I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Friday, December 11, 2009


The year was 1961. I had graduated from high school the previous summer, and this year I lost my virginity, got married, and became a mother. I was eighteen.

I have to tell you, the last few days I have been thinking about this next post. I've started and stopped several times, because going back into the past and thinking about this stuff brings up old demons that I am happy to exorcise -- but they tend to stick barbs of regret and shame into me. Last night I tossed and turned until I woke up Smart Guy, and we talked in the middle of the night. I told him I was going to call this one "Indifference" and write about my first marriage and how badly I treated him. After telling the story, he pointed out that I was anything but indifferent, but trapped into a path, a life, that gave me no options.

My son was conceived on February 1, 1961, under a full moon at a gravel pit, where we were parked in my parents' Austin Healy Sprite, a tiny little car, in Albany, Georgia. I know when it happened, because it was the only time it happened. Derald was a medic stationed at the nearby air base, and I thought he looked so handsome in his white uniform. I met him only days before; I don't know why I allowed him to "go all the way." I went home and took a bath in the middle of the night. I knew I was pregnant within a week. I know it sounds crazy but my breasts swelled and I just knew. While talking to him on the phone in another week, my mother overheard the conversation, about having to get married if I didn't come around next month.

She was livid. She grilled me about the phone call, about the circumstances of my possible pregnancy, and on March 1, 1961, exactly ONE MONTH after conception, I stood at the altar of my church with Derald, becoming his wife. It was a hurried affair and I remember very little about it. I wore a light blue silk suit; he wore his dress uniform. I don't remember saying "I do" but I do remember the sense of despair, because by this time I knew that I didn't even like my husband very much.

Within a few months, maybe even at the time we were married, he received orders to go to Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, where my father had been stationed twice before. Derald went on ahead to find us a place to live, while I stayed with my parents. I was hoping he wouldn't find a place soon so I could stay in Georgia. But I was constrained by the pregnancy, knowing that I would need to travel there before the eighth month, which is when I flew there. Stepping off the plane and seeing Derald's face, I knew how trapped I really was. I felt no love for him, although I knew he loved me. (He was a good man; I know that now.)

On November 10, 1961, our son Christopher Eric was born. I was instantly and completely in love. This little being became the focus of my existence, along with mountains of diapers (there was no such thing as disposables) and we managed to pass a year in relative calm. Derald was so proud of his family, his beautiful wife and healthy strapping son. We lived off base about a quarter mile from the ocean, and I would take Chris there, along with a hamper of baby stuff, and we would spend the day there. It was idyllic in many ways.

On December 1, 1961, I had my nineteenth birthday. Still a teenager, but now a wife and mother. That is the story of how I began married life. There is so much more to tell, but this is part of the reason I feel so much regret. We were only married for five years, but before he died of sudden cardiac death in the late 1980s, we became reconciled. Derald was only 51 when he died. Chris would die of the same thing many years later at the age of 40. They are gone but I am still here, trying to make sense of my life.

In late 1962, I left Puerto Rico to go to Flint, Michigan, where Derald lived before his military career, to meet his parents and live with them until he was discharged. I stayed with them, giving his mother Glen a stipend that Derald sent me each month. I think I was there in that house with them for close to a year. I had never seen such a level of poverty: even though they had a regular tract house, inside there was no furniture, no refrigerator, no stove, no hot water. Derald's father was a very strange man who gave his wife Glen two dollars a day to feed the family and never provided anything more than the house. Glen had two boys, Derald's younger brothers, so there we were: six people in that house in the dead of winter.

Glen watched Chris while I looked for work. I remember walking from place to place in a cheap coat and high heels, crying, with the tears freezing on my cheeks. I found a job at a place that gave out loans to people at high interest rates. But I had some tiny little escape from the sadness that was my life at the time, with the bright spot of my beautiful son.

Derald and I eventually had another son, but that is a story for another time. I am dragging out these old memories for two reasons: one, to get rid of them, and two, to understand who that young mother really was, and forgive her.


Whitney Lee said...

