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.
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.