It was not surprising that my family’s first response after the tragedy of Ricky’s death was to run away. Fleeing the scene was the muscle memory of our family body.
We had always been gypsies without the benefit of a “band” of others around us to support us or to offer us a sense of a larger family surrounding us wherever we went. We could have been plunked on a desert island and felt right at home. We children did not know our extended families except by name and a few stories about them. We rarely visited my parents’ relatives, and even more rarely, were visited by them.
The church was our culture, but it certainly was not our family. Pastors are expendable in any church “family.” They’re the shepherds to the congregation’s flock. That meant we were “part” of a congregation for a while, but never “of” the congregation.
The church was our culture, but it certainly was not our community. It could not and did not provide community because it did not support my parents emotionally, spiritually, or financially—three fundamental criteria of what makes “common-unity.” Had we belonged to a less insular denomination than the Church of Christ, perhaps my parents would have found what they needed, but I doubt it.
We moved to Indianapolis so Daddy could go to Butler University to qualify to become a minister in the Disciples of Christ, a denomination recognized by the U.S. Navy Chaplaincy program. The long term motivation was to provide a living wage for our family, but I think the even longer-term cause was the Vernon gypsy blood. The grass was always greener somewhere else.
Even before we moved to Indiana, I had had five different homes and my older sister, Becky, had had six. My first home was the Rosemead Church of Christ. But within three years of my birth, when Mama was pregnant with my sister Melody, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona where Daddy had the promise of a better job. All I know about Phoenix is that Daddy’s job did not pan out, so he left his pregnant wife and two young daughters to go find a job back in the Los Angeles area, which left Mama stranded in Phoenix with no husband, no family, no friends, no community, no money. Her husband that was supposed to save her from the trauma of her childhood seemed to be providing plenty of trauma himself.
Judging from what Becky remembers, I think Mama had her first bout of deep depression then. Mama couldn’t function. Becky remembers taking me to the store to buy us something to eat. Mind you, she was five and I was three. She also remembers that sometimes we were very hungry, but that a neighbor evidently took pity on us and fed us occasionally. It’s a sad, sad thing to think of those two little girls fending for themselves while their mother was sick and non-functioning and their father was a vanishing species.
I’m not sure how long we lived there, but Becky remembers that we lived in a regular house. Daddy evidently got work because we moved back to Southern California and lived in two trailers: a smaller "curvy" type, then a larger one. I have a picture of me on my third birthday in a trailer park. I was a towhead with very blond hair plaited in braids that went to my shoulders. What a cutie!
I don't know where we were living then. It might have been Long Beach, since Mama was in the picture and she was definitely pregnant with my sister Mel, who was born in Long Beach. Mama was never well during her pregnancies; she had “morning” sickness in the afternoons and evenings too for the entire pregnancy. The smell of food would often make her sick. (I inherited that particular gene pairing. Ugh!)
One of my first memories is the day Melody was born in 1952. I was 3 ½ and playing with Becky and some neighbor children—it was either pick-up sticks, jacks, marbles, or mud pies (my favorite!). If it was anything except mud pies, at 3 ½ I’m sure that I was probably more of an observer than a player. We were right next to one of those wood-paneled station wagons. Some adult called out to Becky and me, “You have a baby sister!” I remember being really excited about it, although I’m sure I didn’t have a clue what it meant. (One of the things it meant was that I was officially a “middle child.”)
Daddy got a job as the organizing pastor at the West Covina Church of Christ, in Los Angeles County, where we stayed for about three years. There was a huge orange orchard that helped me take my first steps toward an awareness of the beauty and joy of nature. We lived within the shadow of the San Bernadino Mountains, and the glorious painted-sky sunsets were a part of the joy, as were our frequent trips down to the beach to swim and roast hot dogs over a fire in the sand. I also remember the night skyline occasionally dancing with the flames of an out-of-control brush fire.
The house was right next to a big city park where I attended Kindergarten in some sort of storage shed. (It was 1952 and I was on the first crest of the Baby Boomer tsunami; I still am.) I was still four when I started school, and remember learning the pledge of allegiance. I was really proud of myself when I didn't stumble over the word "indivisible," until year or two later when they inserted the phrase "under God" right before "indivisible." It took me several more years of daily pledging before I re-conquered that five-syllable word.
The church in West Covina couldn’t support us much more than the Rosemead church could, so Daddy had to sell real estate on the side. But the congregation grew enough that they built a building while we were there. I guess the money Daddy raised went into bricks and mortar instead of feeding our tummies. If there was sacrifice to be made, it was always made on behalf of the church.
I think the Phoenix experience jolted Mama into thinking about making sure it was never repeated. Because soon after Mel was born she became an X-ray technician at LA County Hospital. Later on, she went away to school to get certified as a laboratory technician. By that time Mel was a toddler; she and Becky went to live with the Purdue family who lived across the street from us. I lived with another family in the church, the Coreas.
Eventually, we were all back together at 705 North Lark Ellen, with a woman named Jolene taking care of us. All I remember about her is that she pulled my hair so tightly when she braided it, that I often had a very sore head. Even though I complained, she didn't seem to care. I'm sure my parents were paying her peanuts and she was probably working for them because she was more desperate than my parents, not because she had any great love of children.
The new church building was being built right next to our house. Although we weren’t allowed to go near the construction site, one day I started to sneak into the half-built church on a plank leaning into a space for a window, but I didn’t make it inside as I had done plenty of times before. Instead, I fell off when I was half-way up onto a piece of construction wire, somewhat like cyclone fencing. I cut my left knee badly enough that I still can see the scar 55 years later.
