Conyers resident Joan Matthews displays her recently published autobiography, “Embracing Love,” which she hopes is an inspiration to others. (Special Photo)
Drinking, partying, fighting, infidelity, mental illness, poverty, child neglect — and that’s just on the first two pages. Conyers author Joan Matthews has penned her autobiography and laid her life bare for the world to read in the hopes it will serve as a message of faith and inspiration to others.
“Everybody who has read it has had the same reaction,” Matthews said. “They tell me once they started reading it, they could not put it down.”
For this mother and grandmother, “Embracing Love” is 96 pages of sharing how God brought her through countless instances of discouragement, sin and hopelessness into a person who says brightly time and again, “I am blessed,” when someone casually asks, “How are you?”
“Blessed” would not be the first word that comes to mind when reading about the many struggles Matthews has endured in the past seven decades. Born in 1943 in Oconee County, S.C., Matthews said her parents had a tumultuous relationship. She was an only child and she said one of her first memories is when she was 5 years old and remembers her daddy coming home from the mill and telling his wife he was leaving them.
“Mom said, ‘If you don’t love Joan any more than that, neither do I!’” Matthews recalls. “She walked in one direction and he walked in another. I remember thinking, ‘If my mama doesn’t love me, who does?’”
Matthews said that was the first time she remembers hearing God’s “voice whispered into (her) heart” telling her that he loved her. She would need that comfort many times in the years to come.
Again when she was small, Matthews said her mother got a boyfriend and her father again left the family. She recalls how she didn’t have a winter coat, so her mother’s boyfriend bought her a purple wool coat with a black collar and bought her a balloon on a stick.
She said since that time, purple has been her favorite color. But the day turned sour when her mother popped her balloon — literally.
Matthews grew up in the housing projects listening to her parents fight, but said she was happy to live in the projects because the other places they had lived were drafty with holes in the floors and didn’t have bathtubs or commodes.
At 13, Matthews remembers seeing her mother grab a knife during one of her parents’ many fights. The child ran into her bedroom, got on her knees and said she prayed like she had never prayed before. She asked Jesus to come into her heart and help her to keep her parents happy.
A bright spot in her young years was when one of her teachers discovered she had a beautiful singing voice and got her into the school band where she discovered a life-long love of music. It was also one of her teachers who started taking her to church and encouraged her to sing in the choir.
That same teacher “pulled some strings,” Matthews said, and got her a chance to sing on the local radio station. They wanted her to sign a contract, but her mother would not allow it. However, she continued to sing and win talent shows and got the chance to sing on a live country TV show in Asheville, N.C.
“When they zoomed the camera on me, I fainted from sheer terror,” she said. “So much for that career! Live TV means no retakes and no second chances.”
There are humorous and lighthearted moments in “Embracing Love,” but there are many stories that leave the reader asking how Matthews could possibly survive. The book is filled with the realities the author had to face beginning with her heart-wrenching childhood to today when the cancer she had fought before has now returned.
In between, there are glimpses into a life that is notable for its many struggles. Her mother was finally diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Matthews was pregnant at 16 by her preacher’s son and quit school.
Her family moved to Atlanta into the Capitol Homes housing projects. She remembers one Christmas all they had to eat was some rice, butter and oranges a neighbor had brought them.
When it was time for her to have the baby, Matthews’ parents took her to Grady Hospital and left her. She said the hospital authorities pressured her to put her daughter up for adoption, but she had a “screaming fit” and got out of bed and went to the nursery to see her.
When her baby was three weeks old, she went to work. The preacher’s son eventually came to Atlanta and the two were married, but it too would be a tumultuous relationship and ended in divorce.
Throughout “Embracing Love,” Matthews continues with a testimony that sometimes shocks and other times blesses the reader. She shares candidly about the abortion she had and her life-long difficulties with issues of love and trust. Matthews does not hold back and she does not sugarcoat the mistakes she has made.
She said her husband and two daughters encouraged her to write “Embracing Love” and she said it was a project God wanted her to complete.
“This book is about God covering a multitude of mistakes and turning them into miracles,” Matthews said. “To God be the glory.”
The last sentence in the forward of “Embracing Love” reads, “Get on board dear reader — it’s an amazing ride!”
Indeed, it is amazing that despite having experienced so many problems, Matthews’ faith has continued to grow. She said it is her “truest desire and prayer” that everyone who reads “Embracing Love” will grow in their relationship with God.
A member of Conyers First Baptist Church, Matthews has shared her testimony in churches and with other groups for the past 10 years. Her book is available by emailing her at email@example.com.
Beth Slaughter Sexton is a freelance writer based in Gwinnett County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.