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Because of Helen

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Helen Gabriel and her family literally changed the course of my life. That’s a pretty dramatic statement and not one I make flippantly. Still, I am sitting here on my couch today, thirty-five and a half years later, overwhelmed with love and gratitude for one of the most generous and loving families I know. They were led by their matriarch, Helen.

The Gabriels lived on a dairy farm just outside of Rockdale, in a large white farmhouse that was always filled with the sounds of conversation, laughter and the smell of home-cooking. There were six children in the family, all were older than I. Our families had become acquainted years earlier and had known each other for longer that I could remember. I suppose it should not have been a surprise that when the five of us had nowhere to go, had no money and were living in a single-cab truck, that we would reach out to the Gabriel family for help.

I was riding in the back of the truck in a fever-induced haze when I heard the crunch of gravel beneath our tires and felt the truck slow to a stop. I had developed a high fever while riding in back of the truck and was lying on soggy boxes while it rained that late August day. The next few days were a blur. Helen and her family welcomed us warmly, fed us and let us gave us a place to rest. A few days later I recovered from my illness after receiving lots of love and care from Helen. This sweet family offered us housing there on the dairy, in a 23-foot travel trailer located behind their home. I was so embarrassed to impose on them, but so thankful to be out of that truck. I loved visiting the dairy barn, watching the dairy process in a spotless barn that smelled of bleach, milk and of cows.

I began school in a nearby community and rode the bus home to the Gabriel’s house. When I got off the bus each day, I pretended that the large farm house was actually my home, too embarrassed to admit to my fellow bus riders that I actually lived in the trailer behind the house. Though I had typical teenage pride, I still loved the dairy and so appreciated our time there.

The first weekend at the Gabriel Dairy Farm, one of Helen’s daughters convinced me to go on a blind date with the cousin of her then boyfriend. It took a lot to convince me. Helen told me from the beginning that Mark was “as good as they come” and she was right. I finally agreed to go on that first date and was courted there at the Gabriel Dairy by the man I eventually married thirty years ago. A few months later, after meeting Mark, our family moved into a home in the area where we lived until I graduated from High School.

Through the years, I continued to visit with Helen and would see her around Rockdale on occasion. When I did happen to run into her, brilliant blue eyes would light up, her face would soften and I knew I could count on her to hug and kiss me and call me “baby”. She was excited about our wedding, the birth of our children, our careers and the purchase of our homes. She was one of the few constants in my life. Though I could go months and sometimes years without seeing or talking to her, when we did get to visit it was like we were never apart. She loved me, I knew and felt that and I loved her in return.

Last year, when Helen fell ill, I visited her a few times at the Dairy. We reminisced and talked about those tough early days. One day, I asked Helen about the day we showed up at her house unannounced.

“How in the world did you do it– a family of five led by adults with questionable decision-making skills, there unexpectedly on your doorstep when you had a full house already. I just don’t know if I would have opened my home like you did, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Helen smiled and shook her head. “Oh baby, you needed help and I had what you needed. That’s just all there is to it.”

How can it be that simple? There she lay, in pain, her face still glowing with that sweet smile, with such certainty.

“Helen, you completely changed my life, you know that right? I feel I can never repay you.”

“Oh baby, I just helped a little. You would have done the same thing.”

“I love you, Helen.”

“I love you too, baby.”

I remember clearly when Helen kissed my cheek and hugged me one last time.

She died on a Monday, April 10, 2017. The world lost such a bright light, but I know Heaven rejoiced. I believe that we are each a part of a master plan. I think God puts people in our lives at just the right time to guide us, encourage us and sometimes even to challenge us. Because of Helen, I knew the true meaning of compassion. Because of Helen, a prayer was answered and after years of attending numerous schools each year, I finally got to end my high school career in one city, one school. Because of Helen, I met and married the love of my life. Because of Helen, I got to know unconditional love for most of my adult years. Because of Helen, my life has been enriched and I look for opportunities to give back. Thank you God, for sweet Helen.

