OLIVE TWIST ©2012
Names have been changed as deemed necessary to protect the innocent (like me) from the villains, but all of the stories are true. Thank you for reading!
WOUNDED BUT WINGED
I am writing this story, because words have wings that lift me above sorrow. My story is not intended to blame, hurt, or offend anyone. My story begins and ends with compassion, because forgiveness can take the angry and guilty thorns out of us and allow healing to begin. Everyone can benefit from forgiving and being forgiven. Through compassion, we are set free to redeem ourselves and others.
The larva of this story has twisted and languished inside its gloomy cocoon for years gnawing at the edges of my mind and awaiting release. A dark bruised butterfly comes forth with wicked truth, fluttering with tattered wings. If she lights upon you gently, I hope something good will come of it.
FROM PART I: FROZEN TEARS
My brother and sister and I were all born in The Moon of the Snowblind, an unhappy month known for unpredictable weather, evil Ides, blustery winds, cold rains, and mischievous leprechauns. We were hurled headlong into a nightmare with no one to wake us up. If only we could have found and captured just one leprechaun and demanded three wishes, perhaps we might have acquired some of that Irish luck or a pot of gold, but there were no rainbows within our darkness.
Our mother was a yellow-haired enchantress who wore dangling orb earrings, tie-dyed dresses and crocheted sandals. She derived pleasure in casting her spells upon men of the cloth, and casting them aside.
Our father was a charming cellist of Cherokee descent, who loved melancholy women and chamber music. He wore shell necklaces and tapestry vests, and wrote short stories about legless hobo angels who traveled around in boxcars.
The three of us grew from pure sparkling seeds into distorted rootless trees.
FLASHES: A CHILD REMEMBERS
“Who murdered the minutes,
The bright shining minutes,
The minutes of youth?”- Joan Baez
What did I do wrong? I have been crying for a long time. I have been hot and hungry and sad. I have been waiting for the hands that take care of me, the eyes that study me, the lips that smile and make odd sounds. But they took a long time to come.
I have been choking on my tears. The curtains are open. The sun has been burning me through the window, and the blankets have made me sweaty. I have been crying and kicking my feet against the crib rails. My room was empty for too long. Now the hands seem angry as they yank at my clothes and blankets, and short hot puffs are coming from the mouth. The eyes are flashing. What did I do wrong?
I am jumping on the bed with my sister. We love to jump. We jump and twirl and fall down, tumbling on each other. We laugh until we are breathless. This is so much fun. The pictures on the wall are jumping too and swirling around us. Our hair floats up and down. We are so happy. I wonder how the pictures look upside down. I will find out when we finish jumping and jumping and jumping. We are having a good time. Suddenly the door opens, and our mother is mad. She wants us to stop.
Tonight we all go to see a movie called “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. It is at a drive-in theatre. There are lightning bugs around our car while we watch, and the metal box in the car window makes loud music and sounds. The dwarfs and the little animals are so funny. We all laugh together. When we drive home, I pretend to fall asleep in the back seat. Daddy thinks I am asleep and picks me up in his arms to carry me into the house. I want to be carried in like a baby. But I can’t stop smiling and Mommy sees me. She and Daddy laugh, but he carries me inside anyway.
My sister and I are playing outside and Mr. Culp from next door calls for us. He is in his garage, and he says he wants to give us some candy. We love candy, so we run inside. He closes the door to his garage and sits on a chair. He holds out a bag of candy. What a nice man! We walk over and reach our hands into the bag. Suddenly he reaches his cold rough hand into my panties, smiling. What is he doing? I look at him with questioning eyes. He touches my sister the same way. We look at each other and at him, but we are confused. Why is he doing this? The candy tastes good, but something is wrong. Maybe we better go home. We leave quickly. Mr. Culp calls out to us, “Come and see me again tomorrow.” What a nice man!
I notice one day that Daddy has been missing, and I ask Mommy about it several times. She won’t say anything, but she looks sad. The house seems colder and so does our mother. My sister and brother and I are wondering what is wrong.
One day, Daddy comes to visit us. He doesn’t come into the house, but we meet him on the porch. He is so handsome. He brings his brown guitar and sings songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary. He holds me on his lap and asks me to sing. I am so happy with him near me, and I have missed him.
A lady is waiting quietly for him in a car that is parked by the house. I wonder why she doesn’t get out of the car and come over too. Who is that lady? I don’t like her. I am sad when Daddy gets into the car and drives away. After he leaves, I wander into the house. My mother is playing the dulcimer and singing softly:
“I never will marry. I’ll be no man’s wife.
I wish to live single all the days of my life.
The shells in the ocean will be my death bed.
The fish in the water swim over my head.”
Her sadness washes over me and my heart tries to surface for air.
Another day, a friend of our mother comes to visit, and Mother is not home. His name is John, and he has visited our house before. He is handsome like my Daddy. He plays the guitar too and I love to hear him sing.
My sister and I tell him we are home alone. He is very friendly and says he wants to visit us anyway. He asks us if girls and boys have the same stuff in their pants. We tell him no. He says he doesn’t believe us, that everyone must have a hot dog. We laugh and tell him that girls don’t have those. He says he doesn’t believe us. We decide to show him. He comes into our bedroom, and we take off our panties. He looks surprised and says that he is glad we showed him. Then he decides to show us his. He pulls down his jeans. It is scary and we start to scream and cry.
Our brother suddenly walks in from school and sees the whole thing going on. His face turns red and he runs back out. We pull up our pants quickly. John pulls up his pants and leaves. My brother doesn’t talk to us and we are scared, and we hide in our room when our mother comes home. We know we are in trouble. Mother comes in with a hairbrush and spanks us with it. She never says anything, but we know we did something wrong.
One night Mother is angry and puts me outside the front door in the dark. I am crying on the front step and tapping on the front door. Please let me in. I am scared. Then a man in a car stops at the end of the sidewalk. He is smiling and calls out to me. I go to his car and he asks me to get in. We go for a nice ride and he gives me candy to eat. He brings me back home after I have stopped crying. My mother is on the step when we drive up, and she looks really angry. When we go inside, I see that her face is red and sweaty. She spanks me for going for a ride with the nice man in the car.
One summer, Mother takes us to Florida to see a family there. We are so excited. We get there and Mr. and Mrs. Linebaugh have three kids too. We all play together all day long. They decide to let us stay the night to play with their kids some more. Just before our mother leaves, they decide to let us stay all weekend! Wow! We will have so much fun.
We have a great time, and the food is good and their house is so big. But our mother doesn’t come when she is supposed to. A week goes by, then a month, and then the summer is almost over, and still our mother hasn’t come. Mr. Linebaugh decides to send us home on a Greyhound bus, and tells us our mother will meet us at the station.
We have a fun ride on the bus together, and we get to the station when it is dark outside. We wait and look for our mother, but she doesn’t come. It gets very late, and the police come and take us to their station. A nice policeman feeds us sandwiches, because we are hungry. He keeps making phone calls, and after a long time in his office, our mother comes and she looks very unhappy. After a long talk with the police, she takes us home.
But people start watching us after that. A neighbor says we don’t get enough food, because they invited us over to eat, and we stuffed ourselves. We are home alone late at night, feeling scared many times. One night, I tried to cook eggs for us. I turned the burner on too hot, and the pan and the eggs started to smoke. I got scared and cut off the stove. I grabbed the pan and set it on a chair. It burned a hole in the chair. When our mother came home, she spanked me because of the chair.
One evening a lady comes to the door. She asks for our mother, and we tell her she isn’t home. She asks if she can come in. We open the door, and our Siamese cat scratches her leg and tears her stockings as she comes in. Her leg has blood on it, so I tell her I know where the band-aids are. I run and get her one. She asks us about our mother, and where she is. We tell her that we don’t know. She asks us to take a ride with her in her car. It has a round symbol with words I can’t read on the side of it. We ride to an office building, where some people are sitting in rooms writing out papers, and a man says they are taking us somewhere else to live. We ask when we will be going home, but no one will answer us. What did we do wrong?
It is difficult to sift through the shambles of our childhood and find a few pleasant memories. I recall one warm stack of chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream served to me on a white tablecloth under gleaming chandeliers in Uncle John’s Pancake House. My mother took me there during a visit in Charlotte.
I remember a visit with my father in New York. During the day we tossed out bread crumbs to pink-legged pigeons in Central Park. I was wearing a red corduroy dress and furry white hand-muffs, and my heart fluttered like the birds because I was with Daddy. That night we walked past the brilliant neon lights on Fifth Avenue. My father’s cold ghostly shadow was strolling beside me and I was trying to see his face better.
I remember one glorious pastel morning in a small white boat, fishing with my grandfather in Hawthorne, Florida.
Summoning up such memories is like mining for a few gems in the landfill. The rest is crumpled paper and broken bottles and smelly diapers.
My brother James is two years older than me, and my sister Margaret is one year younger. Because I was so young, I cannot be very precise about some things, but other things remain very clear in my memory.
My father tells me I had a hip operation and stayed in a crippled children’s home when I was very young. I don’t remember that, but I do remember having recurring nightmares about an operation with no anesthesia and a metal bar tearing through my leg as I screamed in pain. I sincerely hope that there was no truth to the dream, or should I say, that it was indeed a dream. I hope that I did not awaken during the operation, as I have heard rumors of.
After that the three of us lived at the first orphanage a couple of times. I was still in leg braces when I was sent there the first time, and I was not allowed to remove them even at night. A flat bar at the bottom fastened my high top shoes together. It was difficult to sleep and to roll over, and to get around during the day, because I had to jump everywhere with heavy braces on, or slide one foot at a time across the floor. I’ve never really understood what this was supposed to accomplish.
My brother and sister and I were not placed in a cottage together. I remember seeing my siblings on the playground at a distance, wishing we could be living together again.
The stone cottage felt like a cold and dreary dungeon to me. There was a large bedroom with two long rows of small beds against opposite walls. The people who worked there seemed to have no affection or tenderness towards the children. One night, one of the cottage parents told me she was going to fix up my hair really pretty, and she began to tease it up with a comb. After it was tangled up around my face she began to laugh, and called the other girls to come and look. As they came running into the room, the woman said, “Look at Olive! She looks like a wicked witch!” The children pointed their little fingers at me and laughed out loud. I put my face into my hands and cried.
The punishments of the children were always severe. One girl dropped a cup on the floor of the kitchen, and it spilled. She was forced to sit on the floor with her arms and legs extended in front of her for an hour. She cried and complained about her aching arms long after her punishment was done.
One day at the playground, I saw a boy in a lacey little dress coming out to play. His face was red and he looked as if he wanted to cry. The boys with him were laughing and pointing at him, and I found out that the dress was his punishment for wetting his bed. It gave me a sickening feeling in my stomach.
Halloween was an occasion I never liked anyway, but it was especially frightful at the orphanage. I never thought to ask my brother or sister what happened in their cottages that night. But at mine, one of our cottage parents came in and told us that “the nigger woman” was coming to get us after dark, and that if we had any sense, we would run for our lives. I was terrified, not knowing what she meant.
Later that evening, the same lady came running into our bedroom shouting, “The nigger woman is here! You’d better hide, or you’ll be in trouble!” She had an expression of terror on her face, and suddenly the screen door flung open. A black woman came running in, with a vicious look on her face, and began chasing all of us around the cottage. My heart was beating wildly, and I squeezed under a bed, trying not to move a muscle or even breathe. I could hear screaming and crying and feet running, and people climbing on top of their beds. I stayed under the bed for a long time, even after the noise subsided and everyone calmed down. I could not tell you how long it lasted; just that it seemed like forever. No one ever said it was just a joke that they had played for Halloween.
One day the staff told us that the president of the orphanage was coming to visit, and that we all needed to be on our best behavior. That evening as we played in the grass a rather plump matronly white-haired woman came and sat in a lawn chair in front of our cottage. The lightning bugs were blinking, and I picked a tiny handful of cool white clover. I ran up to the lady holding out the flowers to her.
We stayed for a short period of time with our mother in between the two stays at the orphanage. All we knew was that our mother was struggling to take care of us without our father’s help.
I remember her one-bedroom apartment cluttered with books and candles and coffee tables. Mother’s original drawings and paintings hung on the walls. Many of her books pertained to witchcraft and demonology, and a purple horned mask on the wall stuck its pointed black tongue out at me.
One night I rested on a mat in the living room trying to sleep, and it seemed to me that the devil mask was jeering at me and moving, and it terrified me. Perhaps it was the candlelight playing tricks on me, but I kept covering my head with my blanket, and trying not to think about it, so that I could go to sleep.
My maternal grandfather lived on the edge of a lake in Hawthorne, Florida when I was very young. Margaret and I visited him a couple of times when he lived there. He had a yellow cockatiel with orange cheeks named Joe that always talked when anyone opened the screen door to go in or out. He would say between squawks, “Joe’s a pretty bird, pretty bird.” He also could whistle Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sometimes I would run in and out of the door just to hear him talk.
As I walked inside Granddaddy’s house, I could instantly smell three things: oil paint, cigar smoke, and fresh fish. He painted landscapes and smoked rich cigars, and fresh fish from the lake was always on newspapers in the kitchen. I would squeeze my nostrils together and complain about the fish smells, but after it was cooked, that was a different story. I fussed over getting the bones out, and sometimes the head of the fish was still on the plate and I would say, “Ewww, that’s so gross!”
One morning, Granddaddy took Margaret and me out to fish in his little white boat with a rumbling motor that fell silent after we reached the fishing spot. The sunrise was soft pink and orange that morning, and I could smell the dirt and worms in the big coffee can. The water was smooth and glowing like satin, and it was so serene. I was very perturbed that I caught five little silvery fish and Margaret caught seven. I was older and was supposed to catch more fish than her. But it was the only fishing trip in my life, and I will always remember it.
Granddaddy took turns giving Margaret and me the glossy gold paper rings from his cigars, which we wore as if we were queens. Once in awhile, we got to have the fancy wooden cigar box with the gold seal on it.
My brother and sister and I were sent for a time to live with an abusive aunt who was horribly sadistic to her sons. She had angry red hair and a voice like the cruel lash of a whip. We were terrified of her, and we saw lots of sick things going on, but for some reason she didn’t hurt the three of us. Still we despised her, and wanted to get out of there.
My brother witnessed the abuse of our cousins at the hands of our aunt. He watched through the kitchen window as she strapped one of our cousins into his high chair and burned him with lit cigarettes, all up and down his little white legs. He only told me this recently, and says that he saw other things like that. My aunt has never served any jail time because it was all kept secret.
I remember my oldest cousin Thomas, because we used to say we would get married when we got older, and we secretly snuggled up and kissed each other a few times in my aunt’s house. I remember that he had very full red lips that were soft and lovely, and large eyes like blue planets. Thomas and I were both about seven years old. Dreaming of love was the only comfort we knew. He was terrified of his mother (my aunt), and if he even spilled something, he would grab a belt and run to her and ask her to go ahead and beat him. If she told him to wait until later, he would beat his head against the wall in anguish and cry. Many times I watched in horror and tried to comfort him.
When Thomas grew older, he was killed in a motorcycle accident and the coffin could not be opened because of the severity of his injuries. My abusive aunt threw herself on the coffin, screaming and begging to see his body. I wonder why she wanted to see him like that, and I shudder to think of it, after all that she did to him. When my grandfather wrote to me about Thomas’s death, his sorrowful black ink was smudged with grey teardrops all over the page.
My brother had to be the head of the household at the age of six or seven, because my parents were not doing any parenting. He came home from school one afternoon, and found a “friend” of Mother with his pants off in our bedroom, preparing to molest my sister and me. He did not tell me until much later that the same man had molested him too.
My brother James is cursed to remember the most about our childhood because he is the eldest, and my sister Margaret remembers the least because she is the youngest. I remember a lot, but James remembers more.
When I was very young, I called my brother “James Pat Do-Do.” He laughed about it at the time, but after he was in second or third grade, it was no longer funny to him, and he wished no one would mention it. Little sisters were embarrassing.
James would walk my sister and me to Burger King when we were very young, and we would put on colorful cardboard crowns together as we ate burgers and fries and drank Orange Crush until our tummies hurt. I never knew where the money came from, but James had friends from school, and one of them named Sandy had parents that knew what was going on in our house. Once the family invited the three of us to their house for breakfast, and we all ate as if we hadn’t eaten in a week.
Granddaddy was furious about what was going on in the lives of his grandchildren. I did not know this until I was older and he began to talk to me as an adult. I am not sure what year my brother disappeared from our household, but my grandfather sent a letter saying he wanted to bring each of us for one year to Hawaii to stay with him. My brother went there first because he was the eldest.
We drove with him to the airport and saw the 747 jumbo jet, and I was amazed that such a monster could even get off of the ground, let alone fly across the ocean to Hawaii. My brother looked so brave and grown up climbing the steps of the plane with all those strangers around him to go sailing through the air on this terrible winged creature that could go tumbling into the ocean and snuff everyone’s life out in blazing water. I was in awe of him, and immensely sad when the plane took off.
I talked on the phone with my brother a few times during his visit with Granddaddy and his second wife. James described sitting in the living room eating popsicles and watching cartoons all morning, and he seemed so happy and secure. It made me sad to feel so unloved and alone. But I knew my turn would come next year, and Margaret would go after me.
But our turns never came. Granddaddy and his second wife graciously adopted my brother when he was nine or ten, during a time when we were being shuffled around from one household to another. Granddaddy was proud to have a new young son with his own name, and I’m sure that my brother was greatly relieved. My grandparents simply could not take all three of us at their age, and start all over again with young children. Margaret and I were very sad about it at the time, but we can certainly understand it now.
Soon after James was adopted, Margaret and I were found alone at home by a caseworker, and we were turned over to the State of North Carolina and placed in foster homes.
THROUGH THE BEADED CURTAIN: A CHILDHOOD ROOM
The beaded curtain parts across my face, like the Jordan, as I walk through, then rattles like a snake on my heels. This is the living room, where I have never truly lived. This is your home, and not mine. My feet sink into the bruise-colored shag carpet.
The purple horned mask on the wall thrusts out its red tongue at me. The dark mahogany bulls on the ends of the table snort silently with brass rings in their nostrils. Carved together back to back, they never see each other. They are like us, Mother, locked together yet so distant.
You recline in the dark painting on the wall, with one golden Rapunzel braid hanging limply over your shoulder. Would you let down your braid for me? I wish I could find a sturdy vine to climb up into your wind-chilled tower. Your friends encircle you in the picture, some sit upon the floor, some on the couch. Are you having a rap session or perhaps a love-in? I imagine your voice talking to me instead of to them. I search the painted oil strokes of your face, but you have no eyes, nose, or mouth.
Sometimes when the Siamese cat struts across your lap and brushes up against your chin, I am jealous because I wish I could inhale the scent of you and know the softness of your hands.
Upon the mantle over the fireplace, the hot purple candle wax bleeds and hisses around the mold with the wick sticking out. The warm bread dough sighs in the giant blue pottery bowl next to it. Freshly tie-dyed shirts snuggle together in the wicker basket by the doorway. The candles, the bread, the tie-dye: none of them are for me. Who do you make them for?
A psychedelic collage hangs on a hallway door with various sayings inscribed into it, such as “Kings who live in glass houses shouldn’t stow thrones”and “It is better to love a short man than never to have loved a tall.” Everyone admires your charm and cleverness. But I am invisible like Casper the ghost, with no friends.
The gloomy dulcimer with grieving strings hangs on the wall, and Joan Baez sings tragic ballads in another room. Your purple crocheted sandals rest side by side with their laces tangled together in front of the stony fireplace. I wish I were your sandals or a musical instrument, so that you would walk with me or strum me gently and sing to me.
The books of witchcraft and demonology line the bookshelves. They frighten me, so I try not to look at them. Who will you cast your spells upon? Perhaps I could work a love spell upon you, and make your empty eye sockets light up again with affection. For me. Alone.
