Plagued by religious friction, violent fights and a belief, “the grass is always greener”, my peripatetic parents dragged us five children in search of the next great farm deal. From upstate New York to the Mississippi Delta, across the hills of Ohio and West Virginia their dreams led us forward to disillusion and defeat.
A middle child, unwanted from birth and over-looked while growing up, I learned the surprising lesson that sometimes being the least loved can be your salvation.
The story begins with my memory in 1947 when I was three years old. We were packing the car and a farm truck for our first of 19 moves. This is a story based on fact but inadvertently altered by the passage of years and experiences.
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I am Jeanine, a middle child, who remembers too much too clearly.
Undone by five children, lack of money and a combative relationship, my parents marry, divorce and remarry each other. In my own voice, I tell the story of an upstate New York farm family torn by religious friction and violent fights, experiencing happy times, crises and failures.
My mother, a Seventh-day Adventist convert, uses religion as a weapon and metes out extreme punishments. At four, I'm forced to watch while my six-year-old sister and seven-year-old brother spank her. That night I dream the rats come into my bedroom and eat off my toes. To force my father to stop smoking, my mother prepares supper, adding cigarette tobacco to each dish. While the battle rages in their bedroom that night, we children lie in bed, hungry.
Unable to cope with financial stress and a religious tyrant, my father sets our house on fire for insurance money, abandons my mother with five sick children and a dairy farm, and later tries shooting himself. But this is only the first three years of the story.
Early in October 1952, Mother gave Anita, Sheila and me a choice, a new girls’ bike we three would share, or our first birthday party, one for all three of us. With great excitement, we hashed over our options and voted for a new bicycle, a first for our family. Not two days later, Mother took us to Hollandale for groceries, but she had one errand to run first. She parked the car under a shady tree and said, “You three stay in the car. Don’t follow me into the store. I’ll be back shortly.”
Of course shortly turned into longly and Anita said, “She’s been gone a long time. Besides I saw her go into the hardware store, not the grocery store.”
“So what,” I said. “She said we had to stay in the car.”
“That’s for you little kids.” Anita opened the car door, closed it, and walked into the hardware store.
“She’s going to be in twubble,” Sheila said.
Not two minutes later, the big glass door opened again and out marched Anita and Mother, Mother’s left hand holding Anita’s shoulder in a vise-like grip.
“That’s it,” Mother announced as she slid in under the wheel, “no bicycle.” Sheila and I exchanged silent glances. Aware that we hadn’t been present for the scene in the store, Mother explained, “Your older sister couldn’t mind her own business and do as she was told. She disobeyed me and came into the store while I was choosing a new bicycle for you girls.”
“What color are we getting?” Sheila asked. Boy she doesn’t get it, I thought.
“No color,” Mother continued. “You’re not getting a new bicycle at all because Anita can’t do as she’s told.”
That is blatantly unfair, I said to myself. But I knew better than to challenge the decision. From my seat in the back, I bored holes of hate into Anita’s head all the way home. I cast a few hateful stares at Mother’s head also, but had to be very careful she didn’t catch me in the rearview mirror.
Three days later, Mother relented and said we could have a birthday party, inviting three guests each, if we cleaned the house and got everything ready the night before. We forgot the bike in our excitement of choosing our guests and dreaming of a real birthday cake from the store.
The night before party day, Mother came home from Greenville late to find we had failed to clean the house. “Why does this house look like a shit heap?” she yelled as she kicked off her high heels inside the door and bent to pick them up. “Where is everybody?”
Frozen in place with shock and surprise, Anita and I looked at each other across the dining room table where we’d sat down to get our homework done early. Sheila was quietly drawing pictures. “I thought I told you to clean this house tonight if you wanted a party tomorrow,” Mother said, standing in the dining room doorway, her shoes and purse dangling from her hands.
“We are going to clean it,” Anita said, closing her textbook and stacking her books together. “We just started our homework early and lost track of time.” Anita stood up to take her books to the bedroom.
“Well you don’t have to bother cleaning,” Mother shot back as she whirled around and marched off to her bedroom in her stocking feet. “You can go to school tomorrow and tell all your little friends they can’t come home with you because THERE IS NO PARTY!” she screamed before she slammed her bedroom door.
This was worse than no party. Visions of humiliation overwhelmed me as I followed Anita into our bedroom and threw my schoolbooks on my bed. I knew that Anita shared my agonizing images of retracting our previous invitations when she said, “We’ll clean the house and maybe she’ll change her mind.” Bulls would grow teats before Mother would change her mind, but I damn sure was willing to try to undo the damage we’d done. I’d be willing to clean toilets, scrub floors and lick the counters clean to avoid going to school and telling my three fifth-grade classmates that my party had been cancelled.
