Foxy: My Life in Three Actsby Pam Grier
Film icon Pam Grier finally pulls back the curtain on her turbulent and fascinating life . . .
Some may know her as hot, gutsy, gun-totin' Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, Coffy, and Jackie Brown. Others may know her from her role as Kit Porter on The L Word. But that only defines one part of the legend that is Pam Grier.
Foxy is Pam's testimony/i>/b>… See more details below
Film icon Pam Grier finally pulls back the curtain on her turbulent and fascinating life . . .
Some may know her as hot, gutsy, gun-totin' Foxy Brown, Friday Foster, Coffy, and Jackie Brown. Others may know her from her role as Kit Porter on The L Word. But that only defines one part of the legend that is Pam Grier.
Foxy is Pam's testimony of her life, past and present. In it, she reveals her relationships with Richard Pryor, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Freddie Prinze Sr., among others. She unveils her experiences as a backup singer and a blaxploitation star. In particularly candid and shocking chapters, she shares-for the first time-her view of those films and the persecution that blacks, especially women, needed to endure to make a name for themselves . . . including how it felt to be labeled one of the most beautiful women alive, yet not be permitted to try on clothes in a department store because of the color of her skin. And in words sure to inspire many, she tells the story of her ongoing battle with cancer.
From her disappointments to her triumphs, nothing is held back. With FOXY, Pam wishes to impart life lessons to her readers-and hopes to touch their hearts.
[an] iconic actress"Publishers Weekly"
I commend Grier on making her memoir about more than her life as an actressas the life of a woman struggling to make it on her own and doing so with grace and class."Philadelphia Inquirer"
The foremost goal of any celebrity memoir is to capture the personality of its subject, and this Foxy does. The wide-eyed dignity of its voice is that of Pam Grier, and the book, like her, is not only inspiring-which we knew already-but immensely lovable, as well."Kirkus
- Grand Central Publishing
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Read an Excerpt
FoxyMy Life in Three Acts
By Grier, Pam
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Grier, Pam
All right reserved.
The Early Years 1949–1970
I was snuggled in my mother’s arms in the backseat of the old Buick. My dad’s Air Force buddy was at the wheel, driving us from Fort Dix Air Force Base to Colorado, where Dad was being transferred. I’d been born into a military family, making my first move by car at three weeks old, since blacks were rarely seen on trains. And, of course, there was no way we could afford to fly, even if planes had been available.
I was born in Winston-Salem, where my dad’s family lived. My parents had expected their visit to North Carolina to last three to four days before they returned to Colorado, where Mom would give birth to me. But it seemed that between the intense heat, the long hours of relaxation, and the large mouthfuls of ripe, juicy watermelon she ingested, my mom went into early labor with me. She was uncomfortable having her baby in Winston-Salem. She’d wanted to be safe and sound in Colorado when I was born, with her own family around her. Apparently I had other plans.
Now Dad was in the passenger seat, riding shotgun, while his buddy drove the old ’48 crank Buick with no seat belts, which no one had as yet. In the backseat, the driver’s wife was carrying a goldfish in a bowl of water, and Mom was carrying me. As we rode along the New Jersey Turnpike, a car sped down the on-ramp, passed us, and suddenly shot out onto the road right in front of us. As Dad’s friend swerved to miss the car cutting us off, our Buick rolled over three times and came to a stop at the side of the turnpike, its wheels beneath it. We all got out. Mom had never let go of me, and everyone in the car walked away without a scratch—except the goldfish, who died from oxygen inhalation.
That was my first stunt.
Of course I don’t remember that happening. My first memory is of Columbus, Ohio, where my father was stationed at the Air Force base there. I was in diapers, about a year and a half old, and I recall my mother’s colorful skirt and the gauzy white strings that hung off the bow of her apron. Her legs looked impossibly long, and I marveled at her wedged shoes that made her taller than she really was. She was at the kitchen sink, and I was on the floor beside her, when I heard an engine roar outside the house. We both turned to look past the black and white Formica kitchen table out into the courtyard to see my dad driving into the garage.
“Daddy’s home,” my mother practically sang, as I tried to climb up the table leg to see outside. Mom, pregnant with my brother, Rod, hoisted me up onto the kitchen table so I could watch my father get out of the car and come into the house. It makes my mom absolutely insane that I can remember these things in such minute detail from before I was two. But I do. I also remember sitting on the front steps, eating a slice of fresh tomato, and dropping it on the ground when my dad walked toward me. I was standing on shaky legs, my arms raised for him to lift me up, when I slipped on the tomato slice. I bounced once before my dad caught me. Back then, there was no one more amazing and strong in all the world.
My dad, Clarence Grier, was a strappingly handsome man with tremendous strength in his hands. I could literally feel youthful energy shoot through his fingers. He was kind and loving to me, and the scent of his cologne combined with the crisp, starchy smell of his clean Air Force uniform delighted me. A loving, carefree man, he was my mom’s hero. He was so light-skinned, he could pass for white, which caused him a lot more trouble than if he had clearly looked black or white. His mom was mixed, and his blue-eyed dad was mixed but looked white, so he never really fit in anywhere.
Remember the old term mulatto? Today we call it biracial or multicultural, but back then, being a mulatto was a major obstacle. At the base in Columbus, for example, where segregation was at an all-time high, blacks had to live in apartments off base because they were offered substandard living on base. That was where Dad suffered the confusion of his superiors, who thought he was white when they first met him.
When we arrived, we had been awarded a lovely place on base to live, because they thought Dad was Caucasian. But before we ever moved in, they discovered their mistake and told us that since we were Negroes, we had to make other living arrangements. Dad felt comfortable living among whites, and the indignity of being asked to move out affected his self-confidence. He had dreamed of going to officer training school. He had what it took, and Mom wanted that for him, too. But he lacked the necessary confidence. He had hit the racial wall so many times, I guess he just gave up, and we lived in an apartment off base that was shockingly inferior to the living quarters on base. In fact, everything was different.
