Monday, March 26, 2012

13 Rhode Island Blues

The story of our Vernon family life in Rhode Island is a fitting prelude to the tragedy of little Ricky Everson's death in our old refrigerator a short 6 years later on June 2, 1967 in San Diego, California. The refrigerator had been purchased by Daddy in order to have something on the patio to keep beer cold in case he and Mama might entertain his superiors (although I don't recall that they ever did--no money!).  Alcohol played a pivotal role in ending Ricky's 6 years of life.

Daddy's relationship to alcohol became all too obvious to his family by the time he returned from Cuba and moved us from our relatively care-free time in Illinois to his new posting with the Seabees in Davisville, Rhode Island the last week of February of 1961. His time with the Seabees in Cuba was when he starting drinking in earnest and alcohol became a vitally important member of the family while he was gone, although we girls were not yet aware of it. The new family member that we were totally aware of and in love with was my youngest sister, Mary Beth, born on the day Daddy and we three older girls started the move eastward to Rhode Island.

We arrived at our new home a little less than a week before Mama and Mary did.  Daddy was with the Seabees again at Camp Endicott, but we lived at Quonset Point.  It was a Naval Air Station that was fully active from 1941 to 1974, but now keeps a small military presence of various kinds and is called Quonset State Airport.  It is located in the North Kingston area, a town founded in 1674 by the colonial government and is most famous as the birthplace of American portraitist Gilbert Stuart.

When we met our baby sister, Becky was 14 1/2, I was 12 1/2, and Melody was 9 1/2.  We had helped Daddy get our unit (2 floors, probably 3 bedrooms) ready for Mama and Mary, although since I was still in my full leg cast and crutches from my ice skating injury, I can't imagine I was much help with it.  But I do remember it was an amazingly joyful time when I came home from school one day and saw Mama waiting for us at the top of the stairs.

After hugs and kisses, we tiptoed in to my parents' bedroom, where my new sister lay sleeping in her small  mint-green painted crib. I looked down and was awestruck and totally smitten at my first meeting with Mary. Mama had made a crib-liner out of ivory colored fleece and finished it with a wide mint-green satin ribbon.  Framed by that beautiful softness, Mary looked like a little madonna, all softness, sweetness and innocence.  Well, not quite.  She had been born with very dark hair, but even 8 days later it had started to grow out very, very blonde.  She looked like she had been given a very bad dye job and her roots were showing.

Alas, we don't have many photos of her nor of any of us during our short twelve or thirteen months in Rhode Island.  One I had and gave to Mary recently is of her as a toddler sitting in Daddy's lap on the carpet in the living room.  Behind them is the 50 gallon aquarium where Daddy kept tropical fish (a new thing since his tour of duty in the tropics).  Beside father and child is the turquoise padded circular coffee table that Mary used to prop herself up and dance around whenever she heard music. Behind them are the chocolate brown drapes that covered the entire living room wall, part of which was a bank of windows that overlooked Narraganset Bay.

The Bay is a beautiful body of water named after the Algonquin people who lived in the area prior to the European invasion.  The irony is not lost on me that it was within yards of this water that Daddy's alcoholism invaded our family like a tsunami, quietly, quickly, and deadly.

I remember two very distinct times when the invasion made it feel as if the ground was shifting under our family.  The first was when Becky had gotten ready for a Friday night dance that Daddy was supposed to drive her to after he got home from work.  She waited and waited, but he never showed up.  Great disappointment and tears.  And great silence about it the next day.

The second was on my parents' wedding 18th anniversary, December 16, 1961, only 9 months since our move. Daddy had dropped Mama and us girls off downtown one evening for us to do some Christmas shopping.  He was supposed to pick us up after an hour or so but again, he was a no-show.  We waited in the deep December cold, huddled and anxious, and still he didn't come.  The stores had closed and it was very dark by the time he finally showed up.  Mama was furious and we were scared.

Daddy seemed very quiet and when we finally tumbled into the car took off for home, and he drove very differently from his usual daring high speeds--very slowly and erratically.  And when he drove right past the road that even 9 year-old Mel knew was were we should be going, my stomach turned to stone.  Mel started to protest and I remember very distinctly kicking her in the shin and hissing at her to shut up.  We never talked about it and the next day pretended that everything was hunky-dory.  It was the beginning of the Great Cover Up of "let's pretend we're all a happy, peppy "holy man's" family.

I realize now that my body was already trying to tell me that the stress and chaos were taking a toll on me.  As I recounted in an earlier blog,  I first had breathing trouble in Rhode Island.  I was in class one day and suddenly could not catch my breath.  The school nurse made me breathe into a brown paper bag and told me that although I didn't have any fever, I probably had a small throat infection that had been worsened by the cold.  It happened several times that winter.  Now I know that it was the increasingly oppressive stress of our family life.

Over the years as I've tried to deal with the chaos of my childhood and untangle some of the emotional knots it produced, I've discovered that a huge part of my anger at Mama was that she, who-was-not-drunk, allowed her precious children to ride in a car of a drunkard.  Not only just when he was drunk, but when he was drunk and physically beating on her while he was driving.  Not only when he was drunk and beating on her while he was driving, but as he sometimes did, when he would turn around to the back seat and aim a slap at us girls if we happened to say something that set him off.  But, in retrospect, that was Mama's childhood: a drunk father and a compliant wife who came to believe she deserved everything she got.

