Mother and Papa had ceased from questioning me about the incident at the park’s laundromat and the consequences of it. Their questions had stopped but not their suspicions. I’d overheard my grandfather, whispering to mother one evening that unless she wanted him to handle the problem, his way, she’d better and soon. My Papa’s manner of handling things was with a bandolier of birdshot shells and a 12-gauge shotgun. He was sincerely invested in the “live at let live” philosophy of life as long as the sentiment was honored by all concerned; if it wasn’t, the offending party would likely spend the better part of several days getting profoundly familiar with a pair of tweezers and a bottle of Mercurochrome, that is to say, if they were lucky.
Mother told her dad, my Papa, that she would talk to “him”. Hearing her assurance given to Papa, did nothing to reassure me that the laundromat subject had actually been dropped. I had thought, innocently, that as long as I said nothing about that woman and if she said nothing, certainly Mother would never have to learn of our shared sick secret. I had never knowingly been exposed to deliberate adult deception and this time I couldn’t climb onto Papa’s knee or go for long walks with him across the farm, asking him daunting life questions without telling him why I was asking. The idea of lying to Papa was not something I couldn’t imagine. “Papa” was a synonym for “Truth” and those two words could not be separated in my mind. So, although my voice had returned, what had not was the sense of security which had once covered me. While I felt some measure of security on the farm, it would be decades before I would be able to let my guard down completely around any female. On more than one occasion that cautiousness proved a valuable asset.
It was seldom if ever, that I would now ask Mother to allow me to accompany her on one of her rare trips into town. I felt safer staying near Papa and his ever-ready, ever-loaded, double barreled shotgun than I felt with Mother and her small, at the bottom of her purse, five-shot .22 pistol. The Monster of my nightmares whose movements, clunking around barefoot and rattling chains, was not limited to the under-bed area of innocent children’s bedrooms. It was not a monster who disappeared when the sun rose and shone light into unlit corners. A Monster whose life consisted of visiting laundromats and strangling little girls. No, Mother’s little .22 wouldn’t work on that type of monster! I’d been witness to the type of damage that the little pistol could do. It would make a tiny hole upon entry and unless it hit a vital organ or nicked an artery, the recipient of such a hit could still exact a measure of injury of its own before succumbing. No, much better to stay with Papa whose shotgun when both barrels were deployed, could lift a 10-point buck off its feet while buckshot spread throughout its body, simultaneously hitting multiple organs at once. Not so wonderful for a deer but that type of firepower was exactly what was needed to put down a Monster who wore sensible, black, lace up women oxfords, printed, cotton house-dresses and who smelled faintly of Oxidol detergent, Clorox and sweat.
My resolve never to leave the farm except for school and church was broken one Saturday morning not long after I overheard, eavesdropped on Mother and Papa’s conversation. Seeing one of my five school dresses laid neatly across my bed did not inspire hope for a long, lazy day following Papa around the farm, one of my fondest pastimes. No Mighty Mouse, no Top Cat, no Jetsons or Flintstones cartoons…. I recall standing there and glancing sideways at that multicolored polka dot dress as if it might sit up on its own accord and speak to me. Although one of my favorite dresses to wear, I preferred to wear it only during school days! Saturdays were not meant for colorful polka dot dresses, ruffled nylon socks or black patent leather Mary Janes!
Before I could mount an efficient protest, [the dressed had been slipped almost magically over my already freshly braided slicked back hair], we were walking outside and climbing into the waiting open door of a car being driven by Mother’s friend. Sitting alone in that big back seat, I finally had a really good reason to stay home. A reason not even the prospect of a treat was enough to squelch. The grumbling of my too sensitive stomach and the blinding headache beginning to form behind my eyes would have been my reason, had they happened just 10 minutes sooner. My almost constant headaches had become all too familiar after the Laundromat. My incredible short life had been divided into two areas of time; “before” the Laundromat and “after” the Laundromat. I’d learned early on to not complain about the headaches because to do so brought on the dreaded questions. It was lost on no one that the headaches appeared on the same day my voice disappeared.
