Settling in Arizona

Awesome Cactus in Carefree AZ

Although I did not make the connection at the time, it was God’s abiding grace that brought us safely to Phoenix. How incredulous that my mother would drive alone with 10 children in the car, pulling a trailer half way across the country. As I learned later in life, when it comes to the welfare of her children, a mother will do whatever it takes.

The house Vernon had for us was nice enough, so we settled in. Had the landlord known 10 children were moving in, I am not sure he would have consented to rent the place. I think Vernon told the man he had two children, which was true. He just neglected to mention that his wife had eight of her own!

Arriving after the midpoint of a school year was difficult, but we managed to enroll and life settled into a routine. Early on the scene of our lives was Aunt Vera. She was related to Vernon distantly, but she was from Arkansas and seemed to take an interest in our family. She helped us get started to Orangewood Church of the Nazarene. Like everyone else, she loved my mother.

Mother eventually found a job at a local hospital. I finished the eighth grade and was preparing to enter high school when we made another move across town to a house with cheaper rent. The roaches and scorpions were highly offended by our presence, but the house was situated at the foot of a mountain in a desert-like setting that afforded my brothers lots of space to roam and explore.

Life with Vernon and his children was never easy. His temper flared often and we never knew what might set it off. Mother worked days and Vernon worked nights. When we were in school, he had no trouble sleeping during the day, but summers were another story. I was well into my junior year of high school when something I said or did sent Vernon into a rage. My sister insists my typing woke Vernon from sleep. I thought it was that I had been peeling potatoes and he did not like the way I was peeling them. At any rate, he became so violent and threatening that I ran from the house when I saw him go for his gun. I fled across the desert to a phone booth outside a café near the house and crouched out of sight until I saw him drive by in the car trying to find me. Once he had passed without seeing me, I ran up the street to a friend’s house to call my mother at work. Her shift was ending soon, and by the time she came for me, she had determined it was not safe for me to return home and had arranged for me to stay with Aunt Vera.

This incident occurred in early January, 1962. During my stay with Aunt Vera, she learned that my sixteenth birthday was approaching, and she wanted to have a party for me. Everything was going along fine until I found out that the friends I had invited would be bringing me presents! No, this could not be! It was not right that anyone should spend money to buy me a present, so I cancelled the party. Aunt Vera was disappointed, but I was relieved.

However, it was during this time that news of my father’s death reached me. Mother came to Aunt Vera’s to tell me he was dead. As I later learned, he had come to Mama’s house on Christmas Eve. After dinner, he went into her living room where our pictures were on display and spent a good bit of time looking at each one. Afterwards, he started a drinking binge that resulted in his death. I asked if I could go to his funeral and was told that he had been buried almost immediately after his death on New Year’s day. Somehow I felt robbed.

Eventually it was deemed safe for me to return home, but Vernon was not happy. It was not too many months afterwards that Vernon took his two children and returned to Arkansas where he filed for divorce. Although Mother was glad to see him go, she did feel somewhat abandoned. Had it not been for Aunt Vera and a few other friends, Mother would never have made it. She kept working at a job she loved, my sister and I were old enough to make money cleaning houses, so somehow we managed. Then, Mother met another man.

The Elementary Years

Before we leave Arkansas for the unknowns of Arizona, I want to back up and talk about what was for me the best part of my childhood – school.

Who can forget first grade! Mrs. Estes was a wonderful teacher and I remember loving to learn. I do not recall the precipitating event, but I do remember a ruler across my knuckles for what must have been a grievous infraction of first-grade protocol. My teachers had a low tolerance for disobedience and a wide berth for dealing with transgressions. I was never invited to the principal’s office, but I can assure you students feared that possibility.

What a promotion it was to enter second grade because that classroom was on the second floor. How grown up I felt climbing those stairs and entering a large room with an imposing gas heater anchoring the front right corner. Mrs. Abercrombie was a tall, slender mature lady with a nice smile. The one memory from second grade is of Mrs. Abercrombie warming a can of corn tortillas (yes, that is correct – the tortillas were vacuum packed in a tin can) so that we could all taste this Mexican staple. They were very bland and no one wanted seconds! It was many years before I knew tortillas came any other way.

It must have been that the post-war baby boom was having its impact on the school system, for all I remember of third grade was the room being filled to capacity. After two days, three of us were deemed capable of performing at fourth grade level and were moved to join Mrs. Davis. So added to the list “Things Most People Do Not Know About Me” is the fact that I skipped third grade.

Fourth grade was such fun! I was learning multiplication and division, but it was the reading I was able to do that brought the greatest satisfaction. Books with stories of heroes and living happily ever after made indelible impressions in my heart, as did a boy named Glendale Taylor. He loved to chase the girls at recess, and he was “in love” with a different one every day. Glendale and I seemed to have a special connection. One day at recess, he asked me to marry him and placed a ring on my finger. I was the happiest girl in fourth grade. Glendale Taylor had picked me above all those other girls! The euphoria was brief as my finger began to both swell and turn green. Alas, the engagement was broken when I was sent to the cafeteria where there was equipment to cut the ring from my finger. Glendale was very sad at losing that ring!

Mrs. Rowland was one of the most feared teachers at Brady Elementary. I never understood why she had earned that reputation as I enjoyed being in her class. She read the Bible and had prayer every day in our classroom, along with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. Each student took a turn leading the pledge.

Sixth grade brought my first male teacher who also happened to be the school principal, Wayne K. Carter. He was not married, so naturally all the girls had a crush on him. I remember a geography lesson discussing why Africa was so inaccessible for trade and development. I have never forgotten that it was because of its irregular coastline. I have carried that nugget of knowledge with me for my entire life! Also firmly entrenched in my memory is of a sixth-grade chorus program. It may have been a Christmas program, but the chorus was arranged on steps that flanked both sides of the stage. Being one of the taller ones, I was standing on the highest step when my failure to eat a good breakfast resulted in my fainting right in the middle of the program!

A graduation exercise was held upon completion of sixth grade. A cap-and-gown was not used, so the boys wore suits and the girls wore nice dresses. Prior to this event, I do not recall a dress ever being purchased for me to wear to a special occasion. My dresses were either homemade or handed down, but I will never forget this dress. Most likely it came from J.C. Penney, but that detail escapes me. The fabric design would be characterized as stripes and flowers. Overall the dress was a pale pink sheer fabric with vertical rows of tiny pale pink and green flowers. To this day, any diagram of my personality comes out to “stripes and flowers.” There is a side of me that is very straight to toe the mark (stripes) and another side that is adventurous and enjoying (flowers). After graduation, it became my Sunday church dress until I outgrew it.

Many of the major changes in our lives as a family began taking place during and after my sixth-grade year, as best I can trace. Mother divorced Daddy, he was committed to the state mental hospital, Mother met and married Vernon, we moved to California, then back to Arkansas. Now we are about to embark upon the move to Arizona. The next post will detail that trip about a mother driving alone with ten children in a 1946 Plymouth sedan, pulling a trailer holding all our worldly goods, trekking to what she hoped would be a better life.