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The memory of the just is blessed ... (Proverbs 10:7 KJV ~ King James Version)
Most of the memories of my childhood are filled with pain, abuse, and many injustices. Although bittersweet, what I recall will be shared as I relive this remarkable testimony, which I pray will affect your life as you see what a merciful and loving God I serve. I also chose to write this book with much love and forgiveness, because I had no control over the cards that Life dealt to me.
On the surface, my family life appeared to be one of a picture perfect African American family, living in a middle class neighborhood. However, the stark realities of life are not always the perceptions that are seen. Life is not always painted as a pretty picture tied with a neat bow, but how you receive it can prove to be a blessing or a curse.
Supplying plenty of shade for a perfect picnic was a huge oak tree that spread across our entire backyard accentuating our three story brick house. Our house had lots of closets and tiny compartments. As children, my brother Junior and I used the compartments to play hide and seek. The house had an enclosed front porch that was convenient for winter and summer use. There were two back porches, an upper enclosed porch and a lower opened back porch with an entrance to the kitchen. The house had four bedrooms, one full bathroom, a half bath in the basement, a living room with a fireplace, a formal dining room, a one car garage, a large clothes chute and a family room. We had a full basement a few feet smaller in width and length of the house. The basement had two sections. One half was filled with broken washing machines that my father repaired on a part-time basis. He was a full-time factory employee at Ford Motor Company. Because he overcharged his customers, his washing machine business was very profitable. For instance, if a machine part was needed he would overcharge his customers fifty or sixty dollars, which was a lot of money in the late 50's and early 60's. I remember his customers grumbling and complaining, but they begrudgingly paid him for the services he rendered.
The other section of the basement was used as my parent's office. There were business cards on the desk, along with a typewriter for his washing machine transactions. This was also where my mother typed my father's sermon notes that he used when he spoke at various store-front churches. There was a pantry in the basement that resembled a tiny country store. It contained three aluminum fifty gallon garbage cans filled with sugar, flour, and cornmeal. The shelves were filled with dry beans, various kinds of rice, canned fruits and vegetables. There was enough food in that pantry to keep a family fed for at least three months. Whenever my mother ran out of something on the kitchen shelves, she would give me a container and the pantry key to retrieve refills. My father restocked the pantry when he noticed items nearing depletion. I never understood why there were so many locks in our home. I can recall seeing a lock on the china cabinet, the desk in the basement, the attic door, my father's workshop, the pantry and even the door to my parent's bedroom. Also, my mother kept under lock and key one of the four bedrooms where she kept her clothes, hats, beautiful lingerie and expensive bottles of perfume.
My mother was unwed with two children when she met my father in the 1940's. She was 17 years younger than he was, and accepted his willingness to marry her as a miracle which she spoke of frequently. I can recall her telling a friend, "Sam saw me making biscuits from scratch, and when he tasted one he fell in love with me. I know the way to a man's heart is through his stomach." My mother took pride in her cooking skills. After they were married, three additional children were born my brother Junior, my sister and me. By the time I was born in 1954, my older siblings (my mother's first set of children), Mickey and Raleigh had moved away from home.
My mother was about 5'4" with light brown skin and a warm smile. She hid behind soft, kind eyes and a quiet voice. She graduated from high school and attained some college courses. She had impeccable taste when it came to beautifying her home, dressing herself, and her children. She was a model housewife, and purchased the best that my father's money could afford. My father was about 6'4" with dark skin, a full mouth and a wide nose that accented his African heritage. He had a third grade education, but he had self-taught himself to read, to count and to quote the Bible. The only compatible trait I could detect in my parents was they were both very proud. I'm sure there was more to their relationship, but they just seemed so opposite in my eyes. He was ebony, she was light brown; he was tall, she was short; he was medium built, she was somewhat chubby; he was aggressive, she had a meek and loving spirit; she was educated, and he was not.