If you lived on base, you had decent facilities, good food, and current entertainment, including movies and music. If you lived off base, the public bus system hardly ever stopped for you, particularly if the back of the bus was full. On base, shuttles took you shopping or wherever else you wanted to go. Off base, you felt the humiliation, embarrassment, and sting of segregation, like when you were shopping with your family and the bus sped right by you, as if you didn’t exist. In this era, we had to make sure we didn’t look at someone the wrong way—it was a constant tension—or we could end up having our lives threatened. It seemed that while Air Force whites had access to whatever they needed, blacks had to make do, and there was no bucking against the status quo. The makeshift apartments where blacks lived (we called ourselves Negroes back then) were some distance from the base, and if you didn’t have a car, you had better have a pair of sturdy legs.
One afternoon—I was about five and my little brother, Rodney, was four—Mom and us kids were carrying shopping bags home from the grocery store. The walk was a few miles, and my mom usually didn’t mind it, but it was so hot that day that we were walking from tree to tree, stopping in the shade to catch our breath and drum up the courage to walk under the blistering sun to the next tree. Laden with shopping bags, my mom, dripping with perspiration, looked longingly at a nearly empty bus that drove right past us.
“It’s so hot out,” I said. “Why won’t the bus stop for us, Mom?”
“Because we’re Negroes,” she said.
Mom was gasping for air, she looked like she was ready to pass out, I was beyond uncomfortable, and even my little brother was panting. Another bus, completely empty, sped by us, and then another. When a fourth bus was about to drive on past us, it slowed, pulled over to the side of the road, and stopped. Mom walked cautiously to the stairs as the white bus driver opened the door. She looked in questioningly, glancing at all the empty seats, hoping against hope that we might be able to ride home.
The driver said nothing and neither did my mom. She just hustled us to the back of the bus and we fell onto the seats, breathing heavily. We sat quietly in our private chariot, grateful to be out of the hot sun. Mom knew this man was risking his personal security by picking us up. He obviously had a big heart under that white skin. He never looked at us, and we kept our eyes straight ahead as we neared our apartment complex. Mom told him when we got close to home, and he stopped to let us off.
She knew she was not allowed to speak to him, and she fought the urge to show her appreciation with a light touch on this kind man’s shoulder. That could have gotten her into trouble. We faced these kinds of issues every day when the grocery clerk put our change on the counter instead of in our hands to avoid physical contact. How my mom managed to hold on to her dignity in such a condemning and shaming society, where we had to take what we were given, I will never know. But somehow she was able to turn everything around and convince us it was a blessing.
Instead of touching the bus driver, she said, “Thank you,” as they looked into each other’s eyes, sharing a moment of grace and true humanity. He drove away, never looking back. She turned to Rodney and me and said, “We just got a beautiful gift. Never forget it. God is taking care of us.” And she never mentioned it again.
As a little girl, I wondered what it would have been like to wait for a bus like anyone else, to go into any restroom anywhere, and be welcomed into any restaurant we chose. I imagined Mom saying, “Hey, let’s take a break from shopping and go have lunch,” like any other citizen of the world. But that was not our world.
When I think back about why we didn’t end up feeling inferior every day of our lives, I give credit to my loving family. We were very close, my parents made sure we had good manners and morals, and my mom always had several white friends who were sympathetic to contemporary black issues. While a few white women were still stuck in racial prejudice, most of Mom’s friends, the white women who were married to NCOs (noncommissioned officers), never believed the ridiculous and denigrating myths and lies surrounding Negroes. After all, the men worked in close proximity, whether they were white or black. And Mom’s ability to create dress patterns and sew beautiful clothing gave her a special standing among her group of friends.
Mom was so good at sewing, they could show her a dress on the cover of Vogue magazine and she could create that very dress and make her friends look classic and rich. My mom’s white friends knew that we were good people and that she wanted the same things for us that they wanted for their own children. Today, I see what a great role model my mom was. She didn’t believe in prejudice and she didn’t want us to grow up hating or fearing white people.
In the segregated area of the city where we lived, we could only socialize with other people of color. We couldn’t sit beside whites at movies or eat with them in restaurants. We couldn’t use public transportation, and it was so bad that just chatting with white people could get us in trouble, so we avoided it.
When we spent time on base, however, our best friends were both black and white kids. We were invited to join them in the sandboxes, in the swimming pool, and on the bike trails. Some bases were more liberal than others, and at our base, the military complex worked hard at creating the “look” of equality. That meant we were allowed to enjoy the company of color-blind friends who accepted us just the way we were. It was an important lesson to learn that not all white people hated us for being different.
Mom went through nursing school during that time so she would have an occupation that felt worthwhile and would help her pick up the financial slack if it was necessary. She believed very strongly that women needed to know they could fend for themselves if push came to shove, such as in case of a death, disablement, or illness. And she could add income to the family coffers. Dad loved his Air Force work, where he focused on aviation, which was his calling. He was an NCO, which meant he had enlisted. He held on to his dream of becoming an officer, but he was holding out until “things” got better. That was the African American mantra—“Waiting for times to get better”—as we tried to envision a world with fewer obstacles, apprehensions, and hostility.
Up to the time I was six, when my day-to-day existence would change drastically, I had a bubbly personality and a zest for life. We had no home of our own since we were constantly being transferred from base to base. But I was always eager to laugh and hungry to learn, and I adored the early days when we lived with my grandmother Marguerite, whom we called Marky, and my grandfather Raymundo Parrilla, of Philippine descent, whom we called Daddy Ray. Marky was a music enthusiast, cleaning house to the sounds of Mahalia Jackson, gospel, and Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” which she played over and over again. Every day, each family on the block had a pot of vegetables, beans, or black-eyed peas and collard greens simmering on the stove. Food aromas wafted down the street all the time, which gave a homey, warm feeling to the neighborhood.
