Yes, there are moments in our lives when someone says something that changes everything.
“He’s harmless,” were those words for Michael Trotter Jr.
Fatu Songowa drank in everything about the frightened boy when he and his mom arrived at her door almost 20 years ago, before she made the decision to break the rules and take him in.
“You bend the rules for good,” Songowa said.
Two decades later, she saw the good she did.
Michael was 13 when he and his mom got on a bus in Cleveland and took it as far as their escape money would carry them from his abusive, alcoholic father. The boy was just a hair older than 12, the cutoff for allowing kids to enter one of the secret House of Ruth homes scattered throughout the District.
“Now I’m here to thank you,” the tall and charismatic Trotter, now 32, told Songowa on Friday night, the first time he had seen her since he left House of Ruth. “I’m here to tell you I’m good. I served our country honorably. I never hit a woman. I’ve never done drugs. And that’s because of you.”
Then he folded her into his big arms, and they both cried.
When a woman is abused by her partner — something that happens numerous times a minute in America, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline — there is the emotional and physical damage to her. But if she is a mother, the other wave of horror and fear is about the toll the abuse will take on her children.
Especially boys. Boys often do as they see. And just about every abused woman worries that her son someday might mirror his father.
“You’re always wondering and worrying what seeing this will do to him,” said the mother of a 12-year-old old boy who spent 10 months living in a House of Ruth home with her. “You keep the faith, you pray. And you hope he isn’t seeing the wrong things. Doing the wrong things. And seeing this man up here helps.”
The woman and her son were part of a small crowd at the Sherwood Recreation Center in Northeast Washington on Friday night who were treated to a Valentine’s Day concert by Trotter’s musical duo, the War and Treaty.
Trotter and his wife, Tanya Blount, have a new album — a “soulful yet folksy” take on the soldier’s return home to his family, like the coffeehouse version of those “American Sniper” scenes back home.
Some of the women got up and danced. Everyone was clapping, enjoying the break from their lives of hiding, rebuilding, relearning, lives always tinged with a little bit of fear.
Blount has a little celebrity sparkle, having sung a duet with Lauryn Hill in the movie “Sister Act 2” years ago. And she has been appearing on stages all over the country ever since. She came in wearing killer shoes and done-up hair.
Someone yelled, “She’s one of us.” That would mean a lot later on.
The kids all played in front of the stage. And after a few songs, Trotter told everyone about his past. He was once one of those kids. His mom was like the women in front of him.
“It’s bittersweet, seeing all these kids,” Trotter later told me. “I know what those children are going through. I know it exactly.”
On stage, he pointed out Songowa, who was hiding in the crowd, embarrassed by the attention.
“Ms. Fatu. I will never forget you. You were the first person besides my mom who looked at me and saw something good,” Trotter told her.
Someone handed Songowa a stack of valentine-red napkins, for her tears. When they had time to talk, Songowa said she remembers Trotter well.
“That’s exactly what I said. I looked him up and down and I knew he needed to be here,” she said. “And I did say those exact words: ‘He’s harmless.’ ”
Songowa has been a program coordinator for House of Ruth for 14 years. She delivers on the organization’s mission to make the shelter welcoming for families who are fleeing.
“It wasn’t a shelter,” Trotter said. “No, it was a home. Like a mansion.”
He was in one of the large houses that are tucked away in neighborhoods all over the District. They are neat and clean and few neighbors know what they are.
“Your place was the first time we ever had our own bed,” he told Songowa.
The houses have program coordinators and counselors who work with the women and the children, said Winifred Wilson, executive director of House of Ruth.
Many of the kids who come have developmental delays, having lived in chaos. So they have tutors, play therapists, occupational therapists and spaces that make the families feel as if they are in a better place.
After high school, Trotter served two tours in Iraq with the Army, then returned home to work on his first love, music.
He met Blount at a music festival. They married soon after and are now raising four children in Towson, Md.
The lessons Trotter learned from Songowa when he was a boy helped make him a good father and a good husband, he said.
“You taught me how to treat a lady,” he told her.
Blount said that her husband’s experience with abuse only strengthened their marriage. “See, I’m a survivor, too,” she told me. Like Trotter’s mom, Blount also fled from an abusive partner.
The women in the audience were right. She was one of them.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.