Norway resident Annette Sutcliffe hardly imagined expanding her family after the tragic death of her first husband and being left with three children to raise as a single mother. As fate would have it, though, she did just that with the help of her faith and a loving new husband by her side.
The 82-year-old explores the way she and her second husband, Linnie, 87, made a commitment to make their blended family, which began with eight children ages nine to 18 under one roof, a success with her book titled “A Legacy of Faith.”
‘We made it with God’s help’
Sutcliffe, who was named the 2010 South Carolina Mother of the Year, was born and raised in Orangeburg, graduating from Orangeburg High School in 1955. She later went to Winthrop College, where she met her first husband and married soon after.
“I went one year to Winthrop College and married after the first year and left school, which was a big mistake, but nobody could tell me that at the time,” Sutcliffe said.
She states in her book that she was immature at the time and had not sought God’s guidance in building the relationship.
“After three children, my husband was killed in an automobile accident at 32. That left me with three children to raise, two boys and a girl. I was a widow for four years. After the third year, I began to date a few guys, but I never felt like they were right ones. They weren’t Christians, and I was looking for a Christian because I’m a Christian,” she said.
It was in the winter of 1972 when her sister-in-law told her that she knew of a gentleman who was divorced, approximately 6 feet tall, very handsome and who was a leader in his church, including teaching Sunday school. She asked Sutcliffe if she could give him her phone number.
It was with much trepidation that Sutcliffe agreed.
“So he called me up a few days later and set up a coffee date at my house. He came about three days before Christmas. It was pouring down rain outside. I took his coat and I thought to myself, ‘This is really a good-looking guy,’” Sutcliffe said.
“We sat down and talked and all of a sudden, he said, ‘Would you like to see my family?’ Well, I didn’t know what that meant, but he pulled out this wallet, folded it and there were five children. Well, I assumed the mother had them, but I was wrong. The rest of the night I was figuring out how I could get rid of him,” she said.
The working mother said her co-workers were anxious to find out how her date went and that she was forthright in letting them know that a relationship with Linnie would not work.
“I said, ‘That man is looking for a mama for those five children and I’m not gonna be it,’ but he wouldn’t leave me alone. He kept sending flowers and calling, and he would come by for another coffee date.
“One thing led to another, and I think I’m the one who asked him to marry me because we were talking one night about the future and he said, ‘Well, I’ll have to add a couple of rooms on my house for the children.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. You better ask me if I want to spend the rest of my life in that house before you make plans,’” she said, smiling.
The couple married in June of 1973, bringing their eight children together and beginning their journey which involved both the ups and down of raising a blended family. Sutcliffe said it would not have been possible without her and Linnie’s faith in God.
“The book is s story of how we made it with God’s help because our home was covered by the Holy Spirit,” she said.
‘It always worked with teamwork’
Sutcliffe’s book is 40 years in the making. She had first thought about writing a book about her experiences with her blended family after approximately five or six years of marriage, but later shelved the idea.
“I had said, ‘I want to write a book about our children,’ and I started writing. Most of them were in school, and I had quit my job to stay home. I started writing and got about five or six chapters. Then I began to feel like it wasn’t time, that we hadn’t been married long enough to tell anybody how to do it,” she said.
It was one night approximately a year and a half ago that the idea of writing a book came back up again.
“I woke up about 2 a.m. couldn’t go back to sleep. All of a sudden God spoke to me. I didn’t hear his voice, but in the sense of my spirit, I heard him say, ‘Finish the book.’ So the next morning I called my daughter, Cindy, and I said, ‘God told me to finish my book.’
“She said, ‘Well, Mom, I’ll help you anyway I can.’ So she was my editor, Cindy McKeown. If I had something that she thought should have been said a little bit different way, she would tell me and we’d work on it together. I wrote most of the book, but every time I sat down at the computer, I asked God to take charge because I am not a person who writes very much,” Sutcliffe said.
She said it took teamwork to make the household, which included her children, Cindy, Mark and Eddie, and Linnie’s children, Linnie Jr., Thea, Julie, Polly and Janet, work.
“We had to organize. We worked as a team in the house. We had to give each child chores because I couldn’t do it all myself. On Saturday, we had eight sets of linens to wash. The two youngest were nine and they had to make their own beds before they left for school and pick up their clothes out of the room and put them away,” Sutcliffe said.
With only two bathrooms in the home, there was also a certain time for each child to bathe night.
“They also had to be in their rooms by 9:15. They didn’t have to go to bed then, but they had to be quiet in the house. It was kind of like a dormitory,” Sutcliffe said.
She added, “We even had an order of riding in the car to school. The oldest drove. We had a station wagon, and the older children sat up front and in the back seat, and the younger children had to get in the back in whatever you call that back there. As they graduated, the younger ones always looked forward to the older ones getting out of the front of the car.”
There were also moments when the couple had to deal with discipline issues, including those concerning Eddie.
“He was a little bit belligerent. The older girls were in charge. He was 15 and they were 18 and 17. So you know what friction that brought. I had several talks with him and he said, ‘I just get tired of everybody telling me what to do. A time to study, a time to eat, a time to take my bath. I feel like I’m in the Army.’ I said, ‘Well, Eddie, we have to work together. We have to work as a team,’” Sutcliffe said.
She said she realized that her son really didn’t have a chance to be a boy, taking charge of several things at just 11 years old after the death of his father. Knowing that her son could fix just about anything, she said that was when Linnie began to give Eddie opportunities to do just that.
