I Wish You Loveby Gloria Lynne, Karen Chilton
Born and raised in Harlem, Gloria Lynne lied about her age and won the Apollo Theater Amateur Hour at fifteen...I Wish You Love is the inspiring story of a courageous woman overcoming terrible adversities- a story of triumph over tragedy, of heart breaking and heart mending. It is also an important piece of American history, a first-hand account of the black music experience during the second half of the twentieth century.
- Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
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I Wish You Love
By Gloria Lynne, Karen Chilton
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2000 Gloria Lynne and Karen Chilton
All rights reserved.
Memory. It's a funny thing. Some folks can't remember five minutes ago and others, like me, can go all the way back to the crib.
I remember my mother screaming, running down the street with me in her arms, calling out for help. I was just a baby, no more than one or so. I wasn't walking or talking then, just taking it all in. My mother, beaten and hysterical, was trying to protect me from something horrible. Who or what that was exactly, I wasn't sure, but I knew enough to be afraid. The violent sounds would often sting my ears. The actual picture of what the hell was going on took a little longer to come clear. I learned the source of my mother's fear as I grew older. I clung to her.
Maybe God was trying to tell me I'd have to learn how to hold on in life.
Early memory. I wished it all would stop. All of the loud noises, shouting, and fighting that surrounded me. Fists and hands slapping faces, arms swinging, things crashing and falling to the floor. We were in constant chaos and commotion. And even though I was just knee-high to the curb, I remember.
Vivid memory. He had been beating her ass again, physically and verbally abusing her, and once she got loose from his grip, she would run. We'd go flying through the streets, time after time, in search of help from somebody, anybody that could free us from my father's madness. What was he so upset about? I didn't know. Was it something she said, something she did, or nothing at all? Was it her fault? My fault? What could possibly make one man so mad? I still don't know. From the time I was a baby and throughout my childhood, every single day in my house was filled with abuse. She suffered the blows. He dished them out.
My mom, Mary Wilson, was a pretty lady of Creole blood. Everybody told her she was pretty. She grew up in the backwoods of Louisiana. Lake Charles, Louisiana. She had very refined ways. Now, most of her background, I've had to piece together over the years. She rarely talked about her family or her past. Every now and then she would give you a tidbit or two and you'd have to piece it together for yourself. I suspect she followed my father, John Wilson, to New York to get out of Lake Charles. She wanted something different, something more for herself. Exactly what that was, she probably didn't know, but leaving was a move toward it. I suppose youth did to her what it does to all of us, gave her ambition and longing. And she was young, maybe twenty or twenty-one years old. My father was twenty years her senior and he treated her more like a child than a wife.
My father, John Wilson, was a longshoreman. He worked for the Clyde Maryland Shipping Company, which was based in Texas. This was considered a real good job in that day, though it amounted to packing and unpacking, loading and unloading cargo when the ships came into the dock. When he found out his company had boats off the coast of New York, he was itching to leave. His request for a transfer came in 1931 and he and my mother took off. She left behind the women she loved most—her mother and five sisters, trusting her man and his big city dreams. My grandmother didn't know what to think about all of this. She had lived and worked on a plantation most of her life, so them coming as far as New York City from Lake Charles was damn near as close to a miracle as you could get. Well, I came with them too, because Mom, before leaving Louisiana, found out she was pregnant.
I don't believe my parents were ever really married. Not in the legal sense. They didn't have any papers between them. But they came on to New York and set up house like newlyweds. They both wanted big city living, so they thought, but neither one of them knew what to expect.
They were country people and all that New York City had to offer astounded them. It took them a minute to get used to the harshness and the edge of the city. After riding for hours by bus, when they reached Manhattan, the two of them did what most black folks do—sought out the black neighborhoods and headed straight to Harlem. It was understood during that time that stumbling into the "wrong" (meaning, white) neighborhood could get you in a hell of a lot of trouble. They found a small flat together uptown, at 124 West 135th Street, and got busy living.
Since Mom was pregnant, she didn't get out much, but my father fell, fast and hard, into the grips of city life. Temptation was everywhere. It didn't take but a minute before he started running around with women, hanging out at bars, and staying out all night. He had a huge presence, so it wasn't like you were going to go up against him and question him about anything. He was very tall, about six four or six five, and dark, with beautiful black skin and a strong build. It's a wonder he didn't kill my mother when he hit her. He was so strong.
My father felt well within his rights, as the man of the house and the breadwinner, to do whatever he damn well pleased. The tension in the house grew worse. Days and weeks of bad arguments and fights turned into years of abuse. As strange as it may seem, I really do remember my infant years, my early childhood. I can recall the sounds, the noise, all of the disruption. Some things are hazy in my mind, but other, more traumatic experiences, I remember like yesterday.
