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.

Friday, August 13, 2010

#6 Courage

Our family had been in the throes of death for many years, perhaps from its inception at my parents’ marriage at the height of World War II, in December of 1943. The promises of love and trust that the union of Al Vernon and Thelma Chaney signified to them and to the world bound them as a family, but in reality, the toxicity of their lives would eventually keep their four daughters glommed together with them like a Gulf Coast tar ball. The only antidote that helped me put the whole thing out of my mind for hours at a time was school.

I had spent a few weeks of Eighth Grade at Beaufort Jr. High and my entire Freshman year (1962-63) at Beaufort High School in Beaufort, South Carolina. A whole year! But I had to transfer to Savannah High in Georgia for my sophomore year, in the fall of 1963. I was a relatively good student but I didn’t have much time or energy at home to apply myself to my studies. I had a “black hole” in my brain when it came to geometry (and still do!) and felt most at home in my English classes. I made friends with the "loser" group at school, a very funny and kind group of people. But through several friendships, I hung on the periphery of the “in” group, neither funny nor kind. I certainly never "belonged" with them like I did with the "losers."

Besides my older sister Becky, I had never had a best friend because we had never been in one place long enough to cultivate one. Maybe if I had had a best friend, I would have confided the brutality of my life to her. May not. I had a lot of practice at keeping our family life private. Alas, there were no relatives or community around us that cared enough to check on us. In fact, with Daddy’s position as a parish minister and then as a Navy Chaplain, we were the ones who cared for the community. It’s small wonder that in school, I worked hard to act as if I had my life together.

Looking at my high school albums, I’m surprised to see that in my first year in Georgia at Savannah High School, I was a Student Council representative. I don’t remember being elected or appointed, but I must have been. My picture is on page 76 of the 1964 "Blue Jacket." I was also the chaplain for Homeroom 225 for all three years, offering a morning prayer each day after we had gathered for attendance and the Pledge of Allegiance. As a Junior and Senior I find picures of an unsmiling me--besides my unhappy home life, my teeth were crooked--that records that I was in Spanish Club, the Dramatics Club and a member of the Girls’ Chorus.

I don’t remember Mama and Daddy taking part in any parent conferences or in many school functions where parents were invited. Neither do my sisters. Our parents made promises, but they were prone to forget to pick us up if we had to stay for an after-school event. Since at that time, school personnel didn’t bear the responsibility for a child after hours, the four of us Vernon girls at one time or another knew what it was to wait for a ride home that didn’t come. (This, of course, was before cell phones.)

I do remember a few times, though, when we lived in Illinois, that we all went to see Becky in a Junior High play, where she had her family-famous lines: “I am Ruttabeggio, I love Sopapillio, and her I will marrio, despite old Spaghettio.” (I'm pretty sure it wasn't Shakespeare.) I also remember going with Mama to see Melody in a Junior High production in Savannah where she played the part of an old lady, pretending to knit. And Mama went to hear me sing alto in a Christmas cantata called “A Ceremony of Carols” that the Girls’ Chorus sang in Olde English. But that was about the extent of parental involvement in our schooling.

When I started Savannah High School as a Sophomore in 1963, it was still segregated. Integration came in the Fall of 1964, with a handful of brave souls who started their career at Savannah High with police escorts and military protection. For the first few weeks, there were soldiers on duty in the hallways of all three floors of SHS. Obviously, my family had its problems, but racism was not one of them. I knew it was wrong, but it also was very easy to go along with the crowd, to laugh at racial jokes—and even to repeat the jokes— because I was desperate for friends, desperate to fit in. I did not yet have the courage even to stick up for myself, let alone to stick up for my convictions.

But, in my Senior year, I became friends with Ola Mae Bryan. We sat next to each other in a class called “Contemporary Problems,” a conglomeration of sociology, politics, and ethics. I admired her greatly. I cannot even imagine the courage and determination it took her to be one of the first African-Americans at SHS. In my heart at least, I had stood in solidarity with her from that first very scary day of forced integration in 1964. I was glad that at least for the length of the school year, we both stood (or sat) in solidarity through our classroom friendship. Ola Mae was one of my teachers of what courage looks like and I treasure what I learned from her.

On the home front, that same spring Mama mustered her frail courage and made a feeble effort to try to separate permanently from Daddy. He had been in Vietnam for 13 months when she wrote him a letter telling him that neither she nor her girls wanted him to come back.

Daddy was quick to respond. Since he had been in "Nam" with the First Marine Division for 13 months, a month longer than a tour of duty was supposed to be, he took Mama’s letter in hand and convinced someone with authority to cut a new set of orders for the States, to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California.

