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.