I recall my father telling me that he remembered John Dillinger, and I would giggle and tell him that was impossible. He was happy to validate this fact by reminding me he was born in November, 1899 before the turn of the century. I loved asking my father questions concerning where to find various Scriptures. Even if, he was preoccupied when I asked, he was always on point. He taught me how to identify all of his working tools so when he asked me to hand him one while working on a washing machine I always gave him the right tool. I'd wait until he was wrestling with a part under the machine to ask him questions about the Bible, and he would pop the answer right back. He was proud of his biblical knowledge and rightly so because he had only attended school to the third grade. My mother down played my father's self-taught intelligence behind his back to his children and her friends. She also considered herself better than his relatives. She often fussed at him saying, "If you hadn't brought one of those washing machines in the basement to fix we wouldn't have those horrible water bugs down there." In defense, he'd say "You ain't complaining about it when you spending my money." Then she'd mumble something under her breath, and that would be the end of it.
Before I was born, my father experienced a life-altering accident at the Ford plant where he worked, which resulted in his right leg being amputated just below the knee. For mobility, he used a prosthetic (artificial) leg. There were times I would eavesdrop on my mother's conversations about my father. She'd say, "He was all right until he lost his leg. After that he just changed. He has never been the same since the accident." As I reflect back, "I believe the reason she made excuses for his actions was because of his disability." As a kid, I didn't know exactly what she meant, but I had an idea. In spite of his disability of having one good leg, I can truly say he ruled with an "iron glove". There were many occasions when he used verbal, mental, physical, financial, social, and sexual abuse to keep our house "under his order". He believed he could get anything he wanted with money and/or by exerting fear. Unfortunately, my mother agreed with almost everything he said or did in order to keep her marriage and family together. She would often complain about him to others, but I never saw or heard her confront him face to face. She was overbearingly submissive to my father, even to the point of sacrificing her child (me) to him.
To the contrary, my father was always preaching to people about the Word of God. There was a Bible in every room of the house, even in the basement and inside the car. My father kept a Bible with him wherever he went. He was a walking Concordance because he could quote scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. Whenever he was asked where to find specific Bible texts, the answer would just roll off of his tongue without even thinking. To this day, I have not met anyone who can recite a verse or find a scripture as fast and accurate as my father. This was his gift, and he didn't mind "showing off" this gift to others. Whether he was in a store, on the street, in a park, or wherever, he always felt compelled to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Both of my parents were very giving and never asked for anything in return. They were always ministering to the needs of others. I don't remember a time when we did not have someone staying in our home, sometimes for a day, a week, or even months. My father literally brought home strangers from off the streets and my mother would feed them and welcome them to stay the night. Most often the next day they'd be on their way. An elder from our church stayed at our home until he died. My mother told me he had cancer. Once our family room was converted into a bedroom for a man who stayed with us for about a year before moving away, his successor was an elderly lady, but she didn't stay quite as long. My parent's motto was, "You never know who you might be entertaining, some may be angels in disguise."
It's funny how you can recall some things that most people have forgotten. I recall when my mother took my high chair away from me. I liked my high chair because it was different from the regular chairs at the kitchen table and I liked being separated to myself at the table (we only ate at the dining room table on Sabbaths and holidays). One morning I came into the kitchen for breakfast and noticed my high chair was missing. I cried and cried, but she did not allow me to sit in the high chair ever again. "Don't you want to sit at the table with the big people?" she asked. "No I don't and I'm mad that you took away my chair," I pouted. All of my complaining did not change my mother's mind. I had to get used to sitting on two telephone books while eating in a regular chair until I was big enough to sit without them.
On my fist day of school in September, 1959, my mother and I walked hand in hand through the doors of the Marrs Elementary School. I didn't want any of the other kids to see us walking together, because I was embarrassed that a little girl down the street had called my mother fat the previous day while we were playing outside. As it is with most kids, I was sensitive and offended when kids talked about my family. It was usual sport in our neighborhood to "play the dozens", but it was hurtful and not funny when the negative comments were somewhat true. However embarrassed I was on that first day of school, I cried so hard when my mother turned away to leave me with unfamiliar people. Of course I knew I was going to school, but in my young mind and reasoning, I thought she was going to stay with me for the whole day. The teacher reassured her that I would be fine.
