? 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Matrix of Grace: I Am Fay T

I Am Fay T

1  Genesis: Beginning the Investigation of Ricky’s Death
Although I am 12 1/2 years her senior, my youngest sister, Mary, and I are at a very similar stages in our journeys. Through personal crises in both of our lives, we have been doing the difficult work of examining our interior stories, our relationships, our past, our present, and our expectations and hopes for the future. We each have been tracking down facts, making time-lines and charts, combing through our memories and impressions, and working hard to come through our personal catastrophes as more integrated and self-aware women.

Our investigations merged June of 2010 when we both realized that we needed to find out everything we could about Ricky, and if possible, put the ghosts and inner accusations of guilt and shame to rest. Ricky, a 6-year-old neighborhood boy, had died in a refrigerator in our San Diego backyard on June 2, 1967 and we felt compelled to try to make some peace with the tragedy. 
I flew out to Southern California from Texas to spend some time with Mary and investigate the wounds and scars of an event that in ways known and unknown, had effected every day of our lives since it had happened. And now the day of discovery had come.

Mary and I made the two-hour drive to San Diego from her home in the morning and found a $10-an-hour parking lot (and felt lucky at that!). We started in the bowels of one of the downtown courthouses for several hours and found, focused, framed and copied the 88 pages of microfilmed court records concerning the wrongful death suit that had been filed against our parents by Ricky’s parents.

We had also visited the San Diego Police Department just 11 blocks up Broadway from the courthouse, in order to see if there were any remaining files on the intensive police investigation of that horrific event 43 years previously. We had hoped that since it had been initially investigated as a homicide, they still might have their findings concerning the discovery of little Ricky's nude body in an old, unused refrigerator on our back patio.

But it was not to be. The very helpful and compassionate police officers at the information desk gave us the direct number to homicide records if we wanted to pursue the matter further with them, but since Ricky's death had been deemed an accident, they were quite certain that all records had been destroyed seven years after the tragedy.

So now my sister and I were on the second floor of another downtown building--this time the Public Library--where once again we were fighting with a behemoth microfilm machine that we hoped would help us finally find out exactly what had happened the day that changed life as we knew it forever. We were searching now for clues to what had occurred, since our parents had not only never let us see news reports, through the years they had given us different accounts that incurred more questions than answers.

Al and Thelma (may they rest in peace) had been dysfunctional on their best days and in the best of times. In the worst of times they were mentally and emotionally unable to function in any way close to "healthy" (to put it mildly). Ricky's death was certainly in the "worst of times" category.

Reporters had taken up residence in front of our house for the duration, curiosity seekers had stood outside our doors and pointed to us whenever we ventured outside, and poisonous letters had come through the mail and the mail-slot in the days following the gruesome discovery.

Our parents could not deal with the enormity of this tragedy in their own lives, let alone give any psychological, emotional, or spiritual guidance to their three youngest daughters who, with them, had been in free-fall during the discovery of Ricky's body, the days-long investigation by the police, and the unrelenting press coverage. Within two months we had moved to another San Diego neighborhood, and within two months, we no longer talked about it. At all. It was as submerged, stuffed down, and silenced as well as Al and Thelma could do it. Although they never personally expressed responsibility for the tragedy, as children in alcoholic families are prone to do, Mary and I had quietly born a heavy burden of guilt and shame through the decades.

But all of that was about to change as now we found the front page for June 3, 1967 and focused on the headline, "Slaying Hinted in S.D. Boy's Icebox Death." I gasped and Mary started crying; we had not expected the school picture of a gap-toothed, smiling Ricky to greet us as if he had been waiting for us to find him. It was going to be really, really hard.
NEXT Suspects: Deep Diving
Will you pray with me?
Give us Your vision, O God, that we may see Your Face in our darkness.  Cause us to live as those grateful for the gift of life, no matter what circumstances and tragedies make us stumble and fall. Give us the resolve and courage to examine our lives, that we may discover Your hidden presence and offer to You our heartfelt gratitude and love.
Fill us with compassion and mercy for all who suffer, that we may reach out and touch their lives with love and hope. Shape our lives into a living prayer, to the end that the earth and all its people may find in life and in death that we all belong to You, our Source and our Joy.  May it be so.  
2  Descent: Deep Diving
Through my seminary training and years as a pastor, I have learned the value of documentation. It is vital for the integrity of a theological paper: list your sources. It is vital for a sermon shaped to challenge and inspire those listening for God’s Word: cite your sources to give credit where credit is due. It is vital in effective pastoral care: help yourself remember the significant people and events of individuals and families, and protect yourself professionally, by keeping a record of some sort. Documentation is a vital tool of integrity, this I have learned well.

So why have I never tried to document my own life? To hunt down the sources that have contributed to who I am? To give credit where credit is due? To keep a record of significant events and people? The short answer: too busy. The long answer: too painful. But early retirement and the sudden death of Juan, my husband and best friend of 40 years, had provided both the time and the impelling force to learn to become my own best friend.

That was why I found myself in June 2010 sitting in front of a microfilm machine in the downtown public library of San Diego, California with my youngest sister Mary, diving into my first deep excursion of personal documentation. Together, we were trailing the sources of a long-buried tragedy that had seared us both with guilt and shame since June 2, 1967.

It didn’t take much searching to find the newspaper accounts for the three days following the event. Under a school photo of first-grader Ricky, the front page headline in the national news section for June 3rd read, “Slaying Hinted in S.D. Boy’s Icebox Death.” The June 4th headline in the local news was, “Boy’s Death in Icebox Shakes Area: Clairemont Neighbors Stunned; Fatality Believed Accidental.” And the final account on June 5th stated, “Game Blamed in Refrigerator Death of Boy.”

We started with the June 3rd account. It related the massive search that “first centered in the canyons that lace the area,” by “about 40 policemen,” neighbors and the Boy Scouts of Troup 246 after his worried mother first reported to her husband, and then later to the police that little Ricky had failed to come home from school. It also said that eventually the search narrowed to our house.

What it didn’t say was that it had narrowed down to our house because as soon as I heard of the search from a Boy Scout who had come to our door asking if we’d seen him, I said “yes.” I told the young man to go get the police and waited in front of the house for them to come. Fear was gripping my 18 year-old heart. What if Ricky had decided to swim in a backyard pool kitty-corner to our back yard? What had happened to him after he went through the door from our garage that went into the back yard? Fear, fear, fear.

I had just moved back home the day before, running away from fear. During my second semester of college, I had tried living in an apartment with a good friend. But her invitation to some marijuana-toting stevedores to our place sent me scuttling back home in fear as soon as my lease ran out. Home was also full of fears for me, but at least they were familiar fears and terrors that wouldn’t lead to a felony offense for possession and several years of jail time. (This in the state that now boasts of legal “medical marijuana” clinics!) And, in a more practical vein, I was going to live at home so I could afford braces for my crooked teeth that had led to taunts in my childhood of being “Bucky Beaver.”

So, my new plan was to live at home, get a job to pay for those much longed-for braces, and continue my journalism studies in night school. I had my plans and a little pipsqueak friend of Mary’s was certainly not part of them, no more than the pot-smoking dock workers were.

What I did remember as I was waiting to show the police into our backyard, was that I had been busy painting my desk and listening to my favorite Rock and Roll radio station when Ricky rode up to me on his little bicycle. He said that he wanted to play with Mary, but I told him that Mary was changing out of her school clothes. Perhaps he had told me that he would wait for her in our back yard. I may have hollered into the house to Mary that he was waiting for her, but his search for her barely registered with me, so that later I couldn’t even remember if I had looked up at him as he walked alongside his bike to a left side door and went into the back yard.

What Mary remembers is hearing him call her name several times as she was in her room changing her clothes. She considered him somewhat of a pest and it bugged her that he was bugging her. She yelled out that she would go out there when she had finished changing her clothes, which is what she did. When she went out to find Ricky, it certainly did not strike her six-year-old mind to wonder why his bike was there but he wasn’t. It didn’t strike my 18 year-old mind either because I hadn’t bothered to look in the back.

The paper says that Mary Beth, 6, had been playing with Ricky earlier in the day. Mary Beth, in fact, set out on a bicycle to search for Ricky after telling her sister, Fay, 18, that ‘I can’t find Ricky.’ She had NOT been playing with him earlier, but not finding him in the backyard, she had searched for him. His family (his parents, an older sister and a younger sister) lived five doors down us. Had Mary gone to his house or her other playmates’ and friends’ houses? We don’t know. Neither one of us even remembered that part until we read it. All she and I remember is that she gave up looking for him then hopped into my car with me to go to the bank before it closed.

Why hadn’t the searchers come to our door in the intervening hours? Daddy was home sick with the flu that day. Was he also drunk? My 14 year-old sister Melody, had walked Mary home from school and was in the house somewhere. Had someone knocked but nobody heard? Why had it taken our family so long to hear about his disappearance? What difference would it have made had we known sooner?

I don’t know what time it was when I sent the scout to the police with the news that I had seen Ricky, but it was June 2, only 21 days away from the longest-day of the year. I remember that it was mostly dark in that driveway and while I was waiting for the police, I was telling Mama the sequence of events because she had not come home from her job as a lab technician until 5:30.

I tried to give her a clear accounting of what I remembered; it was such a non-event, my memory of it was already unclear. But what I told her and what I suspected about the pool sent Mama into a panic.

Two officers and some other searchers finally came and we led them through the gate at the side of the house. As best as I could, I was relating to them my encounter with Ricky and my fears about the pool. Mama had moved ahead of me, anxiously leaning toward the fence that blocked our view of the neighbor’s lit pool. One of the searchers noticed the refrigerator that was parked on the patio next the sliding-glass door of our living room. He shone his powerful flashlight on the old appliance that my alcoholic father had bought six months earlier to keep beer cold in case he ever had a patio party. The officer pulled back the long-handled lever and opened the door.

At the sound of the lever snapping open, I looked over, Mama looked over, the policemen looked over, and everything went over into slow motion: the searcher immediately closed the door; Mama’s legs gave way and she screamed as she rolled over and over in the grass; I stood stock-still, trying to figure out what it was that I had just seen; and the policemen went into action. One of them headed toward the vicinity of the refrigerator while the other scooped Mama up and ushered us both back through the side gate and into the house via the front door.

Ricky had been found and life as we knew it was over.
NEXT Suspects: Lonely Interrogation
Will you pray with me?
O Life-Force of All that Is,
Darkness is as light to You and night as bright as the day for You are the Creating Power and we are your helpless creatures. You share Your Life with us for a time, and you bring us to a world--a world of Your own making!--where silent tsunamis can knock us off our feet, toss us into the sea, and deposit us in a strange land.  We find ourselves on paths fraught with perils and traps that we cannot see. And we are lost and full of fear.
Have mercy, O Brightness of Day, have mercy.  Where darkness is suffocating and light seems to flicker, let Your Face shine.  Where fear leads the way, give us self-confidence and courage. Help us to remember O Life, that our plans are written in sand and that we live, and we die, in You alone. May we always remember that as Your creatures, we have our being and our non-being in You, and as Your children, we never walk alone.
In Your Holy Hope we pray.  Amen
3  Suspects: Lonely Interrogation
San Diego Union, June 3, 1967: Evidence at the scene caused the police to throw a curtain of secrecy around the case.  And within an hour, Lt. Ed Stevens of the police homicide squad was rushed to the scene—an unusual procedure in cases where death is by accident.
The curtain that the police threw was not just around the case, it was around our house, and around all of us who lived in it. Each of us was taken aside and privately interviewed about the death of the little boy the paper described as the “blue-eyed, brown-haired” first grader whose mourning father, Richard Sr. had been quoted as saying, “We loved him very much.”
I had been there when they found his naked, scratched body slumped on top of his damp clothes in an old latch-handled refrigerator in our back yard, so had Mama.  Still stunned and reeling from what we had seen, we had been rushed into our house as the first police act of “throwing a curtain of secrecy” around the case.
Immediately each of us were grilled privately about our whereabouts on the tragic afternoon of June 2nd— even Mama who still had been at work when Ricky took his last gasping breaths.  And even 6 year-old Mary, his sometime playmate, was interviewed alone, without Mama or Daddy, without my 10th grade sister Melody, without me present. It was a searing experience for my “baby sister” and her memory of it has never become fuzzy or faded or less intense over the span of more than four decades.
She remembers that the police were very kind to her, but the fact that she had been “abandoned” by her parents and was all by herself as they questioned her cut very deeply.  She clearly remembers telling her interrogators that from inside her room with a window to the back yard, she heard Ricky call repeatedly.  She remembers that she kept telling him she was changing her school clothes and would be there shortly.  She remembers going to the yard and not finding him anywhere, riding around looking for him for a bit, and then going with me to the bank.
But of everything she remembers about that time, the most profound experience was the sudden recognition that there was “someone” standing beside her during her police interrogation, with his arm around her offering her the comfort and assurance that she was not alone.  She believed without a doubt (and still does) that it was Jesus wrapping her in the eternal embrace of God’s steadfast love and mercy. It was saving grace to her in the bleak darkness of her short life, and still is a strengthening and encouraging memory.
I did not know about her experience of divine presence until several years ago.  Ricky’s death and the great sorrow and shame for our family were not things we talked about or ever worked through to a sense of healing.  Instead, we did what we always did by silently shoveling it onto the family mountain of sorrow and shame: Daddy’s alcoholism and violence; the continuous displacement we had experienced even before Daddy became a U.S. Navy Chaplain; the financial chaos of Daddy’s get-rich-quick schemes gone to pot; the inability of Mama to seek safety or get help for herself or her four girls from the six-foot-four man she had spent 26 years trying to change.
My 20 year-old-sister Becky had already left the family.  She had married two years before and remained in Georgia with her husband, Buddy, and young daughter, Amy. But she was the first of the “Vernon Girls” to learn how to cover up shame and sorrow with a thin patina of normalcy and respectability.  We all learned it well because Daddy was a minister who had preached love, peace, and forgiveness since he had felt a “call” to pastor a church at 17 years of age.
Mama met Al Vernon at the Christian college they both attended in Eugene, Oregon.  She went there because she had been determined to marry a minister and was waiting for her sweetheart, Bruce, to finish his last year of high school and come join her.  Bruce wanted to be a minister and Mama wanted to marry a minister.  She thought it would ensure that her childhood family nightmare of alcoholism and poverty would be a thing of the past.
Bit she didn’t wait.  She married Daddy in 1943 instead. She found out about his violent behavior three weeks afterward, but she felt she could not go back to her parents. (Indeed, in 1962, when she finally mustered enough courage to take her four girls to Seattle and seek help from her mother, my grandmother told her, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.”)
The violence of their marriage stayed in the background of their children’s lives until Daddy joined the Navy in Great Lakes, Illinois to try to make a living that the small churches he pastored could not provide.  Suddenly he was exposed to alcohol and to the military expectations of cocktail parties and “schmoozing” at the Officers’ Club.  But, it wasn’t until after he returned from spending a tour of duty in “Gitmo” during the Cuban Missile Crisis that I realized Daddy's strange behavior was because he was drunk.  We were living in Quonset Point, Rhode Island when we began to know, when I first began to know, the terrors of an alcoholic parent with an “enabling” spouse: violent, drunken rages (even while driving with us in the back seat); midnight awakenings by slamming doors, thudding walls, broken cutlery; black eyes and battered spirits.
By the time I was 12, I began to join in the fray, with the intention of keeping Daddy from killing Mama (which, in fact I did a time or two).  By then, I was taller than her 5 feet 5 inches and was younger and stronger.  My other sisters never felt the need to join us because I represented us all. They were the silent watchers.  Daddy didn’t mind having two targets and quickly found reasons to vent his rage on me.  And by the time I was 13, and we were living in Beaufort, South Carolina, I was walking on eggshells, never knowing what I might say or do to set him off. Sometimes I believe I’d do or say something just to provoke him.
My therapist says it is normal in families like mine: feeling the build-up of an explosion, I provoked him to get the inevitable blow up over a lot more quickly.  It saved hours of looming agony.  Years later, Daddy and I talked a little (very little) about those epic battles.  That’s when I learned that he actually had no memory of them—for him they were “black outs.”  The brain cells destroyed from the alcohol kept him totally unaware of what he did.  And the dysfunction of our family kept us from telling him when he was sober what he did when he was drunk.  We also acted “normal” the next day—a situation for which the word “irony” was coined.
Daddy eventually did stop drinking (he met his third wife in an AA meeting), but he never did the painful job of truly-and-ceaselessly working the 12 Steps, so his making amends came in the form of bringing pies and jellies to our family reunions we had for several years before he died.  I don’t think he did the “fearless inventory” or the “making amends” that is essential for true recovery.  Consequently, he never actually apologized to me and I never had the opportunity to forgive him while he was alive. Confession was a step he could preach but not enact.
I had heard about forgiveness every Sunday of my life.  I had heard about “divine presence” and “saving grace,” and I had prayed for it unceasingly, but it was to little Mary who had never known a life without violence and fear—it was to my sweet little Mary, that God came the day that Ricky died within her hearing and reassured her with a sense of comfort and love that still abides within her today.
For me, the body-blow of the tragedy and the intense investigation into our family life was truly a plunge into the shadow of the valley of death.  Mary had been the last one to hear little Ricky.  I had been the last one to see him alive. He had flitted in and out of my sight that day like a mosquito, and the guilt and the shame of my “responsibility” were unbearable.  I really was too tired and worn-down to try to bear it, so I decided to end it all.
NEXT  Suicide: What Next?
Will you pray with me?
O Abiding Love,
Our quest as human beings is to find meaning and redemption in the face of tragedy and evil.  We believe that you assume responsibility for the world as it is, but even as we proclaim You to be the Source and Power of all things--we question why You would allow the world and all its creatures to suffer in agonizing and unimaginable ways. Even as we proclaim You to exist as Eternal Steadfast Love and Mercy--we dare to wrestle with You.  We wrestle and wrestle, and come away limping.  It is not for us to know, only to accept that we are helpless and that You are our only hope.
Accept as prayer all broken hearts and trampled spirits, Love, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all drowning doubt and engulfing anger, Grace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer all groaning grief and stony thoughts, Peace, hear our prayer.
Accept as prayer, O Blessing Goodness. . .
. . .our rooted despair and feeble faith
. . .our splintered minds and blurry vision
. . .our limping humility and tethered patience
We pray today for Ricky's family--his parents and sisters and extended family who lost their dear loved one in such a tragic way. And we pray for all of those persons deeply affected by his life and his death. Hear our petitions for families who are now drowning in the abyss of wrenching loss and despair.  Give them the spiritual eyes to see that there is “someone” standing beside them and grant them the comfort and assurance that they are not alone.  In their bleak darkness, be their light and saving grace, and bring them--and us all--to that promised time when we shall know as we are known.
In Your holy name we pray.  Amen
4  Suicide: What Next?
The Sunday edition of the “San Diego Union” on June 4, 1967 related the report from the autopsy of Ricky’s 6 year-old body:  "Deputy Coroner R.W. Gillespie said an autopsy of the body showed that the boy died of suffocation.  He ordered pathological studies.  He said evidence in the refrigerator indicated that the child died inside.  Gillespie said marks on his body apparently were caused by his thrashing inside the box.
"Gillespie said the boy may have removed his clothing after finding himself locked inside.  Lt. Ed Stevens of the homicide squad said water may have been in the bottom of the refrigerator and could account for the child’s wet clothes.
“Stevens said the clothes were lying on the bottom of the refrigerator under the body.  He said there was no indication the death was other than accidental, but he was unable to explain why the boy climbed into the box.
"Police spent several hours Friday night examining the scene and dusting the refrigerator for fingerprints, but Stevens said no report on the fingerprints has been made yet.
The Monday edition, on June 5, offered an explanation:  "A neighborhood game devised by Clairemont children who locked themselves in an empty refrigerator and then knocked when they wanted to get out caused the death of Ricky Everson, police decided yesterday.
. . ."Detective W. E. Duncan of the police homicide detail questioned neighbor children ranging in age from six to eight and was told the children began playing in the refrigerator last Christmas.  The refrigerator racks had been removed.
. . ."Deputy Chief O.S. Roed said, 'When the child in the closed refrigerator wanted out, he or she knocked on the door and the one outside opened it.  We assume Ricky, while playing in the backyard and waiting for May Beth Vernon to change clothing, got inside the refrigerator and he may have closed the door in play. Mary Beth in the house heard him call her name, and she answered she would be right out,' Roed said. 'When she went out after a few minutes, Ricky was not in sight in the yard and she looked around, believing he had left and told police she rode her bike around the neighborhood looking for him.'
"Police said the refrigerator door would not swing closed and lock by itself but had to be pushed or pulled closed by a person. . .'Unless something very unusual develops, we will close our investigation and consider the boy’s death accidental,' Roed said.
. . .(The police) "now assume the boy removed his clothes after finding himself locked in and that the water was in the bottom of the refrigerator.
“Roed appealed to San Diegans to insure that refrigerators are inaccessible to children. . .if this warning will prevent another child from injury or death, it will have served its purpose.”
So, the verdict by the police was in: Accidental Death—a children’s game gone terribly, terribly wrong.  It could have been my little sister, Mary, in that box of death with him, instead of him.  The police blamed the game, but the police got it wrong, because their conclusion implies that it was the children’s fault, somehow.  That it was Ricky’s fault, or Mary’s fault, or the fault of any of the unnamed neighborhood children who had played an innocent game.  But it was my parent’s fault.
It was my father that had brought that old, used refrigerator into our backyard.  It was my mother who caved in to the stupid idea of having a patio refrigerator available for parties they never gave.  They both failed to see the danger that it posed so neither one of them took any measures to make it safe from curious little children.  Not even their own child let alone Richard Sidney Everson, Jr.
Within a month, the Eversons sued my parents and the owners of the rental house in civil court.  The legal business dragged on for almost two years. According to court records, the trial began on February 3, 1969.  The action against the homeowners was dismissed.  The defendants’ “motion to reduce their prayer for general damages to $100,000 (from $450,000) was by the Court granted." On February 5, I was sworn in and examined.  After a recess at 11:10, my father and mother were examined, and after a recess, Daddy was recalled to the stand. On February 6, the case was handed over to the jury, with 32 pages of instructions to them.
And on February 7th, 1969 at 4:23 PM, the jury’s findings came down: 10 “yes” and 2 “no” for Negligent Violation of Section 664 of the Penal Code assessing damages of $30,000 against my parents.  Even by today’s standards, it is a pittance compared with the life of their son; they had originally sued for $450,000.  But even with some insurance, the assessment was enough to send my teetering parents into bankruptcy within a year of the judgment.  The year that Mama finally left Daddy.
My parents were guilty, but so were the parents of the neighborhood children who also had  some sort of appliance, but also those who didn’t know where their children were playing and what they were doing there?  A locking refrigerator was as dangerous as a loaded gun. Had none of the parents asked what their kids had been doing? Had none of the kids gone home and spoken to them of the “fun” refrigerator game in the Vernon’s back yard?
There was plenty of blame to spread around, but at the time I spread it all on myself.  Although only 18, a mere child from my perspective 50 years later, I considered myself an adult, and I had been the last adult to see Ricky alive.  I should have known. I should have been more aware, I should. . .I should. 
It is “stinky thinking” to “should” on ourselves but it was what I had grown up doing. Since I was 12, I had assumed the responsibility of being the ”adult” in the family because—as in the case of the refrigerator-- my parents had difficulty in assuming responsibility.  They were much better in assessing blame, and it wasn’t at themselves their fingers pointed, even after the trial.  Even decades after the tragedy.
On the other hand, I had had a lot of practice of being the family “savior,” so it was not such a huge step to assume the blame and guilt of the tragedy.  It did not take me long.  One night, toward the end of June 1967, only 3 weeks after Ricky’s death, I resolved to kill myself.  I don’t even remember what put me over the brink to make the resolution that night. Not to die for the sins of my family. Just to die, to rest, to find some peace.
I went out to the garage—the very place that Ricky had found me on his last day of life. I stuffed rags and old towels along the bottom of the closed door, got in the family station wagon and put my key in the ignition.  In those days, ignitions were very simple affairs.  There was no locking this or safety that, just a simple slot on the dashboard.  The key slid in easily.  I would turn the car on, let it run for a few minutes in the enclosed space, and carbon dioxide would take care of the rest.  It was supposed to be just like falling asleep.  Aaaah.
I twisted my wrist to turn the key, but the ignition wouldn't budge.  I tried again.  And again.  No go.  I couldn’t start the car. Could it have been the hand of God resting upon my hand that was on the key?  Could it have been a God- embedded will-to- live that would not allow me to give up on myself? Had an angel come to visit me to offer me a silent glimmer of hope?  I believe that now—that just as Mary had had a heavenly visitor offering courage and comfort the night that Ricky died, I now believe I had my own visitor the night I wanted to end my life.  I didn’t feel support.  I didn’t feel comfort.  But my hand was “stayed.” My life was saved.
I opened the car door, got out, and shut the door.  I picked up the rags and towels covering the gap between the garage door and the cement floor.  I put them away, turned off the light and went inside.  I guess I would just have to go on living.
NEXT  Fallout: Moving Again
Will you pray with me?
Our Guardian and Keeper,
You share Your life with Creation and pronounce it “Good.”  You speak Goodness through nature and through the human generations.  As persons we are often slow to hear, slow to learn what Your Goodness means, but You are our Teacher.  And we learn that You have not made us to bear the weight of the world.  You instruct us to do what we can and to leave everything else in Your care. We learn that it is You, and You alone, who knows the deepest needs and the buried prayers of our hearts.  And it is You who speaks and acts on our behalf, staying our hands in times of trouble and sending us on our way.
I pray today for those who cry to you in their pain and sorrow.  I pray for parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers who grieve the loss of a young child. And we pray for those who may be responsible for that loss.  I pray for the safety of innocent children playing games where unseen danger lurks.  I pray for a call to community in towns and cities where people do not know their neighbors and feel no connection to them.  I pray for police officers, detectives, and medical personnel and other first-responders who daily must deal with unspeakable sights and heart-breaking situations.
And I pray for all those who are considering suicide.  Stay their hands, O Good Shepherd.  Lift them up and set them on a path toward healing.  Send messengers and angels to help them learn to love Your gift of life and to claim their rightful place as Your beloved children.  Spur people of good will and compassion to reach out to them to speak words of encouragement, forgiveness, and hope.
Teach us how to live as grateful people.  Stir us with Your Spirit.  Breathe new life into weary bones, so that, like flowers in the sun, we may turn toward Your Eternal Goodness and flourish.  Amen.
5 Fallout: Moving Again