Mother, where do you go for so long? I am a reflection of you, with icy blue eyes and corn silk hair. Why do you hide me in shame, and leave me alone after nightfall? This room is chilly and haunted with images of you dancing like the candle flame that makes me want to burn myself. I would do it, if it would make you worry about me, if it would make you love me and hold me on your lap and hug me. I would do anything…
(Sayings from: The Stubborn King by Carl Etheridge, David Chambless)
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
My mother tells a funny story about Margaret and me when were babies. She says one day we were in separate cribs and I was crying hysterically. After awhile, Margaret got upset and started to cry too. My mother says I stopped crying instantly, and said, “Be quiet, Margaret! I’m crying!” I’m told that I was always very dramatic and controlling. Whenever I would try to boss her around, I would cry “I’m a year older than you, so do what I say!” She would shout back “364 days!” I was born on March 13, and she was born on March 12 of the following year, so she would never allow me the pleasure of saying I was a year older.
I remember once when we were four or five, and our mother made matching dresses for us for Easter. Because of the two gathered layers with frilly edges, we called them our “daffodil dresses.” Margaret’s was yellow, and mine was pale blue. We wore them to Quaker meeting along with lace-edged socks and black patent leather shoes, and I have no doubt that we appeared like two dainty flowers dancing in the breezes.
My sister Margaret and I have always been as opposite as two sisters could be. Nothing has changed. We still clash. I have always been interested in spiritual matters and she has never been. I am light-haired with blue eyes, and she is dark-haired with brown eyes. She has always loved horror movies and scary stories, and I despise them.
Our father seldom visited or wrote to us while we were young. It hurt me very much, because I was very proud of his good looks and charm and longed for someone to call my very own father. He reminded me of James West from “The Wild, Wild West” television series, with his dark hair and complexion, and brown leather vests. He has a slender body and a deep voice as smooth as warm syrup. This is why I had to lose him from my home at such a young age. My mother is beautiful, but it did not take long for my father to stray and find another beautiful woman.
I recall one visit with him on the front lawn of our little house on Laburnum Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he brought his dark brown Gibson guitar and left a woman waiting in his car. I hated her for taking my father. But she didn’t get to enjoy him for very long either.
My father brought Margaret and me to stay with him and his second wife in Missouri when we were in elementary school. He was paid his first royalty for one of his science fiction stories during this time and I’ll never forget his excitement. He took my sister and me out to an old wooden-floored country store and told us that we could buy anything we wanted. I wanted a coloring book and crayons. I regret now that I wasn’t old enough to be greedy. He wouldn’t dare make such an offer now.
I did not know the reason at the time, but Margaret and I ended up back in North Carolina. Our brother was adopted by Granddaddy, and we were placed in the custody of the state .
The first foster home Margaret and I were placed in was a temporary home for a few days while the state made arrangements for a more permanent home. Mr. and Mrs. McKee were elderly and very sweet and kind and seemed to really love children. They made us feel optimistic, and we thought we might be going to a really nice place.
But when we were placed in a longer term foster home, we were sorely disappointed. The foster parents were Mr. and Mrs. Preston, and they had two children of their own. They let us know in no uncertain terms after we arrived that we were not members of their family. They told us that we were never to leave our upstairs room or make so much as a sound without permission, and that we were never to ask permission, because they would tell us if and when we could leave our little room. We were always afraid to find out what would happen if we disobeyed, because the father looked like someone you would not want to test. He was red-faced and sweaty and husky, and looked like he didn’t tolerate much. So we were quiet as little mice in our room, and oftentimes it was almost lunchtime before we were summoned for breakfast.
Then we were shuffled to the back yard, and we were told to stay there until we were instructed otherwise, and to never enter the house without permission. This is where our standing with the family became abundantly clear, because their tubby red-haired children would run in and out of the house freely, eating popsicles and snacks and candy, which were not offered to us. The children would often laugh about this to our faces. Sometimes the father would light up the grill, and cook steaks in front of us as we sat in the back yard, and then would carry them into the house. Then he would come back with hot dogs which he cooked and gave us at the picnic tables, and mosquitoes swarmed around and ants gathered around our feet. It was summer time and I remember sweltering out there many long days, longing to go in to the air conditioned house, and being relieved when we were permitted to go upstairs to our little room again. I don’t think we ever saw the whole house, because we were confined to certain areas.
When they would have company in the evening, they would lecture us ahead of time about being even more quiet than usual, and never showing our faces downstairs. From our little room, we would listen for hours to the sounds of laughter and voices talking, and the sound of dishes and utensils. I sincerely believe that they did not want their friends to know that they had any foster children, and that they were trying to hide us.
After we were taken from there by our caseworker, we were placed in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Wingate. They were farmers and they had three children, and one other foster child named Jack. Mr. Wingate was broad and strong with huge furry arms and hands, greasy brown hair slicked back, and dark whispers sticking out of his face. He had the reddest neck and arms I had ever seen, because he was a construction worker who worked in the hot sun all day. We drove with his wife to pick him up after work sometimes, and he carried his yellow hard hat and metal lunch box in his hand. He never smiled at us. Never. He was an abusive recovering alcoholic and his wife seemed bitter and worn. I hate to imagine what his wife must have suffered over the years. I often heard her crying in their bedroom at night, through the walls.
Their three children were vicious to us, probably imitating what they had seen in their home. The youngest daughter Lisa stabbed me in the leg with a pair of scissors on our second night at this foster home. We were whipped with belts and switches and hairbrushes and anything else Mr. Wingate could get his hands on when he was mad. He beat all of us many times, but it seemed that he beat my sister Margaret the most. We had a bunk bed and I would lie on the top bunk quietly, and cry into my pillow, while he whipped her with a belt. It seemed like he would never stop, and her wails were unbearable to me.
They had another foster child name Jack who was like a little brother to Margaret and me. Poor Jack was a pale red-haired skinny boy with a pathetic stutter, especially when he was frightened. The Wingates’ oldest son, Robert, bullied him relentlessly and seemed to delight in his stuttering. Mr. Wingate caused that boy a lot of misery too, whipping him and intimidating him.
But on Sunday’s, Mr. Wingate would grease back his hair and shave his sunburned whiskery face and dress up for church. He taught Sunday school for the children. He was unfortunately my teacher there, and I couldn’t reconcile the images of him in Bible class with the images of him with a belt in his huge hairy hand. Perhaps he was really trying to live right, and was doing the best that he could. But it was deeply disturbing to me as an innocent child, especially after I was converted in the most powerful way, and he refused to recognize it, and even made mockery of my salvation experience. I also found it upsetting when our preacher said from the pulpit that he didn’t want his congregation to bring any of their black friends to church. It is not my place to judge, but it is miraculous that I was converted with such poor examples around me of the Christian faith.
Margaret and Jack and I were used as free labor to help Mr. Wingate with his farming chores during the summer and after school. That family also got a monthly check from the state for keeping us. We often worked in the field after school until dinnertime, and after dinner until dark. We picked peas, beans, tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers, and my favorite was watermelon. I can still smell the dirt and the various scents of the different plants, and remember the bugs crawling on them and boring round holes in the leaves and vegetables. As night was falling, we would sit on the porch and shuck the corn, and shell the peas, and snap the beans. After the harvest was done for the year, we also would help with uprooting the plants to prepare for sowing the next round of vegetables. The Wingate children did not participate in these chores.
In many ways, the farm was like the Garden of Eden to me. We had an apple orchard, red plum trees, grape and muscadine vines, and several acres of crops. We had chickens and a huge black and white pig that I used to bring slop to every morning. I would have loved living on the farm, if the family had not been so cruel and harsh and miserable.
All of us watched gospel quartets on black-and-white television on Sunday mornings before church, and I loved that music very much. But one day, a different kind of music drew me into the living room to listen. I tiptoed in quietly and saw something that stirred my young girl heart. I saw a band of four young fellows playing music and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” while girls climbed the fences screaming with all their might, and policemen tried to make them come down. As I watched, Mr. Wingate leaned forward on his tattered old chair with a scowl on his face and said, “What is this world coming to? Who are these guys anyway?”
“The man said they come over here from England,” said Mrs. Wingate with disapproval. I felt a strange passion stirring inside of me as I thought that I would be climbing the fence there too if I could.
Margaret and I lived on that farm for what seemed like a long time so I guess we thought we would always be there. But then, without any explanation, we were taken to another orphanage.
The only time Mrs. Wingate ever showed any emotion in our presence is when we left that day. Her eyes got watery and she was sniffling with her hand up over her lined haggard face, just as the caseworker was pulling into the graveled driveway. Maybe it was just an act. No one hugged us or wished us well, but poor little Jack, the other foster child, looked truly miserable. I often wonder what became of him, and I hated to leave him there alone. (Margaret says she bumped into Jack on a bus in San Jose, California when he was in his late twenties, and that he recognized her. I was so perturbed that she didn’t bother to get some contact information from him.)
I have never asked but often wondered what precipitated children being moved from one foster home to another. Do the foster parents decide they are tired of the children, or did they agree to a certain period of time to begin with?
There are many questions that remain unanswered, but one thing was consistent in every home we stayed in. We were treated more like bothersome pets than like children, and none of the foster parents ever showed genuine concern for our well-being or happiness.
“In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I called. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry came to his ears.” II Samuel 22:7
One life-altering event occurred while I was living at the foster home with the Wingate’s in Charlotte, and I will never forget it. At the age of nine years old, I promised my heart to Jesus, and told Him I would always love and serve Him.
The Wingate family attended Teeter Memorial Baptist Church, a little white wooden countryside church with a steeple, and beautiful green grass lawns. I remember playing with the children in the grass after church in the evenings, as the lightning bugs began to appear. I can still see their soft yellow lights blinking.
The preacher there was named Reverend Woodall, and he was a fiery country minister. He taught the Bible in simple ways that I was able to understand, and he talked of Jesus’ ministry and suffering and death so that it really touched me. He always gave powerful altar calls, appealing to sinners to receive Christ before it was too late, because death could come at any time, and your eternal soul could be lost.
One Sunday morning, my heart started to pump loudly in my ears, and I felt desperate to give my life to Jesus. The church was crowded with the saints singing:
“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come…”
I was terrified by all of the people watching, but I got out of my seat, and walked nervously to the altar. I was trembling as the minister came to me, and asked me what I needed. He seemed surprised by my sincerity and desire to be saved. But he told me in a clear way in five minutes enough to sustain me for many years.
He said that I first had to tell Jesus I was sorry for the things that I had done wrong in my life, and ask for His forgiveness. Then I had to receive Him into my heart as my Lord and King. He said that I needed to pray to Him every day, telling Him whatever I needed, and read my Bible each day and ask Him to help me to understand it. He also said that God did not want us to keep our faith to ourselves, but to tell others about Jesus whenever we could.
I obeyed all that he told me to do, and I truly felt that I was a new child of God. I still remember that moment so well, the wooden floors of the church, and hard wooden pews, and the lean minister with his flat-top hair cut and his gentle voice. Here is an old hymn that I often think of when remembering that moment:
“Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain,
Free to all, a healing stream
Flows from Calvary’s mountain…
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and mercy found me.
There the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.”
I felt a cloud of peace and comfort descend upon me at the altar, and I have felt that same Spirit upon me ever since. It follows me wherever I go, and I sense that I am never alone.
After the church services, we all went home and sat down to Sunday dinner. Mrs. Wingate was an incredible cook, and I will never forget the southern food she would cook, and how there seemed to always be so much of it. I would stuff myself with her fried chicken and pork chops and green beans and corn and black-eyed peas and cornbread, and of course sweet iced tea.
After we blessed the food that day, everyone at the table began to mock me. Mrs. Wingate said it was a shame how silly I had behaved at church, that it was an embarrassment. Mr. Wingate said that I was too young to understand anything about salvation. And the children began to jeer and laugh. Only my sister and red-haired Jack did not laugh. My face reddened and I felt humiliated, but I knew exactly what I had done when I received Jesus that day.
After we ate, my sister Margaret and Jack and I went down by the creek, and I talked to them about Jesus. The next day I went to school and told all of my classmates about Jesus, even though they too laughed and mocked. I memorized Bible passages, and told them to my teachers. When it was time to write a report, I asked if I could write about Jesus, but my teacher would not let me, so I wrote my report about Billy Graham, the evangelist. The business of Jesus became my concern from the moment I was converted. I recall a song I loved to sing:
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door,
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Oh Lord you know I have no friend like you
If Heaven’s not my home, then Lord what will I do?
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
I felt the presence of Jesus with me from then on. Sometimes when my sister and I were being beaten, I would think of how they beat Jesus before He went to the cross, and I felt Him near me with His hand of comfort upon me. I felt that He stood in for my absent mother and father, and that he had a special plan for me. I knew that He would always be there for me, and this scripture has been proven to be true: “When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up.”Psalm 27:10
Corrie Ten Boom received Christ as her savior when she was only five years old, and in her book In My Father’s House, she writes: “Does a child of five really know what he is doing? Some people say that children don’t have spiritual understanding…I believe a child should be led, not left to wander. Jesus became real to me from that time on. Mother told me later that I began to pray for others, as young as I was.”
Christ told his disciples to allow the children to come to him, and not to hinder them from coming. I know many people who are hindering their children from the best thing that could ever happen to them. Following Christ gave me a sense of direction and hope and a sense that I would never be alone again.
My father visited while we lived with the Wingate’s, and he told me I could have any gift I wanted from him, so I asked him to buy me a red Holy Bible, and to fill out the presentation page with these words: “PRESENTED TO: OLIVE, BY DADDY” along with the date and occasion. He still complains about how uncomfortable that was for him, because he is an atheist. But he did as I asked.
He later wrote about this incident to his mother, saying I had always been very religious. My grandmother gave me his letter many years later.
I recently found a memorial website for Reverend Gene Hart Woodall. I was deeply sorry that I never took the time to thank him for allowing me, a nine year old girl in a foster home, to give her heart to Christ in his church. I have never forgotten that day, and the plain and simple things he taught me at the altar. Those teachings have continued to help me throughout my life.
BEHIND THE BATHROOM DOOR
When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up. Psalm 27:10
At about the age of ten, Margaret and I were moved from the foster home with the Wingate’s to Thompson Orphanage. I became deeply depressed soon after we got there, because my father had written a letter to my caseworker several months before, saying he might come for us soon, so we could live with him.
But then I learned that he had moved to Mallorca, Spain to live with his new wife. I knew we would never be going home. I wanted to know why no one loved us or wanted us, and I would cry in my little room when no one was around. I suppose that my plight was better than the real orphans who had no living parents, but I really never thought upon that at the time.
I remember one occasion when all of the children at the orphanage were taken to the theater to see a movie called “Oliver!” The staff told us that we should appreciate how good we had it by comparison to Oliver in the film. In retrospect, I view it as an attempt to somehow legitimize the insensitivity of the adults working with us and to make us feel foolish if we were in anguish.
I had a roommate in the orphanage and she loved the Beatles, and introduced me to their new album “Let It Be.” There were two songs on that album that made me cry. One was the title song “Let It Be” and the other was “The Long and Winding Road.”
I played them over and over again on my roommate’s little red record player and wept from the depths of my soul. I felt that I was on a long weary road in the wilderness of despair, and that music was speaking to me.
I tried to lock my heart up inside a cast iron gate with spears on top.
Although I was recognized by my teachers at school for being powerfully creative and maintaining high grades, this validation was no longer enough. I became more and more withdrawn and would go into the bathroom during breaks and cry. I felt more and more like an outcast, because I had only one friend, and I had been moved around so often that I could never sustain a friendship. I lived in a clouded glass bubble and could not see or hear other people anymore.
I felt that God had forsaken me. So one day, I decided one day to kill myself. We lived in Christ Church cottage with about twenty girls at the time, and there were two of us to each room. Every two rooms had an adjoining bathroom between them, so that the four girls would take turns with showers and such each day. I entered the bathroom that day and locked the doors on both sides of the bathroom securely. I opened the medicine cabinet, and pulled out a package of razor blades that a teenage girl from the next room had placed there for shaving her legs.
I nervously lifted one new blade out of the plastic package. Just as I touched the blue veins of my wrist with that cold razor blade, my roommate Crystal walked in. Her eyes grew wide and her mouth opened as if to scream, then she ran out of the room. I was so sure I had locked the doors. I knew that I was in big trouble, so I quickly put the razor back into the cabinet and ran out of the bathroom. The cottage mother came running in to see what I was doing, and I tried to act like nothing had happened.
That evening, it was very quiet at the dinner table. The girls usually talked and giggled during meals, but not this time. Everyone seemed afraid to say a word.
The next morning, I was told to go and see my counselor instead of going to school. I walked past the gigantic dinner bell and the playground, to the old two-story building across from the cafeteria.
I walked into the office of Miss Storozuk. She sat at her oversized wooden desk, a petite lady with short brown hair trimmed neatly around her ears and just above her collar, wearing an olive polyester suit, and small oval glasses. She asked me to sit down and to talk about my feelings, and she placed a box of Kleenex on her desk. My knees began to shake and I tried to keep my feet from quivering on the wooden floor. I began to wring my hands and cried, “I haven’t heard from my mother in a long time and I am wondering if she is dead or if something happened to her. I don’t get any letters from her anymore. No one seems to care about me or what happens to me. I cry all the time, because I don’t know why my parents don’t want me…”
I never used the Kleenex box, but my counselor did. Her glasses kept fogging up, and she kept taking them off and wiping her eyes. She seemed speechless and terribly upset. I had hoped she might have a magical way of healing my pain, but she didn’t.
The next day, there was a pile of letters in my mailbox from my mother. Had someone been hiding them so that I might forget about her?
The only consolation in the meeting with my caseworker was that someone cared enough to shed tears for me. It really affected me.
Later, I heard a rumor that Miss Storozuk was fired for becoming too emotionally involved with the children. My new caseworker was a stiff expressionless lady named Miss Parish.
But the thing that still amazes me about the bathroom incident is that I locked those doors securely before I attempted to cut myself. I was sure of it. Yet my roommate just walked right in, which I could not figure out.
I had forgotten all about my covenant with Christ, and about His promises to take care of me. But He didn’t forget me. This may sound unbelievable, but I still believe that God unlocked the door that day.
“I know thy works; behold I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.” Revelation 3:8
“Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?”
Some people say that God never puts burdens on people that are too heavy for them. That is not true. First, God is not the one who puts evil upon us. Secondly, people are losing their minds all the time from crushing weights. An old friend of mine used to say, “People are breaking every day.” It is true. Hearts are not shatterproof.
I often think about the girls who shared life with me at the orphanage (who are now older women if they have not left this world). It is strange that in our cottages, no one ever discussed their families or their losses or what brought them there. We had an unspoken understanding between us, a code of silence. We were fragile glasses of wine clinking together cautiously in the hallways and the dining room, because we didn’t want to shatter and spill our pain upon one another. Everyone had their own measure of grief, and didn’t need any more. A gentle toast was all that we could afford to share.
I can still envision some of the girls that lived in my cottage: a stocky dark-haired girl with glasses and a terrible speech impediment, a tall gangly one with freckles on her face and shoulders, a plain brown-haired thin child with rough features and knobby knees and warts on her hands, and three voluptuous sisters who were sought after by the boys from another cottage. We all shared a home and never really knew each other. Our untold stories were tumors growing inside of us.
Now that I am older, I find wounded adults trying to communicate on orphan message boards, writing their horror stories or trying to locate someone they once roomed with. One man tells of an orphanage worker named “Mother Winters” who abused him constantly. A woman asks if there is anyone who lived at the same orphanage as she did, saying she would like to exchange “war stories.” Another man describes being molested by a male cottage parent. These memories flow in our bones like poison marrow.
Many times I felt that I had reached my limit, that I would lose my mind if I did not escape from my situation. I ran away from one orphanage with my roommate one night when I was around eleven years old, and we wandered through the woods to a dirt road. We walked to the home of Lillie Mae, the cook for the orphanage. When we knocked on her door and she saw who we were, she drew a deep breath of dismay. She was plump little black lady with small round spectacles, and she never seemed to be without an apron and a hairnet on. She asked me how I knew where she lived, and I still don’t remember how I knew, unless I just looked in the phone book or something. She was a kind woman, and was obviously concerned about us, and knew that we came there because we trusted her. She gave us a warm home-cooked meal as we sat out on her porch, and her relatives came and went from the house as we visited. They seemed to be such a close-knit family, something that always made me jealous and upset inside.