He was back in Savannah only a couple of weeks later. He was repentant and full of promises to Mama: he would stop drinking; he truly loved her; he needed her with him; he really would change. She eventually agreed that she would go with him to San Diego after my graduation, so he went to San Diego and he returned to move the family to San Diego, in time for my graduation on June 6, 1966.

He was very drunk at my graduation. Her love could not keep him sober. I chose to walk home from the stadium rather than be with the family for any attempt of a “celebration” with Daddy in that condition. Becky and her boyfriend, Buddy (later to become her husband), drove around in his car until they found me. They picked me up and took me to a local drive-in hangout for a special treat. I will always be grateful to them for searching for me until they found me. They lifted me up when I was very, very alone.

I’m not sure that the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” had been coined yet, but the “flak” of Daddy's 13 months on the combat field, combined with his addiction to alcohol and his violence when he was drunk made it impossible for him to keep his promise to Mama. That should have been very obvious to her at my graduation. But she went with him to San Diego anyway, taking Melody and Mary with her. I guess in our family, promises were not only made to be broken, promises were expected to be broken.

Their leaving meant Becky and I had a chance to escape, she for the second time. Before Daddy had left for Vietnam, he had helped her enroll at Cal Western University in San Diego where she could attend after she graduated from Beaufort High School in 1964. But she had only been there 6 weeks when Mama--temporarily free from Daddy's control--called her and insisted that the college was too expensive and that her oldest daughter was needed at home. So Becky came home immediately and got a job working for a mobile home company. She also started attending Armstrong Jr. College part-time in the spring semester of 1965, which was where she met Buddy.

I was happy to have my strongest ally come back home, at least for two more years. And after the rest of our family left, it felt like we had made our escape from the fear and violence of our family. But it didn't last long because soon after their departure, Becky and Buddy decided to get married. She would live with him in the studio apartment she and I shared.

What to do? I was only making $1.05 an hour at my new job with K-Mart. I certainly couldn’t afford my own place, not even a studio. Besides, I was the daughter of a “can’t do” mother. How could I live by myself, work, and go to college? I didn't feel even remotely capable of that. It seemed that my escape was to be short-lived.

Reluctantly, I went back to California, jumped into the family fray, and re-assumed my role as savior for my sick family, a role I had learned well in my 17 years. I know that Melody and Mary were really, really happy that I was had not “abandoned” them after all (that would come later), and I was truly delighted to be reunited with my two younger sisters whom I loved so very, very much (and still do!). I immediately took up the familiar and impossible task I had set for myself of trying to buffer them from the fallout of our family hell.

It was a hell that deepened exponentially 11 months later with the tragic death of Ricky Everson in a refrigerator on our back porch on Friday, June 2, 1967. I had spent my life trying to “fix” my family, but death is not something anyone can fix. I couldn’t fix the anguish of his family or our neighborhood. I couldn’t fix their finger-pointing or the guilt of knowing I had been the last one to see him alive. I couldn’t fix the embarrassing and humiliating spotlight by the police and press on a family that even in the best of times was only hanging on by our fingernails.

The only thing, the only one, I could fix was myself. I understand now that this is a very healthy attitude that cultivates self-confidence, self-respect, and appropriate self-love that helps us discover joyful, hopeful living. However, at that time, I had none of those inner tools at my command. My idea of fixing myself was opting out of life. When I did not follow through with my suicide several weeks after Ricky's death, it was proof positive to me of my unworthiness. I was a failure. It would be several years later when once again I was faced with the temptation to terminate my life.

Having failed at my feeble attempt at suicide, I was faced with the same question I asked a year earlier in Savannah. What was I going to do now? It didn’t take me long to decide. I had learned throughout my life how to “stifle myself” as Archie Bunker used to demand that Edith do, and that both of my parents demanded of their daughters.

So, I stifled myself. I stuffed the toxic tragedy of Ricky’s death— and my sense of responsibility for it— deep into the far recesses of my gut, there to lodge in the nagging cesspool of self-doubt, internal criticism, fear, and shame that had grown within me through the years. And like a well-trained cat in its litter box, I buried it all by getting busy.

I enrolled for six hours of night classes at Mesa Jr. College and threw myself into a new job, working as a bookkeeper for the Navy Exchange Country Store and Gas Station at the same hospital where Daddy was a chaplain and Mama worked as a lab technician. Balboa Naval Hospital was a beehive of activity, since it was the primary receiving hospital for Navy and Marine casualties of the Vietnam War that was raging on the world stage. The life-healing function of the hospital seemed to help balance the life-sucking dysfunction at home for me. Not that I was able to think in those terms at the time.

