Monday, March 26, 2012

13 Rhode Island Blues

The story of our Vernon family life in Rhode Island is a fitting prelude to the tragedy of little Ricky Everson's death in our old refrigerator a short 6 years later on June 2, 1967 in San Diego, California. The refrigerator had been purchased by Daddy in order to have something on the patio to keep beer cold in case he and Mama might entertain his superiors (although I don't recall that they ever did--no money!).  Alcohol played a pivotal role in ending Ricky's 6 years of life.

Daddy's relationship to alcohol became all too obvious to his family by the time he returned from Cuba and moved us from our relatively care-free time in Illinois to his new posting with the Seabees in Davisville, Rhode Island the last week of February of 1961. His time with the Seabees in Cuba was when he starting drinking in earnest and alcohol became a vitally important member of the family while he was gone, although we girls were not yet aware of it. The new family member that we were totally aware of and in love with was my youngest sister, Mary Beth, born on the day Daddy and we three older girls started the move eastward to Rhode Island.

We arrived at our new home a little less than a week before Mama and Mary did.  Daddy was with the Seabees again at Camp Endicott, but we lived at Quonset Point.  It was a Naval Air Station that was fully active from 1941 to 1974, but now keeps a small military presence of various kinds and is called Quonset State Airport.  It is located in the North Kingston area, a town founded in 1674 by the colonial government and is most famous as the birthplace of American portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

When we met our baby sister, Becky was 14 1/2, I was 12 1/2, and Melody was 9 1/2.  We had helped Daddy get our unit (2 floors, probably 3 bedrooms) ready for Mama and Mary, although since I was still in my full leg cast and crutches from my ice skating injury, I can't imagine I was much help with it.  But I do remember it was an amazingly joyful time when I came home from school one day and saw Mama waiting for us at the top of the stairs.

After hugs and kisses, we tiptoed in to my parents' bedroom, where my new sister lay sleeping in her small  mint-green painted crib. I looked down and was awestruck and totally smitten at my first meeting with Mary. Mama had made a crib-liner out of ivory colored fleece and finished it with a wide mint-green satin ribbon.  Framed by that beautiful softness, Mary looked like a little madonna, all softness, sweetness and innocence.  Well, not quite.  She had been born with very dark hair, but even 8 days later it had started to grow out very, very blonde.  She looked like she had been given a very bad dye job and her roots were showing.

Alas, we don't have many photos of her nor of any of us during our short twelve or thirteen months in Rhode Island.  One I had and gave to Mary recently is of her as a toddler sitting in Daddy's lap on the carpet in the living room.  Behind them is the 50 gallon aquarium where Daddy kept tropical fish (a new thing since his tour of duty in the tropics).  Beside father and child is the turquoise padded circular coffee table that Mary used to prop herself up and dance around whenever she heard music. Behind them are the chocolate brown drapes that covered the entire living room wall, part of which was a bank of windows that overlooked Narraganset Bay.

The Bay is a beautiful body of water named after the Algonquin people who lived in the area prior to the European invasion.  The irony is not lost on me that it was within yards of this water that Daddy's alcoholism invaded our family like a tsunami, quietly, quickly, and deadly.

I remember two very distinct times when the invasion made it feel as if the ground was shifting under our family.  The first was when Becky had gotten ready for a Friday night dance that Daddy was supposed to drive her to after he got home from work.  She waited and waited, but he never showed up.  Great disappointment and tears.  And great silence about it the next day.

The second was on my parents' wedding 18th anniversary, December 16, 1961, only 9 months since our move. Daddy had dropped Mama and us girls off downtown one evening for us to do some Christmas shopping.  He was supposed to pick us up after an hour or so but again, he was a no-show.  We waited in the deep December cold, huddled and anxious, and still he didn't come.  The stores had closed and it was very dark by the time he finally showed up.  Mama was furious and we were scared.

Daddy seemed very quiet and when we finally tumbled into the car took off for home, and he drove very differently from his usual daring high speeds--very slowly and erratically.  And when he drove right past the road that even 9 year-old Mel knew was were we should be going, my stomach turned to stone.  Mel started to protest and I remember very distinctly kicking her in the shin and hissing at her to shut up.  We never talked about it and the next day pretended that everything was hunky-dory.  It was the beginning of the Great Cover Up of "let's pretend we're all a happy, peppy "holy man's" family.

I realize now that my body was already trying to tell me that the stress and chaos were taking a toll on me.  As I recounted in an earlier blog,  I first had breathing trouble in Rhode Island.  I was in class one day and suddenly could not catch my breath.  The school nurse made me breathe into a brown paper bag and told me that although I didn't have any fever, I probably had a small throat infection that had been worsened by the cold.  It happened several times that winter.  Now I know that it was the increasingly oppressive stress of our family life.

Over the years as I've tried to deal with the chaos of my childhood and untangle some of the emotional knots it produced, I've discovered that a huge part of my anger at Mama was that she, who-was-not-drunk, allowed her precious children to ride in a car of a drunkard.  Not only just when he was drunk, but when he was drunk and physically beating on her while he was driving.  Not only when he was drunk and beating on her while he was driving, but as he sometimes did, when he would turn around to the back seat and aim a slap at us girls if we happened to say something that set him off.  But, in retrospect, that was Mama's childhood: a drunk father and a compliant wife who came to believe she deserved everything she got.

You can only do better when you know better, and Mama didn't know better.
Daddy may have known better in his head, but he could only express compassion for others, not for himself or his weeping family, caught in a hell not of our own making.  We were all prisoners of fear, shame and an inability to love and respect ourselves.

It was only decades later that I learned that Daddy first physically abused Mama within the first months, if not weeks, of their marriage.  And it was not just physical abuse.  As in the millennia before her, girls of her generation were raised to believe that males were inherently smarter and better than females. He was sanctioned by nature and by society to rule over her and keep her in line. Not only did Daddy have that power over her, but he was a "man of the cloth."  He was also sanctioned by a literal interpretation of the Bible and by the church as one of God's representatives to "lord" over her.

 So by this time in Rhode Island they had had 18 years practice of Daddy abusing Mama physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, and of Mama not only accepting such abuse, but seeing such behavior as "love." But it was becoming more and more unacceptable.

Each of us girls reacted differently to the cracks in our family that opened up so dramatically in Rhode Island.  Becky, now 15, began to abandon the family; she would be gone from home as often as she could (and who could blame her?).  Mel started backing into corners and trying to make herself as invisible as possible.  Mary, just a toddler, was often tucked away into a corner or back room or in her play pen while the fighting ensued. And I, at 13, started assuming (with gusto!) the role of martyr: heroic defender of the helpless: Mama, Mel, and Mary. We were all very much alone and isolated in our personal clouds of fear and shame.

I can only remember one friend in Rhode Island, a girl named Nancy Cranston.  Perhaps I invited her to my house, but I doubt it, because this was the time when it became "iffy" enough at home that I was afraid to invite friends over in case Daddy was drunk.  I remember being at her house though, also on the same base, but in the "enlisted" section; officers and enlisted personnel were segregated.  Nancy's mom was really funny and spoke with the unique accent of her Kentucky home.  She also was amazingly young for a mother.  She must have been all of 27 years old because she had Nancy when she was 14.

Sometime that fall, I began to have stomach aches.  It was eventually diagnosed as appendicitis.  I went to the city of Kingston for a appendectomy and, besides experiencing a little pain, spent some very blissful days in the hospital with strangers hovering over me in concern.  I believe now that the source of my stomach issue was stress, the cause was fear, the cause was my body crying out, "Get me out of here!"  So, even though I carry a 5 inch abdominal scar because of it, I ended up enjoying my appendectomy.  I got away from the chaos for a while.  I was babied and worried about--heaven on earth.  Good stuff for a child shortly before her 13th birthday who desperately just wanted to feel loved and safe.

It got bad enough that Mama finally decided to become proactive for her sake and the sakes of her four girls.  She pulled us out of school in March of 1962 and somehow got us to her mother's house in Seattle, Washington. Good for you, Thelma Lou!  Would there finally be some peace?

NEXT:  14  Seattle Sours

Will you pray with me?

God Our Maker,

We can neither see nor touch space, but it is real.
We can neither see nor touch you, but you are real.
         Space surrounds and abides within the molecules and atoms of all matter.
         You surround and abide within your beloved creation
                  for all of it, 
                  each of us matters to you.
                       We rejoice that when we cannot feel your presence
                        it is because you are so close our vision fails.

           constrained by time within the flexible relativity of space
                  is the physical extension of your steadfast love and mercy
     As your creatures, we too, are constrained by time and geography,
                 limited by
                 vulnerable to
                      both the bitter and the sweet that life brings to every human creature.

  And yet, and yet, with tenderness beyond speaking,
          you hold us within the spacious, gracious, flexible relativity
                 of your good will
                 of your good plan for Life,
                 and call it good.  Hallelujah!

 We pray now for your beloved Creation and creatures bound to you by ties of grace--

         We pray for the beautiful waters and air of the earth that makes it possible for us to be.
         We pray for the all that matters to you on this earth that is in peril,
                  especially children and the most vulnerable among the human family.

