Early one spring morning I sat in my pickup outside a small wood frame house on Modena Extension in Gastonia, NC. I lived on Modena from the time I was not quite two until halfway through the first grade – an unofficial foster child of Clarence and Ruby Long. Clarence was a painter and Ruby raised chickens and foster kids. There were three of us as I remember; a skinny kid named Edward and his older brother whose name I cannot remember and myself, the youngest of the three
I was not yet two years old when my grandfather left me with the Longs. Clarence and Ruby Long were acquaintances of my grandfather who often took in foster children – children unwanted by their families. I lived with the Longs until I was almost seven years old. The early years of my life held no memories of a real family. I had no brothers or sisters, knew nothing of cousins, aunts, uncles, and had no idea who my father or mother might be. While on a business trip to Gastonia, I drove down to Modena Extension to see whether the old place was still there.
I have absolutely no recollection of life before the Longs, but I have vivid memories of my life there. Even though most of the place is gone now, I can remember exactly what the house looked like; the placement of the chicken coops, the outhouse, the old coal stove, the black and white TV that sat in the far corner of the living room and especially the huge green apple tree on the edge of the property. I remember climbing up into that tree with a salt shaker and eating sour apples until my belly hurt so badly I could hardly climb down from the tree. The kitchen was on a cement slab lower than the rest of the house, and you had to climb two steps up from the kitchen to the living room and bed rooms. My “room” was a small cot behind the door that led from the living room to other rooms in the house.
I knew nothing of my family for no one ever spoke of a mother or father. I have a vague memory of a dark haired man talking with Ruby and Clarence while I played with a small metal fire truck on the floor. He left without so much as a word. I don’t remember seeing him again until much later in my life. It turns out that man was my grandfather. He was a hard and abusive individual who drove my mother to abandon me as she fled his abuse. He in turn dropped me off at the Long’s home and I am fairly sure never visited me for the five years or so I lived there.
As I sat there, down on Modena Extension that morning I was astounded at how much I remembered and how clearly I could recall some things considering how young I was. I recalled that Clarence drove a dark green panel truck that was filled with partially filled buckets of paint, drop cloths, brushes and the like. I was amazed sitting there on the street corner that I could actually recall the smell of the turpentine that permeated that old truck. I remembered so clearly that Clarence drove a mint green Chevy sedan. I didn’t know then that it was a 1952 Chevy Biscayne – but I remember it so vividly I know now the make and model.
I remember when Clarence would allow us boys to tag along when he went rabbit hunting, even the sound of his two beagles barking and the bellow of his old shotgun, the warmth of that old pot-bellied coal stove that filled the house with a sense of well being on cold days and the fact that every Saturday night we watched “Gunsmoke” on that old black and white TV in the corner. I also remember the night Ruby got me up out of bed and brought me to the kitchen. My grandfather was there with a young woman I did not know. “Michael,” Clarence said, “This is your mother and she has come to take you with her.”
The young woman was crying as she pulled me into her arms. I had no idea what she was saying or what all the bother was about. I certainly didn’t understand what was about to to happen.
While the grownups talked, Ruby took me by the hand and quietly walked me back to my bed and we sat down together on the edge where she put her arms around me and gave me the first hug I ever remember. She then took my face between her open palms and drew me in very close. With liquid eyes she looked at me for the longest time and then with a sad exhale she said, “Michael, no matter what happens – that man in there and me – we will always love you and you will always be welcome in this house” The next day I was on a Greyhound Bus headed to Belleville, Illinois with a woman I did not know. I had felt the pain of abandonment. Now, I felt as if I had been kidnapped.
I never saw Ruby or Clarence again.
That is until that morning as I sat there in my pickup. Almost 60 years had passed and with amazing clarity of detail I relived five of the happiest, most care-free years of my life with an old man and an old woman woman who had very little to give beyond the warmth of an old pot-bellied stove and a safe place to lay my head. Clarence and Ruby, I came by that morning to deliver a long overdue message from a seven year old boy who at that time had neither the words nor the understanding to deliver – “Thank You.”
There is of course, the back story. (The following is based upon conversations I had with my mother in the last couple of years of her life. Events she rarely spoke of and most people who knew and loved her would have never imagined the deep emotional scars she carried to the grave with her.)
She was seventeen years old and at the local movie house with some friends. She never saw it coming. She did not see her father stride into the darkened theater, a cigarette hanging from one side of his mouth as he walked up behind her. She was not aware of his presence until his open hand struck her in full swing on the face. In one swift motion he wound his fingers into her hair and pulled her up out of and over the seat back into the aisle. She never quite got her feet underneath her as he dragged her up the aisle and out into the lobby.
She was terrified of the beating she knew was coming. She was mortified that it was going to take place in front of her friends and half of the little town of Belmont. In the lobby, my grandfather pulled her to a standing position by her hair and began to slap her repeatedly across the face.
“You stupid, filthy whore!” he shouted as he slapped her again and again. “You’re supposed to be at the mill working, but instead here you are you little slut, sneaking off from work so you can whore it up with a bunch of worthless boys.”
He dragged her from the theater and out to his old panel truck as she tried to ward off the blows with her hands. He pinned her arms behind her so she couldn’t protect herself as he continued to beat her. “Are you screwing the whole town like a little bitch in heat?” He jerked open the door of his old truck and forced her into the seat, all the while berating her, doing his best to humiliate and shame her for the whole town to see. In some perverted way of looking at things, my grandfather seemed to actually think he was showing everybody what a bastion of morality he was.
And the truth? The truth is that she was sleeping around…with any boy or any man who would hold her in his arms and tell her that he loved her. She was in fact prostituting herself; exchanging sex for a few moments of intimacy. She was buying tender caresses and affectionate words, however insincerely spoken, that gave her at least the illusion of value. She was driven to her whoredom by the one man whose love she craved the most, but could never have.
So, in the spring of 1948 my mother got pregnant by a boy one year ahead of her in high school, and on December 22, 1948 I was born; the bastard son of a teenage mill worker, into deep poverty and under a curse of rejection and abandonment; the only legacy my grandfather left me. After another year and a half of constant abuse and humiliation, my mother left. She got off from work one day and decided she couldn’t live another moment in the hell her father was dragging her through and she ran. She ran from my grandfather’s rage her entire life, not even free when he died.
My mom abandoned me in an act of self-preservation. But God had a place already prepared for me; a little house on Modena with Clarence and Ruby Long. They provided a place of safety for a lost little boy left alone by a frightened young mother and dumped by his calloused grandfather. They, unwittingly, played a significant role in what would become my future.
My oldest son and his wife have taken into their arms and home, a beautiful little boy who was for all intents and purposes abandoned by his mother. She chose the numbness of cocaine and heroin over the giggles and smiles of her 4 month old child. Who knows what pain she is running from; what demons pursue her? Who can tell what brokenness drove her to flee reality into the cloud of addictions? All I know is this:
I watch my son take this little boy into his arms and I look at the love in my daughter-in-law’s eyes as she looks at him. I see how they have embraced this little guy and folded him into their lives and I remember. I remember an old man and an old woman who made room in their lives for a lost and abandoned little boy. I remember the tears in Ruby’s eyes as she looked into my face and whispered, “Michael, no matter what happens – that man in there and me – will always love you.”
I was abandoned by my mother and rejected by my grandfather. I did not know my father, but my name was engraved in the palm of God’s hand and even though I was conceived in the back seat of an old chevy, God knew me by name and already had a plan for my life.
I was never really abandoned after all.
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