People Like 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.

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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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Drowning

I almost drowned when I was six. We were staying at the King’s Motel, a 20-room motel in a small South Texas town with a terrain that was flat and lifeless for as far as the eye could see. It was one of those establishments that was located on the outskirts of town, almost like an afterthought. Twenty orange doors with black numbers were lined up in a neat row behind an on-site diner and small rectangular swimming pool.

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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…

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Our longing to be “friends” with our children has led to the evolution of an entitled generation. We have denied them nothing for so long that the moment they are denied anything in life they crumble. Not allowing our children to face adversity has left them without resilience or the ability to “roll with the punches”.

I’ve been thinking lately about my evolution as a parent. Parenting is hard, and none of us earn a perfect score. I think I learn something new every day from the families I encounter along the way and through my own life experiences. There certainly seem to be some clearly defined divisions in the population when it comes to parenting. Forgive me if it seems I am over-simplifying here, we all know there is nothing simple about parenting.

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In May of this year my nineteen year-old daughter traveled to Bhutan, a beautiful closed country which borders China and India. Why Bhutan? In the past six years she has visited Mexico several times, The Canary Islands, El Salvador, and Los Angeles with a missions group from our church. This year, as a freshman in college, she found an opportunity to travel with some of the Univeristy basketball team to teach basketball to the youth of Bhutan.

You have to understand what this opportunity meant to my adventurous, youngest child. Read more…

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