Send us today that we may seek them out and bring them to safety,
          and so be your ambassadors of grace.
And give us the wisdom, courage, and fortitude to intervene in the lives of misery and hopelessness that are often invisible to us, that we might not be passive bystanders in life, but rather agents of freedom, light.
           We pray for the parents and families of children whose innocence and vulnerability have lead to their death.  We ask for your abiding consolation in their loss, your comfort in their grief too painful for words.
          Hear our prayer as well for those whose ties of addiction and anger make them enemies of your good will for life.  Their actions pull and strain and kill families, communities and nations, and yet you love them still and send ambassadors of grace to them as well.

You can do what we cannot, O God, and so we ask you to heal the wounds, soften the pain, transform the memories and resurrect the lives battered and torn by current challenges of chaos and hopelessness.

We pray for what we cannot create for ourselves. Be Thou our vision, our wisdom, our guide on this journey of life each step of the way.  We ask it all in the name of Thy Holy Goodness from which all matter is born. Amen.


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

12 Life in Illinois

Daddy was commissioned as a Chaplain in the US Navy on November 4, 1957 at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. Little did we know it would provide the catalyst that would move our family life from bad to really, really bad. It was in the Navy that my father felt not only encouraged to drink, but regarded it as part of his "socialization" duty as an officer.  Thus the ominous dark shadow of his alcoholism was firmly planted and nourished with approval from those my father wished to impress from the very beginning of our life in Illinois.

We had moved several months earlier from the gentle hills of the country surrounding Indianapolis into the hustle and bustle of the busy Navy town of Waukegan, located north of Chicago on the western shores of Lake Michigan.  At first we lived in a housing area called Lake County Gardens, but only for a few months.  My older sister, Becky, says that as poor as we were and used to pretty wretched conditions, even this housing was too low on the Vernon family totem pole.  So, we moved to a brand-spanking new duplex across the rail road tracks where eventually the good folks of Waukegan would build the Jack Benny Junior High School to honor its most famous son.

The move into the duplex would have been my parents' 9th move since their marriage in Eugene, Oregon 14 years earlier in December of 1943. They had lived in the Watts area of Los Angeles after they both graduated from Northwest Christian College and still lived there when my older sister, Becky, was born in 1946.  They had moved into the back room of a church and were living in Rosemead, California when I was born.  I don't know why Daddy left the Rosemead Church of Christ, but I suspect it was because we were a family who definitely fell through society's safety net.  Mama, Becky and I moved from there to a trailer park in Phoenix, Arizona for a while.  Daddy was not there.  I think, I hope, he was elsewhere searching for a job.

Mama was pregnant with my sister Melody at the time and suffered from severe nausea the whole term (as did I when it was my turn to usher in the next generation).  Becky remembers making her and me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  Sometimes a kindly neighbor woman brought us food while our mother stayed in bed for a good part of every day.  Taking care of her 3 year-old sister was very heavy responsibility for that 5 year old little girl. What a sad picture. We must have been very lonely and scared.  Our mother was unwilling or unable to provide much care for us during this time and we were on our own.

I don't know what happened or didn't happen in my parents circumstances, but we eventually wound up back in California-- Long Beach, where Melody was born in 1952 when I was 3 and 1/2.  I'm pretty sure we lived in a trailer there as well, but there is no one alive to ask about it and there is no clear documentation.  I do know we were living in West Covina in the Los Angeles area shortly thereafter and stayed there until our trek half-way across the USA to Indianapolis 3 years later in 1955.

But miraculously, only 2 years later, we were a Navy family, with a nice home, a father who had a steady income and meaningful work, and all the benefits of health care that we had never enjoyed before because of our poverty. The second move in Waukegan was my 7th move but my my first visit to a dentist.  It looked as if life was taking a uptick.

Navy life gave us a community and in some ways an extended family that the church had given us before. I remember having a sense of pride in his accomplishment and proud to see the salute that was given every time Daddy came on base.  But mostly I was sorry for myself that once again I was the new kid coming into a classroom full of others who seemed to have known one another and had been tight friends since babyhood.  This wasn't true, of course, but to a newbie fifth-grade student, looking in from the outside, there's no other viewpoint but as the only one-who-doesn't-belong.  My salvation came from a very caring and supportive teacher and eventually from a good friend named Susie Carlson.

Susie and I were the tallest two people in both our fifth and sixth grade classes.  In our class picture, she is the one next to me in the back row forming the tip of the mountain to the rest of the foothills around us.  I also had a friend that lived down the street from our duplex, Sandy Alvis.  We hung around with the Carroll children who lived on the other side of the two-story duplex.  If we opened the medicine cabinet and looked through the razor-blade slot in the back, we could see Brooks Carroll's eyeball through their matching slot.  It took very little to entertain us.

Winter was a great time for neighborhood fun: making snow angels and icing up tunnels we had carved in the deep snowdrifts of our steeply pitched backyard.  We played kick-the-can at back of the Texaco station when the owner was kind enough water down the paved parking lot so we could ice skate on it.
In the summer, we made boats out of found discards.  I remember one time make a "boat" out of a bathtub and somehow poling it around on the marshy reef area adjacent to the tracks across the street from our duplex.  I'm not sure how we managed that physics-wise, but I do remember it happening.

 I also remember the peat fields catching on fire in the summers and sending up little columns of smoke for months at a time.  Summers were also for tromping around and bike riding.  I didn't have a bicycle at that time, but the last summer we lived in Waukegan, in 1960, I thought I might get one.  My mother's mother was staying with us for a while.

Grandma Chaney had taken care of us three girls while Mama met Daddy down in Haiti for a short vacation.  Daddy had been sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba with the Seabees after his tour at Great Lakes.  It was a hotspot but I had no idea how much of one it was. We had stayed in Waukegan so Mama could keep working as a laboratory technician.  The 3 1/2 years we lived there was the longest I would live anywhere until my last three high school years when Daddy was in Viet Nam with the Marines.

About two months after Mama got back from Haiti, we where finishing lunch when she said she wanted to tell us girls something.  She asked us' "What would you like most in all the world?"  Without hesitation I yelled out, "A bicycle!"  Becky was a little quieter and slower, but she had the right answer, "A baby sister or brother!"  Another Vernon was coming into the family.  I was immediately thrilled with the idea of another sibling. (I wonder if anyone would have agreed with me if I had suggested "Schwinn" for a name; it would have worked for either a boy or a girl.)

Mama was always very clear that if she ever had a boy he would be named Douglas Steven.  Her choices for girls' name was more flexible.  Becky is actually Beverly Kaye; I don't know the sources of either of her names.  I am Fay Kathleen: Fay from my mother's older sister, Faye, who died at 17 after going blind from a brain tumor.  The Kathleen was from a popular Irish ballad called, "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen."  (Alas, it is about taking the dead body of Kathleen back to Ireland after she dies!)  Melody Anne was named for Mama's favorite hymn (and the one she could play the best on the piano, "In My Heart There Rings a Melody."  I used to love her name the best out of all of ours, but I have learned to love my own name and have deep affection for it.

Mary Beth was named after the Carroll family's youngest daughter. By the time my third sister was ready to enter the world in February of 1961, Daddy had received orders to be with the Seabees in Davisville, Rhode Island.  He had come back from Cuba to Waukegan to supervise the packing and the movers.  On the night before Mary's birth,  our duplex was empty of all but the possessions Daddy, Becky, Melody and I would take with us in our 1959 Rambler station wagon to our next home.  I had pulled a ligament in my left leg playing kick-the-can a few weeks before, so my leg was in a cast up to mid-thigh and I had handy pair of crutches which I was tempted to use as Zorro swords.  Together, me-myself-and I, my casted leg and my two crutches took up a big hunk of the back seat.

The snow was piled up high the day our dear Mary was born in the mid-morning hours.  I was called out of my 7th grade class and given the news of her birth and also told that my father would be by to pick me up so we could take off for Rhode Island; I was to wait outside.  I don't remember saying good-bye to any of my friends.  Nor do I remember in which order Daddy picked us, but the three of us girls were not given the chance even to see Mama or new baby sister before we set headed south and then east into what would turn into a bitter blizzard.  We would not see them for 8 days when they were dismissed from the Great Lakes Naval Hospital and flew from Chicago to Boston, where Daddy picked them up and drove them to our new apartment (this time in a four-plex) in military housing at Quonset Point.

Those of us who weren't lucky enough to fly found that we had to find a place to weather out the storm of February 1961 even before we got to the Ohio state line.  We wound up stranded in a cheap and skanky hotel in Greenville, Indiana for which I have no fond memories.  I had no awareness then that the storm and sense of impending danger were omens for the scary time that was looming for us all. And I had no idea that our somewhat easy life in Waukegan would be the last time I would feel more secure within our home than away from it.  Rhode Island, the destination of my 8th move, would prove to be a pivotal time.  At 12 1/2 years of age I was with the newly expanded Vernon family on a dangerous, scary, and pivotal journey from which there would be no return.

Next: 13  Rhode Island Blues

Will you pray with me?

God of the Journey,

We cannot change the past, but you can redeem our memories and heal us of our wounds.  And it is not for us to know know what dangers and sorrow lie ahead.  You give us the present moment and give us abundant opportunities to do the best with what we've got: to grow in wisdom, compassion, peace, courage, hope, and love.