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The Voices

I stood on a pedestal in front of a well-lit mirrored wall, staring at my reflection with disgust. I saw an overweight, middle-aged woman who looked really tired.  Those 12-hour work days in front of the computer and almost a year of wedding planning in my “spare” time had really taken a toll. We were nearing the wedding date and it was time for me to select a mother of the bride dress. My daughter really wanted me to wear something formal, sparkly and “fancy” and as a lover of fashion, I was of course happy to comply.

I struggled to find the right gown; most stores had either frumpy, matronly gowns or the “off to the club” variety, leaving little selection in the “simple-elegance-that-makes-me-look-like-a-super-model” category I hoped to find. I finally found a gown I wanted online and had come to this store to order it. After much discussion with the sales clerk, it seemed necessary to try on gowns of the same brand, to ensure the fit.

I lamented the fact that I never got around to losing all the weight I planned to lose for the wedding, the 20lbs I had managed to lose was not enough. Still, there I was staring at myself in the sequined, sleeveless gown listening to the words of the numerous influential figures in my life, a running dialogue in my head:

“You really need sleeves, I know you don’t want to show your arms”

 “Honey you know you can’t wear a straight skirt, we need to accept what looks best on us”

 “You have thunder thighs like your mama”

“You have such a pretty face, but…”

I was also hearing my own thoughts, which were not exactly encouraging either:

“You should have tried harder earlier and you would have lost the weight”

“Look at you, you are going to waddle down the aisle”

“Maybe you should just wear a plain black dress, at least you won’t be as noticeable”

“You will forever look pudgy in those wedding photos”.

“Your kids will be so embarrassed at how you look.”

It was a battle I felt I always lost. Even when I lost weight, it was never enough for me or for the owners of the voices. Worst yet would be when I was told that I “may just have to accept that I will just be big like the other women in my family” leaving me feeling angry and a little hopeless. The truth is, like all the rest of the overweight people in the world, I know better than anyone that I need to lose weight and nobody has to tell me or hint that I need to do so. Like most people, I also actually have a lot of knowledge about how to lose the weight. When it comes down to it, I know those with successful weight loss experiences have made a decision for themselves. I was struggling to make time for myself and that decision.

I was thinking about those voices, as I stood there staring at my reflection. I was sure that though the gown was a gorgeous teal color, I probably looked like a busted can of biscuits encased in sequins. The sales clerk had convinced me to try on the dress, though I was embarrassed to show my arms in a sleeveless dress and my hips in a straight skirt in front of everyone in the shop. I was so focused on those voices in my head, I was a bit startled when I realized that the clerk and customers in the store were staring at me and not because of how hideous I thought I looked.

They were actually admiring me in the dress.

One customer said:  “That is gorgeous on you, you have to get that one!” she was also really good at gasping and going on about how beautiful I was, making me want to take her home with me.

I immediately said “oh no, I have to have sleeves. My arms are terrible” and “no, I can’t wear a straight skirt”.

Both the clerk and the customer looked surprised. The clerk said “oh girl, that is NOT true. Seriously, your arms are just fine and you look great in that straight fit. It’s actually really slenderizing on you. I can’t imagine why you would think that about yourself!”

I was a 49 year-old woman, clinging to the positive words of strangers. I tried on several more gowns, the customers and clerk were my cheerleaders and fashion advisors. Within an hour or so, with the encouragement of my new-found friends, I had tried on many beautiful gowns-gowns I would previously would have never considered. I finally settled on the dress that I fell in love with and had originally come to the shop to order. It had sleeves and a full skirt. The voices had won, but I did and still do love the dress.

What I discovered that day went beyond my dress shopping. Like most women, I had been listening to and believing lies for most of my life. The people who profess to love us the most can often be our worst critics. They become that negative voice in our heads that deafens the positive voices. By the way, it takes a whole lot of positive words to overcome just one negative word from someone whose opinions we value. I also recognized that while there was truth in some of the dialogue in my head (I mean, it is true that I do not have the perfect figure) there were words of advice that were unnecessary and damaging. As a result, my own thoughts had become just as damaging.