After my mother left, the teacher told her young pupils to sit on the floor in a circle with our legs folded. I wasn't paying attention to what she was saying because my attention was focused on a little boy who had just peed on himself. When the teacher noticed what he had done, she gently took his hand and led him out of the room and down the hall. I had no idea where they went but when they returned he had candy in his hand, and was surrounded by a few adults who were showering him with attention. I thought to myself, "Wow! I'm going to try that." After lunch I deliberately urinated on myself and made sure I was sitting where I would be noticed. To my surprise there was no candy and no attentive adults. Shortly, I heard my mother's voice coming from the hallway and it seemed like an eternity for her to reach me in the corner of the room where I was instructed to sit by myself. When I turned around she was standing over me with a look that made me wish I was anywhere else on the planet other than that kindergarten classroom. I can recall what happened as if it were yesterday. She took me by the hand and assured the teacher that this kind of behavior would never happen again. She firmly marched me down the hall and out of the school. Never letting my hand go, she scolded me all the way home. I had to listen to her over and over again, telling me how surprised and disappointed she was. She said, "Little ladies don't go around peeing on themselves." Later that day, I overheard her talking about the little boy that I imitated, explaining that he had a weak bladder which made it difficult for him to hold his urine. I was even more embarrassed about the foolish stunt I'd pulled after hearing this, which was punishment enough to me! However, she kept rehearsing the same story to anyone who would listen, until it made me cringe. I can remember thinking to myself, "I wish she would shut her big fat mouth!" I never tried that stunt again!
Everyone in the neighborhood knew my father. They called him Mr. Small and some called him Elder Small. The kids in the neighborhood called him "the money man". They would actually stop playing when they saw my father's car pull into our driveway. From wherever I was playing, I could hear them shouting, "Hey, here comes Mr. Small, the money man!" They would run to greet him with smiling faces, jumping up and down gleefully around his legs in a circle while yanking on his arms, begging for money to buy ice cream. He loved the attention and would grin showing his teeth, as the adult neighbors looked on with approval. It was obvious that he relished in his popularity and favor as a star in his own theatrical show. He'd reach into his pocket and pull out a handful of change and pass it out to every little outstretched hand. I imagine the neighbors liked the attention he gave to their children because it kept them from spending their own money. From the outside, my father gave the appearance as a religious "upright" preacher and a generous man. Living in this perplexing home environment did have its blessings along with its curses, the latter being more prevalent. As a result, my painful experiences left a multitude of mental, emotional and physical scars. Oh, if only they could see beyond that exterior facade and get a glimpse of our home life behind the closed door!
... and the pains of hell got hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow. (Psalm 116:3 ~ KJV)
Many times I'd ask my father, "Daddy, do you love me?" His reply would always be, "I love Jesus." I tried to get him to say "I love you, Rhesa" by repeating the question, but his reply would always be the same as if we playing a game. When I'd ask my mother the same question, she would say, "Girl, get out of here. You see I'm busy. You know good and well I love you! Now get out of here!" I longed to hear my parents say "I love you" without having to ask them. Unfortunately, I never heard either of them say those three precious words to me ... "I love you".
The attention my father lavished on the neighborhood children (sometimes while looking at me), is what I desired. I began to resent the kids because I never received that kind of attention from him. I was only six years old and I wanted him to play with me like he did with the children that came running when he pulled his car into the driveway. He'd just look at me, laugh and shoo me away thoughtlessly. For the most part, the little attention I did receive from my father early on was mostly negative (rather than positive), in the form of rejection and indifference. There were times when my brother and I would talk and cry about the whippings and mistreatment we received from my father and wished we lived somewhere else. I could feel my brother's hurt as much as he could feel mine. But we dealt with our pain in our individual way. The only way I knew how to cope with the mental and physical abuse by my father was to change my way of thinking and feeling. I once heard a singer belt out the sad lyrics, "Broken years and broken tears", which expressed the despair and loneliness I experienced as a child. At times it felt like the pains of hell had taken over me, making "trouble" and "sorrow" my friends.
Excerpted from RUNNING by CEREATHA J. VAUGHN Copyright © 2012 by Cereatha J. Vaughn. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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