Daddy was always on the move. The promise of something better on the horizon kept pushing him to run away from the ground-zero moment of little Ricky Everson’s death in June of 1967. From that time until the summer of 1970, the Vernon family had moved three more times: to a house on the southeast side of San Diego, to Poway (then a “bedroom community” 30 miles north of San Diego, now just a part of the metro SD area), and back to San Diego to an apartment.
During those three years, my parents declared bankruptcy, Mama finally took courage to divorce Daddy, Daddy attempted suicide and was discharged from the Navy, and I got married and had my first child. That’s three times in three years my family moved. No big surprise, I had moved four times in the same time frame—signs of a family teetering on the edge.
I think maybe Daddy’s family was always teetering on the edge, as my mother’s had been. Growing up, we girls knew very little about his childhood and the Vernon stock from whence we came, and until recently, his entire childhood was more mystery than knowledge.
But this summer my sister Melody found that our known Vernon ancestry goes back to Hugh de Vernon and De Centville of Eure, Normandy, France, born @1000, died 1053. That is 27 generations from Hugh (and Mrs. Hugh!) to me and my sisters. If Mel had not done this study, I would never have known my great-grandparents’ names, or that Daddy had an Aunt Fay—the same name as Mama’s sister for whom I was named. (Maybe it was fate for me to be FayT!)
I don’t know if Daddy’s relatives celebrated his birth or not on July 1, 1924. He was born at the family’s log cabin ranch home 7 miles outside of Scio, Oregon at 4 AM, with just his family present: mother, Luzetta (daughter of Sherman E. and Grace V. Smith); father, Alson Creath (son of George Washington and Mary Archer Vernon), and his brother, Glenn.
Daddy had variations of two basic stories that he passed down to us four girls, one about his mother and one about his father. His birth mother’s name was Luzetta, born in 1898. She married my grandfather Alson when she was 14, in 1912. Her father, Sherman, was an alcoholic. He and his wife Grace had 5 children: my grandmother, another daughter and three sons.
Together Luzetta and Alson had 3 children: Ray Earl, born in 1917 and died in 1921 from pneumonia; Glenn, 1 yr and 2 months younger than Ray; Clarence Albert (Al), my father, 6 years younger than Glenn. In the 1920 Census, they are listed as living in Mill City, Oregon and Alson’s occupation was noted to be a “lumber laborer.” They had been married 14 years when Luzetta died in 1926 at the age of 28 when Daddy was almost 2.
She was half Native American, part of the Santiam Tribe of the Chinook people who lived along the Columbia River, that divides present day Oregon and Washington. They lived in The Dalles area. Today you can still see a very famous petroglyph carved into the cliffs overlooking The Dalles, called “She Who Watches” (carbon dated from 1700-1840 CE).
In Native Peoples of the Northwest by Jan Halliday and Gail Chehak, it says: "In their journals, Lewis and Clark reported that along the Columbia River they were rarely out of sight of an Indian village. More than 50 Chinook villages lined the lower Columbia, a stretch of about 150 miles. (p. 176) . . . By the early 1800’s, however, epidemics had wiped out nearly 90 percent of the Native populations on the lower Columbia River."
The remaining tribes were forced into reservations of mixed peoples. The Santiam were one of the eight tribes (speaking three languages), who formerly inhabited the valley of the Willamette River, that made up the Kalapuyan people. White encroachments into the Willamette spelled their doom. Small pox wiped out a huge part of the population. Following treaties in 1851 and 1855, those who were left of the Kalapuyan tribes moved to the Grand Ronde Reservation, Oregon. Their descendants are now called the “Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon.” So that is the legacy from my father’s birth mother— that and a love of baskets (for which the Chinook are well-known because they fished the Colombia using only baskets).
Luzetta had spent $15 for a prenatal visit to the doctor before Daddy was born, and he kept the cancelled check for that visit all of his life. At that time in the US, pregnancy was not considered a medical condition like it is now and there was no expectation by ordinary folks to give birth in a hospital. But surely the presence of Ray had to have been hovering in the young woman’s mind as she labored to bring Daddy into the world. At least when Ray and Glenn had been born, there had been close neighbor’s and some sort of help close by.
Daddy never found out what his mother died of. Alson was not a talker. He drank 20 to 25 bottles of Coca Cola a day back then. I don’t know if Coke still had real cocaine in it back then, but he certainly had an addiction! He had a heart attack at a very young age, but still worked 17 to 20 hours a day, so he was a workaholic, too. But he didn’t know how to express his feelings or even share stories about his childhood and his family or about Luzetta’s growing up years.
There weren’t other relatives around to share any stories about her. Daddy rarely saw them and never met more than a handful of them. Twenty years ago Uncle Glenn’s wife, Aunt Vivian, told me that a neighbor of the Vernon family often saw and heard Alson and Luzetta quarreling out in the road. There was some hint of mental illness on her part (or certainly depression?), which could explain a lot about my father’s mental problems. But it evidently was not a happy marriage.