You can only do better when you know better, and Mama didn't know better.
Daddy may have known better in his head, but he could only express compassion for others, not for himself or his weeping family, caught in a hell not of our own making.  We were all prisoners of fear, shame and an inability to love and respect ourselves.

It was only decades later that I learned that Daddy first physically abused Mama within the first months, if not weeks, of their marriage.  And it was not just physical abuse.  As in the millennia before her, girls of her generation were raised to believe that males were inherently smarter and better than females. He was sanctioned by nature and by society to rule over her and keep her in line. Not only did Daddy have that power over her, but he was a "man of the cloth."  He was also sanctioned by a literal interpretation of the Bible and by the church as one of God's representatives to "lord" over her.

 So by this time in Rhode Island they had had 18 years practice of Daddy abusing Mama physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, and of Mama not only accepting such abuse, but seeing such behavior as "love." But it was becoming more and more unacceptable.

Each of us girls reacted differently to the cracks in our family that opened up so dramatically in Rhode Island.  Becky, now 15, began to abandon the family; she would be gone from home as often as she could (and who could blame her?).  Mel started backing into corners and trying to make herself as invisible as possible.  Mary, just a toddler, was often tucked away into a corner or back room or in her play pen while the fighting ensued. And I, at 13, started assuming (with gusto!) the role of martyr: heroic defender of the helpless: Mama, Mel, and Mary. We were all very much alone and isolated in our personal clouds of fear and shame.

I can only remember one friend in Rhode Island, a girl named Nancy Cranston.  Perhaps I invited her to my house, but I doubt it, because this was the time when it became "iffy" enough at home that I was afraid to invite friends over in case Daddy was drunk.  I remember being at her house though, also on the same base, but in the "enlisted" section; officers and enlisted personnel were segregated.  Nancy's mom was really funny and spoke with the unique accent of her Kentucky home.  She also was amazingly young for a mother.  She must have been all of 27 years old because she had Nancy when she was 14.

Sometime that fall, I began to have stomach aches.  It was eventually diagnosed as appendicitis.  I went to the city of Kingston for a appendectomy and, besides experiencing a little pain, spent some very blissful days in the hospital with strangers hovering over me in concern.  I believe now that the source of my stomach issue was stress, the cause was fear, the cause was my body crying out, "Get me out of here!"  So, even though I carry a 5 inch abdominal scar because of it, I ended up enjoying my appendectomy.  I got away from the chaos for a while.  I was babied and worried about--heaven on earth.  Good stuff for a child shortly before her 13th birthday who desperately just wanted to feel loved and safe.

It got bad enough that Mama finally decided to become proactive for her sake and the sakes of her four girls.  She pulled us out of school in March of 1962 and somehow got us to her mother's house in Seattle, Washington. Good for you, Thelma Lou!  Would there finally be some peace?

NEXT:  14  Seattle Sours

Will you pray with me?

God Our Maker,

We can neither see nor touch space, but it is real.
We can neither see nor touch you, but you are real.
         Space surrounds and abides within the molecules and atoms of all matter.
         You surround and abide within your beloved creation
                  for all of it, 
                  each of us matters to you.
                       We rejoice that when we cannot feel your presence
                        it is because you are so close our vision fails.

           constrained by time within the flexible relativity of space
                  is the physical extension of your steadfast love and mercy
     As your creatures, we too, are constrained by time and geography,
                 limited by
                 vulnerable to
                      both the bitter and the sweet that life brings to every human creature.

  And yet, and yet, with tenderness beyond speaking,
          you hold us within the spacious, gracious, flexible relativity
                 of your good will
                 of your good plan for Life,
                 and call it good.  Hallelujah!

 We pray now for your beloved Creation and creatures bound to you by ties of grace--

         We pray for the beautiful waters and air of the earth that makes it possible for us to be.
         We pray for the all that matters to you on this earth that is in peril,
                  especially children and the most vulnerable among the human family.

Send us today that we may seek them out and bring them to safety,
          and so be your ambassadors of grace.
And give us the wisdom, courage, and fortitude to intervene in the lives of misery and hopelessness that are often invisible to us, that we might not be passive bystanders in life, but rather agents of freedom, light.
           We pray for the parents and families of children whose innocence and vulnerability have lead to their death.  We ask for your abiding consolation in their loss, your comfort in their grief too painful for words.
          Hear our prayer as well for those whose ties of addiction and anger make them enemies of your good will for life.  Their actions pull and strain and kill families, communities and nations, and yet you love them still and send ambassadors of grace to them as well.

You can do what we cannot, O God, and so we ask you to heal the wounds, soften the pain, transform the memories and resurrect the lives battered and torn by current challenges of chaos and hopelessness.

We pray for what we cannot create for ourselves. Be Thou our vision, our wisdom, our guide on this journey of life each step of the way.  We ask it all in the name of Thy Holy Goodness from which all matter is born. Amen.


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