I was thrilled when Daddy Ray gave me a dime one Saturday so I could go to the movies with a few of my friends and cousins. My aunt Mennon, my mother’s sister, had four children, and I recall my excitement when we headed off to the neighborhood movie theater to see Godzilla, a film clearly chosen by the boys.
The truth is that the film could have been about anything under the sun. I wouldn’t have cared. It was my first movie, and I was ecstatic over the darkened theater and my very own nickel bag of popcorn that I didn’t have to share. There were no segregation restrictions for the kiddie matinee, so we were free to frolic, scream, and munch on candy and popcorn. It felt like an indoor playground where kids could bounce on the seats, yell, giggle, laugh, and play with abandon, reacting to what was on the movie screen.
Our group of about ten kids felt safe, since the older cousins and neighbors watched over us younger kids, and we all cheered and booed in the appropriate places. But when I told the other kids that the monster wasn’t real, they refused to believe me.
“His tail was made of rubber,” I insisted. “I could tell. I saw the crease.”
“It was not!” they said, unwilling to believe that the magic of Hollywood was in play here. They didn’t want the monster to be made of rubber, while I was fascinated by rubber monsters with fake tails. I decided then and there that, one day, I would work in the movies in some capacity.
Marguerite and Daddy Ray spent time between their farmhouse in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and a modern cinder-block and brick home in Denver, Colorado, where we stayed sometimes when Dad was stationed nearby. This sleepy, bucolic neighborhood was fashioned in Craftsman style, its streets lined with century-old majestic oak and maple trees. The sidewalks were slabs of granite and redstone, no cement; the structures were built to last. No one had garages then, so everyone parked their Edsels on the streets with no worries about them getting stolen.
In the house, there were chrome faucets in the bathroom, and every time we used the sink, we had to wipe the water spots off the chrome. If we didn’t, my grandmother went berserk and raised holy hell, since she was meticulous to a fault. After dinner, the floor had to be swept and the dishes had to be washed, dried, and put away. Then and only then could we sit down to tackle our homework.
My grandfather had a station wagon and an army jeep for hunting. While Dad taught us to play tennis and other games he enjoyed on the base, Daddy Ray taught us how to survive. As I mentioned, the army bases were sometimes color-blind as to our attending activities and eating good meals. But out in the civilian world, particularly in public school, we had to deal with civil rights, racial prejudice, and the accompanying self-hatred. Daddy Ray wanted us to be prepared.
Best of all was my grandparents’ farm up in Wyoming, where my grandfather and my grandma specialized in growing sugar beets and raising goats. My favorite place in the world. We went there on weekends. The farmhouse had a big old barn where Daniel, one of my American Indian uncles, lived. Uncle Daniel had a long white braid, and he mainly survived on canned peaches from the farm. He lived to be 107.
The farmhouse had no indoor plumbing, so we used an outhouse that was stocked with corn cobs and a coffee can full of vinegar to disinfect and disguise the smell. Our grandparents had used corn cobs for toilet paper back in the day, but by the time we got there, we had toilet paper, so the corn cobs were just a reminder of days gone by. Since there was no electricity and it was pitch-dark at night, Daddy Ray set up ropes that we could hold on to that led from the house to the outhouse. We used a kerosene lantern to see our way, and when the wind blew up in swirling gales, if we didn’t grasp the rope tightly, we could get blown away.
The farmhouse kitchen was one big room with a slab of slate with a hole in it for the sink. The actual sink was underneath in the form of an enamel basin sitting on a small table. At the end of the table was the pump primer that we would pump a few times to get water flowing from the spigot into the sink. We heated water there for our baths. The farmhouse eventually became the cabin where the men stayed during hunting season. A small slice of heaven on earth, this wonderful farm was precious and charming, and I felt safer and healthier there than anywhere else, even as we dealt with the harsh and sometimes cruel elements of the wild, such as high winds and extreme temperatures from hotter than hot to freezing cold. In fact, the wind-chill factor was so extreme that when it reached up into the higher registers, the force of the gales could actually crack metal.
My favorite time of day was the early morning when we would help Daddy Ray in his organic garden. Gardening was the norm in that area, and neighborhood families took great pride in competing with each other. Who could grow the biggest and tastiest squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, and “ter-maters”? Just about every home in this little town had a working garden—they took up at least half of the large yards—and our white and black neighbors traded vegetables, freshly caught fish, and venison to help each other out. As a result, we always had fresh lettuce with Italian dressing and ripe, pungent tomatoes that were bloodred on the inside. We grew our own onions, scallions, radishes, and carrots, and on the far side of my grandparents’ house was a big strawberry patch. In the middle of the patch was a tree that bore golden freestone peaches with little clefts in the sides that turned orange when the peaches were ripe. Beside the peach tree were a prolific black walnut tree and a cherry tree, full of dark red bing cherries that weighed the branches down when they were ready for picking.
We ate like royalty back then because everything was fresh. This was before the emergence of the massive supermarkets where we buy our food today. We got our protein from the Korean deli around the corner, where they sold freshly killed chickens and recently caught fish. Some of our neighbors had chickens on their property and a cut-off tree stump for slaughtering them. They would catch a chicken, wring its neck and lay it across the stump, chop off its head like with a guillotine, and drain the blood. Then, to remove the feathers easily, they would drop it into boiling water for a few seconds.
