Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.

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Abnormal

In college, I majored in religion and in psychology. I found the subjects equally fascinating. With psychology, I was particularly intrigued by abnormal psychology — the study of why some of us, either occasionally or consistently, act outside the bounds of socially accepted behavior. As with any typical psych major, my family was the primary group on whom I applied my new found education.

Mama was in a fragile state for much of my college years. Her life fell apart when my stepfather disappeared with their 5 year old son, my half-brother. He picked David up from daycare and kept going.  Mama also lost her job at a local hotel. She moved in with her parents (Grandmama and Granddaddy to me) in their double-wide trailer.  Grandmama was very sick from decades of cigarette smoking and was not expected to live much longer. Granddaddy was a disabled WWII veteran.  These were, needless to say, very dark days.

Psychology was useful for me in understanding my dysfunctional family, but Mama did not take well to any psychological analysis. Nonetheless, to her credit, Mama pulled herself through the nightmare, relying in large part on the strength she found in her conservative religious beliefs.

Mama was determined to find my brother and to bring him home. She became a sleuth, sometimes wearing disguises to get the information she needed. Mama finally found David in Pensacola, Florida, where she and my stepfather had met. She brought David home, just in time to see Grandmama before she died. Mama soon found a new job and a new man, whom she later married.

I remember talking to Mama on the phone one night. I told her that none of my friends in college had parents who were divorced. “None?” she asked in disbelief. “None,” I confirmed. I was abnormal.