This is less about the struggle with weight loss and a whole lot about how we make people feel about themselves. About learning to love yourself. The truth is, it is okay to be less than perfect. My mind knows this, but my heart struggles. I struggle with accepting who I am with imperfections and it is a daily battle for me.  I have since begun to examine my own criticisms of others. I pray my voice is not echoing out there in someone’s head, spewing negative words. I think we are all guilty of blurting out unsolicited opinions on occasion, unintentionally releasing poisonous thoughts in that person or about that person. I guess I hope we can all remember that we are all on a journey and for many of us self-love is often just out of reach. May we all speak words of affirmation and be a mirror that reflects the best in those around us.

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Horses and Elvis

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Isn’t it funny how the most memorable moments are often the ones that you want to forget? Sometimes I think we are allowed to have those memories etched into our hearts and minds because those are the moments that shape us. They are NOT what define us, but without them we would be one dimension less of who we are. That belief is one way that I cope with what happened.

I was eight years-old when I was forced, kicking and screaming, into a shared secret.

We lived in Jackson, Mississippi in a trailer park on the outskirts of town. A white-gravel road snaked through the park, which consisted of a plot of pasture land dotted with trailer houses in various conditions, some newer than others. There were absolutely no trees surrounding any of the trailers except for a wooded area with barns beyond the property, too far away to offer a reprieve from the heat. It was a blazing hot, airless summer.

A couple of memories dominate my mind when it comes to our time in Mississippi. The first memory, is of the time I was standing in the middle of the gravel road that wound through the trailer park the day that Elvis Presley died. It happened on my brother’s birthday. My brother and I were playing freeze tag with other kids in the park when Mama came bursting out the door to our trailer.
“I can’t believe it—Elvis is gone! He died, and on your brother’s birthday!” she said breathlessly. She still had her apron on and a dish towel in her hand.

