Skeletons to Dance
Copyright 2005 by Pearl Watley Mitchell
"If you can’t get rid of your skeletons, you’d best teach them to dance."
George Bernard Shaw
My mama stood in the kitchen on that summer day in the mid 1950’s, busily occupying herself with the huge stack of dishes that had been used to feed breakfast to seven children. She attacked the sticky oatmeal on the plates with a passion. Her stomach bulged with the gift of life. Her maternity clothes were worn because they had been used many times. Mama tried to hum but she kept losing volume. I could hear a sniff between the notes. She would just start up again because my mama was “no quitter”.
My dad sat on the couch with his head in his hands. It was only six days since he’d been released from the VA hospital this last time. His stomach ulcers were still not healed where they had cut out 1/3 of his stomach. At age 30 he already had 1/3 of his stomach removed twice, 1/2 removed once, and 3/4 removed once. I think that Daddy must have been the original experiment for the now popular gastric bypass surgery. Except Daddy wasn’t overweight. He never had been fat. He was a thin, short man who didn’t eat much because he couldn’t eat much. He had those stupid stomach problems as long as I can remember. He felt really bad about what was happening but there was nothing he could do about it. All I could hear from him was a prayer under his breath, and a “Why, me, Lord?” I always wondered as I grew up, why Daddy’s “divine burdens” were greater than those of the average man.
My brother next to me, two years younger, came running into the house with tears in his eyes. He looked at Daddy with pleading eyes and asked what was happening. Daddy just sat there with tears rolling off his hands, shaking his head sadly, unable to answer my brother’s question. Mama still stood at the sink and washed dishes as she hummed “Amazing Grace”. The boys were quieter than usual, mostly just sitting around on the linoleum living room floor, unaware that they were building skeletons of their own.
As I looked outside, I saw several neighbors standing on their porches, some peeking out through window curtains, and a few busily herding their kids into the house. There were few cars on our road and in the neighborhood, the main one being the large covered-body truck that was backed up over the curb, encompassing the 25-30 feet of “front yard” in front of the house. It was backed up to the front of our house, beside the steps, touching the porch. The men had parked on top of Mama’s Petunia bed that she so lovingly planted and cultivated at the edge of the porch.
At that moment, two men came out of the front door of the four- room wooden frame house with a large chest-of-drawers, one of the items being repossessed. They positioned the chest into the truck and returned for the two beds and the other chest. The five children who slept in that room, including me and my weeping brother, two years younger than me, had broken hearts that even God couldn’t heal at that moment. I was so relieved that my sister, five years younger than me, was playing at a friend’s house and wasn’t home. She would be devastated when she got there, but at least the men and the truck would be gone and she wouldn’t have to deal with the pain of embarrassment.
I ran to the bathroom on the back porch, and heaved into the toilet. I told myself that the worst was over, and nothing else could happen that would be any more painful. We just had to figure out how to fix the room so that it would be sufficient to sleep.
The men were caring enough to stack our clothes against the wall when they removed them from the chests. We needed to find some boxes to put them in until we could do better. We still had our blankets, quilts, and bedware that the men had carefully folded into piles and placed by the wall. I was afraid that they had just thrown the clothes and bedding aside as they took the beds apart.
One of the men, Mr. Moon, was our neighbor who lived down the street. He was a decent fellow with four boys of his own, but with a wife who thought that she was better than us. She scoffed at us kids when we ran up and down the sidewalk by her house. Two of the boys were my brother’s age, two years younger than me, and they were friends. They came down to our house and played sometimes, but I can’t remember my brother ever being invited into their house. When “Chunky Will” came by, walking up and down the streets with his ice cream buggy full of dry ice and ice cream, once in a while this guy would buy three extra ice cream bars besides the ones he bought for his children, and give them to me, my oldest brother, and my sister.
When Mr. Moon walked out the door the last time, he said to Daddy, “Sorry, Watley - just doing my job, trying to feed my children and the old lady (that’s what he called his wife). Nothing personal, you know. See you at church Wednesday.”
Daddy inquired of Mr. Moon if they were going to take the linoleum from the living room, but the man replied in a low, compassionate voice, “No, Mr. Skinner says to just leave it. He says he can’t get his money back out of it.” Daddy seemed relieved at that.
I knew that when we got to church Wednesday night, Mr. Moon would shake Daddy’s hand and be really sorry for what happened, but his wife would be looking down at us kids and watching for us to do something wrong.
Night came and the five of us who slept in that room, whose two beds were gone, slept on pallets on the wooden floor. My sister, five years younger, slept with me. My brother, two years younger, slept with the two smaller boys. The two babies slept in the other bedroom, one in Mama’s bed, and one in Daddy’s bed. The baby crib was ready for the baby that was coming. I couldn’t remember our house ever being without a baby crib, set up and being used.
Wednesday evening came and we got ready to go to church. Usually we three older kids went to church with Daddy, but Mama couldn’t go because she had four children younger than us, and one on the way. If she went, she filled up the whole nursery with just our family.
I loved the church – Second Baptist on Second Avenue. I always wondered why it was called Second Baptist. I had no idea that there was a First Baptist Church downtown somewhere. But Second Baptist was a major part of my life. My brother, two years younger, and I often went by ourselves, even when Daddy was gone to the hospital, or he didn’t go.
I remember that Wednesday night like it was yesterday. My Brother and I went without Daddy, and we could hear several people in the church making comments and whispering about “no bedroom furniture” and “the shame that Watley can’t pay his bills”. We were both extremely embarrassed and hurt, and my brother wanted to leave. But, I told him that this was God’s house and no matter what the people thought, I was sure that God still loved us. I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when my long-time Sunday School teacher approached us and offered us a ride home.
She talked to us that night on the way home, with her husband and her five kids in the car. She told us that sometimes “we have trials to face that God allows, but he is there for our pain and suffering and he ‘will not put more on us than we can bear’, even though he might seem to be approaching the limit. I listened carefully because I desperately needed encouragement at that moment. I needed to know that there was hope and I needed to know where to find it.
“You find hope within yourself,” she said. “You ask God for strength. You promise yourself that through that strength and the human spirit breathed into us by Him, you will wake up tomorrow and go about your life with dignity and respect. You determine not to let the events of the last day, hour, or minute, be the driving force for your future.
This cotton mill-working mother of five had given me a new perspective on life that I never forgot. I learned that you don’t dwell on the past - you accept every new day as a gift from God Himself. You work with God to make every day of the rest of your life the best that it can be. I look by on that traumatic event and many others like it and I realize that they gave me the strength that I have today. They were the “tempering of the steel beams of my life”.
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