We are grateful that we live neither in the past nor in the future, but only have this moment, this hour, this day before us.  We thank you for this day that where we can find the fullness of life and goodness of your gracious blessings and the awareness and wonder to rejoice in it.

We ask that you will fling your Spirit's blessings wide this day, that those who suffer may discover a sense of your consolation.  Cast your nets wide this day, that those who are lost may discover a sense of direction and purpose.  Knot your fetters tightly this day, that those who have strayed into danger, addiction, evil, and violence may be surprised by the joy of being tightly bound by your steadfast love and mercy.  O let it be that all pains and sorrows may take their place on the broken road that leads us all home to you!  In Christ we pray. . .

11 Connecting the Dots

The death of Ricky Everson in 1967 at first seemed to be a strange place for me to start on my journey of connecting the dots of my life because it was so long ago. For years, I did not see it as anything more than just another piece of the flotsam and jetsam of the wreckage of my growing up years.

But it seems now to be symbolic of the countless times I “stifled myself” (a la Edith Bunker), discounting the great trauma and tragedy as another “piffle”--of no great consequence to who I was becoming (or not becoming) as an adult. Alas, it’s so much easier to stifle things if we regard them as mere “piffles.” For years and decades of my life, I was first stifled by the chaos and eventually learned to stifle myself. By the this time, at the hardened age of 18, I was a pro.

The result was as a young adult I made a lot of impulsive decisions, based on others’ needs and desires. They were my guide while my inner compass was MIA. Q: Where do you want to go to eat? A: Where do you want to go? Q: What movie do you want to see? A: I don’t know. What do you want? Q: What do you want to do when you grow up? A: What do you think I ought to do? Q: Will you marry me? A: Will you marry me? Q: Where shall we live? A: Where do you want to live? Yada yada yada.  The only question to which I had a definite answer "yes" was: Do you want children?

Like the heroine of my favorite childhood book (Cinderella, the Walt Disney version with the honeycomb paper pumpkin that popped out when you opened it!!), I waited for a “Prince Charming” (in some shape or form: human, financial, or chocolate) to swoop in and “save” me from my life. From myself. Alas, every “Charm” that came along eventually turned into a frog or had frog-like qualities, so I just kept stumbling along, stifled and so very sad.

A lot had to happen in my life before I got to the place I am now where I don’t stumble as often, mostly because I have learned that as a friend of mine likes to say, “There’s always a hitch in the giddy-up.” Life isn't perfect, people aren't perfect, I'm not perfect--that's the human condition.  Instead of critical judgment of others or myself because we're not perfect, I'm seeking to have compassion.

Dr. Kristin Neff, of the University of Texas at Austin, teaches that self-compassion has three "core components": 1) self-kindness 2) awareness that "imperfection is part of the shared human experience" 3) mindfulness, or awareness of our own feelings of suffering.

As I'm learning self-compassion, I'm shifting from unrealistic, optimistic expectations that always seem to lead to disappointment and instead now try to hold no expectations and just be surprised when good things happen. I’m setting boundaries around me that I do not want to cross over, nor do I knowingly allow others to trespass, so that my suffering can be as minimal as possible.  I feel that my paradigm is shifting from being pie-in-the-sky optimistic to being grounded in hope, which as Emily Dickinson writes:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea,
Yet, never, in extremity
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

What I now sense (and that Miss Emily and young children seem to know innately) is that hope is a “built-in” of life. It’s a living energy that makes beauty, trust, perseverance, generosity and hospitality possible. It is the spirit of the earth and the Spirit of the earth’s Creator.

So here’s the sermon:
The strength and wisdom of civilizations rise and fall, but the Creative Force of Goodness that gives rise to life itself, gives rise to new strengths and growing wisdoms, and a large measure of love, joy, and peace in each generation and in each human spirit.  This Force of Goodness neither rises nor falls, but is the pulsing life of each soul, each generation, in the midst of the individual and communal sufferings of humanity. Hope recognizes the arid bleakness but sees the greening grass on the horizon and leads us on.

I believe this Goodness (one writer calls it the “More” or the “Really Real” and another calls "God's YES!") exists beyond time and space in an everlasting and elastic NOW. God’s NOW embraces the beginning and the ending of: the universe and all its realities; the world and all its creatures; this generation and all its peoples, me and my personal history with all my sorrows and joys, my loves and particular pains. And it is the now—this earthly moment— that is the best boundary for my life. It helps me to be mindful and to keep from stepping out in front of God.

There is a “holy harmony” in me now. A “tune without words” has joined my inner voice and is helping me to become a non-anxious presence in my little corner of the world even as the pokes and slams continue (recently: my husband’s death and a serious medical diagnosis). But they no longer have the power to destroy my inner self. I am. And it is enough.

The Christian theologian Eugene Peterson in The Message, translates Galatians 5:22 ff (where St. Paul is talking about what the “fruits of the Spirit” are: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Greening. Holy harmony. Spirit-fruit. However I say it, it’s what I’m leaning into even as I parse my childhood and adult years to “connect the dots” of myself and draw a truer picture of my inner essence. It is my FayT to reveal my story to myself, to accept my sufferings, and to have compassion on myself. There is a shimmer of vitality to my life, a little more greening every day. Today is enough. Now is all I am designed to handle; now is all I want to handle and NOW is all I want to handle me. Yippee!

Next: Life in Illinois

Will you pray with me?

O Infinite Source of Being,
We praise you for the Lifeforce you are, for the life that arises within your Eternal NOW, and for the way you imbue the earth, including the human family, ith your joy and passion for life in its infinite varieties and vagaries. We are grateful that the “earth laughs in flowers”* and thank you for the beauty and order of all that is. Help us to learn to listen for the laughing, that we may daily linger with the beautiful and so inhale the sweet aroma of your grace.

You make us to exist in a mortal and limited state, mere children, earthlings, creatures. Yet too often we exploit our desire to “hold things together” and frantically spend our time and energies trying to rule, manipulate or dominate the chaos and crises beyond our sway. We are grateful for your wisdom that helps us acknowledge what we can do to work toward justice and peace and to help us recognize our powerlessness to control the world, other people, or even most of the circumstances of our own lives. We are grateful for the resurrection of our truest selves as we learn to trust that you are able to do what we cannot. Hallelujah!

We thank you for the spiritual gifts you give to all peoples, in all places and generations: for the ability to forgive and be forgiven, for the grace to persevere with deeds of kindness and justice in the face of overwhelming odds, and for the Holy Harmony that your presence sings with the unique and particular song to each of our hearts. Give us the humility and grace, we pray, to persevere in hope to the end of our days so that those who walk beside us or come behind us may also find cause to join the Choir of the Ages. In your holy and blessed name we pray. Amen

*Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, December 10, 2010

10 Vernon Stock

Daddy was always on the move. The promise of something better on the horizon kept pushing him to run away from the ground-zero moment of little Ricky Everson’s death in June of 1967. From that time until the summer of 1970, the Vernon family had moved three more times: to a house on the southeast side of San Diego, to Poway (then a “bedroom community” 30 miles north of San Diego, now just a part of the metro SD area), and back to San Diego to an apartment.

During those three years, my parents declared bankruptcy, Mama finally took courage to divorce Daddy, Daddy attempted suicide and was discharged from the Navy, and I got married and had my first child. That’s three times in three years my family moved. No big surprise, I had moved four times in the same time frame—signs of a family teetering on the edge.

I think maybe Daddy’s family was always teetering on the edge, as my mother’s had been. Growing up, we girls knew very little about his childhood and the Vernon stock from whence we came, and until recently, his entire childhood was more mystery than knowledge.

But this summer my sister Melody found that our known Vernon ancestry goes back to Hugh de Vernon and De Centville of Eure, Normandy, France, born @1000, died 1053. That is 27 generations from Hugh (and Mrs. Hugh!) to me and my sisters. If Mel had not done this study, I would never have known my great-grandparents’ names, or that Daddy had an Aunt Fay—the same name as Mama’s sister for whom I was named. (Maybe it was fate for me to be FayT!)

I don’t know if Daddy’s relatives celebrated his birth or not on July 1, 1924. He was born at the family’s log cabin ranch home 7 miles outside of Scio, Oregon at 4 AM, with just his family present: mother, Luzetta (daughter of Sherman E. and Grace V. Smith); father, Alson Creath (son of George Washington and Mary Archer Vernon), and his brother, Glenn.

Daddy had variations of two basic stories that he passed down to us four girls, one about his mother and one about his father. His birth mother’s name was Luzetta, born in 1898. She married my grandfather Alson when she was 14, in 1912. Her father, Sherman, was an alcoholic. He and his wife Grace had 5 children: my grandmother, another daughter and three sons.

Together Luzetta and Alson had 3 children: Ray Earl, born in 1917 and died in 1921 from pneumonia; Glenn, 1 yr and 2 months younger than Ray; Clarence Albert (Al), my father, 6 years younger than Glenn. In the 1920 Census, they are listed as living in Mill City, Oregon and Alson’s occupation was noted to be a “lumber laborer.” They had been married 14 years when Luzetta died in 1926 at the age of 28 when Daddy was almost 2.