My motivations for my growing workaholism were well-hidden from my conscious self. I thought that my extreme busy-ness was virtuous, and I hoped that my daily position among so many men would help me find the ideal husband of my dreams. In reality, I was a heat-seeking Cinderella missile on the lookout for an unsuspecting Prince Charming. Oh, who will rescue me?

NEXT: Moving

Will you pray with me?

Abiding Breath of Life,

You call us to love our enemies, a task that seems impossible from human eyes. And yet you stir people of every generation to reach out in friendship across the great divides of the human family to nurture peace in the midst of the battlegrounds. We thank you for their vision and compassion, their faith and humility, and their legacy of hope.

We thank you for individuals and communities that take their stand against the hatred and injustices of this generation. Bless them, we pray, and help us take our place by their side. We are grateful for those persons in our own lives that have taught us that small acts of justice and righteousness yield a thirty-fold harvest of goodness and life.

Prepare our table and anoint our heads with courage, we pray. Let it be that we may be counted among your people that live confidently in your ability to help us beat swords into plowshares within our world, our communities, our families, and even within our very souls. In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.

Friday, August 6, 2010

# 5 Fallout

The fallout from tragedy can contaminate the air we breathe with unseen toxicity for years, for generations. The fallout from my family life was poisonous, making it difficult to breathe even before the additional “bomb” of Ricky’s death due to my parents’ negligence. Over time, I had accumulated a swamp of emotional sludge that made it difficult for me to breathe.

I was in seventh-grade social studies class in Rhode Island when I had my first anxiety attack and found myself unable to get enough air. We had moved from Illinois in February, and it was still cold outside. My teacher sent me to the school nurse, who told me that the reason I felt like I couldn’t breathe was because I had a sore throat that the the cold morning air made worse. Breathing into a paper bag and an aspirin were her solutions. They were mere band aids on an anxiety problem that still dogs me today, although now I use exercise, counseling, meditation, yoga, and a blog to help me slog through the remaining morass of sludge.

But recently, upon reviewing that classroom event, I realized that first attack happened in the same class where my teacher told me that I used my hands too much when I talked. He had called on me to answer a question, but interrupted me. “Are you Italian?” he asked. “Can you even talk without waving your hands around?” I was mortified, a mortification that only intensified when he told me to sit on my hands and finish answering the question. I did as instructed, but my mind had gone blank, so I sat there in mute embarrassment. Sludge.

It was a little over a year later when Mama made an attempt to get us away from the sludge of Daddy’s erratic and violent behavior, but it was short-lived. When he received orders to go to the U.S. Marine Air Base in Beaufort, South Carolina, to be the base Chaplain, we were not there to go with him. In March of 1962 she had yanked us three older girls out of school, took Baby Mary in arms and somehow—I do not remember how—and got us clear across the country to her mother’s house in Seattle, Washington.

Mama didn’t enroll us in the Seattle schools, so we girls were free agents. I remember reading until I couldn’t see straight. (I first read Gone with the Wind there.) We played outside and spent time with my two uncles and their families. My older sister, Becky, and I burned trash in an old oil drum that Grandma kept for such purposes. I remember watching the glowing ashes ascend into the starry skies. It was magic! And we all enjoyed Grandma’s warm and luscious cinnamon rolls and her cool and tangy avocado-grapefruit salad. We watched her piece her hand-stitched quilts together and weave braided rugs from rags and scraps. Too bad she hated children.

But even with her sharp criticisms, it seemed like heaven to me. However, Grandma had another take on it. After we had been there almost three months, and just a few weeks before the end of the school year, Grandma told Mama, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” We had to go.

There were no women’s shelters or safe houses then and Mama had nowhere else to go, so she called Daddy to come and get us. He drove across country to pick us up then drove us all back to South Carolina, there to deposit us into a hot and humid land, where people spoke English in a dialect I could not understand. It was like being in a foreign country. That’s how I started Beaufort Junior High in the middle of May of 1962. Sludge.

We had to live in the actual town of Beaufort until military housing was available. Daddy rented an old house for us on Carteret Street. It was surrounded by huge trees draped in Spanish moss and it backed up to the Beaufort River. Giant hydrangea bushes lined a wide front porch, which was an ideal location for watching the summer storms that came with such fascinating furor. My bedroom was one of two rooms that opened up to the porch.