The car had made several stops after we reached town. There were quick stops at Syler’s Rexall Drug store, Harrell Meats and Bean Grocery Store before the car entered a street off the main boulevard and near enough to Nick’s Café that I could smell grilled hamburgers, onions and coffee punctuating the late morning air. I remember stifling a laugh as we passed by R&R Electric company whose mascot had been drawn by turning the plug end of an electrical cord into a Cartoon Character. Not yet encountering any monsters in the daylight had eased both the discomfort in my stomach and the throbbing in my head. The three of us were now just sitting in the car without conversation. No explanation was offered to me as to why we were now just sitting there. I tried to make sense as to why I was sitting here in this backseat instead of my sister who would have been infinitely more helpful to Mother if she would by chance need someone to help her to do whatever she’d mistakenly brought me along to do. Why were we just sitting? I didn’t dare ask and subject myself to “The Look”. My frustrations would not allow me to sit still, no matter how many times Mother told me to stop fidgeting.
Just as I was about to risk life and limb by speaking of my frustrations to Mother, I noticed her motioning to her friend to look across the street. I followed their glances and saw a familiar dark green pickup truck parking at the end of the street and unfolding out of it was my Dad. Why was he here? Was he the reason we had been sitting here waiting? The headache which had ridden with me the first half of the trip had suddenly returned.
Flashbacks to a day I wanted to forget was returning side by side with the headache. My mind was super-imposing Dad’s face over that woman’s! Although he had not been in the laundromat that day both he and she were undeniably linked, for better or worse. Mother exited the front of the car, told her friend she wouldn’t be long while opening the back door and beckoning me to slide out. I didn’t want to. Mother took my hand in hers and began to close the distance between us and Dad. He did nothing to help shorten the distance and simply continued to lean against his truck. Mother half pulled, half dragged me from behind her and I had to run on tiptoes to keep up with her. As the renewed pounding in my head increased, the realization that I had also never told Mother of my last encounter with Dad, who before that fateful Sunday afternoon, I had lovingly called Daddy, made me nauseous. That day I’d last heard his laughter when he’d punctured by heart from behind me. The thought of just how many secrets I was hiding from Mother became almost too much for me to contain and I groaned aloud. Mother slowed only momentarily to make certain that my overly sensitive stomach was not releasing its contents on my dress or on the town’s pristine street. Once satisfied, the march toward the end of the street continued. I wanted to go home; I wanted my Papa. Maybe Mother knew that I hadn’t been telling her the truth! Maybe she no longer wanted me! Maybe, maybe she was going to send me to live with my Dad and the monster who lived with him! Maybe it wasn’t too late to tell her about everything. Maybe, if she knew she wouldn’t send me away to live with them! My mind was so busy sorting out my options that I hadn’t noticed that Dad leaving his truck and was making movement toward us. With no longer any need to close the distance, Mother’s abrupt stop caused me to bump into her.
From seemingly nowhere, Mother’s friend appeared, handed mother the purse that always held her .22; took me by the hand and crossed the street with me. Although I was happy not to have to look into Dad’s face, I nevertheless didn’t understand why I couldn’t have simply stayed in the car in the first place! Even though we were across the narrow street and several shop doors away from Mother and Dad, I heard their voices rise. I saw Dad towering over Mother and she stood defiantly in the midst of his anger with her hand resting inside her opened purse. Dad’s voice suddenly quieted as Mother yelled, “TELL HER!” Tell who what, I wondered. “YOU TELL HER!!!” Mother said again. Dad looking down but not at her, looked defeated. “But before you tell her, Let me tell you this: if I ever find proof that either of you have touched her or hurt her in anyway, neither Humphreys, his deputies, or the threat of a jail will keep me from sending you to hell!
My heart dropped…I knew who the Who was…Me! And I knew, now that she was sending me away with a warning to them! I’m positive neither of those three adults there that afternoon were aware that I was aware of them. The recent past however, had taught me to be vigilant regarding my surrounding. Sadly, I was learning to pay closer attention to how adults spoke and what their faces said when they spoke and less to what they actually said. Reading adults, I later learned, is something at which some physically abused children become quite proficient. I was one of those “some”.