She was half Native American, part of the Santiam Tribe of the Chinook people who lived along the Columbia River, that divides present day Oregon and Washington. They lived in The Dalles area. Today you can still see a very famous petroglyph carved into the cliffs overlooking The Dalles, called “She Who Watches” (carbon dated from 1700-1840 CE).

In Native Peoples of the Northwest by Jan Halliday and Gail Chehak, it says: "In their journals, Lewis and Clark reported that along the Columbia River they were rarely out of sight of an Indian village. More than 50 Chinook villages lined the lower Columbia, a stretch of about 150 miles. (p. 176) . . . By the early 1800’s, however, epidemics had wiped out nearly 90 percent of the Native populations on the lower Columbia River."

The remaining tribes were forced into reservations of mixed peoples. The Santiam were one of the eight tribes (speaking three languages), who formerly inhabited the valley of the Willamette River, that made up the Kalapuyan people. White encroachments into the Willamette spelled their doom. Small pox wiped out a huge part of the population. Following treaties in 1851 and 1855, those who were left of the Kalapuyan tribes moved to the Grand Ronde Reservation, Oregon. Their descendants are now called the “Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon.” So that is the legacy from my father’s birth mother— that and a love of baskets (for which the Chinook are well-known because they fished the Colombia using only baskets).

Luzetta had spent $15 for a prenatal visit to the doctor before Daddy was born, and he kept the cancelled check for that visit all of his life. At that time in the US, pregnancy was not considered a medical condition like it is now and there was no expectation by ordinary folks to give birth in a hospital. But surely the presence of Ray had to have been hovering in the young woman’s mind as she labored to bring Daddy into the world. At least when Ray and Glenn had been born, there had been close neighbor’s and some sort of help close by.

Daddy never found out what his mother died of. Alson was not a talker. He drank 20 to 25 bottles of Coca Cola a day back then. I don’t know if Coke still had real cocaine in it back then, but he certainly had an addiction! He had a heart attack at a very young age, but still worked 17 to 20 hours a day, so he was a workaholic, too. But he didn’t know how to express his feelings or even share stories about his childhood and his family or about Luzetta’s growing up years.

There weren’t other relatives around to share any stories about her. Daddy rarely saw them and never met more than a handful of them. Twenty years ago Uncle Glenn’s wife, Aunt Vivian, told me that a neighbor of the Vernon family often saw and heard Alson and Luzetta quarreling out in the road. There was some hint of mental illness on her part (or certainly depression?), which could explain a lot about my father’s mental problems. But it evidently was not a happy marriage.

The story about his father that Daddy told the most was really was the story of his step-mother, Edith Livingston Vernon. She married Alson in 1927 when Daddy was three and literally saved them. Her marriage to the very conservative, very tight-lipped religious widower could only have been arranged by divine providence, because she was as far removed from Alson and his world as East is from West.

Her parents had been married by Bishop Milton Wright, the father of Orville and Wilbur, who was editor of a newspaper published by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. In fact, Edith’s first date was with one of them (Daddy thought it was Orville). I saw a picture one time of a family reunion, with Grandma as a young woman. As I was reading what had been written in the accompanying note, she had expressed her delight that “dear Cousin Ernest” had been able to attend. Upon closer inspection, dear Ernie was Ernest Hemingway. The letter and photo have been lost, but Grandma’s connections are pretty impressive to this writer!

Edith had 3 years of business training in Cincinnati, OH and in 1918, she took a job with Proctor and Gamble that gave her opportunities to travel most young women at the time could not even dream about. In fact, she travelled around the world several times. She eventually was able to buy some stock over “on the edge of India” (Daddy’s words). Daddy called them the Salama Dindja. She even homesteaded in Maui, Hawaii (I still have the picture of her donkey she used in the fields). When she met Alson, she was Dean of Women Students at what is now Oregon State University.

They met at a spa where they were both taking in the special mineral waters. Perhaps she was there to get away from the stresses of her job. Grandpa Alson was there because of his severe arthritis. Even when Daddy was young, he remembers his father having to get out of bed by crawling on his hands and knees on the floor until he could get to a chair to use to push himself up. It’s hard to imagine how painful his life must have been—I hope he found some relief in the work and the Cokes. Evidently he was able to get some temporary relief from the warmth and minerals of the place.

It wasn’t too long before Grandpa brought Edith to meet his little boys, Glenn and Al. Once she saw the two snot-nosed, ricket-legged, raggedy little boys, her heart melted and she knew what she had to do. She resigned her job, married Alson, and moved out into the wide open spaces of Oregon ranch country to tend and care for the three Vernon males.

She saved them more than once. When the Depression came, her little dividend checks ($3-4 month) give the family a “leg up” over many of the other ranchers in the area. But Alson and Edith would figure out ways to help the families who were their neighbors. Daddy said many would come to school with a bucket of lard and one piece of bread to dip in it for their lunch. They would make small loans to their neighbors to help them pay their mortgages and get paid back in chickens or eggs. He says, “My mother taught me not just to help them, but to keep their dignity.”

Edith also found that she had to go back to work to help out the family. She got a job as a woman’s dorm “mother” and would temporarily leave her little family so she could help them survive in very dire times. Edith and Alson remained married until he died from his second heart attack at the early age of 57 in 1947.

I treasured her and felt very special in the spotlight of her love whenever we were able to be together. She and I carried on a lively written conversation over the years. The letters she sent me would be scented with the powder she wore; I still have some of them and they still smell of her scent. I also still use a little embroidered handkerchief she sent me. (And let it be known to anyone who likes my lemon meringue pie--it was Edith who insisted I could learn how to pour the sugar into the egg whites slowly enough to get it right!) She continued to live a generous, loving, and helpful life untils she died in Beaverton, just outside of Portland, OR in 1968, at the age of 80.

This altruistic impulse of the Vernons is one of many prevailing themes that I am very grateful to have as a part of my heritage, especially in light of the other tragic themes that plague us. If there is a way of keeping tabs on the living after death, I hope that Luzetta and Alson and Edith, that Ray and Glenn, and that Clarence Albert Vernon can take note that it still part of the inheritance that I and my sisters see being lived out in our children and their families. Maybe our ancestors of blood and love are smiling even now!

Next: 11—Connecting the Dots

Will you pray with me?

O God of the Generations,
How we thank you for the great continuum of life that links us all together and tethers us all to you? We are grateful for all of those who have gone before us, shedding their blood, sweat, and tears in their own time to help form the ocean of joy and sorrow that are the birth waters of this generation’s story. We pray for them now gone in body, but present in story, and love, and DNA.

We are mindful of those in our time who are desperate and struggling. We pray for women in childbirth, for children orphaned by death and silent fathers. We think of all those suffering from painful, incurable disease from which there is no relief, and those suffering in the darkness of mental decay and disease. In this day, in this moment, hear our prayers and have mercy.

Your love for us is like light to a plant in the darkness. As we soak it up, we begin to flourish and to become a strong people of compassion, integrity, and hope. We pray now for the generation who is coming up behind us now. Bless them, O Fountain of Goodness, with all they may need to walk a path of kindness and humility, to the end that the light of your Love may lead us on in the great march of Life, until we gather as one family in the Fulfillment of All Time. Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

9 My Indiana Home

It was 1955, a mere 11 years before I would graduate from high school, and only 12 years away from the fatal day that brought little Ricky Everson to the end of his life and moved the Vernon family closer to disintegration. We were edging our way closer with each move.

Our move from Southern California to mid-state Indiana was made in an old, humpbacked clunker with a canvas bag of water strapped to the front grille (for the car, not for the people). We had been driving the highways and byways of mountains, desert, and Midwestern Plains for days. The Interstate System was just a gleam in some politician’s eye then. The modern Map Quest gives an estimated driving time of 30 hours and 26 minutes for the 2068.5 miles which is at least four days of fairly hard driving today. I imagine our trip--with no air conditioning, no McDonald’s playgrounds, an empty mayonnaise jar as a port-a-potty, and lungs filled with cigarette smoke--was interminable to the three little girls crammed into the back seat.

And worst of all, we were wondering what aliens had landed and taken the place of our parents, because as we first pulled out of Los Angeles, they in essence had “come out of the closet” as cigarette-smokers and acted as if they were having a party. For me at age seven, it was the first visible crack in my little world, knowing that my parents had dark secrets that I knew was not something I should talk about. My older sister, Becky, at age nine, was also dumbfounded. My younger sister, Melody, at age three, was too young to notice the black hole sucking in our universe.

If we girls were shocked over the smoking, Mama was shocked over the house that Daddy had rented for us in Indianapolis at 9550 North Meridian a few weeks earlier. He had “thumbed” his way cross-country to get us started in our new life, where he would get his Master’s degree at Butler University on full scholarship, so he could join the US Navy as a Chaplain.

In those days, the house was outside of the city. That site today is just inside the loop that encircles Indianapolis and features imposing and attractive estate homes. I’m sure that the attraction for Daddy was that the house was close to the university and that it was something a struggling student with a family of four dependents could afford.

Surrounded by corn fields and set a quarter of a mile back from the highway that traversed the beautiful rolling hills of the area, the two-story house looked like an estate home from afar. But, turning left off the highway onto the dirt driveway the first building we passed was a rickety old red barn that even to our young eyes had definitely seen better days. (It may have been something about the missing lumber in the walls and roof that gave it away.) The driveway took a turn to the left and eventually led to a parking shed/carport next to the house.

