink. So I wasn’t really a fun drinking friend. But then she told me we were going to see the men strip. NO. No way. I absolutely put my foot down. But this was Nene. She had a way of making anything sound fun and that is how I found myself sitting in a strip club by the airport reading the menu as intently as I could. Because…the men were on strike…and so we were watching women strip. I laugh now, but I wasn’t laughing then. It took me YEARS to tell the husband what we did that night.
Her wedding day arrived and it was one of the few times I felt amazingly beautiful. NOT as beautiful as Nene, but not too bad. Trying on an off-the-shoulder dress at a store is WAY different than actually wearing that dress. Especially when I realized there would be people from the church. And they would see me in this immodest very low cut dress. The dress is meant to be worn with confidence, but I shrank and that caused wardrobe issues. By the time I made it from the back of the church to the front of the church I pretty much felt naked. I was terrified if I moved an inch my boobs would fall out of the dress. Luckily Beans’ best man was smart enough to recognize the sheer terror on my face and he moved her train for me. Later I apologized profusely to my husband for the dress who just looked at me and said, “You look beautiful.”
For 5 minutes, during the short ceremony, Nene had her moment in time. The dreams she had…the planning we had done…the last second tweaks…brought her to this moment and she was beautiful and she was happy. But once we hit the reception her life went downhill from there. I knew something was wrong within a week. “I need to talk to you, can you come see me?” When I arrived, my beautiful, happy friend was shattered. Her new husband, less than 48 hours from saying I do, had hit her. This would become the pattern of their marriage. I stood in her kitchen, not sure what to say. I couldn’t tell her the memories of hearing my own momma being hit. I didn’t know WHAT to do. We were only 22 years old. She had a baby and I had a complicated marriage and we both were trapped in a cult. There was no context for us to make any other decision. So, we decided she should stay, because it was best for her daughter. And after all, she was going to change Bean…she was the best thing that happened to him…she couldn’t just give up on him that easy. I left, returned to my husband and she was left living a nightmare.
Less than 2 years later I stood outside the room when their second daughter came into the world by c-section. I was one of the first people to hold her, an honor that I will always cherish. It didn’t take long for the newness of the baby to wear off and a nightmare was revealed. While pregnant, with their baby, her husband cheated on her with some slimy snake at work. And again, we didn’t know what to do so she stayed and I supported.
At this point, you may wonder why we didn’t just ask for help or get counseling or call the police. Remember the cult? Bean comes from a dysfunctional (to say the least) family. So Nene kind of got lumped into that family. And, some people didn’t have the patience or grace or mercy to get involved. There was a LOT of judgment of my friend that I heard and sadly did not speak against. They criticized her weight, they criticized her parenting, they criticized her personality, they criticized her husband (who rightly deserved it). But they didn’t stop long enough to realize she was hurting and in pain. They had no idea they were just killing her with a thousand tiny cuts. Service after service after service. I stood on the side, loving her, wanting to help but not knowing what to do.
My son was born 6 months later and now we were mothers together. She had a son and I had my two daughters. Our lives were busy with bottles and boobs and diapers and dishes. Her husband repented and became a jerk quite regularly. He would work and not work and so they moved a lot. I lost most of my respect and like for him, but I always treated him kindly. I guess I believed the same story she told herself…given enough love he would change his ways and have a final come-to-Jesus moment.
It was during these early years of parenting babies and toddlers that Nene and I discovered something that would make us forget abusive husbands and unpaid bills and mean sister-in-laws and husbands who worked long hours to avoid coming home. Some moms drink coffee…chat…have play dates…Nene and I clearance shopped Target. 2-3 times a week we’d meet at a Target, looking for bargains. If you have never clearance shopped at Target you have not lived. I’m not talking about hitting the endcaps and buying discounted goods. I’m talking about HUNTING for clearance items. Items that are 70-90 percent from the price on the shelf. There is an entire subculture dedicated to this task and I dragged Nene in to the midst of it. It became a tradition, meet Nene, buy pretzels and Icees and try to find the latest find I’d heard of on my coupon group. And when we found it, we’d buy as many as we could because we knew others would pay us a little extra. I shopped to ease my boredom with motherhood and fill the hole my marriage left but Nene shopped because it was the only way she could bring joy into her kids lives. One time we found a little table and chairs for less than $10. Another time we found dresser knobs for less than $2 she used to fix up her dresser. The amusing thing is that at least 2 times a year Nene would have a yard sale and I primarily filled it with my Target and extreme couponing bargains. She likes to say that she would have a yard sale just to get money to buy my stuff.