The house was ancient and it had no air conditioning. It was creaky and it had a resident ghost and a contingent of flying cockroaches (Palmetto bugs). I had never seen an insect (or a ghost!) inside a house. I will never forget that house. (It was later torn down and a dental office now stands in its place. I wonder where the ghost went. I know where the bugs are.)

Life improved slightly when we moved into the military housing complex, Laurel Bay, some 6 months later. The house was newer and had air conditioning. There were other perks to living in the housing beside the cooler, drier air. There was a Piggly Wiggly grocery (“The Pig”) outside the gates where we could walk to buy snacks. And there was a sense of belonging among military families we had not experienced while we lived in town. We had a solid Youth Group that offered Becky and me a lot of opportunities for good times and laughter, so our lives were not totally abysmal.

All the kids rode the bus from Laurel Bay to our various schools in town. My favorite bus driver was Pat Conroy; I had such a crush on him. He would later convey his days in Beaufort through his book, The Great Santini. (Evidently his father had some of the same “monster” qualities that mine did.) Pat was president of the Senior Class of 1963 and was voted “Best All Around” and “Mr. Congeniality.

But there were even larger “monsters” roaming outside of the Vernon family home. In Beaufort, as in the rest of the Deep South of 1962, there were “whites only” signs in all public places, and the prejudice and hatred ran deep. (It still does in many hearts.) The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were both gaining momentum. Public outrage was heating up too, so demonstrations, marches, and riots dominated the news of a world that seemed to be rocking.

In another year, the assassination of President John Kennedy would further rock my world. I had a major crush on the handsome and energetic leader of our country and kept the “Life” magazine cover photo of him taped inside my school locker doors for several years. It is the first time I can recall truly grieving. There was more than his death to grieve, but it gave me an outlet for venting some of the gases coming out of my emotional swamp.

The Vernon family did not fit within the white social norms of the segregated South. Even though my parents both came from what they termed “redneck” families, we did not learn prejudice against people of color from them. And the mix of races and ethnicities in the military only reinforced our tolerance for those different from ourselves, except in one area--the great divide there was between officers and enlisted personnel.

I think that the upheaval outside of our home birthed courage in Mama that I had never seen in her. Perhaps it was the “social courage” demonstrated beyond our walls that spurred her to action at the end of my freshman year at Beaufort High. There were certainly enough other spurs in her flanks. The violence at home was escalating, the financial problems were mounting, and the daily logistics of acting as if we were a “perfectly normal” family was becoming more and more difficult. But it was the conditions of her job as a lab technician at Beaufort Hospital that ultimately caused her to do something.

Mama’s job included drawing blood from all of the patients, who were assigned rooms according to the “whites only” / “coloreds only” social code. When she would come to the patients’ bedside, she would address them as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Smith” regardless of color. She was severely reprimanded and instructed to call “the coloreds” by their first names only. She couldn’t do it and continued to address all of her patients with respect. The official condemnation for the respect she showed them was the straw that broke the camel’s back for her. She quit.

There were no other jobs available for her in Beaufort, but she found a job at the US Public Health Service Hospital in Savannah. That institution not only promoted equal treatment for all patients, it also offered her better pay and possibilities of advancement because it was a federal government job. So the summer between ninth and tenth grade, Daddy helped her move Mel, Mary and me to Savannah.

Mama’s newly-minted courage showed itself again some months later. We had been attending the First Christian Church of my parents’ denomination (Disciples of Christ), but were not members. One Sunday some other visitors, then termed “Negroes,” came to the doors wanting to worship with us. We were already seated, so we did not notice the incident. But we quickly learned that the deacons had refused to seat them and turned them away at the doors. We also quickly learned that the pastor rushed out to invite the spurned guests back in. I do not remember if he was successful, but I hope he was.

What I do remember is that the next week the ruling board decided that the pastor would have to go and scheduled a congregational meeting to vote on his dismissal for the very next Sunday after worship. The service traditionally had an altar call, but no one was paying much attention to it because everyone was anticipating or dreading the upcoming meeting. Well, up rises Mama to respond to the call. Suddenly people were paying attention. I’m sure her knees were shaking, but Thelma Lucille Chaney Vernon walked to the front of the chancel with us trailing behind her, and she joined the church so she could vote for the pastor that very day. Her vote couldn’t have changed the overwhelming tide against him, and we never returned after that, but her willingness to walk down the aisle was out-of-character for Thelma Lou. Hmm.

