11:59:59...Miraculous Deliverances at the Very Last Moment
by Vida M. Gaynor
In the summer of 1933 we could not stay in the Gary parsonage any longer because a new minister had been hired. Daddy proclaimed that he had received a "vision" from God that would take him around the country to "organize Negroes" to become self-sufficient and build their own hospitals! According to him, this vision had its roots in the anger and chagrin he experienced when a few weeks before my birth and their move to New York, Mother experienced false labor pains and was refused treatment at a South Carolina hospital just because she was black. Daddy's "vision" was the impetus for moving us, his 43-year-old, college-educated, immigrant wife and their five children from Gary, West Virginia, to live in a nice six-room house in the adjoining coal-mining town of Welch, West Virginia. The rent for this house was paid for only one month. Food on hand consisted of 2 cans of sardines, a half can of Carnation evaporated milk, and a loaf of bread in the icebox. With this, Daddy abandoned us to follow his "mission." He claimed that since he had been "called" to do God's work, we would be divinely cared for! I was the oldest of the five children and was only seven years old at the time, while the youngest of us was not yet two. It always seemed to me that Daddy's "call" was his way of avoiding the responsibility of taking care of the family he created.
Our mother's life from that time forward, centered upon finding food for the family on a day-to-day basis. Some months after Daddy left, she was hired to teach illiterate coal miners and their wives at night school classes held at the local elementary school. Later, she had to travel considerable distances high into the hills to teach them in their shacks, which were perched up in the hollows and accessible only by a version of mountain climbing that people in that region were forced to learn in order to get from one place to another. Though these teaching assignments brought in some income, it was never enough. Suddenly, even these precarious funds ended when the school system found other things to do with its money. From that time on, I can remember Mother doing various things to try to keep us alive. She worked in the homes of white women across the railroad track. She sold dresses on commission for a company called Fashion Frocks. She sometimes did laundry and housework in the homes of the professional Blacks who could afford her meager rate. For a while we were on "relief." "Relief" was the term used for government assistance to the poor, which is known as welfare today. Our brief eligibility for these "relief" funds was terminated because the authorities said that to continue to qualify, Mother would have to swear out a non-support warrant against our father. This she refused to do, believing that such action would cause his arrest if he ever came back into town. She said that she did not want her children to live with the stigma of having a father in jail! When things got really bad, I can remember the absolute rage I felt towards him as well as the resentment I felt towards Mother. There were times when she had to send me to the homes of neighbors with a letter to beg for food because there was nothing—absolutely nothing—in the house for us to eat!
I was sent to the home of a popular schoolmate named Edward Washington. I, like every girl in our class, had a little crush on him even though I was only 8 or so and he was 12. There are no words to express the embarrassment and shame that always threatened to keep me from being able to speak, and then only to stutter, when he opened the door to my knock. I knew that he knew what was in the letter I brought, and I tried not to notice the slight curl of contempt that played around his lips as he opened the door to let me in. I often wondered whether he thought that my mendicant position gave him the right when we were alone in the living room to always try to pin me down and force his hand into my panties and finger my vagina! Edward and I had been in the same grade, ever since we moved to Welch and we were always rivals for the highest grades in the class. Not only was he smart, but also he was drop-dead handsome with his dark, dark chocolate, velvety skin and curly, "good" hair! He was the youngest of three children in a family that had a combination of white, African and Native American heritage. They were a working class family. Edward's father and older brother worked in the coal mine and his mother stayed at home as a full time housewife. The older sister had been able to go off to the college for Blacks in Bluefield, West Virginia.
Now, the Washington's were far from well off, but in comparison to our family and many others in Welch, they lived fairly comfortably. In the winter, their house was always warm. In the summer, a big electric fan in the living room circulated whatever breeze came in from the windows. They had a player piano that I loved to listen to while Mrs. Washington was trying to find something in the kitchen she could send to Mother to feed us. Most times she would look in her breadbox and fill a paper bag with day old bread from the store, biscuits, or corn bread that she herself had baked. She and every one in Welch knew all about us. They knew that those funny talking people may be educated, but the man had "run off" and left his family uncared for, while he claimed to be doing something for God! And Mother did not want us to be stigmatized by having a father in jail? I did not have any problem with it. I often thought that our father ought to be made to support us, and if he refused, he deserved to be in jail! If I had had the power, there is no question that jail is exactly where he would have been! Years later, Mother told me that he had threatened that he had rather rot in jail than be coerced into abandoning "God's work."