When the men took off on hunting expeditions into the high country of Colorado or Wyoming, they brought back pheasant, game hens, wild turkeys, elks, and antelope. They fished for river catfish, bass, and lake trout, and my grandfather taught us kids to fly-fish. Daddy Ray was obsessed with teaching us to be self-sufficient, and we all had to learn to tie flies onto the hooks with pieces of carpeting and feathers and shiny wool. Then we were taught to cast a fly rod so we could catch German brown, rainbow, and speckled trout. We also took turns learning to steer the fishing boat through the water.
Some of the girls said, “I’m scared, Daddy Ray. I don’t know how to steer a boat. I can’t.”
“You can’t be scared,” he told them, “or you can’t come with me. If something happens to me, you have to be able to bring the boat back to shore.” We also loved waterskiing and we needed to steer a boat for that, too. I was always the first in line to learn whatever he showed us.
As primitive as life was on this farm, I loved how people treated each other and how we all shared our crops with our neighbors. It seemed like cities were prohibitively expensive because people tried to make money off of each other instead of lending a helping hand. Out in the farmlands, in contrast, no one went hungry because we traded raspberries for cherries, and tomatoes for corn. I learned how many ears of corn usually grew on a stalk, and Daddy Ray showed me how to dig deep down into the soil to determine if it was rich enough for the crop we wanted to plant.
“The roots of the cornstalks need to be at least four feet in the ground,” Daddy Ray told me, “and the stalk will measure about eight to ten feet high. The longer the roots, the more ears of corn it will produce.”
We were taught to respect and cherish the earth, something that has stayed with me for my entire life. When I hear the famous Joni Mitchell lyric “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” I nod my head. I may not have been raised like a privileged city kid with a ton of new clothes and toys, but that means nothing, because when I was growing up, I got to live in paradise.
Marky and Me
Pammy. Tudot,” Marky, our grandma Marguerite, called out to me. Tudot was a Native American nickname she called me, and I still don’t know why. “Can you do something for your grandma?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, always anxious to please. I stood and waited. We were back in the city house in Denver now.
“Did Daddy Ray leave for work yet?”
“Okay, then. I need you to go to the store for me like a big girl. Can you do that?”
“I can do that,” I said, puffing out my little chest. I was about to turn six.
“Here’s twenty-five cents,” she said. “Go ask Helen for a can of Coors beer.” Helen, a Korean woman whom we all loved, owned the deli that was in walking distance from my grandparents’ house. Marky made me repeat the name “Coors” several times to make sure I would remember.
“But don’t tell Daddy Ray,” Marky cautioned me. “This is between us. It’s our little secret. Can you be a good girl and not tell anybody?”
“I can do that,” I said. I was getting my first instruction on how to lie from my grandmother. This stood in stark contrast to the other adults, who never stopped reminding us kids about the pitfalls and consequences of telling lies. But I wanted to be a big girl and win approval from my grandmother.
Today, I understand that Marky, the grandmother whom I so wanted to please, had some deep and troubling issues that she refused to acknowledge. As a farmer’s daughter, she had worked herself to the bone when she was young, and she’d had enough of it. Now, she preferred the life of a high-society woman (even though she wasn’t one). She kept her house spotless and was paying off a fur coat she had put on layaway. And she liked her beer.
Instead of becoming self-sufficient, which was the focus of most members of my family, Marky wanted to be the helpless female so my grandfather and everybody else would be forced to do things for her. They had married when she was fifteen and he was eighteen. That sounds painfully young for marriage, but the truth was that in the world of farming and agriculture, people married young because they were ready. They knew how to build a home with their hands so they would have a roof over their heads. They had been driving tractors since they were ten, and they knew how to grow food and hunt so they would never go hungry. Out of necessity, they grew up a great deal faster than city folk, and they were ready for marriage and families when they were quite young.
Rumor has it that my grandmother might have been pregnant at age fifteen when she married my grandfather, but no one knows for sure. She never admitted it to anyone, and we never pushed her to tell us. All we knew was that when Marky wanted something, she made sure that someone else got it or did it for her. She didn’t want for much, and she was pretty good at getting away with her games and manipulations.
“Why don’t you learn to drive a car?” Daddy Ray asked her over and over.
“I’m too scared,” was her usual response.
“But you could be independent and do things on your own,” he said. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I’m too scared,” she repeated. “I don’t want to.” And that was that.
I began my secret outings to the Korean deli for my grandmother that day, buying beer for her from Helen, sneaking it home, and watching Marky hide it from my grandfather. I knew it wasn’t right, and keeping secrets from my grandfather made me feel bad. But I was torn, because I liked having something special with my grandmother.
One day, after this had been going on for several months, my dad was away at the air base, my mom was working, the other kids were with friends, involved in summer activities, and I was at the house, sitting on the front porch steps, waiting for Daddy Ray to come home after work. As always, I was delighted to see Daddy Ray. I ran toward him for a hug. After he picked me up and swung me around, he said, “Hey, Pammy, tell me what you did today.”
We sat together on the front steps, and I said, “Well, I had breakfast and I made my bed.”
“That’s a good girl,” he said. “What else did you do?
“Then I went over to the store and bought the beer for Marky and we—”
“Whoa. Back up,” said Daddy Ray, “What did you just say?”
I looked into his face, which was appearing more troubled by the second. I felt afraid, but I repeated, “I went to Helen’s and I bought the beer for Marky.”
“Did you now?” he said. He stood and took my hand. “Where did you get the money?”
“Marky gave it to me,” I said honestly. “And I gave her the change like I always do.” I didn’t want him to think I kept the change.
Daddy Ray took my hand. “How about we head over to Helen’s right now and have a little talk with her?”
“But Grandma is making lemonade,” I said. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong, but heading over to the deli sounded serious.
“That’s okay,” he said. “We’ll be back before she even knows where we’ve gone.”
“Okay,” I said reluctantly. When we walked into the store and greeted Helen, Daddy Ray asked her calmly if she had ever sold me beer. She said she had.
