Mom and Dad lost four babies in ten years while living in Kentucky so were overjoyed to welcome a healthy, blue-eyed, blond girl, Helen, Dec. 31, 1945, in Dayton, Ohio. Dad called her ‘Princess’ and mom treated her like one.
Mom, pregnant again in January 1947, convinced God would give her the son she’d desperately longed for, bought only blue boy’s clothing. After my birth, Labor Day 1947, Mom--suffering severe post-partum depression--acted as if I were stillborn! She mechanically nursed me because formula was so expensive. I wasn’t a boy or a dainty, blond child like Helen; I weighed 9 lbs. 7 1/2 ounces and was 20 inches long--the biggest baby in the hospital! A blue-eyed, straight-haired brunette with high cheek bones, I reminded Mom that Dad was half Cherokee Indian.
I was barely two months old when Dad realized how serious the situation was. Mom, in the kitchen washing dishes, laid me on their double bed. I was in her line of vision at all times. Helen climbed on the bed, picked up a pillow and put it over my face! Dad happened to come home from work just then, came in the kitchen entry and went over to kiss Mom hello. He saw, in horror, what Helen was doing and rushed to rescue me. Cradling me in his arms, he admonished Helen who simply replied, “Me and Mommy don’t like her. We want God to take her back!”
He gasped as he turned to Mom who simply shrugged. “You want her, Lee, YOU raise her.”
They argued constantly over me so, when Dad was home, I was his responsibility. When he wasn’t, I stayed out of Mom’s way.
Dad died of cancer of the abdomen July 4th, 1953. I was 5 1/2 years old.
When Mom bathed me after Dad passed away, our routine changed. Her manner was coarse, her hands rough. Afraid of her, I squirmed a lot. She dealt with that by pushing my head underwater until I passed out. “That’ll teach you!” She’d pull me up by my hair and I’d gasp. Thankfully, she thought water was expensive so we only bathed once a week. I tried to be exceptionally clean, washing frequently, hoping to escape ‘bath time’. It didn’t work!
Dad’s friends offered assistance of any sort. Finally, having birthed Annie six weeks after Dad’s death (prematurely), Mom let a childless couple (Jo and Walt Whitlock) keep me for weeks at a time. They both were employed but Jo, being a manager, scheduled time off to spend with me. Everything was perfect until they wanted to adopt me!
Mom was furious! “I have five beautiful children and you want to adopt THIS one?” Mom sneered. “Why anyone would want HER is beyond me,” she laughed wickedly. “She’s plain and retarded. Can’t you see that?”
“No, I . . ,” Jo tried to speak.
“I wasn’t finished?” Mom went on. “You’ve spent a fortune on HER. Aren’t you the least bit interested in any of my other five children?” They bought clothes and shoes for all of us but Mom thought mine were better. “No, no, no . . . you can’t have her! I’ll keep her just because you want her. I’ll give her what she deserves.”
“What about . . .”
Mom wagged her finger. “You can’t see her anymore. You’re spoiling her and I can’t have that!”
Neither Jo or Walt got a word in.
“Get off my property and don’t DARE come back! I’ll have your hides thrown in jail!”
They sadly withdrew, but they didn’t give up. They called and drove past for nearly six months. Eventually, they stopped.
Mom started sending me on errands after that--to the grocery store (around the block) with an envelope pinned to my clothes. Dee Dee, then 4, and I would walk together. Helen, 7 1/2, wasn’t allowed out of the yard because she was too pretty and talked to strangers.
“Hey, if anyone grabs YOU, they’ll be sorry. You’re a pain in the butt!” If my own mother believed that, perhaps it was so. Daddy never lied to me, why should she?
Mom began showing us Dad’s old hearing-aid, palming it in her hand and swinging it around in front of us kids. “THIS is your dad’s hearing-aid. None of you better tell anyone if something doesn’t work right or someone will stick something like THIS on you.” She thrust it out like a monstrosity. “Folks called your dad a freak! Do you want them to call you one too?”
We shook our heads negatively but, unable to keep my mouth shut, I blurted out. “They also called him ‘nigger’ because he was an Indian.”
Instinctively, Mom slapped me across the face. “We don’t talk about Indians or niggers in this house. We’re white folk and that’s what we’ll always be!” She didn’t like my mute stare so dumped the aid on the floor, put both of her hands on my shoulders and shook me violently. “Do YOU understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I stammered.
“You ain’t got the mind to pour piss out of a bucket.” Her red face contorted. “You bring me grief and I’ll put you out on the streets or, worse yet, I’ll put you in ‘retard’ school. They’ll feed you bread and water, strip you naked and make you mop the floors till they shine.” Her hot breath was on the tip of my nose. “Is that what you want? You’ll never see any of us again. Think about it!”
I did but still got in trouble constantly--for shortening Helen’s name, talking back, repeating words Mom used when she was angry--till Mom decided she’d had enough. She’d take me into the bathroom, give me a full glass of water and watch me drink. Meanwhile she’d lather a bar of soap, and then (when I’d finished drinking) thrust it into my mouth. I’d gag but she’d clamp my mouth shut while I swallowed the lather. I’d spend the rest of the day with excruciating cramps and nausea. In time, I learned to hold my tongue.
