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Thou Shalt Obey Your Father

There was a lot of tension in the tiny, makeshift school house.
“Lisa, why didn’t you do all of your homework?” I asked. Lisa didn’t answer.
I leaned in closer.
“Lisa, you will never learn unless you do what I say. So, do what I say! I will call your parents this afternoon.”
Still no answer. I scooped up the paper from Lisa’s desk and put it on my desk to send home later. She was in deep trouble.

I turned back to the chalkboard in the front of the room and began to instruct my students while writing on the rough surface. I wrote my name in my best handwriting on the board then wrote the titles of two stories from my 3rd grade literature book.
“I want you to read these two stories and then do your spelling,” I instructed. I paused dramatically. “Then do 100 math problems.”
I could see my breath as I spoke, puffs of steam in the frigid air.
I turned to my students who, as usual, had nothing to say. Lisa’s blue, glass eyes stared back at me blankly from her porcelain face. Thumper’s black bunny eyes were fixed on the shovel in the corner of the room and Baby Alive was still slumped over in her chair, with one eye partially closed and her legs in the air.
I gathered all of their papers from the cardboard box desks in front of them and began to mark them with my red crayon. I had just begun to make a large “X” on Lisa’s paper when I heard my mother calling me:
“Karen Denise! Do you hear me? Come eat!”
I sighed and surveyed my “classroom”, where light filtered in through ancient, broken pine boards onto the dirt floor which I had swept clean. I decided my “students” could stay outside in the shed for the night.
I slammed the framed, chicken-wire door shut and walked back to the pink house that sat low beneath the cluster of tall pine trees, which lined up shoulder to shoulder like soldiers guarding our home. I could see the marshy area that lined our yard though the trees, and the pungent, damp smell greeted me in spite of the cold. There was a narrow, winding, black-top road that disappeared into the trees to the left and eventually led to the Hoke’s house; to the right the road led to a dead-end just past the Robinson’s house.
My siblings and I had become close to the Hoke family, a devout, charismatic Christian family who lived about a mile down the road. The Hokes had two children, Shannon and Gerald, who were about my age and frequently came to play. My sister Norma traveled to church with the Hokes often, and sometimes my brother and I went with her. Norma loved going to church more than anyone I knew, something that really irritated my father. She not only rode to church on Sunday mornings and evenings and to youth meetings on Wednesdays, but she also journeyed across the county to camp meetings and “brush arbor” meetings with the Hokes. I sometimes went to the camp meetings with them. Camp meetings were held in the summer under a tent on the side of the road or in a pasture, and featured lively music and hell-fire and brimstone preaching. I looked forward to attending these meetings, the positive and exciting atmosphere was such a stark contrast to the darkness I felt at home.
On rare occasions Mama would come with us to camp meetings and she absolutely loved the music. She was astonishingly tone-deaf and would sing very loudly and with such joy in a high, falsetto voice in church, especially when they played her favorite hymns, “Jesus Hold My Hand” or “I’ll Fly Away”. She clapped her hands with delight in time with the music, her plump arms jiggling and her tiny feet tapping. During the service, I would help her mark her large white bible with notes from the sermon and loved to read the family milestones she documented in the family section. Sometimes those meetings lasted for hours, so I would sleep in Mama’s lap until alter time came and someone “got the Holy Ghost”; their shouting always jolted me from my sleep.
Norma’s love for Jesus and for going to church was always a point of contention in our house.
However, that cold, grey, January day when I walked into the house to eat supper I could hear a serious argument brewing between my father and Norma. This one was much more heated than usual.
I had not even closed the front door when I heard my father’s raised voice.
“Brain-washed! Those people are just brain-washing you. You ain’t comin’ in here with all that religious crap and preachin’ to me! AND you will not be going back to church with those people. I told you there ain’t no such thing as no Holy Ghost! You will never learn!” My father was sitting in his recliner, shaking my sister’s bible at her. He was livid. It reminded me of a previous argument they had a few months before when we lived in Livingston. In that argument, Norma read scripture to my father about the Holy Ghost and as a result he chased her around the yard with the wrench he had been using to work on his car. The entire time he yelled at her about how “God ain’t real” and Norma rebutted with the appropriate scripture.
This time, Norma was angry–angrier than I had seen her. She pointed to her bible in my father’s hands and said: “In the book of Acts it speaks of how ‘all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues’ and how the Holy Ghost gives us power to—“
“I said there ain’t no Holy Ghost! This bible is just a book written by somebody, it’s nothin’ special. And you are DONE sitting around here reading that mess all the time, I will just be keeping this book or maybe I will throw it away. You ain’t going to church either and you won’t be talking to those holy-rollers. AND you can start wearing pants again, we ain’t religious nuts around here.” My father pointed to Mama. “Go get me a pair of her pants.”
Norma continued to argue. “Daddy, I don’t care what you say—the bible and God are real. He takes care of us and He answers our prayers. The Holy Ghost is real. You need to read that bible and you will see—“
Mama returned with the pants, and my father held them out to my sister. “Get out of that skirt and put these on right now, right here. I want to see you do it.”
Norma shook her head and was crying. She changed out of the long denim skirt, one of many she had begun to wear in the past few months. She believed at the time (like many at the Hokes’ church) that women should only wear skirts, out of modesty. I had even tried to wear only skirts for a few weeks, out of adoration for my sister. That endeavor ended the day I tried to put my jeans back on again and they were too tight. I thought being that devout made you eat too much. Someone once told me that there are lots of overweight Pentecostals because gluttony is the only sin they will tolerate. They also told me that there is nothing else to do but eat when you don’t watch television.
Norma put on the pair of jeans my father held out to her, stripping down in front of the entire family. I was so embarrassed for her.
“Now you git to your room and stay there. You will NOT be able to come out unless you are cleaning the house or going to school. You will NOT go to church or read this Bible again,” my father commanded.
Norma began to make her way to her bedroom, but then turned to my father and said: “You can stop me from going to church, make me stay in my room and wear pants but you can’t stop me from praying!”
I heard the door slam to Norma’s bedroom. I wasn’t hungry anymore. Silence filled the room like the cigarette smoke that curled from my father’s nose as he sat in his recliner. He threw Norma’s Bible on the floor and turned up the television. Mama went back to the kitchen to serve up the Hamburger Helper, which had begun to cool in the iron skillet.
I crept down the dark, cold crooked hallway to my sister’s room and could hear the soft sounds of “The Hinson’s Greatest Gospel Hits” playing on Norma’s record player. She was still crying when I opened the door, and I crawled up on the bed next to her. I stared at the ceiling for a while and watched my breath blow out above me in the frigid bedroom. There was one gas heater in the very drafty house and it was in the living room. We all piled blankets on at night to stay warm. Some nights when I slept in Norma’s room, she told me to lay on her side first to warm her spot until she got into bed. I would do so, then scoot to my side while Norma warmed me with her body and taught me to pray.
“Norma, do you want me to warm your spot for you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. After a few moments, I realized she was praying. It seemed she didn’t stop praying for the next few weeks while she was banished to her room. I thought it would never end, my father was so stubborn. Someone once said that sometimes, the most stubborn people learn the most painful lessons in the harshest of ways. As it turned out, it was only death that would distract my father from punishing my sister any further.
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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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