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.

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.