“How long has this been going on?” he asked.
“A few months,” she said.
On the way home, Daddy Ray’s silence scared me.
“I don’t want to get anybody in trouble,” I said.
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” That was all he said. He patted my head and remained silent until we got to the house. “Pammy,” Daddy Ray told me, “I want you to stay outside for a little while. I’m going in the house to have a grown-up talk with Marky, and I don’t want you to come inside until I come out and get you. Okay?”
I walked over to the swing set and started swinging while Daddy Ray headed into the house, closing and locking the door behind him. I swung back and forth, letting my feet skim over the earth as I lifted my head to the heavens, trying to lose myself in the breezy motion. I was scared, and I wasn’t sure why. The next thing I heard was my grandfather’s low, gruff voice and my grandmother yelling back as they got into a screaming fight. I swung higher and higher, trying to reach the sky with my legs and leave everything else behind.
I slowed down when I heard the back door slam. Suddenly I had to pee really bad. I ran to the house and banged on the front door, but nobody could hear me. Or if they did, they didn’t care. I wished we were up at the farmhouse, where I could get to the outhouse without bothering anyone. I banged louder. Still no one. I was too afraid to go around the house to the back door, where I imagined Marky was standing outside, crying. I sat on the front stoop and crossed my legs. The back door opened again as I heard screaming and more door slamming.
By the time Daddy Ray got to the front door to let me in, it was too late. I had wet my underwear and my shorts, and I was embarrassed and crying.
“What’s wrong, Pammy?” he asked. “Come on in.” He looked angry.
“I had to go the bathroom and the door was locked,” I said through my tears.
“I’m so sorry, honey,” Daddy Ray said, softening up a little. “Your grandma will help you change. Go and see her. She’s in the bedroom.”
I walked slowly to the bedroom at the back of the house. I stood at the doorway and watched Marky sitting on the bed, crumpling a tissue in her hands. She lifted a swollen, angry face toward me, the tears still spilling down her cheeks. “I told you not to tell,” she said to me through clenched teeth. “I thought this was our secret.”
“Am I gonna get a whoopin’?” I asked, backing away.
She reached over and jerked my arm, pulling me toward her. “You’re a bad girl. You broke your promise.” When she felt the wetness on my shorts and realized that I had peed myself, she made a nasty face and instructed me to get some fresh clothes from my room and to change in the bathroom.
She avoided me for the rest of the afternoon, and I was terrified about what would happen when my mom got home. If I hadn’t gotten a whooping yet, I figured it was only a matter of time until someone laid into me.
When Mom got home, I ran to meet her, but Marky was right behind me. “She’s a bad girl. She lied to Daddy Ray,” Marky told my mom. “She said I was drinking, and it isn’t true. She’s a liar.”
“No, she isn’t,” boomed Daddy Ray’s voice. He appeared in the doorway and said, “Pammy told the truth. Marky lied.”
He was resentful that my grandmother was so helpless and that she acted so entitled, like she was better than the rest of us. I guess that was the last straw for him. That night, Daddy Ray moved out of their bedroom and into the guest room. He never slept in his wife’s room again, but they refused to divorce since they were both Catholic. I continued to get a lot of positive attention from Daddy Ray, but the sense of safety that I had always felt around my grandmother was gone.
When Marky turned against me, she began to do outrageous things, like hide my homework the morning it was due. Marky was just too insecure to let go of her resentment toward me. I remember having to go to my teacher, Mrs. Oma, and explain that I had finished my homework last night, but when I woke up, it was gone. I was Mrs. Oma’s best student, and she knew I always did my homework. I think she believed me, but my life had become stressful and dangerous living around my grandmother.
I was relieved when we moved to my aunt Mennon’s house in the projects in Denver. She lived in Platte Valley in an all-black area called the Five Points. This was where the black ballrooms emerged, and people were serenaded by Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, B.B. King, and Count Basie, a veritable mini-Harlem in the West.
Aunt Mennon’s four children, my first cousins, and our family had a real ball together. I was six, enrolled in Mitchell Elementary School, when my mom found a job as a nurse’s assistant to supplement our income. The older kids watched over us younger ones and kept us safe, but once again, the adult who was supposed to watch us had her own set of major problems.
Remember the movie Five Easy Pieces? Well, Aunt Mennon, a hot, sexy, smart waitress who reminds me of Karen Black’s character, worked at the local food joint, Buster’s Barbecue. Buster’s secret, which we all knew, was in the gravy, as he slow-cooked spices with honey and cloves. Then he poured in a little orange juice and let it all simmer. When it was done, we dipped soft pieces of white bread into the sauce to sop it up. We called that a “Slap Yo’ Mama”–good barbecue. That meant if she tried to eat off your plate, you would slap your own mama to save it for yourself. And then your mama would slap you right back for your audacious behavior.
The most popular restaurant in town, Buster’s Barbecue was always jam-packed, with lines of people down the block waiting to get in. The smell of fresh beef, pork, and chicken, swimming in the savory sauces, wafted into the projects at dinner hour, and whenever anyone went to a concert or a club, they always ended up at Buster’s afterward, drinking, eating, and dancing. When Mom got home after a night out, her perfume (Tabu was her favorite) was always mixed with the smell of Lucky Strike cigarettes and the smoky aroma of barbecue.
I remember many a Saturday night when I was fast asleep and I heard Mom calling, “Kids, come on downstairs. We have ribs for you.”
We’d run down for the ribs they had brought home for us. We went back to bed and they woke us up bright and early the next morning, ready for church, no matter how late they’d gotten home. Robust and lively, my parents went to church on three hours of sleep, and you could never tell. They liked their partying, but there were no excuses for missing church.
