Before beginning this post I offer the following quote in defense of my babbling on interminably about myself—it’s by a writer that, for many years, has been one of my favorites:
“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Walden—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
This posting is extracted from the plethora of memories I’ve retained of my mother’s second marriage and of the stepfather she allowed to enter my life. I relive those events frequently in my memories, and I feel that many, or at least some, may strike a chord in the memories of any viewers who might stumble upon my blog. Some of the memories are pleasant but others are painful—whether pleasant or painful, they’re my memories and I’m stuck with them. By relating and passing them on to others, perhaps I can enhance some of the pleasant memories and diminish some of the hurtful ones.
I must say, as always in the interests of full disclosure, that viewers will need to accept the accuracy of my memories as I relate them—in some instances none remain to support or deny them, and none is left who can, with any certainty, diminish or embellish them.
All are gone.
They exist only in my memories.
I am the last one standing.
When I was born, “I came into this world cold, naked, wet and hungry, and things have been downhill ever since.” I would cheerfully attribute that lament to the comic who said it, but I don’t remember who it was.
My birth occurred soon after my mother (Mama) divorced my father—at any rate that’s how the story goes. I accept that because I have no way of disputing it. I have documentary proof of my birth-date, when and where and to whom I was born, but I have no way of knowing when, or even if, the marriage was officially dissolved.
I suppose that since I was born out of wedlock, I came into the world, at least technically, as a little bastard (according to the accounts of some, I still am). In fact, during the early years there were various times when I disobeyed Mama and engaged (and got caught) in some forbidden enterprise, and she would sometimes exclaim in exasperation, “Oh, you little bastard—even if I must say such a word!” The exclamation was forcibly voiced, but always stemmed from pure love and was voiced with pure love, with humor lurking in the background.
Mama was 44 when she married her second husband. He was 48, a big man with a big stomach which significantly preceded him. He usually dressed in khaki pants and long-sleeved khaki shirts, with a black or brown tie held in place with a western-motif tie clip. The ensemble was grounded by western-style boots and topped with a broad-brimmed Stetson hat. He was 6-feet tall without the boots and Stetson—with them he presented a formidable appearance and took up a lot of space. He was born and grew up in Alabama, so his affinity for western garb probably stemmed from having lived and worked for several years in Texas, a state to which he would return a few years later with his new family.
A special note: The photo above shows Mama and my stepfather in later life, shortly before his death in 1970. I took this picture in 1969 during a visit I made prior to starting a combat tour in Viet Nam. Their on-and-off marriage spanned 28 years, from 1942 until 1970. That 28-year span included several lengthy separations, plus one divorce and one remarriage, all of which are excellent subjects for more postings. Apparently their relationship was one of “can’t live with and can’t live without.” In 1980 Mama died, having lived “without” for another 10 years.
My stepfather had bushy eyebrows, piercing dark eyes, almost black, and an ample nose under which, in permanent residence, was a broad black mustache. He always carried a heavy knob-handled wooden cane—not for support but to use as a pointer, to give directions to someone, for example. If necessary it could be used as a weapon, either for defense or offense. I witnessed its various uses as the years passed, and I noticed early-on that people tended to step aside as he neared them on sidewalks or in hallways, regardless of width.
When Mama’s second husband entered our lives I was nine years old and living in Columbus, Mississippi with my mother and two older sisters. The younger sister was just 18 months older than I—another sister (the eldest of three living sisters) was older and worked outside the home. The third sister was married and living with her husband in south Alabama. Mama’s first marriage yielded a total of seven children—five girls and two boys. One of the girls died at birth or shortly after she was born, and another died under the wheels of an auto driven by a drunk—I have no memories of either child, nor of the auto incident. And finally, there was a brother who would figure prominently in my life at a later date. He was little more than a shadowy figure at the time—I hardly knew him. When Mama remarried, my brother was overseas on duty with the US Navy, continuing a six-year enlistment which began in 1940.
My stepfather’s name was John, but during his brief courtship of my mother he insisted that my sisters and I call him “Uncle” John. My younger sister and I readily acquiesced to the name (there had been other “uncles”), but the elder sisters called him “Mister” (not Mister John, just Mister). They had numerous other names for him which they frequently used in the presence of others, but never in his. After the marriage he told everyone to call him “Papa John,” or “Papa.” I had no problem with the terms but my sisters, except for the youngest one, never used them—they continued to use the term “Mister.” The youngest sister resisted strongly, initially refusing to use any title, but finally became resigned to using “Papa.”
The couple married in summer, at the end of the school term. Soon after the brief civil ceremony, with the required minimum number of people present, the newlywed couple departed on what was, ostensibly, a honeymoon. If I ever knew where they went and how long they stayed I must have forgotten it, but I clearly remember where I went. I was shipped off to a sister who lived with her husband in Pritchard, Alabama, a small town near Mobile. I was told that the visit was my “summer vacation” and I believed it, although I wondered at the time why it was necessary for me to take all my clothing.
I would learn years later that my sister had agreed to accept me in her family in order to relieve my mother’s new husband of that responsibility. He had insisted on disposal of the two minor children, in one fashion or another, as a provision of the marriage—a prenuptial, so to speak, and one to which my mother apparently agreed.
So I was off to Pritchard and my sister, the other minor child to be disposed of, was similarly banished but not quite as far away—her “vacation” trip was to Vernon, Alabama, a small town 30 miles east of Columbus, to live with an aunt, one of my mother’s sisters who had made the same agreement with the newly-weds. Neither my sister nor I had any inkling that we had just been cast away, discarded, left on the side of the road like a couple of unwanted pets.
Our bogus vacations began when our school terms ended, but that status was reversed three months later. Shortly before the next school term began, we traveled to Long Beach, Mississippi, a small town near Gulfport, to join our mother and our new step-father. We thought the move was simply the end of our vacation, but we learned many years later that our mother had violated her “prenuptial agreement” to have us reared by relatives. She insisted that she had to have her children with her—I never knew what promises or threats she used, but they were successful. Her new husband relented and allowed us into the family.
Our travels and travails began in 1942 and would continue until 1949, the year that my youngest sister married and I enlisted in the military.
I’ll get back to you later with more details.