Gail Black is living proof that success and failure in life are interwoven like the tangled brambles in a thicket of wild berries. Asses and Angels shares the moving story of her personal path through life as it wove through tangled fields of good and evil. She learned to hope and survive on her journey from abuse to achievement.
Born just as World War II intensified, Gail grew into a spirited little girl and then into a woman who never forgot that each day was a new opportunity with the possibility of success and happiness. Family health challenges compelled her to mature early. Religious control, physical abuse, and financial manipulation caused her to experience divorce, widowhood, and annulment. Learn how she prevailed in male-dominated business ventures and environmental battles as she farmed her land. Her grit, sense of humor, work ethic, and love for her farm helped insure her entrepreneurial success in the business of making fruit syrups with her grandmother's recipe.
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Asses and AngelsA Journey from Abuse to Achievement
By Gail L. Black
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Gail L. Black
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBackground: Family Fun to Forgotten, 1939–1947
As I was often told, my sister was almost seven years old when Mom confronted her at lunch one day to prepare her for my arrival. "I have something interesting to tell you," she said. "We are going to have a new baby, so you will have a little brother or sister to play with."
Sis said, "Okay, but what were you going to tell me that was interesting, Mommy?"
I was born in western New York in 1939, just as World War II was about to intensify.
Our family was always just a little more exciting and independent than anyone else's. Some said my dad was a self-made man. Dad said he didn't owe anybody anything; by that he meant that he had no political debts or obligations. He was an entrepreneur in an unusual occupation—a mink rancher who raised thousands of beautiful animals to produce furs for coats. Dad's furs were sold at the Hudson Bay Company in New York City. His business was unique, and it set us apart from our neighbors and didn't require much interaction with the community.
My father was the primary sculptor of my personality and character. Dad was the final decision maker and the family's financial support. He determined and administered all discipline. Once in a while, when Mom complained about not having some luxury, Dad would say, "As the mink eat, so will we." Business came first, and the necessities for family life followed. He was a moderate risk taker and enjoyed successful returns on his optimistic business decisions.
My mother was the family anchor, and her primary job was to keep our house in order. She was the social and financial director, but she deferred to Dad's opinion, which was normal behavior in the 1940s. Mom was a pessimist and hated risk of any kind. Love, mutual respect and their differences gave balance to their marriage.
My parents believed that a united front was essential on all things child-related. If they had differing opinions on issues relating to my sister and me, we never knew it.
Mothers stayed home, hung the laundry in the backyard, cleaned, cooked, and never missed a PTA meeting, church on Sunday, or a neighborhood picnic in somebody's pasture. Life was slow; friends were more intimate; troubles were shared; and nobody had a credit card, a television, or a computer.
During World War II, my family, like millions of others, lived in the country, and we found ways to help ourselves. We cut firewood by hand, walked whenever we could to conserve gasoline, grew a victory garden using instructions and seeds provided by the federal government, and then preserved the produce for winter.
We traded maple syrup, fruit, and vegetables for eggs, milk, and meat if we didn't have our own farm animals. Eggs were plentiful at certain times, and we would store them in a solution of water glass. Water glass is a glasslike industrial adhesive and, chemically, is sodium silicate. We mixed eleven parts water to one part water-glass adhesive, forming a pastelike liquid that filled the pores and sealed the air out of the eggs. Eggs were taken directly from the chickens and dropped into the crock of thick goop unwashed, where they stayed fresh for a year or more. They were best used in baking or for scrambled eggs.
It was my job to retrieve vegetables and fruits from the root cellar and the slimy eggs from the cool, dark cellar where the dirt floor kept everything cold. We drank homemade wild-blackberry wine, hard cider, and fruit juice made from wild berries and fruits that we squeezed, canned, or fermented ourselves.
Nobody had any money, but we knew how to have fun when we had neighborhood corn roasts. Everyone saved a few tablespoons of coffee so we could put a graniteware coffee pot over the wood fire to boil delicious-smelling fresh coffee. We brought coffee cups, dishes, and silverware from our own kitchens.
We brought corn and potatoes from our gardens and hand-churned butter for the homemade bread.
The children played softball and hide-and-seek, fell in the creek, and occasionally stepped in a fresh cow pie. The men smoked their own hand-rolled cigarettes, and the women gossiped. The picnic cost nothing, provided fun, and was anticipated for months in advance.
I remember when the sirens would blow for a blackout test and my dad would take his flashlight and walk around the neighborhood checking windows for leaking light. The enemy could not bomb as easily if they couldn't see lights, and preparing for blackouts was a way that citizens participated in keeping America safe. We felt so much pride in being Americans.