After eating Southern cooking and visiting for awhile, we told Lillie Mae we needed to be on our way, because we were headed to the highway so we could hitchhike out of the area. She hugged us and we walked to the dirt road. We continued walking until we reached the paved highway. We had our thumbs out for about two minutes, when flashing lights appeared, and policeman came and picked us up, and took us back to the orphanage. I didn’t think about it at the time, but now I know that Lillie Mae called the police, to keep us from getting lost or hurt.
Another time, I persuaded a twelve-year old boy from school to run away with me, and we sneaked off during lunch and stumbled through the woods to the highway. I will always remember the briars and vines and tree roots, and how weary my feet and legs felt. It became very cold as the evening progressed and the two of us were freezing. When we reached the highway, we stuck out our thumbs to hitchhike out of the area with no destination in mind. We made it as far as Atlanta, Georgia when an old redneck farmer with a Southern accent stopped in his old pickup truck. We climbed in the front seat of his truck and had only traveled a few miles when he suddenly turned off the highway, drove us down a long road into the dark woods, and raped me with his headlights shining through the sinister trees. That poor boy and I both expected to die. But the man drove us back to the interstate and left us there. I never was so happy to see the lights of a police car as I was that night, when the cops pulled over to pick us up and drove us to a runaway shelter. I did not tell anyone about the rape, so the man never was sought.
The next day at school, I was covered with rashes from poison ivy and cuts from thorns and I had a fresh wound in my heart.
My father visited a couple of other times while we were in state custody. During one of the visits, he took me to see “Yellow Submarine” and he says I hated it at the time. On another visit, he took me to see “My Fair Lady” and I loved that. (I feel the opposite about both movies now.) It is strange that I never remember my sister being present when our father visited, but I know she had to have been. I think that I must have blocked her out when I was with Daddy, because the yearning I had for him was so extreme at the time.
About this time, my mother got permission from our caseworker to visit my sister and me for a weekend, and she brought us to our evil aunt’s house in Charlotte. There was a house full of visitors when we arrived, as usual. Instead of Mother spending time with me, she sent me off to hang out with some biker friends who lived in a nearby camp of some sort. I rode on the back of a Harley with a wild guy named Tommy who had long thick black hair and sunglasses, blue jeans and a black leather jacket. At the age of twelve, I thought he looked like a really groovy guy.
When we arrived at his tent in the camp, I saw John who had molested all of us in our earlier years. His Beatnik wife and undisciplined children were outside the tent. His children always ran around the neighborhood completely naked, and nothing had changed.
I was invited into the tent with the two male bikers. I was so naïve at the time. I crawled inside and Tommy took out a gallon jug of homemade elderberry wine and offered me a glass of it. I suddenly felt very grown up. I started out sipping on that potion and ended up gulping until I collapsed on the dirt floor of the tent. Someone transported me back to my mother and my aunt that night, completely drunk and stinking of wine. My mother was furious. She was upset that someone at the orphanage might get wind of it. She was worried that she or her friends might look bad, and that she could get into some kind of trouble if word got out. I cannot forget that she was never concerned for me.
Mother visited another time that I recall, and brought a kindly Quaker woman named Evelyn from Florida with her. This is the first time that I met my two new stepsisters, Heidi and Nanette. They were born to my mother while Margaret and I were in the orphanage. Evelyn had kept both of them at her home many times, and tried to guide my mother in some way.
This visit with my mother went much better than the previous one. We went to Freedom Park and had a cookout with hot dogs and hamburgers and cold sodas to drink. My mother never hugged or kissed us, a fact that still hurts me to remember.
Granddaddy and his second wife, Wilma, visited Margaret and me as often as they could, and they always took us shopping and out to nice restaurants. We could have anything we wanted when they came. I remember a trip with them to Howard Johnson’s when they had many flavors of ice cream, and after a fine dinner we had so much fun picking out two or three flavors to eat on sugar cones. They bought each of us a box of candy before returning us to the orphanage.
Granddaddy was always playing flirtatious games with Wilma in the stores when we were shopping. He would go up to some store clerk, and say, “Do you see that gorgeous woman over there? Go tell her that she has an admirer over here.” The clerk would walk up to Wilma while we were picking out clothes and say, “See that distinguished gentleman over there with the hat and cane?” She would look over with a sly smile and say “Yes, why?” The clerk would say, “He says to tell you he thinks you are gorgeous.” Wilma would look at him, and he would tip his hat. Then Wilma would shake her head and laugh and tell the clerk that was her husband. I admire the way that they teased each other all the time.
Granddaddy became a very wealthy man, living on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii. The jewelry that he bought for his wife was astonishingly beautiful, and he loved for her to show it off at every possible occasion. He would ask her to take off her bracelet with fifty diamonds in it and show it to people. He told us that when he married his first wife in Florida, he was a washing machine salesman, and they could only afford Aztec silver rings to get married with. He wanted us to feel that we could create success for ourselves if we lived the right way and used good judgment.
Granddaddy was always thinking of us when he wasn’t with us, sending us cards, gifts and money for special occasions. Once he sent me a gold watch, and I was so lonely that I gave it to a classmate named Gwen to try to secure her friendship. I don’t know what I was thinking, because every time I was moved to a different home, I lost track of all of my schoolmates. I never told my grandfather what I had done.
Once my grandfather bought twin outfits for Margaret and me, and Margaret refused to wear hers when I wore mine. It hurt me very deeply. I suppose she just wanted her own identity, and that was normal. But with all of the loneliness I felt, it was hard to accept. It seems that I was always seeking validation, and my sister was always angry (with good reason).
When I was twelve, our mother petitioned the court and regained custody of Margaret and me. We had no idea of why or how after all of this time. We were excited and happy, and talked about it constantly until the day our mother came for us. I think now that it must have been painful for the other children in our cottage who had no parents to come for them. I recall some of the girls watching through the windows as we were leaving.
PART II: SEEKING SANCTUARY
Now that I am away from the sky where I was born,
Immense nostalgia fills my thoughts.
Now that I am like a sad leaf in the wind,
Sometimes I want to weep,
Sometimes I want to laugh for longing.
(Yacqui Indian Chant)
The word “home” holds no meaning for me. I longed as a child to let my young green roots creep down into fertile nurturing soil, but I found only cold concrete and shallow sand. I became dry and prickly as a cactus, or like a brown ghostly leaf that does its death dance across highways and spins in mid air. That is before the Spirit injected chlorophyll into my being, and photosynthesis took place.
This chapter of my life is like a bizarre Fellini film with surreal carnival characters, or a Dali painting with melting clocks and a distorted sense of reality. Organizing episodes is almost impossible, because of the mental state I was in at the time. I have been asked why I wanted to live so dangerously when I was a teenager. Was I trying to destroy myself? Was I looking for a father? Was I searching for God? I think all of these were mingled into one evil potion and there was no antidote for it. I had to “work out my salvation with fear and trembling.”
MY OWN GUARDIAN ANGEL
“…Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” Acts 3:6
It seemed to me that Evelyn was always elderly because she had been grey-haired as long as I had known her. Yet she was one of the most energetic and conscientious people I have ever met. She had large open hands that always seemed to be giving, and large sandaled feet that never were idle. She looked after lost and troubled people that no one else wanted to be bothered with. I was one of those people.
I met Evelyn at the orphanage in Charlotte when I was about eleven years old. She came with my mother to visit my sister Margaret and me. She had been a friend of my mother, someone who tried to help her when she was struggling.
I met her again in Gainesville, Florida when we were returned to our mother’s custody. She had attended the Quaker meeting with my mother for several years, and my younger half-siblings had stayed with Evelyn at times while I was in the orphanage.
My mother decided to take all of us to San Jose to start a new life, but I started running away from home after we got there. So when I was thirteen, my mother sent me back to Gainesville and called Evelyn to look after me. I arrived at the Greyhound bus depot after a few miserable days of travel and Evelyn met me there.
We drove together in her old red Volkswagen van full of old scratching dogs, and she offered me a little bedroom with a sliding wooden door in her trailer and something to eat. She told me that she would enroll me in school the following day, and she did.
Whenever I felt like going, I would wander listlessly off to school in ragged patched up clothes with no shoes on, and I refused to cooperate with teachers. I started hanging out with people on the streets and drinking and taking drugs.
Evelyn grew weary of receiving phone calls from the school, and finally realized it was futile to force me to go. She said, “We are wasting everyone’s time sending you to school because you don’t want to be there. So do whatever you wish, and I will be here if you need me.” No one had ever released me like that. I was completely wild and uncontrollable, and she had the wisdom to see that her interference would only prolong my suffering.
So she stood aside and watched me suffer every imaginable torment, and let me know that she was always there, no matter what time of day or night it was. I spent many nights sleeping in abandoned houses, under bridges, in the homes of strange men, and in cars and vans. I experimented with all kinds of drugs, and often visited Evelyn while I was “stoned” or having bad “trips.” She could always tell and would shake her head in horror and quietly make me a peanut butter sandwich, saying, “Let’s just get something in your stomach.”
I hitchhiked across the country numerous times, and put myself in gravely dangerous situations. Once I was picked up as a runaway and I escaped, and was being sought by the police. I called Evelyn on the phone and she said the police had been at her place looking for me. She asked me not to tell her where I was, because she didn’t want to have to lie to the authorities. But she asked me if I needed any food or money. I laughed about this afterward, wondering how she could give me anything without knowing my whereabouts.
Evelyn always expressed deep concern and pain over what was happening to me, but she knew not to try to exercise any kind of authority over me. She always invited me to attend Quaker Meeting with her. I still can’t believe that she she didn’t just give up, and walk away from the whole situation. She took responsibility for me as if I was her own, but she didn’t have to. My mother must have known that Evelyn was persistent.
When I was sixteen or seventeen, and began to be a “seeker” of spiritual things, I found Evelyn to be a seemingly endless well of wisdom and truth. She had tremendous knowledge of world religions, and gave me a huge book called The Bible of Mankind which I treasured. It contained history and scriptures from a variety of religions, both well-known and obscure. I studied this book intensively. She taught me to think for myself and make my own decisions.
Evelyn was also a political activist, and she took up any cause which pricked her conscience with concern, such as protesting the Vietnam War. She taught me about social consciousness, particularly that if anyone is hurting or suffering wrongfully, all of us are hurt by it. She stood up for those who needed support, and willingly got into trouble for it.
One sweltering hot summer day, I drove with her to buy drinks and snacks for a crowd of anti-war protesters who had been standing out in the heat for hours. When we arrived at the site of the protest in her big red Volkswagen van, police were blocking off the area, and they told Evelyn to leave. She said “I just want to bring cold drinks and cookies to those poor kids who are demonstrating out in the hot sun.”
The officer looked at her with a puzzled look and said “Lady, if you don’t leave, I’m going to have to give you a ticket.”
Evelyn clicked her tongue and said, “Just go ahead and be done with it! I’m going in there!” The officer let out a heavy sigh and gave up, so she drove in to feed the multitude.
She also brought me with her when she visited the psychiatric ward at the Veteran’s Hospital. She went there to encourage and befriend soldiers who had been traumatized by their experiences. I had been given a guitar when I was about fourteen by a friend, and had learned many songs from other street people. Evelyn would ask me to bring my guitar and sing for the soldiers, and they always seemed to enjoy that.
Evelyn got married to a strange fellow with a pipe in his mouth, a great furry stomach and a growling voice, and he despised me and named me “Trouble.” Whenever he opened the door and saw me standing there, he would call out, “Evelyn, Trouble’s here,” with a frown on his face. But she would remind him that Jesus always loved and helped people in need, and that he should not be so selfish. I strongly suspected that she married him out of pity because he was so alone and had personality disorders. He and I were like two cuts of the same damaged fabric in her sewing box. She always wanted to mend everyone with torn hearts.
One Christmas Eve, Evelyn drove around to the bars, and she invited people to her home to sit around the Christmas tree and drink hot chocolate. I waited outside as she ran in, and a few lonely people actually accepted.
She was not a wealthy person. She lived on a very meager Social Security check, and her home was a very simple trailer. And yet, whenever I called her on the phone, she always asked me, “Do you need a place to stay tonight? Do you need something to eat?” She was truly a guardian angel for me during the most reckless and crazy times in my life.
After her husband passed away, Evelyn moved to Maryland to be closer to her children. The last time I saw her, my three young sons were with me and she was in a wheelchair. Evelyn had become quite frail, but her wit was just as sharp as ever. I tried to give her a gift, and she said, “This is not the time in my life to accumulate things. It is the time to give things away.”
She continued to write long philosophical letters to me for quite some time. Then the letters stopped and I became worried, so I called her daughter’s house. She explained to me that Evelyn had become very confused and forgetful and the family had decided to place her in a nursing home. Her daughter said she was certain that Evelyn wouldn’t know me anymore. But I requested the phone number for the care home anyway, and one of the nurses rang Evelyn’s room. She answered the phone, and I was astonished when she remembered me instantly.
“Olive! Do you need a place to stay? Can I give you something to eat?” She spoke to me in the same worried tone as when I was a teenager.
“No, Evelyn, I’m okay,” I said. Then I almost wept.
In her mind, I was still the ragged and tormented young girl who lived daily on the brink of disaster.
“And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Matthew 10:42
THE PUMPKIN LADY
One cool and misty morning, as I wandered through “the student ghetto,” a voice called out and asked me if I would like a cup of hot carob to drink. I looked on one of the rotting wooden porches, and saw a woman with bright coppery red hair, breastfeeding a very young blonde baby.
She and the child looked like two ragged dolls, and her feet were bare and dirty like mine. She sat on an old rocking chair, and the porch creaked as she rocked. I walked through the fog up to the doorstep, and said, “Are you talking to me?” She answered, “Yes, would you like some hot carob?” I was more than happy to accept.
She invited me into her little apartment. She carried her child into the house and laid him on the bed. She told me her son was mentally handicapped, and that she had moved just before his birth. The father of her baby had tried to kill her while while she was pregnant in New York City, so she had fled to Florida. She said that her name was Isabel.
Isabel was similar to my other friend Evelyn, in that she loved to help others. She shared everything that she had with people from the streets. If someone was in her apartment and she noticed them admiring a garment or object, she would say, “Would you like to have that? Go ahead and take it.” She was the least materialistic person I have ever met.
After knowing her for many years, I can honestly say I have never met a woman with such sacrificial love towards her child. It is the purest and most unselfish love I have ever seen. She has never put anyone or anything above her son and his welfare, and has freely given up her own pleasures and dreams to take care of him. Because of his handicap, she still has to constantly encourage and care for him, but she never complains or considers him a burden.
Because Isabel was born on Halloween, and has bright red hair, I nicknamed her “the pumpkin lady.” Here is sketch I wrote about her years ago:
A cockroach squirms as Isabel reaches for an orange from the wooden bowl. She hands the fruit to me, then sits down and unbuttons the front of her yellow calico dress. She uncovers a large pale breast and lifts her blonde baby from the bed on the floor. She settles back into the rocking chair, and her son sucks and snorts loudly, occasionally gasping for air.
Isabel’s earthy feet rock the chair gently, and she reaches for the nearest nail on the wall, where she hangs her black velvet cloak. She drapes it across her freckled bare shoulders. Her pumpkin-colored hair with the texture of corn silk gleams brightly against the blackness of the velvet. Her ferocious almond-shaped brown eyes are the color of fertile soil in a garden.
The pumpkin lady plants vegetables in her back yard in the ghetto. With them, she makes soup for the “Doom Soup Kitchen” which she opened in her back yard for the street people. Nobody makes soup like Isabel.
Her two dogs stretch and whimper from the back room. Her rooster was shot by a sleepy neighbor while cockle-doodle-dooing the day before.
In the kitchen, Isabel has big glass jars in rows, filled with beans, rice, spinach noodles, and flour. Whenever she opens the windows for fresh air, giant cockroaches fall out on the windowsill, and some fly around. I always shriek when this happens.
One street person, named Jo-Jo because of his constant stuttering, knocks on the door. He has been wounded in Vietnam, and stumbles a lot. “Belle-Belle-Belle”, the voice came softly, “I need a place to sleep-sleep-sleep.” She opens her graffiti-covered door and tosses a blanket on the floor, and Jo-Jo lays upon it in darkness.
Stirring a pot on the old iron stove, she offers him a bowl of rice and beans. His shaky hand reaches through the kitchen doorway to accept it, and later, an empty bowl is passed in. He lies down again on the itchy blanket, to dream his nightmares of being alive.
Isabel never turns away anyone from her door- she freely offers food, bathrooms, sleeping bags or blankets. She is known as the “Pumpkin Lady” to the ghetto-dwellers. She is Mother Earth, or a Madonna to cherubs who have fallen from grace and remain lost and forlorn forever.
THE GREEN QUEEN
Evelyn introduced me to Katy after she ran away from home in upstate New York, and someone brought her to Evelyn’s house. I was living in an abandoned house called “the Hovel” at the time, and Evelyn drove her there to meet me. I was thirteen and Katy was eighteen. She was a beautiful girl with a Madonna-like face and a soft gentle voice, long brown hair and dark brown eyes. She was very quiet, but we struck up a friendship on the spot, and the two of us were inseparable. I had never had a deep friendship before Katy, because I was moved around too much as a child.
Katy and I connected on both a conscious and mystical level, because we both felt like tragic characters thrown into a world that we felt didn’t love us or even own us. Because we both were emotionally damaged, we were delusional in many ways, imagining ourselves to be Medieval characters on a different stage. We pretended we were somewhere else in time and space. We dressed out of fashion and took drugs and escaped our reality in any way that we could, in order to cope with the disaster of our lives. People who became close to us became part of our cast of characters, and sometimes we renamed them accordingly.
Katy and I bummed money together when we were hungry, ate together, ripped off food from stores together, hitchhiked across the country together, took drugs together, and stayed in the same hollow places. We could talk about anything and everything, and we both were spiritual minded. We slept under bridges, in old vans and cars, in caves, in bushes, in abandoned houses. Sometimes we slept on the floor of the apartment of our friend Isabel who lived in the “student ghetto,” a terrible neighborhood with dwellings so badly maintained that they should have been condemned. Many rough people lived there, as well as some poor students, because it was a cheap place to live, and it was only a couple of blocks from the University of Florida campus.
After our initial meeting, several months passed, and I asked Katy, “Do you realize that we have been together for five or six months, and that we never do anything separately? That is truly amazing.” Even when we had sweethearts, they could not keep us apart for more than a short time. It was almost scary.
Katy was the most amazing shoplifter I have ever seen. Once we went to a produce mart to see if they were throwing out any bruised fruits or vegetables that they might share with us. The owner was very hateful and said that he poured pesticide on all of the produce before disposing of it. We were stunned by his coldness and insensitivity to us, and we left in a rage. After we had gotten down the street and around the corner, I realized that Katy was carrying a watermelon! I asked her about how she managed to steal it, and she just laughed. A few days later, we went into a grocery store, and she was wearing a light cotton floral dress with no shoes on and no handbag. I think that we bought a small item and left. After walking a couple blocks, we stopped to rest on the steps of a church, and Katy took a gallon of milk from under her dress! I was shocked again, and this time she told me that she had placed it tightly between her thighs and walked out slowly. She laughed about how the employees were looking at her so curiously, because they knew she had taken something, but they couldn’t figure out how. She told me this was how she had stolen the watermelon. It may sound unbelievable, but it is true.
For quite some time while we were friends, I began to wear only purple, and Katy wore only green. Thus we were nicknamed “the purple princess” and “the green queen.” We were infamous for being eccentric and wild and mystical. Crazy rumors circulated about us in town that we were witches and things like that. One fellow used to put garlic around his neck whenever he came to see us, and he always said that I had “the evil eye.” One of our favorite rumors about town was that we flew in from Massachusetts every night for a cup of tea at the New Harvest restaurant. A waitress there asked us one night if this was true. I laughed and said, “That story is almost too good to deny, but unfortunately it is not true.”