Mother’s words held dual meanings as she purposefully modulated those two singular syllabic and threatening words, “Tell Her.” The first “Tell Her” is what quieted and stilled Dad’s voice. The seconds “Tell Her” made Dad glance in my direction. I held Mother’s friend’s hand tighter…was Dad coming to tell me that he was taking me with him? Would I have a choice? I wanted so badly to go to my dark place; the place where I had learned to go when things became to difficult for me to ponder my way through. The place I would go when the Fear would come. Mother’s friend obviously felt my hand going slack inside of hers. In that moment, I no longer needed the comfort her hand had supplied. I felt myself drifting toward the place where everything went away. All monsters, all fear, all cynical laughter, everything simply receded, and quietness would take over. Darkness and quietness held hands which meant I no longer needed to. I was free to “Be”.
As I grew older and lost the ability to go to my dark place, I searched for a place just to “Be”. I was never quite as successful at finding a To Be place as I had been at finding my dark place. Wanting “to be” became a familiar refrain for me and those close to me recognized my need “to be”. To be left alone, To be quiet, To be irresponsible, To be happy, To be unaccountable, To be unencumbered of memories that held no smiles.
I’m not altogether certain when I lost the ability to go to my dark place but somewhere along the way I realized that going there left me vulnerable and unable to control my surroundings.
As my hand slacked in her hand, Mother’s friend called my name and said, “You know they love you, don’t you?” “Huh, who?” I didn’t know if this question was her first to me or the last in a series. I looked up at her in confusion. “Who loves me?” I asked. “Your mama and daddy” she answered. With that, suddenly an entirely heretofore unconsidered idea came to me and I allowed myself to consider it! “Maybe Mother and Dad were going to get back together, and we were going to be a FAMILY!” With that thought, a bubble of joy and anticipation flooded over me and for the first time that day, I allowed myself to smile.
Now anxious for Mother and Dad to close the distance that separated us on that quiet back street and have them “Tell Me” their good news. It was as if they had heard my wish because they began to walk toward us. I wanted to run and meet them, but I was prevented from doing so as my mother’s friends’ hand encircled mine again. I looked at her almost annoyed until I saw a look of concern on her face. I followed the direction she was looking and instead of seeing smiling and happy faces accompanying their slowed steps, there were scowls and cold determination. No warmth emanated from either of their faces! Dad’s face reminded me of when he had instructed me to never expect something for nothing. And yet I had done just that! Just moments before, having done absolutely nothing to deserve it, I expected Mother and Dad’s reunion. What could I have done to prevent this or what did I do to cause all of this? Everything seemed to be about me but I didn’t know why. Mother’s face looked as it did when she’d informed me that I needed to learn who I could trust. My dark place was a much better place “to be” than standing here in the bright of day, where all of my monsters lived. Bad things didn’t come to me at night, always they came in the sunshine and they were always dressed as adults!
Now within only a few strides, neither of them reached for me; Mother called to me and I looked at her with pleading eyes to not say or do some hurtful thing. I didn’t want to look at Dad, honestly afraid of what I would see, afraid of maybe hearing his mocking laughter again.
Mother came to me and her friend pried her hand from my fingers. Mother’s hand replaced hers. Whatever was about to happen wasn’t going to be good and wasn’t going to be good for a very long time.
There was no leaning down to my level, no kiss planted on top of my head, no soothing stroking on my arm. Just being called by my familial name and being told “your father has something to tell you, but before he does, I’m going to tell you that I can’t prove it because you won’t say anything, but I know someone did something to hurt you that day in the washeteria.” She didn’t stop there, “I don’t have proof, but I believe I know who did it.”