My mother was a firm believer in education. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and she insisted that Sis and I take learning seriously. She thought that religious education was a good place to start, so when I was three, she enrolled me in Sunday school, left me in a nursery class, and went off to her own adult class. When it was time to go home, she came back and discovered me sitting alone in the middle of the room in an empty sandbox.
I had thrown great mountains of sand on the floor, and the teacher and other children were huddled at a table in a corner. The teacher sternly said, "Take her home, and don't ever bring her back to this Sunday school. She obviously doesn't like Sunday school, the other children, or me."
My mother continued to hone my social skills by inviting her childhood friend, who had a son my age, to our home for tea. I took the little boy by the hand, and we played quietly together until our mothers got involved in conversation. Then I told him I had a delightful game we could play as I took him into my parents' bedroom. I got him to take off his clothes and lie on the floor under my daddy's side of the bed. Just as I was about to take my clothes off, his mother heard us giggle, looked under the bed, and discovered her naked four-year-old little darling. They never came back to visit.
Mom sewed doll clothes out of old feed bags and scrap materials. She rolled up the old rugs in our living room and dining room, pushed the furniture aside, and put clamp-on roller skates on my shoes in an effort to tire me out. I learned to skate and spent hours rolling back and forth, polishing a path on the hardwood floors.
Mom taught us to play games, and Dad made stilts and taught us to walk on them. They read to us every night before bedtime, and we had a close, happy family.
When I got restless in the winter, sometimes my mother would send me outdoors to play in the snow while my dad worked in the mink yard. He was busy carrying out the breeding program, and I was supposed to play in the snow in the fenced-in area and get myself tired out. My mother told me that one day I wasn't out there long when Dad stomped through the kitchen door, shouting, "Here's your kid. Keep her in the house. I asked her what she was doing rolling around in the snow and jumping up and down. She said, 'Oh, I'm playing that I'm a female mink. Shall I fight or let 'em do it?' You need to keep her in this house—I don't care how wild she is." He set my snow-covered butt down on the clean kitchen floor.
Finally I went to kindergarten and fell in love with a little boy named Donny. He seemed to like me, too, and gave me a hard rubber horseshoe for Christmas. It seemed that I fell in love every year with a different boy; they were all so cute, and it seemed a shame not to.
In first grade, I had a strict teacher who enforced a clean-your-plate rule. I was a stubborn, not-to-be-told-what-to-do, defiant child who had been allowed to be a unique individual. We had no cafeteria, so hot lunches were delivered to our room, and we ate at our desks. The trouble started when I decided the food smelled terrible; my kindergarten crush, Donny, didn't like it, either, so we both refused to eat it. One day, we combined our stinking food, poured our chocolate milk into it, and began grunting like pigs. "Oink, oink, snort, snort. Here piggy, here piggy, it's time for pig slop," we both chanted, giggling. The whole class began to chant along with us.
The episode struck terror into the teacher's heart. She must have imagined thirty-two boys and girls mixing huge batches of pig slop while they all oinked and snorted. She stormed down the row to our desks and then stood with her hands on her hips, her face puckered like a frosty thorn bush, and screamed, "Be quiet right now or you'll march straight to the principal's office." She pounded her fist on Donny's desk, and the tray of pig slop slid to the floor. Donny and I carried our own paper-bag lunches from then on and had no recess for two weeks. Mom was appalled at my behavior, and things got worse when we got unexpected company from out of town.
In the summer of 1948, I was playing with my dolls in the backyard when a car drove onto the cinder driveway. I ran to see who it might be, and a medium-height, severe-looking lady with a wrinkled face and gray hair secured with curved brown combs stepped from the car. She said, "You must be Gail. Where's your daddy?"
I said, "He's in the mink yard, feeding his mink."
A kindly-looking old man climbed out of the passenger side of the green 1946 Coupe and said with a pleasant smile, "Don't you know who she is?"
I answered, "No, but I'll take you both to the mink yard to see my daddy."
The woman said, "I'm your grandmother, your father's mother. You don't know me because a daughter is a daughter all her life and a son's a son 'til he gets him a wife. I'm sure you know your other grandparents."
It was the beginning of the great conflict between her and me and between her and my mother, who overheard the remark.
