I grew up on a dead-end dirt road, running barefoot, with pig-tails, and a cap-gun strapped to each hip. My imaginary world was wonderful, and I lived in it as much as possible, but by the end of the day it would dissipate and the reality of poverty and fear would take over.
My mom, single, worked hard to put food on the table, and clothes on my back. If she wasn’t in the garden tending the vegetables, she was cooking them, or processing them for future use during the cold winter months. For money, she worked long nights as a nurse’s aide in a hospital that was an hour drive from our paint-peeling, small home. After many nights of this commute she was able to secure a local job at one of the four textile mills within our small town. J.P. Stevens mill by the Roanoke River was where she would work until her retirement at the age of 65.
My dad lived two houses up on the same dead-end dirt road. He too was a hard worker at one of the other Roanoke Rapid’s textile mills. When he was home, I would often see him working in his yard, vegetable, and fruit gardens.
Both of my parents had an excellent work ethic. I try to measure up to them but I’m afraid I fall far short. It seems their generation was high on true grit and less on laziness.
I was afraid of my dad, and as a child I couldn’t explain why. I don’t remember my dad ever raising a hand to me or abusing me in any way, and yet my fear was real…it was innate and rooted deep. I always felt a sense of doom whenever I was told to walk up the dirt road and go to his house for one reason or another. With each step forward my psyche withdrew two steps into the secret safe place I hid inside. Of course, as a child, I didn’t realize this was my means of survival. Even now, in my mind’s eye I can see the knee-skinned little girl, slowly walking on tips of her toes, with her head hung low. Sometimes I can still see, and smell the puffs of dust, created by each step that I took.
At an early age…maybe 5, 6, or 7 years old, I had already forgotten the abuse that took place inside the walls of my dad’s house. I had forgotten about his booming voice and how he used it to yell and demean my mom. I buried her beatings so deep inside, that my little mind was and is still unable to retrieve them. I didn’t know until much later in life that I as a toddler lay crying while my dad broke and pulled away the wooden spindles of my crib. This he did with hopes that I wouldn’t be contained making it hard for my mom to get the sleep she needed before her shift began at the hospital. He made my mom’s life a living hell.
As a means of survival my child’s mind buried it so deep that I forgot, but deep within the very essence of me…deep down into primitive essence of who we are as human beings…the place where we learn to survive…this place knew and remembered. The very sight or sound of him, or anything pertaining to him stimulated my amygdala throwing me into a mode of fight or flight. Needless to say my emotional health suffered, but after a while it began to affect my physical health as well. I was sick all the time, and I kept the doctor quite busy trying to help me from one sickness to the next. Finally, he told my mom I would never get better living in such a dysfunctional environment…and perhaps even my life could be in peril.
Afterwards, my mom packed up the car and we moved two houses down on the same dead-end dirt road. I stuttered so horribly for the next 3 to 4 years, I had to have speech therapy during my early school years at Clara Hearne Elementary. When time came for therapy I was taken from my class in front of the other students which caused me embarrassment and shame. This along with getting free lunches, because we couldn’t afford it, set me apart from most of my classmates and made me a perfect target for bullies.
I had no self-confidence and felt unworthy of anything good in my life. I remember one day in kindergarten when members of the North Carolina Symphony played for us. It was held outside on a beautiful sunny day, and I remember sitting on the ground thinking I wasn’t good enough to hear such beautiful music.
Still to this very day whenever I’m anxious or under pressure I began to stumble over my words. It’s slight and perhaps goes unnoticed, but I’m painfully aware of each stammer, and for a moment I’m taken back to the little girl sitting on the ground feeling unworthy.
I’m happy to say my dad changed through the years. As he grew older, he mellowed and became more religious. He always took the opportunity to talk about Jesus and about how Jesus had helped him overcome the evils of the jealousy that had plagued him as far back as he could remember. Later in life my daddy was always ready to share his testimony.
Just as dad had changed so did my fear of him change. Gradually through time it subsided until it became a vague memory. Mom and dad never got back together but they learned to peacefully co-exist. When he had to relinquish his driver’s license it was my mom who would often take him to church or to the grocery store.
As an adult when it’s quiet and I’m alone I often sit and contemplate those years, and how they served to make me the strong woman I am today. I learned from my mom strength and endurance and from my dad I learned that we are all capable of doing bad things and that there is always a pathway to change and forgiveness.
Perhaps we all have our own unique ways in which we deal with fear. Whether we ignore it, fret over it, or face it head on, it is and will be a part of our life…none of us are immune. Personally, I think it’s good to acknowledge and name our fears. Giving it a name takes away some of its power, and claiming it helps to open our eyes to the fact that we are not alone. We find that there are others who have gone through similar circumstances and who have come out stronger on the other side. It behooves us to search out these kindred spirits for in them we find strength in unity, and peace in acceptance.
The scars of the past and being a shy introvert makes it hard for me to let someone inside, but when I do my love, trust, and loyalty run deep. I thank God for the few he has brought into my life in the past and now in the present. They are few and far between, and I can remember times in which I could count them on one hand and still have 4 fingers left, and that’s okay for quality is far better than quantity.
Friends, 2020 has been dark, lonely, and filled with a plethora of paralyzing fears. We’ve been faced with political unrest, threats to our democracy, and a murderous virus that has no respect of persons, but in the midst of all of these we must believe that there is and will always be hope. Hope is a spark and its light makes the darkness flee. We must grab hold of hope and never let her go. We must know that love always trumps hate, and that good will prevail. We will get to the other side of COVID, and those whose lives were claimed by it will be watching and cheering us on when we do. COVID took their bodies but not their spirit. Their spirit lives on and I’m convinced they watch over us. My mom died many years before COVID but I know her spirit lives and for that I am thankful. She was my champion in life and is still my champion in death. She is here…I can feel her…I sense her love, and I know she is smiling.
COVID is a bitch, but with the help of each other, and the presence of those who have gone on before, we will not only overcome it, we will win! In the mean time we can bitch-slap the bitch by wearing a mask, social distancing, and hopefully soon implementing a vaccine.
So as we sit at our table on Thanksgiving Day and as we notice the empty chairs around us let us lay hold of hope and never let her go. In the midst of a pandemic we can be thankful for our life, the lives of our friends and family, and the assurance that we will one day be reunited with the loved ones we have lost.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends! May it be filled with love and hope.