While she, Mel, Mary and I started our lives in Savannah, Becky remained with Daddy in Beaufort so she could finish her senior year there. She and Daddy would come and visit us when they could, but I think she relished the freedom from the family wars, and I don’t remember her coming with him all that often. Of course, she had to live with him on a daily basis. But somehow she (and Mel) had learned to stay out of his way when he was drunk, and so had a much more “placid” relationship with him than I did.

When he got orders in the spring of 1964 to go to Vietnam, Becky moved in with the family of the base commander until her graduation. I missed her dearly during that year when I was a sophomore. I adored her even though she would always find excuses not to help me with the dishes. I also envied her, not only because she was two years older, but because she was both thinner and shorter than me. She had been best friend and counselor for all of my 15 years. In my eyes, she was smart, she was funny, and she was beautiful and she was popular. I grieved her daily presence in my life.

I’m sure she was very happy to miss the family war that continued unabated whenever Daddy visited us in Savannah. It was a war that gave me countless opportunities to try to “save” my mother and younger sisters. Although the battles were erratic, they followed a tried and true plan. First there was a time of uneasy silence when anxiety would build. Eventually something or someone would “trigger” Daddy—playing the radio too loud, or looking at him wrong. Then there would be a skirmish in the living room or kitchen or bedroom. And finally a full-fledged war that moved from room to room: shouting matches, slapping and hitting frenzies, kicked-in doors and walls, threatening steak knives, or broken, jagged-edge pickle-jar weapons.

Sometimes the war broke out in public as when Daddy would hit Mama (with us in the back seat) while driving drunk. One time he drank so much at a restaurant he leaned over his plate and vomited into it. And, not surprising, he was drunk at my High School graduation. Sludge.

I prayed and prayed for God to make Mama leave Daddy and get herself and her four daughters out of hell. After I learned to drive, I even made an appointment with a lawyer and took her there myself so she could start proceedings, but she would not, could not do it.

Mama had mustered her courage on behalf of social justice, but her energy and determination died at the doors of the church. She forced herself to go to her job every day, but was unable to stir herself at home. Her inability to function became particularly clear to me after Daddy received orders to Vietnam.

NEXT: Courage

Will you pray with me?

The earth is Yours, O God, and the fullness thereof. You give us the gift of life in bodies that are mortal, with spirits that are vulnerable, and wisdom that is unsteady. You have made us to be limited that we may learn that You are God and we are not. You are God of all creatures great and small, even the “monsters” of our personal lives and our societies. Continue to remind us that You give Your creating, redeeming and sustaining life to the whole world each day. No exceptions. Redeem our memories and help us to leave all that diminishes life to your judgment and saving grace.

We pray today for all children, all families, all cultures, all nations, and all people in situations of abuse, war, injustice, and chaos. Hear the cries of the peoples of the earth and send your messengers of hope. And help us all find the doors You open to Life Abundant on earth as it is in Heaven.

We bless you for mothers and fathers, grandparents and responsible adults who express their love appropriately, in spite of their own brokenness and pain. We are grateful that You raise up a community of people who work to keep children and their welfare as their highest priority. Enfold us in that community, we pray. Open our eyes to the needs that our children cannot express and our ears to their cries in the night. And may it be so until pain and sorrow are no more. Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

# 4--Suicide

The Sunday edition of the “San Diego Union” on June 4, 1967 related the report from the autopsy of Ricky’s 6 year-old body: "Deputy Coroner R.W. Gillespie said an autopsy of the body showed that the boy died of suffocation. He ordered pathological studies. He said evidence in the refrigerator indicated that the child died inside. Gillespie said marks on his body apparently were caused by his thrashing inside the box.

"Gillespie said the boy may have removed his clothing after finding himself locked inside. Lt. Ed Stevens of the homicide squad said water may have been in the bottom of the refrigerator and could account for the child’s wet clothes.
Stevens said the clothes were lying on the bottom of the refrigerator under the body. He said there was no indication the death was other than accidental, but he was unable to explain why the boy climbed into the box.

"Police spent several hours Friday night examining the scene and dusting the refrigerator for fingerprints, but Stevens said no report on the fingerprints has been made yet.

The Monday edition, on June 5, offered an explanation: "A neighborhood game devised by Clairmont children who locked themselves in an empty refrigerator and then knocked when they wanted to get out caused the death of Ricky Everson, police decided yesterday.

. . ."Detective W. E. Duncan of the police homicide detail questioned neighbor children ranging in age from six to eight and was told the children began playing in the refrigerator last Christmas. The refrigerator racks had been removed.