Looking up at Dad’s face I saw his temple area throbbing and his jaw was clenched tight. I had seen him angry before but never like this. Mother was not finished, “I’m not going to ask you to tell me, but I am going to ask if you want to tell him?” I shook my head from side to side so violently that several of the barrettes holding my short braids in place flew into the street. “O.K. then”, Mother said, “but I’ve told him what I believe happened and now he has something to tell you”. I expected Dad to fold his six-foot three-inch frame down to by four-foot height, take me in his arms and tell me he was sorry for what his personal monster had done to me. I expected, hoped, even without telling him what had happened, that he would promise to never let anything, or anyone hurt me again. I wanted him to tell me that he was going to go to his home, take the monster who lived in his house to Sheriff Humphreys and let him put her where she belonged. I so wanted Dad to be my Daddy again. But he didn’t come down to my level, he didn’t tell me he loved me or that he was sorry. He didn’t pick me up so that I could lie my head on his broad shoulders. He didn’t calm my fears; he didn’t offer to kill the monster as she had tried to kill me. He didn’t offer to let the Sheriff take her away so that all other little girls would be safe. No, he did none of those things. Instead, he asked if I understand who he was. Puzzled, thinking there was really something wrong with that question. Of course I knew who he was, but I knew better than to say it aloud, so being both wary and oddly relieved, I nodded. He told me to speak up! “Yes Sir”, I said, offering him the “respectable, well raised, Southern child affirmative”. “Then who am I?’ He demanded. This was beginning to travel far beyond by mastery of comprehension. I stole a glance at Mother and she almost imperceptively nodded her approval to answer. Shyly, “Daddy” I answered.
Seemingly from miles above me, I saw his chest rise as he inhaled deeply. YOU WILL NEVER CALL ME THAT AGAIN! DO YOU UNDERSTAND? Crumbling and unable to save myself the embarrassment of crying on a public street, tears flowed. I nodded again completely unable to comprehend why either of my parents would have me endure this new pain. Barely noticeable lines around Mother’s lips deepened. Her bottom lip disappeared between her teeth causing her to look as though she wanted to cry as well. I wanted to be as strong as she was and not let this man standing above me see my tears. I only wanted him to see how much I needed him to love me. Where was the man who had sat with me on his lap every Friday night, who shared his dinner with me, who had fed me from the same spoon as we both indulged in our favorite dessert, banana pudding? Where was the Daddy who would gently rock me to sleep as mother washed and put away her pretty deep garnet dishes; the ones she only used to served Daddy. He didn’t deserve my tears and I didn’t deserve the cause of my tears. But what had I done; how could I fix it?
I didn’t know this man. This man who had chosen to ridicule me months earlier with derisive laughter. This man who had just seconds ago told me that I could no longer call him “Daddy”. I heard Mother almost scream to him, “for God’s sake, just TELL HER! He called my name and I looked up, causing my tears to now run down my cheeks instead of simply dripping to the ground. “Sir?”, I choked out. “No matter where you are, if you ever see me anywhere, at Church, in stores, anywhere there are other people, do not ever call me Dad or Daddy. “From now on”, he said, “Call me Mister”.
Hearing that was every bit as strangling and breath-taking as that stocking had been as it was twisted around my neck; except this time, it was my heart that was being strangled.
Perplexingly, I never held Mister responsible for the instructions he gave me that day. With insight that belied my years, I realized it was she, who demanded he break contact with me. Thirteen or so years later, I would receive validation of that thought. However, I do hold him responsible for the manner in which he’d broken contact. It would have been far kinder to have simply ignored me; to have openly denied my existence. But to have offered me love, shown me love then to not only take that love from me but demand that I forget it ever existed, was cruel. I have to admit, he taught me a couple of lessons that day I’ve never forgotten. Trusting anyone completely is a mistake. Believing that love will never hurt is an invitation for constant heartache. Hard lessons for one so young but my Papa taught me early that a “bought lesson is a learned lesson” and I paid dearly for those lessons, never again expecting anything for nothing, indeed, I paid.
Less than 6 years later my Mother at only 44 years of age, would be dead from congestive heart failure, complicated by pneumonia. One of her last loving acts toward me was to send for Mister just days before her death, to tell him that no longer could he shirk his responsibilities. She told him that she was dying, that she’d gone as far as she could in preparing me for life, he would now have to pick up where she was leaving off.
Immediately following Mother’s funeral, Mister stood on my Papa’s back porch and informed me that he would try and find me someplace to go. No longer interested in what he thought of me and wasting no personal insight as to what I thought of him, I quite colorfully, told him what he could do with his offer. The raised hand with which he threatened to punish my impudence was met with a glaring dare from me. Only he could have described accurately what he had seen in my eyes. Whether it had been blatant hatred or a promise of redress, it caused him to lower his hand.