The best thing about being Nene’s friend was she was a fabulous “wife”. She could cook and bake and her house was incredibly clean most of the time. She would come to my house and motivate me just long enough so the husband didn’t feel like he needed to trade me in for a new model. I thoroughly adored her and she adored me. Despite the pain we both silently endured, these days are some of our fondest memories.
Our paths took different turns in spring of 2003. I was working part time for my husband and Nene babysat my youngest who didn’t like the preschool her brother and sister attended. I decided that she was the best person for the job and she ADORED my daughter. I endured a ton of criticism from my husband, his family and the church for my decision but I stood firm that she was to stay in the care of Nene. The decision to rip my daughter away from Nene and ultimately me from Nene was made without me. I had no choice. I wasn’t even in town. A false accusation was made against Bean and the authorities were called. CPS showed up at Nene’s door and they found the accusation had no merit (IT STILL DOESN’T FOR THE RECORD) There was no way my children were allowed to be over there again. I cannot remember the fight the husband and I had over that, but I do remember the ache I felt when I realized it also meant my friendship with Nene was over. AND I had to be the one to tell her.
You see, when you left the cult, you couldn’t exactly stay in touch with them. Especially since this was Nene and Bean and you just couldn’t have that type of an accusation…I knew and she knew it was coming. And so I showed up to say goodbye…and she was cold and angry and took me by surprise. I now know she was protecting her heart as best she could. But I left there angry and sad that I couldn’t, didn’t have the guts to fight back against those who should know better. It took me years to forgive myself for the way I treated the one person I loved and who loved me back.
I heard from Nene a couple times but the deep connection we had prior to 2003 was gone. I mourned it with every trip to Target. I mourned it when I needed someone to cry with. I mourned it every time I felt alone. A tragedy would bring me back into her life and the pain to the forefront. When she found her brother had taken his own life outside her window, I was the person she called. And I dropped everything to be there for her. I will give the pastor this much credit, it is the one day he got outside of his own agenda and ego to let me use my gift and love my friend through the darkest hours of that day. A few weeks later we would talk about the day I left her life. I vowed to never treat someone like that again even if it meant being out of order.
I’d love to tell you that Bean finally had a come-to-Jesus moment. But alas, he did not. Nene endured for years. She would tell me how he was her best friend and how much they loved one another, but I heard the pain in her voice. I knew the truth. All the beatings. All the affairs. All the lies. She carried it all silently. Nene is not a saint, which is why she’s my friend, but Nene had what I did not. Prior to coming to the cult, Nene knew Jesus. She knew the simple faith of Jesus and I think that faith sustained her. She believed in the power of love. And that held her until one day, I think Jesus just woke her up. Nene and a come-to-Jesus moment and in a very public display, broke the chains that tied her to Bean.
Her story did become happier. She met a man accidentally. And that accidental meeting led to a marriage with a man, who is actually a MAN, and she became a legally adopted momma to his two boys. Her family now includes 5 children and 1 grand baby and very spoiled dogs. She lives across the country from me in the South and has the most adorable accent. She has thrived and grown and now runs her own baking business. Yes, she is still the amazingly beautiful and funny friend I’ve known for 23 years. She still has better hair and cooking skills than me. And she still makes me laugh. And I still miss her when I go into Target.
Having a friend like Nene taught me that Jesus can and will show up in the darkest of places. Sometimes it looks like two lonely mommas, babies in tow, hunting for bargains in the aisles of Target.