September 18, 2009
Birthdays are like revolutions of a wheel. Each round stirs the air around it and each year rouses the mind. On, or before my 50th birthday, my mind began to conjure up past and forgotten moments where I was forced to move or be trampled. Being stepped on is so painful; movement is always the first option but not always the immediate action. I was born on a Thursday, September 18, 1958 to be exact. As the story goes, when I was born the doctor who delivered me looked into my nearly coal black eyes and said, “This baby has a long way to go.” I like to think of the comment made by the doctor as prophetic a long way to go meaning the sky is the limit. Time will tell. I do believe there is a purpose for every life and I pursue my purpose. I am confident I am not going anywhere until I have done what I came here to do. While I am here, I want to stir the air around me for positive change. In the past 50+ years, I have learned many lessons about human nature. At a very young age, I wondered why people did what they did and learned that no matter the situation, humans will semi-consciously choose what they most truly desire, irrespective of the consequences. You can trust no one, not even yourself and life is too short to dribble- literally. My mother, siblings and I are example of what happens when self-gratification goes unchecked. Our lives reflect the lasting results of uncontrolled behaviors.
My mom, Victor Lamar, was the youngest of nine children born in the Deep South to indentured servants, Maude and Adolf. At the hands of her own mother, she endured unspeakable cruelty and physical violence much like the way slave owners treated slaves. At age 80, Mom continues to bear the emotional and physical scars from that abuse. In 1945, just out of high school, my mother gave birth to my oldest brother. She was not married and in those days, children born illegitimately were known as bastards. Another social rule was that ‘Negras’ needed to know their place in the world. The rules and conditions of that era placed Mom in the position where getting what she truly wanted cost more than she could have ever bargained for. Her choices, albeit limited, left lasting consequences for my entire family. The penalties include a lasting legacy of self-loathing, character destruction and subjugation to the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Victor Lamar. It is now my personal aspiration to rise above it all, thereby encouraging life in a different, more positive mode. However, Mom continued to make similar mistakes, at some point she became a licensed nurse. She worked on the colored ward in the hospital where I would later be born. It was there where she met my father, Ben Pickett. Ben Pickett was admitted to the hospital for mental illness. Mom told me he was sweet to her, bringing her flowers he picked and writing her poetry. I suppose, in some strange parallel universe their union (somehow) made sense. My father was an obviously confused man. After my parents became involved, a woman visited my mother to advise her that Ben Pickett had more than two wives. He also was known to have fathered a number of children with various women. This announcement came just before I was born. Then one day my father, a typical southern Black man, social-politically emasculated, economically displaced and depressed, decided to take his own life by jumping out of a fifth story window. That window was at the hospital where he met my mother and where I entered this world. Mom told me a few years ago that while she was pregnant with me, she considered jumping out of the same hospital window. Fortunately, for my siblings and me she did not jump physically. Unfortunately she jumped emotionally. My auspicious beginning was heavily felt by everyone in the family. Particularly by my older siblings, Ben – who would have the responsibility of caring for all of us, Vivian – my stand in mother, Cleveland – the family clown and the favorite child – Maudene. My sister Maudene often explained with delight to me the details of my early life . She told me I was an orphan, left at the doorstep and that my father killed himself because of me. I realize now that I was a threat to the entire family, each member with their own need to be loved and cared for by our mother.
After Ben Pickett died, Mom loaded up her five consequences and moved us all to California. From Birmingham to Los Angeles, Benny carried so much more responsibility than any little boy should ever be expected. Mom worked and lived the life of a single woman on the prowl as my eldest brother and sister cared for us as best they could. Somehow, by grace, we all survived. Our childhood was filled with the longings of the neglected and intermittent self-gratification. Subsequent self-destruction and addictions embroiled us all, individually and collectively. We grew up marginalized, as we were a burden to our mother and society. Few people have an idea what it means to be an unwanted child. I guess that is a good thing.