But my aunt Mennon hardly went to church (she liked to sleep in). She was smart as a whip and had an explosive temper. When she got angry at a woman in a club one night for messing with her boyfriend, she followed her to the bathroom. In the next moment, the unsuspecting woman’s head was stuffed down the toilet and my aunt kept on flushing.
Aunt Mennon had a pugnacious personality and she was a fierce fighter, especially when she was drinking. When she drank, she became irrational and everyone who knew her tried to stay out of her way. She got so wild and out of control, she would jump on the back of some guy’s Harley, a guy she barely knew, and they would take off. Then the older cousins were stuck with watching us younger kids. It made my mom furious whenever she got home from work and Mennon was nowhere in sight.
It was mid-summer in the projects and I had just turned six. Some of my cousins and my brother had gone to the local public swimming pool, but I didn’t like it there. I once cut my foot on a piece of glass on the bottom of the pool, so I stayed away. The girls in Aunt Mennon’s home—including me, my cousin Krista, and my other cousin, Becky—shared a bedroom. My brother and his male cousins shared a room, too, and Aunt Mennon had her own bedroom. When she stayed at her boyfriend’s house, Mom and Dad took her bedroom. When she was home, they stayed with my grandmother.
On this particular afternoon, I was home while my mom was at work. Aunt Mennon was supposed to be there, but she’d taken off on one of her wild rides so, as usual, there was no adult supervision. Three boys were in the bedroom when one of them appeared at the top of the staircase. He looked down at me. I was drawing in my coloring book.
“Come upstairs, Pammy,” he said with a smile on his face.
I looked up, excited. I was bored and I thought we were about to have a sock fight.
Sock fights were one of my favorite games, partly because they weren’t allowed. Before these fights were banned, my cousin Krista, my brother, Rodney, and I used to gather some kids from the block and turn the beds on their sides to create a bunker. Then we crumpled our socks into small balls of cotton and put a marble in the center of each bundle. When we tossed the socks over the bunkers at our opponents, if they hit their mark, it hurt. Of course it drove the adults crazy because we turned the bedroom into complete chaos. We weren’t exactly crack shots, so we hit mirrors, lamps, and windows, often breaking them, not to mention how worried our parents were that a marble could take out somebody’s eye.
Whenever they left the house, their last words of warning were, “You better not have any sock fights.”
We promised, kissed them good-bye, and before they were down the street, the beds were on their sides and we were hurling sock bundles with marbles all over the room. I thought that was what the boys wanted to do now, so I ran upstairs, thrilled they were including me.
I stopped at the door to the bedroom. The beds were not turned over. “Aren’t we gonna have a sock fight?” I asked. “Don’t you wanna wait till Krista and the other kids get home?” There were no girls around at all, and Aunt Mennon had taken off for God only knew how long.
“We’re not having a sock fight,” one of the guys said. “Come on in, Pammy.”
“Whacha doin’?” I asked, suddenly feeling shy.
“We want you to come in here and lie down on the bed. We have something to show you.”
My face lit up. “What is it?” I asked.
“Come and find out.”
I walked into the room and stood at the side of bed. “Why do you want me to lie down?”
“Just do it,” one of the boys said harshly.
His voice sounded impatient, so I did as I was told. I smiled at him, until a boy started to pull at my slacks. “What are you doing?” I asked him. “Why are you pulling my pants down?”
When he got them down, one of the boys climbed on the bed beside me, shifted over on top of me, and started to push my thighs apart with his knees. I felt several hands holding my arms and legs down. I had no idea what was going on, so I just waited. After all, I had no reason to mistrust these boys, but I was starting to feel some pain.
I heard the boy unzip his pants. Terribly confused, I felt him probing at my crotch, I saw his eyes squint, I heard him moan, and then the searing pain came. I was too afraid to protest when the first boy moved off and the second one climbed on. I was hurting, and I didn’t understand the feelings. I was sobbing, and all I could see was this boy’s yellow, blue, and green striped T-shirt on my face as he pressed himself inside of me. His chest was cutting off my breath, and I managed to mumble, “Stop hurting me.” He was beyond hearing anything besides his own grunts of pleasure. I could hardly breathe because that ugly striped T-shirt was pressing down on my nose.
When he was through, someone else was about to jump on when we all heard a noise in the house. Everyone froze. We heard the unmistakable sound of someone running up the stairs. I couldn’t stop crying, and when I looked toward the door, a white repairman pushed it open. Aunt Mennon had forgotten to cancel a telephone service appointment. It seems she had not locked the door, either, and when no one answered his knock, the worker had pushed open the front door and heard my cries of distress.
“What the hell is going on here?” he bellowed. He rushed over to the boys and pulled them off of me. “Get away from her,” he ordered them. When I saw how upset this adult was, I began to really freak out and cry even louder. I knew something weird and bad had happened, but I didn’t get the full gravity of the situation until I saw the horror and anger on my rescuer’s face. I was six. I knew nothing about sex and I hadn’t even known I needed rescuing. I only knew that these boys, supposedly my friends, were hurting me.
“Put on your clothes,” he said to me. “Go into the bathroom.”
I grabbed my pants, disappeared in the bathroom, and shut the door. What had just happened? Why did it hurt so much? And why didn’t any of my cousins help me?
The repairman called into the bathroom, “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I said weakly. I heard him yelling at the boys, and then it sounded like they all left and he went about his business fixing the phone, the real reason he was there. A short while later, he left, too, probably afraid that if someone came home, he would be blamed for hurting me.
I climbed into the empty bathtub, rolled up into a ball, and sat there for a good hour, confused and crying. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. When all the outer sounds were gone and I was sure everyone had left, I came out of the bathroom. I hurt so badly, I could hardly walk. I left the bedroom and was startled to see one of the boys sitting on the stairs, waiting to talk to me.
“Pammy,” he said in a whisper. “You better not tell. If you do, I’m gonna whoop you. Do you understand? We all will, and you’ll be really sorry.”