Shortly after Ricky’s death, I moved with my parents and younger sisters to a house on the other side of San Diego.  Less than a year later, we moved to a parsonage in Poway, just north of San Diego, where Daddy took as job as a part-time minister to supplement his salary as a Navy Chaplain, stationed now at a Naval Air Station close by, and Mama’s as a lab technician.  I was 19 and it was my 17th move.

The history of both my parents’ families was to move.  Maybe it was just for the adventure of it all, but knowing that the apples don’t fall far from their trees, it was probably to try to run away from the agonies and wrenching pain that was a part of their growing up years.  Whatever their motivations, the legacy from both the Chaney and Vernon families was to get the hell out of Dodge.

My mother, Thelma, was the fifth child of six children born to Samuel Le Roy Chaney (b. July, 22, 1889 in Idaho Territory) and Orinda Ellen Fuller Chaney (b. July 14, 1892 in Crawford, NE).  Roy, as my grandfather was called, was the third son of 11 children.  Ora was the 11th of 12 children.  Somewhere I have a lot of cousins, but I do not know any of them.

Ora’s parents homesteaded to Idaho from Nebraska when she was just a young child.  The only story I remember her telling of her childhood was of that moving.  They were crossing the Great Plains (I think she said in a covered wagon) when she got left behind out in the middle of nowhere.  Her memory was that it took a very long time for them to notice that she was missing. 

I suspect that feeling abandoned and lost for that time, in that wilderness, might have had something to do with the fact that she was an angry, joyless woman.  Or maybe it was because she was at the tail end of a dozen children and she got lost in the shuffle.  Maybe it was because her parents were angry, joyless people.  It is obvious that she did not learn love, only hard work.  When I knew Grandma Chaney, the only way she seemed to express joy or happiness was through her quilting, rug-making, and baking.

Roy’s Chaney ancestors were originally French and family documents record that Richard (b. 1760) and Lydia Chaney moved from the state of Maryland to Booneville, Missouri sometime between October 1819 and July 1822.  The family lore was that the first Richard Chaney’s family had come to Maryland fleeing from religious persecution.  It is quite ironic that their 4th generation grandson and his wife (my grandparents) would turn out to be prejudiced against any religious people, especially people of the Mormon and Jewish faiths.

Richard and Lydia Chaney moved to Clay County, Missouri.  The last of their 12 children (the generation of my great, great, great grandfather Richard R. Chaney) was born there.  Richard R. and his wife Martha moved from Buchanan County to Holt County, Missouri. and then to Ada County, Idaho Territory.  Their son, Samuel, was born in Idaho.  He and his wife, Polly, had a son named—Ta Da!—Samuel, who married Laura Jane.  They started a trucking company, Chaney Freight Lines, in the early days of trucking, mainly hauling timber from Boise to Portland, Oregon. Their 11 children included my grandfather, Samuel Le Roy, who worked in the family business with his brothers and their wives (including my grandmother) until it went belly-up during the Depression of the 1930’s.

Samuel Le Roy and Orinda Ellen Fuller were married on November 3, 1910 in Hailey, Idaho.  They were married 3 years before Dorothy Mae was born in 1913.  To their great disappointment, Dorothy was not a boy.  Doris Pearl came in 1914.  Where is our boy? Faye was born sometime from 1915-1918. Three girls!  They finally, finally got their yearned-for boy, Harold Kenneth (Hal), in 1920, born in Emmett, Idaho.  My mother, Thelma Lucille, was born in 1922, (Ugh—four girls!) and Samuel Leroy Chaney, Jr. came in 1928, both in Boise.  My grandparents had moved at least 3 times by the time Mama was born.

Dorothy died from diphtheria or cholera at the age of 4 or 5. Grandma told me the story the day after my wedding-- coming into her oldest daughter’s room to find her dead. She was only sick for a day before she died. I was so shocked (of the story itself and that Grandma was somehow confiding in me) that now I do not remember if it was diphtheria or cholera, but whatever it she was dead within 24 hours of her first symptoms.

 Aunt Faye died from a brain-tumor at 17 years of age when Mama was 5.  Harold (Uncle Hal), had tuberculosis when he was a child, requiring several years of hospitalization.  He had a recurrence of it when he was in the Army during WWII. Uncle Sam had juvenile diabetes.  Although the discovery of insulin came along just in time to save his life when he was 12, he was always quite debilitated from the disease.  Before he died at age 49, he had had both of his legs amputated and had gone totally blind.

There seemed to be something “wrong” with all of the children of Le Roy and Orinda except Auntie Doris and Mama. Well, that’s not quite true.  Both Auntie D and Mama learned quite early that there was something inherently “wrong” with being female.  The two males were the focus of the family, not only because they were males, but I think because they so were sickly and needed a great deal of care. 

Because of his hospitalization for TB, Uncle Hal missed two years of school.  When he returned, he was placed in the same grade, the same room as Mama.  Alas, it turned out that Mama (“Sis”) made better grades than Hal (“Sonny”) and her teacher and parents felt that she was causing him a great deal of embarrassment.  “A girl cannot outshine a boy,” they told her.  Sis was moved to a different classroom.

Besides being the wrong sex, Mama used the wrong hand.  At that time, being left-handed was very, very wrong.  It was understood the same way a lot of people today still understand sexual orientation—as a choice.  Our society (and I’m sure many others) seemed to be mouth-frothing prejudiced against left-handed people in the early decades of the 20th Century.  Thelma chose to be left handed and, by God, she could chose to use her right hand!  Thelma was just being stubborn and pig-headed by favoring her left hand.  In school, her left hand was actually tied behind her back and she was forced to learn to write, to use scissors, etc. with her right hand. 

When she was in her 60’s Mama came across a store for left-handed people.  It was heaven on earth to her—measuring cups with the markings where she could see them, sewing machines turned the right way for the left-handed!  But, alas, some things had been etched in too deeply.  She never could learn how to use left-handed scissors easily.

We still have trouble with “left.”  In my early growing up days in the 1950’s, a political “lefty” was the spawn of Satan (and for some folks, we still are!).  According to the Bible, Jesus sits at the “right hand” of God.  In church, we extend the “right hand” of Christian fellowship and in fact, an ordinary handshake is with right hands.  We pledge the flag with our right hands.  We raise our right hands when we must testify in court or be sworn into office.   To be “right” is to be correct, have moral merit. It is to be specific and immediate, as in “sit down right here, right now.”

 And that’s just in our country, in our culture.  Cultures that must keep one hand clean for eating purposes eat with their right hands—the left is reserved for “unclean” occupations.  Around the world, analog clocks advance to the right and anything that is “clockwise” is right-wise.  It’s obvious the right-handed majority has a major advantage, because, well. . . we are right. But I digress.

For Mama, the pattern was set: a pattern of moving, a pattern of feeling wrong, a pattern of feeling unlovable, a pattern of ceaseless hard work.  That was the warp of the tapestry of her early years.  The woof was Roy’s alcoholism and Ora’s anger. 

Grandma Chaney must have felt overwhelmed: alcoholic husband, dead children, sick children, blind children, female children, left-handed children. She had only a second-grade education and had no skills beyond cooking and housework. After the Chaney Freight Line was no more, and with Grandpa Chaney increasingly incapacitated by alcoholism and depression, she found a job working as a laundress in a hospital. It was a physically cruel job—heavy, heavy lifting in the intense heat and humidity of giant cauldrons of wash water on a gas stove, but she kept at it until she retired.

When Mama was young, Grandma cooked in the logging camps where the timber was loaded straight onto the many trucks of the Chaney fleet headed for the Northwest Pacific ports. She cooked for everyone: the loggers, the truckers, and all of her in-laws.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces, and children, they all worked in the family business then. 

 The few happy childhood stories Mama would tell included those summers in the logging camps.   Faye had learned to read Braille after she went blind from the brain tumor, and would “read” stories to her younger siblings in the dark nights outside of their tent.  Mama would speak of cool mountain air, galaxies of stars peppering the sky, and Faye’s voice taking her worlds away from the grim reality of her life.  Mama never heard her parents say the words, “I love you,” to her.  But I think she heard love in her sister’s voice in the short time they shared life.  I feel honored that I am named after Aunt Faye, albeit without the final “e”. (Mama thought it was spelled without an “e” but I found a picture of my aunt as a child, and Grandma had written it with the final vowel.)

Because of their hardscrabble life (which eventually included Grandpa working construction on the Grand Cooley Dam), Mama had to live with Aunt Doris in Boise so she could go to high school.  By then, Auntie D was the oldest living child, and did not bear the brunt of that role with grace.  She had only escaped from their harsh family life a few years before and had found a job working in a Five and Dime.  She consented to Mama’s presence truculently and took on Uncle Hal a little later.

After Doris’ husband, Don, died, she and Mama lived together for almost a decade.  It was never an easy companionship, but they loved to travel together to strange and exotic places.  Auntie D paid for their trips and Mama made all of the arrangements and got them where they needed to go. And through those last years together, they learned that they loved each other.  And because of their shared lives, Auntie D came into our lives as she visited each of our families whenever Mama did. She and her husband, Uncle Don, had chosen not to have any children.  So in her later years I think she enjoyed being part of the family reunions with all the kids and food and conversations that Daddy had put together a few years before he died.

Not too long after Mama died and Auntie D knew she didn’t have much longer to live, Mel, Mary and I moved her from a nursing facility in the Seattle area to one in the same town where Mary lived in Southern California. Because she was not religious, she did not want a service of any kind. But she consented to let us have a celebration of her life while she was still with us. She consented to let me read a Psalm. One of my nieces played her flute, another read a poem she had written, my sisters and I sang childhood songs, and all of us shared Auntie D and Mama stories. When I turned to look at her one more time after my final good-bye, her face was glowing from the joyful Love-fest. She died at peace a month or so later.
After spending most of their lives in the Boise area, Mama’s family moved to Shasta, California (in the northern part of the state) and eventually to Eugene, Oregon.  (Grandpa Chaney would die there in 1950 when I was 19 months old.  I do not know if he ever held me in his arms, or even wanted to.)  Mama went to Northwest Christian College in Eugene.  A higher education was certainly not anything the Chaney family traditionally aspired to, but Mama was looking for something better. (Who wouldn’t?) Her long-range plan was to marry a Christian minister--she thought that would guarantee her the love and sense of peace she so longed for.  And I guess she truly believed that Daddy, also a student at NCC, was the answer to her prayers.  He was two years younger than her, but he was already an ordained minister.  Besides, she was 20 years old, which at that time was labeled as “old maid.”  She was 21 and Daddy was 19 when they married on December 17, 1943 in Eugene.  After they both graduated NWCC they pioneered their way to Los Angeles, California and “settled down” in the Watts area, so Daddy could further get his Master’s at Pepperdine College (now University) in its old location in South Los Angeles.

Daddy got a job selling real estate and Mama was a homemaker.  Their first child, my sister, Becky, was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California in 1946, while they still lived in Watts.  The college employed a doctor for students whose practice was in Santa Monica, which was why the lowly students used such a grand hospital in a upper crust city.

After I was born at the same hospital in 1948, Daddy finished at Pepperdine and became the pastor of the Church of Christ in Rosemead (still in the Los Angeles area) and they were living in the church.  On Sunday’s they would move all of their personal belongings into a small, curtained room behind the pulpit. (I can’t even imagine the stress of it all—and with a toddler and baby!) The congregation could not provide a living wage, but supplemented the meager salary with gifts of food.  So, Daddy still had to sell real estate, and even then he barely eked out a living.  Mama eventually went intro training at Los Angeles County Hospital and became an X-ray technician. It was a residency program and she had to live in a dorm that allowed no children for several months. Daddy used to bring us over and Mama would sneak us in for a while.  Since we couldn’t use the bathroom there, she taught us how to urinate into a mayonnaise jar.  It’s amazing how useful a skill that has been for me (and could be for all women!).

We Vernon girls did not know it, but we were born into a family that lived behind a veil of secrecy.  Daddy was already using physical force on Mama (the first time was three months after they married), which of course, they hid from the congregation, as well as the fact that they both smoked (a big “no-no” sin in the CofC). Eventually Daddy also smoked a pipe and cigars (Uggh!).  He became a chain-smoker, smoking after he finished a meal, even if the rest of us had not yet finished ours. (Uggh! Uggh!)  But, no surprise, I was smoking at 15. Eventually, fear helped Mama quit smoking after she fell asleep for just a few seconds with a lit cigarette in her hand.  In their later years both my parents had emphysema, and they both died from heart related diseases either caused by, or exacerbated, by smoking.  I stopped and started for years, and finally quit when a church member died of cancer and saw the horror of it did to her children on June 2, 1982.

Even in the extreme poverty of their early years together, Al and Thelma were able to find money for their smokes. Addictions are the steering wheels on the interior highways of our subconscious selves and their other addictions would eventually peep out from under the veil of secrecy that they drew around our family. Veils and secrets sounds like a magic act! Within three years of my birth, Mama would be pregnant with my sister Melody, and we would already have moved to Phoenix, Arizona.  I always thought it was because Daddy had the promise of a better job. But where was Daddy in Phoenix?

NEXT Gypsies: On the Road Again
Will you pray with me?

O God our Maker,
From generation to generation, you gift the world with a compassionate love beyond our ability to comprehend. You speak your wisdom into hearts broken and helpless, you heal and redeem our memories, strengthen our shaky legs. How we praise you for the wonder of being alive in this day, in this time, that we may play our part in this cosmic, dangerous, glorious, and limited life that is your great gift to each of us and all of us together.  Alleluia!

We share a common creator, a common earth, and a common need for your saving grace each day as we live ordinary lives, work at ordinary jobs and tasks, and forget the preciousness of each moment. Too often we find ourselves plodding through fiery fields of fear or drowning in cesspools of all that beckons us into that which is neither animates nor heals us.  Woo us each day into a life of simplicity and self-discipline, we pray, that our days may have room to be filled with the same joy and gusto you have for work of your hands.

Push and pull this generation through the discord, anger, hurt, grief and sorrow of the world that paints a secret and suffocating veil of gloom over our common life together. Let your face shine upon us and help us find the path that leads each of us to a place of calm repose.  Help us stay centered on you so the record of our deeds to be studied by the generations yet-to-come, may tell them how faithfully we tried to mark the trail of Goodness and Peace for them.  In your grace we pray.  Amen.
6 Gypsies: On the Road Again

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 really 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.  In my experience, pastors are usually expendable in any church “family.”  They’re the shepherds to the congregation’s flock. They have a lot of influence while they are there, they are usually loved but when they move on. . .well, they move on. As a pastor’s family, 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. After an unknown time spent in Phoenix, Arizona, we moved back to Southern California. (see #7: Strange Interlude).

I don't know where we were living then.  It might have been Long Beach, since Mel was born in Long Beach, but I don’t remember any stories about Long Beach itself. In fact, as Mary and I started drawing timelines about our family life, we realized that not one of the four of us was born in a place we actually lived.  Becky and I were born in Santa Monica, Mel in Long Beach, and Mary at Great Lakes Naval Hospital (we moved while she and Mama spent 8 days there, so her first home was in Rhode Island).

One of my first memories is the day Mel was born in 1952.  I was 3 ½ and playing with Becky and some neighbor children—either pick-up sticks, jacks, marbles, or mud pies (my favorite!).  At that age I’m sure that I was probably more of an observer than a player.  We were playing in a dirt driveway right next to one of those wood-paneled station wagons so popular at that time.  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.”)

I know Daddy eventually 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. The pastor’s house had an orange orchard behind it. Being able to step outside and pick a ripe and luscious orange, peel it, and eat it under the (scratchy) leaves helped me planted in me an awareness of the beauty and joy of nature.  We lived within the shadow of the San Gabriel 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 a distant fire and a slight hint of smoke, or if it was closer, a shower of ashes might be gently falling.

Our 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 four years old then, and remember learning the pledge of allegiance.  I was really proud of myself when I didn't stumble over the word "indivisible," until a 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. (Recently I learned that the insertion of “under God” was a political move in a chess game with the Russians to subtly proclaim that God was on our side of the growing Cold War. It had nothing to do with a declaration of faith and everything to do with which rooster could crow the loudest.)

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, my parents 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 young baby and she and Becky went to stay with the family who lived across the street from us.  I stayed 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 while Mama and Daddy worked.  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 halfway up onto a piece of construction wire, somewhat like cyclone fencing.  I cut my knee badly enough that I still can see the railroad-track looking scar 55 years later on the right side of my left leg.

I was 6 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 Becky 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 bandage on my boo-boo. When Becky came back again and told her I couldn’t move, Mama came out and told me not to try 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 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 had lost both luster and pumpkin by then.) The book made a crinkly, whooshy kind of sound from the pumpkin 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 (rubeola) 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 (courtesy of Becky fetching it for me).  I even went so far as to uncurl a wire hanger and try to scratch. It was a long recovery period. The doctor gave Mama some codeine medicine to help me; that was when they found out I was allergic to codeine. Suffice it to say, it didn’t help me.

The next year, when I was 7, the congregation started meeting in the new church building.  It had a big, walk-in baptismal behind the pulpit area that seemed to be busy all the time.  I wanted to get in on the action, and I’m sure Becky had been baptized by then 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 and 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. I found a postcard booklet recently that he had sent to us girls while he was back there.  It was mostly pictures of boring buildings and a war memorial—nothing like the fun memories that I carry with me about that place.

We were going to move to Indianapolis so Daddy could go to the Theological School at 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 by joining the Navy with the medical and dental benefits we would have—I had never been to a dentist until Daddy joined up. The grass was always greener somewhere else, but this really seemed to be a good chance to get a leg up financially.

Cars were always a problem with my parents, mostly that they didn’t work.  At one time we had had an old humpy car (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. I don’t know if that’s the one we moved to Indiana in.

Trying to beat the heat of the Sonora Dessert, we headed east in the middle of the night in that car or one of the same caliber, 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. I don’t know. I do know that there was a canvass bag strapped to the front of the car—water for the car, not for the people.

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. Mama and Daddy had stuffed an old mattress in the leg room area, so we had a big bed at our disposal.   Mel, who was 3 ½ by that time, stayed asleep, but Becky and I were wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. To two little girls, nine and seven, it seemed like another great adventure for the gypsy Vernons. 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, smoke wafted back to the back seat, where Becky and I sat dumbstruck.

What?  Mama and Daddy smoking?  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.  For me, it was the first moment that the pollution of my parents’ secret lives started spilling 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 Strange Interlude: Where Was He?

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. Keep us alert to opportunities to bless and not ignore, to help and not hinder, to offer hope and not smother it.  Help us to seek the justice that your creatures yearn for. Strengthen us to love the kindness for which you created us that we may walk with mutuality and humility along the side of all who share your gift of Life with us.  In your hope we pray.