One man who fell in love with Katy came to Isabel’s house one day, with downcast sad eyes and long curly brown locks of hair, and asked to see Katy. She was out at that moment, so he pleaded with me to tell her that he loved her and wanted her to go and stay with him at his house in the country. He scribbled a note with his phone number on it and gave it to me to give her. He looked pitiful with his head lowered as he walked away.
When I gave her the note upon her return, I asked her, “What are you going to do? Do you love Richard?” Her lips formed a soft and sly smile, and she said nothing. I knew then that she would not go with him, and it saddened me. I also felt bad that he tried to go through me to get to Katy.
There was a drug dealer who lived next door to Isabel. He was a very friendly and outgoing guy, with a big wide grin, and very colorful and hip clothing. He was always hosting parties. Katy and I had access to free drugs from him, because he liked having someone to try out his dope, before he bought any large quantities. He would give us some LSD or mescaline and check with us an hour or so later to see if it was “good.” We had this arrangement with him for quite some time.
One night Katy and I were in his place, and a lot of stoned people were there, and the music was playing loudly, and the room was full of smoke. Our friendly neighborhood dealer had on a green velvet cap and green bell-bottom pants, and his eyes were very glassy. He told everyone that he had a lot of leftover drugs from different shipments, and that they were up for grabs, although he had no idea what any of it was. He poured some pills of different colors and sizes from a bottle into his hand and threw them gently onto the floor. Everyone was laughing and joking, and I picked up a few of them and popped them into my mouth. I was always doing daring things.
A little while later, Katy and I went back to Isabel’s place next door. I became very sleepy and decided to take nap on a mat on the floor. I thought I had been resting for about an hour when I woke up, and several of my friends were looking down at me with concern. A friend named Rabbit asked me if I was okay, and I said, “Yes, why?” He said, “Do you know how long you’ve been sleeping?” I saw that it was still dark, and I said, “I’ve just been taking a nap. What’s the big deal?” Rabbit explained that I had been sleeping for about eighteen hours. I sat up quickly, and was terrified. I remembered the pills I had taken before I laid down. I asked for someone to bring me some water or coffee or something. I stood up to go out and get some fresh air. I opened the front door, and stepped out onto the porch, and suddenly I couldn’t see properly. There were splotchy light flashes in front of my eyes. I began to cry, and told my friends that my eyes were messed up. Someone gave me some water, and told me to calm down. After a short while, my eyes got back to normal. But I was still shaking and scared.
That night changed my whole attitude about taking drugs. I had known of people who died on speed, or whose minds were permanently messed up from LSD and had to live in psychiatric wards, but somehow I never thought anything could happen to me.
One thing has always confused me about our generation. We were fanatical about eating pure and natural foods. We would only get our groceries at Mother Earth Natural Foods and The Hogtown Granary Natural Food Co-op. We read every store label to make sure there were no harmful chemicals in anything we ate. Then we took LSD and other substances. It’s crazy. As I said, nothing made sense in those days.
But I did make a few true friends that were worried about me, and thought that something terrible would happen to me if I didn’t change. One friend of mine tells me that during this time, I couldn’t talk coherently, and that the words I spoke didn’t make any sense. She said that sometimes I would say half of a sentence, then pause, and say half of another thought that had nothing to do with the first part. She was very scared about me, and told me that after I stopped taking hallucinogenic drugs, the difference in me was startling, that she could tell the fog in my mind was lifting, and that I was going to be all right.
I also think often about my long “nap” and how my eyes were going blind, and how I could have been in a coma or something without knowing it. But God allowed me to wake up that day, and He gave me another chance. I thank God for this, and for putting a few good friends around me who loved me even when I was such a mess.
I never knock on wood or read my astrology page, and I don’t thank my lucky stars or the luck o’ the Irish. To me these things are superstition and idolatry.
I go directly to the source to make inquiries, and give thanks for the unmerited favor He has shown toward me. To do otherwise would be to make mockery of Him.
If you knew that someone had saved your life, you would want to go to them personally and thank them. What if someone had saved your life repeatedly? I know divine providence when I see it, so I must give thanks.
THE BALDY SISTERS
“Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you.” James 4:8
Somewhere I had read that monks shave off their hair and wear brown robes to avoid participating in the fashions and vanities of the world. I had also read about religious zealots who inflicted pain upon themselves to bring their flesh into submission.
About this time, I decided to pierce my left nostril, which was one of the most painful procedures I’ve ever endured without a good reason. I stabbed through the cartilage of my nose with a sterilized sewing needle and put a little gold ring through the hole. I rotated it and kept it clean in hopes that it would heal quickly. It never got better or stopped hurting until I finally removed the ring.
Soon after I pierced my nose, Katy and I went to visit our friend William. We knocked on the door of his apartment and he lovingly hugged us as he always did. The three of us sat down at the kitchen table. I told William that I wanted to shave off all of my hair.
“Why?” he asked me with surprise.
“Because I want to be more spiritual and stop thinking about myself and my appearance. I don’t want to be vain. Will you cut off my hair for me?”
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” he asked, with his glowing blue eyes searching my face.
“Yes. I’m sure.”
William walked into the bathroom and returned with a long pair of scissors. Standing over me like a warm friendly cloud, he began to snip. Hair began to rain down on my shoulders. I felt his gentle hands around my neck and head as he worked patiently. After all of the long strands of blonde hair had fallen to the floor, he asked, “Do you still want to continue? Your hair is short now, but it’s not too late to stop.” I assured him that I wanted it all cut off, so he continued with the scissors and then with a razor and shaving cream. After it was all over, William handed me a mirror which I looked into and did not recognize myself. The change was startling. That is what I wanted: a new identity.
William started toward the bathroom to return the scissors, when Katy touched his arm and spoke up. “It’s my turn,” she said calmly. I was shocked, and so was William, but I knew that Katy wanted to share the experience with me. We walked out of that apartment completely bald and ready to pursue God with all of our might.
Someone approached us in front of The University Bookstore with a camera, and asked if we would mind being photographed. We did not object, so the camera flashed a few times. We found ourselves on the front of a newspaper one day looking like two strange Casper’s. I wish that I had gotten a copy of that paper and kept it, but I didn’t. I had a gold ring in my nose, and we both wore simple floral dresses. Word got around town about “the Baldy Sisters” and everyone wondered what we were all about. The Hare Krishnas tried to get us to move into the temple with them, but we refused the offer.
Katy and I practiced days of complete silence because we had learned that this was another monastic practice. We discovered a sense of great serenity when we did this, because words can be like clutter in a small house. We realized that most talk is unnecessary, unimportant, and frivolous. It seemed to me that silence was a fertile soil for contemplation and mysticism.
The two of us fasted a lot, to show that we hungered for spiritual bread. I’m not even sure that we knew what we were doing, only that we were trying to sacrifice something of ourselves in order to pursue God in some feeble way.
I know what you’re thinking: There is a draft in this woman’s attic. Okay, okay, maybe so, but I have decided that there are worse brands of insanity than being obsessed with knowing God.
THE DANCING FOOL
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.” (from the 23rd Psalm of David)
I remember the sound of his whimsical flute which seemed to call my name- Jennifer Juniper lives upon the hill. Jennifer Juniper sitting very still. He would stand at the end of the sidewalk playing until I opened the door of Isabel’s apartment. “Magical princess, would you like to come out and play?” he would ask.
My hair had just begun to sprout again when we met. I was sixteen and he was twenty years old, I believe. As I sat in the park at the University of Florida he strolled by on that first day and I asked him, “Do you have the time?”
“Yes,” he said, and sat down.
It took me a minute to grasp his joke, and I laughed. We talked for awhile and then he drew a bamboo reed out of his green backpack and began to play.
A few days later I was sitting in the park with my bare feet in the morning dew and the notes of his flute danced toward me through the fog. I caught a glimpse of a dark-haired young man sitting on a woven Native American rug. The man rose and strolled towards me with a small handful of colorful wildflowers and offered them to me. He sat on the wet grass, crossed his legs, and said “Good morning, magical princess!” I realized it was the same fellow and again we began to talk. He told me that his name was Zachariah.
I told him I admired his name and he explained that he was not born with it. He had been walking one day when a newspaper was blown by the wind against his leg. He picked it up and saw an obituary column. A boy had died when he was less than a year old and his name had been “Zachariah Zarathustra Jones.” The name was too beautiful to waste so he had decided to use it.
Zachariah had striking blue eyes, dark brown scruffy hair and a thin scraggly little beard. He was deeply tan and fit and wore shorts most of the time with no shirt or shoes; he carried a green canvas backpack that was always loaded with fruit and nuts that he would share with me.
He was a professor’s assistant in the math department at the University. He brought me to his office one day and showed me that he had a giant photo of me on the wall- I was completely bald and wore a ring in my left nostril. I laughed and asked him where he found it, and he said he had seen it in a photography exhibit and had requested it from the photographer after the show. He explained that he had wanted to meet me for a long time before he had the nerve to talk to me.
I loved the spontaneity of our friendship and the freedom I felt with him. We were playmates in the truest sense of the word. I spent many wonderful days with him, lying in fields of clover, wandering through the botanical gardens and out to the long wooden pier where we saw cattails and osprey and alligators sliding into the water.
We laughed a lot when we were together. One Sunday morning we tried to thumb a ride from a wooded area in Archer into Gainesville and no one would pick us up. In the sweltering heat we trudged along in the grass by the road and hoped for a kind driver to pick us up. Zack suggested that we try using our big toes instead of our thumbs. We tried that for awhile, and we laughed out loud as drivers slowed down for a closer look through the darkened windows of their air-conditioned cars.
“I wonder where they are all going,” I asked.
“They are off to church to hear a sermon about the Good Samaritan,” Zachariah replied. Then we laughed and laughed about that.
We had noticed before that Sunday was a terrible day for hitchhiking and we thought perhaps it was because people were wearing their best clothes and driving their finest cars to church. But I’m sure we looked pretty weird too.
Zachariah was the one who first named me “The Magical Princess of Love.” He would tell people that he loved me and thought I grew more beautiful every day. Yet I always knew that I was safe with Zachariah, that there would be no sex or commitments, only a remarkable intertwining of our souls. He wrote many stories and poems in my honor and brought me gifts for every occasion he could think of. One day, he gave me a tiny bottle of rose oil, and said, “Happy un-birthday, magical princess!”
Zack always sang the songs of Donovan and played them on his flute. He gave me an album called “Gift from a Flower to a Garden” that I still love today. I can still envision him dancing and playing his bamboo reed when I hear those songs.
The giving of names was customary among friends in those days, either as recognition of certain attributes, or as a token of affection and high regard- or both. Zack always played his joyful flute and danced like Jethro Tull, so a wizard named Gandalf called him “The Dancing Fool.”
But I named my dearest friend “Rabbit” because he reminded me of a brown rabbit dancing in the meadow in the spring.
He was concerned only for me and my happiness, and he would get very upset when other men would try to use me for their pleasure. Rabbit comforted me after years of deep despair and suffering, and I can see how God placed him in my life to restore hope in my soul.
Sometimes after a long day of wandering and singing and climbing trees and playing, we would lie down in a cool green thicket under a lacy curtain of wisteria, and Rabbit would fold his arms around me prayerfully. I would rest my head in his warm hair and he would say, “I love you too much to ever use you.” He was one of the dearest men I have ever known, and I regret losing track of him when he moved away to the west coast.
GANDALF: A SKETCH OF A LUNATIC
Gandalf appeared one day in a parking lot across from Isabel’s house in Gainesville. He hobbled out of a green van with white letters painted on the side that read: “Ship Chaos and the Chaos Crew.” Behind him appeared his fellow magicians: Angel, Pickles, and Samantha.
Gandalf’s ice blue eyes were almost hidden behind silver-grey curly hair, eyebrows, and a full beard. A rainbow colored velvet hat perched on his head, and his hand clutched a twisted cane from the Foxwood Forest on Nantucket. Strange pendants, rings, small velvet bags, and other trinkets hung around his neck, over the blue velvet vest and purple satin balloon-sleeved blouse. Blue velvet knickers were fastened with a gold button at the knee. Jester-diamonded knee socks and brown sandals covered the bony calves and feet.
His appearance fascinated me so I stepped off the porch and walked across the lot to talk with him. He asked if he could park his van there for a time and I told him Isabel wouldn’t mind, so he ended up there with his crew for a couple of weeks.
Samantha and Gandalf made an esoteric pair. She had black frizzy wicked-witch hair and knew all about astrology, pentagrams, spells, and “the correlations between spherical musical octaves and moods and events in time and space.” Their eerie conversations silenced everyone around them, and no one knew what they were talking about. Thoughts of Doctor Faustus and Satan came to my mind.
Gandalf and I wandered aimlessly together, and our conversations were as nonsensical as limericks, or Gollum’s riddles in The Hobbit. One day, we sat together on a brick wall surrounding an herb garden on the university campus. A policeman strutted up to us in a blue bright-buttoned uniform with a star on his chest. “Are you students?” he asked. He already knew we weren’t.
“No, we aren’t,” said Gandalf.
“May I see your i.d.?” the officer asked.
Gandalf took two cards from the chest pocket of his satin shirt, and handed one of them to the cop. The first was a card with said merely “Gandalf” in the middle in gothic lettering with the word “thaumaturgy” (which means magic) in one corner, and medieval symbols in another corner. The policeman laughed and asked for another card. Then Gandalf gave him his identification from the insane-asylum in Salem, Massachusetts. The cop looked at Gandalf curiously, and pointing at me, he asked, “And who is this with you?”
Gandalf leaned forward, thoughtfully clutching his stick. “This is the Magical Princess of Love from the Moons and Junes and Ferris Wheels caper,” he replied, grinning and holding up his wand. I guess the policeman concluded that we were harmless, because he walked away speechless, removing his cap to scratch his head. The two of us laughed and laughed about that.
Gandalf told me that once he had been in a courtroom for a hearing about a planned parking lot that would pave over several vegetable gardens planted by families. Gandalf was put on the stand, and he stood up and cried, “How can you pass a law against a plant?”
“Ten days in jail!” the judge had ordered.
“Well, explain it to me.” Gandalf had shouted.
“Twenty days!” the judge had bellowed. After Gandalf’s sentence had been raised to a month, he had rolled his eyes in their sockets and yelled, “And I am Richard the Lionheart.” Silence followed. Then the judge reversed his sentence, and recommended Gandalf for a shorter term in the “nut house.”
Gandalf told me several times that he was searching for Jesus because he believed He was still on Earth. “I want to smoke Him out of the closet,” he said, “so I can be His staging director.”
Just before Gandalf’s departure from Gainesville, we meandered on a chilly night through dark alley ways and parks. Tonight I would become the official Magical Princess of Love, he told me. We sat down on the dewy grass, under a moss-bearded tree by a small wooden bridge called “Shepherd’s Bridge.” We looked down at the small creek flowing under us, and the moon glimmered on Gandalf’s black velvet cloak and silver hair.
Gandalf shook up my world up and dissolved it in his hands. I looked for a moment into the face of the real Gandalf the Wizard, crouched in the darkness with the wind blowing. His bells and pendants jingled softly, as he removed a small shiny object from his neck.
A small sterling silver ring with seven tiny inlaid hearts of different colors shimmered between his thumb and forefinger. Solemnly he explained to me that this ring came from a girl named “Flower Child” who lived on the Island of Nantucket and ate nothing but flowers. This ring was magic, and each heart on it represented the heart of one special person, each chosen by the wearer of the ring. He said that the white heart should be reserved for Jesus. Then he asked me if I would save the icy blue cracked heart only for him. I consented to his request.
He told me that I must turn the ring on my finger three times every morning and every night. If I did as he told me, he said all my dreams would come true. Then he took my smallest finger, and put the ring on it as though it was a sacred rite. “Now you are one of the Chaos Crew. If you get any clues on where to find Jesus, let me know.”
I kissed my favorite magician on the bearded cheek, and thanked him for the honor. That same night, he hobbled back into his “ship” with all of his phantoms, and disappeared into the cold night.
Winter still makes me think of him. He is the wind when it cries against the window or the north country on a cold foggy day; he is an Anderson fairy tale read in candlelight by a frosted window; he is the first two lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem, Mad Girl’s Love Song: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I think I made you up inside my head…”
THE SUBWAY STATION
When I was a teenager I often “thumbed” my way around the country. This is a very dangerous way to travel, especially for a young girl, and it is a testimony to God’s mercy that I am still here to tell this story. I was frequently picked up by weird and scary people, and I was once raped outside of Atlanta, Georgia by a middle-aged redneck in a pickup truck.
One October when I was about fifteen, I hitchhiked to Boston, Massachusetts with my best friend Katy. We had met a wizard named “Gandalf” who had stayed a few days in Gainesville, Florida and had asked us to visit him if we ever traveled up north. So we had decided to visit Katy’s family and then to visit Gandalf.
We left from Gainesville in the pouring rain, wearing trash bags as rain coats . We departed without planning, and found ourselves wet and freezing before we even got to Georgia. It was an incredibly cold and miserable trip.
We stopped in Rome, New York to visit Katy’s parents for a few days before continuing on to Boston. Katy was very close to her mother, but something was wrong between her and her father. Her eyes would flash with anger every time she mentioned him. Her mother called Katy her “poor rag doll.” While I was sitting in the kitchen, Katy’s mother took her in another room and I could hear crying. I knew that her mother was trying to get her to stop wandering and come home where she was safe.
I also heard her father’s angry voice one night, full of disapproval. It was a depressing visit, except that I saw snow for the first time in years, and we enjoyed baking popovers in the kitchen. Once we pranced gaily out into the snow barefooted, and sprawled out on our backs to make snow angels.
It was the year of the gas crisis, and Katy’s parents pleaded with us not to leave during the weekend while the gas stations were closed. But we were stubborn, and we left anyway. We stood for hours in the freezing wet weather on the turnpike that night, and an occasional car floated by. The air from those cars made us breathlessly cold. I was weak and ready to lay down on the ice by the road when someone finally stopped and drove us a short distance. I cried for about an hour in the back seat, because I had been so scared of freezing to death by the highway. Our faces and hands were bright red from windburn when the driver dropped us off in Albany at a college campus, and we slept in a student center.
The next day we thumbed the rest of our way, and finally arrived in Boston. We had Gandalf’s address but we did not know our way around the city at all. We finally found his place after quite a bit of walking and asking different strangers for directions.
Gandalf lived with a witch named Ethel, and the two of them were very surprised to see us when we arrived. I’m sure we looked terrible. We were invited in, and we sat in their living room with a fireplace and tapestry rugs and antiques, and we listened to them talking about witchcraft and magic and occult powers. I don’t recall which of them offered us some LSD, but we accepted. After we had sat there for awhile, Katy and I decided to go walking around the streets of Boston.
As we were drifting around the cold windy streets, the LSD began to take effect. It was unspeakably scary when we began to hallucinate, especially when we realized that we were lost. We felt as if everyone was staring at us. Katy and I looked at one another’s eyes and our pupils were gigantic, so we knew it was obvious to everyone that we were on drugs.
Panic began to set in, and I asked Katy if we could try to take the subway back to Gandalf’s neighborhood. I assumed that she knew her way around, because she had been in Boston before to visit relatives. She only knew where the nearest station was, and we walked frantically down the steps into the entrance. I remember the rapid beating of my heart, which seemed to be pulsating in my brain, and how I was shaking from anxiety. We had no coins to put into the slots, so we crawled under the bars to get in.
We wandered around confused in the depot for what seemed like eternity, trying to find the right subway to take by reading the signs. After meandering for a long time, exhausted and trembling, we found a long dark hallway and we stayed on it until it came to an abrupt dead end. I looked up and read a huge sign on the wall, which said “Does your life seem without direction? Isn’t it time to let God help? “
I sat down on the cold floor and wept because those words pierced me to the heart, and I knew at that moment how badly I needed God.