I’m sure Mama was speechless at the derelict condition and isolation of her new home. But, in my eyes, it was absolutely wonderful! It was a saltbox type house with two sets of stairs that led to two front doors. The door closest to the driveway opened up to a parlor with a doorway in its rear wall to a huge, yellow kitchen. The front room was dominated by a massive oil-burning stove on the left wall, with a flue that went at least halfway up the high walls. (It turned out to be the only source of heat for the entire house.) Behind it were three steps blocked by a closed door. The stairs led up to the two rooms on the second floor.

The front door farthest from the driveway opened into a formal room with lots of shelves, probably a library. Where there weren’t shelves, there was old wallpaper that sported small stripes and large cabbage roses. A door in the rear of that room led to a bedroom that my parents and Mel would use. It had a door in its side wall that led back to the kitchen. All four rooms on the first floor were of equal size.

The kitchen had a gas stove (probably propane), a refrigerator and a giant sink with a big funny-looking red thing at one end. I soon learned it was a hand pump (an early version of today’s faucets) that connected to a cistern well in the basement of the house. We girls loved the pump. All we had to do was push and lift its long handle and soon water would gush out of its spout. But if you wanted more than a gush, you had to collect it while you were pumping. And if you wanted “running” water, you had to recruit help (which came free from Melody but at a price from Becky). The hand-pumped water was a cool and refreshing discovery, and a treasured memory of our time there.

There was another hand pump down by the barn that we girls used to get a drink of water from when we were outside playing. We used it, that is, until one day I was pumping and Becky was holding her cupped hands under the spout to catch the water (my labor was free to her). It usually took two or three pumps before the water would actually come out and that day she held her hands under the spout impatiently. The water eventually gushed out, but a dead mouse plopped into her hands with it. We screamed, we gagged, we jumped up and down and we ran away. That ended that outdoor adventure forevermore.

When we first moved into the house there was no bathroom, no toilet, no hot water heater, no tub, no shower. Through a window in the kitchen door that first day, Daddy pointed out a small shed way, way in the back yard. That was our introduction to the outhouse, the privy, the Sears catalog room. Closer in to the house, to the left of the back door, was a big, windowed storage shed that would provide some of our best play times because it was chock full of pioneer cast-offs: big iron pots and pans and all sorts of cooking and housekeeping items. We three girls played house with what now would be considered very valuable antiques.

Either the homeowners or my parents eventually “modernized” the farm house by adding an electric water pump, a kitchen faucet, and a water heater, which meant we no longer had to pump water and heat it up on the stove for dishes and our “sponge baths.” They also walled off a little bedroom space in their room for Mel and another area for a shower and the downstairs chemical toilet.

A chemical toilet is basically a big bucket with a seat and a lid to which some liquid chemicals are added to keep the stench to a minimum; today's port-a-potty without walls. There was also one upstairs in my bedroom (yipee!) They were only for use in nighttime and bad weather, which we seemed to have a lot of. Daddy would empty both of them into the privy almost every morning for the two years we lived there. If he happened to be out of town, no one volunteered to take over his job.

The stairs in the parlor were a memorable feature of the house for me because they led to Becky’s and my bedrooms. When we opened the door that blocked the stairway after the first three steps, we could climb up about 4 more stairs before they took a 90 degree turn to the left, only offering foot space very close to the wall. There were no handrails, so you had to brace the wall to keep your balance. After the sharp turn, there were 5 or 6 more steps, the final one being the floor of my bedroom. There was no banister or barrier blocking the hole in the floor. (It was a good thing we didn’t sleepwalk.) The chemical toilet was enthroned at the head of the stairs.

The doorway to Becky’s room was to the left, in the far side wall. Her room had a side window that faced a corn field that was edged by a hedgerow of gooseberry bushes, straggly, spiny bushes indigenous to Asia and Europe. (Who planted them at the edge of a cornfield in Indiana?). Under the bushes, rhubarb plants leant a pretty touch of color with their toxic green leaves and bright red stalks that would eventually introduce us girls to the mouth-puckering experience of a piece of tart-- really tart--pie. Abutting the backyard end of the hedgerow, a windbreak of tall pear trees marched out to protect the path to the outhouse. If there had been a window to the front yard, she could have seen the barn in the distance, and giant lilac bushes and the spreading arms of an old apple tree close to the house (that we used as for our “horse rides").

Inside Becky’s room, there was a great old Victrola we could crank up and play the really, really thick records that were stored in the lower cabinet of the player. It was probably about 3 ½ feet tall and had an appealing musty smell that spoke of the years it had served its users. It also had resident mud daubers that would build their muddy tunnels in its large domed top or next to the turntable.

The right side window in my room faced the car shed and the highway, so the view was minimal. It really didn’t matter what the view was anyway, because as our first winter approached, my parents covered the windows with plastic as a storm window protection. (They used the same great protection on a car window one winter when it refused to go up.) Those bedrooms needed all the protection from the elements they could get, since the only source of heat was a wisp or two that managed to make its way up the stairs from the giant stove in the parlor. I guess I lucked out because I’m pretty sure no heat wafted its way from my room into Becky’s. (On the other hand, I had the chemical toilet. There’s always a trade-off.)

But the best feature of my room was a dressing table with a tri-fold mirror we used to stand in front of and lip-sync to the old-time gospel songs that were a staple in our house. Becky would be on one side, Mel would be on the other, and I would—naturally—be in the center, where I could step forward and dramatically kneel down for my solo parts.

The stairway was a great place to make a grand entrance into the parlor, if one happened to be wrapped in a bed sheet while lip-syncing to the gospel song, “The King of All Kings.” We took turns being Jesus the King. We would keep the door closed as the music played and we sang, until the final flourishing notes toward the end of the song. Then whoever was king would fling the door open and descend the last three steps into the parlor with high drama and divine beauty.

One time when I was Jesus, I flung the door open only to discover my two disciples going at it in a fight. Becky had little Melody pinned to the floor and was threatening her with some dire consequence. As Jesus, I quickly intervened to save the day. As a little girl with a growing “savior” complex, my sense of virtue in “saving” Mel felt really good. Secretly, I relished the thought that of the three of us, I really was the best Jesus.

Fourteen years later, I would have a déjà vu experience of that, when I came into our living room and saw my father 6’ 4” father pinning my 5’ 5” mother to the floor and hitting her. After almost dying from a blood clot after a surgical procedure, Mama had only gotten out of the hospital that day. The savior scooped in again, getting him off of her and taking the blows for her. I even went so far as to call the sheriff for help.

The deputies said since there was visible evidence of the struggle (my mouth was bloody), I could press charges against Daddy, but Mama convinced me not to. (What would people in the church say? Daddy could lose his commission.) If it were today, I would press, press, press charges. I wonder now if Becky had seen something similar in our childhood that modeled that behavior for her that day at the foot of the stairs. She does remember walking into the front room one day and seeing Daddy drinking a beer. She was probably more shocked at that than the cigarettes the night we left Los Angeles, but she didn’t tell me about it until recently. In a family of secret-keepers, it gets easy to keep secrets from everyone, even your “best friend” sister.

The whole house was our playscape then, except for the outside steps that led to that far front library room. That’s because they were so rotten I fell through them the first time they were used on the day of our arrival. I just scratched up my legs some and it didn’t phase me much (not after the trauma of the broken leg and measles combo!), but Mama was awfully upset. Later I realized it was the state of the stairs and the house itself, and not my injuries that caused her such concern.

The first night we moved there was my first experience of violent weather. Southern California had not prepared me for a Midwest thunder storm. I happened to be in my parents' bedroom, crouching over the predecessor bucket for our chemical toilets, when suddenly huge streaks of light danced across the night sky. Several seconds later the world broke in two with a resounding crack that echoed and echoed and echoed. Had I not already been using the bucket, I probably would have wet my pants.

It was a whole new world to that young girl. A new world in a very old place. The house was 127 years old when we moved into it in 1955. By my calculations, that means it was built in 1828, although it would have been a very pretentious house (“estate home” indeed) when it was built. Most farms at that time had rough-hewn log homes, sheds, and barns. In the 1830’s farmers began raising crops and animals for markets in Cincinnati or Louisville and began to prosper.

I did not know the particulars at the time, but I was aware of what I now understand to be the sense of history that was steeped into the walls of the house and the land and the trees that surrounded what was to become my favorite childhood home.

The first occupants of the house probably planted those trees. They would have used handmade tools for their farming until the 1830’s when mass-produced tools began to be available; John Deere introduced the steel plow in 1837. The men and boys would have castrated a bull to work the fields and only kept cattle for personal consumption. Corn was the main crop and hogs were the main livestock kept then.

Perhaps it was their sweat and toil that seeped into the soil and inspired me to start a vegetable garden in the summer of 1956. I planted corn, hoed and weeded it, carried water out to it, and picked it when it was ready to eat. My fair skin was burned to a crisp, but the joy and satisfaction I derived from grubbing around in the ancient soil was a life-time gift. And, of course, there was the bonus of some fabulous corn-on-the cob, salted and dripping with butter.