7 Strange Interlude: Where Was He?
Even before we moved to Indiana, I had had five different homes and my older sister, Becky, had six.  Becky’s first home was my parents’ apartment in Watts. My first home was the Rosemead Church of Christ, still in the Los Angeles, California area.  But within three years of my birth, when Mama was pregnant with my sister Melody, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona for whatever reason I don’t know. Daddy had the promise of a better job? Daddy was fired from the church for whatever sin became uncovered?  Or maybe some family members offered for us to live rent-free in their trailer?
All I know about Phoenix is that whatever brought them there Daddy left his pregnant wife and two young daughters to fend for themselves, probably to go back to the Los Angeles area to find another church. This left Mama stranded in Phoenix with no husband, no extended family, no friends, no community, no money.  The husband she had married who was supposed to save her from the trauma of her childhood was proving he could provide plenty of trauma himself.
Judging from what Becky remembers, I think Mama had her first bout of deep depression in Phoenix.  Mama couldn’t function. Becky remembers taking me to the store to buy us something to eat (peanut butter sandwiches).  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; Becky remembers that we lived in a regular house; my memory is of a trailer.  A picture I have of me and Mama and my 3rd birthday cake that had been taken in a little yard between 2 trailer houses. I don’t know who took the picture: Daddy? a neighbor?  Our poverty level wouldn’t have allowed for much in the way of a camera, film, and its development.  The picture shows that I was a towhead (very blond hair) plaited in braids that went a little past my shoulders.  What a cutie! We couldn’t have been in Phoenix all that long because a mere 4 months later, Melody was born in Long Beach.  Did we live in Long Beach?  No one who is alive really knows, and those who knew never saw fit to tell us the tale while they lived. It’s just a strange little interlude that preceded another interlude of the strange kind. 
It was not too long after this that we took a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park (located mostly in Wyoming, but also parts of Montana and Idaho). It must have been the next summer. I’m sure we were living back in the LA area by then, probably West Covina. I was four at the time and Becky was six.  Mel would have still been a babe-in-arms or an unsteady toddler. I know that both of my parents loved to camp, but I can’t imagine where we got the money for such a long trip.
Even from a distance of all these years, I can remember how spectacular an adventure Yellowstone was.  Grizzly bears greeted us as we entered the park because people were allowed to feed them. (This was definitely a different time in park management.) I have a very clear picture of one coming up to our car and licking Mama’s closed window.  I was sitting right behind her and watched fascinated as its teeth pressed against the glass and drool coursed down into the window well.  There was the soaring height of mountain and forest, the green coolness, and of course the amazing spectacle of the geysers.  We had a camping spot close to the lake and not too far away for the public bathrooms. It seemed ideal. But the park was a far cry from its origins.
I recently learned its history as I read Bill Bryson’s jaw-dropping book called  *A Short History of Nearly Everything, (Broadway Books, 2003). In chapters called “Dangerous Planet” and “Dangerous Beauty” Bryson writes: The event that killed the plains animals of Nebraska was a volcanic explosion on a scale previously unimagined—but big enough to leave an ash layer ten feet deep almost a thousand miles away in eastern Nebraska.  It turned out that under the western United States there was a huge cauldron of magma, a colossal volcanic hot spot, which erupted cataclysmically every 60,000 years or so.  The last such eruption was just over 60,000 years ago.  The hot spot is still there.  These days we call it Yellowstone National Park. . .there is a second, less celebrated type of volcano that doesn’t involve mountain building.  These are volcanoes so explosive that they burst open in a single mighty rupture, leaving behind a vast subsided pit, the caldera (from a Latin word for cauldron).  Yellowstone obviously was this second type, but (a man studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone in the 1960’s, Bob Christiansen of the US Geological Survey) Christiansen couldn’t find the caldera anywhere.
By coincidence just at this time NASA decided to test some new high altitude cameras by taking photographs of Yellowstone, copies of which some thoughtful official passed on to the park authorities on the assumption that they might make a nice blow-up for one of the visitors’ centers.  As soon as Christiansen saw the photos he realized why he had failed to spot the caldera: virtually the whole park—2.2 million acres—was caldera.  The explosion had left a crater more than forty miles across—much too huge to be perceived from anywhere at ground level.  At some time in the past Yellowstone must have blown up with a violence far beyond the scale of anything known to humans.
Yellowstone, as it turns out, is a supervolcano.  It sits on top of an enormous hot spot, a reservoir of molten rock that rises from at least 125 miles down in the Earth.  The heat from the hot spot is what powers all of Yellowstone’s vents, geysers, hot springs, and popping mud pots.  Beneath the surface is a magma chamber that is about forty-five miles across—roughly the same dimensions of the park—and about eight miles at its thickest point.  Imagine a pile of TNT about the size of Rhode Island and reaching eight miles into the sky, to about the height of the highest cirrus clouds, and you have some idea of what Yellowstone visitors are shuffling around on top of (pages 209-10 and 224-225).
So, the Vernon family was shuffling around on top of the surface of the magma chamber in a sweet camp spot.  Mama or Daddy had evidently caught some fish that day and Mama was frying it up for our supper at sundown.  She told Becky to take me to the bathroom and come straight back. (I guess there was a lot more trust in strangers back then, or else. . .well, she was busy.)  Becky took me and let me go into the potty first, admonishing me to wash my hands and wait for her so we could walk back together.  Evidently I grew impatient with the waiting and set out for our campsite on my own.  Alas, I went the wrong way. When she discovered I was missing, she looked and called for me, then finally ran back to the camp to tell our parents I was lost. Their fear must have been palpable: it was dark by then, we were near the lake, and the bears were a constant worry.  She remembers very clearly that Daddy ran out to look for me and gathered some folks to help him, but Mama just kept frying fish. Unlike Becky, she never looked or called for me. She just kept frying fish.
This was a piece I had never heard in this oft-told story of my being lost. “Mama kept frying fish,” she told me in a recent conversation. “What??” I yelped in response.  “Kept frying fish?”  I doubt that there are too many parents who haven’t had the gut-wrenching terror of having a child missing at some point.  As a mother of three and grandmother of four, I can call on that feeling in a millisecond.  What does it mean that Mama did not instantly put down her spatula, take the pan off the fire and join in the plans being made of how to find me?
There could be any number of reasons: Daddy told her to stay; Melody needed looking after; she hated raw or burned fish.  But I suspect that the depression or mental imprisonment of the Phoenix interlude still had hold of Thelma Lou.  Her response to the sudden trauma? Do nothing. Shut down.  Fry fish.  Fourteen years after this event, she would once more hear of a missing child, little Ricky Everson, and actually be present at the discovery of his lifeless body in our backyard. She did not keep frying fish, but she certainly shut down, refusing to speak about it with us about what she knew until only a short time before she died.  And when she did speak about it, it turns out she did not tells us the truth.  My being lost atop a colossal volcanic hot spot was a pretty good analogy of my family life.  Looks pretty normal on the surface, but man, oh, the whole thing was a caldera. 
I eventually made my way into a trailer park area. I went up the steps of the first one that had lights on inside and knocked on the door.  A woman answered and I told her I was lost (probably crying).  She immediately took my hand and headed out with me to find my family, and with the kindness of others looking for me, she did. That is the most lasting memory of this Yellowstone interlude: the kindness of the woman—a stranger and yet my savior.  She comforted me and led me back to where I belonged. What good news!
NEXT  My Indiana Home: Love at First Sight
Will you pray with me?
God of the Ages, Volcanoes, and Strangers,
The heat that powers the Cosmos—its galaxies and black holes, its stars and their planets is the energy of your amazing love. All of its unseen, unexplored vastness is in your hands.  Our planet Earth--its molten center and crusty surface, and all that rests or shuffles upon it is in your hands.  From your hands come water and air to sustain the sacred gift of life to all plants and all creatures. From the wonder and glory of nature we come to sense that it is all imbued with your power and your joy as we find refreshment and sustained by its goodness. How we praise you for your faithfulness to your cosmic plan of all that is, seen and unseen, known and unknown!
You give us the gift of memory—a hodgepodge of truths and suppositions, of fictions and fears, of unexplored compulsions and unpacked interludes—that helps us write, rewrite, edit yet again, tell and retell the story of our lives. The storyline is still unfolding.  It is spotty at best and can never totally be “the truth,” but nonetheless can lead us to the taproot of your Truth of Powerful presence that mends and redeems our failures and successes, giving meaning to our days and wisdom to our years.
 Give us this day our daily bread, whatever our needs may be.  Feed us with compassion that we may be people aware of the world and its people around us. Teach us each day how to welcome your wandering and lost children.  Slate our thirst with the gifts of your living Breath that never burn or rot, that the hallmark of our journey may be light in the darkness and joy, joy, joy even in the mourning. In all that is Holy we pray.  And let all of God’s children say “Amen.”
8 My Indiana Home: Love at First Sight

It was 1955, a mere 11 years before I would graduate from high school, and only 12 years away from the fatal day that brought little Ricky Everson to the end of his life and moved the Vernon family closer to disintegration. Daddy had been the pastor of the West Covina Church of Christ for only a few years, but it was time to get on the road again.

Our move from Southern California to mid-state Indiana included a canvas bag of water strapped to the front grille (for the car, not for the people).  We had been driving the highways and byways of mountains, desert, and Midwestern Plains for days.  The Interstate System was just a gleam in some politician’s eye then.  The modern Map Quest gives an estimated driving time of 30 hours and 26 minutes for the 2068.5 miles that is at least four days of fairly hard driving today.  I imagine our trip--with no air conditioning, no McDonald’s playgrounds, an empty mayonnaise jar as a port-a-potty, and lungs filled with cigarette smoke--was interminable to the three little girls crammed into the back seat, with a mattress stuffed in the leg space to provide sleeping “quarters”.

The car was a stinky, smoke-filled canister for the backseat prisoners, as my parents enjoyed their first freedom of smoking openly.  They acted as if they were having a party, but for me at age seven, it was the first visible crack in my little world.

I somehow knew instinctively that my parents had dark secrets that I knew was not something I should talk about and I stayed mute.  My older sister, Becky, at age nine, acted dumbfounded.  My younger sister, Melody, at age three, was too young to notice the black hole in our universe that we were falling into. (Both of my parents eventually died from smoking related issues.  Mama quit only after she fell asleep with a lit cigarette--but woke up immediately to save herself.  She eventually died in 1997 from a misdiagnosed cardio infarction. Daddy quit only when he could no longer breathe as a result of his Congestive Heart failure, from which he died in 1995.)

If we girls were shocked over the smoking, Mama was shocked over the house that Daddy had rented for us in Indianapolis at 9550 North Meridian a few weeks earlier.  He had “thumbed” his way cross-country to get us started in our new life, where he would get his Master’s degree at Butler University Christian Theological Seminary, so he could join the US Navy as a Chaplain, thus giving us an income and some financial security we had never known.

In those days, the house was outside of the city.  That site today is just inside the loop that encircles Indianapolis and features imposing and attractive estate homes on its rolling hills.  I’m sure that the attraction for Daddy was that the house was close to the university and that it was something the poor-as-a-church-mouse preacher could afford.

Surrounded by corn fields and set back a quarter of a mile from the highway that traversed the beautiful rolling hills of the area, the two-story house looked like an estate home from afar. But, turning left off the highway onto the dirt driveway the first building we passed was an old barn that even to our young eyes had definitely seen better days. (It may have been something about the sagging roof and missing lumber in the walls.) The long driveway took a turn to the left and eventually led to a parking shed/carport next to the house.

I’m sure Mama was speechless at the derelict condition and isolation of her new home that certainly showed its 127 years of existence. But in my eyes it was absolutely wonderful!  It was a saltbox type house with two sets of stairs that led to two front doors.  The steps leading to the front door farthest from the driveway looked sturdy but when I bounded up them I fell through the second step.  That was the only time those steps were used because they were never repaired.

The door closest to the driveway led us into a great-adventure house. (A bat somehow got trapped in the parlor one time and we begged Mama to get it out.  She chased it around the room with a broom, but it couldn’t even come close to the poor creature as it flew close to the 12-foot ceiling. The bat won and stuck around until it could leave for a quieter homestead.) We would later have adventures with drowned mice and setting the stalks of the surrounding corn fields on fire.

The parlor was actually the first room we entered. It was dominated by a massive oil-burning stove on the left wall, with a flue that went at least halfway up the wall.  (It turned out to be the only source of heat for the entire house.)  Behind it were three steps blocked by a closed door beside a doorway in its rear wall that went into the kitchen. It had papered walls thickly covered with a bright yellow enamel paint making us thankful that other rooms had been mercifully left in their original wallpapers.

Had the other front steps not sent me tumbling, from them I would have entered a formal room with lots of shelves, probably a library/living room.  Where there weren’t shelves, there was old wallpaper that sported small green and white stripes and large pink cabbage roses.  There was a door to the left that led back to the parlor and one in the rear that led to a bedroom that my parents and Mel would use.  That bedroom had a door in its sidewall that led back to the kitchen.  All four rooms on the first floor seemed to be of equal size.

The kitchen had a gas stove (probably propane), a refrigerator and a giant sink with a big funny-looking red thing at one end of it.  We girls loved what we learned was a cast iron hand pump that was connected to a well in the earthen basement of the house.  All we had to do was push and lift its long handle and soon water would gush out of its spout, but we also had to collect the water while we pumped.  If we wanted “running” water, we had to recruit help.  It was fun, but not very convenient or fast. The hand-pumped water was a cool and refreshing discovery and a treasured memory for me our time there.

There was another cast iron pump down by the barn where we girls would get a drink of water when we were outside playing.  We used it, that is, until one day I was pumping and Becky was holding her hands under the spout to catch the water.  It usually took two or three pumps of priming before the water would actually come out and she held her hands under the spout impatiently.  The water eventually gushed out, but a dead mouse plopped into her hands with it.  We screamed, we gagged, we jumped up and down and we ran away. That ended that outside-pump adventure forevermore.

 In the house itself there was no bathroom, no toilet, no hot water heater, no tub, no shower.  Through a window in the kitchen door that first day, Daddy pointed out a small outhouse in the back yard some distance away. It had a moon carved out of the top of the door for ventilation. That was our introduction to our “bathroom” with its Sears catalog pages and corn shuck alternatives when toilet paper was scarce, and its never-scarce “eau de parfum merde.” The moon never provided enough fresh air.

Closer in to the house, to the left of the back door, was a big, one-windowed storage shed that would provide some of our best play times because it was chock full of pioneer cast-offs: a giant cast iron footed pot and pans and all sorts of unidentifiable cooking and housekeeping items.  We three girls played house with what now probably would be considered very valuable antiques. The only light came from its window and the only heat in the winter was our body heat. But it was our own Little House on the Prairie.

Either the homeowners or my parents eventually “modernized” the farm house by adding an electric water pump, a kitchen faucet, and a water heater, which meant we no longer had to pump water and heat it up on the stove for dishes and our “sponge baths.”  They also walled off a little bedroom space in my parents’ room for Mel and another area for a shower and a chemical toilet.

A chemical toilet is basically a big bucket with a seat and a lid to which some liquid chemicals are added to keep the stench to a minimum. Becky and I also had one upstairs. Daddy would empty them both into the outhouse privy every morning for the two years we lived there. If he was away overnight, either Becky or I had the honor. But they were only used in nighttime and bad weather, which we seemed to have a lot of. Otherwise, it was down the path to the outhouse for us.

But both of those were actually an improvement of the toilet facility that we used the first night there—a heavy metal bucket in my parents’ bedroom that we were supposed to squat over to use.  My first use came at the exact same time as my first experience with a thunderstorm, heavy rain, or lightning.  As soon as I squatted, a crack of thunder quickly followed by a streaking bolt of lightning turned that room into the bowels of hell for me. It startled me empty! I’ve learned to love storms now, but buckets and I still have a rocky relationship.

The stairs in the parlor were a memorable feature of the house for me because they led to Becky’s and my bedrooms.  When we opened the door that blocked the stairway after the first three steps, we could climb up about 4 more before they took a 90-degree turn to the left, offering very little foot space close to the wall.  After that turn, there were 5 or 6 more steps, the final one being the floor of my bedroom.  There was no banister or barrier blocking the hole in the floor, but the chemical toilet was perched close to the staircase to greet visitors.

The doorway to Becky’s room was through my bedroom in the far sidewall.  Her room had a window that faced a cornfield that was edged by a hedgerow of gooseberry bushes, straggly, spiny bushes indigenous to Asia and Europe. (Who planted them at the edge of a cornfield in Indiana?).  Under the bushes, rhubarb plants leant a pretty touch of color with their toxic green leaves and bright red stalks that would eventually introduce us (via Mama’s baking) to the mouth-puckering experience of a piece of tart—really tart—pie.  Abutting the backyard end of the hedgerow, a windbreak of tall pear trees marched out to protect the path to the outhouse. If there had been a window to the front yard in the attic, Becky could have seen the barn in the distance, giant lilac bushes much taller than us, and the spreading arms of an ancient apple tree close to the house (whose giant limb we used to use for our “horse” riding).

Inside Becky’s room, there was a great old Victrola we would crank up and play the really, really thick records that were stored in the lower cabinet of the player.  It was probably about 3 ½ feet tall and had an appealing musty smell that spoke of the years it had served its users. It also had resident mud daubers that would build their muddy tunnels in its large domed top or next to the turntable. The wasps lived peacefully with us and never gave us any trouble. The only flying invader that gave us trouble was a bat that got lost in the top of the 12 foot ceiling of our parlor. Responding to our screams, Mama chased it around with a broom for a while, which only produced more screams.  Eventually either she or the bat gave up.  We never saw it again.

 My room faced the car shed and the highway, so the view was minimal.  It really didn’t matter what the view was anyway, because as our first winter approached, my parents nailed thick plastic sheets to be our homemade “storm windows.”  (They used the same great protection on a car window one winter when it refused to go up. We were an incredibly classy family!)  Those bedrooms needed all the protection from the elements they could get, since the only source of heat was a wisp or two that managed to make its way up the stairs from the oil stove in the parlor.  I guess I lucked out because I’m pretty sure no heat wafted its way from my room into Becky’s.  (On the other hand, my room also had the chemical toilet. There’s always a trade-off.)

But the best feature of my room was an old-fashioned dressing table with a tri-fold mirror that we used to stand in front of and lip-sync the old-time gospel songs that were a staple in our house.  Becky would be on one side, Mel would be on the other, and I would—naturally—be in the center, where I could step forward and dramatically kneel down for my solo parts.

The stairway was a great place to make a grand entrance, if one happened to be wrapped in a bed sheet while lip-syncing the gospel song, “The King of All Kings.”  The three of us took turns being Jesus the King.  We would keep the door closed as the music played and we sang until the final flourishing notes toward the end of the song.  Then whoever was king would fling the door open and descend the last three steps into the parlor with high drama and divine beauty.

One time when I was Jesus, I flung the door open only to discover my two disciples going at it in a fight.  Becky had little Melody pinned to the floor and was threatening her with some dire consequence. As Jesus, I quickly intervened to save the day.  As a little girl with a growing “savior” complex, my sense of virtue in “saving” Mel felt really good.  Secretly, I relished the thought that of the three of us, I really was the best Jesus. Becky didn’t care enough and Mel was too small for the sheet to fit right.

Fourteen years later, I would have a déjà vu of that experience, when I came into our living room and saw my 6’ 4” father pinning my 5’ 5” mother to the floor and hitting her.  She had almost died from a blood clot after a surgical procedure for her ulcerative colitis and had only gotten out of the hospital the day before. The savior scooped in again, getting Daddy off of her and taking the blows for her.  That day, I even went so far as to call the sheriff for help. 

The deputies said since there was visible evidence of the struggle (my mouth was bloody), I could press charges against him, but Mama convinced me not to. (What would people say?  Daddy could lose his commission.  If it were today, I would press, press, press charges. But then I knew nothing of addiction or dysfunctional family dynamics and how to change them.) I wonder now if Becky had seen something similar in our childhood that modeled that behavior for her that day at the foot of the stairs, or was it just oldest-sister muscle flexing?

Becky does remember walking into the front room one day and seeing Daddy drinking a beer.  She was probably more shocked at that than the revelation of the cigarette smoking, but she didn’t tell me about it until recently.  In a family of secret-keepers, it gets easy to keep secrets from everyone, even your “best friend” sister.

The house had a whole new world of secrets ready to be explored by that 7 year-old girl. The house was 127 years old when we moved into it in 1955.  By my calculations, that means it was built in 1828, although it would have been a very pretentious house (“estate home” indeed) in that year.  Most farms at that time had rough-hewn log homes, sheds, and barns. I think our play shed was actual the first homestead on that land. In the 1830’s farmers began raising crops and animals for markets in Cincinnati or Louisville and became more prosperous that earlier pioneers. 

I did not know the particulars at the time, but I was aware of what I now understand to be the sense of history that was steeped into the walls of the house and the land and the trees that surrounded what was to become my favorite childhood home. 

The first occupants of my house probably planted those trees.  They would have used handmade tools for their farming until the 1830’s when mass-produced tools began to be available; John Deere introduced the steel plow in 1837.  The men and boys would have castrated a bull to work the fields and only kept cattle for personal consumption.  Corn was the main crop and hogs were the main livestock kept then. 

Perhaps it was their sweat and toil that seeped into the soil and inspired me to start a vegetable garden in the summer of 1956.  I planted corn, hoed it, carried water out to it, and picked it when it was ready to eat.  My fair skin was burned to a crisp, but the joy and satisfaction I derived from grubbing around in the ancient soil was a lifetime gift.  And, of course, there was the bonus of some fabulous corn-on-the cob, salted and dripping with butter.

I think the original settlers would have known that joy and satisfaction, but my little hoeing and water carrying adventure paled into a drop of sweat compared to their never-ending work.  The women of the family also would have known the hard work of making the cloth and clothes that they all wore.  They would have spun wool sheared from their sheep and made linen from flax planted specifically for that purpose.  Linen was the most common material used and it required a great deal of work: rotting the plants in water, breaking them apart, scraping them with a knife, aligning the fibers on boards peppered with nails, and then spinning the fibers into cloth.  There were no synthetic dyes until the late 1850’s, so the women would have colored their “homespun” using dyes made of plants, roots, nut hulls, fruit skins and pits, mosses, fungi, insects and even shellfish. 

Women would make each family member one “everyday” outfit and one “Sunday best” for each season, which explains why there were no closets in our Indianapolis house.  Doing laundry for them was not a high priority, for it took too much water and time.  Until Elias Howe invented the sewing machine in 1846, the women and girls made their clothes and then remodeled their dresses for years, sometimes up to 6 times, before cutting them up for children’s outfits.  Even in the coldest of winters, the women wore no underdrawers, although it might have helped that they wore (count ‘em) three petticoats under their long dresses both winter and summer.  (And they had no chemical toilets to save them a trip to the outhouse in winter!  Brrrr.)