Wow. I can see why you struggled with this post. How heart-wrenching for all of you. I'm not sure that I see anything to forgive yourself for. You made choices in your life that had unexpected consequences, but it seems as though you did the best you knew to do with the results.
I cannot imagine what a struggle your daily existence must have been. It's a dose of reality that not many would have managed well. I'm sure I wouldn't. I know that life is not easy or was not easy for a large number of people; still, it seems I lead quite the charmed existence in comparison.
I'm wondering though, where you went after living with Derald's family for that year. What was the next step in your journey?
I feel the need to point out that it serves no purpose to judge yourself for who you were. Life is supposed to be a journey, hopefully one on which you grow as a person. It sounds to me as if you handled life better than most would. You should look at all you learned from this period of time.

DJan said...

Well said, Whitney. I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself for having been so completely and utterly unaware that anyone was suffering but me.

My next post will take it from this point and what happened next. I know that the person I am now would not have made the choices I did then, but the person I am now still judges my young self and I am willing to let it go. But first I have to NAME it, tell the story, so I can put my mental arms around it. I think, anyway...

Norma Jean said...

As much as we hate to look back at who we were then, we would not be the people we are now if not for the experience of dealing with the bad things that happened to us in the past. It really is true, "what does not kill you, makes you stronger".

Every person is just trying to get through life the best way they know how every day. Be glad you have come as far as you have. You have turned into a strong, independent women. I love who you are...

Whitney Lee said...

I have a great deal of shame and regret of my own, DJan. I have treated people in my past quite callously, and those few I didn't treat callously I treated cruelly. At that age, though, it's a rare soul who isn't self absorbed. I know I was. I'm sure that a great deal of your self focus was tempered by the necessary selflessness of parenting.

I agree that you have to take out all of those old memories and look at them honestly before you can begin to forgive yourself. That is quite a difficult (and painful) process because, lets face it, it's tough to look at ones self and acknowledge what an ass one was! Many, many people simply never do that. I was fortunate enough to be forced into facing my own demons 5 years ago at a relatively young age. Even at that age, though, I'd accumulated quite a number of spectacularly asinine choices.

I will say again that I admire your courage in the undertaking of this journey and am grateful you've chosen to include us along the way.

Silver said...

i stumbled on your blog. Read your story.. and i am glad you are writing about them. It worked for me- y'know, processing them, and eventually, they do stop haunting me.


Silver said...

:)That sounds so nice.. i may just do that! but right now, i am going to turn out the lights because it's past 1 am in the corner of my world!

btw, the picture is earmarked for one of the places i would love to go.. ;) Don't we all!!!


wendyytb said...

My 97 year old best friend gave me a gift many years ago. When my children were causing me a great deal of grief, she said, "Wendy.... Old heads are not borne on young bodies." I have never forgotten that statement...have used and shared it many times.

I made many mistakes, myself... but I am older now...and I do better....at least some of the time.

The Retired One said...

How awful for you to have to marry someone you barely knew, yet it turned out that you had a wonderful son from these events.

I got married to someone I fell in love with, two years after high school, and it is the same man I am still married to. But we often talk about it now..how terribly young we were and how we would have killed our daughters had they wanted to do the same.

Life now is so different.
People live together before marriage. It is almost an expectation.

We often wonder now, if we would have done that instead if society would have not looked upon it as a sin or with shame.

Life's script is unknown to us, and for a good reason.

I feel sorry for your pain as a young woman then and in your poverty in Flint.

I look at photos of me when I was a little girl and a young woman and I want to shout out advice to the pictures....
but they don't hear me...
as it should be.

Far Side of Fifty said...

Hi DJan, I have not been here for awhile..you have been busy!
Hindsight is 20/20, join the group ..we all could have done better..I will read on:)

Leave a Legacy said...

Don't be so hard on yourself. You were trying to do the right thing. I could have easily been in your same situation had it not been just luck that I didn't find myself pregnant. But what if-----? As I read about your early life there are so many of my own memories coming up from that time in my life. And it is hard to remember back that far real clear. I really admire you for doing this and wish that I had the courage to do the same. I'm just not there yet.