On the way to the mink yard, she spotted the outhouse used primarily by the hired men. It was a normal "two holer," unpainted and clean, but it definitely smelled like an outhouse in the summer heat. Grapevines wound around it, concealing its ugliness. The grapes grew big and luscious in the fertile environment, and the vines provided a wonderful hiding place for Sis and me. There was a knothole in the back, just above the seat; for us, it was a window into the secrets of maleness. When a hired man's duties required him to sit down, we had a stick just the right size to fit the knothole. We'd give one quick poke, and then we would run and hide before he got his pants up.
The day Grandma Bertha spied the outhouse, she had been traveling for several hours, and the urge was indeed strong. "Just a minute, young lady. You wait right there with Grandpa David," she commanded as she tried to disappear into the humid, smelly, vine-covered environment.
I learned to adore Grandpa David, my step-grandfather. He made faces at Grandma Bertha when she wasn't looking, and throughout the summer he took me for long walks when she was bitchy and mean. His hugs and snuggles were the good and safe kind. My mother liked him, too.
Grandpa David and I stopped on the edge of the lawn and watched Grandma Bertha take a shortcut through blackberry bushes to the outhouse door. She tried to get in, but the grapevines had fallen down and grasped the door tightly. She tore at them as she stomped and snorted and tried to wrestle with them. Finally she screamed, "David, you get over here and get this door open for me, right now!"
Grandpa David tried, but he was a bit frail. Meanwhile, my dad was close by, feeding the mink. When he heard the yelling, he recognized the voice and met his mother face to face at the outhouse door for the first time in twenty years. He broke the vines loose, and she disappeared into the almost-private world. Dad went back to work, and I introduced Grandpa David to the fun in my private world behind the outhouse. I even loaned him my stick and showed him how to use it just before we heard a terrible scream. It was the beginning of a war of will between her and me.
Mom was doing up the lunch dishes and heard the commotion. I heard the slam of the screen door on the back porch, and down the steps she came, wiping her clean hands on her flowered cotton apron. She always wore a full bib apron, one with bias binding or rickrack all around the edges. She was a pleasingly plump little woman with smooth pink skin; thin, curly, ash-blond hair; and pretty green eyes.
After introductions all around, sleeping arrangements were made. Grandma Bertha settled into my room, while I moved my pillow and blanket to the back porch.
Mom hollered up the stairs, "Coffee's ready. My folks are here, and they brought a sweet roll. Come on down and meet them."
My maternal grandparents visited nearly every day. I spent weekends with them in the city of Jamestown, and they spoiled me. I knew there was no question that they loved me, and I was glad to see them.
Grandpa David patted Grandma Bertha's shoulder and whispered in her ear as they passed me at the foot of the stairs, "Now, Mum, don't scrap before the fight starts."
Grandma Bertha ignored him and began to recite her original comment, "A son is a son ...," but Mom interrupted her.
"I heard you say that the first time when you got out of your car and said it to Gail. I thought you must be kidding," she said. Then she made proper introductions, and everyone shook hands and sat down around the dining-room table. They all seemed congenial enough. The grown-up talk was boring, so I spent the time planning more ways to get myself in trouble. To think of a prank was to do it. I always weighed the consequences to see if the fun I planned was worth the punishment I knew I would get.
Grandma Bertha forbade me to go into my old room to get my dolls and toys, and she hated when I played records on the old wind-up record player in the living room, so I played it often. She threw the crank in the garbage, but Dad found it.
We had only one bathroom in the 1940s, and it was downstairs, next to my parents' bedroom. Grandma Bertha kept a chamber pot by the bed upstairs, which she emptied every morning. After I lost access to my dolls and the old record player, the war between us escalated. I observed her making her way to our one bathroom with the full chamber pot each morning. I timed her and knew exactly when she would show up with her prize in the pot.
I ran ahead of her into the bathroom, locked the door, and retrieved my stash of coloring supplies from under the pile of clean towels. I got comfortable on the floor while I colored.
Sure enough, Grandma Bertha was on her way to the bathroom. I could visualize her with her white china chamber pot in one hand, a towel discreetly covering it, trying the door handle. The door was locked, so she knocked and tried the handle again. "Damned spoiled little bitch," I heard her whisper as she banged harder on the door. I didn't answer, but I grunted really loudly.
"Irene, that kid is in this bathroom again. She does it every time I bring my toiletries down here to use the facility," she shrieked at my mother. I could imagine the pot sloshing and Grandma Bertha standing in the little dark hallway, hunched toward the door, trying to hide it. She thought we didn't know what her "toiletries" were, but we all knew.
I grunted again. She hissed so only I could hear, "You inconsiderate little bitch. This isn't over yet. I'll show you a thing or two."