. . ."Deputy Chief O.S. Roed said, 'When the child in the closed refrigerator wanted out, he or she knocked on the door and the one outside opened it. We assume Ricky, while playing in the backyard and waiting for May Beth Vernon to change clothing, got inside the refrigerator and he may have closed the door in play. Mary Beth in the house heard him call her name, and she answered she would be right out,' Roed said. 'When she went out after a few minutes, Ricky was not in sight in the yard and she looked around, believing he had left and told police she rode her bike around the neighborhood looking for him.'

"Police said the refrigerator door would not swing closed and lock by itself but had to be pushed or pulled closed by a person. . .'Unless something very unusual develops, we will close our investigation and consider the boy’s death accidental,' Roed said.

. . .(The police) "now assume the boy removed his clothes after finding himself locked in and that the water was in the bottom of the refrigerator.
Roed appealed to San Diegans to insure that refrigerators are inaccessible to children. . .if this warning will prevent another child from injury or death, it will have served its purpose.”

So, the verdict by the police was in: Accidental Death—a children’s game gone terribly, terribly wrong. It could have been my little sister, Mary, in that box of death with him, or instead of him. The police blamed the game, but the police got it wrong, because their conclusion implies that it was the children’s fault, somehow. That it was Ricky’s fault, or Mary’s fault, or the fault of any of the unnamed neighborhood children who had played an innocent game. But it was my parent’s fault.

It was my father that had brought that old, used refrigerator into our backyard. It was my mother who caved into the stupid idea of having a patio refrigerator available for parties they never gave. They both failed to see the danger that it posed, so neither one of them took any measures to make it safe from curious little children. Not even their own child, let alone Richard Sidney Everson, Jr.

Within a month, the Eversons sued my parents and the owners of the rental house in civil court. The legal business dragged on for almost two years. According to court records, the trail began on February 3, 1969. The action against the homeowners was dismissed. The defendants’ “motion to reduce their prayer for general damages to $100,000 (from $450,000) was by the Court granted." On February 5, I was sworn in and examined. After a recess at 11:10, my father and mother were examined, and after a recess, Daddy was recalled to the stand. On February 6, the case was handed over to the jury, with 32 pages of instructions to them.

And on February 7th, at 4:23 PM, the jury’s findings came down: 10 “yes” and 2 “no” for Negligent Violation of Section 664 of the Penal Code assessing damages of $30,000 against my parents. Even by today’s standards, it doesn’t seem like much for the loss of their son; they had originally sued for $450,000. But even with some insurance, the assessment was enough to send my teetering parents into bankruptcy within a year of the judgment—at the same time Mama finally left Daddy.

My parents were guilty, but Ricky’s parents were not blameless. Neither were the parents of the neighborhood children. Why didn’t they know where their children were playing and what they were doing there? A locking refrigerator was as dangerous as a loaded gun. Had none of the kids gone home and spoken to them of the “fun” refrigerator game in the Vernon’s back yard?

There was plenty of blame to spread around, but I spread it all on myself. Although only 18, a mere child from my perspective 43 years later, I considered myself an adult, and I had been the last adult to see Ricky alive. I should have known, I should have been more aware, I should. . .I should.

It is “stinky thinking” to “should” on ourselves, but it was what I had grown up doing. Since I was 12, I had assumed the responsibility of being the ”adult” in the family because—as in the case of the refrigerator-- my parents had difficulty in assuming responsibility. They were much better in assessing blame, and it wasn’t at themselves their fingers pointed, even after the trial. Even decades after the tragedy.

On the other hand, I had had a lot of practice of being the family “savior,” so it was not such a huge step to assume the blame and guilt of the tragedy. It did not take me long. One night, toward the end of June 1967, only 3 weeks after Ricky’s death, I resolved to kill myself. I don’t even remember what put me over the brink to make that resolution. Not to die for the sins of my family. Just to die, to rest, to find some peace.

I went out to the garage—the very place that Ricky had found me in his last moments—I stuffed rags and old towels along the bottom of the closed door, got in the family station wagon and put my key in the ignition. In those days, ignitions were very simple affairs. There was no locking this or safety that, just a simple slot on the dashboard. The key slid in easily. I would turn the car on, let it run for a few minutes in the enclosed space, and carbon dioxide would take care of the rest. It was supposed to be just like falling asleep. Aaaah.

I twisted my wrist to turn the key, but the ignition wouldn't budge. I tried again. And again. No go. I couldn’t start the car. Could it have been the hand of God resting upon my hand that was on the key? Could it have been a God- embedded will-to- live that would not allow me to give up on myself? Had an angel come to visit me to offer me a silent glimmer of hope? I believe that now—that just as Mary had had a heavenly visitor offering courage and comfort the night that Ricky died-- I now believe I had my own visitor that night I wanted to end my life. I didn’t feel support. I didn’t feel comfort. But my hand was “stayed.”