He beat my mother nonstop. If it wasn't a fist in her face, it was some awful words he'd spit out at her to make her feel like shit. I believe my premature birth, at eight months, had something, if not everything, to do with my father beating Mom while she carried me. I was born on November 23, 1931, at Harlem Hospital. I weighed only three pounds at birth and stayed sick during most of my childhood.
Mom became pregnant with my brother John while living through hell with my father. The birth of more children seemed to do nothing to make him act right. Things only got worse. We did what he said, or said nothing at all. My father was a mean, mean man. I remember thinking if he would just get out of the picture, everything would be all right. I was too young to understand the emotional tie my mother had to him. None of it made any sense to me, because what kind of love was that? Somebody whipping your behind, day in and day out, making you cry out and shout, can't be love. But it was something, because my mother didn't leave. Not right away, anyway. We all just kept living under his rule and dealing with his madness. I was so frightened of my father that I could not find it in myself to ever get too close to him. He scared the shit out of me. I stuck up under my mother most of the time.
When my brother John was born, the effects of physical abuse showed on him like a bad rash. There was no mistaking that he had been traumatized in the womb. John was such a nervous baby. Mom tried everything to comfort him, but eventually he had to be placed in an institution for the mentally retarded. My father didn't show any signs of care or remorse. He continued with his wickedness. I used to pray for the day that we could leave that house. It was too much to take. By the time I was three years old, all I had been exposed to were the violent rages of my father, the whimpering and wailing of my mother.
Mom never talked much. She was a shy woman. Quiet and polite. Young and naive. And far away from home. Her dependence on my father's financial support kept her bound to him. Although she didn't talk much about her life in Lake Charles, I'm sure she missed her family. Suffering the way she was suffering, New York couldn't have felt much like home. She didn't go out much or make many friends. Whenever I would ask her about what it was like where she was from, she mostly gave me warnings about Louisiana: "Don't go down there. Don't ever live there. Ain't nothing down there for you." I wasn't sure why, just, "Leave the South where it is."
In the deepest, darkest areas of the South, you could always find such stories, terrific tales—some good, some bad, and some that made you weep in your tracks. Mom gave me just a glimpse of what her life was like down there and it was hard to believe. When I heard her horror story, I could not understand why Mom chose to live through a repeat performance of the same madness in her adult life. However, realizing what my mother lived through in her own young life, everything else made a little more sense. It was still crazy and uncalled for, but her place in it became clearer to me.
In my mother's childhood home there was violence. There were twelve children altogether, seven boys and five girls, all named after people in the Bible. Well, it turns out that my grandmother, Rebecca Jackson, withstood umpteen years of physical attacks by my great-grandfather, Isaac Jackson. He was a black Indian, a Cherokee, and he grew tobacco down there. He was one of the few Indians who owned his own property and had a few dollars. Mom said he would make my grandmother get down on her knees while he called all of her children in, all twelve of them, to watch him beat her. His violence was sheer sport. Or maybe, he believed it was his duty. He took some kind of twisted pleasure in having an audience of his grandchildren to watch him beat this woman, his daughter and their mother, into submission. I believe there was some strange mixing going on there, because all twelve of the children had very different looks. They were all different colors, with all different daddies, I believe. Some were pitch- black and others looked damn near white. Mom had one sister who looked identical to her, just like a twin, except she was very dark and Mom was light brown. Now, that happens in black families, but something about my aunts and uncles just struck me as strange. It's hard to explain. Mom said very little about all of this, except that her brothers used to terrorize her when she was growing up, calling her a "red, rhiny bitch" and one of them had broken a broom over her back before. There was very little love between them. So, I guess the first person to come through there and tell my mother he loved her and wanted to marry her, she left.
I understood her wanting to make a clean break out of there, but she walked dead into the same situation. I often wondered why she didn't leave our house at the first blow of my father's fist, but she stayed. She found it somewhere in herself to stay with him. I guess she loved him. Maybe it was just that simple. It was very common, back in those days, for women to stand by their men, no matter what. Especially if you had children by him. Women stayed and suffered. It was considered the "right thing to do." When you think about it, where would she have gone? When you're running away from a lowdown past, running back is not in the plan, so what else is there? You just keep going, keep moving toward something else, hoping it will get better. "Everything will be all right." I heard those words a million times from Mom when we lived with my father. "Don't worry. Everything will be all right, Gloria." I trusted her and really believed that, one day, we would be free from all of the pain and aggravation. From a child's point of view, a parent's walking away might seem like a simple enough thing to do. But it would take me years to find out how the burden of your emotions can be so heavy that it, alone, can weigh you down till you can't budge.