I was six when it was almost completed and I did something else that gave me a Big Booboo. I evidently had a bike at my disposal (I don’t know if it was ours or borrowed) and one day I decided to cruise around on the new concrete patio that had recently been poured in front of the church. I repeatedly circled the square brick planter in the center of it, enjoying the sense of daring and adventure it brought, that is, until I didn’t clear the corner of the planter. The bike jarred to a stop and collapsed with me in a heap by the planter. But more than my bike had collapsed; my leg had snapped.
I called out for help and eventually Mel heard me and ran over. I told her to go get Mama because I had hurt myself. She came back with the message that I should come in house for some mercurochrome and a band aid on my boo-boo. When Mel came back again and told her I couldn’t move, Mama came out and told me not to move, then went to call Daddy. He came with some men in a station wagon. They used a big real estate sign as a gurney, slipped me into the back end of the car, and took me to the doctor’s office to get a cast on my leg.
It was pretty cool to get the extra attention. I remember Mama took pretty good care of me, as did people in the congregation who brought me special treats and books. That was when I got my first Walt Disney edition of “Cinderella,” with the paper-cut pumpkin that would pop up when I opened the book. (I got my second “Cinderella” when my daughters were little, but it didn’t have the gold leaf design that made every page sparkle.) The book made a crinkly, whooshy kind of sound that was very appropriate for a fancy gold-leafed picture book that took me straight to another world of maidens in distress and the princes who came to rescue them.
Quite quickly though, I started feeling sorry for myself because I really hurt and I couldn’t play anymore and I started feeling bad in another feverish, achy sort of way. A few days later I broke out with the red measles. The itching was agony. Under the cast, where it was all warm and moist, the measles built castles to rival Prince Charming’s. I remember trying to relieve the itching with a table knife inserted at the top of the cast that went halfway up my thigh. I even went so far as to uncurl a wire hanger and try to scratch. It was a long recovery period.
The next year, when I was 7, the congregation started meeting in the new church building. We had a big, walk-in baptismal behind the pulpit area and it seemed to be busy all the time. I wanted to get in on the action, and I’m sure Becky had been baptized and I just wanted to follow suit. So I asked Daddy if he would baptize me too.
I was sort of aware of what it was all about, but mainly I wanted to wear the spiffy white robe and get all wet and fussed over. Ole red-haired Vivian, also 7, heard that I was going to be baptized that morning and begged her parents to let her get dunked too and they agreed. I remember being really miffed because I had to share the limelight with Vivian. She was sort of a pest, and I don’t remember particularly liking her, but I do remember lusting after her red hair. And I remember looking up through the water and seeing Daddy looking like Jesus in a white robe.
It couldn’t have been too long after my big spiritual moment when we moved to Indianapolis in 1955. Daddy bought a large rubber thumb and painted its nail a bright red. Then he hitch-hiked back to Indiana to find us a place to live, found something he could afford, then hitched back to get us and drive us to our new home.
Cars were always a problem with my parents, mostly that they didn’t work. At one time we had had an old Kaiser (that we called the “Jewel”). It had doors that opened from the middle outwards, but I think it was the one that stalled out on a railroad track one night when we were looking for a lost cat. My parents were “housing sitting” and a cat came along with the responsibilities. Alas, it jumped out of the open window when we stopped at a light and was never seen again. I don't think we had the Jewel much longer either.
We left for Indiana in the middle of the night to try to beat the heat of the Sonora Dessert. The car we took was one of those old humpbacked cars held together with string and ceiling wax. We might have been pulling a little trailer, or maybe Mama and Daddy had stuffed all of our worldly belongings in the trunk of that car.
Becky, Mel and I were dressed in our pajamas. We had already been asleep, and our parents just carried us out to the back seat of Humpback and tucked blankets around us. Mel, who was 3 ½ by that time, stayed asleep, but Becky and I were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I don’t remember anyone waving good-by to us.
To two little girls, nine and seven, it seemed like another great adventure for the gypsy Vernons. Mama and Daddy had stuffed an old mattress in the leg room area, so we had a big bed at our disposal. It was fun to move! But the glow of the midnight adventure soon dimmed when Daddy asked Mama, “Light me up a cig, will you Babe?” Mama pressed in a car lighter and shook out two cigarettes from a package in the recesses of her purse. Soon, a horrid smell wafted back to the back seat, where Becky and I sat dumbstruck.
What? Mama and Daddy smoked? When did this happen? What about how smoking was such a “sin” along with drinking alcohol and having a sleepover with your neighbor’s wife? I don’t know if we even said anything, but the dreadful smoke filled the car, our lungs, and our little hearts.
It’s a smell memory that’s still vivid to me. The pollution of my parents’ secret lives was starting to spill out to where even a little seven year-old, brown eyed, blond could see that something was “rotten in the state of Denmark” as we headed down the midnight road.
NEXT: Hand-pumped Water
Will you pray with me?
Great Uncreated One,
We thank you that you have created us to be travelers on this great journey of life. We bless you that your Spirit hems us in, behind and before, and accompanies us every step of our way.
We pray today for people who have no sense of home or roots. And we pray for those persons whose homes have been torn from them due to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life: we pray for refugees of war and survivors of natural disasters living in tents and huts; we pray for homeless and jobless people, for people who live in their cars; and we pray especially for children whose lives are in a constant state of chaos as those in authority over them seek the shelter and food and safety they lack. Bless them and meet their need according to your good will and compassionate love.
O God of mercy, give us the mind of Christ and guide our steps into daily acts of compassion and good will to our neighbors. Help us to seek the justice for which your creatures yearn, to love the kindness for which you created us, and to walk with mutuality and humility along the side of all who share your gift of Life with us. In your hope we pray.