I think the original settlers would have known that joy and satisfaction. The women of the family would also have known the hard work of making the cloth and clothes that they all wore. They would have spun wool sheared from their sheep and made linen from flax planted specifically for that purpose. Linen was the most common material used and it required a great deal of work: rotting the plants in water, breaking them apart, scraping them with a knife, aligning the fibers on boards peppered with nails, and then spinning the fibers into cloth. There were no synthetic dyes until the late 1850’s, so the women would have colored their “homespun” using dyes made of plants, roots, nut hulls, fruit skins and pits, mosses, fungi, insects and even shellfish if they could get them.

Women would make each family member one “everyday” outfit and one “Sunday best” for each season, which explains why there were no closets in our Indianapolis house. Laundry was not a high priority for them, because it took too much water and time. Until Elias Howe invented the sewing machine in 1846, the women and girls made their clothes and then remodeled their dresses for years, sometimes up to 6 times, before cutting them up for children’s outfits. Even in the coldest of winters, the women wore no underdrawers, although it might have helped that they wore (count ‘em) three petticoats under their long dresses both winter and summer.

In 1955 the winter cold still crept up under our clothes, even for young females who had underdrawers to wear. That's because we girls were not allowed to wear long pants to school. We could wear leggings, but had to take them off when we got inside the school building. When the weather was nice it was a big problem to play on the playground in our dresses and still keep our “modesty.” (The incredibly repressive “no-pants” rule didn’t change until sometime after I graduated from high school in 1966.) We did have tights and knee socks, but it was still torturously cold in the winter, especially to someone raised in the sunny climes of Los Angeles.

But the cold was not my first problem when I entered the third grade that fall. I quickly discovered that everyone but me had learned how to write cursive in the spring of second grade. So my teacher gave me a practice book and tutored me in her spare time. I went from feeling like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t write, to feeling proud because I learned to write quickly and legibly.

Soon after we moved there, Mama got a job as a lab technician at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, an army base named after the US President who had been an Indianapolis native. Daddy attended Butler, but made his living as a juvenile parole officer, which meant he sometimes was gone from home, transporting the parolees from prison back to their homes. He carried a gun, and when he was at home it was on an upper shelf in the kitchen.

He also was the preacher for the Salsbury Church of Christ in the southern part of the state (which also featured “outhouse” bathrooms). We drove there early every Sunday morning, then would spend the day after morning services at different church members’ homes, so Daddy could preach for the evening services. It was there that I became introduced to Southern Cooking at its finest, as the women tried to out-do each other in hosting us. It was a feast every Sunday! And every Sunday afternoon we were invited to fish, ride horses, or just go romping in the beautiful countryside.

During the weekdays, Mama would take Melody to a woman who kept children in her home, but Becky and I were on our own after school and in the summers. Every day was an adventure for us two little girls. However, as an adult, my heart quakes in fear for those two young ones, out in the middle of nowhere, unsupervised and unprotected. Daddy had a gun for protection, but we just had each other. It would set the theme of our family life together for the next twelve years.

NEXT: Vernon Stock

Will you pray with me?

God of All Time and Space,

We praise you that there is no past, present, or future for you, only the eternal Now. We are grateful that there is no here or there for you, only the eternal Here of Life as a single event.

We bless you that your ways as Creator are not our ways as your creatures. We give thanks that we are created to experience our lives with a sense of then and now, of near and far. How we bless you for the magnificent gifts of time and space! How grateful we are for the boundaries and limitations that remind us that we are dependent upon you for all things in all time and in all places.

We rejoice in the goodness of the earth that you fill it with goodness and wonder. And we pray for those in the past, in the present, and in the future who cry out to you in need, fear, distress, hardship, and sorrow. Hear the prayers of all people, in all timess and places, those expressed and those whose need is too deep for words.

We pray especially for the children of this world who are at the mercy of their parents, extended families, communities and nations. Send people of good will and hope to infants, babies, toddlers, children, youth, and young adults in dire circumstances, that they may be agents of your saving grace. And lead us all into a deeper sense of your abiding Presence, that we may turn to you in joy and praise throughout our days on earth and into the life to come. Amen.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

8 Gypsies

It was not surprising that my family’s first response after the tragedy of Ricky’s death was to run away. Fleeing the scene was the muscle memory of our family body.

We had always been gypsies without the benefit of a “band” of others around us to support us or to offer us a sense of a larger family surrounding us wherever we went. We could have been plunked on a desert island and felt right at home. We children did not know our extended families except by name and a few stories about them. We rarely visited my parents’ relatives, and even more rarely, were visited by them.

The church was our culture, but it certainly was not our family. Pastors are expendable in any church “family.” They’re the shepherds to the congregation’s flock. That meant we were “part” of a congregation for a while, but never “of” the congregation.

The church was our culture, but it certainly was not our community. It could not and did not provide community because it did not support my parents emotionally, spiritually, or financially—three fundamental criteria of what makes “common-unity.” Had we belonged to a less insular denomination than the Church of Christ, perhaps my parents would have found what they needed, but I doubt it.

We moved to Indianapolis so Daddy could go to Butler University to qualify to become a minister in the Disciples of Christ, a denomination recognized by the U.S. Navy Chaplaincy program. The long term motivation was to provide a living wage for our family, but I think the even longer-term cause was the Vernon gypsy blood. The grass was always greener somewhere else.

Even before we moved to Indiana, I had had five different homes and my older sister, Becky, had had six. My first home was the Rosemead Church of Christ. But within three years of my birth, when Mama was pregnant with my sister Melody, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Daddy had the promise of a better job. All I know about Phoenix is that Daddy’s job did not pan out, so he left his pregnant wife and two young daughters to go find a job back in the Los Angeles area, which left Mama stranded in Phoenix with no husband, no family, no friends, no community, no money. Her husband that was supposed to save her from the trauma of her childhood seemed to be providing plenty of trauma himself.

Judging from what Becky remembers, I think Mama had her first bout of deep depression then. Mama couldn’t function. Becky remembers taking me to the store to buy us something to eat. Mind you, she was five and I was three. She also remembers that sometimes we were very hungry, but that a neighbor evidently took pity on us and fed us occasionally. It’s a sad, sad thing to think of those two little girls fending for themselves while their mother was sick and non-functioning and their father was a vanishing species.

I’m not sure how long we lived there, but Becky remembers that we lived in a regular house. Daddy evidently got work because we moved back to Southern California and lived in two trailers: a smaller "curvy" type, then a larger one. I have a picture of me on my third birthday in a trailer park. I was a towhead with very blond hair plaited in braids that went to my shoulders. What a cutie!

I don't know where we were living then. It might have been Long Beach, since Mama was in the picture and she was definitely pregnant with my sister Mel, who was born in Long Beach. Mama was never well during her pregnancies; she had “morning” sickness in the afternoons and evenings too for the entire pregnancy. The smell of food would often make her sick. (I inherited that particular gene pairing. Ugh!)

One of my first memories is the day Melody was born in 1952. I was 3 ½ and playing with Becky and some neighbor children—it was either pick-up sticks, jacks, marbles, or mud pies (my favorite!). If it was anything except mud pies, at 3 ½ I’m sure that I was probably more of an observer than a player. We were right next to one of those wood-paneled station wagons. Some adult called out to Becky and me, “You have a baby sister!” I remember being really excited about it, although I’m sure I didn’t have a clue what it meant. (One of the things it meant was that I was officially a “middle child.”)

Daddy got a job as the organizing pastor at the West Covina Church of Christ, in Los Angeles County, where we stayed for about three years. There was a huge orange orchard that helped me take my first steps toward an awareness of the beauty and joy of nature. We lived within the shadow of the San Bernadino Mountains, and the glorious painted-sky sunsets were a part of the joy, as were our frequent trips down to the beach to swim and roast hot dogs over a fire in the sand. I also remember the night skyline occasionally dancing with the flames of an out-of-control brush fire.

The house was right next to a big city park where I attended Kindergarten in some sort of storage shed. (It was 1952 and I was on the first crest of the Baby Boomer tsunami; I still am.) I was still four when I started school, and remember learning the pledge of allegiance. I was really proud of myself when I didn't stumble over the word "indivisible," until year or two later when they inserted the phrase "under God" right before "indivisible." It took me several more years of daily pledging before I re-conquered that five-syllable word.

The church in West Covina couldn’t support us much more than the Rosemead church could, so Daddy had to sell real estate on the side. But the congregation grew enough that they built a building while we were there. I guess the money Daddy raised went into bricks and mortar instead of feeding our tummies. If there was sacrifice to be made, it was always made on behalf of the church.

I think the Phoenix experience jolted Mama into thinking about making sure it was never repeated. Because soon after Mel was born she became an X-ray technician at LA County Hospital. Later on, she went away to school to get certified as a laboratory technician. By that time Mel was a toddler; she and Becky went to live with the Purdue family who lived across the street from us. I lived with another family in the church, the Coreas.

Eventually, we were all back together at 705 North Lark Ellen, with a woman named Jolene taking care of us. All I remember about her is that she pulled my hair so tightly when she braided it, that I often had a very sore head. Even though I complained, she didn't seem to care. I'm sure my parents were paying her peanuts and she was probably working for them because she was more desperate than my parents, not because she had any great love of children.