“I won’t tell,” I said. I knew if I told, he wasn’t the only one who would punish me.
When my cousin Krista got home, she took one look at my face and asked me what was wrong. I looked back at her a moment, debating what to say. When I finally opened my mouth, I said, “N-n-n-nothing’s wrong. I’m f-f-f-fine.”
In the space of an afternoon, I had gone from being a lively, self-confident young lady, excited about life, to a shy girl soon to be known as “Quiet Pammy,” a frightened, insecure child who stuttered whenever she tried to talk.
Leave her alone,” everyone said. “She’ll come around. She’s just shy. She’ll stop stuttering all by herself.”
I didn’t come around. And I didn’t stop stuttering. In fact, my stuttering escalated because when I opened my mouth to say anything, I wanted to talk about the assault. I guess the words were in my mind, but my brain would pull them back and I ended up stammering to get any words out at all. I never told a soul about what happened to me, and I didn’t completely stop stuttering until I turned twelve, with a few reprieves when I was deeply distracted. For the most part, however, I was so afraid and silent after the rape, I hid in my bedroom closet when people came over to visit.
Krista loved having her friends over, and they all knew me and liked me and would ask, “Where’s Pammy?”
Krista didn’t know why I was hiding in the closet. She just knew I had nothing to say to anyone. “Haven’t seen her lately,” Krista said. I became known as the quiet girl with no personality. How could anyone understand that my heart and soul were so overburdened from holding on to my painful secret, it was all I could do to stay in a room where a group of people were gathered? If anyone looked at me too directly or gave me the smallest bit of attention, I dropped my eyes and willed the floor to open up and swallow me whole. Or I found a way to make my exit and I’d “forget” to come back.
No longer the happy, eager, precocious child I once was, I found my only comfort zone was being alone and reading fantasy books like Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland. I liked nothing better than disappearing into my room and diving into a book that featured somebody else’s story and had nothing to do with me and my life. That was a good way to pass the days, while socially, instead of getting better as time passed, I got worse. I was so wounded by what those boys did to me, to this day when I see a striped shirt, I become paralyzed with fright. Since then, I’ve learned that although we find ways to cope, trauma never heals completely, and it seemed to get worse the longer I was in school in Denver.
As I was already traumatized beyond repair, it was unfortunate when a strange young boy in my class became fixated on me. He had a name that no one could pronounce, his long, thick dark eyebrows curled upward on the ends, and his head was way too big for his body. A stutterer like me (maybe that fueled his fixation), he was mentally challenged, physically unkempt, and highly unattractive, and the other kids teased him mercilessly. They also teased anyone he paid attention to.
To my horror, he would wink at me and walk up to me in school (we were both six years old) and try to give me things like an apple, a pen, or some other little trinket he had picked up. I wanted none of it; I wouldn’t take his gifts or talk to him. I wouldn’t talk to anyone back then, but this boy obviously took it personally and he pursued me every day for attention and conversation. He got nothing back, but he never stopped trying.
One afternoon when we were in the classroom waiting for the teacher, he got so frustrated that I wouldn’t pay attention to him, he began calling my name out loud repeatedly. When I wouldn’t acknowledge that he was talking to me, he picked up a steel chair with a wooden seat and hit me over the head with it. I fell to the ground and nearly passed out. The teacher, who had just entered the room, rushed over, and after she made sure I was okay, she asked Strange Boy why he did it.
He had no idea. He just stood there and shook his head. I understand now that he got violent with me because I was ignoring him and he was mentally unbalanced. But back then, it scared and confused me and made me not want to go back to school. My parents met with his parents, they tried to talk things through, but nothing changed. All I could do was try to stay away from this kid while his fixation gained momentum, probably because it was unrequited.
On my walk back to the projects after school one Friday afternoon, it seemed that the coast was clear—until Strange Boy appeared as if out of nowhere. He stood in front of me, making me stop short. In the next moment, he slugged me in the head, knocked me to the ground, and sat his big, fat butt on top of me. Then he turned over and began bouncing and rubbing himself against my body, until a white man who happened to be on the street pulled him off of me. I lay on the ground sobbing. What the hell was going on? I never asked for any of this. Why didn’t everybody just leave me alone?
When my mom explained that this boy probably thought I was cute and that was why he was acting so badly, I made a decision. Being cute and getting attention were not good things, I decided. Cute girls got into trouble with boys. I would make sure I was not a cute or a pretty girl, and I cringed when my parents took me to church functions and I’d hear people say, “Isn’t she a pretty child! Look at her hair.”
I would mess up my hair and do what I could to throw off the “pretty girl” label. Pretty girls got all the attention, which made them targets. At the tender age of six, I’d had enough of being victimized because I was pretty and naïve. It never occurred to me to fight back, and I retreated more and more, becoming a scared, withdrawn, stuttering little girl—except when I was on the back of a horse.
I climbed up on my first horse on the family farm in Wyoming. We went there on weekends, and it felt like every day was my birthday as I walked through the pastures and fields. I loved that farm as much as any place I’ve ever known. Several hundred feet from the rustic farmhouse was a great big barn where my uncle Daniel stayed. Sometimes he let me ride with him in a cart that was led by wagon-pulling horses.
“C-c-can I ride the big horse? P-please?” I asked.
“No, Pammy,” Uncle Daniel said, “he’s not a ‘riding’ horse, and there’s a dangerous bull in the next pasture.” I’d seen that big old bull with the ring through his snotty wet nose and I wanted to pet him. “It isn’t safe,” Uncle Daniel warned me.
I thought the bull looked gentle and safe enough. In fact, I was drawn to the bull partly because of the sweet copper smell of his nose ring. But I did what Uncle Daniel told me—most of the time.
