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Hey, Did You Forget Someone?
Ever since I can remember, from when I was around about the age of four, I lived in my grandfather's house. It was a big house in sunny California with four bedrooms, big front and backyards, a tall walnut tree on one side, a vegetable garden in the back, and a goose that always chased us and tried to peck us.
I never met my grandmother. My grandpa told me she'd died when my mom was a small child. My mom, who had me when she was sixteen, lived there with us too, but we hardly ever saw her. As my grandpa always put it, "She was always in and out and up and down the streets." It was not 'til I was about fourteen that I got the nerve to ask her why she always had to go and why she always left me behind. But even at that moment, I wasn't ready to hear her answers. I figured she was going to say, "Oh, I was young and didn't know no better." Well, that wasn't the case. In answering my questions, she told me, "Well, I know they done told you stuff 'bout me to make you hate me and turn you against me, but what they told you wasn't the truth. It's all lies. I was pregnant at thirteen, before I had you, and when I went into labor, my daddy, Harley B. Winston, and his sister Amelia, took me down to the doctor's office. After the baby was delivered, they took the baby from me before I even had a chance to see it. After they'd left the room with it, I could hear it crying, but when they came back without it, they told me that my baby had died.
"I know that wasn't the truth because me and my baby was healthy. I know they gave my perfectly healthy baby away. I know for a fact!
"My daddy always let Amelia run everything and make all the decisions when it came to me and my sisters, so from that point on, I decided that since he wanted to let her run shit that way and do me that way, I was going to have a whole bunch of kids and see how they run that."
And she kept her word. In total, it's me and seven siblings, not including the one she wasn't able to keep.
I know that what my mother said had nothing to do with whether she loved me or not. She just wanted to punish my grandfather. But in the process, she destroyed every chance she had to prove herself as a young mother, to make a good life for herself, and to have a loving relationship with her first or second daughter. And it was going to be me for many years to come, not to mention my brother and sisters who came after me. Their lives were also going to be affected by the pain she carried.
I asked my grandpa before he passed away what happened to my mom's baby, and he said with tears in his eyes, "Pepper, there was no baby. She just had water."
For the first time in my life — and days before his death — I knew that he had lied to me. I figured that after he thought about all the years when I'd told him that I loved him and that he was the best grandpa ever, the concept of leaving this earth with me being disappointed and feeling hatred toward him because of that lie was too much for him to bear. So the very next Sunday, he asked me to take him to church, which had never happened before. He also told me with his own words, "Ever since that thing at the doctor's office happened, yo mama has never been the same."
For some strange reason after hearing all that, I possessed a sense of forgiveness for my mom. It was all the hurt, hate, and animosity that I'd held in my heart for her instantly washed away. That turned into sorrow and feelings that it all wasn't her fault and that someone else was responsible for most of the loneliness and emptiness I'd felt by not having my mom in my life the way I wanted her to be.
Now I had to find a way to make her heart feel better.CHAPTER 2
A Little Too Much ... Too Fast
When I was five, my auntie Lia got me all dressed up to take me on my first girls' day out. But before we left the house and headed to the bus stop, I'd picked up a bobby pin off Auntie Lia's bed so I could clean my ears like I'd seen some grown-ups do. So after we'd left the house and were waiting at the bus stop, I stuck the bobby pin in my ear as the bus pulled up. After we got on the bus, Auntie Lia paid our fare, and then as we were sitting down, a lady bumped me. I started to scream because the bobby pin was pushed into my ear, and Auntie Lia turned around and asked, "What's wrong with you screaming like that? You want me to take you back home?" I pointed to my ear and told her the pin was stuck and I couldn't get it out. I said that I was the one who had put it there but was too scared to take it out. Auntie Lia laughed as she took it out and told me, "That's what you get for messing with stuff, thinking you grown. You could've busted your eardrum."
I thought, Oh, shoot. If that happened, I wouldn't be able to hear the music play in my ears again or hear the old ladies in the church down the street sing, not to mention all the gossip that my family and the nosey neighbors talked about while sitting on our front porch.
So because I loved to hear people sing in church and at home, I swore that I'd never do that again.