“All day long I have stretched out My Hand to a disobedient and rebellious people…” (Isaiah 65:2)
I recently watched a French film called “400 Blows” that resonated in my mind because I was considered a runaway starting at about the age of thirteen. The movie is about a young man whose life is sabotaged by adults, so he ends up running away, then stealing, and then he is placed in a reform school. The boy is not a hardened criminal but is treated like one by everyone responsible for him, and his life becomes a tragic injustice.
As I watched the film, I realized that I could have ended up like this boy. I ran away numerous times as a young girl, and finally found myself living alone in Florida with no relatives nearby. Three times I was picked up by the police during my time in Gainesville, and one other time was a close call.
The first time I was with Katy who was luckily eighteen, and I lied about my age to the policeman who stopped us and asked us for identification. He knew I was not eighteen. So he asked us to come with him to the police station. I began to cry as we were driving there and told him the truth that I was only thirteen, and my mother was in California. He suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, and said “Since you told me the truth, I am going to let you go.” I saw his shiny name tag, and his last name was “Goode.” I told him he had lived up to his name, and I thanked him profusely. I know that he pitied me.
A year or so later, I was picked up by another officer. There was a court hearing and this time they sent me to juvenile detention, and after a day or two, they suddenly put me on a flight to North Carolina. They said they were sending me back to where I had grown up. When I got there, an officer took me to an old country home way out in the woods. A plump lady came to the dirty screen door to let me in, and she and the caseworker talked softly on the front steps for a few minutes.
The woman showed me to my bedroom, and I walked in and plopped on the bed and sobbed most of the night. I had no idea what would happen to me. For several days, I was in deep anguish because I had been returned to my former fate. I knew the authorities had placed me in the boondocks so that I would be afraid to run away.
The woman was very kind to me, and I remember that she had a mentally handicapped foster child as well. I don’t remember her face, but I do remember her sitting in that old dark house in her rocking chair that squeaked on the wooden floor, talking sweetly with her Southern accent to the other foster child.
This woman was aware of my agony. One morning, she called me into the living room, and she said, “Olive, I aint s‘posed to tell you this, but you’re s’posed to be goin’ to a reform school. It’s a real bad place, and I can tell you aint a bad person. I’d hate to see you end up there. So I’m gonna show you the best way to git outta here, and I’m gonna wait twenty-four hours before I report you missin’. So you need to run as far as you kin.” She asked me to walk with her to the front steps. She pointed to the dirt road and said, “This road is about three miles long, then you’ll be at the main road, and that’ll take you to Charlotte.”
I do not know her name, but I wish I could thank her for saving me from more grief. Incarceration would have destroyed my last morsel of hope.
I ran down that dirt road, and when I reached the paved highway, I put my thumb out and caught a ride. The driver drove me to a halfway house in Charlotte. From there I called an old boyfriend who wired me money for a plane ticket back to Gainesville. I dyed my hair pitch black when I returned there.
A week later I was hitchhiking, and the lawyer who was in the courtroom at my hearing picked me up and we laughed all the way through town. It was just a ridiculous coincidence.
A few months after that I was picked up again, and in the hearing they told the whole story of my escape from the foster home in North Carolina. The court reporter was laughing under her breath as she typed (I’m not making this up). My friend Evelyn was present and requested to be my guardian, so the judge said that he reluctantly would grant her custody, and I would have a curfew. I broke it almost immediately and Evelyn could not keep track of me. I called her after disappearing for a couple of days, and she said, “Please don’t tell me where you are, so I won’t have to lie to the officer when he calls. But do you need some money or food or anything?” I laughed to myself, wondering how she could help me if I didn’t say where I was. But I told her I was fine.
One other time I was questioned by police, on Thanksgiving Day. My friend Katy and I were sitting on the steps of a cathedral at the University of Florida. We were knitting scarves on that cool misty day, while others were with family eating a feast. An officer pulled to the side of the road and walked up to us, and asked what we were doing on campus. He knew we weren’t students. He radioed in that he was bringing in two girls, and I began to weep. Tears have served me well in these matters, but I really have never faked them. As tears fell on my knitting needles, I said, “What are we doing that is so wrong? It’s Thanksgiving, and we have nowhere to go, and all we are doing is knitting on the steps of a church. What harm are we doing?”
He looked so ashamed of himself. He radioed again, and said in a low voice, “I made a mistake. I’m not bringing anyone in.” He walked away sheepishly, as if he didn’t know what to say or do.
Today, as I look back, it is clear to me that divine protection was always hovering around me in the unseen places, even though I never deserved it.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the man that puts his trust in Him.” Psalm 34:8
When I was a teenager, I lived for awhile in a rooming house with some guru devotees. I was supposed to pay a small amount of rent and by my own food. I was very excited, because I was trying to get more spiritual and learn more about meditation, along with my friends. I remember my rent being fifty-something dollars. I had no job at the time, but I hoped that my friends would bear with me.
After a month or two of being unemployed and not being able to pay my share, the lady who always turned in the rent payments came to me and told me that everyone was complaining about me not meeting my responsibility. She asked me if I had relatives who would help me, and I told her I did not feel comfortable about asking anyone. She was very kind and concerned, but told me that I would have to move out if I was not able to pay within a week.
After we talked, I went out for a walk, with sadness about my situation, not knowing what I would do next. I had slept under bridges and in parks and old cars before, but I was not looking forward to doing so again. I knew that I could not hold down a job for any length of time, because I was so mixed up, and still in a fog from the drugs I had taken over the years.
As I walked down the sidewalk, the hot summer sun was beating down on me, and I began to feel truly miserable and hopeless. I was feeling very hungry and weak, and I did not know how I would get any food. I often begged for money, but I was not in the mood to deal with angry and annoyed people shouting at me that day. I was trudging barefoot down that scorching hot pavement, watching for glass and rocks and whatever else might hurt my feet, when my eye spotted a large shiny red apple on the sidewalk. I picked it up, and inspected it for bruises, worms, or cuts; it was spotless and beautiful. I polished it on my shirt, and bit into it, and it was incredibly satisfying and sweet.
I continued walking along, when my eye caught something else. There was a roll of paper money in the middle of the sidewalk! There was no wallet or identification with it, and no stores or restaurants nearby. I looked around for someone who might have dropped it, and no one was anywhere in sight. Finally, I unrolled the money, and counted it out, and it was exactly the amount I needed for a month’s rent! I was overwhelmed with the feeling that something divine had just happened to me. Mercy and Grace were always near me like two angels.
I know that many injustices have been inflicted upon me in life, and I don’t know why. But I have also seen some really miraculous grace. I cannot explain why God protected me from some things and not from others, or why he bestowed favors upon me as He did. All I can do is say thanks and try to do something for Him in return.
TRIPPING WITH POPPY
In the midst of this time of total confusion, my father appeared one day at Isabel’s house. I have no idea how he found me. He had come to live in Tampa for awhile, to save some money and return to Spain. He drove to Gainesville where I was living, and stayed at the home of one of his writer friends called Grasshopper.
The first day of our visit, my father purchased some LSD for himself and me. After we were “tripping” heavily, he began to ramble and agonize about what a terrible father he had been and how I should hate him for it. He asked me not to call him “Daddy” and suggested I call him by his first name. But I wanted someone to call Daddy. Today I call him “Poppy” because he is toxic in many ways.
I was ready for his visit to end very soon after it began, because It was only reopening wounds. He made the mistake of asking me this question: “If you had never known me and I was not your father and we just met, would you like me?”
“No, I wouldn’t.” I replied quickly, and he was crestfallen. He thought he was so charming and it shocked him.
I also recall one crazy day with his eccentric friend in an old Victorian house. There were giant posters of the frightful genius faces of Einstein, Castro, and Beethoven on the walls, and a creepy picture on a closet door from the cover of a book called And Then There Were None. Grasshopper sang a spooky song by Ewan MacColl about a warlock who loved a beautiful maiden: “Oh are ye sleeping Maggie? Let me in, for oh the wind is roaring at the warlock craggy.” That day was turning into one bad trip. I had to get out of that house and into the sunshine before his dark sinister voice twisted up my brains into spaghetti on his fork. I walked out silently and drifted slowly back to Isabel’s place.
My father showed up again the next day and was accompanied by a woman named Petunia who wielded a guitar. She had written a song for me called “Sad Lisa.” After my father introduced us, she began to strum and sing:
This is sad Lisa so quiet and still.
She sits on a rock on a snow-covered hill.
The sun is so bright, but her eyes open stare,
And she isn’t bothered by cold wind in her hair.
One set of footprints from her favorite spot
Leads back to four walls and flat little cot.
The rest of the orphans are watching TV.
Sad Lisa reads a three-hundred-page fantasy.
She ties tiny knots and strings pretty beads.
She buys them instead of the Sunday movies.
The teenage girls still like to play.
Sad Lisa stays in the library.
Lisa is painting with oils in her sleep.
The rest of the orphans moan and weep.
She dreams of a white light that guides her way,
And works in her watercolors all the next day.
Sad Lisa is leaving the orphanage soon,
Cause on Saturdays she doesn’t sleep ‘til noon.
Can’t laugh with a dormant soul grieving within,
Sad Lisa and her busy hands now begin.
The part about the white light surprised me because I often had dreams and visions. My father laughed and said, “I’ve got you pegged, don’t I?” I nodded and smiled.
A few days after that, James and Margaret decided to surprise us both by showing up from California. The three of us looked at each other in amazement, because we had all grown so much. My sister had outgrown me in stature and chest size and her feet were a lot bigger than mine. When my sister twisted a small spray of her hair under her nose, she and James and my father looked exactly alike. They all had dark hair and eyes. I alone was alien with my blonde hair and blue eyes.
The four of us drove around town in our father’s rental van and talked. I recall my father at the wheel and my brother giving him directions. Whenever we approached an intersection and my brother said, “Go straight,” my father would shout “Never!” and turn any direction that he could. We laughed and laughed and my brother starting saying “Go forward” instead.
After our few days together in Gainesville, my father had a crazy impulse to drive with us to California and see my mother. All of us were ready for some mischief. So we embarked upon another kind of trip. He left his third wife alone in Tampa without an explanation. I still can’t believe he did that.
The last time I saw Katy was in front of Isabel’s house when the four of us were driving away in a van with darkened windows. I rolled down the window and reached my hand out to grasp hers and she was weeping like she would never recover, and I was trying to tell her I would return.
My family had not invited her and I didn’t feel that I could ask. I needed to be with my father. I know that it wounded her deeply and it hurt me too. I never heard from Katy again, although I placed many phone calls and wrote many letters to her. It was a great loss to me.
During our westward journey, my father decided he would give my sister a crash course in driving on the interstate in the middle of the night. I had a prayer-a-thon in the back seat after I heard him shouting, “Margaret, you’re in the wrong f—king lane with a semi-truck coming straight at us! Get over!”
We miraculously arrived at our mother’s house in San Jose, and my father remarked that it looked more like a dovecote. My mother was just returning from work and pulled up in a big white camper. She was all dressed in lavender as is her tradition, with the lavender bandana around her long golden hair, and a lacey lavender blouse, and a purple ring on her finger. It gave me great satisfaction to see a family member who resembled me.
First my mother glanced at James and Margaret and me. Then she saw my father. As soon as she recognized him, her eyes were like knives stabbing him. She didn’t want him to go in her house, but we prodded her to let him in. She gave in, but her demeanor never changed.
When he asked about taking all of us somewhere to eat dinner, she quickly recommended the most expensive place in town, and when we got there, she recommended the highest price menu items to each one of us. She wanted him to make up for our whole lives with no child support.
My brother had brought a camera and wanted a photo of our parents after we left the restaurant. I still have the photo of my father grinning with no shirt on and a white shell necklace around his bronze neck, and my mother looking sadly into the camera as she stood next to him in her light blue peasant dress. They both posed just for the children who had not seen them together since the early sixties.
At that moment, I took one long deep breath. My home that had been whipped around by tornadoes and storm clouds made a peaceful landing just for a second at the end of the rainbow.
It still makes me laugh when I see that photo, and think of how uncomfortable we made the two of them. Perhaps they both deserved it.
The whole time with my father was crazy and I was relieved when he went back to Tampa to his wife. Of course, she promptly filed for a divorce. He returned to Spain soon thereafter and found himself a new woman who shared his interest in chamber music, and they lived happily ever after.
I returned to Gainesville. Katy was gone but my other friends were still there.
A STRANGE PILGRIMAGE
After my hair had grown very long again, Rabbit, who had once been a member of the Love Family in Washington State, asked me to travel with a group of sojourners to The Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes in Arkansas. He said that a group of about eight of us would travel there in a bus that was set up to live in during our trip. I met the other travelers in the Greyhound parking lot in Gainesville. The bus was painted inside and outside with flowers and moons and stars and psychedelic designs, and most of the seats had been removed and replaced with beds and baskets containing food and blankets.
Rabbit brought his new girlfriend on the trip, and I don’t think they wore clothes for the entire trip except when stopping and getting off the bus. Their bodies were entwined and lying on mats and blankets, unless it was time for one of them to drive the bus.
I don’t remember the names of the other people, because I never knew them before or after our journey. But I remember one milk-skinned girl with light hair who turned pink whenever it got hot, and was always worried about her skin. She said she couldn’t eat peanut butter and oily foods and she seemed to be an expert on skin care. She woke up one morning with a tick embedded in her arm. She couldn’t stop crying and she asked to be dropped off at a bus station so she could return home, because she was afraid she might develop Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Fever.
I also remember a male pervert with a body like an undercooked dumpling who wore grungy baggy shorts and scraggly brown hair. I suspect he came along to see as much nudity as he could and perhaps to luck out and get some sex somewhere in the mix. He clearly was not a spiritual sojourner.
Rabbit and the others took turns driving the bus across the country, and they avoided the interstates so that we could see the scenery and take the trip slowly. After Rabbit had driven awhile, he remarked, “Well, I’ve killed two birds and about fifteen butterflies so far, but I tried to avoid them.” He was truly one of the most peace-loving human beings I have ever met. His Native American heritage had a lot to do with it.
After we had traveled most of our journey, we camped out by Jimmy Creek in the Ozark Mountains, a place that Rabbit remembered fondly from his youth. There I saw the clearest stream I had ever seen flowing over giant flat rocks, and some of them were perfect for lying upon in the center of the stream with the waters rolling past on both sides. I took off all of my clothes and stretched out upon it, closing my eyes and “becoming one with nature.” I decided to fast every day that we were camped here, and that was for about four or five days. Each morning, I went to the stream and drank clear water and prayed and told God that I wanted to know Him better, and that I wanted to be like a child. The lecherous fellow in our group hid behind a tree or a large stone and watched me. I complained to Rabbit about this problem, because this guy was spoiling my experiences of innocence, but Rabbit said there was nothing he could do. I realized I would just have to ignore him.
After our campout, we drove the huge bus into Fayetteville and parked outside a natural foods co-op, and I decided not to go any further with the group. The town there was hilly and rustic and I was hungry and weary. I decided to rest for a few days in Fayetteville and return to Florida. I don’t know why. I always acted spontaneously like that, with no explanation. I guess I just didn’t really know what I wanted. Rabbit was very sad and hugged me before he climbed the steps of the painted bus and drove away.
I wandered off towards a beautiful city park with broad shade trees and white fuzzy dandelions dotting the grass, and I noticed that the streets were named after places and characters in TheWizard of Oz, such as ” Yellow Brick Road” and “Munchkin Lane” and “Garland Avenue” as well as streets named Scarlett and Rhett after Gone with the Wind. I found it all delightful, but I wondered if it meant they were well-acquainted with tornadoes. I walked up a hillside and over a railroad track that faced a row of little gift shops. I heard a fiddle playing in the vicinity and I walked toward the sound of it. I felt myself getting very weak from hunger. The fiddle was straining. I followed it down the sidewalk and up the steps of a brown wooden house, and I knocked on the door. The music stopped. An auburn-haired man with a fiddle in his hand opened the door halfway and looked at me oddly.
“Do you have any food to eat? I’m very hungry.” I said weakly. He tilted his head with curiosity and his eyebrows lowered. “I’ve been fasting for five days and I’m very hungry. Even an orange would be okay.” Reluctantly, the man opened the door and looked me over with a confused look.
“This isn’t my house,” he said softly. “I’m just practicing here, but I can give you something. Then we can walk to my house where I have more to offer.” He walked into the kitchen and I asked him where the bathroom was. He pointed me down the hall. When I looked in the mirror, I was startled by how thin and tan I had become. No wonder the man looked so surprised. My long golden hair was flowing in wisps around my shoulders and my eyes were glowing from sunlight and water. I was barefoot and my feet and legs were dainty as a sprite. I really looked like a wood nymph.
The fellow was quite the gentleman. He brought me a saucer with a peanut butter sandwich on dark bread, and an orange cut into four juicy sections. He placed it on a wooden table and pulled out a chair for me. He sat on a chair nearby as I ate, and tried not to watch me. His face looked worried. I nibbled slowly and carefully, explaining to him that my stomach would have to accept food cautiously. As I ate, I realized just how hungry I had been. I felt terribly weak. After I finished eating, the man took my hand and walked with me about a mile to his home. He saw that I was out of breath and supported me with his arm around my waist when I began to slow down. When we came to a hillside, he picked me up and carried me over the hill and set me down. I knew he was wild about me instantly, but we both knew nothing would ever come of it.
Over the course of a few days, he introduced me to his friends and neighbors, and served me homegrown food and rare kindness. He let me grind wheat berries and bake bread in his kitchen, sleep in a warm bed by myself, and enjoy the comfort of his house. I stayed there for about a week, before hitchhiking back to Florida alone. I could have stayed, and I don’t know why I didn’t. Sometimes I regret it, but I didn’t know how to love at the time, and I can’t even remember his name, I’m sorry to say.
But I will always remember the man with his plaid shirts and blue jeans and brown leather shoes, and the quiet dignity and loneliness of his demeanor, and how he did not try to take advantage of a mysterious desperate young girl who appeared on his doorstep.
REBEL WITHOUT APPLAUSE
I took immense pride in being radical when I was a teenager, and for a few years I took it upon myself to challenge churches that dared to invite me to partake in their services. One church that really reached out to me was called Crossroads Church of Christ in Gainesville.
A really sweet young lady named Joanie invited me to her church, and I thought it could really be fun to make some Christians squirm with discomfort. So when she came to pick me up, I made sure that I looked as wild as possible. I had on a long calico dress, and a necklace made of fresh clover, and I wore no shoes. My feet were very dirty, and my hair very long and stringy. I enjoyed the stares of people as I walked in, because it was a matter of pride for me. Nevertheless, people were very warm and kind to me, and made me feel accepted. I dared them to love me, and they rose to my challenge.
I was invited to women’s Bible studies and Sunday school, and I took advantage of every occasion to argue with the views of the other people. I was infamous for misquoting scriptures that suited my view on things, which I could not find anywhere in the Bible. I had been listening to so many Eastern thinkers and people from other religions, that I had really forgotten what the Bible taught, and more importantly, what Jesus had said about Himself.
But I wanted to show up the great hypocrites. I often told them that if Jesus came to their church, they would not like Him at all, because they would think Him strange and radical. Just like me. I told them that He would not tolerate their smug little programs and fake smiles, and that He would probably be furious about the whole church scene of our day. I told them that the religious leaders of his day rejected Him, and that churches today would want Him crucified too if they had really saw Him in action and understood His teachings and His radical views.
I still believe that there is a lot of truth to the things that I said, that Jesus would not be pleased with most of our churches and hireling shepherds that we call pastors. But there were problems with me as well. I did not understand who Jesus really was, and I thought I was superior to the average Christian. My motivation was not love for Jesus and His church, but pride at being outspoken and different. I was speaking the truth with the wrong spirit.
I often think of how, in spite of all my criticism and arrogance, these people showed me such humility and kindness. I don’t recall one instance of anyone getting angry with me or arguing with me. People around me would sit quietly and patiently and let me spout my opinions, and they still embraced me like a sister. Joanie would drive me to her little apartment where she lived with her roommates, and all of the girls treated me like one of the gang. They would give me good things to eat, and talk with me for hours, and Joanie would sit behind me with a hairbrush and brush my long hair as we talked. It was so soothing to me. I was not accustomed to kindness and acceptance, and it really affected me.