I have never been able to think of my own life without thinking of about my brothers and sisters. Each one of them contributed in some way to who I am today. Life for all of us has been a tedious, stony road at times and a wonderful adventurous trek at others. When we were children, we had a rusty, banged up Red Flyer wagon. Mom did not own a car at that time so that wagon was used for everything from groceries to weekly Laundromat visits. Imagine five big loads of dirty laundry tied into bundles, balanced on that raggedy Red Flyer wagon with four kids holding on to it and pulling it down busy L.A. streets. What a sight we must have been! During the summer months, we used that wagon to collect soda bottles for change; Searching through alleys and trash cans until we found enough bottles for everyone to have a snack was a daily activity. Down city blocks, we hauled and I always rode because I walked too slow.
When I turned five, my grandmother moved in with us and I became her constant travel aide. I spent my summers out of elementary school alone with my grandmother, journeying to and from the South. Alabama, Ohio and Kentucky were places where we attended funerals, visited with relatives or simply baked in the stifling humidity inherent to the land beneath the Mason-Dixon. Crossing the southern states of Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana in Colored cars on the back of trains was nothing less than daunting. Routinely the conductors would warn the colored passengers to close the window blinds while riding through towns where whites did not want to see us peering out at them. It seemed to rain in Mississippi every summer and precipitation would collect on the tracks of the bridge that crossed the Mississippi River. The passengers of the train would have to disembark for overnight stays in the local station, while the tracks drained and dried. I remember visiting that cold dark station three or four times in my childhood. The smooth, hardwood benches and marbled floors in that train station are bittersweet, distant memories. It was there where I learned what it meant to be ‘colored’.
In that Mississippi train station, I played at the bottom of a sweeping stairway that rose up from the shiny floor. One summer, when I was about seven, phonetic reading became my constant companion and mental occupation. I sounded words everywhere I went. “T-i-c-k-e-t-s” “D-e-p-o-t” “W-h-i-t-e-s” “O-n-l-y” ”N-o” “C-o-l-o-r-e-d-s” I read the signs posted on the ornate finials at the beginning of the handrails on either side of the stair, “W-h-i-t-e-s O-n-l-y” and asked Grandma what it meant. She promptly reminded me to remember my place, scowled at me and gave me a firm, three-fingered, twisted pinch on the thigh. I trusted Grandma and her wisdom so it did not matter that I still did not understand. I cried quietly and took a short nap at her side as the train station fell silent in the damp cold night. Later, as Grandma sat upright dozing on the hard wood bench, I woke from my nap to find we were the only two people in the world, or so it seemed. I needed to go to the bathroom and feared waking Grandma. She did not like to be interrupted ever. The wonderful, untried stairway seemed to be the avenue for relief of both my curiosity and full bladder. Cautiously, trying hard to remain in my place, and not wake Grandma, I began to ascend the beautiful sloping stair climbing soundless to the top. As I came to the cresting step, I could read the sign just above my head, “R-e-s-t-r-o-o-m.” I found it! With one bound, I jumped the step to make it to the doorway when suddenly from behind, one swift yank and I was lifted up off the floor by the back of my coat. As I looked up and behind me, I realized the white station guard had a strong grip on me. His was taller and bigger than anything I had ever seen. His red face stood out from the neck of a navy blue, double-breasted uniform coat with gold buttons. Before I could think, he carried me abruptly down the staircase with one hand. All I could think about was the hot, steaming water that flowed down my legs to the shiny hardwood surfaces and how Grandma was going to beat me for wetting my pants. Once down in the colored section, the station guard dropped me to the floor right in front of Grandma. She woke with a start as he yelled some obscenity about keeping up with me. I just wanted Grandma to give that old mean man a kick in his shins for touching me. I wanted to know that I was safe with her and that she would take care of me. Too soon, I learned all that I trusted Grandma to be, she could not be. Instead, she said bowing and scraping, “Yes sir captain, I’ll take care of it.” Then without one word, Grandma grabbed me by the arm and walked me out into the cold, pitch-black night to the broken toilet stall in the back of the station. There she silently cleaned me up and changed my clothes. We never spoke a word to each other about what happened that night or how I found myself at the top of that staircase or how having ‘place’ was not for me. That white man appeared ferociously angry, frightening and all-consuming to me, a skinny little pig-tailed Black girl who had managed to get out of her ‘place.’ While learning to be in my ‘place’ has a negative connotation, that incident in the train station helped me to understand what every little girl or boy needs to know. In this life there will be frightening figures and boundaries to overcome. The truth is it has been my good fortune to rise above that night even though it has taken me 40 years to do so. Being placed means to stand in one space, keeping within a small radius, accepting fabricated limitations and an imposed diminished capacity, too little life for the girl with a long way to go. Returning to Los Angeles after each trip was all that I needed to restore my joy despite the negative environ.
