It was the early 1970’s, and my friend Vicky and I sat on her back porch playing with our dolls. It was a beautiful summer afternoon, both hot and breezy. Vicky lived in front of me in what was referred to back then as the project homes. Our homes were actually townhouses nestled together in groups of buildings made specifically for low income housing. Most of my friends at school lived there and Vicky was one of my best friends, and she happened to be a white girl, which is rare because the media doesn’t often show white people in the ghetto’s during the seventies. But there were plenty of white people living around us when I was younger. Our neighborhood was definitely classified as the ghetto, but loving called the West End by those who lived there. Despite what the media portrays about “the projects” in the seventies, White people actually lived in housing back then too, and in my world Vicky and her family were no different than any other family that lived there. What was different was Vicky’s father also lived there, and this was not the case in most of the black families that lived in the development. Very few fathers lived in our homes. Most of the homes were headed by women. There were a lot of families that had other family members who lived very close by. Our neighborhood was filled with families and it was meant to be a starting block to moving on to something better. However a lot of families never made it out of the ghetto.
What I loved about going to Vicky’s house was seeing all of the ceramic nic-nacs on ever book shelf. This seems to be most of what I could actually remember about visiting inside her home. All of the ceramic characters and the soap opera’s playing on the television. The same soap operas that played on the television in our home. Later in life Vicky’s mother would open a ceramic shop downtown. They had moved away and so did we, so I lost touch with Vicky and her family. One day when I was much old (about 12 years old), I wondered into her mothers shop. I usually walked downtown or took the city bus by myself and I would go on adventures walking into ever shop that was open on a Saturday afternoon. I walked into this shop nestled in the furthest area, at the end of town and there sat Vicky’s mother as I remembered her making crafts. She remembered me and asked how everyone was doing at home. I told her we were all fine and we chatted for a while. I soon left on my way to continue my journey.
Vicky had a brother who played with my brothers and an older sister named Judy. On Saturdays Vicky and I would play together on her porch. Her mother would spoil us with popsicles and cookies as we played out scenes with our dolls and watched the activities of our neighbors and friends hanging clothes on the clotheslines, or sitting on their porches watching us and other children play. On this particular day as Vicky and I were playing I noticed a woman run around her building and a man chasing her. As I turned to continue playing suddenly Vicky’s mother came quickly out of the house and snatched us inside. The only thing I remembered from that point was the police and ambulance surrounding the area and the building where the woman had been shot down by the man chasing her. Later that day my mom, my brothers and I sat around our porch talking about what happened. My mother asked me what did I see, and I told her what I remembered. She said, “ask God to help you forget”. I did but at 40+ years later I still remember…
I remember the lady’s body laying on the ground under a sheet and all the neighbors standing around watching and telling the news to the neighbors with too much respect to move in close and gawk like the others. I remember the next day hearing about the blood still fresh on the grass from friends who had the courage to go and look up close. I remember it took years before I could walk past that area and when I did I looked for the blood. I always felt the spirit of that woman calling out from that spot and it kept me away like a wall that had a heart beat. I remember being frightened to my core as a little girl to even ride my bike near there. I was somewhere between the age of 5 or 6 years old. I remember.
And then there were times that I just wanted to scream, and so I did. I walked over to high school across the street from our house in Chicago and screamed long and loud over and over again. A young 8 year old girl who was moved abruptly in the night from a small town with trees, and neighbors and friends since Head Start all gone. I screamed for the bamboo couch with no cushion that my mother made me sleep on because there was only one bed for my 3 brothers. I screamed because Chicago was dark and scary. I screamed because our neighbor screamed while she endured a beating every night. I screamed because the people around me seemed sad and angry. I screamed because of the diarrhea I got from eating free food in soup lines. I wanted to go home so I screamed until a neighbor came out and asked me what was wrong. I looked up to see this man standing in front of me asking why I was screaming. I just looked at him feeling foolish. At that time I had no way to articulate why I was screaming. I just knew it felt good. I was in the third grade and I needed to scream. I couldn’t articulate my need to scream so, I told him nothing was wrong. I walked back across the street and went home.
I guess you can say living in this house about 5 Chicago blocks away from the first horrible place we lived was better at that time. We had moved from the dark dungeon we moved to when we first arrived in Chicago. The first place we lived was off 40th Street and Ellis and it must have been partially condemned. If I even remember correctly, I believe we arrived in the middle of the night and we couldn’t quite see the frightening mess we would soon see in the morning. When the sun came up I saw paint torn from the walls in the living room which must have been led paint back then because it was peeling. The large wood framed windows were uncovered. My mother would later cover them with old sheets and newspaper. We all stayed mainly in the one room. I was too scared to go anywhere else in the house.