In the schools where Black children attended in West Virginia, it was necessary to purchase all of the materials needed for class, including books, pencils, pens, notebooks and paper. Mother could not afford to buy these materials for us, so we had to beg our schoolmates to let us "borrow" paper and pencil from them and then beg to sit with them and share their books in the classroom. The "colored" school was at least a mile from where we lived and often during the harsh, cold West Virginia winters, we walked to school with cardboard or even newspaper in our shoes, to protect our feet from the snow and ice on the road. However, from Mother's point of view (we were never permitted to use the word "Mama" like other children, though we longed to), there were never any excuses, no matter what our circumstances, for not living up to her expectation that we would achieve excellence!
Our mother was a very proud woman who, despite our desperate living situation resulting from Daddy's abandonment, insisted on our aspiring to and achieving excellent performance in school and the maintenance of the "proper standards" she modeled. In Jamaica, Mother had been a teacher and the daughter of a teacher who was a strict schoolmaster and who expected excellence from all of his students, particularly from his own children. Mother taught all of us to read fluently and taught us simple arithmetic before we ever went to school. We all entered school in the third grade because we had already mastered the material in the preceding grades. We were expected to speak "proper" English, exhibit "proper" behavior, and never put her in a position to be ashamed of us. These "proper" standards and values were ingrained in our mother and so I wondered over and over again during our growing up years, how she could ever permit herself and her children to be so badly treated by any man, no matter how tall, handsome, educated or fast talking he was!
Mother herself was never harsh with us. I cannot remember ever being spanked or whipped by her. On the other hand, neither can I remember receiving too many hugs or any praise from her for living up to her expectations either! If we misbehaved in any way, she only had to look in our direction and speak once, for the misbehavior to cease immediately. Despite the fact that she did not show us much outward affection, we knew that she loved us even if she never told us. I know that our early conditioning and Mother's insistence on excellence had a profound effect on us. Though none of us has become rich or even well off and our early experiences took some heavy emotional tolls on every one of us, success in life was an expectation. There were the expectations that we would not only have personal goals and aspirations, but that we would also make a contribution beyond ourselves affecting our society. These expectations produced three PhDs, one lawyer, and a union labor organizer whose work took him as far as the Soviet Union!
Now, Mother was not deadly serious all of the time nor outwardly depressed by her circumstances. Sometimes she would entertain and charm us in Jamaican dialect with stories and folktales she had heard as a child in Jamaica. The stories she related she said came with the slaves from Africa and were handed down generation after generation. Mother's dream when she left Jamaica to emigrate to the United States was to become a nurse and then later a missionary to Africa. As an early and avid follower of Marcus Garvey, Mother subscribed to his belief in the genius of African people. To spur us on to achieve and to develop our innate potential, she often quoted from his speech in which he enjoined Blacks to "rise up you mighty race!" She also understood world politics. From her analysis of what she observed, she conveyed to us her belief that Black people everywhere on the planet were similarly subjugated.
I will never forget the passion in her voice and the look on her face when she read aloud to us the news from the local newspaper that Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia! She predicted that this was the first salvo in a worldwide conflagration, and she feared that it would be on the continent of Africa that much of the devastation would take place. She said that because the European powers depended on Africa's resources for their survival, these resources would be the underlying reason for the war. Of course, as children we didn't really understand what she was talking about. However, our political education and the way we learned to see and understand race and class as serious forces in world economics must surely have begun at that time. She was absolutely right! The war did develop worldwide and the Allies won, but in its wake, the non-white colonized people all over the world began to stir and agitate for an end to their oppression.
When Mother made this prediction, she was standing in the middle of the living room of what to us as children seemed at the time to be a "big" house! It had a living room, dining room, and kitchen, on the first floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. This was the house our father left us in when he went out to "do God's work." We had enormous space to play in because the house was only furnished with a table and six chairs in the dining room, a bookcase in the living room and three beds upstairs.
We continued to live there for two years after Daddy left us to go on his "mission." I remember clearly the emotional terror we experienced every month when the rental agent for the house, a tall, portly white man, who looked like the actor Sidney Greenstreet in his senior years, came to collect the rent. Mother often had to tell him that she did not have it. He would fulminate and threaten to put us out and every time we saw him coming up the street we would run to Mother and beg her saying, "Don't let him put us out in the street!" But, one day a truck pulled up in front of the house and men began to unload furniture and brought it into the house. Mother was at work and we children were told that the new owners were moving in. We, of course, were terrified to learn that, indeed, the house had been sold to a Black family. We had to move out.
