"I was not prepared for my parents’ separation. I heard people talk but things looked okay from a child’s perspective. I remember times when my mother and father argued—how he never took her seriously, Daddy smiled all the time, even when they argued.
Nothing seemed to bother him. Daddy and I had been close at one time; at least, so I believed. He made me feel that I was more special than mother. I wasn’t close with my mother. Because mother allowed Grandma Maggie to favor me over the other children, I was confused as to who this lady I called “mom” really was.
I have no negative memories of my father. He wasn’t violent or abusive. He drank a lot and liked to party. I thought we were a happy family. Nothing for a kid to worry about. The breakup did come and we kids went to live with my dad’s parents, Maggie and Grandpa Johnson.
Maggie picked meat out of crab shells and packed it into cans at this factory. Grandpa Johnson didn’t work. He had a stroke, which affected his left side long before I was born. They lived in a small house back in the woods on a lake with lots of fig, pecan, peach, and apple trees. There were good times there.
Grandpa Johnson took a lot of time with me. I was his favorite child. He always seemed to single me out and show me special attention over the other children. All of my life all I ever heard was how special I was to Grandpa Johnson and Maggie.
A few months after we went to live with them Grandma Maggie died while working in the crab factory. It was a shock. She dropped dead. I thought, “Why now?” All I could think about was what was going to happen to us. No one else seemed to care about us except Maggie and Grandpa Johnson. The Voice: “‘Why do good people have to die and bad people live?’ ” “You are right, I was thinking that at the time.”
Maggie’s death didn’t bring my parents back together. My father came for the funeral, left us with his father, and went on his way. I wondered how daddy could leave us again. He never asked how things were going. I could have told him some things had he taken the time, or cared to know. He didn’t care. His life and happiness was all that mattered.
With Grandpa Johnson’s physical limitation, I assumed the role of mother to the other three kids. No one asked me. I was the oldest. I was okay with that until Grandpa Johnson insisted I sleep with him at night.
At first I thought, “He misses her.” I was uncomfortable but I dismissed it. His behavior was confusing but I dared not question him. I have no memory of when I started to school or any early learning experience.
I do remember my first encourager: her name was Ms. Helen. She was an elementary school piano teacher. She was the first person who praised me. I’m not sure how I ended up taking piano lessons. My mother’s sisters were into singing and piano so I guess I took the interest from them. I don’t remember what I did to cause Ms. Helen’s comments but I have never forgotten her words.
“Ashley, you are improving. If you work a little harder at this you could get good at it.”
I bottled those words. I hung onto them because no one had ever told me that I could do anything. What prompted Grandma Ethel to feel that Grandpa Johnson couldn’t take care of four children alone, especially three girls, I don’t know, but Grandma Ethel came and took us to live with her. She felt girls needed to have a woman around. I resented her. I felt secure with Grandpa Johnson.
I was too young to do anything about the move or to have any say so. I didn’t want to go with her. I wanted my mom and dad. We had been sheltered from my mother’s parents. My first reaction was to dislike her. She seemed a bit rough, cold, and hateful. Ethel and Jessie had twelve children. My mother was the oldest girl. There were four left at home.
I left Grandpa Johnson’s house not trusting adults. By this time I had formed the opinion that little children had no decision in what happened to them. I fought adjusting to her house. I longed to be back with Grandpa Johnson. I worried about him.
Grandma Ethel showed her bitterness toward me. She treated me as if I had done something wrong. She reinforced it with words like “You are never going to amount to anything but a house full of children and no man around to take care of them.”
She associated my looking like my father to not being good. According to her, that look alike was enough to doom me to failure in life. The bad feelings of the past returned. I wanted to take a break from this writing. I prayed silently that God would help me get through these feelings.
A promise was a promise. I had to continue. Living with Grandma Ethel was an adjustment because four of her kids were still at home. We didn’t bring a lot of things, except our clothes. The few we had became community property. We shared beds and sometimes underwear with the others.
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