For the remaining weeks of that school year and into the first few weeks of the new Fall session Mister did attempt to perform some Father-like duties, which somewhat to his credit, he performed publicly. He signed forms which prevented me from participating in two of my favorite school endeavors, track and girls’ basketball. To be denied those passions by someone of whom I was to claim no relation was bitter. He instead paid for the more lady-like pursuit of piano lessons, which kept me hidden behind walls instead of being on display on a track field or basketball court.
Several more horrendously evil attacks, both physical and emotional, perpetrated against me by two other adult relations precipitated me having to leave my beloved East Texas farm and being placed aboard a train traveling west to California, alone and unsure at 13.
Beyond that day on Papa’s back porch, I never had physical contact with Mister again. However, after reaching adulthood, marrying and obtaining some insightful knowledge as to the sanctity of committed relationships; I reached out to Mister via telephone one morning very early in June, with the idea of a reconciliation but not expecting one I, nevertheless, called him.
We talked and cried for the better portion of three hours. He apologized profusely between his own sobs and promised never to put anyone before me again, hoping it wasn’t a gesture made too late. I heard the voice of a man broken. A man who admitted to me that he had lived every day since I’d left, in agonizing awareness of the grief he had wroth in my young life. He told me that he had kept up with the goings-on of my life through my Mother’s brother. He knew before I told him that I was married and asked if I would send a picture of me and my groom. He’d heard that I had grown to favor my mother in appearance and to that he offered congratulations. I accepted. because I thought my Mother to be beautiful and so obviously, did he.
Although I had placed the call to him, I could not offer him absolution. Instead I proffered the prospect of a relationship built upon a friendship; expecting nothing more from each other. As an impetus to the formation of that friendship, I offered, and he accepted my gift of an early Father’s Day gift in the form of plane ticket to California. He asked me to allow him a couple of weeks in which to arrange personal matters. I promised to make the preliminary arrangements and call him again within a week or two.
I never made that call, yet I didn’t break my promise. I instead received a call that made mine to him quite unnecessary. My Uncle, my Mother’s brother, called with news which proved to me that even as an adult, horrible, hideous things still lurked in the bright light of day. “Hey Aunt Sally” he said. My hand holding the phone began to tremble. No one had called me by that name since before my Mother’s death. Still the passing years had not eased the grip of dread hearing it held for me. I interrupted his attempt at good natured humor as he tried and failed to ease into whatever it was he had called to tell me. “Unc, just tell me”, I pleaded. With a resignation of an audible exhale, my Uncle informed me on that early morning of June 14thof my Father’s death some 18 hours earlier by suicide. Long unused, long un-needed, my childhood dark place came rushing forth to rescue me.
Except for hearing the unconfirmed yet unforgettable words detailing the manner of his death, (a shotgun trigger having been tied to his toes with the barrel placed underneath his chin), nothing else registered. Somehow, I’d managed to slog through the remaining hours of that wasted day. I have only one other memory of that day and it was of me standing in my living room, having no recollection of retrieving that day’s mail yet there was an envelope in my hands; a return to sender label was attached. The same envelope had earlier been addressed in my handwriting and sent to my father; it contained the picture I had sent to him almost two weeks before. He had never retrieved it from the General Delivery Post Office box.
Days passed without anything to mark their passing. Not too many of them had passed before my husband and I enroute to the funeral, were shortening the miles separating California from Texas. Upon arrival, I was met by several messengers of the thing that still occupied Mister’s house. Their intent was not to extend condolences but to inform me that I was not welcomed to attend my father’s funeral. Further, that if attempted, I would be barred from entering the church of which both my Maternal and Paternal grandmothers had help to establish. I, none to graciously, sent each one of her six hounds back with a message of my own. Tell her, that I am no longer a frightened six-year-old in a darkened laundromat and unless she wants her sickening past revealed at my father’s funeral, send me no further messages.