I opened the car door, got out, and shut the door. I picked up the rags and towels covering the gap between the garage door and the cement floor. I put them away, turned off the light and went inside. I guess I would just have to go on living.

NEXT: Fallout

Will you pray with me?

Our Guardian and Keeper,
You share Your life with Creation and pronounce it “Good.” You speak Goodness through nature and through the human generations. As persons we are often slow to hear, slow to learn what Your Goodness means, but You are our Teacher. And we learn that You have not made us to bear the weight of the world. You instruct us to do what we can and to leave everything else in Your care. We learn that it is You, and You alone, who knows the deepest needs and the buried prayers of our hearts. And it is You who speak s and acts on our behalf, staying our hands in times of trouble and sending us on our way.

I pray today for those who cry to you in their pain and sorrow. I pray for parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers who grieve the loss of a young child. And I pray for those who may be responsible for that loss. I pray for the safety of innocent children playing games where unseen danger lurks. I pray for a call to community in towns and cities where people do not know their neighbors and feel no connection to them. I pray for police officers, detectives, and medical personnel who daily must deal with unspeakable sights and heart-breaking situations.

And I pray for all those who are considering suicide. Stay their hands, O Good Shepherd. Lift them up and set them on a path toward healing. Send messengers and angels to help them learn to love Your gift of life and to claim their rightful place as Your beloved children. Spur people of good will and compassion to reach out to them to speak words of encouragement, forgiveness, and hope.

Teach us how to live as grateful people. Stir us with Your Spirit. Breathe new life into weary bones, so that, like flowers in the sun, we may turn toward Your Eternal Goodness and flourish. Amen.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


San Diego Union, June 3, 1967: Evidence at the scene caused the police to throw a curtain of secrecy around the case. And within an hour, Lt. Ed Stevens of the police homicide squad was rushed to the scene—an unusual procedure in cases where death is by accident.

The curtain that the police threw was not just around the case, it was around our house, and around all of us who lived in it. Each of us was taken aside and privately interviewed about the death of the little boy that the paper described as the “blue-eyed, brown-haired” first grader whose mourning father, Richard Sr. had been quoted as saying, “We loved him very much.”

I had been there when they found his naked, scratched body slumped on top of his damp clothes in an old latch-handled refrigerator in our back yard, so had Mama. Still stunned and reeling from what we had seen, we had been rushed into our house as the first police act of “throwing a curtain of secrecy” around the case.

Immediately each of us were grilled privately about our whereabouts on the tragic afternoon of June 2nd— even Mama who still had been at work when Ricky took his last gasping breaths. And even 6 year-old Mary, his sometime playmate, was interviewed alone, without Mama or Daddy, my 10th grade sister Melody, or me present. It was a searing experience for my “baby sister” and her memory of it has never become fuzzy or faded or less intense over the span of more than four decades.

She remembers that the police were very kind to her, but the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her family and was all by herself as they questioned her cut very deeply. She clearly remembers telling her interrogators that from inside her room that had a window to the back yard, she heard Ricky call repeatedly. She remembers that she kept telling him she was changing her school clothes and would be there shortly. She remembers going to the yard and not finding him anywhere and then going with me to the bank.

But of everything she remembers about that time, the most profound experience was the sudden recognition that there was “someone” standing beside her with his arm around her offering her the comfort and assurance that she was not alone. She believed without a doubt (and still does) that it was Jesus wrapping her in the eternal embrace of God’s steadfast love and mercy. It was saving grace to her in the bleak darkness of her short life.

I did not know about her experience of divine presence until several years ago. Ricky’s death and the great sorrow and shame for our family were not things we talked about or ever worked through to a sense of healing. Instead, we did what we always did by silently shoveling it onto the family mountain of sorrow and shame: Daddy’s alcoholism and violence; the continuous displacement we had experienced even before Daddy became a U.S. Navy Chaplain; the financial chaos of Daddy’s get-rich-quick schemes gone to pot; the inability of Mama to seek safety or get help for herself or her four girls from the six-foot-four man she had spent 26 years trying to change.

My 20 year-old sister, Becky, had already left the family. She had married two years before and remained in Georgia with her husband and daughter. But she was the first of the “Vernon Girls” to learn how to cover up shame and sorrow with a thin patina of normalcy and respectability. We all learned it well for Daddy was a minister who had preached love, peace, and forgiveness since he had felt a “call” to pastor a church at 19 years of age.