In 1955 the winter cold crept up under the dresses of us young females who actually had underdrawers to wear. However, we had no long dresses or petticoats for protection and we were not allowed to wear pants to school. Even when the weather was nice, it was a big problem to play on the playground in our dresses and still keep our “modesty.”  (The incredibly repressive “no-pants” rule didn’t change until sometime after I graduated from high school in 1966.)  We did have tights and knee socks, but it was still torturously cold in the winter, especially to someone raised in the sunny climes of Los Angeles.

But the cold was not my first problem when I entered the third grade that fall.  I quickly discovered that everyone but me had learned how to write cursive in the spring of second grade.  So my teacher gave me a practice book and tutored me in her spare time.  I went from feeling like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t write, to feeling proud because I learned to write quickly and legibly. It’s still a joy to me today to craft handwritten cards and letters.

Soon after we moved there, Mama got a job as a lab technician at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, an army base named after the US President who had been an Indianapolis native.  Daddy attended the university, but made his living as a juvenile parole officer, which meant he sometimes was gone from home, transporting the parolees from prison back to their homes.  He usually carried a gun then, and when he was at home it was on an upper shelf in the kitchen. (It was stolen one day when someone broke into the empty house. This started a gnawing in my young soul.  I wondered if it was ever used to harm someone or cause a death. I did not let my children play with toy guns and have been active in church and society to keep weapons of destruction under strict control.)

Daddy also was the preacher for the Salisbury Church of Christ in the southern part of the state (which also featured “outhouse” bathrooms).  We traveled there every Sunday and would spend the day after morning services at different church members’ homes, staying so Daddy could preach for the evening services.  It was there that I became introduced to Southern Cooking at its finest, as the women tried to out-do each other in hosting us.  It was a feast every Sunday!  And every Sunday afternoon we were invited to fish, ride horses, or just go romping in the beautiful countryside.

During the weekdays, Mama would take Melody to a woman who kept children in her home.  We went there one cold night and picked up Mel after Mama got off work. The old car evidently was on its last legs and it started to “give out.”  Mama got it steered into a gas station and the owner told his young assistant (perhaps his son), to use his car and drive us home.  We only went a few blocks and were waiting at a stop light when everything went boom!  A drunk driver coming from our right had been turning left on his green light, but did not straighten out and drove directly into the car.  Becky flew between the seats and hit her head on the rearview mirror, landing on top of Mama and the young driver.  Both of them were bloody and unconscious, as was I in the back seat.  Climbing over Mama, Becky immediately got out probably helped Melody, who had not been hurt. 

I was sitting behind Mama and when I came to, the first thing I saw was a group of strange faces peering in at me like I was an interesting science experiment or something.  When I looked over the front seatback and saw the state of Mama and the driver, I immediately started screaming for someone to let me out (this was a 2 door car). The strangers wouldn’t let me, fearing that pushing the back of Mama’s seat enough to let me out might do her even more harm.  So I was trapped in the car until emergency help arrived and removed both of the front seat riders.  It seemed to be a lifetime or two, but time has no meaning in situations like that.  I wonder now if the horror of the blood and being trapped inside might have exacerbated my fears and inner screams when it was Daddy who was the drunk driver.

I don’t know what the extent of the injuries were to the young man, but Mama had hit her knees and had a concussion of some sort; she stayed in the hospital overnight.  Mel was fine and I was deemed fine after my blackout experience.  She and I got to roll around in a wheelchair in the hospital emergency room while Becky’s head was being bandaged.  (That experience later proved to be a source of damaging her hypothalamus, which led to other medical problems.)  Daddy came to pick us up and bought us some candy bars, I guess from a vending machine.  Chocolate would prove to be the “medicine” I turn to in dire times.

 Becky and  were on our own after school and in the summers. We loved it. Every day was an adventure for us two little girls.  However, as an adult, my heart quakes in fear for those two young ones, out in the middle of nowhere, unsupervised and unprotected.  It would set the theme of our family life together for the next twelve years.

NEXT  Vernon Stock: A Mixed Breed

Will you pray with me?

God of All Time and Space,

We praise you that there is no past, present, or future for you, only the eternal NOW. We acknowledge that there is no “there” for you, only the eternal HERE, the Totality of Life in a single moment, ever in your Presence.

We bless you that your ways as Creator are not our ways as your creatures. We are grateful that you have formed us to experience our lives with a sense of a time-line of events and a sense of distance of near and far.  We bless you for the magnificent gifts of time and space, and are grateful for our boundaries and limitations that remind us that we are dependent upon you for all things. And we thank you that you are with us throughout our day in all of our locations.

We rejoice in the goodness of the earth.  You fill it with Life and amazing wonders, with creatures large and unseen, with water and air, with land and trees to purify the air, and with the ability to evolve according to a plan of your own making.  We pray for those in the past, in the present, and in the future who cry out to you in need, fear, distress, hardship, and sorrow.  Hear the prayers of all people, in all times and places, those expressed and those whose need is too deep for words. 

We pray today for all who drive drunk, or high, or take their lives and those of others without regard to the consequences. Lead them into recovery, restore their self-respect, and help them make amends for what they can.  We especially for the children of this world who are at the mercy of their parents, extended families, communities and nations. Send people of good will and hope to those in dire circumstances and danger, that they may be agents of your saving grace to the helpless and the hopeless. And lead us all into a deeper sense of your Presence that we may turn to you in joy and praise throughout our days on earth and into the life to come.  Amen.   

9  Vernon Stock: A Mixed Breed
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, Luzzetta (daughter of Sherman E. and Grace V.  Smith); father, Alson Creath  (son of George Washington and Mary Archer Vernon), and his brother, Glen. 
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 Luzzetta, 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 (or Luzella) 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 Glen.  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.
The story he was told and passed on to us, is that 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 was our Native American heritage handed down through my father’s birth mother.  A heritage that I always believed included a love of baskets (for which the Chinook are well-known because they fished the Colombia using only baskets) and salmon.  The peoples were called “Flatheads” for their practice of binding a child’s head to a board in its first year of life.  That would distort the shape of their heads so it was easy to recognize one of the tribal peoples from their slaves that had common rounded heads.
But it’s a story that seems to have been made up whole cloth from someone, or else my beginnings are swathed in more mystery that I can unpack.  Recently, I had my DNA tested and discovered I have not a single Native American gene. Zilch. Nada.  But I do have 99.2 percent Northern European ancestry, which probably explains why I have 83% more Neanderthal DNA than all of the company’s other customers. (It’s now believed that the DNA of modern humans is 2.5% to 4% Neanderthal) Not Native American but a hominid species that shared the time and geography with homo sapiens! I also have 0.2% and 0.8% South African, and 0.3% West African (which doesn’t quite add up to me but I am among the 4 out of 3 people who are math-challenged).
Luzetta, my Non Native birth grandmother, 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 in their ranch house.  At least when Ray and Glen had been born, there had been close neighbors and some sort of help close by.  I don’t know if anyone surrounded her with encouragement or love in her time of need.
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. I don’t know if Coke still had real cocaine in it back then, but he certainly had an addiction; it had started when he realized that the drink really did help his crippling arthritis.  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 never shared many stories with his boys 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 Glen’s wife, Aunt Vivian, told me that a neighbor of the Vernon family often saw and heard Alson and Luzzetta quarreling out in the road.  There was some hint of mental illness on her part (depression or post-partum), which could explain a lot about my father’s mental problems.  But it evidently was not a happy marriage. She died when Daddy was about 18 months old and the cause of her death was never explained to him; it was probably suicide.
The story about his father that Daddy told the most was really was more the story of his step-mother, Edith Livingston Vernon.  She married Alson in 1927 when Daddy was three and literally saved that family.  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 the donkey she used in the fields; she brought it back to the States with her).  When she met Alson, she was Dean of Women Students at what is now Oregon State University, but during the Depression, moved back to be a House Mother in the Woman’s Dorm, taking Daddy with her.
Edith and Alson met at a spa where they were both taking in the special mineral waters for their arthritis.  There was not much help back in for that crippling disease. 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. And a greater kind of relief when Grandma met the boys.
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, who at that time owned 7 ranches, 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.” The Vernons also received help.  After they had lost all of the ranches, they still lived on the hand-hewn ranch house that backed up to the Cascade Mountains.  Whoever had ended up with the deed was kind enough to allow them to stay on the ranch. Edith and Alson remained married until he died from his second heart attack at the early age of 57 in 1947.
 I treasured Laura Edith Livingston Vernon 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 the letters and still use a little embroidered handkerchief she sent me, her “dearest Kathie.” (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 until 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 the wonderful themes that I am very grateful to have as a part of my heritage, especially in light of the horrid ones that have plagued 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 Glen, and that Clarence Albert Vernon can take note that altruism and generosity are 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  Illinois: Bound
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 absent or silent fathers.  We think of all those suffering from painful, incurable diseases from which there is no relief, and those suffering in the darkness of mental decay and disability.  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 stronger, as people of compassion, integrity, and hope.  We pray now for the generation who is coming up behind us.  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.
10 Illinois Bound
In 1957, my father, Clarence Albert Vernon (then known as Al) attended a Juvenile Officers Training Conference at Indiana University. He was 33 years old.
 He received a certificate for it on November 22 of that year, just 6 years to the day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a continuing education course for his day job as a juvenile parole officer, which was located in Indianapolis, but required him to travel the state as he would take young men just getting out of jail back to their homes.  He dealt with violent young men every day and with the broken families that had produced them— a micro version of my country’s (my world’s) penchant for violence and dominating others by brute force.  Daddy was not immune to it all.
On Sundays, we would drive southern Indiana where Daddy was the preacher at Solsberry Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for their morning and evening services. By the winter of 1959, he received a transcript from Garrett Biblical Institute, Butler University Graduate School of Theology in Evanston, Illinois for a class he took in Advanced Counseling and Pastoral Care, to help him with his avowed vocation as a Christian minister. Daddy already had 3 other degrees: A Bachelor of Theology from Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon; a Master’s of Religious Education from California Baptist Theological Seminary, Covina, California; and a Bachelor’s of Art from Pepperdine College, in Los Angeles California.
He also had training through the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon in Journalism and Speech; California State College of Los Angeles, in Race Relations, Social Legislation, Cultural Anthropology, and Techniques of Social Work; University of Southern California in Los Angeles in Persuasion; 60 semester hours of credit at Western State Law University, Fullerton, California; training in Group Dynamics through the Berkley Transactional Analysis Institute, Berkley, California; Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana in Officers’ Training and Police Administration; 11th Naval District Professional Seminary in Communication and Record Entry, Naval Training Center, San Diego, California; United States International University in Group Dynamics and Psychology of Personality; and Public Affairs School, Department of Defense, Great Lakes, Illinois in Public Relations and Record Entry.
During our time in Indianapolis, Daddy switched from social work through Marion County Welfare to working for the Department of Corrections for the State of Indiana, Division of Parole as a Juvenile Parole officer.  He was helping families in need, helping juvenile offenders getting out of prison, and preaching for the Solsberry congregation, and going to school. He was not spending much time at home.
I have two memories of his job then.  The first was the day that our house in the country was broken into and his gun and some silver pieces his mother had given him were stolen.  I’m sure he grieved the loss of his mother’s gift, but I remember he was really, really upset about the gun.  I can’t even imagine what trouble it might have caused for him at work.
The second memory is the day he returned from a trip across state with the passenger side of the front seat of our car saturated with blood.  He was in the middle of the country when he came upon a motorcyclist who had wiped out on his bike. These were the days when helmets were few and far between. There being no other traffic, no 911, no cell phones or other help available, Daddy picked him up, put him in the front passenger seat of our car and took him to the nearest hospital.  Daddy was very tight-lipped about the event and I think now that the young man probably was dead or died on the way.  There was so much blood. I remember that seat. Too poor to have it replaced immediately (perhaps no insurance?) my parents put a large piece of plastic over it then covered it with some towels or a sheet. If I try to, I can still recall the smell of it.
He joined the U.S. Navy in July of 1958, and after he received his fourth degree, a Bachelor’s of Divinity, from Butler University on August 1, 1958 we moved to Waukegan, Illinois for Daddy to take his basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Center. He was actually commissioned as a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy on November 4, 1957, but his official date of entry as a Lieutenant was July 13, 1958. When he began his career as a Navy Chaplain, he had just had his 34th birthday. This was definitely an upward movement for our family. It meant a steady income that could lift us from the poverty level at least into the middle lower class. It meant dental care for the family for the first time in our lives and the ability to see a doctor when we needed one. And it meant that Daddy could put into practice much of what he had spent his entire life studying for.
The death of little Ricky Everson, the violence that came creeping out of my parents’ closet in later years, and the cultural tragedies of my generation were still all in the future when Clarence Albert Vernon became a military man. I had never seen him drunk or at least recognized what I was seeing. But part of the military culture (at that time, at least) was drinking at the Officer’s Club and schmoozing with the “higher ups.”  My sister Becky remembers seeing Daddy drinking one time in Indiana, but if he was drinking a lot, I was not aware of it.  Of course, his incredible “work-a-holism” would have given him lots of opportunities to drink outside of our home. Now as a military man, he would have even more opportunities.  The Navy was both the making and the undoing of Daddy. 
The schmoozing had a direct effect on me our second winter in Illinois, on November 12th.  Daddy had talked Mama into having a dinner party in our home for some of his new friends.  They had spent every last dime they had on a very nice meal and wine and liquor to go with it, but they had forgotten it was my 11th birthday.  I had been waiting all day to be “surprised” and I really was when it dawned on me that they had forgotten.  When I finally brought it up, they asked Becky and me if we had any money.  I had a little, so Mama took it and quickly ran out to buy me a plastic white wallet with a red interior. I’m sure they apologized to me, but that’s not what I remember about it. After that searing event, I would put “countdown” posters up to remind everyone that my birthday was coming up in 10, 9, 8. . .days.  The good news is I have never forgotten the birthday of one of my children or grand children.
Daddy would serve 11 years, 11 months, and 10 days before his honorable discharge as a Lieutenant Commander on June 23, 1970.  His discharge is listed as “resignation” but I’m quite sure it was a forced resignation after his alleged attempted suicide off of the side of his last posting, the USS Sperry. At the time, the Navy did not offer any help for service personnel who had addiction issues, or bore the heavy casualty of PTSD. 
Foreign and sea service would consume almost half of that time (5 years and 6 months). After his stint at the Great Lakes Training Center, he was with the Seabees (Mobile Construction Battalion Four) in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, then with the Seabees again at Davisville, Rhode Island.  From there he was stationed with the US Marines Air Base in Beaufort, South Carolina.  He was assigned to Admiral WCG Church Naval Construction Battalions, U. S. Atlantic Fleet (CBLANT) staff for inspections in various countries.  Then he was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division.  For his first 6 months in the Pacific, he was in their Headquarters in Okinawa, basically doing “routine Chaplain functions” to develop and implement programs and plans to increase morale and improve operational efficiency of personnel. He also taught college Sociology for the United States Armed Forces Institute.  Then he went to Vietnam. 
In a resume he wrote of what he did: Transferred to Vietnam as the first and only Marine ground forces Chaplain in the country.  Total responsibility for planning, developing and administration of the entire religious program for Marine forces.  Functions entailed continuous coordination and liaisons with Chaplains of other services and support agencies, in development of programs not only for the betterment of Marine forces, but designed to improve Vietnamese-American relations.  Personally implemented a program which enabled more rapid communication between American Red Cross Representatives and personnel in the field.  Held collateral duty as Assistant to the Civil Affairs Officer in planning and affecting restitution of villagers for damages and losses incurred during occupation of villages.
Extensively supervised, scheduled and coordinated the activities of up to 23 Chaplains as they arrived in Vietnam.  Provided technical guidance, assistance and advice to other Chaplains to increase effectiveness of programs; monitored in-progress projects for adequacy, accuracy and conformance with established standards and requirements.  Functioned totally independent of technical guidance; held decision making authority on all religion oriented matters.  Functions were often completed under extremely adverse conditions and when time was of importance.  Ability to coordinate units and personalities was an integral portion of the position.  Performed function, which, if improperly or inadequately performed could have had an adverse influence on Marine forces in the field, as irreparable damage to American-Vietnamese relationships.
 Lieutenant Commander Clarence A. Vernon received the Navy Commendation Medal for service set forth in this citation:  For meritorious service while serving as Chaplain of Headquarters Battalion, Third Marine Division in connection with operations against the enemy in the Republic of Vietnam from 6 May to 16 August 1965.  During this period, Lieutenant Commander VERNON performed his duties in an exemplary manner.  Throughout the difficult transition of the Division units from Okinawa to the Republic of Vietnam, he labored tirelessly to offer a continuous religious ministry program for all personnel.  Traveling extensively throughout the combat area, he provided an inspiring religious ministry to troops living and fighting under extremely adverse conditions.  By sharing their trials and offering encouragement and spiritual comfort, he won and retained the respect and admiration of all with whom he served.  In both his spiritual ministry and his understanding of the military requirements of combat forces, Lieutenant Commander VERNON contributed immeasurably to the maintenance of a high level of morale and efficiency throughout the Division.  By his outstanding spiritual leadership, initiative, and unfailing devotion to duty throughout, Lieutenant Commander VERNON upheld the finest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service.”  Lieutenant Commander VERNON is authorized to wear the Combat “V”. It is signed for the Secretary of the Navy by A.R. Kier, Major General, US Marine Corps, Acting
His copy of the award is dated in his service record as 30 January 1967. This Award of the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat Distinguishing Service is part of a collection of military honor medals that my sister Becky keeps. Daddy also received a National Defense Ribbon with Silver Star, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation, Armed Forces Expeditionary Citation, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Service Medal.  He told my sister Mel some of the stories of what happened over there, but they evidently were quire horrific and she has not shared them.  I do remember Daddy saying one time that he was caught behind enemy lines.  Oh, Daddy!
The family continued to live in Waukegan after Daddy went to Cuba.  When he received orders to Rhode Island to again be with the Seabees, we moved East along a very different part of the Atlantic Ocean than we had lived close to in Beaufort and Savannah.  It would be where Daddy could no longer hide his addiction and the cracks in our family began to show to the public.  It was in Rhode Island that I experienced riding with Daddy when he was drunk and I certainly began to look at him with a new lens of fear and disgust.  He would help me put my childhood behind me in a big fat hurry.
 NEXT  Rhodes Island: Blues
 Will you pray with me?
11 Rhode Island: Blues

Rhode Island was a place of wonder and beauty in my early teens, just as Southern California beach life had been to me as a child.  Our quarters faced the beach of Narragansett Bay.  We saw horsetail crabs on the beach that fronted the contiguous two-story fourplex that was our housing in the Officer’s Section. The smell of the ocean, the sound of the small, lapping waves, and the primal connection with the energy of sun, tide, and myriad marine life supported my sagging anxious soul.  For the first time, we had neighbors who knew what it meant to be a military family, and I found comfort in being a part of a larger group.  Life there truly felt like a new beginning, with a new baby sister, new friends, a new geography to explore, and new friends to make.

But fallout from tragedy can contaminate the air we breathe with unseen toxicity for years, for generations.  The fallout from my family life was poisonous, making it difficult to breathe even before the additional “bomb” of Ricky’s death due to my parents’ negligence years later.  Over my 12 plus years, I had accumulated a swamp of emotional sludge that made it difficult for me to breathe. 

I was in a seventh-grade social studies class in Rhode Island when I had my first anxiety attack and found myself unable to get enough air.  I clearly remember that day—the panicky feeling that I couldn’t get enough air.  We had moved from Illinois in February after Mary was born, and it seemed just as cold outside as Waukegan had been.  But when my teacher sent me to the school nurse, she told me that the reason I felt like I couldn’t breathe was because I had a sore throat and the cold morning air had made it worse.  Breathing into a paper bag and an aspirin were her solutions.  But of course, my problems ran much deeper than a sore throat and they certainly called for deeper solutions.

Through the years I have used exercise, counseling, meditation, and 12-Step practices in lieu of the paper bag/aspirin approach.  And all of them are helpful in negotiating the inner terrors I could not articulate at the time. These skills and practices are usually pretty easy to tap into now, and are coming in quite handy as I negotiate what is not a terror, but certainly last hurdle—that of dying from a fatal lung disease almost 5 decades later.  (For more on this go the tab for my section: Dying for Dummies.)

Recently, I realized that first anxiety attack happened in the same class where my social studies teacher told me that I used my hands too much when I talked. He had called on me, the new girl, to answer a question I knew the answer to.  But before I was finished, he interrupted me. “Are you Italian?” he asked with what now seems like a smirk. “Can you even talk without waving your hands around?”  I was mortified, a mortification that only intensified when he told me to sit on my hands and finish answering the question.  I did as instructed, but my mind had gone blank, so I sat there in mute embarrassment as the class laughed with him. Sludge.

It was a little over a year later when Mama made an attempt to get us away from the sludge of Daddy’s erratic and violent behavior.  Our “family” drives were terrorizing with him at the wheel: missing turns and getting lost; dropping us off to Christmas shop and not coming back to get us until way after dark, when the stores had closed and we stood out in the cold and dark, waiting, waiting.  The worst times were when he was drunk driving and hitting Mama or swiping at us in the back seat at the same time. (Did no one see all this?  Was there no one courageous enough to intervene?). 

Mama finally took courage, but it was short-lived.  When Daddy received orders to go to the U.S. Marine Air Base in Beaufort, South Carolina, to be a base Chaplain, Mama refused to go with him.  Instead she yanked us three older girls out of school, took toddler Mary in arms and somehow—I do not remember how—got us clear across the country to her mother’s house in Seattle, Washington.  It turned out to be an unexpected vacation for us. She didn’t enroll us in the Seattle schools, so we were free agents.  I remember reading until I couldn’t see straight. (I first read Gone with the Wind there.) We played outside and spent some time with my two uncles and their families.  Becky and I burned trash in an old oil drum that Grandma kept for such purposes.  I remember watching the glowing ashes ascend into the starry skies.  It was magic!  And we all enjoyed Grandma’s warm and luscious cinnamon rolls and her cool and tangy avocado-grapefruit salad.  We watched her piece her hand-stitched quilts together and weave braided rugs from rags and scraps.  Too bad she hated children.

But even with her sharp criticisms, it seemed like heaven to me. What’s a little carp or two compared to a war? However, Grandma had another take on our time there.  After we had been there maybe a month or two, Grandma told Mama, “You’ve made your bed, now lie in it.” We had to go. 

