John Johnson recently moved to Orangeburg, South Carolina and purchased thirty-acres of land bordering the majestic-cold-black water of the slow-flowing Edisto River. Abandoned many years ago, nature had reclaimed the property with underbrush so thick it made walking about very difficult. With a machete in hand, John started exploring the land to see exactly what he had blindly purchased. What he found changed his life. This is his story…
As I started walking away from the riverbank, I noticed an old shack on a hill about one-hundred yards directly in front of me. I was shocked when I saw it because I didn’t even know the shack existed. The structure was in such a state of ill-repair I figured I would likely have to demolish and replace it with a new cabin.
As I stood on the front porch, I tried to imagine who might have lived there long ago. Who were they? Where did they go? Why did they abandon this beautiful property?
Not knowing what critters might be lurking inside the old shack, I banged on the door as if expecting someone to answer. No person or critter responded, so I eased the door open. The eerie, screeching sound made by the rusted hinges was an indication the door had not opened in years.
To my surprise, the interior actually appeared to be in good shape—the natural color of the unpainted wood created a warm-inviting atmosphere. There were even several pieces of furniture neatly placed, as if someone had left just minutes before my arrival. The only telltale sign of abandonment was the thick layer of dust coating everything in sight.
The first object that caught my eye was an old-mahogany chest standing against the wall to my left. It seemed so out of place because its beauty rivaled any antique I had ever seen. I opened the top drawer and found a small metal box containing a sealed envelope with the words “To My Son” written on it.
Suddenly, I felt guilty, as if I was invading someone’s privacy, but I proceeded to open the envelope anyway. A letter and a small black-and-white photo of an old man sporting grey hair appeared. The deep lines etched in his face were telltale signs of stress and years of exposure to the sun. The scars on his cheeks and forehead were indicative of serious accidents or having lived a difficult life. Yet, his eyes beamed with the warmth of a kind, gentle soul. His face looked so familiar, as if I should know him. Could it be possible I had seen this face before?
When I gently rubbed my finger across the image, I could sense the pain the old man must have endured—the experience was surreal, as though this man and I had some sort of connection. I brushed the thought aside and quickly refocused my attention to the letter and began reading…
To My Son, July 12, 1998
If you are reading this, it’s because I am no longer here to talk to you in person; I’ve gone to my final resting place in my Father’s house of many rooms and no longer feel the pain of my youth. However, there are a few things I never had the opportunity to tell you. Allow me to do so now.
Please read these words carefully as they will help you be a loving father to your son. I say these things not seeking your pity, but to open your heart and mind to God’s love.
When I was a young boy, my father didn’t treat me very well; he never even told me he loved me. In fact, he beat me many times, even though I begged him to stop. He said he wanted to toughen me up and teach me to be a man. He yelled and cursed me to stop crying like a big baby. Each time he hit me, I tried to protect my face with my hands only to have the hard blows of his massive fists break my fingers and send blood pouring from the wounds he inflicted upon my head. I prayed each day for God to take my pain away, and promised Him I would never treat my son the way my father treated me.
I never had much in my life, but I gladly give you this beautiful piece of heaven where you are now standing. The shack is small, but it’s very cozy, and the view of the river from the front porch will astound you—look at it often and you will find peace. I pray God speaks to you just as He did me. All I ask of you is that you keep this little shack standing tall and full of love. I don’t think that’s too much to ask of you, but if I’m wrong, I will understand.
Don’t be alarmed as you continue reading this message I share from my heart, but I know you’re probably not my son. That’s okay—I love you as though you are! You see, I was serving my country in Vietnam when I heard you were born. It was the best day of my life! I couldn’t wait to hold you in my arms and give you all the love you deserve—the same love I prayed for many times.
Unfortunately, I was involved in a bloody battle with the enemy the day following your arrival. I became a prisoner of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton for six-long years.
Enemy soldiers beat me many times during my stay there. Memories of my dad teaching me to be a man filled my mind each time they hit me. I think I finally became the man dad wanted me to be because the only information I ever gave the enemy was my name, rank, and service number. They did not break me because the thought of seeing you one day kept me going—you were all I had to sustain me. I thank you for easing my pain.
When I returned home, I learned the army had listed me as MIA (Missing-In-Action). Your mother had remarried and wanted nothing to do with me, so I never had a chance to spend time with you. God didn’t bless me that way. I’m not sure why, but I never questioned His will for He blessed me in so many other ways. At least I was able to catch a brief glimpse of you playing in the yard on the day your mother broke my heart and sent me away.
Maybe God sent you here this day that you might become my son, and I—well, your father. I know how strange that must sound, but the thought comforts me, and paints a smile upon my face as I write these words. It would please me greatly if you choose to call me Dad. I will never harm you in any way if you do. I will honor my promise to God and give you the love I never received from my father.
My simple wish for you is that you find peace and happiness here in this little shack by the river. I pray you will love your son and teach him to know God. You do not have to hit him to teach him how to become a man. Do unto him as your Lord in heaven does to you—love him with all your heart; he will understand what it takes to make a real man strong.
Now, go hug your son. Tell him how proud you are to be his father, and never let your fists strike him in anger or any other way for that matter. God chose to bless you with a son, so love him as I do you on this very special day.
With all my love to the son I never met,
As I read the man’s name, my heart swelled with emotion. Could this man possibly be my real father—the father I never met? The flow of the cold-black waters of the river paled in comparison to the stream of warm tears flowing down my cheeks. I felt as though God had led me to this place, in His own time, to meet this old man. I was humbled—no, I felt blessed by the experience and couldn’t wait to get home to hug my son. I was going to shower him with the same love an old man’s words in a letter had bestowed upon me.
Well, it’s been two years since I discovered that old-abandoned shack on my riverfront property. My thoughts of tearing the place down never materialized. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I restored it. My wife, son, and I now call this our home. We named our little piece of heaven by the river “Matthew’s Place” in honor of Matthew Johnson.
On the wall above that old-antique-mahogany chest is a frame displaying the photo of Matthew Johnson and his “TO MY SON” letter. It serves to remind me of the day I received a special message from an angel. Although the Lord’s house has many rooms, I will dwell in Matthew’s Place until the Lord calls me home to meet Mr. Johnson.
Matthew Johnson, may you rest in peace knowing that I, John Matthew Johnson, now think of you as my dad. Though we never met, your kind letter touched my heart. You, Matthew, now have someone to call—SON! May God bless and keep you until the day we meet in paradise!
John 14:2 (NIV)
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?
Give your children a hug and tell them how much you love them—do this each day of your life.
The names herein are fictional and do not represent any real characters.
Tom Tatum – Author 2016
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