At home, I could continue in the provocative behavior I had displayed from early childhood; something I learned at the hands of a wayward adult male. I confused personal physical gratification for love and pursued the attention of boys in effort to find the love I was missing at home. I was sexually active by the time I turned 10 and barely escaped death from an Ectopic pregnancy at age 13, a freshman at Manual Arts High School. At that time, I started dating Larry, an 18 year-old convenience store clerk. He taught me to how to smoke dope and ditch school. When I found out I was pregnant, Larry stopped seeing his main girlfriend and made extra efforts to take care of me, driving me to school each day. One day at school, I was jumped in the hallway by three obnoxious, nasty fat girls. The ringleader said it was because I had looked at one of them the wrong way. It happened in a hallway right outside of two occupied classrooms but the teachers did not intervene. The next day, Larry picked me up for school and we drove around the perimeter of the campus, looking through chain-linked fencing for the three-girl gang that attacked me the day before. I saw the gang of girls and pointed them out to Larry. He nonchalantly handed me a small handgun and told me to shoot them. I took the gun and held it tightly. My peripheral vision seemed to fade and then blur into gray as the leader of the nasty trio became my center focus. She was a clear target until water began to well into my eyes. I took aim, my heart pounded in my ears and I froze. Larry kept commanding, “Shoot!” “Shoot!” I wanted to do what he told me to do but I could not. Larry drove away from the scene angrily and dropped me off at home where I spent the rest of the day crying over my situation. Later, I began to hemorrhage internally and ache all over. The next morning I lapsed into medical crisis that almost took my life. My blood had become toxic after my left fallopian tube ruptured from the pressure of fetal development outside of my womb. It took almost three months to recuperate from that near death experience. I did not want to return to school in Los Angeles after everything that had happened. I was allowed to go to Kentucky to finish high school while staying with family there.
After high school graduation, I returned to Los Angeles where I spent 5 to 6 months on the street trying to make a way for myself. Then in 1976, I joined the Marines to get off the street and finally my life took on a new perspective. The scars built up from years of other peoples’ personal indulgences and my own self-indulgence began to heal. As I met the challenges of boot camp, military life and the development of an identity the scars softened. It seemed I would always be the damaged, frightened little pig-tailed Black girl from South Central. Even the Corps could not defeat the monstrous behavior I practiced against myself. I would take a step out of the pit and fall back three steps until I met my life partner, Luis Diaz. Luis helped me see myself as someone who deserved more. Luis and I married in 1980. He has helped me work through multiple issues. Since we married, I have obtained a college degree, completed 28 years as a licensed nurse and managed to home educate our three sons. I also actively supported the education of about 80 other children over a period of about seven years. Our sons Jason 23, James 20 and John 17 give me great hope in the completion of my own education. Their academic focus and personal self-discipline affirms everything I believe about positive outcomes.
The greatest lesson I have learned in life is about living. To do anything less would be dribble and of course, life is too short for dribble. A commitment to Christ has helped me heal completely from an abusive past. I am reminded daily to live in such a way that my children and their children will be able to see what life looks like when you are loved. It is my hope to continue living a dribble-free life, with my past behind me and my future filled with accomplished dreams. I want to continue to be different, making a positive difference in the lives of others, stirring things up just a tad in the years to come.