At one of the Bible studies I attended with the women I began to feel very guilty and evil. The woman who led the Bible study was an amazing lady, who knew me and my views very well, and had heard from me quite a bit. She spoke this one particular night about Barabbas the rebel, who was released to the people, when Pontius Pilate was hoping to release Jesus. But the mob was determined to kill Jesus, so the scripture says, “Then released he Barabbas unto them, and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:26) She spoke about how that notorious rebel had acted against the government and committed robbery and murder. Yet the people preferred him over Jesus, because Jesus convicted them of their sin and they could not stand it.
The Pharisees put themselves in the same category as Barabbas the murderer by knowingly crucifying someone who was innocent. But the part that really troubled me was when she spoke of how Jesus willingly died in that rebel’s place, and how he died in our place the same way. Even though I did not completely understand it at the time, it bothered me a great deal, and I felt humbled by it. I viewed myself as sort of notorious rebel, so I could feel guilt surging within me.
One family in the church whose name I can’t recall heard that my mother lived in California and I could not afford to visit her. So they bought me a plane ticket to visit her for Christmas, and a few days before my flight out, they took me into their home and let me help with baking Christmas cookies and decorating the family Christmas tree. They fed me, and treated me like a member of their family.
They took me shopping and bought me several dresses and whatever else I wanted. They drove me to the airport and hugged and blessed me, and I was speechless about what they had done for me. I have never forgotten this gesture of kindness.
Although I continued to rebel and wander for a long time, these people planted a seed in me which later germinated and grew into a deep faith in Christ, and I am thankful for their ministry to me. Through them and a few other people like them, I learned that ministry is not a quick fix at the altar or a few recited prayers, but it is a laboring with time and patience, and above all, compassion.
I will never forget that church.
My closest friends disappeared one at a time from Gainesville, until only Isabel and her son remained there.
I lost contact with Katy after my father unexpectedly showed up from Spain, and we took a journey to California.
William moved to San Francisco. I visited him once during a summer visit with my mother in San Jose, and have not been able to contact him since then. I have called his parents’ home in Florida and left voice mails, and no one has returned my calls. I often wonder what became of him.
Rabbit moved away with his pregnant sweetheart Melody to Mountain View, California. After we had written letters to each other for about a year, we became busy with our own lives and lost touch.
Sparrow moved to New York City and we also continued to write letters for a year or so.
I moved to the west coast and studied at a Quaker college in Oregon.
Evelyn moved to Maryland to be closer to her children and grandchildren after her husband died.
In 1995 I visited Gainesville and walked down a familiar sidewalk where my old friends and I wandered many times over a period of years. I looked down to see in the pavement an inscription which read “The RABBIT” with a cartoonish drawing of a rabbit. The writing style was like I remembered Zachariah’s, and the pavement was aged enough to have been written by him. It was two or three blocks from the natural food store we used to frequent, and the home of Isabel.
I showed the inscription to my three young sons who were with me that day. It had been years since I last saw my dear friend, and it moved me with a sadness to imagine him picking up a stick and writing his name in the wet cement one day long ago, in case someone should remember him. I suppose we all start writing our epitaphs early in life.
About five years ago, I was going through a box of old letters from my friends, and I was startled by the stories and poems and art that were given to me in those days. What surprised me most was the mystical aspect of the writings. Many of them have turned out to be prophetic, and have been fulfilled in my life. I have written a collage with these pieces entitled “Paper Angels.”
Rabbit named me the “Magical Princess of Love” when I was sixteen, a title that I still strive to live up to. He scribbled his mystical stories for me in black marker on old printer pages with punched out squares on the edges, or little scrolls tied up with a piece of string. I guess I should have made the connection on my own, but he did not reveal at first that this princess was inexplicably bound to the Prince of Peace:
…Alia came to realize that the search for her prince was truly over, for the Prince of Peace lived within all who carried the flame, and it was this gentle glow that she cherished and loved with all of her heart. Gradually, Alia came to see her prince in all men, for all men were truly sons of the King and whenever, and in whatever way she felt the glow of love and light of peace, would she nourish and kindle that fragile flame with the breath of life that flowed through her voice and the warmth of love that pulsed through her touch.
Thus runs the tale of the magical princess of Love, a princess whose heart was touched by a pauper in whom she found a prince, and thus runs the lesson of love, that one is truly free who loves all equally, for love sees neither pauper nor prince, but only the light that shines through all.
It seems to me prophetic that the princess ended up finding the Prince of Peace and learned to see Him in the hearts of others. I particularly love the line, “one is truly free who loves all equally.”
It is true that while romantic love can be entangling, friendships seem to be liberating and even elevating. C.S. Lewis said in The Four Loves: “in Friendship- in that luminous, tranquil, rational world of relationships freely chosen- you got away from all that. This alone, of all the loves, seemed to raise you to the level of gods or angels.”
On Christmas Eve in 2006, I found both Rabbit and Sparrow online, and contacted them both! I had tried previously to locate Sparrow by his legal name, Michael Gorelick, in New York City, and that was impossible. It never occurred to me that he still would be using the name Sparrow.
He has continued to be a writer since the time that I knew him, and has mentioned in several of his stories about the day that I gave him his name. In his book entitled America (a Prophecy), he writes:
After flunking out of college, I found myself in Gainesville, Florida. There I met a woman named Jennifer. The Princess of Love. She always dressed in purple and went barefoot. She wore long dresses, and sometimes a snood. She looked like a tarot card come to life. One day I asked Jennifer for a name.
Twenty-eight years later, I recall that moment clearly. It was portentous, like a judge passing a sentence. “You should be Sparrow; you look like a Sparrow.”
(Later Jennifer said, “I thought I was just naming you for that day.”)
…By adopting a single name, “Sparrow”, I disconnected myself from my family, my lineage, my Jewish (and Russian) ethnicity. After a few years, though, the name began to accumulate its own history.
He goes on to describe how he tried to give up the name Sparrow, and found that he never could.
So I renounced my adopted name, only to discover that my writing suffered. The poems I wrote had a bland, cautious tone, like college term papers. I found myself using words like “pellucid” and “impartial.” Unconsciously, I feared I would besmirch my family name. Whereas, who really minds tarnishing a small, plump passerine bird?
So after four months, I resumed being Sparrow, despite the name’s embarrassing cuteness.
I derived great pleasure from this, thinking that in some odd way I had helped him find his poetic identity. In 1977 he was given a new Sanskrit name, Garuda, which turned out to be the name of a mythical bird with brown wings and a beak. He discovered this while reading an Indian comic book.
I still own an autographed copy of Sparrow’s first poetry Chap Book from 1977. I learned from reading about him online that his odd personality and humor have stuck with him as he has grown older. In 1995, he picketed The New Yorker, carrying a sign that read, “My poetry is as bad as yours.” After gaining attention for this, the magazine published some of his poems. He also appeared on PBS series, The United States of Poetry. He challenged Bob Dole for the presidential nomination as a comical event in 1996, and was called “one of the funniest men in Manhattan” by Robert Christgau of the The Village Voice.
After reading all of this on my computer, I emailed the Phoenicia Times newspaper where he and his wife Violet Snow worked in upstate New York. I received a reply from an employee who told me that she had thought I was a product of Sparrow’s imagination. She said that I am legendary and I had to chuckle about that. About an hour later, I got an email from Sparrow, and we still communicate from time to time.
Here is one of my favorite poems that Sparrow used to recite while thumping on a wall or drumming with a stick on the porch of Isabel’s apartment. It really sums up the time period and the lifestyle we experienced together, and it is called “Pin Cushion Heart”:
It’s just like the old days
Down in the old tin room,
Thumping out sounds on the jugs and jars,
Answered by the scratchy straw broom.
Cold as sweat was the night outside;
Our thumbs were as hot as tea.
We all looked red in that little tin shed,
Now it all comes back to me.
I was down on the ground sniffing gumshoe,
Pain in my pin-cushion heart.
The steam machine was rolling
Like a chimney falling apart.
I remember the old blue haze
Like the mothball roar of a clam;
I had a prefix color on my face
Like the edifice pipe exam.
The sink would shrink
And the lights ignite
And the soup fall over the plow.
In that mix I was getting prolix
Like I think I’m getting now:
I was down on the ground sniffing gumshoe,
Pain in my pin-cushion heart;
The steam machine was rolling
Like a chimney falling apart.
It was damp as a roach in the coal room
As we painted our names on the wall,
Till the wall did hide and the words collide
And there wasn’t no names at all.
The lamp had a cramp
And the hose was froze
And we cried when we heard the bell.
In these days I am quite amazed
That it all turned out so well.
I was down on the ground sniffing gumshoe,
Pain in my pin-cushion heart.
The steam machine was rolling
Like a chimney with a broken heart.
I called Rabbit on the phone the same night that I called Sparrow, and he was astonished when he realized who I was. He has three children like I do, and he resides in Santa Cruz, California. I viewed some photos of him and his family online, and found it interesting that when he was married, he and his wife wore lavender floral wreaths on their heads, which my husband and I also wore on our wedding day in Oregon. Some people had thought that we were “soul mates,” so this did strike me as peculiar.
About a year ago, Isabel and her son and I met at a doughnut shop and talked of those days when we were all together in Gainesville. She got a bit tender at one point and said, “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t all be here now.” I shook my head and replied, “I thought it was the other way around. Without you, I don’t know what would have happened to me.” But as I mentioned before in the sketch of her called “The Pumpkin Lady” she was notorious for her generous spirit. I suppose in some way we all kept each other alive- physically, emotionally, even spiritually.
I have kept and treasured the stories and poems and art from my old friends, in remembrance of the deep communion and bond of friendship we had in those days. Sometimes as I lie in bed at night, I can still hear the laughter of my friends. Sparrow laughed like the barking of a sea lion, deeply from his chest. Isabel’s laugh seemed to have a New York accent, thick and proud. Katy’s laugh splashed like a warm silky sea in the evening. And Rabbit’s laughter sprinkled softly like rain upon piano keys.
Now they are all gone and it is silent, as if they never were. It is strange and sad to think of it. Rabbit ended a story for me with these words many years ago, and they seem fitting for the end of this chapter of my life:
Let perfect love and friendship reign
Eternity draweth nigh
Draw nigh unto the Lord
And He will draw nigh unto you.
♥ ♥ ♥
FROM PART III- HIGHER GROUND
My grandfather told me when I was twenty-five that he thought I married an older man because I was seeking a father. Of course, he disapproved of my husband and wanted good things to happen to me after all I had been through. I ignored him at the time, but now I can see that the driving force in many relationships in my life had indeed been my search for a father. It took me many years to accept that I would never find him on this earth.
DREAMING OF GRANDDADDY
“I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” John 14:18
Throughout my wild days, Granddaddy tried to give me advice and encouragement. He was delighted when I finally decided to get my high school equivalency and go to college in Oregon after years on the streets. He helped me pay my expenses when I was in college, and encouraged me to build happiness and success in my life.
When I arrived in Newberg that year in late October, the ground was still dusty with Mount St. Helen’s ash. The volcano had erupted about a week earlier, and a white wisp of smoke like the one that hung over my grandfather’s pipe was still visible on the horizon.
My boots sounded like lucky horseshoes on the sidewalk as I approached my new dwelling place. The little green cottage was small and quaint and chickadees were hopping upon the roof. I climbed the grey stone steps of North Street House and walked under the arch and through a dark mahogany door. I crossed the threshold to my new life, on a crisp and chilly autumnal afternoon.
I saw a warm room with a golden glowing fireplace already lit. Sitting on an unfamiliar soft red chair, I slipped off my tall leather boots. I was on hallowed ground. All things had become new. I looked out the window and saw that snow had begun falling! I had not seen snow in many years, so I dashed outside in my socks to feel it falling on me, purifying me.
When I was engaged to a Quaker baker in Oregon and I asked Granddaddy to come and “give me away” at our wedding, he brought his finest black suit with the star sapphire buttons. He looked very distinguished holding his black cane with silver tips, and wearing dark glasses because of partial blindness. As we walked down the aisle, he told me to slow down so everyone would have to stare at me longer, to hold my chin up and look around and smile at everyone. He spoke softly, “You are gorgeous and smart, and you deserve respect. Don’t let anyone ever put you down. Do you hear me? Don’t ever let anyone take away your dignity. You have earned your respect. You’re beautiful, baby…” He seemed to perceive that I would need a lot of self-confidence in this marriage and that trouble was looming in my future.
During my honeymoon, I became pregnant with my first son, and I was amazed because throughout my wildest years, I never took birth control and never got pregnant! By divine providence, I was given a child at the right time.
Granddaddy wrote to me when I named my first son after him. He always printed in giant black capital letters with magic markers because he was almost blind. There were grey smudged teardrop stains all over his letter. I had seen those smudges one other time, when my cousin Thomas was killed. Granddaddy’s tears didn’t flow easily. But he wrote that he felt deeply honored that I had named my oldest son after him.
My three sons were his only great-grandchildren, and he was dreadfully proud of them. He tried to encourage my siblings to get married and have children, but I can’t really blame them for not doing it.
Granddaddy knew that my in-laws looked down on me because of my former lifestyle, and that they did not accept me. But he always encouraged me, and praised me for getting married and giving him great-grandchildren. Once he said that he felt like coming to Oregon and buying the homesteads and farms that belonged to my in-laws, for my sake, because they insulted me and hurt me.
When my oldest son was seven years old, my grandfather was admitted to Queens Hospital in Honolulu, and I called his room to talk to him. He explained gently that he was having heart and kidney failure. The doctor had told him that he needed dialysis, but that if he accepted treatments, his heart might become overstressed. If he didn’t have dialysis, his kidneys could fail and he could die then as well. He chose to have the dialysis.
I called him the day after his treatments started, and he was struggling to remember my sons’ names as we talked. His voice was very weak. It was almost Christmas, and he was rambling, “Hello, Olive. Hello, uh, Jonathan. Hello…..Zeke. Hello, what is it? Oh that’s it, Noah! Hello, this is your old white-haired grandfather who looks like Santa Claus. Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!”
Then I heard his wife’s voice telling him to rest now, and she took the phone and she sounded very distraught. She and I talked briefly.
I called the next day, and there was no answer in his room. Then my mother called to tell me in a quivering voice that Granddaddy was gone. I hung up the phone in my kitchen, and turned around to tell my husband. He asked me when my grandfather’s will would be read. He didn’t hug me or ask me if I was all right. I ran into my room filled with rage and sorrow, and cried.
Margaret was crushed because she didn’t know he was that sick. Granddaddy was never a complainer and he always downplayed everything. I hadn’t really known he was dying either, but I was deeply touched that he worked so hard to remember and speak all of our names on his last day on Earth.
James and Margaret and I felt orphaned when we were young. After Granddaddy died, we felt orphaned again. James had been adopted by them, so it affected him even more deeply. When Granddaddy’s wife died, James kept crying, “My mother is dead!” at the funeral. Our real mother was present and heard him, and she was crushed.
After it was all over, it occurred to my brother that he still had another father. And another mother. Someday we will all feel orphaned for the third time.
My brother has had two fathers, two mothers, and two sets of siblings. He still doesn’t know who he is. He is like a puzzle piece trying to figure out where he fits in.
Recently, I dreamed that there was a knock on the door while I was sitting at my desk. My oldest son Jonathan answered the door, and called out to me, “Mom, our father is here.” I walked to the living room and was startled to see my grandfather standing in the doorway. He was wearing a grey suit and hat, and his eyes were glowing with a gentle and peaceful light.
“Granddaddy, I’ve missed you so much!” I cried and ran into his arms. He hugged me, and said, “I know”. I wept as he embraced me, and neither of us spoke another word.
I awoke and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit in my room.
I thought about my eldest son calling him “our father” in the dream, and I realized that he had been a father to his own children, his adoptive children, to his grandchildren (including me), and even to his my sons in many ways. He always tried to fill the gap for those who didn’t meet their responsibilities. Granddaddy was always there.
OUR FATHER WHO ART IN SPAIN
“My father lives in Spain.” “My father is a science fiction author.” “My father started a well- known international music festival in Mallorca.” “My father tours around Europe with a chamber music orchestra.” “I love to hear my father play Spanish guitar.” I love to talk about my father, because it sounds so glamorous. But our relationship is nothing to brag about.
We have begun to communicate again during the past year, and he has been trying to clarify incidents that I remember from my childhood. He sends me emails to answer questions. I asked him to explain to me about the car accident during my childhood:
May ’60? Studebaker broke down, bought Chevy Bel Air Saturday, accident Sunday on the road to Apopka. Car salesman had lied, saying insurance was good until Monday, but not so. The drunks who ran into us were on their last binge before going into the US Army, no insurance. Chevy a total loss, but at least I managed to avoid killing the Negro children leaving their church just off the road.
He says that he left my mother in 1960 (when I was two) because he “unraveled” from all of their problems:
I had lost both my jobs, an unfortunate car wreck wiped us out financially, and I could see no way out. Of course, fate and the desire for literary and artistic adventure and travel, instilled in us all at university, these things sent me sailing away with Mari to Europe within a couple of years. (The last thing I remember in the house on Julian Street: you were looking out the window from your crib and said: Why is the moon blowing the clouds away?)
Soon after his departure, I was sent to a crippled children’s home in Florida, had an operation, and wore a full body cast for about a year. My father came to visit when I was there:
About this time (1960?), I made a visit to Florida from NY, and you were in Umatilla Children’s Hospital with braces between your ankles to straighten your hip joint. Your mother of course knows a lot more about this than I do. (You poor thing, all smiling, with a pleated light blue skirt, scooting around with fantastic energy and will.)
He also recalls visiting us in a one-room apartment where we stayed briefly with mother. I remember the place, but not his visit:
1961 Spring- visited you all in your grandfather’s garage apartment in Indialantic, soon after which I left New York for Paris.
Summer 62 – summer 64: I was in Europe and Turkey with Mari, until she had her nervous breakdown in Germany.
He came for Margaret and me during his second marriage, and we stayed with him in Missouri. He published his first story for a science fiction magazine while we were there.
I think in autumn 64 (maybe 65, since when we first returned, Mari spent several months in the Nevada Mental Hospital south of Kansas City) she and I drove to pick up you kids from the house in the country (NC?) You three spent part of that summer with us in Pleasant Hill, Mo.
December 1965 Analog published my first story: Countercommandment. I began writing sci-fi regularly, and when I had sold a few more, and when Mari was working and healthy again, I left for New York. (Her family did not like me, and blamed me for her breakdown.) A year later I went to Mexico for a divorce.
I asked my father where he was when we were placed in the custody of the state of North Carolina, and he replied:
In 1967-68 I was working for the Welfare Department in Brooklyn, caring for unwed mothers and abandoned families, ironically. My supervisor convinced me I could get custody of you guys. Shortly after that, my new wife and I visited you girls in NC, with a view to perhaps taking you with us when we got married (May 1968.)
By that time, not sure when, James was already adopted by your grandparents. When your mother learned my plan, she sent a telegram asking me please not to take you. She was about ready to bring you home with her, I guess.
This message made me rather downcast, because I believe things would have been much better for me and Margaret with our father, but we were destined to return to our mother instead. I ended up in Gainesville alone at the age of thirteen. My father appeared one day when I was living on the streets.
I visited you in Gainesville, staying with Grant. You said somewhere I turned you on to LSD on one of these visits – I always thought it was the other way around, though definitely I remember walking around Gainesville with you, stoned. You visited your trunk on somebody’s porch. I believe you were living in the woods? Reading Shakespeare and Chaucer? Learning guitar? Writing poetry? This is the way it comes to memory.
Wow! Did I really turn my father on to drugs for the first time? Maybe so, but I am sure he made the purchase. I asked him if he or my mother had ever experimented with drugs and he answered:
Your mother and I never used any drugs, did not smoke cigarettes, and only occasionally drank wine with a meal. I first smoked when I started working in night clubs, and drank the occasional Scotch. It wasn’t until I was caring for drug addicts in the NY welfare dept that I discovered marijuana, say in 1967-68.