By the time I arrived at the Church the next morning, almost every pew had been filled. There was one pew left with enough room for two of our party of three. I allowed my husband and the other person to occupy those two seats. My intentions were to take a folded chair and sit unnoticed in the back of the church. As almost always, my intentions did not pan out. My entrance into that small, overcrowded, country church created a ripple of murmuring. “Is that her, are you sure, who is she, where has she been?” were just a few of the questions which reached my ears. My whole being screamed at me to be good, to not make waves but I ignored every internal warning! Traveling eighteen-hundred miles in twenty-one hours and being told I was unwelcomed did not lend itself toward coercing me to be a good girl. Instead of meekly unfolding the chair and sitting quietly in back, I loudly dragged the still unfolded chair along the wooden floorboards down the center aisle and unfolded it directly in front of my father’s opened casket. Still standing I turned, met her older, still hideous, hate-filled eyes and silently offered a challenge. I purposely moved my hand to my neck, and she flinched. My hatred of her trumped hers of me this time and she broke eye contact, I’d won! And so, I sat. Whispers and rustling had created a low din and an unspoken expectancy rose within those walls, but I shut it all out; my attention now drawn to my Father’s remains and as I stared, searching his head and neck for signs of the trauma it obviously suffered. The stench of Chrysanthemum surrounding his bier almost overpowered me. I was grateful when the service finally ended, and I could escape their scent.
As I exited the church and waited for the coffin to follow, a woman well into her senior years, who I recognized though she not me, tapped me boldly on the shoulder. her Southern drawled dripped overly sweet from her lips, “Baby, you look familiar, but I just can’t place you. “Yes Ma’am”, I said falling back upon my Southern roots. “I saw you move your chair right up front; you knew him did you ? “she continued. “Yes Ma’am”, was all I allowed her. I suppose not used to having her well-known curiosity being deftly thwarted she took the more direct route. “Who was he to you, Child?”
Well, Mrs. (I called her name) and she was taken aback by my recognition of her without having had the benefit of an introduction. She had been one of the Party-line Pariahs so many years before. I smiled openly at her confusion, walked a couple of steps away and called back over my shoulder, not so much to her but to anyone close enough to hear; “He was my Father but, He said, to Call him Mister”.
As an adult, I’ve indulged in innumerable soul-searching hours attempting to make sense of all the horrendous physical and emotional damage adults exacted upon me and I’ve grudgingly accepted that there is no sense of it to be made. Between the ages of 6 to 13 my mind found ways to protect itself by going to what I’ve called “my dark place”. The place I had learned to flee while lying on a wet laundromat floor. As I find myself in the senior years of life, I’m told it is normal to have moments of forgetfulness and being told that, it cause me to wonder how much of my life was forgotten or never registered when I was forced to take shelter in the deep recluse of “my dark place”. Even so, I’m grateful for the respite it offered. My need to escape to that place has long since ceased and regurgitating those cruelties has allowed me to nail shut its entrance. But there still remains stories to be told, a purging to take place.
Of those future stories, my tormentors’ friends and relations might perhaps recognize their “loved ones” on the pages where intend to write the recounting, and to them I offer consideration only by continuing to refrain from disclosing names. I never asked for retribution of any type from those people when they still walked among us, but I demand payment now, the payment that Truth afford. Yet, I do take some measure of comfort from a somewhat narrow view Matthew 18:6. However, ambivalence and an innate desire toward forgiveness presses upon me as I wish for them peace in rest.
To my sons and my husband, thank you for your support, encouragement and for allowing me throughout the years To Be. To my friends, relations and even those I’m yet to meet, I’m mindful that you’ve offered me here the gift of your time, thank you. To my Grandchildren, I hope these glimpses into my life will encourage you to indulge this old woman during times I repeat stories you’ve already heard. I do it because I want you to remember. With a heart bent toward heaven, to my Mother… I only wish you had lived long enough for me to tell you that I loved you and treasured the lessons you taught me; they sustain me still. To those of you who devised methods of pain against me and did not see yourself in this series, there are still chickens yet to crow. To my dearest Friend, my Sister, my Confident and my warm place to fall when life sometimes pushes me down: J.W., I LOVE YOU GIRL!!!!!!!
Papa, The Chickens are Crowing.