I slowly put my crayons away under the towels, flushed the toilet, and ran the water in the sink. I unbuttoned my slacks and pulled out my shirt, opened the door, and blocked the doorway while I took my time getting out of her way.
I yawned and stretched as I said, "Oh, Grandma, I didn't know you were out here. I waited until late so I wouldn't be in your way, but I guess you slept in."
Grandma Bertha finally went home, right after she gave each of her other grandchildren beautiful pencil boxes full of crayons, paints, colored pencils, rubber stamps, stencils, rulers, and more. I got an insignificant little piece of clothesline with three clothespins on it.
My favorite grandparent was my maternal grandfather, who was president of a life insurance company. He was six feet tall, had a thin build and flaming red hair, and he had a wood shop in his basement, where he made doll furniture for me. He took pride in my grandma's African violets, because he mixed a special blend of potting soil for her that included some dark humus dirt from a patch of woods owned by the principal of our city school system. The land had "No Trespassing" signs all around it. One day, Grandpa invited me to accompany him while he sneaked into the woods to get a couple of metal pails full of that rich dirt.
"Gail, there are rules and procedures for this trip," he instructed me as he loaded his pails and tools into the trunk of his brand-new 1951 Pontiac. "Silence is essential. You must not talk or make noise of any kind. And we have to wait until the principal drives by on his way to school so that we don't get caught. Do you understand me?" I nodded, quietly acknowledging his instructions. It was an honor to be his assistant.
Finally we coasted up to the special patch of woods, and Grandpa started to hand me the equipment from the trunk. The metal pails were first. I set them on the ground and suddenly remembered the fire crackers our hired man had given me. They were in my pocket with a packet of matches. Grandpa was leaning into the trunk, sorting out his tools, and I lit a firecracker and put it in the metal pail. "Boom!" Grandpa was so startled that he landed head first into the trunk. He came out with a raging explosion of his own. He grabbed me by the seat of my jeans and my shirt collar, threw me into the backseat, threw the buckets and other stuff back into the trunk, and spun gravel on the country roads all the way home.
Excerpted from Asses and Angels by Gail L. Black Copyright © 2012 by Gail L. Black. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Background: Family Fun to Forgotten, 1939–1947....................1
Chapter Two: Plans, Actions, Consequences, and Solutions, 1954–1958....................24
Chapter Three: Religious Control, Responsibility, Disappointment, and Divorce, 1960–1965....................43
Chapter Four: Learning to Be Single, 1965–1968....................59
Chapter Five: Predestined to Find the Farm and Marry Again, 1968–1970....................67
Chapter Six: Hard Times, Hard Work, Angels, and Abuse, Spring of 1970....................83
Chapter Seven: Escape into Sweet Work with More Angels, 1973....................100
Chapter Eight: Dark Times Return, 1973....................108
Chapter Nine: Optimistic Forgiving, Business Compromise, Disastrous Results, 1978–1980....................123
Chapter Ten: Sorry the Chief Didn't Die, 1980–1982....................134
Chapter Eleven: Evil on My Shoulder, May of 1982....................142
Chapter Twelve: Fighting My Way to Sanity, Summer 1982....................159
Chapter Thirteen: The Disaster of "I Do," Fall of 1982....................175
Chapter Fourteen: Can't Stop Looking for Love, 1983–1986....................179
Chapter Fifteen: Trouble at School, 1983....................188
Chapter Sixteen: Expanding the Farming Business, 1986–1993....................202
Chapter Seventeen: More School Problems, and Back to Hell, 1984–1989....................205
Chapter Eighteen: Containerboard, New Friends, and Community Challenges, 1990–1994....................211
Chapter Nineteen: The Violent End of Bob, 1993....................224
Chapter Twenty: Hindsight Perspective, 1994....................234
Chapter Twenty-One: The Sugar Shack Is Born, 1994....................244
Chapter Twenty-Two: Synergy and Accolades, 1996–2000....................278
Chapter Twenty-Three: Self-Propelled Business, 2000–2010....................285
Chapter Twenty-Four: On the Road and Popular, 2000–2010....................311
Chapter Twenty-Five: More Forks in the Road, 2000–2010....................317
Epilogue: Never Too Old to Hope....................327
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Looking for inspiration? Gail Black's life story is about hard work, courage and strength to overcome adversity throughout her life while most would have been defeated. I appreciate her candor to discuss issues that most would prefer to look the other way.
When you have met the author;you have no idea what she has survived until you read the book!
Hope you like the pendant my dad made!