There were no women’s shelters or safe houses then and Mama felt she had nowhere else to go, so she called Daddy to come and get us.  He drove across country to pick us up then drove us all back to South Carolina, there to deposit us into a hot and humid land, where people spoke English in a dialect I could not understand.  It was like being in a foreign country. That’s how I started Beaufort Junior High in the middle of May of 1961, just a few weeks before the school year was to end.  Sludge.
NEXT South Carolina: Sludge

Will you pray with me?

The earth is yours, O God, and the fullness thereof.  You bless us with the gift of life in bodies that are mortal, spirits that are vulnerable, and wisdom for our souls. You have made us to be limited that we may learn that you are God and we are not. 

We thank you that you are God of all creatures great and small, even the “monsters” of our personal lives and societies.  Redeem our memories, we pray, and help us to leave all that diminishes life to your judgment and saving grace.  And continue to remind us that you give your creating, redeeming and sustaining life to the whole world, the entire cosmos each moment, one day at a time. No exceptions.

We pray for those who serve in the military and all who put the lives on the line to serve the needs of our cities and nation.  Keep them safe and bring them home, help them in dealing with the injuries of body, heart, and mind that such a commitment requires.  Be with their families and loved ones who also serve this nation in myriad ways that take a heavy toll. Dry the tears, heal the wounds, strengthen the resolve, and help us all to be grateful for their sacrifices.

We pray today for all children, all families, all cultures, all nations, and all people in situations of abuse, war, injustice, and chaos. We pray for teachers, and social workers, medical professionals, first responders, and all those who spend their days and nights in the service of others. Hear the cries of the peoples of the earth and send your messengers of hope.  And lead us to the doors of Life Abundant on earth as it is in Heaven.

We bless you for mothers and fathers, grandparents and responsible adults who express their love appropriately, in spite of their own brokenness and pain.  We are grateful that you raise up a community of people who work to keep children and their welfare as their highest priority.  Enfold us in that community, we pray. Open our eyes to the needs that all our children cannot express and our ears to their cries in the night.  And may it be so until pain and sorrow are no more.  Amen.

