Pike County Preacher

My memories of the hours and days after my mother’s death are random and they seem like a lifetime ago, yet they are as vivid as if they occurred yesterday.  One occurrence, if that is even the right word, one event, one thing that someone did has left a big scar.  It also provided me an early life lesson on compassion or rather the lack thereof.

Elizabeth Forester comforting 3 distraught children in their front yard. Della Snapp’s chocolate cupcakes with Crisco frosting. Choosing a dress for my mother to wear. Standing with my brothers choosing a casket. Standing in the funeral home lobby listening to some lady I didn’t know tell me “When one door opens, another one opens”. Feeling disconnected and all alone even though there were lots of people around – at least I think so. Kim Adams singing at the funeral while Clay Howard played piano.  I’m pretty sure that music happened.  I’m very sure about those chocolate cupcakes.

After the funeral in Harlan, we all traveled to my father’s birthplace where his mother still  lived and where he and mom had burial plots. Belfry, Pike County, Kentucky. I don’t remember getting there.  I don’t remember where or how I slept. I don’t remember what I ate. I don’t remember if we were there 1 day or 2 days. I don’t remember getting back home.  I don’t even remember much about the burial.  I do remember the funeral home visitation.  My chest just got tight.  Oh yes, I remember the visitation.

Chairs were set up and I had a front row seat along with my brothers and my dad.  Mom was in her white casket in her red dress.  I always loved that dress on her, I thought she looked beautiful in it with her fair skin and dark hair. It’s why I chose it.  That was my only thought. I remember strangers murmuring about it being an odd choice for a funeral dress. I stuck close to my brothers.  We really didn’t know anybody beyond our grandmother, uncles, aunts and cousins. We were numb, it wasn’t a social event for us, it was something to get through. Looking back on it, we must have been dead on our feet with exhaustion and grief.  We were kids whose world had just been rocked.  We were at Hatfield Funeral Home and I assume it was Mr. Hatfield who came out and asked me if I wanted mom’s wedding ring before they closed the casket prior to burial.  I couldn’t imagine taking it off her finger. It was hers. I told him no.

We were all asked to sit down.  Singing started.  It was terribly sad, mournful, off key singing. Then a man came to a wooden podium and everyone got quiet.  My brothers and I were in our front row seats. Dad whispered that he was the preacher from my grandmother’s church and she’d asked him to be there.  We were raised to show respect to police officers, doctors, preachers and our elders in general. That granting of automatic respect ended for me that day.

Brother Compton who didn’t know my mother, who didn’t know us, started speaking. No, he started preaching. His voice started getting louder. He started gesturing as he continued to preach louder and louder.  I wasn’t taking in the words, I was just sitting and hearing noise. Until I heard him shout Let this be a lesson to you! Then I saw him point to my mother lying in her beautiful red dress in her white casket that her children picked out and he continued to preach against sin and that the only way to heaven is to repent … then he pointed again at my mother then back out to the crowd …. suicide is a sin and if you don’t repent of your sins, you will die and burn in hell.  

I remember feeling hot, couldn’t breathe, confused, hurt, incredibly upset and I couldn’t sit there a second longer. I have zero memory of what my brothers and my dad were doing or what they did immediately after.  I got up and I ran out of there. I ran from the front of the chapel to the steps outside. Crying hysterically. My cousin Charles is the first person I remember being at my side trying to comfort me.  Then my Uncle Cecil was there fussing at me for being disrespectful to Brother Compton.  I have no memory of anything else beyond being aware that lots of people were outside standing around. I 100% have the memory of who did not come to talk to me, who did not come to comfort me. The man who did not know my mother.  My mother. The most beautiful, caring, sensitive person that I’d ever known and have ever known. The man who had not a shred of compassion or love for three motherless children who had just found their mother dead a few days before.  Three children who he did not know, had never met and had never spoken to. The man who forever changed the way I look at preachers, churches and “men of God”.  I’ll never forget his name.  Brother Compton.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Willa Louise

I was about 7 years old when my mom first disappeared. I have a vague memory of her not being at home and neither was my brother Jonathan.  He was sick and she was with him.  Then they were home, but she really wasn’t.  We lived in Wise, Virginia then.  That was when I first heard the words nervous breakdown. I had no idea what that meant.

My 10th birthday was celebrated in South Williamson. KY.  I’d just returned home from an unhappy trip with the Girl Scouts to camp. I remember I had a birthday cake that mom made and I also remember the terrible haircut I had and the ugly polyester pants that my grandmother would make me and my mom made me wear no matter how much I begged not to have to wear them. Sometime shortly after that my mom was in the hospital for a couple of weeks with blood clots in her legs. When she got home from the hospital, she was in her room in bed a lot.  I was always with my brothers, the three of us coming home from school together.  We weren’t in South Williamson long; we moved to Harlan, KY.