After John, there was Harry, my youngest brother. When he was born, we stood by, frozen with hope that this one would make it. "Yes, you'll make it," I used to hear Mom whisper to the baby. Harry was a very sick baby, nervous, too, and mentally handicapped. As it turned out, Harry didn't fare any better than John. This was tearing my mother apart inside. Her face began to look sad and drawn. She even began to carry herself differently, slightly slumped over with a dazed look in her eye. The weight of this was more than she could bear. This same little doll-faced woman with the lovely shape and gorgeous gait was bent by exhaustion.
Harry was institutionalized with John. Neither one of them had the benefit of a mother's loving arms or touch. And I missed them. I could have used a companion. They both stayed in the mental institution for years, and my mother visited them regularly. She would take them boxes of all kinds of good things, but she never took me. I suppose she thought the hospital atmosphere would be too upsetting, because I was still very young. But, God knows, I wanted to see my brothers. I would beg her to take me. Instead, she would take pictures of them during her visits, so I could see what they looked like. I wanted us all to live together.
I was their big sister and I wanted to be close to my little brothers. I remember one picture she took of them in these cute little matching short suits. Both of them were wearing bow ties. They looked so cute, really adorable. I needed them desperately and I blamed my father. It was his fault that we weren't able to be a real family.
I was raised as an only child. Very few people knew that my mother had two other children. If they did know, they thought they were in Lake Charles being raised by my grandmother. I was a young thing but I had seen enough and heard enough to know that strength was needed in order to make it in this world. Backbone is what they used to call it. I was always a fast learner. I was a smart little girl who never missed a beat. I packed away all of these memories and prayed for better days ahead. In spite of it all, I always felt my mother's love. Her nurturing and attention gave me the feeling of being protected.
I learned heartbreak at a very young age. My brother Harry had a twin, our sister, Helen. I was so happy about having a sister, I didn't know what to do. Helen was a pretty little baby, but small—born too early, suffering before arriving, with just enough strength to manage birth. My mother had Helen checked out early. The doctors said she was fine mentally, but she was physically weak. Helen hung in there for a while and we thought she would make it. Mom never let her out of her sight, giving every bit of motherly know-how she had. My father wasn't around much to do anything for us. He stormed in and out of the house, ranting about one thing or the other, then slapping Mom around whenever the mood hit him.
Mom was worried to death about Helen. She had a feeling that keeping her alive was going to be hard. Helen contracted pneumonia at nine months old and Mom's hopes were sunk. She had to use every kind of home remedy imaginable, because no doctors were called, and they made no hospital visits. This was my father's order. Mom did her best to nurse Helen back to health. She begged my father every day to let her take Helen to the hospital, but he flat out refused. He kept Helen from getting the medical care she needed and her condition only got worse. Her frail body could no more withstand the pneumonia that was clogging her lungs than my mother could stand watching her suffer. It was a slow but steady torture taking place between the two of them. My father sat back and watched. I was helpless and of no help at all. I was too young to be of any assistance to my mother, but old enough to know that sick babies need doctors. The only thing I could do was mind my mother and stay out of the way. Mom finally broke down and faced up to my father, insisting that Helen be taken to a doctor. Between the time they wasted arguing over taking her to the doctor and the time they actually arrived at Harlem Hospital, over three weeks had passed and Helen was fading. Come to find out, she was beyond care at this point. Three days later, she died at home. The help she needed came too late.
Mom was devastated by Helen's death. All of her children were suffering—my brothers, mentally, Helen, physically, and me, emotionally. After all that had happened, my father never softened. In fact, it seemed like his beatings became more frequent and more intense. God only knows what would make a man carry on like he did. He charged up and down our small apartment, knocking Mom around like a piece of garbage. I'm sure the neighbors could hear all of this, but no one ever came to our aid. People minded their own business and stayed away. Mom never called the police or sought help outside the home. I suppose she saw herself as a prisoner, since she had no money of her own and no life of her own, outside the one they had created together, as shabby as it was. My father was without remorse. He just got meaner and more miserable over time. Mom never forgave him for this. You could see it in her face. The pain and anger were etched in her expression, framed in the tone of her voice.
Excerpted from I Wish You Love by Gloria Lynne, Karen Chilton. Copyright © 2000 Gloria Lynne and Karen Chilton. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Meet the Author
Gloria Lynne continues to perform before sell out crowds all across the country.She and her son Richard Alleyne run their own production company, Family Bread Music, Inc.She lives in Riverdale, New York.Karen Chilton is a New York based author, playwright and actor.Currently she is developing a documentary film on the lives of African-American woman in the fine arts.
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