12  South Carolina: Sludge
 We had to live in the actual town of Beaufort until military housing was available. Daddy rented an old house for us on Carteret Street that backed up to the Beaufort River.  It was surrounded by huge trees, draped in Spanish moss, and giant hydrangea bushes lined its wide front porch.  That porch was an excellent place to get away from the ancient, non-air conditioned house where the humidity ensured that was ever really dry.
Facing the house from the street, the yard on one side was an excellent location to watch the occasional baptism services at the river’s edge that occurred with regularity. It was the first time I “attended” a traditional black service but certainly not the last.  (We “frozen chosen” Presbyterians have so much to learn about allowing God’s Spirit move us in other ways besides shared hugs and handshakes of peace.) In that worship there was a sense of both deep sorrow and joy that met a yearning in me that I could not name. I soon discovered that the only TV that was broadcast on Sunday mornings featured Mahalia Jackson.”  The Queen of Gospel echoed that unnamed yearning as she opened her heart and voice with heartfelt faith and hope. For a while, she was my Sunday morning worship hour (or half-hour, or however many minutes I could donate to it).
The yard on the other side gave us a view of a two story stately orange brick “mansion,” quite out of character with our wooden home. We couldn’t see it from our porch, which was fine with me. Our porch was an ideal location for watching the summer storms that blew in and blew out with such fascinating furor.  And the rocking chairs that evidently came as a package deal with it provided me with a new opportunity of learning how to sit, rock, and watch the world go by. I still do it every chance I get.
That porch opened up to two rooms: the right door opened into my room and the left door opened to the living room (that also had a door to my room). The living room merged into the dining room and from there, a door led to the kitchen at the back of the house that connected to my parents’ and Mel’s room and a bathroom through the kitchen to the left. To the right there was the same sort of indoor steps that our house in Indiana had: 3 up and then a closed door that led to the attic stairs.  Passing the steps led to Becky’s room, which led to the bathroom that connected with my room. It was mainly just one big circle inside.
My room had lots of windows and three entry points (porch, living room, and bathroom) and one more door to the closet on the same wall as the bathroom door.  If I opened the walk-in closet, I could reach up and touch the bottom side of the attic stairs (or bump my head on them if I wasn’t paying attention). I had never had a closet so big before. Or that scared me so much.
One night when everyone else was asleep, not too long after we had moved in, Becky came through our shared bathroom and crawled into bed with me.  I remember that she told me that she had a roach in her room; she remembers that she told me there was a rat in the room.  Either way, she was as petrified of the critter as I would have been.  It certainly reinforced our belief that the South we had landed in was another planet.
We had finally settled down after much whispered conversation about the dangers of roaches versus rats, when we were suddenly on high alert again. We heard a sound, not of a giant roach/rat coming from Becky’s room or the bathroom, but rather of footsteps coming down the attic stairs.  I don’t remember if my closet door was opened or closed, but the sound was clear: a slow and steady one, with an accompaniment of some sort of chains rattling or heavy bells softly clanging. We lay pinned to my bed in fear and said not a word.
The steps continued downward.  And even though we never heard the attic door in the kitchen open or close, we tracked the path of the sound as if tracking the course of a wild grizzly bear, first into Becky’s room and then through the connecting bathroom.  Our eyes were riveted on my bathroom door.  It was coming closer (now without the chain sound) in a sort of shapeless blob, an ethereal cloud of light.  Immediately, the temperature in my room plummeted.
What entered the room was not a person, but definitely a human presence, slowly moving toward my bed.  We could feel its inspection of us and recognized even at our young ages of 12 and 14 that some sort of communication without words was happening.  Time came to an abrupt stop, as did the specter, as it approached my bed and studied us. It was probably less than a minute, but seemed to last an eternity. Eventually it moved soundlessly from the foot of my bed, passed us and went through the living room into the dining room as the light faded away and my room warmed up back to its sauna feel very quickly.  And that was it.
Strange as it may seem, Becky and I never said a word to each other after it left, and within a short time we both were peacefully asleep.  But early the next morning we discussed it in depth and decided we had really seen a ghost and had been seen by a ghost. Becky crept back into her bedroom (expecting a rat/roach attack with each tiptoed step) and I very carefully went into my closet to get my clothes expecting. . .well, expecting the unexpected. I was happily disappointed that I only found my clothes and shoes.
When we told our parents about the ghost at breakfast, they both scoffed at our imaginings and told us to forget it.  It wasn’t until we had moved into the military housing at Laurel Bay that Daddy told us that he had heard the steps too.  He even got up and looked around outside for a burglar, but found nothing. After we moved, he told us that he knew something had happened but didn’t want to scare us by verifying it.  That old house was later torn down and the last time I was in Beaufort a dental office was right where it had been in the bend of the Beaufort River on Carteret Street. I wonder where the ghost went or if it’s still tethered there somehow. I’m sure the palmetto bugs are still flying around.
That ghost experience opened me up to the possibility/probability that there is so much more to this life, this earth, this solar system, this universe in time and space and beyond than what we can ever perceive or understand.  I have heard others’ stories about such events, some of them much scarier, intrusive, and even abusive, all of them reminders that we are not in charge of this world.  This event was a helpful step in pushing me toward an openness to the unexplainable.
Although Daddy’s drinking and violence continued to dominate our daily existence, life improved slightly when we moved into the military housing complex 6 months or so later.  The Laurel Bay house was newer and—proving that there is a God—it had air conditioning. There were other perks to living in the housing beside the cooler, drier air.  There was a Piggly Wiggly grocery (“The Pig”) outside the housing gates where we could walk to buy snacks.  And there was a sense of belonging among military families we had not experienced while we lived in town.  We had a solid Youth Group that offered Becky and me a lot of opportunities for good times and laughter. We learned how to SCUBA dive in a swimming pool from our youth sponsor who was a diving instructor.  We went to a lot of 10-cent movies on the base and loved following the bug-spray machine that spewed a cloud of poison at night to kill the myriad mosquitos that plagued the area. (It is probably  one of the reasons I now have rare and fatal lung disease. But back then it was cheap fun.)  So, except for Daddy’s deepening addiction and growing violence, our lives were not totally abysmal.
All the kids rode the bus from Laurel Bay to our various schools in town. My bus driver one year was Pat Conroy; I had such a crush on him.  He would later convey a hint of his days in Beaufort through his book, The Great Santini. (Evidently his father had some of the same “monster” qualities that mine did.) Pat was president of the Senior Class of 1963 and was voted “Best All Around” and “Mr. Congeniality.  So, life seemed to be on an upswing for me as I entered my teen years. But there were bigger “monsters” than alcoholism and wife- and child-abuse roaming outside of the Vernon family home. Even to a young, self-absorbed young teen, something was really wrong.
In Beaufort, as in the rest of the Deep South of 1962, there were “whites only/colored only” signs; the segregated schools, restaurants, gas stations and other public places, offered few opportunities to get to know the “other” side as real people. Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam “conflict” were gaining momentum.  Public outrage was heating up and demonstrations, marches, and riots and bombings dominated the news of a world that was in a state of crisis in a s many ways as ours is still today. 
Our family did not fit within the white social norms of the segregated South. Even though my parents both came from what they termed “redneck” families (except Daddy’s step-mother, Gramma), we did not learn prejudice against people of color from them. And although racism was everywhere, the mix of races and ethnicities in the military only reinforced our family’s tolerance for those different from ourselves, except in one area--the great divide there was between officers and enlisted personnel.  (I did not notice just how great a divide that it was until I married an enlisted man.)
What I did notice were the ugly, mean spirited jokes that caused laughter to ring through the “white only” school hallways of Beaufort High in my freshman year.  I truly had never been aware of people’s skin color before. Daddy had often taught sociology as an adjunct professor wherever we lived; and even through the turmoil of our lives, we “girls” had learned to respect our skin, language, food, and cultural differences as a gift from God. (Two of the 4 of us married Hispanic men.) But my job then was to try to fit in.  I wasn’t going to utter a peep about what I really thought of their racist jokes.  But the times, they were a’changin’.
I think that the upheaval outside of our home birthed courage in Mama that I had never seen in her.  Perhaps it was the “social courage” demonstrated beyond our walls that spurred her to action at the end of my freshman year at Beaufort High. There were certainly enough other spurs in her flanks. The violence at home was escalating, the financial problems were mounting, and the daily logistics of acting as if we were a “perfectly normal” family were becoming more and more difficult. 
But it was the conditions of her job as a lab technician at Beaufort Hospital that ultimately caused her to do something.  Mama’s job involved drawing blood from all of the patients, who were assigned rooms according to the “whites only” / “coloreds only” social code.  When she would come to the patients’ bedside, she would address them as “Mr. Smith” or “Mrs. Smith” regardless of color.  She was severely reprimanded and instructed to call “the coloreds” by their first names only.  She couldn’t do it and continued to address all of her patients with respect.  The official condemnation for the respect she showed them was the straw that broke the camel’s back for her.  She quit or was fired, I know not which.
There were no other jobs available for Mama in Beaufort.  The good news was she found a job at the US Public Health Service Hospital in Savannah, Georgia, about 40 miles south of Beaufort, but the bad news of a promise of a job was that she would have to pass a typing test of 45 words per minute.  The good news was that the USPHS not only promoted equal treatment for all patients, it also offered her better pay and possibilities of advancement because it was a federal government job.  The better news is I could move away from Daddy, but the bad news was Becky was going to stay.  So the summer between ninth and tenth grade, Becky stayed in Beaufort with Daddy while we moved to a rental house in Savannah and then a larger, new house the next year just blocks away from the rental. I was a student at Savannah High from the 10th through the 12th grades.
 NEXT  Savannah: Graduation
Will you pray with me?
The earth is Yours, O God, and the fullness thereof.  You give us the gift of life in bodies that are mortal, spirits that are vulnerable, and wisdom that is unsteady. You have made us to be limited that we may learn that you are God and we are not.  You are God of all creatures, great and small, even the “monsters” of our personal lives, cultures, and nations.  Redeem our memories, we pray, and help us to leave all that diminishes life to your judgment and saving grace.  Continue to remind us that you pour out Your creating, redeeming and sustaining life to the whole world each day. No exceptions.
We pray today for all children, all families, all cultures, all nations, and all people in situations of abuse, war, injustice, and chaos.  Hear the cries of the peoples of the earth and send your messengers of hope.  And help us all find the doors You open to Life Abundant on earth as it is in Heaven, that the business of war may cease, and the profits of its raging madness may go to foster peace and good will rather than extermination and chaos. We thank you for gospel songs, spiritual songs, songs of the church, songs of happy hearts, and songs of Nature--all reflecting the Good News of your amazing grace.
We bless you for mothers and fathers, grandparents and responsible adults who express their love appropriately, in spite of their own brokenness and pain.  We are grateful that you raise up a community of people who work to keep children and their welfare as their highest priority.  Enfold us in that community, we pray. Open our eyes to the needs of people yet enslaved, and give us the courage to offer them hospitality and sanctuary by any means necessary. Keep us on high alert to the ghosts of history that even today cause bang the drums of war and call to arms those who know not what they do.
We pray for those who work for peace and who stake their reputations and even lives for the sake of the greater good.  Be with our President and other heads-of-state who must constantly negotiate in dire and dangerous situations.  Be with ambassadors, negotiators, and people and institutions who teach and work for tolerance.  Open all of our hearts that we may be willing to live out our days and years building up the possibilities of what the world family may yet be. Show us all the Way of compassion and humility, until pain and sorrow are no more and the Earth is full of your Glory as the waters cover the sea.  Amen.
13  Savannah: Graduation
Looking at my high school albums, I’m surprised to see that in my first year in Georgia at Savannah High School (a 3 year school), I was a Student Council representative.  I don’t remember being elected or appointed, but I must have been. My picture is on page 76 of the 1964 "Blue Jacket."  I was also the chaplain for Homeroom 225 for all 3 years, offering a morning prayer each day after we had gathered for attendance and the Pledge of Allegiance. As a Junior and Senior I find pictures of an unsmiling me--besides my unhappy home life, my teeth were crooked--that records that I was in Spanish Club, the Dramatics Club and a member of the Girls’ Chorus.
I was a relatively good student but I didn’t have much time or energy at home to apply myself to my studies. (I was shocked to learn when I went back to school as an adult that I was smart and graduated “with honors” from college and from seminary. I never had chance to focus on much except our family life in high school.)  I had a “black hole” in my brain when it came to geometry (and still do!) and felt most at home in my English classes.  I made friends with the "loser" group at school, a very funny and kind group of people. We were interested in theater, poetry, and food, food, food. But through several friendships, I also hung on the periphery of the “in” group, mostly rich, but not always funny or kind.  I certainly never "belonged" with them like I did with the "losers."
 I don’t remember Mama and Daddy taking part in any parent conferences or in many school functions where parents were invited.  Neither do my sisters.  Our parents made promises, but they were prone to forget to pick us up if we had to stay for an after-school event.  Since at that time, school personnel didn’t bear the responsibility for a child after hours, the four of us Vernon girls knew at one time or another what it was to wait for a ride home that didn’t come. (This, of course, was before cell phones.)
I do remember a few times, though, when we lived in Illinois, that we all went to see Becky in a Junior High play, where she had her family-famous lines:  “I am Ruttabeggio, I love Sopapillio, and her I will marrio, despite old Spaghettio.” (I'm pretty sure it wasn't Shakespeare.) I also remember going with Mama to see Melody in a Junior High production in Savannah where she played the part of an old lady in a rocking chair knitting.  And Mama went to hear me sing alto in a Christmas cantata called “A Ceremony of Carols” that the Girls’ Chorus sang in Olde English. But that was about the extent of parental involvement in our schooling that I can remember.
The assassination of President John Kennedy in November of 1963 jerked me awake to the wider world outside our home and suddenly I was paying attention to more than just my private wars. I had a major crush on the handsome and energetic leader of our country and kept the magazine cover photo of him that “Life” had featured during his election campaign taped inside my school locker doors for several years.  His shooting was announced over the intercom during my Spanish class, and even though we were in the land of “Impeach Earl Warren” –the controversial Supreme Court Justice who broke the tie in favor of Brown v. Board of Education—everyone was shocked. A half hour later, it was announced that President Kennedy was dead.  Classes were dismissed early that day. And for the next few days and weeks, we were glued to the television as the now familiar tale of Ruby and Oswald rolled open before our disbelieving eyes.
It was the first time I can recall truly grieving for a national tragedy. I even wrote a letter to the future about my feelings, and a truly terrible poem, which I still have. There was more than his death to grieve, but writing about my grief gave me an outlet for venting some of the gases coming out of my personal emotional swamp.  I believe this event pushed me into a writing my feelings down in real words and not just letting them bubble up to fester and re-fester.  In fact, it may have been my first step toward a lifetime of writing.
Our family had been in the throes of death for many years, perhaps from its inception at my parents’ marriage at the height of World War II, in December of 1943.  The promises of love and trust that the union of Al Vernon and Thelma Chaney signified to them and to the world bound them as a family, but in reality, the toxicity of their lives would eventually keep their four daughters glommed together with them like a Gulf Coast tar ball after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 
The antidotes to the toxicity of our family life that helped me put the whole thing out of my mind for hours at a time were reading, school, and dramatics and singing.  Mama could play the piano and her favorite hymn was, “In My Heart There Rings a Melody,”—thus my sister Melody’s name. Mine came from an Aunt Fay on both sides, and my middle name, “Kathleen” and nicknamed “Kathy,” came from a song Mama loved, “I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen.” It was a husband’s promise to an unhappy, withered woman who yearned to go home to Ireland. Not the cheery little ditty one wants to have the inspiration for one’s name!  But Mama had a wonderful alto voice and she sang it with gusto, dramatic arms and a flourish at the end. On a trip of any length she would teach us all songs she knew and we sang our hearts out for hours.  More importantly to me, she helped me learn how to hear and sing harmony.  It has been a life-long gift that still fills my heart and soul with joy.
Mama’s emerging courage seen in the private stand she took at Beaufort Hospital showed itself again some months after we had moved to Savannah. We had been attending the First Christian Church of my parents’ denomination (Disciples of Christ), but were not members.  One Sunday some other visitors, then termed “Negroes,” came to the doors wanting to worship with us. We were already seated, so we did not notice the incident.  But we quickly learned that the deacons had refused to seat them and turned them away at the doors.  We also quickly learned that the pastor rushed out to invite the spurned guests back in.  I do not remember if he was successful, but I hope he was.
What I do remember is that the next week the ruling board decided that the pastor would have to go and scheduled a congregational meeting to vote on his dismissal for the very next Sunday after worship.  The service traditionally had an altar call, and the next week up rises Mama to respond. I’m sure her knees were shaking, but Thelma Lucille Chaney Vernon walked to the front of the chancel with Mel, Mary and me trailing behind her like well-trained ducklings to join the church so she could vote for the pastor that next Sunday. Her vote couldn’t have changed the overwhelming tide against him, and we never returned after that, but her willingness to walk down the aisle was out-of-character for Thelma Lou. Hmm.
Meanwhile, Becky remained in Beaufort with Daddy. I think she relished the freedom from the family wars and didn’t come with him very much when he came to visit us.  Of course, she had to live with him on a daily basis. But somehow she had learned to stay out of his way when he was drunk, and so seemed to have a much more “placid” relationship with him than I did. As did Mel, who was his special “Monkeyshine,” but I know she suffered greatly as she watched our pitched battles from a corner of the room.  And Mary had never known any other kind of background to her life but chaos and yelling.
I’m sure Becky was very happy to miss the family war that continued unabated whenever Daddy visited us in Savannah.  It was combat that gave me countless opportunities to try to “save” my mother and younger sisters.  Although the battles were erratic (sometimes, miraculously, there were none), but they followed a “routine” when they erupted.  First there was a time of uneasy silence when anxiety would build, but there was a pretense of normalcy.  Eventually something or someone would “trigger” Daddy—playing the radio too loud, or looking at him wrong.  Then there would be a skirmish in the living room or kitchen or bedroom.  And finally a full-fledged war that moved from room to room:  shouting matches, slapping and hitting frenzies, kicked-in doors and walls, threatening steak knives, or broken, jagged-edge pickle-jar weapons.   Sometimes the war broke out in public.  One time Daddy drank so much at a restaurant he leaned over his plate and vomited into it.   Sludge.
When he got orders in the fall or spring of 1963 to go to Vietnam (with the Third Marine Division; the US was there as “advisors”) Becky moved in with the family of the base commander until her graduation.  I missed her dearly.  I adored her even though she would always find excuses not to help me with the dishes.  I also envied her, not only because she was two years older, but because she was both thinner and shorter than me.  She had been best friend and counselor for all of my 15 years.  In my eyes, she was smart, she was funny, and she was beautiful and she was popular.  I grieved her daily presence in my life.
Besides Becky, I had never had a best friend because we had never been in one place long enough to cultivate one.  Maybe if I had had a best friend, I would have confided the violence of my life to her.  May not. I had a lot of practice at keeping our family life private.  Alas, there were no relatives or community around us that cared enough to check on us.  In fact, with Daddy’s position as a parish minister and then as a Navy Chaplain, we were the ones who cared for the community.  It’s small wonder that in school, I worked hard to act as if I had my life together. 
While Daddy was gone (and he was over there a long time) I tried to talk Mama into leaving him and get herself and her four daughters out of hell.  After I learned to drive, I even made an appointment with a lawyer and took her there myself so she could start proceedings, but she would not, could not do it.  Mama had mustered her courage on behalf of social justice, but her energy and determination died at the doors of the church. She forced herself to go to her job every day, but was unable to stir herself at home.  Her inability to function became particularly clear to me after Daddy received orders to Vietnam. She ceased to function in any way except go to work.  Becky and I cooked meals, Mel helped with the house, and I “mothered” pre-schooler Mary as I had done since she was a baby in Rhode Island.
Before Daddy had left for Vietnam, he had helped Becky enroll at Cal Western University in San Diego where she could attend after she graduated from Beaufort High School in 1964.  But she had only been there 6 weeks when Mama--temporarily free from Daddy's harsh hand and fearful of bankruptcy—called Becky and insisted that the college was too expensive and that her oldest daughter was needed at home. So Becky came home immediately and got a job working for a mobile home company.  She also started attending Armstrong Jr. College part-time in the spring semester of 1965, which was where she met her husband-to-be Buddy.  I was happy to have my strongest ally come back home, at least for two more years. 
When I started Savannah High School as a Sophomore in 1963, it was still segregated. Integration came in the fall of 1965, with a handful of brave souls who started their career at Savannah High with police escorts and military protection.  For the first few weeks, there were soldiers on duty in the hallways of all three floors of SHS.  Obviously, my family had its problems, but racism was not one of them.  I knew it was wrong, but it also was very easy to go along with the crowd, to laugh at racial jokes—and even to repeat the jokes— because I was desperate for friends, desperate to fit in. I did not yet have the courage even to stick up for myself, let alone to stick up for my convictions.
But, in my Senior year, Ola Mae Bryan and I became tentative friends.  We sat next to each other in a class called “Contemporary Problems,” a conglomeration of sociology, politics, and ethics. She had a beautiful smile and I admired her greatly.  I cannot even imagine the courage and determination it took her to be one of the first African-Americans at SHS. In my heart at least, I had stood in solidarity with her from that first very scary day of forced integration in 1964. I was glad that at least for the length of the school year, we both stood (or sat) in solidarity through our classroom friendship.  Ola Mae was one of my teachers of what courage looks like and I treasure what I learned from her.
On the home front, that spring, Mama mustered her frail courage and made a feeble effort to try to separate permanently from Daddy. He had been in Vietnam for an extended period when she wrote him a letter telling him that neither she nor her girls wanted him to come back.  Daddy was quick to respond.  He took Mama’s letter in hand and convinced someone with authority to cut a new set of orders for the States, to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, California.  He was back in Savannah only a couple of weeks later. He was repentant and full of promises to Mama: he would stop drinking; he truly loved her; he needed her with him; he really would change, yada, yada.  She eventually agreed that she would go with him to San Diego after my graduation. He went to San Diego then returned to move the family to there just before my graduation from SHS on June 6, 1966. 
He was very drunk in the stadium that day and I was hideously embarrassed.  I started to ride home with the family so we could “celebrate,” but I quickly realized that any attempt of a “celebration” with Daddy in that condition was futile. I got out of the car at a stop sign and just started walking. Becky and Buddy drove around in his car until they found me.  They picked me up and took me to a local drive-in hangout (Shoney’s Big Boy) for a special treat.  I will always be grateful to them for searching for me until they found me.  They lifted me up when I was very, very alone.  But of course, I still had to go home.
I’m not sure that the term “post-traumatic stress syndrome” had been coined yet, but we knew that the “flak” of Daddy's tour of duty on the combat field was adding to the misery of life at home as soon as he was home. Immediately after my graduation, she went with him to San Diego, taking Melody and Mary with her. I would miss them dearly, but on the other hand, their leaving meant Becky and I had a chance to escape, she for the second time. 
And it did feel like we had made our escape from the fear and violence of our family.  But it didn't last long because soon after their departure, Becky and Buddy decided to get married. She would live with him in the studio apartment that she and I shared.
What to do? I was only making $1.05 an hour at my new job with K-Mart.  I certainly couldn’t afford my own place, not even a studio.  Besides, I was the daughter of a “can’t do” mother.  How could I live by myself, work, and go to college? I didn't feel even remotely capable of that. It seemed that my escape was to be short-lived.
NEXT  California: Redux
Will you pray with me?
Abiding Breath of Life,
You call us to love our enemies, a task that seems impossible from human eyes.  And yet you stir people of every generation to reach out in friendship across the great divides of the human family to nurture peace in the midst of the battlegrounds.  We thank you for their vision and compassion, their faith and humility, and their legacy of hope.
We thank you for individuals and communities that take their stand against the hatred and injustices of this generation.  Bless them, we pray, and help us take our place by their side. We are grateful for those persons in our own lives that have taught us that small acts of justice and righteousness yield a thirty-fold harvest of goodness and life.
We pray for the leaders of our country and of this world.  With anxiety sleeting down upon us 24/7, with fears and dangers lurking everywhere, and social discord replacing our crumbling sense of community, with families gone awry and the search for justice faltering, we are in dire need of your guiding hand and strengthening grace.  Grant that we may become the people, the persons you would have us be, that children may find safety and love in homes and schools, that parents may find ways and means to give their children the best of themselves, and that leaders in the courts and in the halls of power my find a way to beat their swords into plowshares.
Prepare our table and anoint our heads with courage, we pray.  Let it be that we may be counted among your people that live confidently in your ability to help us wage peace within our world, our communities, our families, and even within our very souls.  In the name of the Prince of Peace we pray.  Amen.
14  California: Redux
Becky and Buddy married in July of 1966 and the upshot was I could no longer afford to stay in Savannah. I took a train back to California in early August because there was a national airline strike that summer.  It took three days and several packs of cigarettes to get to the other side of the country. But, in the 1890’s, the trip might have been by covered wagon like Grandma Chaney’s going from Nebraska to Wyoming to Idaho and have taken many, many months.  But in looking back to Grandma’s mother, Sarah Jane Adkins Fuller (1860-1941) I’m sure it felt like years. Along the way, Grandma’s younger brother, my Great Uncle Ben was born in Wyoming.  At least when I crossed yet again the 2500 miles from Savannah to San Diego I wasn’t pregnant.
Daddy picked me up at the San Diego train depot, and in a blink, I was back into the family fray I had thought I had put behind me. I know that Melody and Mary were really happy that I had not “abandoned” them after all (that would come later), and I was truly delighted to be reunited with my two younger sisters whom I loved so very, very much.  I immediately took up the familiar and impossible task I had set for myself of trying to buffer them from the fallout of our family hell (and in the course of it being the “savior”). 
When I returned to San Diego, I registered to go to City College (a Junior College located downtown) very close to where Mama and Daddy worked at the San Diego Naval Hospital. I declared myself to be a journalism major and even wrote an article for the college paper.  At City, I made my first close friend, Robin, who I still think about and wonder how she and her family are.  She was Reformed Jewish and her family seemed to be everything that my family was not: a tightly knit family who had all moved west from the Detroit area: grandparents, parents, brothers and Robin, all connected by generations, rituals, culture, hospitality and generosity. They “adopted” me and I became a regular visitor at Friday night dinners and other family celebrations.  What a haven they were to me, a harbor in the storm!
Robin and I decided to room together the next semester.  I got a part-time job at Circle Arts Theatre (live theater productions) in the reservations department and box office and transferred to Mesa College, another campus of the city college system, close to where our apartment was. I worked in the day and went to school at night. I had bought a 1963 Chevy Corvair (of later Ralph Nader fame: Unsafe at Any Speed); I felt so zippy in it.  I zipped home from school one night and two stevedores, rough looking dockworkers, were sitting on the floor with her in the living room smoking something that I knew was illegal at the time.  It scared me: the men, the pot, and this side of Robin I had not seen before. They offered me a smoke and I inhaled once—it was akin to taking in a lungful of sweet tar. I decided then, I’d rather have the known chaos of my family, than chance the possibility of imprisonment (possession was a felony then). Thus ended my drug experimentation and roommate phases. So when the semester ended, I moved back with my family who was not too far away, on Mt. Acadia Street.  That was on June 1, 1967.
The next day, Friday, June 2, 1967 was the day of the tragic death of Ricky Everson.
The ramifications of that tragedy and its indelible stain were beyond my ability to comprehend. I had spent my life trying to “fix” my family, but this terrifying rip in the fabric of the universe was not something anyone could fix, or set right, or make better.  I couldn’t fix the anguish of his family or our neighborhood.  I couldn’t fix people standing outside our house, just staring at it, sometimes pointing their fingers. I couldn’t fix the embarrassing and humiliating spotlight by the police and press on a family that even in the best of times was only hanging on by our fingernails. And suddenly, our fingernails were ripping off.
Three weeks after Ricky’s death, on the 23rd day of June 1967 the lawsuit of his parents in the amount of  $450,000 against my parents was brought to a close. That amount had been negotiated to $100,000 but according the official court documents, the amount of $30,000 was paid for negligence, in accordance with Section 402B of the Penal Code of the State of California:  Any person who discards or abandons, or leaves in any place accessible to children any refrigerator, ice box, or deep freeze locker, having a capacity of one and one-half cubic feet or more, which is no longer in use, and which has not had the door removed or the hinges and such portion of the latch mechanism removed to prevent latching or locking of the door, is guilty of a misdemeanor.  Any owner, lessee, or manager, who knowingly permits such a refrigerator, ice box, or deep freeze locker, to remain on premises under his [sic] control, without having the door removed or the hinges and such portion of the latch mechanism removed to prevent latching and locking of the door, is guilty of a misdemeanor.  Guilt of a violation of this Section shall not, in itself, render one guilty of manslaughter, battery or other crime against a person who may suffer death or injury from entrapment in such refrigerator, ice box, or deep freeze locker. (Anyone who sees such an appliance should notify authorities immediately!)
Even with the amount of the judgment lessened, it still pushed my parents into bankruptcy—they very thing that had kept Mama paralyzed with fear for a greater part of her marriage.  But even that took a back seat to the greater trauma smothering our family. I had no skills at the time to help me negotiate the deep hole of excruciating sorrow.  I was inconsolable (not that anyone tried to console me).  There was nothing I could do, nothing I could fix, especially not the guilt I felt since, as far as I knew, I had been the last one to see him alive. The only idea I had of fixing myself was to opt out of life. I couldn’t bear it and wanted to kill myself, but God intervened and after I decided I might as well go on living.