The new church building was being built right next to our house. Although we weren’t allowed to go near the construction site, one day I started to sneak into the half-built church on a plank leaning into a space for a window, but I didn’t make it inside as I had done plenty of times before. Instead, I fell off when I was half-way up onto a piece of construction wire, somewhat like cyclone fencing. I cut my left knee badly enough that I still can see the scar 55 years later.

I was six when it was almost completed and I did something else that gave me a Big Booboo. I evidently had a bike at my disposal (I don’t know if it was ours or borrowed) and one day I decided to cruise around on the new concrete patio that had recently been poured in front of the church. I repeatedly circled the square brick planter in the center of it, enjoying the sense of daring and adventure it brought, that is, until I didn’t clear the corner of the planter. The bike jarred to a stop and collapsed with me in a heap by the planter. But more than my bike had collapsed; my leg had snapped.

I called out for help and eventually Mel heard me and ran over. I told her to go get Mama because I had hurt myself. She came back with the message that I should come in house for some mercurochrome and a band aid on my boo-boo. When Mel came back again and told her I couldn’t move, Mama came out and told me not to move, then went to call Daddy. He came with some men in a station wagon. They used a big real estate sign as a gurney, slipped me into the back end of the car, and took me to the doctor’s office to get a cast on my leg.

It was pretty cool to get the extra attention. I remember Mama took pretty good care of me, as did people in the congregation who brought me special treats and books. That was when I got my first Walt Disney edition of “Cinderella,” with the paper-cut pumpkin that would pop up when I opened the book. (I got my second “Cinderella” when my daughters were little, but it didn’t have the gold leaf design that made every page sparkle.) The book made a crinkly, whooshy kind of sound that was very appropriate for a fancy gold-leafed picture book that took me straight to another world of maidens in distress and the princes who came to rescue them.

Quite quickly though, I started feeling sorry for myself because I really hurt and I couldn’t play anymore and I started feeling bad in another feverish, achy sort of way. A few days later I broke out with the red measles. The itching was agony. Under the cast, where it was all warm and moist, the measles built castles to rival Prince Charming’s. I remember trying to relieve the itching with a table knife inserted at the top of the cast that went halfway up my thigh. I even went so far as to uncurl a wire hanger and try to scratch. It was a long recovery period.

The next year, when I was 7, the congregation started meeting in the new church building. We had a big, walk-in baptismal behind the pulpit area and it seemed to be busy all the time. I wanted to get in on the action, and I’m sure Becky had been baptized and I just wanted to follow suit. So I asked Daddy if he would baptize me too.

I was sort of aware of what it was all about, but mainly I wanted to wear the spiffy white robe and get all wet and fussed over. Ole red-haired Vivian, also 7, heard that I was going to be baptized that morning and begged her parents to let her get dunked too and they agreed. I remember being really miffed because I had to share the limelight with Vivian. She was sort of a pest, and I don’t remember particularly liking her, but I do remember lusting after her red hair. And I remember looking up through the water and seeing Daddy looking like Jesus in a white robe.

It couldn’t have been too long after my big spiritual moment when we moved to Indianapolis in 1955. Daddy bought a large rubber thumb and painted its nail a bright red. Then he hitch-hiked back to Indiana to find us a place to live, found something he could afford, then hitched back to get us and drive us to our new home.

Cars were always a problem with my parents, mostly that they didn’t work. At one time we had had an old Kaiser (that we called the “Jewel”). It had doors that opened from the middle outwards, but I think it was the one that stalled out on a railroad track one night when we were looking for a lost cat. My parents were “housing sitting” and a cat came along with the responsibilities. Alas, it jumped out of the open window when we stopped at a light and was never seen again. I don't think we had the Jewel much longer either.

We left for Indiana in the middle of the night to try to beat the heat of the Sonora Dessert. The car we took was one of those old humpbacked cars held together with string and ceiling wax. We might have been pulling a little trailer, or maybe Mama and Daddy had stuffed all of our worldly belongings in the trunk of that car.

Becky, Mel and I were dressed in our pajamas. We had already been asleep, and our parents just carried us out to the back seat of Humpback and tucked blankets around us. Mel, who was 3 ½ by that time, stayed asleep, but Becky and I were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I don’t remember anyone waving good-by to us.

To two little girls, nine and seven, it seemed like another great adventure for the gypsy Vernons. Mama and Daddy had stuffed an old mattress in the leg room area, so we had a big bed at our disposal. It was fun to move! But the glow of the midnight adventure soon dimmed when Daddy asked Mama, “Light me up a cig, will you Babe?” Mama pressed in a car lighter and shook out two cigarettes from a package in the recesses of her purse. Soon, a horrid smell wafted back to the back seat, where Becky and I sat dumbstruck.

What? Mama and Daddy smoked? When did this happen? What about how smoking was such a “sin” along with drinking alcohol and having a sleepover with your neighbor’s wife? I don’t know if we even said anything, but the dreadful smoke filled the car, our lungs, and our little hearts.

It’s a smell memory that’s still vivid to me. The pollution of my parents’ secret lives was starting to spill out to where even a little seven year-old, brown eyed, blond could see that something was “rotten in the state of Denmark” as we headed down the midnight road.

NEXT: Hand-pumped Water

Will you pray with me?

Great Uncreated One,

We thank you that you have created us to be travelers on this great journey of life. We bless you that your Spirit hems us in, behind and before, and accompanies us every step of our way.

We pray today for people who have no sense of home or roots. And we pray for those persons whose homes have been torn from them due to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life: we pray for refugees of war and survivors of natural disasters living in tents and huts; we pray for homeless and jobless people, for people who live in their cars; and we pray especially for children whose lives are in a constant state of chaos as those in authority over them seek the shelter and food and safety they lack. Bless them and meet their need according to your good will and compassionate love.

O God of mercy, give us the mind of Christ and guide our steps into daily acts of compassion and good will to our neighbors. Help us to seek the justice for which your creatures yearn, to love the kindness for which you created us, and to walk with mutuality and humility along the side of all who share your gift of Life with us. In your hope we pray.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

#7 Moving

Shortly after Ricky’s death, I moved with my parents and younger sisters to a house on the other side of San Diego. Less than a year later, we moved to a parsonage in Poway, just north of San Diego, where Daddy took as job as a part-time minister to supplement his salary as a Navy Chaplain (and Mama’s as a lab technician).

The history of both my parents’ families was to move. Maybe it was just for the adventure of it all. Maybe it was to seek the greener grass on the other side of the fence. Maybe it was to try to run away from the agonies and wrenching pain that is a part of the human condition. Whatever their motivations, the legacy from both of their families (which of course are my families), was to get the hell out of Dodge.

My mother, Thelma, was the fifth child of six children born to Samuel Le Roy Chaney (b. July, 22, 1889 in Idaho Territory) and Orinda Ellen Fuller Chaney (b. July 14, 1892 in Crawford, NE). Roy, as my grandfather was called, was the third son of 11 children. Ora, known to me as Grandma Chaney, was the 11th of 12 children. Somewhere I have a lot of cousins, but I do not know any of them.

Ora’s parents homesteaded to Idaho from Nebraska when she was just a young child. The only story I remember her telling of her childhood was of that move. They were crossing the Great Plains (I think she said in a covered wagon) when she got left behind out in the middle of nowhere. Her memory was that it took a very long time for them to notice that she was missing.

I suspect that feeling abandoned and lost for that time, in that wilderness, had something to do with the fact that she was an angry, joyless woman. Or maybe it was because she was at the tail end of a dozen children and she got lost in the shuffle. Maybe it was because her parents were angry, joyless people. It is obvious that she did not learn love, only hard work. When I knew her, the only way she seemed to express joy or happiness was through her quilting, rug-making, and baking. (She excelled at cinnamon rolls, my favorite weakness!)

Roy’s Chaney ancestors were originally French. They were not “shakers,” but they were certainly movers. Chaney family documents record that Richard (b. 1760) and Lydia Chaney moved from the state of Maryland to Booneville, MO sometime between October 1819 and July 1822. My mother said the family lore was that the first Richard Chaney’s family had come to Maryland—a Catholic territory at the time—fleeing from religious persecution, from who I don’t know. It is quite ironic that their 4th generation grandson and his wife (my grandparents) would turn out to be prejudiced against any religious people, especially practioners of the Mormon and Jewish faiths. (Who knows, perhaps Catholics, too?)

Richard and Lydia Chaney moved to Clay County, Missouri. The last of their 12 children (the generation of my great, great, great grandfather Richard R. Chaney) was born there. Richard R. and his wife Martha moved from Buchanan County to Holt County, MO. and then to Ada County, Idaho Territory. Their son, Samuel, was born in Idaho. He and his wife, Polly, had a son named—Ta Da!—Samuel, who married Laura Jane. They started a trucking company, Chaney Freight Lines, in the early days of trucking, mainly hauling timber from Boise to Portland, OR. Their 11 children included my grandfather, Samuel Le Roy, who worked in the family business until it went belly-up during the Depression of the 1930’s.