She was very upset, which is one reason I remember that day. She later swore that the spirit of Elvis must have come upon my brother, since “he did die on his birthday and he was being chased by girls at the very moment of Elvis’ death”. Like I have mentioned before, Mama always did have a dramatic flair.
The second memory is much more significant, the day I kept a deeply-hidden secret and my trust in adults was shattered. My father had a few oil rig friends who lived in our trailer park. My brother and I enjoyed playing with the other kids and we visited several different trailers fairly often. One of my father’s friends had a wife and three teenagers. We would pass by the trailer and Mr. Stout almost always had the door wide-open while he sat in his recliner drinking beer. The house was cooled by a water-cooler, which blew a fine mist into the living area. The air in the trailer was musty and thick, the odor of old beer and unwashed bodies met us every time we went to the door. My father enjoyed an easy banter with Mr. Stout and we kids stood around listening to them talk about work on a regular basis.
Mr. Stout called out to us almost every time we passed by his trailer. One particular afternoon, he got our attention.
He was sitting in his avocado green vinyl recliner without a shirt, his large hairy midsection protruding over the faded jeans he wore.
“Hey you two, remind me and I will take you out back to see my horses.”
We were too shy to answer at first. We stopped in the road and moved closer to the his front door. Everyone knew Mr. Stout had horses in one of the barns in the woods. All the kids fantasized about  getting to ride those horses. Mr. Stout pulled the tab on another beer with a hiss, and smiled. He nodded at me, his balding head beaded with sweat in spite of the efforts of the water cooler. I wondered why he didn’t just keep his door shut.
“You sure are a pretty thang. I bet you would love to see my horses.” His glassy eyes never left my face.
I nodded vigorously, as I had always wanted to ride a horse. I was an animal-lover, even then.
“I wanna go!” my brother answered. Mr. Stout didn’t seem to hear. He nodded at me again.
“You wanna  go now?” he asked, staring at me.
“We have to ask first,” I said. I knew we would be in big trouble if we ever went anywhere without permission.
“You do that,” Mr. Stout said. “You hurry now and come back over here once they say yes. We need to feed the horses.”
My brother and I ran down the road to our trailer where we did indeed receive permission to go see the horses. My father really seemed to like Mr. Stout and seem pleased we had been invited.
“You two use your manners,” my father instructed as we took off running for Mr. Stout’s house.
We saw him waiting for us on the edge of the woods right away. My heart leapt—maybe he would let me ride one of the horses!
We had almost reached where Mr. Stout stood when my bare feet found the sticker patch. My brother and I were usually barefoot and never gave a thought to this being an outing that would require shoes. Mr. Stout came over to us as we pulled out the stickers, then instructed me to climb onto his back. I stared at the dark blue t-shirt covering his back. Suddenly, I was shy.
“Climb on, I will just carry you the rest of the way.” I was uneasy but decided to take him up on his offer, my feet were throbbing.
My brother sulked. “I want a ride!” Mr. Stout shook his head. “Girls first!”
Soon, a rustic old barn appeared in a clearing. The horses grazed in a pen next to the barn, but came over to the fence to greet us. They were beautiful animals, a chestnut mare with a white star on her face and a solid black horse with a shining coat. I reached out to rub those velvet muzzles, and inhaled deeply. I loved the smell of horses!
“Why don’t you stay here while we go get some hay to feed the horses?” Mr. Stout suggested to my brother.
“I want to go too,” my brother said. He jumped down from the rail fence where he had been standing and prepared to go with us.
Mr. Stout looked annoyed. “You stay here and pet them, we will be right back. Then you can feed them the hay.” My brother nodded reluctantly and resumed his position with the horses.
Mr. Stout took me by the hand and led me around the corner to the window of the faded, red barn. There was hay spilling out of the window, just like in the movies, I thought. The horses would love all of that hay! He stopped a few feet away and said, “Go ahead, get some of that hay so we can take it to the horses.”
I reached into the window to grab an armload of hay and suddenly felt the weight of Mr. Stout’s body against me. He spun me around and slammed me against the edge of the window, the wooden edge jabbing into my back as he bent my body back into the window. I was startled into silence until Mr. Stout’s large wet lips bore down on mine. He forced his tongue into my mouth and stifled my screams, while grabbing my crotch. He was hurting me. I could taste beer and smelled that heavy, acrid smell I smelled in his house. My heart hammered in my chest and I fought, I pounded his chest and kicked him as hard as a terrified third-grade girl could muster. Suddenly, I heard my brother’s voice and Mr. Stout released me, but not before whispering harshly in my ear: “You better not say NOTHIN’ to NOBODY”.
“What is taking so long, I think the horses are hungry.” I heard my brother say over the roaring of my heartbeat in my ears.
“We are just trying to get enough hay to bring to them,” Mr. Stout answered casually. He and my brother grabbed armloads of hay and I slowly followed them to the pen on shaky legs.
I gave the hay to the horses. They didn’t look so hungry, or quite as beautiful to me. “I don’t feel so good,” I said, refusing to make eye contact with Mr. Stout. “I’m ready to go back.”
“Aw man, already?” My brother asked, annoyed. He sighed, exasperated. “We just got here!”
“Sure. We can head back,” Mr. Stout said slowly. He looked at me steadily. “Hop onto my back and I’ll carry you again.”
“No, I’ll walk,” I didn’t look at him again. I began to walk swiftly back toward our home.
“I wanna ride!” My brother said. My heart stopped briefly, until Mr. Stout said, “Naw, you are too big for that. Girls only!”
My brother scowled and we all walked back home in silence. I wanted to run the entire way, but dared not until we got to the gravel road. Then without a word I ran home as fast as I could.
It was bath time when I returned home. I turned on the water as hot as I could stand it and scrubbed my lips and entire body until I was almost raw. Mama came into the bathroom while I was bathing.
“You still in here? What are you doing?” She asked while putting away clean towels.
“Almost done,” I said. Just like that she left the room.
She had no idea, none at all. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t know what had happened, I felt different—didn’t I look or seem different? I wanted her to ask me if something was wrong, but was also terrified she would. When I thought of telling my mother I was afraid that she wouldn’t believe me, after all Mr. Stout and my father were good friends. I was also terrified that they WOULD believe me and my father would go after Mr. Stout, maybe kill him. Then my father would go to prison and it would be my fault. My fault. Had I done something to deserve this?
I pushed this event out of my mind and didn’t “say nuthin’ to nobody” until my first year of marriage. It was during one of the rare, peaceful stretches in my relationship with my parent and somehow I mentioned it at dinner one evening. Once I said the words, it was surprisingly easy to talk about. It was like it had happened to someone else, I even believed back then that it hadn’t changed me. But it did, it changed so much.
My father seemed stricken. “Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked.
I explained my reasoning and as expected he said, “Well, you are right. I probably would have killed him.” I wondered about that. This was before I knew the truth about my father, about the hidden things that had happened during those years.