So, in the summer of 1967, I was once again grappling with the same question I had asked a year earlier in Savannah at Becky and Buddy’s wedding. What now?  I had a quick and ready answer. I had learned throughout my life how to “stifle myself” as Archie Bunker used to demand that Edith do, and that both of my parents taught their daughters by example.  So, I stifled myself. I shoved it all down.  I stuffed the toxic tragedy of Ricky’s death— and my misplaced sense of responsibility for it— deep into the far recesses of my gut, there to lodge in the nagging cesspool of self-doubt, internal criticism, fear, and shame that had grown within me through the years. Of all the internal burdens I bore, shame, shame, shame was the cornerstone on which everything else rested.  
Within a few months after the tragedy, we had moved to another part of San Diego.  My room was the garage.  I painted the cement floor red. I don’t know if I chose that color as a way of expressing a latent creativity, or if it was an unintended self-disclosure of the state of our family.  Maybe it was a mix of both. Whatever it was, my room’s greatest perk was that it had an attached bathroom. That’s a big deal to an 18 year old.
We had a big white sheepdog we named “Boozie.” I don’t remember how we acquired him, but nobody trained him, or walked him barely looked to his needs of food and water.  He took out his unhappiness by barking a lot shredding everything he could lay his paws on. Bless his little doggy heart.  Mama made me take him to an animal shelter in Escondido; I do hope he had better luck with his next family. The only fun I remember during that time was going to a Dionne Warwick concert.  Otherwise, I just tried to prop myself up with my Peter, Paul, and Mary albums, smoking cigarettes, eating Fritos with bananas, and caretaking my sisters when I could.  Daddy was a good cook (as Becky had become), and Mama’s efforts were pretty good when she didn’t go lie down during the preparation of a meal and go to sleep.  There were no smoke alarms then, only a lot of smoke.  I liked to bake, so I started making cookies, cakes, pies, and cinnamon rolls pretty regularly. It’s a creative outlet that I still love.  For me, nothing does say “lovin” like something from the oven.
Within a year, we had moved yet again; this time to Poway, which was then a small town on the northern outskirts of San Diego.  Daddy was the part-time pastor at Poway Christian Church while keeping up with his chaplaincy duties at the Naval Hospital. He then received orders to be a chaplain on an atomic submarine tender, the USS Sperry, based in San Diego. We had moved to Hilltop Circle, and in stark contrast to our last house, lived in a spacious, country-like neighborhood where our backyard neighbors kept horses and the people down the street had a glorious rose garden. It was the last house I would live in with my parents and sisters.
My motivations for my growing addiction to busyness (and smoking) were well hidden from my conscious self.  I felt that being busy meant that I was being important, and it was a great way not to have to look at myself too closely.  I felt quite virtuous, I think, and I’m sure that I unconsciously hoped that my daily work among so many men would help me find the husband of my dreams.  In reality, I was like a heat-seeking Cinderella missile on the lookout for an unsuspecting Prince Charming.  Oh, who will rescue me?
I thought I found the answer in Joe.  He was a charming guy, a mechanic at the Naval Hospital Country Store and Gas Station where I worked in the office.  I kept the books, answered the phone, and “worked the window” for customers who were having their cars serviced.  I also helped with inventory at the store, and in a pinch I could pump gas. (There was no self-service then.  We had two grades: Premium for 27 cents a gallon, and Regular for 10 cents.)  Joe was divorced (his wife claimed he was abusive, but he assured he was not).  He was a father to a young son, was probably an alcoholic, but boy did he have a great smile.  What a perfect candidate for my husband!  It didn’t take too long for us to become engaged.  My parents were aghast. Especially after we were in an accident in Tijuana, Mexico where we had gone to dance one night.  Joe had been drinking, but was not responsible for the accident.  However, I was knocked out for a while and taken to a local hospital, and Joe was taken to jail; if I were to die he would be charged with my death.  The rest of night spent in the Tijuana hospital was a nightmare best not remembered, although I’m sure Joe’s experience in jail was no picnic. Daddy came to pick me up the next day, and suddenly both Mama and Daddy were concerned about me. Gosh, that only took 19 years.
For the first time that I ever could remember, they came together and acted like parents.  They told me I would come to regret marrying Joe and they thought I should get away for a while. I may have been in shock, but I did listen to their advice. I gave Joe his ring back (he was able to get the $800 bail together to get out of jail the next day), quit my job, and flew back to Savannah to stay with Becky and Buddy and their dear baby daughter Amy for a few weeks.  They were in a bigger apartment than the one when they got married, but not by much.  I was in the way and I was longing for the California coast, where the mountains meet the sea, and the beauty of the sunsets always whisper a song in my soul.  So I yet again I travelled west.
I moved back into my old room and took up the reins of my life as if I had never left.  My wonderful boss, Mr. Hood, had not hired anyone in my absence and welcomed me back. Joe and I ignored each other at work and life returned to “normal,” whatever that was.  Besides going to school three nights a week, I threw myself back into my old job and just tried to keep my nose to the grindstone. 
In 1968, Balboa Naval Hospital was a beehive of activity, since it was a primary receiving point for Navy and Marine casualties of the Vietnam War that was now raging on the world stage. I often encountered the walking wounded that were well enough to be out and about in the many buildings and public places of the hospital. Being confronted almost daily with some of the physical results of war up close and personal was heart-breaking.  The patients were both hard to look at and hard not to stare at, particularly the ambulatory burn patients.  The memory of those men and the stories told by their broken bodies and lives stuck with me.  When I became a mother, I joined “Another Mother for Peace.” My younger daughter wears my necklace with its timeless and always appropriate sunflower logo: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
That goes the same for war in the privacy of one’s home. In time, I learned the name for the type of family we had is “dysfunction.” Wikipedia puts it this way: A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continually and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions. Children sometimes grow up in such families with the understanding that such an arrangement is normal. Dysfunctional families are primarily a result of codependent adults, and may also be affected by addictions, such as substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc.), or sometimes an untreated mental illness. Dysfunctional parents may emulate or over-correct from their own dysfunctional parents. In some cases, a "child-like" parent will allow the dominant parent to abuse their children. 
Codependency is: a type of dysfunctional helping relationship where one person supports or enables another person's addiction, poor mental health, immaturity, irresponsibility, or under-achievement. Among the core characteristics of codependency, the most common theme is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and identity.  Our little family was a model dysfunctional family, and each of the six of us in our own way played the “role” we had been assigned by the generations that came before us, by our family “position,” and by our DNA.   
 I believe the phrase “Family, thy name is dysfunction” is true of all families to a greater or lesser degree. Whatever has happened to us in our childhood, give us the “stuff” that we spend our adult lives working through; we codependents have a lot of “stuff” to sort through, keep, alter, or toss.  We also are attracted to others who have suffered the slings and arrows of a malfunctioning family of origin.  We’re comfortable with the underlying psychological system, and have all the skills necessary to perpetuate it. So, it’s no big surprise that I met and married another codependent; we complemented each other perfectly.
The day before my 20th birthday, I met Juan, who would become my husband.  Daddy had arranged for the Naval Hospital Chapel Choir to come as special guests to sing for late morning worship in Poway and I had been recruited to be one of the drivers who would pick up some of the choir. Juan knew as soon as he saw me that he would marry me. Three months later we were engaged and three months after that Daddy married us in Poway, right before his ship took off for San Francisco.  Juan and I moved into an apartment close to the Hospital. This is not our story, but the long and the short of it is: Juan’s gut feeling that we were meant to be together was a “God thing,” as I’m prone to say.  Wendell Berry says it so beautifully in “The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge,” when he writes: As the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling, and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be home. In September 2009, at the end of our “one inch” journey of 40 years together, we both had learned to be home.  It was a “God thing” indeed.
So was Daddy’s departure. Mama and the girls had moved back to an apartment in San Diego, where she continued to sort through their financial woes.  I felt that she dealt with the bankruptcy with a surprising composure.  Maybe because it turned out to be a much more “humane” process than the years of threatening phone calls from creditors.  She kept on working at the job she loved, but otherwise functioned by rote. Mel (18) and Mary (9) did their best to keep on keeping on. I spent as much time with them as I could, but I was focused on my new family. 
“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen
I did not know it then, but my new family was helping me take those first steps away from my family of birth.   It is hard work (and sometimes still is!) to find the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace becomes much easier with practice, but for me anyway, it doesn’t usually come instantly. The pathway has temptations. My default mode is still a virtuous-sounding inner voice pushing me to offer my unasked for “wisdom” to “help” make other’s lives easier, better, and (heh-heh!) more “functional.” What could be nicer than that? I just want to make people happy! That is a flashing sign of dysfunction “at work.” Unless I’m asked for advice, I presume the Holy Presence is their best “guide,” and remember once again I am merely called to “be home.”  It’s that let go, “let” God thing.
It’s amazing happened when I first let go. Between Daddy’s absence and my resignation as her “protector/mother,” a dormant will-to-function “seed” took root and began to make itself at home in my child-like mother.  After all the years of hell, Mama went to counseling.  She found a counselor who helped her dig into the scattered wreckage of her life and started (oh so slowly!) putting the pieces together.  She started to occupy her own life in a way that none of us had seen before. Very slowly she started accepting responsibility for herself and actually started taking care of herself.  And miraculously, her “if only” wishful thinking started to fade into the background of her inner voice. It was a paradigm shift for her. And the first outward sign of this?
. . . Drum roll please! She mustered up enough courage to take the one single action that would lead to a freedom she had never known.  She hired a lawyer and filed suit for divorce.
Finally! Finally! Finally!    
NEXT  Connecting the Dots
Will you pray with me?
God of the Generations,
How we thank you that we are a part of your immense and ineffable Creation! And we bless you for this time, this space, this day, this place, this breath, this holy connection we have with you and one another through the gift of life. You generate life to be lived together, as family, as community, as culture, as society, as a human family, as a family of creatures within all of Nature, all of which manifest your holy Presence.  There are no strangers to you; none who are left outside of your watchful eyes, of your enlivening breath, of your ability to remake, renew, and reuse the inheritances we receive from our forbearers and pass on to our heirs. We thank you for the leap of the generations, where we are able to pass along to our descendants that which is better than what we received from our ancestors.  Holy, holy, holy!
Hear our prayers, O Abiding Power, for . . . .
As you abide with us in Goodness, we pray you will energize the hopeless, calm the frazzled, forgive the unforgiving, and lead the lost and misguided.  Resurrect the living-dead that all may find freedom, joy and hope in functioning as is within your good will and mercy.  May the birth waters of your compassion bring bodies, minds, and spirits to new life.  May those who look to you with eyes honed by tragedy, pain, suffering and sorrow find the salve of your Spirit offering new insights, new wisdom, new resources, as light replaces darkness and your Light redeems scarring memories. May it be now, as it was and evermore shall be, that in the healing of our hearts, Heaven on Earth is proclaimed and witnessed in the HERE and in the NOW. In the name of all that is Holy we pray.  Amen.
15  Connecting the Dots
Right before I turned 20, I met Juan Treviño, the man I would marry.  Like Joe, the man I didn’t marry, Juan was funny and divorced, but that’s where the similarities ended.  Juan was charming, had a college degree in Music Education, was an amazing baritone singer and choir director, came from a stable family, was not much of a drinker, never physically violent, and knew he was going to marry me the first time he every laid eyes on me. He swept me (and Mama) off our feet. At last, my Prince Charming in the flesh!  We were engaged a few months after we met. Daddy married us in the church in Poway at the end of May in 1969.  And thus began the Juan and Kathy story.
But this story is not about my sisters or my adult lives. However in each of our marriages and the families we created, we brought our own histories.  I certainly brought “my story” with me, as Juan brought his. (The first lesson I learned was that to throw an ashtray at him during a fight more than one time was to end the marriage.  Good lesson!) Through the years we slowly, often painfully, learned the hardest and best lesson any person is blessed to learn: God is God and we are not. I am fallible, fragile and oh-so-human, just as we all are.  It is the work of our lifetimes to learn it, accept it, use it, and be grateful for those boundaries that God sets within our fragility and fallibility. Using this as our building plan, our worst character flaws can become our best assets. Talk about miracles!
Juan and I had an apartment not too far away from Mama’s and it was close to the Naval Hospital where he was stationed as a corpsman in an ICU ward. We moved to another one in a better neighborhood when someone tried to break through our bathroom screen while Juan was on the night shift at the Hospital. His next set of orders was across the hospital patio as head corpsman in a surgical ward. I got a new job in La Jolla and was busy building my new life, but tried to keep tabs on Mary as I could.  In September, I became pregnant and learned through those nine months that someone can have morning sickness for the entire pregnancy and still gain 60 pounds. 
Early in my pregnancy, I was forced to quit my job that I had spent a bunch of money obtaining through an employment agency. Fotomat Corporation (think drive-thru film kiosks in parking lots of shopping centers) had a policy of firing pregnant women after the third month. Not unusual at all then. No “showing” was allowed. I told the head honcho of the department that I was expecting twins and just “showing” really early. I think he took pity on me.  Anyway I was able to eke out two more months of salary before I was terminated. The irony: I worked in their corporate headquarters with two floors full of other women and never saw a single customer to “show” myself to. They told me maybe I could be hired back after the birth, but there were no promises. Today pregnancy clothing seems to be designed to “show” to the world that a baby is on its way. Different days in lots of ways. 
I don’t know if Daddy’s jump off the ship was an attempt at suicide, or just a drunken impulse, or both.  Maybe the divorce pushed Daddy over the edge. Who knows? Recently, I found a copy of his official discharge dated 23 June 1970.  Now I know why Daddy was MIA to us when my son, Carlos, was born on 22 June 1970.  But Daddy had also been busy in other ways. According to a Christmas Letter they sent to family and friends, Daddy had come to Leola’s house in La Jolla to rent an apartment from her on February 23rd (coincidently Mary’s 9th birthday) and they were married on that Thanksgiving.  His second wife was sweet and smart, and because she was smart, their marriage lasted only a few years.  He was her darling “Allan,” and I don’t know if it was her or him that added the honorific “Doctor” to his titles during his time with her.  But the “doctor” had gone through much of her considerable legacy from her first husband and I’m pretty sure it was a relief for her when she kicked him out. He evidently liked the name of Allan better than Clarence, Albert, or Al because he kept it, along with the title “Doctor”  and for the rest of his life he was Dr. Allan Vernon to the world.
I do not know the exact sequence of events for him after Leola divorced him. The Reverend Lieutenant Commander Clarence Albert Vernon, Dr. Allan: sold stockings; was on the streets for a while; borrowed Mel’s car for a while. Some time later Mel facilitated his entry into the Long Beach rehab facility and he came out of treatment working a 12-Step recovery, the just a 12-Stepish life. He was in Las Vegas for a couple of years, but came back to Southern California after he was mugged in a gas station parking lot and lost his front teeth.  I don’t know how, but he got a car of his own and had a sales route of some sort.  Somewhere in there he started delivering tissue samples that need to go from doctors offices to laboratories, and sometime carried some sort of radioactive medical wastes.  I even remember him telling me later that he also transported harvested body parts, but that may be a script made up from my reading too many mysteries over the years.
He met his third wife, Bette, at an AA meeting; evidently got some dental work done; ran for Area 1 Trustee of the Capistrano Unified School District (I don’t know if he won); and worked to raise community interest on social welfare projects. He was even citizen of the day. This might have been what his life would have been like, had he not gone into the Navy Chaplain Corps.  I will never know the thousands of people he helped over the years, nor all of his accomplishments.  I have a copy of a letter from the University of South Carolina, dated September 20, 1963 concerning his appointment as “Instructor in the Division of General Studies and Extension of the University of South Carolina,” where he taught sociology for two semesters before leaving for Vietnam.  I think he taught sociology as as an adjunct professor wherever he could.  Concern for the welfare of our society is the natural outcome of the faith he preached for all those years. 
But whatever his mental disease or issues were, and whatever all of his addictions may have been, all his good works and curriculum vitae a mile long, could not cover up the chaos and pain of his interior life.  It had leeched out all over our family, from our earliest days.  Becky remembers when she was little that Daddy would start speaking to a stranger and somehow wind up in a screaming match.
There were certainly lots of red flags hinted at by a “statement of personal history” I recently read on a job application for something while we were living in Waukegan.  He was already in the Navy and it doesn’t say what the application is for.  But he misspelled both his father’s and his birth mother’s names, as well as all three of us older girls’. In his work history he put his “reason for leaving” the Rosemead Church of Christ in West Covina in June of 1951 as “to travel.” That’s hinkey right there and is certainly a story we never heard. We lived in Rosemead when I was born in November of 1948, but between April of 1949 and June of 1951 he has his residence listed as a place in El Monte, California.
On that job application Daddy has “unemployed—traveled in the United States” until September of 1951, all the while his pregnant wife and two daughters lived alone in a trailer park in Phoenix, according to what Mama told us and Becky remembers.  His next job was from October through December of 1951 at Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach.  He doesn’t list an address in Long Beach, but he had an address in El Monte, CA. so I guess Daddy was back with us and we were living there when Mel was born in Long Beach Memorial in March of 1952, But he lists the West Covina Church of Christ as his employer, starting two months before Mel’s birth, in January of 1952.  I guess we were living in El Monte, she was born in Long Beach, and Daddy was working in West Covina. In July of 1956 we moved to Indiana for him to go to seminary. That’s about all the “dots” I can connect on that one. I don’t remember about us living in El Monte but Becky remembers it being mentioned.
Now, many, many decades later, Daddy was back in Southern California, living out the best of his traits, one that I feel sure had been planted and nourished by his parents on their Scio, Oregon ranch during the Depression. While he pastored First Christian Church in San Clemente, he organized the members to start the first Meals on Wheels program in the area. He also led them to help provide transportation for senior citizens below the poverty level, and finally led them to establish a center to care for and provide work for them. For this and other services he was “Citizen of the Day.”
One Sunday. former President Richard R. Nixon attended worship at the church.  I have a copy of the newspaper picture that featured the two of them shaking hands, and one of the letter the disgraced President wrote to Daddy in appreciation of a letter Daddy had sent him. . .after I left office and returned to San Clemente.  We have passed through a very difficult period, but it is at such times that one learns who his real friends are; I am proud to number you among them. Daddy was a lifelong Democrat but I know this letter meant a lot to him, especially with a handwritten note at the bottom: We plan to attend your church on some occasion when I am able to move about—this spring. I think it made up for the time Daddy was on the roster to preach for the Great Lakes services, but when it was announced that President Eisenhower would be attending, the lowly LTJG that he was at the time, got swept aside by a senior, and higher ranked, chaplain.
Daddy was in the Rotary International for 15 years, a 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite, a Shriner, an Elk, a Mason, and a member in good standing of the Heroes of 76, Chapter 244. When he was on the USS Sperry, he wrote inspiring articles for the “Periscope,” one dated 7 January 1969, that said in part: There are two days in every week which should be kept free from fear and apprehension.  One is yesterday with its mistakes, faults, and blunders.  We cannot undo a single act of our performance, nor erase a single word we said.  Yesterday is gone.  The other is tomorrow with its hopes and possibilities for good and evil.  Tomorrow is also beyond our immediate control.  Tomorrow’s sun will appear either in beauty or behind a cloud—but it will rise.  Until it does, you have no stake in tomorrow for it is yet unborn. He was awarded “Best Publication-of-Kind” for weekly publication by the U.S. Navy.  This would have been about 1½ years before his jump into the ocean.  I guess he was writing to himself.
After San Clemente, Daddy and Bette moved around some, but eventually landed in Hemet, a California desert town, where they started “doing” both swap meets and going to a nearby Native American casino. It was a lifestyle suited to his “get rich quick” mentality that had launched so many “harebrained” (one of Daddy’s favorite adjectives) schemes that had sent him and Mama into bankruptcy. Of course, he never saw any of his schemes as harebrained.
 He loved to talk about his early life on the ranch, especially about Gramma Vernon and the way she saved that little family’s life. More than once he told us that the one of the reasons she married Grandpa Alson was that her heart went out to Uncle Glen and Daddy as soon as she saw them.  They both had rickets.
Daddy wrote to me once how proud he was of me for choosing “the Life of Service.” He offered me words of encouragement as I made my way through the labyrinth of university and seminary in the midst of a very busy life. The effect of those words still ring in my heart today.  In spite of everything else, he believed that I could do whatever I set my heart and mind on doing.  And I did!
Over the years of his life, he went from preaching his first sermon at 16 to pastoring Walker Community Church from October 1943 to June 1944 in his late teens to heading up the “Higher Power Foundation” non-profit organization that was as far left from his religious origins than he could get.  I believe the aim of the organization was to encourage others in their recovery from whatever addiction bedeviled them, and to keep on keeping on expressing their recovered selves in living out their spirituality through acts of mercy, forgiveness, and peace-waging.
Daddy’s theological understandings blossomed from the tight, hard seeds of his conservative youth, into a fruit-bearing plant of a liberal denomination that gave him the skills to navigate the time in his chaplaincy when he needed to be priest, rabbi, monk, and guru. His spiritual thirst and great intellect led him to grow into a God-seeker that, if it had to be categorized at all, would be named “wisdom.” Wisdom of all sorts took the place of the “theological hair-splitting” (as he once wrote) of his upbringing, and by the end of his life, he was finding his thirst filled through writings by Deepak Chopra and the spiritual implications of the work of Stephen Hawking on space, time and cosmology. He believed that God was present (or maybe even “created”) through acts of compassion, as exemplified in the life of Jesus and those of every ilk who seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk a pathway of humility.
He took great pleasure in his later years of recommending books and ideas for me to explore.  I think it really “made his heart proud” (as we say here in Texas) that I not only knew the theological language and concepts he used, but was happy to try to glean a deeper meaning with him through our over-the-phone conversations, or on those rare face-to-face ones.  His focus on cosmological spirituality is the same thing that now occupies so much of my thinking and teaching,  He truly was a teacher, a rabbi to me.
Whatever his mental issues were, his anger (toward mostly “those idiots” in the religious or political areas, formerly the harebrained) could suddenly flare up and the vibrations and the texture of his voice would shake my inner child. It was not exactly the peacemaking he preached, but fortunately, I could use the skills I had learned to soothe and calm my “little Kathy” very quickly, for I no longer reacted to the spew of his anger with anger.  A miracle indeed.
He spent his later years trying to express to his daughters how much he loved them, trying to make amends as he could. He spearheaded the idea of what became several family reunions, supplying enough pies and Knott’s Berry Farm jellies to feed an army. My last attempt to gather us together wound up being Mary and me and all of her family this summer. I think we all had a fabulous time; I know I did. There were fourteen of us in the magnificent Central California coastal town of Cambria.  It would have done Daddy’s heart proud to see the jellies and pies from a local farm business that is famous for its unique Olallieberry.  We feasted on them as well as an abundance of homemade chocolate chip cookies made by our youngest family members.  And we ate out as often as we felt like it. Heaven!
We also got to see and listen to the elephant seal rookery close to Hearst Castle on the Pacific Coast Highway. And, as is the custom of many western coastal towns and cities, we spent each evening at the beach, watching the busy sea life (otters, dolphins, and seals mostly) awaiting those few perfect moments of a spectacular Pacific Ocean sunset. It’s an event that draws a crowd who are thirsty for the majestic painting of colors and clouds in total harmony with the unbounded energy of mountains, sky, and ocean. It’s a pinpoint moment of sheer awe.
Watching the sunset was something wonderful we used to do in my childhood in Los Angeles.  Only we would do it at Huntington Beach, where we would also have a fire in one of the fire-rings (do they still have them?) and roast hot dogs.  It’s close to the top of my list of happy childhood memories.  I also have good memories of the Atlantic Ocean sunrises I experienced on the East Coast when we lived in Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Georgia, and vacationed on the beach in Florida. I feel so very blessed to have the same sun and sea to provide me an old age memory that completes the circle, although the closest I get to those waters now is Texas beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Except when the occasional hurricane blows in, those waves are wimpy, wimpy, wimpy. And in the summer, the water feels like bathwater. A far cry from the mighty ocean roar of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
I don’t know what Daddy’s memories of those good times may have been, but In one of my visits to him in his later years I realized that blackouts are just that: he really, really, really did not remember any his terrorizing behavior during his drinking years.  The memories I shared with him were shocking to him. He had nary a one memory of our countless violent episodes. I finally understood that the “blackouts” from his alcoholism left a blank slate: nada, zilch. He was profoundly apologetic, but even in his apologies, there was a sense of “I’m not responsible for what I did; it was the disease.” Those in recovery can make amends, but they can’t cover up the damage done like a cat in a litter box.  It’s the one who does remember who has to sift through the sands, dig up the shit, and throw it in the compost pile where it eventually will nourish new understandings, wisdom, and beauty.  But even then, an odor lingers still.
An odor of a different kind lingered with Daddy.  As part of his recovery he told his history with alcohol and his current road of recovery to the person whose job it was to oversee the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) district ministers. He had served the denomination for 35 years as both civilian and Navy chaplain and was proud of that service.  When the overseer heard his story, he had no compassion, understanding, encouragement, or tolerance.  Instead he told Daddy that they would no longer have any connection with him.  He cut him off at the knees for his honesty and effort to make amends.  Daddy never received another card, letter or expression of gratitude for those 35 years.  In this case, it’s the DOC that needed his forgiveness, but I’m pretty sure it stuck in his craw until he died.
In one of his birthday letters to me (written on the back of some torn graph paper) he wrote: I wanted to make sure for once that I got your birthday note, card, letter, or call to you on or before your actual date.  As you recall it’s either a month late or a month early or on Thanksgiving or not all. (I DO recall!). Happy birthday! It doesn’t seem possible that you are 39! (Wow. He remembered my age too!) Hope that in spite of the heavy demands on you and Juan that you can keep some time for writing, recreation, and for each one of the family.  Something I never had the discipline or ability to say no to in the killing schedule of the years.  Now it’s my greatest regret.
And in another undated letter that came with a box of stationery he had especially imprinted for me, he wrote: So proud of you for being a beautiful mother, wife, minister’s daughter, creative writer and just being Kathy.  You are precisely what you are supposed to be.  How wonderful.  Love to all, Dad.  Good stuff indeed, Daddy.  Thank you!
The day after my 45th birthday I wrote to him in part: Your overflowing love for me and my sisters is apparent every time we have any kind of communication with you, whether it’s face-to-face or by phone.  I am graced by a sense of your being there for each of us, of your yearning for us to understand the strength of your connection with us now, and of your desire to pass on that which you have been given in a very kerygmatic sense (to cry or proclaim as a herald)—your love has become the core of who you are and your desire and need to share it with those of us who are coming after you (which in some very real way includes my great-great-great-great grandchildren) shines in the darkness of some of our family history—no, not some of it—all of our family history—and changes it.  Revisionist history in progress here:  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  Hallelujah!
I didn’t know that the ties that bind us were stronger than we were.  Stronger than your pain and brokenness and anger and loneliness—stronger than mine. You were so far away and distant as a child—always so busy.  I thought that’s the way fathers were.  I think I probably sensed your love for me, but didn’t know it . . .Then, when the alcohol and increasing violence entered the center of our family life and took over the reins, I was connected to you (I thought) by disgust about your behavior, shame, anger, hatred, and fear.  But now I know that I was connected to you by something even more pervasive (however unrecognized).  I had a deep-well need to be loved by you and a need to keep on trying to love you.  I did love you, Daddy, I just didn’t give it much credence.  It felt like a pretty puny force compared to all of the negative forces that seemed to rule our relationship. (“The foolishness of God.”)  This more or less covers the time from Rhode Island until Juan and I got married.
After that, I gave up on you. You seemed to be more trouble than I had energy or time for.  We didn’t know where you were for big hunks of time—fear for you and of you took its toll and I didn’t want to care any more.  So, I wrote you off, deciding that any kind of relationship with you was too hard, too painful, and too impossible.  And yet. . .and yet. . .we still saw each other every once in a while and I knew that in spite of everything I loved you.  And you said you loved me too, but I didn’t trust it.
Well, then, that seemingly weak and puny love assumed front and center of your life.  You stopped drinking and started taking responsibility for your life and the roles that you play in life.  You started to love yourself and it began to spill over.  I think you realized the vital importance of your connection to us—your offspring, and in total vulnerability started trying to connect with each of us in a new way—sharing yourself with us, willing to be rejected by us on the chance that you wouldn’t be.  You opened your parental arms and embraced us, letting that healing and wholeness flow out upon each of us.  We began to sense, I began to sense, then to know that you really did love me, that in fact you had loved me all my life—you’d just been caught in the snares of your own pain and darkness and didn’t have the wherewithal to express it in ways that could make it known to me.
And now there’s healing and light and sustaining efforts at maintaining the ties.  For the past decade, especially in the last few years, you’ve made your love known to me and each of my sisters in clear strong words and deeds of love.  It has changed the whole identity of who we are as a family.  We’re a community now in the very best sense of the word.
Thank you, Daddy.  Thank you for this very, very precious gift of family bound up together in joy, laughter, care, concern, and prayer.  I wouldn’t trade a day of our history—I wouldn’t make anything different even if I could.  Because our history has helped to make us who we are and has brought us to this very blessed and sacred state of belonging.  I love you, Kathy  Daddy would never recover from his mental issues, but he certainly found spiritual healing overflowing.