Now off to Hollywood we went. I got to see Pinocchiolive on stage at El Capitain Theatre, and I got a lesson about not telling lies. Everything was always a teachable moment with Auntie Lia, but I enjoyed it. I didn't know at the time that I would carry those simple lessons with me for a lifetime.
On a corner down the street from where we lived was what I called "the little church" because the pastor was a little black man who had a little wife and because the building was little too. I loved that church and would go there by myself on Sundays, including Easters. After every service they would have food for everyone. And I really liked the Swiss cookies we would get at Bible school for ten cents.
However, I stopped going to church because the gardener, Vince, who worked with Mr. Richard, who lived down the street, often cut grass on the block, and I was scared to pass him. That was because my aunt, who would usually sit on the porch to watch me, once let me go to the store by myself. It was on the other side of the main avenue. So when I went to the liquor store to buy some snacks and play a game of Pac-Man in the back, Vince came up and said hi. I spoke to him as I kept playing the game, and he stood there watching me. He kept saying how good I could play, and he asked if I wanted another quarter. When I said yes, he put the quarter on top of the game like people do when they want to play next. I kept playing. But when he started to rub on my back in a very inappropriate manner, my mind didn't have time to think about it. My body just took off running out of that damn store so fast that I probably scared his ass. I left the snacks I had purchased and almost got hit by a car. I could hear the horns blowing, but I don't remember looking at the traffic. I was just running, trying to get home back across the island.
When I got into my front yard, my chest and throat were burning. I could barely catch my breath. I didn't come outside for the rest of the day, and I know for sure I never went back to the store by myself again. I didn't see Vince for a few days, but he did pop back up, cutting grass again like nothing ever happened. When he saw me, he gave me a strange look. It was more like an evil stare. And I gave it right back to him. I never would take my eyes off him or turn my back to him. We were like two pit bulls ready to fight. I told all my friends to watch him and said that he was a pervert so that they would all run when they saw him.
That was my first time getting violated by someone.
I remember being next door at Noreen's house. She had moved into the triplex, which was to the right of us and on the other side of Mr. Pete, our evil old neighbor. He was nice when he wanted to pick some walnuts off our tree, and when he wanted Granddaddy to give him some greens out of his garden, but other than that, he was downright ornery and didn't seem to like children too much. He never had company at his home either. Noreen had eleven children, including one set of twins, and I was over at her house playing with one of her oldest girls when my mom called me in the house just a few minutes before my dad came over to see me. I never got the whole story about my mom and dad's relationship from either of them, but I did get bits and pieces from my mom and little snippets from other members of the family here and there. And putting all the details together, this is what I came out with. My mom was sixteen, and it was her second pregnancy. She was pregnant with me at the time. She had been running in the streets, hanging with the wrong crowd, and she hadn't been going to school like she should've been. Instead she was just partying with her girlfriends, and she and my dad, Omar, were in a relationship and had been for some time. He was older than her by a few years, and he was working as a chef at the time. He wanted to marry her. He was willing to provide for her, and he had gone to my grandfather to get his permission to marry her because she was only sixteen. With grandfather's approval and blessing, they got married at a beautiful chapel on the west side of town. And she moved away from home to start her life with her new husband.
My mom said that my dad had a good heart and always had good intentions; however, after a while he became controlling and aggressive, and he was a little crazy behind closed doors. It was possible he acted that way because his mother had been murdered in her home by a man friend of hers who wanted to be more than friends, and from what my aunts have told me, it was brutal. After her death, my dad and his thirteen siblings were all put in foster care and separated. My dad was one of the older of the sibling. My mom also said my father was a great provider. He would buy her anything she wanted, and they had a nice, furnished apartment with everything in it that she needed. But when he would go to work, she would have to sneak her friends over to play cards and dominoes so that she wouldn't get lonely while he was gone. My dad was really jealous, and he started locking her in the house when he went to work. She said he even nailed the windows shut and didn't want anyone besides the family over to the house while he was gone. And from what my brother's mom told me, she and her friends would see my mom walking to and from school or to the store and say, "Look at that young girl. She's pregnant and got her own place down there with Omar." She seemed to have made it her business to get to know him a little better, and she took the green light to be with him when my mom moved back home with my grandfather. She ended up having two children by my dad that he couldn't deny since we all looked just alike, even though we had different mothers. That was something to me when she told me the story. I thought this type of thing just happened in my generation. There are always people who think they can do better than you and fill somebody else's shoes, but everything that looks good ain't always good for you. She would soon find that out. You can imagine anything about someone else's life when you are on the outside looking in.