As for the hippies, yippies, and yuppies, maybe, briefly, from 1968 to 1978: smoking dope, magic mushrooms, long hair, beard, improvising music and life in general. But that is behind me.
After my father’s visit in 1974, I did not see him again until he was appointed by the Spanish government to visit Saint Augustine in 1988. He claims to have lost track of me when I moved to Oregon to attend college, but I remember asking him to “give me away” at my wedding, and sending him birth announcements for each of his grandsons.
I lost track of you when you went to Oregon, or so I believe, and the next thing I knew you were married to a Quaker baker, and had children. When did all this happen? While I was in Galilea?
My father visited me in Saint Augustine during the Christmas holidays just before my sons had reached school age. He had never seen them. He kept hugging them and reading them stories and singing to them. He was just as charming as ever, with his slender body and warm resonant voice and goatee. He told us that he wanted to be part of our lives from then on and promised to keep in contact with us after he went back to Spain.
That night, he went out with a lady from the local cultural events committee and had a few drinks, and began to tell her about what a terrible father he had been to me. The lady quoted him as saying, “I can’t believe my daughter even lets me in the house or speaks to me. But she invites me in with a smile, and gives me homemade pumpkin pie, and lets me help decorate the Christmas tree. I just can’t stand it.” I guess I was torturing him with kindness.
During this visit, my father told me his version of what happened during my childhood. He spoke again of the car accident and my hip defect, and how the medical bills began to flood in, putting tremendous strain on their marriage. I guess that means that a lot of their marital troubles were my fault.
He also said that while he was working all day and going to school in the evenings, my mother was busy hanging out with her friends. No food was ever prepared for him, and the sink was always full of dishes, and we were always in our cribs crying in our dirty diapers. After a long exhausting day, he had to change our diapers and do dishes and find food to eat. So one night after the anger had been building in him for a long time, he came home and found the sink full of dishes.
He called my mother into the kitchen, and pulled a dish out of the sink, and asked her, “Are you going to wash it?” She stared at him with those cold icy eyes that I know so well, and said nothing. He threw the dish on to the floor where it shattered. He picked up another dish, and asked her again, “Are you going to wash this?” Again, no answer. He threw this one on the floor, and this continued until every dish was broken on the floor.
At least now I know where one of my tragic personality flaws came from. I cannot stand for a man to tell me what to do. Perhaps this is what was wrong with Eve in the garden. Maybe she resented Adam’s authority.
The night my father left, he says that Margaret and I heard him threatening to leave our mother. So we tied his shoelaces together and hid his shoes. When he was ready to walk out, he had to search for his shoes and untangle the knotted up laces. When I heard this, it made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.
My father says that he returned a year or two later and tried to reconcile with Mother, but it didn’t work out.
But why did he throw his children away?
I am told that he had an abusive alcoholic father, so perhaps he passed on the neglect he experienced as a boy. I really think we had two parents who did not wish to be parents.
My father was in Saint Augustine for a week or two, and returned to Spain, where he promptly forgot about us again for many years. My three sons are now in college, and he still asks me their names whenever he gets around to calling. Now that he is elderly and his companion is gone, he is in touch a bit more. He wants forgiveness, but he can still be terribly insensitive towards me.
I have tried to tell him that it’s never too late to start being a father. Once I became weary of him wounding me, and cut off all communication with him for over a year. It was the first time he ever had to grovel for attention. During this time, his email messages to me completely changed. He started writing them with the greeting “Dear Daughter” and signed off with “Love, Papa.” He had never tasted his own poison before. The poison of neglect and loneliness.
My father tells me he has lived his life well and to its fullest. I have barely survived and suffered tremendously. I cannot imagine bringing children into this world, and doing nothing for them in your whole life. Not one single thing. I would hate to take that to my grave or to my God. I am not so angry with him now, but I feel very sorry for him. I cry at night sometimes when I think about him. He will become very lonely one of these nights. It is his karma.
In a recent telephone conversation, my father said, “I feel so guilty because I have had such a good life, but I have not been good. I didn’t deserve any of the things I’ve enjoyed. But if you live long enough, your evil ways will catch up to you. Mine are catching up to me now.” I felt a warm wave of comfort splash upon the shores of my mind as he said these words to me, a feeling I cannot fully describe.
My father still cares about my mother, and he always inquires about her. He loves to look at photos of her, and he says that he will never forget the day that he climbed into the back seat of a friend’s car and met a woman with long blonde hair, a low-cut dress, and a classic face like a goddess. I asked my father if he and Mother were beatniks, and he sent me this reply:
Well, it was the age of beatniks, all right. But I didn’t know that. When I hitched at age 17 from Florida to Michigan and on to Seattle, to go for a summer job working in the Coos Bay Lumber Camp in Oregon, I had no idea Kerouac was also on the road. And when the lumberjacks went on strike, I turned in my boots and bought the second book I ever bought, The Old Man and the Sea, which was brand new, and best of all, very short.
I went on to San Francisco, but when I went to the City Lights Bookstore, I didn’t know that Gregory Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and the whole bunch were going to be so important. I bought a couple of books, moved over to Berkeley Bowl to set pins in the alley for a couple of weeks before heading on back to Tallahassee to start college.
I did buy my clothes in the Army surplus, and copying a self-portrait of Van Gogh, wore a woolen cap and smoked a stub pipe, walking around the campus with my buddy David Wade, quoting Dylan Thomas to each other, and generally staying independent of all the usual college guy stuff.
Your mom was of the same ilk. She hung out with the art crowd, let the famous Karl Zerbe make a plaster cast of her face, and while he was at it, he pulled her top down, so she said. I wouldn’t blame him. She wore strapless elastic gingham dresses that tested gravity and the will power of mankind itself.
Now I address my father as “Poppy” because it implies both toxicity and endearment. Our communication is much better these days, and because of him I know a few things about my parents that I can laugh about.
I always search for good attributes in people, because we are all fallen in some way. There is a verse I love which says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”[i] Meditating upon this has proven to be an excellent spiritual exercise in my own life.
Here are some virtues of my parents’ legacy: we were taught tolerance and surrounded by diversity. My parents were activists in the early days of the Civil Rights struggle, and were thrown in jail for trying to integrate buses in Tallahassee in 1956. My mother was always receptive to other cultures and new ideas. I remember many of her friends: A Native American eagle dancer named Martin Allen who tried to teach me ballet (what a joke), a young Jewish man named Joseph Potash whose countenance radiated sweetness, a kind plump black lady named Pearl, a dainty and lovely Japanese friend named Mary Katayama, an old Chinaman who wanted to marry my mother and cooked wonderful stir-fries for us. Unlike many of our Southern neighbors, we learned that bigotry was ignoble, and that everyone should be treated with acceptance.
There is another accidental blessing that took place. After my father and brother were gone, I found myself in a household of women. Three of us had been molested by men who knew our parents, so we didn’t miss the male attention too much at the time. We each constructed our fortresses of inner strength in our own way. Although we longed for companionship when we were lonely and battled our personal demons, we learned that life without men is not such a dreadful thing. There are no weak women in our family, and I am proud to say that.
We attended Quaker meetings when we lived with Mother, and I learned about a young zealous seeker and free thinker named George Fox, whose journal writings encouraged me to seek truth for myself, instead of letting someone sell me their version of it. I learned not to be afraid of being alone or being different. I learned not to be driven by the crowd.
Yes, some wonderful gifts were bestowed upon me by my parents.
My father still lives in Mallorca, and had his first heart attack several months ago while sitting at a café with a doctor; then he had a quadruple bypass. Soon after that, he broke his foot while building a chicken coop outside his villa. He blames it upon his crazy rooster that crows in the middle of the night, instead of waiting until dawn. Now his lungs have only have forty-eight percent of their capacity. He is writing more nowadays.
I’m not much of a traveler anymore, and I’ve never been to Spain. My father emailed me today, and said he is finally able to go out for a walk. I replied that I wish we could take a walk together.
He answered my message with these words:
You are walking with me, in spirit. Hopefully one day again in the flesh. Just the two of us on a country road, or along a river, under autumn leaves on fire with the sunlight.
[i] Philippians 4:8
I am sad to say that I still do not know my mother. We talk on the phone and see each other once in a great while, but certain things have never been discussed. Our conversations are polite and mostly meaningless. I have never understood her, and I wish that I did. My siblings and I have no recollection of ever being hugged or kissed or held on our mother’s lap.
After I had children of my own, I came to realize just how unimaginable that is. I couldn’t go through a day without hugging my children numerous times and telling them how much I loved them. I am an overprotective mother, because I never wanted my sons to know pain and isolation as I had known it.
I wrote to my father about how Mother always isolated herself from all of us emotionally, and he has begun writing some letters to try to help me understand her a bit more. He is really the only one who ever knew her well, aside from Granddaddy. In a recent email he wrote about the complexity of my mother:
I’m sure that your mother loved you all, but she was a complicated, very intelligent woman – and too young when she began to have children. We were both bewildered by the experience, right in the middle of our college years.
As my father unveils her, I see myself more clearly. Everyone remarks how much I look like her, and I suspect there is more than just a physical resemblance between us. For instance, neither of us can stand for a man to tell us what to do. Once as I was contemplating my wild days, the thought came to me that Mother must have kicked up her hooves a few times too, like a beautiful untamed mare. She will always be a mysterious figure in our lives. I can only tell you the things that I remember.
I remember my first cup of coffee with my mother. I think I was seven or eight. She said, “Since you are a young lady now, you may have some coffee with me.” We sat together and sipped coffee from dainty bone china tea cups with saucers under them. We stirred in little cubes of sugar with tiny chiming silver spoons. I felt like a refined little lady. I have loved coffee ever since, and I have never forgotten that moment.
I do remember the little things that she did for us from time to time when we were children- boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts she delivered to us, daffodil dresses she sewed for us, quiet days when she showed us how to paint and draw and make pottery. Once when we lived with her, she brought home three cats- for my brother, sister, and me. She named them Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I remember one snowy day when she sculpted snow-women, -cats and -rabbits in the front yard.
I recall that Mother taught me this little traditional song that I used to sing a lot as a young girl:
All night, all day,
Angels watching over me, my Lord.
All night, all day,
Angels watching over me.
Now I lay me down to sleep,
Angels watching over me, my Lord,
Pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Angels watching over me.
If I die before I wake,
Angels watching over me, my Lord,
Pray the Lord my soul to take,
Angels watching over me.
I suppose my mother knew that I would need plenty of angels, and I thank her for this little spiritual lullaby. Many human angels have been dispatched to me over the years.
There have been many small kindnesses. Mother has always been a giver of unusual and wonderful gifts. My jewelry box is filled with her presents for various occasions- a fossilized mammoth tusk pendant engraved with a dragonfly and a rose and the face of an angel, a bracelet with faceted green peridot and purple amethyst, a signed brooch with a cameo of Iris, Messenger of the Gods. I guess she’s trying to compensate for her lack of maternal affection or protectiveness, for the four-letter word she never spoke to us.
I don’t think that my mother intended to hurt us, because I know she has deep-rooted problems. Her mother died of tuberculosis, when she was about six years old. I have a copy of a poem she wrote in her twenties about what it was like as a child to stand by the coffin of her mother. It was given to me by Granddaddy, and the title of it was “The Red Lined Coffin.” I have seen pictures of my mother with her mother, and I know that they were very close. There is such a serenity and joy in their faces together. I have also seen the photos of my mother after her mother’s death, and there is a tragic change in her. She looks lost and forlorn and miserable. I suspect that Mother passed on her sense of abandonment to us, that she could not mother us because she was deprived of mothering.
Granddaddy told me that she was very involved in church when she was young, and that she was a zealous member of the Rainbow Club, a well-known Christian youth organization in those days. He said that she was extremely spiritual-minded. That really interested me, because I am the only one of the grandchildren who turned out that way. But Granddaddy said that something happened to her after the tragedy of his wife’s death, that my mother had seemed hopelessly embittered since then. Granddaddy tells me that the manner of his wife’s death was terrible and prolonged, and that she literally coughed herself to death. He said the medications could not control the coughing in her final stages, and that he would never forget the sound of her torment all through the night. He was a teacher at the time, and he said that he could still remember the sound of his young students’ footsteps tiptoeing up the steps in the middle of the night, to leave his family bags of groceries and other things.
Granddaddy remarried and his new wife Endora was terribly cruel to his children. The wicked stepmother profile in fairy tales must have some basis in reality. Endora made my mother watch while she drowned a litter of kittens. I have heard other horror stories about this woman. I am told that Granddaddy was overseas with the Navy for awhile during this time. He was not aware of what was happening until great psychological damage had been done to the children, and he divorced her. To the present day, my mother’s house is always overrun with cats, and she adopts every pitiful critter that she meets.
I am very hesitant to complain about my mother, because I really do believe that she tried in her own way. I believe she needed help, and that she was incapable of normal motherly affection. Perhaps if my father had stayed and supported her, she could have worked through some of her problems. Or perhaps not. But we will never know that. My father wrote to me about the minister who gave them marriage counseling:
“She got me to attend the Sunday afternoon coffee hours at the Presbyterian church, organized by Dr. Martin, the minister of that church. He gave us some counseling early in our marriage. And the meetings were a source of inspiration to us- at least to me. Sometimes there was a string quartet, once there was a lovely reading from Finnegan’s Wake. Often there were discussions between rich Cuban students in favor of Baptista, and poor Cuban students in favor of Castro. (Unfortunately, Dr. Martin killed himself one morning before breakfast, a heavy blow to your mother, who was really taken with him and his wife.)”
That must have seemed like a hex upon their marriage, a sign that the tragedy would never end for them.
Ministers have always been drawn to my mother, and I can recall two men of the cloth who wanted to marry her. The first one was named Charlie Huber, and he visited a lot when I was a young child (five, perhaps). He would sit on the floor with me and play animal games. I would climb on his warm back with my tiny hands clutching his collar and he would crawl around the room, pretending to be a cow then a horse, then a pig or whatever I wanted him to be. I would squeeze his nose and he would make animal noises of different kinds to make me laugh. He had thick curly black hair, and once he sat on the floor and let me roll his hair with pink curlers. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I loved him and longed for him to be my new father, but things didn’t work out.
When I returned from Thompson Orphanage to my mother’s house at the age of twelve, a minister named Jim would visit pretty often. He took the five of us- Mother, Margaret, my two half-sisters, and me- to Silver Springs to see the glass bottom boats. It was the first and last time that I ever saw swimming pigs, snorting and kicking their stubby legs in the clear water. What a sight! Jim disappeared soon after that. Maybe those pigs were just too much for him.
There is a Lutheran minister in Saint Augustine who still inquires about my mother when he sees me. I have always found this odd, and wonder why preachers are so intrigued by her. Are they looking for a little stroll into the jungle of sin, or do they perceive something in her that she tries to conceal?
I watched The History Channel one day, and scientists discussed possible explanations for the plagues of Egypt during the time of Moses. They said the fire which rained from the sky was the result of a volcanic eruption mixed with hail. Molten lava was encrusted with ice, creating amazing grenades. Volcanic hail!
My mother is like a snow-woman with a heart of fire. Sometimes I can see it blazing in her eyes. She is consumed by guilt on the inside, because she will not speak of what she did to us or why. She must know what it would mean to us to hear her version of the story, and I think she would feel better too, but she will only remark, “The past is the past. I don’t want to talk about it.”
I have photographs of my mother from the years that we lived in the orphanage, and they make me think of Dylan’s song “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”- especially the part about her “saintlike face and ghostlike soul” and how her “fingertips fold.” She always wore flowing tie-dyed dresses and crocheted sandals and long golden hair that was usually braided. Sometimes she would coil the braids on top of her head like a crown.
Now Mother’s hair is pure white. The last time I picked her up at the airport, she wore a striped top, a vest covered with rainbow cats, black knickers, and striped knee socks with embroidered baby doll shoes. Her long white hair hung down on her shoulders. If she had been toting a big lollipop, she could have been a perfect munchkin.
There are so many interesting stories I could tell about her, like how she knocked a wild man over the head with a lasagna pan so hard he almost fell down, or the time that she punched a yelling woman so hard that she landed on her bottom and slid a few feet on the pavement with her feet up in the air. So much for non-violent Quakers.
It is an experience to go shopping with Mother because she delivers a loud ongoing commentary while she shops. My son loves to watch people’s faces when my mother does this.
We went into a boutique one day, and Mother said she had drawn the name of a nasty co-worker for Christmas; she proclaimed that she was looking for something that the lady would hate. She picked up a ghastly gold egg-shaped bag with a one-loop handle and brocade edges. She opened it up into two satin-lined halves and looked inside and said, “That is so ugly! I’m going to get that for her, just for spite.” She snapped it shut, and I looked around and noticed the eyes of the sales lady glaring at us. Her glittery reading glasses were resting on the tip of her wrinkly nose. But my mother never cares. She does what she pleases and I can only smile.
She bought the bag and called me after the office Christmas party. She said, “Would you believe that woman loved that ugly bag, and she just raved about it, and she’s been nice to me ever since I gave it to her? What a fluke!”
But my favorite story of all is the underwear story. My mother is a very large woman who is obsessive about beautiful underwear. She doesn’t wear the white cotton version that you expect grannies to wear. She wears the kind that you would expect to find in a children’s boutique or the Victoria Secret specialty line for old ladies. In her underwear drawer you will find amazing lingerie in gargantuan sizes: purple satin with black polka-dots, pink with white ruffles on the fanny, red satin with white hearts, baby blue with tiny pink roses, sexy black lace with red edges.
She travels a lot by airplane and whenever her luggage floats down the belt, it is impossible to miss. Among all of the professional blues and tans and greys, one hippie bag with bright colors and flowers will declare its independence, and you instantly know it is hers. Since security has been tightened at the airports, her bag is always the first one to go under the microscope. I think people are just curious about what might be inside the bag that dares to be different.
So one day, Mother was preparing for a flight and she decided to get revenge. She called me and said, “I’m so sick of always having my bag searched for no reason. This time, I’m putting all of my underwear on top of everything else in my bag, just for spite.”
A few days later, she called me again. She said, “You should have seen the embarrassment on this man’s face when he was digging through my big underwear, and the people all around him were giggling under their breath. I enjoyed every minute of it.” I imagined that scene and laughed and laughed about it. She can be terribly funny.
But deep inside of her, I perceive a troubled child.
When she comes from California to visit me, she always wants to sleep on the big cozy couch in the living room. I have heard her wake up with nightmares, and I’ve heard her talk to herself. But the most chilling thing that I have heard is when a child’s voice comes out of her mouth in the middle of the night, praying out loud to Jesus. It is the sound of a little girl with a mousey voice saying, “Dear Jesus, bless us all and take care of us, and help us all to have a really good time…”
THE MISSING ELEMENT
“For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded…Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” Jeremiah 8:21-22
The rites and rhetoric of Christianity began to ring hollow to me when I entered adolescence. Christ never disappointed me, but I felt that the church was just another institution staffed by cold bureaucrats. I was sick of well-dressed professionals sitting behind polished desks with pat answers and fat wallets. I needed something deep and real and personal, and instead I found something empty and shallow and phony. I began to ask many questions of leaders and parishioners, and the answers I got seemed rehearsed and stale. One lady told me I was too intense and that there was a danger I might go “over the deep end.” I told her it was much better than the shallow end.
Somehow, amid the clutter of religion and doctrine, no one ever bothered to tell me the most important thing, the simple truth that God loved me and came to Earth to share my pain- and died for me personally. I heard sermons and teachings about the authority of the scriptures, the offer of salvation, and the great white throne judgment of all mankind. I was taught how God hates divorce and various sins. There was plenty of rhetoric, and long discussions about what every verse meant in the Hebrew and Greek. There were committees and potlucks and choirs and robes and offering plates.
But no one ever said, “Olive, God loves you. He wants a relationship with you. He wants to have long conversations with you and take walks with you and be your companion.” I don’t know how such an important thing was overlooked.