Anita swept and vacuumed; Sheila and I dusted; and Mother followed us around, stripped down to her underwear, cursing and screaming like a Banshee. Mother stood in the doorway watching as I set a pail of clean mop water in the middle of the kitchen floor. She came over and gave it a kick. “You haven’t got all night,” she screeched. As I bent down to wipe up the water that had sloshed all over the floor, she kicked my butt and sent me sprawling on my face. Like a possessed heathen she dogged our tracks, kicking us and slapping us, turning our attempt to clean house into a fight for survival.
When every floor had been vacuumed and scrubbed, every stick of furniture dusted and polished, every kitchen and bathroom fixture washed and shined, Mother softened. She called us three girls into her bedroom where she had retired, exhausted from kicking and cursing. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said calmly. Her voice was as sweet as candy. “You girls can have your party tomorrow. When you bring your friends home after school, I’ll have cake and ice cream ready. I’ll even buy some pretty paper plates and napkins and maybe a fancy party tablecloth.”
That night when I went to bed, I pushed the scenes from the evening out of my mind and fell asleep dreaming of my first birthday party. It was also my last birthday party, but I didn’t know it then.
Now I know how other girls feel on their birthdays, I thought, as I sat at our dining room table between Patricia and my two other friends the next afternoon. Anita and her three friends filled the other seats at the big table. Mother had arranged Sheila’s friends around a small card table right next to ours. Clumps of candles were placed next to each of the three names on the cake, twelve for Anita, ten for me and six for Sheila. Tiny wisps of smoke rose from all twenty-eight candles as Mother cut the cake into small wedges.
“Can I have some cake and ice cream?” Darel asked from the doorway. He’d been told to stay outside during the party, but no little boy could resist cake and ice cream. “I’ll give you some later,” Mother said. “Go away.”
Except for one or two gifts each Christmas, we didn’t get presents. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the tiny stack of gifts that sat over on a chair, waiting to be opened. I was torn between slowly savoring the delicious cake and ice cream and gulping them down in a rush to open my presents.
The magic moment finally came and Mother placed a stack of three gifts in front of each of the “birthday girls” as she called us. Each of my friends leaned forward on the table crying out for me to open their gift first. I closed my eyes and picked a gift at random and unwrapped it, holding my breath the whole time. Under the lovely butterfly paper and yellow ribbon lay a child’s necklace made of multifaceted plastic beads in pastel colors, pink, blue, yellow and green.
“See?” Patricia said in her high-pitched child’s voice. “You can wear it with any outfit. It matches everything.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, giving her a special smile and laying the necklace aside gently.
The next gift yielded a child’s finger ring with a purple plastic stone set in silver plastic. The third gift was a bracelet that matched the necklace, obviously an arrangement between the two girls’ mothers.
“That was very thoughtful,” Mother said over my shoulder. “Now Neenee has matching jewelry.”
All too soon pretty ladies in nice cars lined our driveway, calling for their daughters who yelled frantic good-byes and climbed into the nice cars and drove away. It was a wonderful birthday party, just wonderful.
Now Darel could have his cake and ice cream. He sat alone at the table, a wasteland of crumbs, melted ice cream and wadded napkins, filling his face with cake while ice cream ran down his chin and dripped onto his shirt. He was happy.
Anita and I spread our jewelry out on Sheila’s bed to survey our treasures. Sheila had received coloring books and a book of real paper dolls――The only other real paper dolls we’d ever had came in the Tonette home permanents for children――Every one of the gifts Anita and I had been given was play jewelry. “You know you can’t keep that jewelry, don’t you,” Mother said, coming into our room and sitting down on the foot of the bed.
“I know,” Anita said, a bit hangdog now that the fun was over and none of our gifts was usable.
“Can we keep them in our drawers if we don’t wear them?” I asked.
“Remember when I was a newly married woman and hadn’t converted to Seventh-day Adventism yet?” Mother asked. “And I wore jewelry, including my gold wedding band?”
“No, I don’t remember,” Anita said, showing off how clever she was. “I wasn’t born yet.”
“All right Smarty Pants.” Mother laughed. “But you do know that I stopped wearing makeup and gave up my jewelry when I joined the Seventh-day Adventist church. Years later I wrote a story about it titled Tinkling Ornaments. It was published in The Review and Herald.” How could we forget it? I rolled my eyes when I was sure she wasn’t looking. If she’d told us once about her famous publication, she’d told us a million times.
“Gather up your jewelry and come with me,” Mother said. “I’ll get a hammer.” Outside the back door, Anita and I schooched down and took turns smashing our lovely new presents into powder. We scraped the powder off the cement step and dumped it in the burn barrel.
Funny, I feel a bit numb when I remember destroying my pretty presents. But by then, I’d already learned not to feel. Today I own a few pieces of lovely jewelry, a paucity when compared to my peers. When we go out in the evening, my husband still has to remind me, “Wear some jewelry, for Christ sakes Jeanine. What’s the matter with you?”