We later learned that despite the fulminations of that old white man each time he came for the rent, the thought of a mother and her five children being put out into the street was so disturbing to him that he had paid the $25 per month rent out of his own pocket for most of that last year we were there. He knew Mother could not pay it, but where were we to go? The new owners were very nice people, but they did not buy a house for their family to have to share it with a woman and her five children that they did not even know! We had to move! Within a month, we had to be out.
Mother trudged up and down Welch looking for housing, some kind of place for us to live. Welch was a difficult place to get around in because there was no public transportation on our side of the railroad tracks. The entire area consisted of hills, under hills, under more hills, with chasms, ravines, gulches and hollows. Though it was arduous, Mother continued walking and looking because the month was swiftly coming to a close. Finally, someone told her about an empty room in an old house on the hill next to the Methodist church that they thought might be available.
There were four rooms in that house. Two on the first floor were separated by a hall, and the two on the second floor were also separated by a hall. Three of them were occupied. On the first floor across from our room lived Miss Ella, an elderly woman who was kind to us and who sometimes shared with us kids something special that she had cooked. On the second floor directly above us was a woman with two boys who went to the same school that we did. We were not really allowed to play or associate with them because Mother said that they "were not up to proper standard." They and their mother were loud and used profanity in almost every conversation. They were not required to read nor were there any educational expectations made of them.
Across from them lived a single woman who was said to be a prostitute. We hardly ever saw her, but we did see men regularly going up to her room at night. Sometimes my brother Joe, and some of his friends would creep up the stairs when she had company and try to peek through the keyhole to see what they could see. Their snickering outside that door one night almost got them caught! Then, one time I opened our door to the hall and saw the father of one of the girls in my class going out the front door after being up there. At nine years old, with no notions yet of the ways of the world, I wondered why in heaven's name he was so far away from where he lived, which was a few hills away!
All six of us lived in our one room, which had a tiny alcove attached to it that served as a make-do closet. In that room were two 3/4 beds, Mother's wedding cedar chest, a wooden crate to hold plates, knives, forks and pots. There was also a coal stove that was used for both heating and cooking. Making a fire meant collecting kindling from the woods behind the house and buying (on rare occasions) or picking up several lumps of coal from the railroad tracks two street levels below where we lived. Mother sent us children down to the tracks to collect the lumps of coal that fell from the coal trains as they hurtled around the curves. This was a chore that had to be done before we went to school. Needless to say, everything was done in that room. The house had neither electricity nor water. There was no toilet facility either. Everyday we had to drag pails of water up the 30 or so rickety wooden steps between the house of our landlady directly across the street to our house. Her house had three levels. There were three steps up from the street leading up to a porch and one large room on the first level; two rooms used as bedrooms and a bathroom on the level below that; and on the third level, another room where a roomer lived. The water we were able to use was available from a spigot on that third level.
For the people in the house where we lived, there was an outhouse much further up the hill, behind and above the house. To get to it, it was necessary to walk outside and around to the back of the house, then climb some more rickety, wooden steps which led to a rickety wooden platform the size of a door, that spanned a ditch about 3 feet deep. Every morning before going to school, Joe and I had to take turns emptying the pail that we used as a toilet, traversing the treacherous route to the outhouse. During the winter with snow and ice everywhere, we often slipped and slid trying to get up to that outhouse with the contents of that pail, which often spilled over onto the ground and sometimes on us as well.
At one point, Mother began to cough and to complain of pains in her chest, probably the result of her having to go out poorly clothed in the cold, harsh West Virginia winters to either seek work or go to work. There was one Black doctor in town who agreed to see her in exchange for helping his wife in the house. He examined her and sent her for an x-ray which indicated that she had tuberculosis. She was told that she could get treatment in a sanitarium in another area of the state, but that she would have to sign us over for care to an orphanage many miles away. She adamantly refused to consent to this. We would watch her stand in the open doorway of that room and breathe cold, fresh air deeply into her lungs, affirming all the while, the verse from the Unity School of Christianity's prayer of faith: "God is my health; I can't be sick. God is my strength unfailing quick. God is my all I know no fear, since God and love and truth are here." Several months later, the doctor who had diagnosed her with tuberculosis was absolutely astonished that her current lung x-ray showed no sign of tuberculosis whatsoever! Many years would pass before I would recognize this close up demonstration of determination and faith for what it really was, and begin to apply the principles in my own life.