Fat Like Your Mama

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Mama loved to cook almost as much as she loved to eat. Her chicken-fried steak with gravy, smothered potatoes fried with onions, chicken and dumplings, Mississippi Mud Cake, Banana Pudding and every calorie-laden, heart-attack inducing dish you can imagine were the staples of my childhood. I always woke to the smell of breakfast cooking, even on those early pre-dawn mornings before school. She managed to make homemade biscuits and gravy for us on most mornings, her apron tied around her round midsection, before leaving for work as a cook in either a nursing home or school cafeteria. For Mama, feeding us was her way of showing her love for us.

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Journey’s End

My father’s ashes felt warm in my hands. This is what death feels like, I thought. I rolled the plastic over in my hand and wondered at how a man with such power in my life could be condensed to little more than a gallon-sized storage bag. I put the plastic bag back into the cardboard box and placed it on the floor in the back seat.

Flat, frozen land flashed past us on the way to the cemetery. It was a cold day in January and all the foliage had withered to brittle shades of brown. The shrill sound of a train whistle pierced the silence. “We should put his ashes in that train car over there,” my husband said with a smile. His large, calloused hand patted my leg, and his blue eyes twinkled in an attempt to make me smile. “After all, it would be fitting. He never did want to be in one place for very long.” I nodded and smiled ruefully. He was right, my father would travel no more.

I glanced back at the box that contained what was left of my father. I wanted to feel something besides the hollow tightening in the pit of my stomach.  I wished for home. My mind flashed involuntarily to my father’s sunken face, his gasping for air with lungs that betrayed him, gnarled hands clutching, and my betrayal in the end. I could smell death. I momentarily fought nausea. Cigarette ashes, that’s what he looked like now. How ironic, I thought. I can’t ever remember seeing him without a cigarette in his hand.


 

The Power of Words

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People like us don’t go to college. At least that’s what Mama always told me.

Somewhere along the way, my parents became convinced of this lie. Neither of my parents wanted me to go to college, in fact, earning a high school diploma seemed optional in our home. Mama dropped out of high school in the eleventh-grade so that she could marry our father, who had dropped out of high school in the ninth-grade. Read more…

Sister vs. Sister

Soon, a police officer showed up to the scene, as did Mama. She had to leave work to come check on us, and still wore her white plastic apron and hairnet. Below the hairnet the pencil-drawn eyebrows were furrowed, she was very angry.

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Pictured, in earlier years: My sister Annette, my brother Troy, my sister Norma Jean and me.

When I was six, we had the misfortune of living in an old farmhouse located across the street from the local high school. I was the youngest of four children, with two sisters who were nine and twelve years older than I, and a brother who was only eighteen-months my senior. It was as if my mother had given birth to two sets of warring opposites. Read more…

The Road Home, Part 2

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Pictured: Me with a relative (Sherry) who stopped by while we were stranded in our truck in the parking lot. They were unable to help us.

Hope enveloped me, and excitement coursed through my body as I realized that, though I had traveled a great distance, the trip was far from over. In fact, it had only just begun.

I sat with my back against the cab of the truck, as far away from the traffic as possible. I drew my knees into my chest and rested my head on my arms. “God, I need you,” I began. My prayer was interrupted, or perhaps answered, when lights unexpectedly shone on our truck. I could hear the faint sound of my father talking with someone, and then he called to us.

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The Road Home, Part 1

20131112_112625I hate them, I thought. I hate them and I hate my life.

 

I fell back onto the array of cardboard boxes that had been tossed haphazardly into the back of our old Ford pickup, and tried very hard not to cry. The edges of the boxes that held my family’s possessions jabbed into my back mockingly, a constant reminder of how temporary my life had always been. I laid back and watched the sun set dimly through homemade, wooden side rails on the truck, and marveled at how even a sunset could lose its luster when seen through slats of hopelessness. Read more…

Accidental Target, Part 2

“A young girl next door was walking along that road right there,” the officer said …“She was shot in the neck … It looks like you were the only one shooting.”

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