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“I had started thinking about all that and I said, ‘My golly, I’ve expected him to be a man those four years and he didn’t have a chance to be a boy.’ So Linnie started giving Eddie things to fix. He called him one time to run a line from the house to our building outside. I had it checked and the man said he did a perfect job. He put speakers up in our den for the stereo.
“So we resolved that, but it always worked with teamwork, and we prayed together. I prayed for and with my children. And we had family altar every night before they went to bed,” Sutcliffe said.
Resolutions were made by talking and praying together.
“With any kind of problem that we had to come up, we talked about it together and we prayed,” Sutcliffe said, noting that she and her husband could not have done it without the Lord.
Young couples, particularly those with blended families, were the target readers for her book.
“I’ve been burdened for over 40 years for young couples getting married today. You don’t have to have any kind of training. They just get married and they many times do it without God’s help. I’ve counseled a couple of couples that were in trouble with a blended family.
"They’d say, ‘He didn’t want me to correct his children ... and every time I’d correct his, he’d get mad, and I’ll get mad when he’d correct mine.’ It has to be that you work together and they all have to be ours,” Sutcliffe said.
She said the word "stepchildren" was never used in her home. All the children were treated as the couple’s own.
“Somebody would stop us at church when we first got married and say, ‘Now, which ones are yours and which ones are Linnie’s?’ And I would say, “There are all ours,” Sutcliffe said.
She recalled a woman named Michelle she had met while working at a bank, and her blended family included four children.
“She and her husband separated twice. That was when I was at the bank and met her and asked her if I could pray for her and encourage her. They got back together, but then something happened and they separated again. She came to my book signing in St. Matthews with her family. They were all together and we made a picture. She said, ‘Ms. Annette, we’re back together with God,’ and that just made my day,’ Sutcliffe said.
‘I learned to ask God to find me a partner’
Faith and character were what Sutcliffe said helped shape her family, which was not perfect, but manageable.
Sutclifffe said she received a birthday card from Mark on Oct. 10 which summed it all up.
“He’s in Washington, and down at the bottom of the card, he wrote, ‘Mom, there were more elaborate cards and bigger cards, but no card said it like this said it. Thanks so much for the faith and the character you taught us children.’”
She said Linnie has also been a special blessing to the family.
“I learned to ask God to find me a partner. I did not do that the first time. I don’t regret my first marriage because I’ve got three beautiful children. But I did not ask God to be in charge of that, and this time I did. It was just like a miracle how he brought us together,” Sutcliffe said.
Linnie said, “We put God at the center to start with. I knew when I first met her she was a godly woman and that if it was God’s will, we’d put the families together. We did, and God was the center of the household. Now, there were times we had to sit down with the children and get kind of stern with them for things that they did, but we always worked it out and got things back on an even keel.”
Sutcliffe said, “People can’t tell the difference between our children because they all love each other and work together. They built a ramp for us because Linnie’s got braces on both legs and he was stumbling up the steps. I asked Eddie, the one that can fix everything and is an architect, ‘Can you put me a rail down both steps?’ He said, ‘Sure, Mom, I can do that.’ He came up with this enormous ramp. All of our children came on Saturdays for about six weeks and built that ramp.”
Sutcliffe said she always admired how well Linnie’s children respected and loved him.
“We had a cookout. I wouldn’t tell him I’d marry him until we had this cookout and all the children came. They played together, and I could tell how they looked up to him and respected and loved him. And it just worked out like a beautiful plan, and only God could’ve done it,” she said.
She said the task of figuring out what the children would call her and Linnie was also eventually smoothed out.
“I kept putting it off, and I said, “Maybe it’ll work itself out.’ And one day I was coming home from work and Eddie was standing on the back steps. When I drove in, he said, ‘Mama, did you see Daddy on the road?’ That was his stepdaddy, and I just about dropped my package. I said, ‘No, I didn’t,’ and he said, ‘Well, he said he was going to town and he’d be right back.’ I said, ‘That’s one step. Thank you, Jesus,’” Sutcliffe said.
She added, “A little bit later, Polly, his daughter, was cleaning out things with me and she said, ‘Mama, I just cleaned out the drawer in the china cabinet and I found some pictures. What do you want me to do with them?’ So that was that hurdle, and that rest of them fell in line.”
“We had to even teach the children to eat what I put on the table. That was a real chore, but they did. I mean, I couldn’t cook to suit each one of them,” she said, smiling, with Linnie adding, “This wasn’t a Motel 6 menu.”
What does Sutcliffe hope readers get from her book?
“With any kind of relationship, Jesus has to be in control. All of our family loved Jesus Christ, and I was fortunate to lead my two youngest children to the Lord. We had plenty of fusses, but we always came together afterward and prayed that God would forgive us,” Sutcliffe said.
She said the success of her and Linnie’s marriage is a testament to God’s strength.
“We had lots of people telling us that we’d never make it and that you just can’t put two families together because it just doesn’t work. We got married under that cloud and proved them wrong,” Sutcliffe said.
“It’s been good,” Linnie said. “Of course, we had some times we had to sit down and talk about some things, but I’ll put it this way. If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it again without a doubt.”
Sutcilffe will have a book signing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, at the St. George Baptist Church Holiday Market. Anyone interested in purchasing her book can also contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.