Because of it, I thrashed about desperately, looking for true love among humans. I was starved for love. There was never enough, because there was a gaping ulcer in my stomach from the acid of cruelty. Everything gushed out of me just as quickly as it came in, because no one gave me the sealant and the healing balm that would close up the wound. Proper doctrine, rules, and regulations could not help me. Without the love aspect, it was futile to fight against my own anger and bitterness. I needed to understand the love of God and receive the Holy Ghost which Jesus called “the Comforter.”
I wandered aimlessly, but Christ lured me back to Himself over time and through great storms. He waited for me during my time of sojourning. The power of His love became irresistible to me. That is why all of the disciples eventually died for Jesus. They could have walked away and tried to forget Him, but they couldn’t because of the love element. It is like a wind that carries a leaf away, or a tidal wave that floods an island. There is no walking away from this kind of love.
“For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called. For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit… saith thy God. For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.” Isaiah 54:5-7
“How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.” (Mother Teresa of Calcutta)
My children have afforded me a great deal of comic relief in the midst of tumultuous times. I always enjoyed the little things that my sons would say, particularly during their preschool and elementary school years, when they would get confused about their words and grammar. I recorded them in my journal from the time they started talking until they were seven or eight years old. Here are a few samples:
One day my three sons and I went to a lighthouse, and we all climbed to the top. When we got there, I was out of breath and panicky about the heights and stood as far from the outer rail as possible with my back against the wall. I began to feel better as I surveyed the plush green trees and huge white magnolias, and the blue sky and the ocean on the horizon. Jonathan suddenly cried out, “Wow, look what God done did!” I heard people chuckling all around us.
Zeke climbed up into my lap one day when he was about four years old, and looked at me earnestly with his big blue eyes and asked me, “Mom, did you know that caterpillars turn into butterflies? They get into funny blankets and come out as butterflies.” “Really? That’s amazing!” I said, laughing.
One day my husband and sons and I were at the beach building sandcastles and digging moats, and my husband was eyeing the young women in bikinis as they strutted by. Afterwards, we were walking barefoot through the sand with our pails and shovels and plastic boats, and Zeke said, “Dad, those women out there in their underwear sure do look ugly.”
I was tucking Noah into bed one night when he was about three years old, and I said, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Suddenly Noah sat up nervously in bed and looked around, and said, “Bed bugs? What bed bugs?” I started explaining to him that I’ve never seen them in Florida, when he put his finger over his mouth, and said, “Shhh! You might wake up the bed bugs!”
I took Jonathan with me to visit a new church one Sunday morning when he was seven or eight, and we were seated in a huge sanctuary. He was wearing his bright red suit jacket with brass buttons and a red print tie, and he looked handsome with his dimpled cheeks and chin and fine blonde hair neatly combed. I saw him looking all around at the ornate carved wooden balconies and the pulpit and the choir benches, and after a few minutes, he said, “So, Mom, where’s the prime minister?”
Zeke always seemed to be thinking. He constantly asked me funny questions that showed he was terribly curious about all kinds of matters. When he was five or six, he asked me one day, “Mom, could jellyfish sting people in the Garden of Eden?” I replied, “No, because everything was perfect in Eden, and nothing hurt anything else.” Then Zeke said, “Adam and Eve really blew it bad when they ate that apple, because they ate it before I was even born, and I never got to touch one jellyfish.”
One night about two o’clock in the morning, I woke up to little Zeke shaking me with his tiny hands. I jumped up, thinking it was an emergency, because he seemed so anxious. “What’s wrong, Zeke?” I asked worriedly. “I just have to know”, he cried. “Do snails come out of their shells?” I looked at him in astonishment. “Is that why you woke me up?” “Yes”, he admitted dropping his head with humble eyes looking up at me. “No, I don’t believe they come out of their shells”, I said. “Thanks,” he said and went back to bed.
Noah was talking to me about ice cream flavors when he was four or five years old, and he said, “Mom, Jonathan likes chocolate ice cream, and Zeke likes gorilla, but I like white ice cream.”
Zeke was always very sensitive and gentle. He was crying one day and I was hugging him, and he said, “Mom, don’t worry. ‘Cause when I grow up and all that crying stuff is gone from my eyes, I won’t cry no more.”
Once when Jonathan was about eight, he and Dad were kidding around, and Dad called Jonathan a ham, then Jonathan told Dad he was a pork chop. I overheard them and interjected, “Well, what does that make me? Jonathan looked at me and smiled affectionately and said, “Mom, you’re a tea biscuit.”
We attended a wedding one day when Noah was about six years old, and the bride gave all of the balloons to Noah after the reception. He was excitedly playing with all the balloons and watching them rise to the ceiling. He asked the newly married couple, “When you guys get married again, can I get some more balloons?”
Zeke’s nose was runny one day, and he was sniffling and complaining about it. Jonathan handed him a tissue and said, “When the blowing gets tough, the tough get blowing.”
Dad was scolding the boys one day for running around the house and making too much noise. Zeke stopped for a moment and asked him politely, “Why don’t you just ignore everybody like Mom does?”
We ordered some butterfly larvae from the Nature Company when my sons were all in elementary school, so that they could observe their development and their transformation from caterpillars to butterflies. Before long, the little caterpillars were in their cocoons, and Noah kept checking on them, and he said, “Mom, the raccoons haven’t changed yet.”
Noah built a very tall and ornate building with his castle blocks when he was seven or eight, and then said, “Mom, look! I made the Vampire State Building!”
We went to some Christmas festivities in early December one year while my sons were still in elementary school. There was a reenactment of a parade of Colonial minutemen and citizens by candlelight called “The Grand Illumination.” After we had enjoyed caroling and several other holiday activities, I asked the boys what their favorite thing was that we did that night. Zeke said, “I especially liked the Grand Hallucination.”
Jonathan told me that he had fallen in love with a girl for the first time in first grade. He said, “Mom, she has long blonde hair and blue eyes, and looks just like you, except that her teeth are whiter.”
Noah had spilled his cereal all over the counter one morning, and when I saw the mess, Noah looked really embarrassed and said, “Mom, I’m really sorry, but my Cheerios overfloated.”
One night we asked Zeke some questions about what he had learned in American History in middle school. Dad asked him what started the Revolutionary War, and he said, “Pearl Harbor”. Dad asked him how it ended, and he said, “At the Alamo”. Then I asked him just to tell us something important that he had learned, and he said, “I know that Napoleon was seduced by Cleopatra.”
We were at the circus when Jonathan was about ten years old, and a gorgeous golden-haired girl was swinging on the trapeze wearing a tight dress covered in glittering white sequins. Jonathan’s head was moving side to side watching her with amazement from the bleachers, and he said, “Wow, Mom, she is some swinger!”
When Noah was about eight years old, our family went out to eat at a seafood restaurant for dinner. First, we ordered some gator tail as an appetizer. Noah took a nibble or two, and had a curious look on his face, and then he asked me, “Mom, why do they call this gator tail?” I said, “I hate to tell you, but it is actually made from the tail of a gator.”
Then Jonathan ordered some crab cakes, and Noah asked, “Mom, why do they call those crab cakes?” I told him “They are made from crabs.”
After a little while, Noah got his chicken, and he asked me, “Mom, why do they call this chicken?” I answered, “It is the meat of a chicken.”
Noah looked a bit sad, but seemed to be getting it. Then he picked up a hushpuppy to eat. Suddenly he smiled proudly and remarked, “Let me guess. This is made of a puppy, right?”
One Sunday, when my son, Noah was eight years old, I asked him what he learned about in Sunday School, and this is how our conversation went that day:
Mom: What did you learn about in Sunday school today?
Noah: I don’t remember the guy’s name, but he was swallowed by a whale.
Mom: Why was he swallowed by a whale?
Noah: Because he fell into the ocean.
Mom: Why did he do that?
Noah: Because he fell out of the boat.
Mom: But why did he fall out?
Noah: Because some other guys pushed him out of the boat.
Mom: But why did they push him out?
Noah: Because that guy told them to.
Mom: But why did he tell them to?
Noah: Because there was a terrible storm.
Mom: But why was there a terrible storm that day?
Noah: Because that guy didn’t go to the town God told him to go to, and the other guys in the boat knew about it.
Mom (with a long sigh): Okay…so what finally happened?
Noah: Well, God told that guy to go to a town, and tell the people to stop doing the bad stuff they were doing, or God was gonna mess up their town. But that guy got scared and went the other way. He got on a boat to get away, but a terrible storm came. That guy told the others how he didn’t mind God, and he asked them to throw him over. They did, and he was swallowed by a whale. After three days in the whale, he was spit up on the beach, and he decided to go and do what God said. He went to that town, and those people stopped doing the bad stuff they were doing, and God didn’t mess up their town after all.
Mom: Wow, thanks for telling me that story! By the way, that guy’s name was Jonah.
JUST ANOTHER WOUNDED HEALER
“But he [was] wounded for our transgressions, [he was] bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace [was] upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5
I had once heard about the concept of wounded healers who bring healing to others through their own private pain. Carl Jung used the term to refer to a dynamic that can occur when the psychiatrist recognizes a struggle of his own in his patient. Before that, it was a mystical phenomenon. In The Wounded Healer, Henri Noewen writes about a legend from the Talmud in which Elijah directs a rabbi on where to find the Messiah:
The Messiah, the story tells us is sitting among the poor, binding up his wounds only one at a time, always prepared for the moment when he might be needed. So it is, too, with ministers…they must bind their own wounds carefully, in anticipation of the moment when they will be needed.
They are each called to be the wounded healer, the ones who must not only look after their own wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others. (88)
This concept captivated my interest because I could see how this principle had been manifested in my own experiences. I realized that my weakness could be a strong weapon against the anguish in someone else’s life.
In the The Inner Voice of Love, the same author writes a journal about his own wounds, teaching himself how to cope with them:
There is a deep hole in your being, like an abyss. You will never succeed in filling that hole, because your needs are inexhaustible. You have to work around it so that gradually the abyss closes.
Since the hole is so enormous and your anguish so deep, you will always be tempted to flee from it. There are two extremes to avoid; being completely absorbed in your pain and being distracted by so many things that you stay far away from the wound you want to heal. (3)
I reflected on how I had experienced both extremes that the author says to avoid, and had learned of the pitfalls of each one. If I become completely absorbed in my pain I feel myself tumbling headlong into that dark abyss of depression, and I realize with terror that the pit seems to be bottomless. Ignoring my wounds makes me feel like a stranger to myself, hollow and useless. I become abhorrent to myself and lose my sense of worth and purpose. Corrie ten Boom writes in Tramp for the Lord that our experiences are preparation for holy work:
Today I know that memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work He will give us to do.
These words echoed in the canyons of my heart when I first read them. I thought about how one person’s tears can provide pain relief to other people. I remember as a child going to visit caseworkers at the orphanage where I lived, and only one woman among them all ever wept for me. Her name was Mrs. Storozuk, and it felt as though she had reached deep inside of me with a warm hand and comforted my soul.
When I was a teenager, one elderly Quaker woman named Elizabeth Israel burst into tears when she witnessed the cold heart of my mother toward me, and she asked, “Why isn’t there any hugging and kissing going on here? What is wrong?” Her weeping had the same effect on me, a sense of a spiritual love that was a great consolation.
Through time and soul-searching, I have learned of this gift of healing others with my own damaged heart. I have experienced that my own pain has a way of tenderizing the hearts of those that I meet who are suffering. I feel as if I tap into some intangible power that mystically comforts other people and me in the same moment.
I love to talk to the outcast, the downtrodden, and other broken people. These are my little daily mitzvahs. I try to live by one principle of Mother Teresa which asserts that we can do no great things, only little things with great love.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that God uses our pain to chisel out character. I like using the metaphor of pottery. The potter has to apply pressure to the clay to fashion it and then subject it to intense heat. He has a certain use in mind for each piece when he designs it, and he knows that every pitcher, bowl or plate must pass through the fire of the kiln before it can be useful. There is a Bible scripture that says the clay never questions the potter or asks him why it is fashioned as it is. I have learned to trust the potter.
BOHEMIAN BLOOD: MY CREED
There are two powers that saved me from despair in my life: faith and art. I could not have survived without them. If I were to write my final Torah scroll today, my song would be about my Creator and the inexplicable power of creativity that He planted in my innermost being.
Art is in my blood. My grandfather is a painter. My mother is an artist. My father is a writer and a musician. Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of our ancestors. My siblings and I are all naturally artistic. One of my sons is a poet, one is an artist, and one is a brilliant film buff. Please allow me to brag about a few things.
Many years ago when my father and mother were dating they were part of a writer’s group and they compiled a small book of poetry. My mother wrote a couple of poems that really touched me. One was called “The Red Lined Coffin” and was about her experience as a young child standing by the coffin of her mother. The other was called “The Twisted Cross” and it seemed to be a questioning of God about pain and injustice.
We are a strange family, besieged by painful memories and insensitivity and reckless lifestyles. We are all offbeat. But ink is in our bone marrow, paint flows thick in our blood streams, and music resonates in our semicircular canals.
As a child, whenever I felt a storm of sorrow moving in, I strung intricate beaded necklaces, or scribbled in my sketch book, or played some music on a little record player in my room. And I read the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The main characters lived happily ever after, and I believed that someday I could be happy too. If a plain brown nightingale could bring joy to an emperor by its singing, I could also bring inspiration and joy to someone.
As a teenager, I read an article in Psychology Today about the importance of creativity and imagination. Studies show that people who are realists have trouble coping when suffering comes into their lives. They fall apart. But imaginative people can enter their fantasy world when things go badly, and they are not as susceptible to total breakdowns. I believe this is one of the reasons that I have been so resilient.
In my opinion, it is important for children to have fantasies. I think if we tell children not to believe in anything they cannot see or scientifically prove, we are making a mistake. I can’t see electricity or watermarks on paper or the wind, but I know they are real.
When my father first told me he didn’t believe in a God, I found that absolutely unimaginable. I had never doubted God’s existence for even a moment. I have felt the power surge of the Spirit. There’s an old spiritual with these words: My God is real/ ‘Cause I can feel/ Him in my soul.
Sometimes I feel like Luke Skywalker. My father is Darth Vader and due to some strange negotiations in a foreign empire, a Jedi warrior taught me to wield the Force. Yet I cannot forget my beginnings, and I wish that I could teach my parents a few things about redemption and healing.
Some people wonder what good it has done me to believe or to follow the teachings of Christ. I have suffered greatly, and my life has been unfulfilling in many ways. I have not prospered financially or succeeded in relationships. I still am wounded in my heart. So how has my faith benefited me?
Faith defies reasoning. There is no courage in loving God only when he blesses me. The glory is to love God when my life is slipping through my own fingers and I can’t stop it, when insurmountable troubles follow me wherever I go. George MacDonald wrote that Christ didn’t suffer so that we wouldn’t have to, but so that our anguish would be fruitful. He wanted us to suffer as He did, for godliness instead of for folly. Everyone must endure pain, but not all pain will have redemptive value. I can cultivate kindness through my own personal pain, in a fallen world full of iniquity. My faith is magnified by the lens of injustice. I don’t think I truly possessed faith until I had cried out, “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” To love God when He seems to be aloof or absent has been the real threshing floor of my faith.
I read a note from a man who posted on his website that he had renounced Christianity because he had grown up and stopped believing in Santa Claus and other fairy tales.
For me, there has never been anyone like Jesus in history or in storybooks. The first time I read the beatitudes as a child, I knew that I had never read words so exquisitely lovely. They glowed in my mind like dewdrops on grass blades in the morning. I love the teachings of Jesus, and the manner in which He lived and died. If nothing else about Him were true, that would be enough for me. I would much rather serve Christ than be Cinderella or Snow White, even if they did find a handsome prince and live happily ever after. Christ is the only prince I need.
So, what if I believe and I turn out to be wrong? I have shown compassion to many wanderers along my path. I have loved even while I was unloved. I have learned to give and expect nothing in return. My faith gives me a higher standard to walk by. Black Elk tells the story of a sacred woman who first brought the holy pipe to his people. She was clothed in white buckskin and a white cloud followed her as she sang this song:
“With visible breath I am walking.
A voice I am sending as I walk.
In a sacred manner I am walking.
With visible tracks I am walking.
In a sacred manner I walk.”
I can feel these lyrics reverberate within me. The joy of the sacred walk is inexplicable. Striving to attain something higher and purer is lovelier than any pleasure for me. The path is as beautiful as the destination, even when I stumble and fall down. I cannot imagine living any other way.
The Hindu saint Surdas once wrote these words:
How crooked and mean I am, that I forget the power who has created this beautiful human body and given it to me. I fill my stomach daily and think only about my sensual pleasures as the pigs of the city do. Oh my Lord, can there be any shelter for a mean man like myself? I even stay away from the followers of the Supremest Lord, and serve those persons that are away from Him.
I know what I would be like without faith. I sometimes joke around with my sons, saying, “You’d better be glad I don’t drink, because I would be passed out on the floor every day. I would be a mess.” Although I say it with brevity, I can assure you, I would be bitter, negative, and angry. I would be drowning in self-pity. These are the attributes I have lost by believing.
What else do I have to lose? What is the worst that could happen? I could be reincarnated because I failed to escape the cycle of birth and death. For me, that would be the worst case scenario, but even then my karma would nudge me a bit higher. If I am wrong about where my soul will find its rest, and I merely drift about as a ghost in the wind, at least I will be free of this tiresome fleshy luggage that requires constant care. I could hover like a small cloud of love around my sons every day, twirling a dirt devil or two, whispering secrets into their ears, huddling in the warmth of their curly hair, or playing the wind chimes in the front of their homes.
If I am wrong and I simply go into the earth, and I don’t receive that immortal body I hoped for, a flaming maple or pink dogwood tree may curl their root fingers around my bones, or perhaps I can enrich the soil under a patch of wild violets or daffodils. All is not lost. Someone on Earth may remember a small kindness I showed them, or a day when I inspired them. I would rather believe, even if I turned out to be wrong. I love walking in a sacred manner, seeking God in the midst of holy things and people.
But what if you are wrong, Mr. Hitchens? Perhaps you will say you can still do good things without faith, but you will get tired of it if there’s nothing in it for you. In time, it will seem completely illogical and futile to be kind or humanitarian if this world will never get better, unless you can find a way to gain something by your charitable deeds.
But what if the Holy Bible turns out to be true? What if there is a judgment, a Kingdom of Heaven and a Hell? What if? If you are wrong, you have much more to lose than I do if I am wrong. Christ refers to an awful place “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched,” a place of “outer darkness,” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I’ve heard people say that there is a great party going on down there, but somehow it doesn’t sound like a good time to me. I have a friend who despises hot weather and I have always been afraid of darkness. I mean really dark darkness. I panic when I can’t see anything. My friend and I would not do well in Hades, if it is as Jesus described it. I have nothing to lose by believing Christ’s teachings. I will hold on to my faith.
I want to be like the lotus blossom whose roots are deep in the mud, yet she is crowned with petals of purity and bears indestructible seeds and adapts her inner temperature to endure all seasons.
In the book Jewish Tales of Holy Women, a spiritual storyteller encourages readers to pursue holiness:
According to Jewish mystic teaching, all people should strive to be holy. Everyone is granted a pure soul and has the potential for holiness. Someone once asked Rebbe Yisrael of Rizhin what was meant by saying a person has the holy spirit. He answered, When a person has spirit and keeps it from becoming impure, it is the holy spirit.
Purity bears rewards within itself. It brings the Kingdom of Heaven to Earth through those who seek it. It is a path and a destination at the same moment.
My faith gives me hope that after all is said and done, there will be another world where a Righteous King rules and there is eternal peace. My visions of Paradise comfort me. Black Elk, the holy man of the Oglala Sioux, was consoled by his visions of the Other World and the Wanekia (One Who Makes Live).
Heaven will be a wondrous gallery for a Bohemian. I love the earth immensely, but Black Elk says that he beheld a perfect parallel world and that this one is only a distorted reflection. Can you imagine the aesthetic possibilities? I have dreamed of seeing my friends wearing the exquisite garments of Paradise, and of myself playing in those fields of flowers at dawn. Can you even begin to imagine the divine symphonies, the dancing of the seraphim, or the art in that holy temple near the crystal sea? And most of all, can you imagine seeing the King?
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