I remember the moving van packing us up then we were in a new house with the moving van being unpacked with just my mom and my brothers.  A nice teenager named Dinky Pollitte was there to help us and he was the one who told mom about Pennington’s Grocery that would deliver groceries to us if we called and placed an order.  Mom didn’t drive.  I remember how we looked forward to perhaps getting a box of Fiddle Faddle in our next cardboard box delivered by Butch Clem from Pennington’s. Dad was working and was having to stay day and night at Harlan ARH due to a UMWA strike going on.  A new co-worker of Dad’s, Jan White, would come every Sunday to pick us up and drive us to the hospital and across the picket line to visit with dad all afternoon.  We knew almost every inch of that nearly deserted hospital – we had fun times there.  Mom must have been with us on those Sundays, but I don’t remember.  I remember wheel chair races and getting ice cream. Dad suddenly was home one day when we returned home from school and I remember crying with joy when I saw him hunkered down in front of the TV changing channels.

Mom disappeared again sometime after that.  We were told she was in the hospital and we were not allowed to see her.  I have a very vague memory of being taken to the hospital one time to see her after a couple of weeks.  I can see this hospital corridor in my mind’s eye, but I can’t recall much else. I occasionally will wake up having a bad dream about discovering that mom is in a hospital having been there for years without any knowledge of it on my part, like she was hidden away there.   My brothers and I were once again taken to stay with our grandmother in Pike County, KY.  We hated going there, or at least I did.  I recall whispered conversations that contained the words nervous breakdown and sideways glances at the thre of us.  I was the oldest, so my brothers would have been under 10 years old.

Mom got better and started taking care of an elderly lady at her apartment as a private duty nurse.  Mom had the kindest, most gentle heart.  She became very attached to this lady, I believe her name was Georgia. Georgia eventually died. She gave my mom a chair before she died and I still have it to this day. Mom grieved over the loss and she once again was in bed sick every day when we went to school and every day when we came home from school.  I was about 15.  I was cooking dinner for us most evenings.  Tomato soup for mom in bed.  I have few memories of mom being up and about and being active with us much after that.   I do remember being picked up and driven to Southeast Community College to take the ACT test with my friends Stephen, Bucky and Sherri.  I must have been 16 and in my junior year of high school.  I remember mom standing at the kitchen sink crying.  I was getting ready to leave and I went over to her to ask what was wrong and I can only remember her saying that she felt useless since her children were growing up. I will always remember that and I will always remember that being a teenager on her way out the door to ride with her friends to take the ACT test I didn’t take the time to comfort her. Nor did I know how to.  I didn’t understand.

I got my driver’s license when I was about 16 ½.  Dad made me wait to take the test until he was sure I wasn’t going to kill myself or anyone else while driving.  We had a 1976 Ford LTD.  That was also when he added me as an authorized signer on his and mom’s checking account.  He did that so I could go to the A & P to get groceries each week.  I’d shop, write a check at the checkout lane and drive home.  If anyone at A & P blinked an eye at a 16-yr. old doing the family shopping and writing a check I wasn’t aware of it.  I wasn’t even questioned about the carton of cigarettes that I had in the cart along with a loaf of Salt Rising Bread and an Ann Page spiced bar cake that I hoped mom would eat since she liked both of those things.

September 24, 1980.  My 17th birthday. I’d just started my senior year of high school earlier in the month.  I remember wearing a purple shirt and I had my traditional home baked cake with a candle that mom made for us each year.  We always had a birthday cake.  I was sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table with the cake to blow out the big #17 candle. Two days later, I was sitting in Elizabeth Wilson’s English class looking out the window toward Ivy Hill where we lived. It was close to lunch time. I had the most overpowering feeling that I needed to go home.  I brushed those feelings aside.  We had less than an hour for lunch and I had no way of getting home.  It was too far to walk and get back to school in time.  I had no car.  I didn’t have anyone to ask to drive me home.  I pushed the thought aside.  3:00 was the end of school and my brothers and I walked home as we did every day unless we could catch a ride. We’d sit on the wall adjacent to the school for a few minutes hoping someone we knew would pass by and offer us a ride.  If not, we’d start walking and sometimes we’d get lucky and someone would stop while we were walking and offer a ride.  That day, there were no rides and we walked. It wasn’t a short walk and it was literally up hill.   The last street before getting to our house was a downhill stretch. My brothers would usually run down it faster than me and were ahead of me.  Our driveway was at an incline and we’d walk around the back to the patio to the back door.  Except that day we didn’t make it to the back door, at least I didn’t.  My brothers got there first.  Nearly 37 years later it is still a big blur.  Time seemed to stop yet it was racing.  Our mother was on the patio.  Bleeding.  There was a gun.  She was dead.  I stopped breathing for a second when I typed that just now.  Until that day I’d never known what a self-inflicted gunshot wound meant.