Samuel Le Roy and Orinda Ellen Fuller were married on November 3, 1910 in Hailey, Idaho. They were married 3 years before Dorothy Mae was born in 1913. To their great disappointment, Dorothy was not a boy. Doris Pearl came in 1914. Where is our boy? Faye was born sometime from 1915-1918. Three girls! They finally, finally got their yearned-for boy, Harold Kenneth, in 1920, born in Emmett, Idaho. My mother, Thelma, was born in 1922, (Ugh—four girls!) and Samuel Leroy Chaney, Jr. came in 1928, both in Boise. My grandparents had moved at least 3 times by the time Mama was born.

Aunt Dorothy died from diphtheria at the age of 4 or 5. Aunt Faye died from a brain-tumor at 17 years of age. Harold (Uncle Hal), had tuberculosis when he was a child, requiring several years of hospitalization. He had a recurrence of it when he was in the Army during WWII. Uncle Sam had juvenile diabetes. Although the discovery of insulin came along just in time to save his life when he was 12, he was always quite debilitated from the disease. Before he died at age 49, he had had both of his legs amputated and had gone totally blind.

There seemed to be something “wrong” with all of the children of Le Roy and Orinda except Aunt Doris and Mama. Well, that’s not quite true. Both Auntie D and Mama learned quite early that there was something inherently “wrong” with being female. The two males were the focus of the family, not only because they were males, but I think because they so were sickly and needed a great deal of care.

Because of his hospitalization for TB, Uncle Hal missed two years of school. When he returned, he was placed in the same grade, the same room as Mama. Alas, it turned out that Mama (“Sis”) made better grades than Hal (“Sonny”), her teacher and parents felt that she was causing him a great deal of embarrassment. “A girl cannot outshine a boy,” they told her. Sis was moved to a different classroom.

Besides being the wrong sex, Mama used the wrong hand. At that time, being left-handed was very, very wrong. It was understood the same way a lot of people today still understand sexual orientation—as a choice. It’s hard for me to imagine, but our society seemed to be mouth-frothing prejudiced against left-handed people in the early decades of the 20th Century. Thelma chose to be left handed and, by God, she could decide to use her right hand! Thelma was just being stubborn and pig-headed by favoring her left hand. In school, her left hand was actually tied behind her back and she was forced to learn to write, to use scissors, etc. with her right hand.

It really messed up her brain. When she was in her 60’s she came across a store for left-handed people. It was heaven on earth to her—measuring cups with the markings where she could see them, sewing machines turned the right way! But, alas, some things had been etched in too deeply. She never could learn how to use left-handed scissors easily.

We still have trouble with “left.” In my early growing up days in the 1950’s, a political “lefty” was the spawn of Satan (and for some folks, we still are!). According to the Bible, Jesus sits at the “right hand” of God. In church, we extend the “right hand” of Christian fellowship and in fact, an ordinary handshake is with right hands. We pledge the flag with our right hands. We raise our right hands when we must testify in court or be sworn into office. To be “right” is to be correct, have moral merit. It is to be specific and immediate, as in “sit down right here, right now.”

And that’s just in our country, in our culture. Cultures that must keep one hand clean for eating purposes eat with their right hands—the left is reserved for “unclean” occupations. Around the world, analog clocks advance to the right and anything that is “clockwise” is right-wise. I don’t know, maybe the world spins to the right. It’s obvious the right-handed majority has a major advantage, because we are right. (Sorry, Becky!) I digress.

For Mama, the pattern was set: a pattern of moving, a pattern of feeling wrong, a pattern of feeling unlovable, a pattern of ceaseless hard work. That was the warp of the tapestry of her early years. The woof was Roy’s alcoholism and Ora’s joyless anger.

I can’t imagine what a difficult life it must have been for Grandma Chaney: alcoholic husband, dead children, sick children, blind children, female children, left-handed children. She had only a second-grade education and had no skills beyond cooking and housework. After the Chaney Freight Line was no more, with Grandpa Chaney increasingly incapacitated by alcoholism and depression, she found a job working as a laundress in a hospital. It was a physically cruel job—heavy, heavy lifting in intense heat and humidity, but she kept at it until she retired.

When Mama was young, Grandma worked in the Chaney family business, at least in the summers. She cooked in the logging camps where the timber was loaded straight onto the many trucks of the Chaney fleet headed for the Northwest Pacific ports. She cooked for everyone: the loggers, the truckers, and all of her in-laws. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and children, they all worked in the family business then.

The few happy childhood stories Mama would tell included a tale of their summers in the logging camps. Aunt Faye, who had learned to read Braille after she went blind from the brain tumor, would “read” stories to her younger siblings in the dark nights outside of their tent. Mama would speak of cool mountain air, galaxies of stars peppering the sky, and Faye’s voice taking her worlds away from the grim reality of her life. Mama never heard her parents say the words, “I love you,” to her. But I think she heard love in her sister’s voice. I feel honored that I am named after Aunt Faye (albeit without the final “e).

Because of their nomadic life (which included Grandpa working construction on the Grand Cooley Dam), Mama had to live with Aunt Doris in Boise so she could go to high school. By then, Auntie D was the oldest living child, and did not bear the brunt of that role with grace. She had only escaped from their harsh family life a few years before and consented to Mama’s presence truculently.

After Doris’ husband, Don, died, she and Mama lived together for almost a decade. It was never an easy companionship, but they loved to travel together to strange and exotic places. And through those last years together, they did learn that they loved each other. And because of their shared lives, Auntie D became a cherished part of our immediate family, visiting each of our families whenever Mama did.

After Mama died and Auntie D knew she didn’t have much longer to live, my sisters and I moved her from a nursing facility in the Seattle area to one in the same town in Southern California where my sister Mary lived and near my sister Melody. Because she was not religious, she did not want a service of any kind. But she consented to let us have a celebration of her life while she was still with us. It was wonderful. One of my nieces played her flute, another read a poem she had written, my sisters and I sang childhood songs, and all of us shared Auntie D and Mama stories. When I turned to look at her one more time after my final good-bye, her face was glowing from the joyful lovefest. She died at peace.

After Boise, Mama’s family moved to Shasta, California (in the northern part of the state) and eventually to Eugene, Oregon. (Grandpa Chaney would die there in 1950 when I was 19 months old. I do not know if he ever held me in his arms.)

Mama went to Northwest Christian College in Eugene. A higher education was certainly not anything the Chaney family traditionally aspired to, but Mama was looking for something better. (Who wouldn’t?) Her long-range plan was to marry a Christian minister--she thought that would guarantee her the love and sense of peace she so longed for. And she truly believed that Daddy, also a student at NCC, was the answer to her prayers. He was two years younger than her, but he was already an ordained minister. Besides, she was 20 years old, which at that time was labeled as “old maid.” She was 21 and Daddy was 19 when they married on December 17, 1943 in Eugene. After they both graduated they pioneered their way to Los Angeles, California and “settled down” in the Watts area.

Daddy got a job selling real estate and Mama was a homemaker. Their first child, my sister, Becky, was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California in 1946, while they still lived in Watts. By the time I was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica in 1948, Daddy was the pastor of the Church of Christ in Rosemead (still in the Los Angeles area) and they were living in the church. On Sunday’s they would move all of their personal belongings into a small, curtained room behind the pulpit. (I can’t even imagine the stress of it all—and with a toddler and baby!)

Of course, I do not remember it, but the background of my formative years was defined by stress. My first home was a very small space that strangers would invade with regularity. The congregation could not provide a living wage, but supplemented the meager salary with gifts of food. So, Daddy still had to sell real estate, and even then he barely eked out a living. We were very poor.

We did not know it, but we were born into a family that lived behind a veil of secrecy. Daddy was already using physical force on Mama (the first time three months after they married), which of course, they hid from the congregation, as well as the fact that they both smoked. Eventually Daddy also smoked a pipe and cigars (Uggh!). He became a chain-smoker, smoking after he finished a meal, even if the rest of us had not yet finished ours. (Uggh! Uggh!) Eventually, fear helped Mama quit smoking, after she fell asleep for just a few seconds with a lit cigarette in her hand. In their later years both my parents had emphysema, and they both died from heart related diseases either caused by, or exacerbated by, smoking.

Even in the extreme poverty of their early years together, they were able to find money for their smokes. Perhaps it was the combination of the poverty and the veil of secrecy that they drew around our family that was a spur that kept them moving. Within three years, Mama would be pregnant with my sister Melody, and we would move to Phoenix, Arizona where Daddy had the promise of a better job.

NEXT: Gypsies

Will you pray with me?

O God our Maker,
From generation to generation, you gift the world with your Ecstasy of Love. How we praise you for the wonder of being alive in this day, in this time, that we may play our part in your divine Plan for the Ages. Alleluia!

In our humanity, we share a common creator, a common earth, and a common need for a savior. We live ordinary lives, working at ordinary jobs and tasks, yet many times life does not feel ordinary. We too often find ourselves plodding through fields of extraordinary complexity and fear. Woo us into a life of simplicity and self-discipline, we pray, that our days may have room to be filled with the same joy and gusto you have for work of your hands.

Push and pull this generation through the discord, anger, hurt, grief and sorrow of the world that too often paints a gloomy background for our common life together. Let your face shine upon us and help us find the path that leads each of us to a place of calm repose. Help us stay centered on you so the record of our deeds to be studied by the generations yet-to-come, may tell them how faithfully we tried to mark the trail of Goodness and Peace for them. In your grace we pray.