I don’t even remember much about that place but I do know that the bathroom was unusable except for the commode and the sink. The shower was completely condemned and unusable and rusted. Venturing further down the long dark hallway was the kitchen. There were no working lights in this area of the house. I believe we all slept in the living room and my mother did what she could do to make it livable. At night when we should have been fast asleep the wailing would start. A woman was crying and moaning. At the ripe old age of 8 no one needed to tell me that a man was beating a woman.
Things were really hard for us in Chicago. We were often going to talk to someone about getting food and help. I remember one night in the dungeon, condemned house my mother made cornbread for dinner. It was the only time I really remember her cooking in that house. We were so happy to smell the warm corn cooking throughout the house and we couldn’t wait to eat. When it was finally done my mother set the bread on the stove to cool. A few minutes later using our flash light we came back to the kitchen to get the cornbread, however our hearts dropped as we were told by my mother we couldn’t eat it. Rats had gotten on top of the stove and ate portions of it and defecated on the rest of it. Of course my brothers we more excited about seeing the rat droppings and beating the walls with their feet and fist to drive away the rats. Then we ran back down the hall screaming and acting like children again daring the rats to come out again. Yes we were disappointed but we were kids. We quickly were back to entertaining ourselves and readying ourselves for the next day. We went to bed hungry that night. I couldn’t wait to get to school the next morning. They served breakfast and chocolate milk. I loved school. We got to eat. 🙂
Mother & Child (Photo credit: michaelpickard)
I woke up this morning thinking about all the addresses on my credit report and I realized that I couldn’t remember the exact addresses of all the places I’ve lived. So I began to recite them in my mind to see how far I could go back. Suddenly I realized that there is a story for every address. From the Taft Homes until this very day there is a story. And so the journey begins.
As a woman and a mother, I struggle with my own childhood and what I experienced as a child. It wasn’t all bad, but what was bad has changed my life forever and is the reason why I struggle with relationships. I am very hard on those I love. I demand loyalty. There are no gray areas. Unfortunately the times my mother wasn’t there for me mentally or emotionally were devastating times for me, and underneath the tough skin hides the scars.It is from the scars that I operate and show my love. It is from the scars that I understand unnecessary pain and disappointment. I am showing you the scars.
I struggle with writing these things because like many I worry about what you will think of me. The stories I could tell you… As a child I can remember playing in the mirror pretending I had a different life. Although I can’t blame everything on my mother. There were times I deliberately disobeyed rules and guidelines like any child trying to find their way. I lied about the homework I didn’t do, and liking the boy down the street and maybe kissing him. I ate the cookies I was told not to eat. At times stayed up too late singing all the songs I learned in school and the limericks I learned from my friends (some with cuss words). I tried on my mother’s lipstick and wore her perfume. I even played in her closet and wore her clothes. But when the boys down the street took me behind the Hickman Center and tried to have sex with me I didn’t tell. I was seven years old and I was scared. Ironically a few days later one of the boys who was involved in taking me behind the building and molesting me went and told my mother what happened. I could remember him threatening me that he was going to tell as if I had did something wrong. I begged him not to but he did. It’s strange now when I look back and realize that he thought I wanted to go with him and the other boy. I just didn’t know how to say no or fight them. I was scared. I was seven. So when my mother asked me what happened I clammed up. I was scared and ashamed because I didn’t know what happened. They grabbed me, and threatened me, and told me not to tell, and I didn’t because I thought I had did something wrong. I am not sure why my mother thought it would be a good idea to take me to his house and confront his parents. I was humiliated. The boy’s mother must have said she would handle it and that was the end of that saga. That young boy who is now a man who is currently serving 65 years to life in the Federal Penitentiary for a long history of raping and molesting children. I often wonder what if my mother had taken what happened to me serious and demanded attention for those boys. Would he be in prison today? Would she had protected other children from the horror I experienced? I would later find out that my mother would never stop anyone from hurting any of us. Maybe she didn’t know how to protect us. Maybe she was afraid. From that day forward she always suspected me of being sexual in a negative way. It was never portrayed to me as something good. She stopped believing in my innocence perhaps because sex was never anything but forbidden and wrong to her… (pure speculation).
Soon after about a month or so later it was my birthday and we had family party. Later that night my mother had a large argument with her boyfriend and her sister. My aunt who had been drinking wanted to take my brother home with her. My mom and her boyfriend objected and it turned into an ugly shouting match and soon the police were called so my mother ran away. She ran out of the house and down the street, and left us kids there alone when the police came. I was so terrified I hid behind the door in the bathroom. A police officer looked behind the door and asked me if I was okay. I just shook my head yes and he left. I was terrified standing there in my night gown alone. I couldn’t believe my mother ran off and left us and I wondered if she was dead or hurt. She came back after the police left and the next morning we left our home and our friends and moved to Chicago.