Mama met Al Vernon at the Christian college they both attended in Eugene, Oregon. She went there because she had been determined to marry a minister; she thought it would ensure that her childhood family nightmare of alcoholism and poverty would be a thing of the past. She found out about his violent behavior three weeks after she married him in 1943, but she felt she could not go back to her parents. (Indeed, in 1962, when she finally mustered enough courage to take her four girls to Seattle and seek help from her mother, my grandmother told her, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”)

The violence of their marriage stayed in the background of their children’s lives until Daddy joined the Navy in Great Lakes, Illinois to try to make a living that the small churches he pastored could not provide. Suddenly he was exposed to alcohol and to the military expectations of cocktail parties and “schmoozing” at the Officers’ Club. But, it wasn’t until after he returned from spending a tour of duty in “Gitmo” during the Cuban Missile Crisis that I realized Daddy's strange behavior was because he was drunk.

We were living in Quonset Point, Rhode Island when we began to know, when I first began to know, the terrors of an alcoholic parent with an “enabling” spouse: violent, drunken rages (even while driving with us in the back seat); midnight awakenings by slamming doors, thudding walls, broken cutlery; black eyes and battered spirits.

By the time I was 12, I began to join in the fray, with the intention of keeping Daddy from killing Mama (which, in fact I did a time or two. By then, I was taller than her 5 feet 5 inches and was younger and stronger. My other sisters never felt the need to join us because I represented us all. They were the silent watchers. Daddy didn’t mind having two targets and quickly found reasons to vent his rage on me. And by the time I was 13, and we were living in Beaufort, South Carolina, I found reasons to provoke him.

My therapist says it is normal in families like mine: feeling the build-up of an explosion, I provoked him to get the inevitable blow up over a lot more quickly. It saved hours of looming agony. Years later, Daddy and I talked a little (very little) about those epic battles. That’s when I learned that he actually had no memory of them—for him they were “black outs.” The brain cells destroyed from the alcohol kept him totally unaware of what he did. And the dysfunction of our family kept us from telling him when he was sober what he did when he was drunk. We also acted “normal” the next day—a situation for which the word “irony” was coined.

Daddy eventually did stop drinking (he met his third wife in an AA meeting), but he never did the painful job of truly-and-ceaselessly working the 12 Steps, so his making amends came in the form of bringing pies and jellies to our family reunions we had for several years before he died. So, he never did the “fearless inventory” or the “making amends” that is essential for true recovery. Consequently, he never actually apologized to me and I never had the opportunity to forgive him while he was alive. Confession was a step he could preach but not enact.

I had heard about confession every Sunday of my life. I had heard about “divine presence” and “saving grace,” and I had prayed for it unceasingly, but it was to little Mary who had never known a life without violence and fear—it was to my sweet little Mary, that God came the day that Ricky died within her hearing and reassured her with a sense of comfort and love that still abides within her today.

For me, the body-blow of the tragedy and the intense investigation into our family life, was truly a plunge into the shadow of the valley of death. Mary had been the last one to hear little Ricky. I had been the last one to see him alive. He had flitted in and out of my sight that day like a mosquito, and the guilt and the shame of my “responsibility” were unbearable. I really was too tired and worn-down to try to bear it, so I decided to end it all.

NEXT: Suicide

Will you pray with me?

O Abiding Love,
Our quest as human beings is to find meaning and redemption in the face of tragedy and evil. We believe that you assume responsibility for the world as it is, but even as we proclaim You to be the Source and Power of all things--we question why You would allow the world and all its creatures to suffer in agonizing and unimaginable ways. Even as we proclaim You to exist as Eternal Steadfast Love and Mercy--we dare to wrestle with You. We wrestle and wrestle, and come away limping. It is not for us to know, only to accept that we are helpless and that You are our only hope.

Accept as prayer all broken hearts and trampled spirits--Love, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all drowning doubt and engulfing anger--Grace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all groaning grief and stony thoughts--Peace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer, O Blessing Goodness. . .
. . .our rooted despair and feeble faith
. . .our splintered minds and blurry vision
. . .our limping humility and tethered patience

I pray today for Ricky's family--his parents and sisters and extended family who lost their dear loved one in such a tragic way. And I pray for all of those persons and families who are now wrestling with You in the abyss of wrenching loss and despair. Give them the spiritual eyes to see that there is “someone” standing beside them and grant them the comfort and assurance that they are not alone. In their bleak darkness, be their light and saving grace, and bring them--and us all--to that promised time when we shall know as we are known.

In Your holy name I pray. Amen