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.
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.