The story about his father that Daddy told the most was really was the story of his step-mother, Edith Livingston Vernon. She married Alson in 1927 when Daddy was three and literally saved them. Her marriage to the very conservative, very tight-lipped religious widower could only have been arranged by divine providence, because she was as far removed from Alson and his world as East is from West.
Her parents had been married by Bishop Milton Wright, the father of Orville and Wilbur, who was editor of a newspaper published by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. In fact, Edith’s first date was with one of them (Daddy thought it was Orville). I saw a picture one time of a family reunion, with Grandma as a young woman. As I was reading what had been written in the accompanying note, she had expressed her delight that “dear Cousin Ernest” had been able to attend. Upon closer inspection, dear Ernie was Ernest Hemingway. The letter and photo have been lost, but Grandma’s connections are pretty impressive to this writer!
Edith had 3 years of business training in Cincinnati, OH and in 1918, she took a job with Proctor and Gamble that gave her opportunities to travel most young women at the time could not even dream about. In fact, she travelled around the world several times. She eventually was able to buy some stock over “on the edge of India” (Daddy’s words). Daddy called them the Salama Dindja. She even homesteaded in Maui, Hawaii (I still have the picture of her donkey she used in the fields). When she met Alson, she was Dean of Women Students at what is now Oregon State University.
They met at a spa where they were both taking in the special mineral waters. Perhaps she was there to get away from the stresses of her job. Grandpa Alson was there because of his severe arthritis. Even when Daddy was young, he remembers his father having to get out of bed by crawling on his hands and knees on the floor until he could get to a chair to use to push himself up. It’s hard to imagine how painful his life must have been—I hope he found some relief in the work and the Cokes. Evidently he was able to get some temporary relief from the warmth and minerals of the place.
It wasn’t too long before Grandpa brought Edith to meet his little boys, Glenn and Al. Once she saw the two snot-nosed, ricket-legged, raggedy little boys, her heart melted and she knew what she had to do. She resigned her job, married Alson, and moved out into the wide open spaces of Oregon ranch country to tend and care for the three Vernon males.
She saved them more than once. When the Depression came, her little dividend checks ($3-4 month) give the family a “leg up” over many of the other ranchers in the area. But Alson and Edith would figure out ways to help the families who were their neighbors. Daddy said many would come to school with a bucket of lard and one piece of bread to dip in it for their lunch. They would make small loans to their neighbors to help them pay their mortgages and get paid back in chickens or eggs. He says, “My mother taught me not just to help them, but to keep their dignity.”
Edith also found that she had to go back to work to help out the family. She got a job as a woman’s dorm “mother” and would temporarily leave her little family so she could help them survive in very dire times. Edith and Alson remained married until he died from his second heart attack at the early age of 57 in 1947.
I treasured her and felt very special in the spotlight of her love whenever we were able to be together. She and I carried on a lively written conversation over the years. The letters she sent me would be scented with the powder she wore; I still have some of them and they still smell of her scent. I also still use a little embroidered handkerchief she sent me. (And let it be known to anyone who likes my lemon meringue pie--it was Edith who insisted I could learn how to pour the sugar into the egg whites slowly enough to get it right!) She continued to live a generous, loving, and helpful life untils she died in Beaverton, just outside of Portland, OR in 1968, at the age of 80.
This altruistic impulse of the Vernons is one of many prevailing themes that I am very grateful to have as a part of my heritage, especially in light of the other tragic themes that plague us. If there is a way of keeping tabs on the living after death, I hope that Luzetta and Alson and Edith, that Ray and Glenn, and that Clarence Albert Vernon can take note that it still part of the inheritance that I and my sisters see being lived out in our children and their families. Maybe our ancestors of blood and love are smiling even now!
Next: 11—Connecting the Dots
Will you pray with me?
O God of the Generations,
How we thank you for the great continuum of life that links us all together and tethers us all to you? We are grateful for all of those who have gone before us, shedding their blood, sweat, and tears in their own time to help form the ocean of joy and sorrow that are the birth waters of this generation’s story. We pray for them now gone in body, but present in story, and love, and DNA.
We are mindful of those in our time who are desperate and struggling. We pray for women in childbirth, for children orphaned by death and silent fathers. We think of all those suffering from painful, incurable disease from which there is no relief, and those suffering in the darkness of mental decay and disease. In this day, in this moment, hear our prayers and have mercy.
Your love for us is like light to a plant in the darkness. As we soak it up, we begin to flourish and to become a strong people of compassion, integrity, and hope. We pray now for the generation who is coming up behind us now. Bless them, O Fountain of Goodness, with all they may need to walk a path of kindness and humility, to the end that the light of your Love may lead us on in the great march of Life, until we gather as one family in the Fulfillment of All Time. Amen.