My dad was a tall, dark, slender man with short hair and a nice build, and he was usually dressed well. I didn't see him that often because he probably wasn't welcome to come by and be with me at the house because of the previous incidents with him and my mother's family. I remember one day he came to visit me with food and money in his hands, and my mom made me stand in front of him until he handed me the money. Then she pulled me behind the door, closer to her but where he could still see me. And when he gave me the money and the food, she purposely started to pick an argument with him. I don't remember the details, but he ended up leaving upset. I remember him saying before he left, "I just want to see my baby." When he left the porch, she took the money and the food, cut the burgers into four pieces, and gave it to the neighbor's kids next door. I don't know what she was thinking, but she wasn't going to let me eat a bite of it. I was really upset. What the hell is wrong with this lady that she's just going to give my stuff away? I thought. I didn't even want to play with those kids anymore. And as far as the money was concerned, that was for her. I didn't ask her for any of it.
She had it bad, taking me around to her friends, having me act like I was going on a field trip or there was some event going on at school so that she could get some cash out of them. One of the places she would take me more often than others was the Hole. The Hole was a four-plex apartment building behind a big house in the front, located on the east side of town The Hole is where two brothers lived, and everybody in the neighborhood called them Uncle Slim and Uncle Jess. They would cook huge pots of food every day to feed anyone who came over to visit for the day or to any of the customers who would come to buy pills. My mom always had her way with Uncle Slim and could get money from him, or he would probably just give it to her just to hurry up and get her out of the house. One day she took me over there and wanted me to tell him that I had a school field trip to one of the popular amusement parks in town. I was supposed to be going with the school the following day, but she didn't have the money. But it was all a lie that my mom had practiced with me from the time we left our house until we got there. I was standing there, fantasizing about how fun it would be if I ever got a chance to go and how I would ride the roller coasters that my friend would always brag about. She had coached me so well that I really started feeling like I was going somewhere. Slim asked me if I was going, and I just nodded my head yes with a smile on my face, so he gave her a nice little chunk of bills. And after she got the money from him, she only gave me two or three dollars and then drop my butt off back at the house, where Aunt Queenie would be sitting, looking crazy in the face and rolling her eyes, wondering what lies my mother had told and where the hell she had taken me. It always seem like my aunt Queenie had some type of hidden anger or resentment toward my mom.
Later several family members told me that my dad threw a Molotov cocktail in our house and burned down the garage and part of my aunt Queenie's closet, and since then, she always said, "He burnt up all my damn brand-new clothes." In addition, by the time I got back from next door after the short visit with my dad, our neighbor Noreen smoked some PCP and sat on the front porch with a short skirt and no underwear, opening and closing her legs like she was cooling something off, talking to herself too. The kids from on the street were laughing and looking under her clothes, especially the boys, but I knew better because it was just a check day away, and if not, the one before. My mama was outside in a yellow, terry cloth, sleeveless dress with a split on the side. She was spinning around with her breast out in the front yard, hollering like she had lost her damn mind, trying to fight Auntie Amelia, Auntie Queenie, and the neighbors because they were trying to get her in the house and fix her clothes while my cousins, my friends, and I watched.
Then maybe a few months or so later, my mom and her friend Olivia took me to see my dad on 128th Street, where he was living in a duplex by the welfare office. And the whole way over there, they were coaching me and trying to bribe me. They wanted me to give my dad big hugs and kisses when we got there and make sure I called him Daddy so that they could get more money out of him. And if I went along with their scheme, they would give me a dollar. When we got there, he had a few guy friends over, playing dominoes and listening to music, and when he saw me, I could tell that he was really happy to see me. He hugged me tight and kissed me several times. We stayed for a long period of time that day. After that day I never saw him alive again. He was found dead in his place. According to his death certificate, he died from pulmonary tuberculosis.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Little Too Much ... Too Fast"
Copyright © 2018 Pepper Love.
Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
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