I think Daddy was about as content as he had ever been when he died at the age of 71 on January 26, 1995 from congestive heart failure. He was under hospice care and made his wishes known that he wanted to die at home.  All four of us girls had talked with him about this.  But when the time came, it was too difficult for Bette.  She called EMS and he died in the hospital the next day.  Bette and Daddy’s marriage had worked the way his first two did not, but it was in no way perfect. 
Juan and I presided at the funeral, and all four of his daughters mourned his passing in our own way.  Mama did not come to the service because she felt unwelcome by Bette and feared that Bette would make a scene.  I don’t know if she would have or not. Bette was handed the folded flag that the widows of veteran’s receive at that service; it should have been Mama’s.
Juan and I received a letter from Bette dated April 1, 1995, just three months after his death.  She wrote: Dear Kathy and Juan, I want to thank you for the pictures you sent.  I also want to thank you again how beautiful the services were for Allan because of you and Juan.  He would have been so proud of you.  I could feel his presence there and I can still feel his spirit with me all of the time.  Our 15th wedding anniversary would be next month, May 5th.  We went together 3 years before we got married—that was when we were in the Real Estate together. We shared life together almost every minute.  We did telemarketing together, medical courier together, Jr. Chamber of Commerce, the Swap Meet scene and we played Bingo, we had a lot of fun.  We stopped going to AA meetings when we moved to Hemet. So when you put 2 recovering alcoholics together without going to AA meetings you have 2 dry sober people—anything can happen.  But the one important thing he wanted to happen was to get his relationship back with his children and I told him they have got to see how you walk with God’s help—and with God’s help that happened!. . . .I hope you and your family and your sisters are doing good.  You know I cried the last six months of Allan’s life every day—I was losing the person I loved most.  I was watching him slowly lose his energy, his eyesight, his hearing, his standing up only to fall down again, but now I don’t have to see him suffer anymore—and I don’t cry anymore.  He is at peace and my visits to him are often.  The Riverside Cemetery is a beautiful place.  They keep doing things there all the time. (It used to be run down.)  I will close for now.  Lots of Allan’s friends have called.  Mo from the Medical Center came over.  He loved Allan—they were such good friends.  Love, Bette 
Daddy’s cremains are inurned in a columbarium at the National Cemetery in Riverside, California.  At the inurnment, I read the words from Jude 24-25 (Christian Bible) that he pronounced at the end of almost every worship service he led: Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ tour Lord, be glory, majesty, power and dominion, before all time, now and forevermore. Amen.     Goodbye, Daddy!
In the years after their divorce, Mama continued counseling for a while and started dating again. She had a special friend during that time; it was Bruce her high school sweetheart. He was at her funeral and later wrote her daughters a very stirring letter of their friendship in 1998.   Dear Mary, Becky, Kathy, Melody, and Families: A month has passed since that memorable Sunday afternoon spent mourning and celebrating the life of your dear mother, Thelma.  Although I had known Mary briefly back in the late 70’s, I quickly came to realize how much you all meant to her to say nothing of the grandchildren about whom she also spoke so fondly.  She spoke so appreciatively about being close enough to see the kids in their soccer games among other family gatherings.
Thelma was a dear and faithful friend to me.  During the last five years of (his wife’s difficult) illness, she was constantly available for counsel and friendship. I remember so many times that we met and found comfort from the other.  We “co-starred” in a play at the church, went to camp and conferences together, traveled to Portland, Oregon for an inter-faith mission event and on numerous other occasions increased our friendship.  I never knew how it was I lost her hand in marriage but it happened!  I always thought it was because I was two years younger and then found out in recent years that your father, Al, was only a few weeks older than I.  Asi es la vida!
(My wife) and I have enjoyed a good life, had three sons and now have the pleasure of a granddaughter. We lost our middle son. . .to AIDS in 1990 and again, Thelma was supportive and helpful.  I managed a small Mom and Pop grocery store in high school years.  Kept me tired and very busy, otherwise I might have really been in trouble with your mom.  Thelma accepted a Christmas gift of a watch in 1941 which she ethically returned to me when we were growing apart.  I traded it back to the jeweler for a man’s watch which I wore for many years.
Thelma recently told me a story which my mother had never shared.  She stayed with us over the Xmas holidays while she was in college.  Apparently, she started to brush her teeth in the kitchen sink and my mom showed her the little bathroom.  I don’t remember that she and Doris ever had a bathroom sink.  Anyway, I think your mom was embarrassed but never told me about the incident.
Al and I got into correspondence while he was off [in] Vietnam and we were in Argentina in the 1960’s.  It was a rough time for all.  The Argentines were opposed to the U.S. being over there and wondered why we as missionaries couldn’t stop it.  I remember one cab driver really giving me a bad time.  Anyway, I know it was a difficult time for chaplains and later learned just how it affected your father.  Not easy!  I have always felt badly about the refrigerator tragedy which must have happened about the time Al came home from Vietnam.
Your spouses were so pleasant to meet and sometime I hope we can get better acquainted.  There was a time or two when I talked with one of Mary and Ron’s children when Thelma felt something wasn’t quite right—like some old guy was trying to come on [to] their grandmother.  I don’t know if that was the case or not.  Probably it was just that the kids were busy.  And then again, maybe you all felt I was intruding.  I still have some unanswered such as. . .
He had questions about the final determination of her cause of death, where her ashes might be, wanting to know about Auntie Doris, and then wrote: I would love to have a copy of the picture of your mom used in the memorial service—send me one and I’ll gladly repay you for the photographic work.  Love.  And he signed his name.
Somewhere along the details of life, this letter got put aside and then forgotten and I did not reply to it.  Nor had I realized that I was the only one to have received the letter.  Since it was written to all of us, I thought that my three sisters got the same letter.  It wasn’t until Becky was visiting me in November of 2011 that I came to realize the others hadn’t known about it, and certainly had never responded. So 14 years later, Becky and I composed a newsy three-page letter updating Bruce on all of “Thelma’s girls” and their families comings and goings.  We never heard back from him. Bruce died in 2014.  I do believe he and Mama had a happy reunion of the other side of this life.
Mama eventually retired from government service as a GS 11 and had enough income to take care of her own needs to the end of her days. She worked her way through the 7 years that the bankruptcy took and cleared her credit history completely. She and Auntie Doris lived together for years.  First in the Seattle area, and then they started coming down to San Diego in the winters and Seattle in the summers.  Eventually Auntie D stayed in Seattle and Mama in Murrieta, California, close to where Mary lived. They sometimes bickered like they had in their childhood, but they eventually learned how to enjoy their life together. They both took painting lessons and part of our legacy is their lovely art.  Auntie D’s art was more dramatic, while Mama’s painting of the same scene was softer and more muted. They travelled all over the world and I had never seen her happier.
Because of all of the stress in her life, Mama had ulcerative colitis starting around age 40 or so.  This meant that she either had to be close to a bathroom at all times, or be aware of the nearest one no matter where she was.  For years, her doctors had told her she needed a colostomy, but the dread of wearing a “bag,” kept her from taking what seemed to her a drastic step.  Finally, it became an emergency situation for her and she had to have an ileostomy (a more severe cut at the end of the small intestine that was then located to an opening in her right lower abdomen).  After learning how to deal with it, she realized that it was ever so much easier to live with than the years without it. She enjoyed the freedom it gave her, especially while traveling.
In December of 1997 she was experiencing a great deal of pain, she thought from her “gut” issues, as she used to call them.  Mary took her the local, very crowded, hospital emergency room, where after a very long and painful wait, she was diagnosed with a case of bacterial flu.  The full waiting room testified to how rampant a flue it was. After the diagnosis, since they had no room to admit her, she was told to try to get a room in another hospital.  She refused, saying she just wanted to go home.  Mary stayed with her that Saturday night, but needed to get home the next evening and by that time, she was feeling better.  Mary reluctantly left.  She called Mama the next morning but didn’t get an answer so she rushed to Mama’s apartment and found her dead.  Because her sliding door was slightly open and some plants had been knocked over, the police told Mary her body would have to be autopsied as a suspicious death.  The cause of her death at age 75 was eventually declared as a cardiac infarction.  
She was as happy as she’d ever been in her last decade of life.  Besides the travelling, she had taken up water aerobics and line dancing after her retirement, and even went on a line-dancing cruise.  She loved to try new recipes and spent quite a bit of time in the kitchen.  Mama had finally found her truest self.  As the four of her girls went through her things before her memorial service, we found letters and keepsakes that we divided among us. I treasure some of her earrings, a necklace, and her nickname for me “Kaffa.” But mostly I treasure the little gifts she gave me and the letters and cards she sent from her travels, and the quilts I have that her mother made. Those quilts carry none of the anger or unhappiness of their maker. Just the opposite; they express all of the love she poured into them that she couldn’t express in her words or actions.  I think the quilts are the truest expression of the love she could not speak.
So, in a little less than two years both Daddy and Mama had died.  Daddy and I were in a good place when he died, but there were some unresolved issues between Mama and me.  When she and her daughters were together for what would be our last time, Mary and I tried to get some answers about Ricky’s death. Of particular interest were the police findings and other information that Mama may have had that neither she nor Daddy had ever shared with us—either when we were younger, or even as adults. After all those years, Mama didn’t want to talk about it, and when she finally did, she gave us what she said were the police findings that in no way “jived” with Mary’s memories or with the police and newspaper reports that Mary and I would eventually investigate on our own.  I have no idea what was going on in Mama’s head, but as usual, what she said was without any thought about how her words might affect her listeners.  This was a cruel trademark of Mama’s, one she never recognized, a deep part of her own mental and emotional troubles. And in my life, at least, I have come to recognize that this trademark of Mama’s was actually more damaging and corrosive to me than all of Daddy’s violence and unpredictability. That, and the fact that she was the one who did not remove us to a place where we could be safe from Daddy’s hand, or fist, or belt was the soul crusher.
Her inability to accept any responsibility for Ricky’s death was totally predictable. But I was still angry at her when she died some months later.  That incident was one of the compelling factors that drove both Mary and me to investigate Ricky’s death years later to find the “truth” of that tragedy that Mama got so very wrong. So that has been some light shining in the darkness.
Other family members and friends had a very different “take” the Mama they knew. Going through old letters from Aunt Vivian (Uncle Glen’s wife and a pen pal of my adult self until she died), I have learned of a side of Mama that had not really registered in my heart before. In one letter Aunt Vivian wrote to all four of us: Your mom was a very caring person.  I hardly knew her when she came to stay with me after Danny was born.  That long ago, you had to stay in bed ten days after a baby’s birth.  With no background or experience she took over the care of our colicky baby and me.  That was in November and she had to get back to school but I know she sat up many sleepless nights trying to calm our crying baby.  When I ended up flat on my back with blood clots in my legs, she wanted to skip school and continue to help but we wouldn’t allow it.  All that time she never complained but was always smiling and cheery even though she was also doing the housework, washing and cooking on a wood stove.  It created a bond between us that lasted a lifetime. . .I remember two summers our two families spent our vacation time together at the Oregon coast.  One year Grandma Vernon arranged for us to use the Court Street Christian Church Lodge.  Our men offered to do the cooking and watch the kids. We each had two at the time. (Mickey and Danny, Becky and me)  In the recreation room we found four jigsaw puzzles all dumped in together and then she and I decided to put all 4 puzzles together. (Mama continued to work jigsaw and crossword puzzles her whole life!). . .I remember the year our family lived at Rosemead—the year Kathy was born.  We moved to Calif. and moved in with you.  Your house was also the church.  It made a lot of extra work for your mom but she never complained and always made us feel very welcome the two weeks we were there.
In another letter Aunt Vivian wrote to me: I was just thinking back to when you were born in Calif.  We brought you and your mom to our house and the first night there (babies are supposed to cry all night the first night home) you slept all night without waking up. I slept through the night and you hadn’t cried, I panicked, I thought you had died. . .When we took you home to Rosemead I experienced my first earthquake: I was sitting on a high stool in the kitchen—holding you—when suddenly the floor pushed up and went back down.  Becky and Danny were playing on the floor.  They jumped up screaming and grabbed on to my skirt.  We all sat there terrified while the floor rose and fell a few more times.  What a homecoming you had!
In another letter after Daddy died, Aunt Vivian wrote: He was such a dynamic young minister, a super scholar, an outstanding Bible teacher and his pleasant, warm personality won the hearts of all who knew him.  I believe this is the man Mama fell in love with, the one who swept her off her feet so that she broke her promise to Bruce and married Al.  I can certainly see what she saw in Daddy and the man she hoped would show up for her again one day.  Maybe her greatest disappointment was that he stopped drinking and had those 15 sober years with Bette, not with Thelma Lou who had waited for him through 27 years of wishful thinking.
So two years after Daddy’s memorial service, Juan and I led Mama’s for our family and her friends and neighbors. But, unlike Daddy’s ashes snugly stored in Riverside, hers were scattered over the Pacific Ocean and have probably gone around the world and back again more than a couple of times.  Bon Voyage, Mama!
We four Vernon “girls” have each found peace in our own way. After Mama and Daddy divorced, Mel went to college and worked at Sears, where she met her husband-to-be, Rene. They celebrated their 38th anniversary in 2016. She got her liberal arts degree from San Diego State in Political Science and History, but she has worked most of her adult life in the business /digital world. Mel and Rene live in Southern California and have a daughter, Lauren, a son, Anthony, and a recently arrived grandson via Lauren and her husband Hugo, the wonderful Mr. Lucas. His Nonni Mel is crazy about him. Mel has always been a great seamstress (she made me a fabulous orange plaid poncho—this was in the early 70’s—that has always been one of my most favorite wraps.  Now she is busy sewing (probably not in orange corduroy) for Lucas.  What a joy for her!
Mary graduated from high school early, at age 16, found a job in retail. She eventually met and married, Ron, whom she had met through work. She operated her own daycare center from her home, worked for many years a physical therapist’s assistant, then went back to school for her Bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Administration.  In May 2016 Mary and Ron marked their 35th anniversary.  They have three daughters, Jennifer (and Brandon, and children Seth and Brooke), Elyse (and Jon, and step-children Hunter and Kaylee) and Andi (and Ronald, and daughter Berkley). Now Mary has a Master’s degree in Business and is a patient advocate in a variety of ways. 
Becky has her own business in healthy-living products.  She and Buddy also work in their own real estate business in Savannah.  They celebrated anniversary #50 in 2016. They also have lots of family activities with their three daughters (Amy (and Ashley), Melody, and Sally Anne) and four grandchildren (Grace, Ash, Maddie, and Hayden). 
Among the four of us “girls”, we’ve been married 163 years as of this writing! How did we do that?
As for me and mine: once Juan got his discharge from the Navy, we moved back to Texas, where he had a teaching job waiting for him. I took care our son, Carlos Vicente, and all of the bills, but my main work was adjusting to life in the Rio Grande Valley, without air conditioning for much of the time, in either car or house.  I sort-of worked on making my high school Spanish more functional, but I’m still sort-of working on that.  I can understand much of what I hear, but find myself resorting to charades way too often. 
After a pregnancy that did not come to term, we adopted a daughter, Elena Kathleen. We fostered a “failure to thrive” infant for months, but then I got pregnant with our second daughter, Carolina Isabel, and we had to give little “Buddy” back to the Child Welfare Department because I suffered with debilitating nausea all the time, and, like my pregnancy with Carlos, still managed to gain much too much weight. After Carolina (Cari) was born, we decided three was just right for us.  Many years later we fostered two children from within Juan’s family (Tita and Joey). It was a joy to be able to share our home with them, but doing the laundry and daily organizing for a family of 7 was a full-time job!
Our little family of 5 made lots trips made back to California for weddings, births, family reunions that Daddy instigated, then again at Daddy’s death and at Mama’s two years later.  And they also made a few to Texas to see us, but the summertime heat and humidity could not compare with the mountains, beaches, oceans and fun things to do of Southern California.
Within Texas, Juan and I took up my theme of moving (it had not been his before we married) and we moved almost as many times as I had as a child.  We were able to be closer to the Treviño side of the family than mine because his immediate family all lived in Texas, often close by or near us, and we got together for probably hundreds of times over the years—mostly playing cards or celebrating something or the other (always involving food!). We still do.
When Carolina was not quite a year old, Juan went to seminary and when he graduated, he became a Presbyterian pastor. I returned to college, first at what was then called Texas A & I University (now part of the A&M system) and was a Theater Major. When we moved to East Texas, I finished college as at the University of Texas at Tyler, getting a Bachelor’s in English. My journalism and theater classes made it a natural segue. I have kept up my writing through columns, staff writing for a local magazine, a local paper, seminary newsletters, church newsletters, and of course, sermons. Both Juan and I were active in community theaters wherever we lived and in community choirs (which he founded and directed) and a children’s choir.
After graduating from UT Tyler, I was torn between teaching and going to seminary. But an opportunity to teach English in a Junior High school came up, so I went for it.  Well, that year from hell sent me running to seminary where I thrived.  Daddy was very proud that I had found my professional calling and was a devoted supporter of my ministry as a Presbyterian pastor.  Juan and I worked well together and kept very busy as a team and as separate ministers. It’s easy to keep busy when you’re both “workaholics.” And because life always offers us so many opportunities to go deeper into ourselves, we each kept “working on” our childhood issues, which I think is a spot-on definition for “adulthood.”
Through our years together, we reached a point more than once when we had to decide if we wanted to keep going together.  Each time we decided we could, but each time required deeper changes in our thinking, our behavior, and our expectations. We kept on peeling back the layers of the protective scar tissue of our childhoods and started evolving into the persons we hoped we could be. Eventually, we learned to really listen to each other and give ourselves space and time as we trudged through all that you have to trudge through in a committed relationship.
Counseling and 12-Step practices kept us “keeping on” as we learned the God-saturated power of: love, self-compassion, forgiveness, shared wisdom, sense of humor, and energetic awareness of the moment. And gradually, oh so gradually, a screeching disharmony morphed into a lyrical melody (of course, not all of the time). Each of us was on the journey of recovery from our separate “dysfunctions” into our functionality. We were tied together but not joined at the hip, and we each had our own emotional and spiritual “tent” to retreat to on a regular basis.  We worked very hard to become transparent, thoughtful, and peaceful, first as individuals so that we would have the skills to do so as a couple.  We started taking on a wisdom that became a comforting mantle around each of us and both of us. It was 180 degrees from my parents’ marriage. 
In the fall of 2008, Juan started having a lot of reflux and stomach pain. It took a long time to convince him to go see his general practitioner. He finally did, but of course, that then meant seeing different specialists. But, because we lived in the Valley, which is not a Mecca for great health care facilities, it took months and months of waiting and testing by different doctors to finally come to hear at the end of April 2009 that he had an adenocarcinoma. He was admitted to MD Anderson Hospital in Houston and on May first where we heard the diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer the next day. He started treatment immediately with a hope expressed by the doctors that he might have a year to 18 months to live. They could give him some meds for his pain, but not enough to give him any real relief. It was torture. When he finished that protocol, they had downsized their expectations to perhaps 6-8 months and wanted to start another protocol after a six-week break.
 In August, he and I flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico, one of our favorite get-away spots.  It was a long-planned trip to celebrate our 40th anniversary at the Opera to see La Traviata.  But he was unable to sit through it. Besides the pain, the drugs still in his system were giving him the “screaming meemees” and we had to leave after the first act.  He had to get out of the car on the way back to our hotel and just walk around by the side of the car, moaning and screaming. That was it. He knew he wouldn’t have any more treatments. What was the point in extending a life of hell?  He told me “no more” and I heartily agreed with him. 
We flew home and his doctor signed him up for at home hospice care on August 24, 2009. Immediately his life changed for the better. He was allowed to have enough morphine to ease the pain he had been experiencing for almost a year. His mother had lived with us for 8 ½ years, and it was very difficult for her to go through this experience but she did what she could. Our children came for support to help by taking over the heavy-lifting of his care. They were amazing, faithful to his daily care and tracking meds and other events that needed to be noted for hospice, and care for me and his mom. His sisters were able to come and see him and he died peacefully at home 17 days later on September 12, 2009. He was 64, less than 3 months away from his planned retirement.
Now 7 years later, I have adjusted to living without my best friend/life partner and actually find there is a lot of freedom in not having to negotiate everything—like what to eat, where to go, yada, yada.  One of our favorite things to do was to make each other laugh.  I still hear the echoes of his hearty laugh in my head and still like to tell some of his oft-told jokes. (Well I can either tell the joke or the punch line.  I can’t usually put the two together!)
After he died, I wanted to be close to my kids, so my mother-in-law moved in with one of her daughters and I moved back to Austin as a haggard widow who now had to adjust to living alone for the first time in my 60 people-filled years. Widowhood is not for wimps. But my children were, and still are, a lifeline. At the time, all three of them lived in Austin.
Now Carlos and his partner of 17 years, Kyle, live in Chicago. Carlos works for UT Austin as a graphic designer, via computer, and is a screenwriter.  Kyle is a tenured professor at Northwestern University and teaches documentary filmmaking. Together, that have written, directed, and produced several movies. The most recent one, Rogers Park, is just in its finishing stage.  I have visited them a couple of times since they moved up north and remember some of Chicago from my time in Waukegan.  I love it, and so do they. Either one or the other of them gets back to Austin fairly often and it’s always a joy. 
Elena and her husband, John, and their three children, Antone, Ian, and Isabel now live in South Carolina and get back to Austin when they can. Joy, joy! John’s job allowed them to spend almost four years in France and I made two trips to see them there. All three of the kids became bilingual through school or daycare, and of course John learned it for his job. Elena was a travel agent for years, so she was able to plan and book some amazing vacations while they were over there. Her visa didn’t allow her to work there, but she learned French cuisine but her French is about on a par with my Spanish.  She put together some fabulous family vacations and activities that gave those children a worldview that will be a priceless gift in their lives.
Carolina and her son, Thomas, still live in Austin, only 15 minutes away from me. Joy, joy, joy! She is on staff at a downtown Presbyterian Church and he goes to a school near my apartment. We keep in daily contact, and are able to spend time together each week.  Often that time is centered around food: pizza or plain cheeseburgers with ketchup and French fries with lots of ketchup, and lots of hugs, kisses, reading books, playing games, and make many batches of chocolate chip cookies.
Dana Gioia says that “Poetry is speech heightened into music.  The physical sound of a poem is part of its meaning.”  I say the same thing about all of the things we do together with people we love.  And for me making chocolate chip cookies, particularly with my grandchildren, is a delicious treat heightened into a feast.  The physical sound of our conversation and laughter as we put the ingredients together is part of its meaning. I love to watch them learn how to crack eggs without breaking the yolks or having to fish around for broken shell pieces. They enjoy the amazing smell of the Mexican vanilla, real butter, and dark chocolate as I do, and it is part of its meaning. The gooey feel on our tongues of its uncooked batter is a treat that heightens into “ cookie music” as we wait for a batch to cook to perfection. The kitchen fills with the aroma of its goodness, and that first taste of a cookie warm from the oven, is not only part of its meaning, it is heaven.  I have made them with each of my grandchildren as much as possible, and I’m sure that their memories of Nana will include the joy of these times. At least I hope so.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea,
Yet, never, in extremity
It asked a crumb of me.
Emily Dickinson
Hope is grounded in the real: pain and suffering is a part of life (sometimes a huge part) and then we die.  Hope acknowledges our sorrow and asks “But what is not pain and suffering right now? What is beautiful? What is wonderful? What gives joy?  What is worth celebrating today?” To me, living hopefully amidst the gale is the catalyst for vitality and new ways of thinking. And living hopefully generates hope.
The Christian theologian Eugene Peterson in The Message, translates Galatians 5:22 ff (where St. Paul is talking about what the “fruits of the Spirit” are) as this: affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity.  We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people.  We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Such living is hopeful living.  It is a Spirit-led holy harmony within our selves, with others, and with a gentled life.
However I say it, it’s what I’m leaning into even as I parse my childhood and adult years to “connect the dots” of my life and draw a truer picture of my inner essence.  It is my FayT to understand as much as possible, to empty out my bucket of corrosive memories and to let it be filled with God’s compassion.  That way I can have a full bucket of compassion to pour out on others. It gives a shimmer of vitality to my life, a little more greening every day. That (and chocolate) is all I need. 
Today is enough.  NOW is all I am designed to handle; now is all I want to handle and NOW is all I want to handle me. Yippee! My life has taught me that there is always light in the darkness, and always joy to be found. I still know how to laugh and practice it often. It’s good medicine, especially since I’m now heading into my own death, facing my own decisions about treatments and quality of life. Juan’s experience with expectations and treatments was an excellent learning experience I would need. 
A little over 6 years ago, I received a diagnosis Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) specifically hypersensitivity pneumonitis, where my lungs become inflamed as an allergic reaction to inhaled dust, fungus, molds or chemicals. There is no cure and a life expectancy from 2-5 years, so I’ve already outlived my expiration date by a year. Yippee!
Through my childhood, marriage, professional life, and the hardest job of all (which besides being self-compassionate is parenting), I have learned how to let go and let God. Carolina is my caregiver now and my best advisor on the myriad decisions that have to be faced.  I am learning that my life has prepared me to let go of myself in the best ways possible.  My self-image as an intelligent and capable spiritual and community leader has taken a tumble as my brain no longer receives enough oxygen.  My memory is failing and I’m coming to a point where I am starting to use a cane and a walker to help me with my balance.  I’ve always walked for exercise, and walked anywhere at a fast pace. Now I huff and puff along the hallways of my apartment building and am exhausted just going to the mailroom. Any kind of scent or particulates in the air can set me off. This dying task is physical, but it also requires a lot of emotional and spiritual work to let go of the person I will never be again. And be grateful for each day I awaken at all.
My recent decision to go under hospice care has been a game-changer for me and for my family, especially Carolina.  We feel greatly supported and cared for by people whose calling it is one of compassion: to make this last journey as comfortable and anxiety-free as possible.  I am so grateful to God that, unlike Juan, I have no pain.  But sometimes horrific coughing and increasingly stifled breathing causes me to panic. Oxygen can no longer pass through my scarred and hardened air sac walls into my bloodstream and I am grateful for the machine that hospice supplies to help me with breathing.  Being with people takes more and more energy, and gradually this extrovert is becoming reclusive. I’m slowly paring down the circle of folks I spend time with to family, immediate neighbors and good friends. Soon the circle will be a dot.
The good news is, now I am my own cherished best friend, and self-compassion and wisdom from on High are leading me on this amazing journey of living while dying, or dying while I yet live. I have learned (and am still learning) that God is in charge of life and I am not.  I have learned that letting go of cherished people, cherished beliefs, cherished possessions, cherished music, books, places, and even memories is the true path to freedom. I will never read all of the books I want to, or sing all of the songs, or hear all of the music, or wade through all of the ocean waves.  I’ll never see another Pacific Coast sunset in person.  And that is the way it should be. Life has boundaries that we cannot stretch beyond them. But always, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes,  “earth laughs in flowers” and I am able laugh with it (even if it sets off a coughing spell).  There is all the wonder of life on earth in a single breath.
God is in charge and I am not. It was what it was, it is what it is, and it will be what it will be. As I am now letting go of this life, I’m am discovering a deeper joy than I have ever known. I am embraced within the holy harmony of LOVE that beckons me on. And whatever “it is” on the other side of this life, it is well with my soul.
You can learn more about this ongoing adventure
in the “Dying for Dummies” tab section of this blog. 
Will you pray with me?
O Infinite Source of Being,
You are the Power before, behind, above, below, and within all that is.  We lift our hearts in thanksgiving for the life that arises within your Eternal NOW.  Everything not yet begun and already finished exists within that NOW, and yet you create us to live as those moving in time and space with a beginning and an end. And from that start until we are no more, you woo and guide, coax and withhold, mend and redeem our hearts, our spirits, our relationships, our memories.  We thank you for this Reign of Heaven shaping us to live into our potential as children who delight you. Teach us to be grateful for the resurrection of our truest selves as we learn to trust that you are able to do what we cannot. 
We are grateful for our Home, the Earth, and for its biosphere that supports all its lifeforms and creatures. We thank you for complexity of wind and wave, systems and connections that remind us that all of us are tethered together on this very insignificant planet, in a galaxy among millions, in a universe that may be one among unnumbered others, in as cosmos beyond our ability to comprehend.
We praise you for your vitality, your joy, and your passion for life in its infinite varieties and vagaries that is your gift to us within the your womb of energy and power. You weave everything into the tapestry of life day-by-day, breath-by-breath, and we are awed by its glorious design.  For the beauty and order of all that is we bless and thank you.  May we be counted among those who daily inhale the sweet aroma of your grace and find ourselves laughing with joy.
Blow that Breath of grace upon all who suffer in any manner.  Send angels of mercy to: feed the hungry; free the imprisoned; comfort the mourners; guide those lost in the wilderness; encourage the fearful; empower the weak; tame the powerful; harbor refugees from violence and wars in homes, cities, nations; heal the sick of heart; destroy the towers of power; and build up communities and cities, states and nations to be beacons of transparency, ethics, justice and peace, that the earth may reflect the light of your Presence.
We thank you for the spiritual gifts you give to all peoples, in all places and all generations: for the ability to forgive and be forgiven, for the grace to persevere with deeds of kindness and justice in the face of overwhelming odds, and for the Holy Harmony that your Presence gives to all that is.  We thank you for with the unique and particular song you give to each of our hearts and for the ability to sing it with gusto, no matter our circumstances.  Give us the humility and grace, we pray, to persevere in hope to the end of our days so that those who walk beside us or come behind us may also find cause to join the Choir of the Ages in an eternal Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
 In your holy cause and blessed Name we pray.   Amen.

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