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?
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.