When we got back to the farmhouse and the horses were grazing in the pasture, we went inside to have lunch. I finished eating quickly, and when the adults excused me from the table, I wandered over to the pasture fence and watched the horses munching on grass. I looked at the tallest draft horse, whom I called Big Horse. He was about twenty years old and very gentle. He was leaning up against the fence where I stood, and I reached my arm toward him and stroked his mottled gray and brown coat, and the white feathering on his legs. He leaned toward me, letting me touch the soft spot on his muzzle. I knew he was responding to me, and I was mesmerized by his hay-scented breath and his huge liquid eyes.
I started to climb the fence. I looked all around me. I was alone. The adults were still in the house, finishing lunch. I got to the top of the fence and Big Horse stood completely still. I lifted one leg carefully and threw it over his back. I looked around again. No one was coming. When Big Horse didn’t move, I pulled myself all the way on top of his bare back, settled on him, let my other leg hang down, and grabbed hold of his mane. I was sitting astride him now, and I felt the warmth of his body and the energy shooting between us.
Big Horse took a step and then another as he rocked me gently from side to side. I had no fear of falling as I held on to his mane, feeling like I was soaring with each step that Big Horse took. Rocking from side to side with him, I was sailing through the sky as he glided slowly along. Then he turned his neck to look back at me, as if to say, “I’m gonna show you one of my favorite places.” Entranced with the way Big Horse was moving underneath me, I let him walk me through the pasture and up a small rolling ridge. We passed the old bull, and I waved at him. He looked unimpressed as he swished his tail around, swatting away files. Hawks circled the hills, and wild turkeys and pheasants scratched at the ground, looking for food while a murder of jet-black crows called out their cawing sounds as they hunted their prey.
Big Horse walked over to a massive oak tree and stopped there beside a small pond. I was amazed when I looked into the water and saw my reflection—a tiny girl on top of a huge horse that stood at least eighteen hands. For anyone who doesn’t know much about horses, that’s really tall for any rider, let alone me, a six-year-old, who reached the horse’s kneecaps when we stood side by side. And I had no saddle.
Big Horse leaned his head down slowly so I wouldn’t fall off his back, and he took a long, cool drink from the livestock pond. I waited patiently on top of him. Then he walked a few steps to the shaded area under the tree and exhaled. Clearly, he was ready for a nap. But what about me? I looked as far back as I could see, but the fence was out of my view. How was I supposed to get off his back without a fence to hold on to?
Mr. Horse, I was thinking, you really need to take me back to the fence. It’s a very long way down to the ground. He didn’t read my mind, so there was nothing to do but wait while he napped. I leaned forward a little, rested my head on his soft neck, and began to doze right along with him. I was completely comfortable and must have been sleeping like that for fifteen minutes when I felt a pair of large hands grab me around my waist.
“Pammy, Pammy,” called out Uncle Daniel and Daddy Ray, who had been searching for me on foot. “Are you okay?” Uncle Daniel lifted me up off the horse and put me safely back on the ground.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Big Horse and I were taking a nap.” I had just completed two full sentences without a stutter. It seemed that when I was with horses, I could speak clearly and directly. It was being away from them that perpetuated my speech problems.
Daniel led Big Horse beside us as we slowly walked back toward the farmhouse. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he said. “We didn’t know what happened to you. You know better than taking off like that.”
I didn’t answer.
“I told you not to ride that horse, Pammy,” Uncle Daniel scolded. “You could have fallen and hurt yourself badly.”
They both continued to scold me as we walked across the field, but I didn’t care. Riding Big Horse had made me ecstatic, and all I could think about was the next time I could get back up on his back. Daddy Ray and Uncle Daniel both fell silent, and we strolled quietly for a little while. Then Uncle Daniel asked me, “Were you scared up there, Pammy?”
“No. I wasn’t scared.” Then I got up my nerve to say, “Can I please ride him again? Please?”
It was not lost on him that I was speaking without a stutter, but I never expected Uncle Daniel’s answer. “Well, since you weren’t afraid, I’m going to give him to you.”
I looked at him in disbelief. Did he just say Big Horse was mine? I searched Daddy Ray’s face, but he wasn’t saying anything.
“That means you have to take care of him,” Uncle Daniel cautioned me. “You need to wash him, groom him, check his shoes, and feed him. Do you think you can you do that?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
There was no saddle for Big Horse since no one ever rode him because he was so huge. Daddy Ray and Uncle Daniel gave me a halter for him and they let me walk him and then ride him around the pasture, as long as an adult was overseeing. I washed him and groomed him, and I searched around for pop bottles for refunds to pay my share of Big Horse’s food and care. At this point, my stuttering didn’t show up when I was around the horse. He had healed me temporarily, and I only stuttered when we were back in Denver, mostly around the cousins who had attacked me. In fact, my stuttering flared intermittently when I was around angry boys and striped T-shirts, anything that triggered the nightmarish memories that forced my throat to close off and my speech patterns to scramble. I realized later that my stuttering had also flared when I was angry or wanting to defend myself but couldn’t.
When we had reached the end of our two-year stay at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, it was time to move again. I was relieved since so many bad things had happened during the past couple of years. Sometimes, being an army brat had its upside, like the move we were anticipating. We began to make plans to move to another town and another school and build new memories, but this time we were moving far, far away to another country and continent altogether—England.
While we packed up our clothing and got ready for our first cruise on a real ocean liner, I was enthusiastic and ready to start life all over again. When I went to say my good-byes on the day we were scheduled to take to the seas, I realized that so far, my short life had not been that kind to me. As we left the past behind and headed for new horizons, in the end, Uncle Daniel, Big Horse, and the big old bull with the wet ringed nose were all I would miss.
Excerpted from Foxy by Grier, Pam Copyright © 2011 by Grier, Pam. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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