Big Changes

(Note: In the last post, I referred to my grandparent’s divorce as occurring in the 1920s. The 1930s is probably more accurate, but still during a time when divorce was severely frowned upon.)

As the years went by, my father’s abuse and drinking began to take its toll on both him and us. Daddy was not able to work regularly, so we were truly struggling to put food on the table. It was no joke at our house: If tonight we had “taters and beans,” tomorrow night we would have “beans and taters.” Breakfast was biscuits and gravy most of the time with an occasional egg from Mama’s hens. Mother finally reached her breaking point.

Mother had always wanted to be a nurse. She was not able to take formal training, but a local hospital in Little Rock was willing to train her as a nurse’s aide. She could not give medications, but she loved helping the patients, and the patients loved her. Realizing she could earn an income and provide for her children gave Mother the courage she needed to finally make the break. An incident where Daddy acted inappropriately towards me became impetus for Mother to move forward with her plans to leave.

Mother came from a large church-going family well thought of in the community. Her father, a very tall, large-boned man who always wore denim overalls, had seven children by his first wife who died. Mother was the only girl of four children born to his second wife who also died. Her father, an excellent carpenter, married a third time, but this woman was not kind to Mother. She was a sickly woman who expected Mother to handle the household in addition to going to high school. This home situation made her even more eager to get away. When her family learned of her untimely pregnancy, they disowned her. It was many years after her step-mother’s death before Mother was ever welcome in her father’s home, and it was even longer before they quit reminding her of the awful mistakes she had made by getting pregnant and marrying Daddy. They offered her no support whatsoever through the years. When we were finally allowed to come for Sunday dinner on rare occasions, I remember feeling very awkward. Daddy, of course, was never welcome.

It was not long after she started working that Mother filed for divorce. The day after the papers were filed, Daddy was committed by the courts to the state mental hospital. Had she waited one more day to file, she would not have been granted a divorce. Arkansas law at the time would not allow divorces if either one of the parties was mentally incompetent.

I was in the sixth grade when all of this was taking place. Once Daddy was committed, I do not remember ever seeing him again. He “dried out” in the hospital and was eventually released, but by that time we were no longer in the area. Daddy died right before my sixteenth birthday. I was well into my adult years with children of my own before God enabled me to finally confront the betrayal I had experienced from my father. Sitting in my living room with an empty chair in front of me, tears streaming down my face and sobs wrenching my heart, I talked to Daddy as if he were there. “Daddy, I hope you are in Heaven. I would really like to see you again. I want you to know that I am forgiving you for the wrongs done to me. I love you, Daddy.”

At a time in my life when I thought things could not get any worse, they did.

Daddy in the Ditch

Friday nights were often full of uncertainty as my mother wondered if Daddy would come straight home from work. This was especially true on paydays. His buddies at the beer joint were always glad to see him walk in and encouraged him to linger long.

With the money almost gone, Daddy would start for home in his drunken state. Kanis Road with its sharp curves and deep ditches was not easy to navigate in daylight fully sober. Because he was diabetic, the alcohol would often cause him to pass out before he could get all the way home. Not surprisingly, he would sometimes end up in a ditch. My father was well known to the local sheriff and his deputies; and when they would find him passed out and the car in the ditch, they would bring him home. The car would be towed by a friend the next day. As to why my father was never seriously injured in these incidents, only the Lord knows. On the nights he did make it home, he would stir up a huge dust cloud on Gamble Road as he roared into the yard. We children knew to steer clear, and my mother knew what was coming for her.

My grandmother was sure her son knew the Lord. I can remember Daddy going to talk with the preacher and occasionally going to church with us. He even responded to an altar call and committed to staying sober and doing right by his wife and children. I believe my dad truly meant well and was sincere in his desire to change, but the hold alcohol had on him was so strong. As a result, the respites did not last long.

The times were rare and few, but I do remember piling into the back of a pickup truck with my sister and brothers and Daddy taking us to a drive-in movie. There was even money enough for popcorn and an RC Cola!

In our rural neighborhood, my father’s reputation for drinking and abuse was well known. People felt sorry for us and did their best to help. Our clothes were hand-me-downs. The first new dress I ever remember was one bought for my graduation from sixth grade. The tiny pink flowers in the fabric are fast in my memory. I remember feeling pretty when I wore it.

With scant money, my mother was amazing in her ability to stretch. A typical trip to the grocery store would yield a 25-pound sack of flour, a 10-pound bag of corn meal and some lard. My grandmother kept a cow and a few chickens, so we always had milk, butter and eggs. Mother made biscuits and gravy from scratch every morning and cornbread every evening. I learned how to do both as well. In the winter, I cooked cornbread in a cast iron skillet on top of the woodstove in the living room. It was too cold to cook or eat in the drafty kitchen with wind whirling through the cracks, so we huddled in the living room around the stove in the evenings until time for bed. The tar-papered house we lived in was very hot in summer and cold in the winter. We slept in a room with only a sub floor and you could see the ground beneath. My grandmothers handmade quilts were piled on. We would get real warm by the stove and then run jump in bed before we cooled down too much. My sister and I shared the same bed for many years, and my brothers slept sometimes as many as four-to-a-bed. As much as we hated to go to bed, it was worse getting out of those warm beds in the morning to get ready for school.

As for Christmas….