I didn’t DARE tell mom that everyone whispered too much as it would cause her grief or be considered a freak. I learned to lip-read well enough to fool most everyone. By watching my siblings and friends, I managed to blend in with them.
First grade was a breeze. Then, in the second grade, I was sent home with a note that read “LICE”. Mom, again furious, thoroughly checked my head. I had dandruff! So Mom and a neighbor who was a teacher, took me to school the next day. Mom told my teacher and the principal off. After they left, Mrs. K (still mad) moved my desk into the cloak room . . . away from everyone. “Don’t play with Sandy. She has lice.”
I sat in the back of the room for two weeks! I was prohibited from the playground and the library. I could not touch anything other than what was already in my desk. I ate at my desk and sat alone on the bus until Mrs. K relented and allowed me to rejoin the others.
In the third grade, age 11, we were seated alphabetically and I, again, wound up in the back of the classroom. I could neither hear or see the teacher. My best friend, Shirley, and I worked out a scheme whereby she’d write down verbal assignment then I’d run up (when the teacher wasn’t looking) and grab the note. Obviously, I got caught fairly often and was accused of cheating.
One of my teachers disagreed with that notion and insisted that the school retest my hearing. She stood (out of my vision) and watched me during the test. I peered intensively at the window in the testing area and would raise my the hand when the dials were turned. At her request, the window covered for still another test! Only then was it discovered that I’d lost 45% of my hearing in both ears. The doctors estimated that I’d been born with a 33% loss in both ears. The prognosis was progressive nerve deafness.
(Over the years, they tested my siblings with the window covered. Four of us--all of us girls except Helen--were severely hearing-impaired. Since Dad had been severely hearing-impaired, our disability was considered inherited. The doctor suggested sterilization lest we continue to pass on this horrid disability! Mom, thereafter, constantly ‘reminded’ us not to ‘reproduce’ more freaks.)
School was now a huge hurdle. In Dayton, Ohio in 1956 all handicapped children were sent to separate and distinct schools. The public school board recommended my transfer to The Kennedy School for the Deaf and Hearing-Impaired. However, I’d successfully attended public schools for years. Mom refused to comply with their policy of ‘separate but equal’ and continued to put me on the bus along with my siblings. With the support of my teachers, and my mom threatening to sue the school district, I was allowed to continue so long as I thrived ‘without special assistance’.
The Lion’s Club furnished my first hearing-aid--a huge, chunky body aid which slipped into a little holder that fastened around my neck. The first night I wore it, I cried because of the noise--newspapers crumbling, my siblings whining, the swish of the wind against the window. My world was now alive with annoying, unnecessary, ‘noises’. I hated it!
Mom, however, made me wear it (part of the deal of going to public school) and would slip it under my clothes first thing in the morning to keep it from flopping around. The metal box was cold and clammy in the winter. I’d jump at the touch of it. Frequently the wind tangled the cording in my hair and every swish would bring the whistle of feedback. Eventually I adjusted; Mom didn’t.
Whenever there was a revival anywhere nearby, Mom would drag me up to the alter for ‘healing’. She’d swear I was ‘healed’ and take my hearing-aid away for a few days. When it didn’t ‘take’ and Mom grew weary of repeating herself, she’d take her belt or a switch to me for not being ‘good enough’ to be healed.
School, however, went well until I turned eleven and began the sixth grade. Helen was rough on her clothes and didn’t repair the tears or sew buttons back on. I’d been sewing since age nine and repaired her clothes myself . . . but we didn’t always have matching thread or buttons. I used whatever we was available. I was a skinny 5’7” and Helen was a curvaceous 5’2” so her waistline was under my bust line.
My teacher, Ruth Snyder, feeling sorry for me, began giving me ‘bags’ of her clothes, shoes, etc. because a lot of my hand-me-downs were rather worn. Unfortunately some of these items were recognized by my classmates as having belonged to her and, consequently, I was labeled as her ‘pet’.
I worked in the school cafeteria (washing dishes, etc.) to pay for my lunch and that of my younger siblings. Inevitably, I smelled of hot dogs, fish, or whatever we had for lunch. I took home extra work to make up for the time spent working in the cafeteria, but still was an ‘A’ student . . . much to the annoyance of my classmates who didn’t understand the circumstances.
One afternoon on the playground at Overlook Elementary I was suddenly surrounded by fellow students who began calling me names.
“Freak, go home!”
“You belong with your own kind!”
“Humpty-Dumpty, Sandy is frumpy.”
“Stupid, you embarrass us!”
I couldn’t keep up with the voices, didn’t hear everything, but dismissed some of the more crude statements along with the curse words.
As the crowd of kids began to circle around me, pebbles began to rain upon my head. Little rocks bounced off my shoulders and head, but the circle was moving with me. There was no escape.
I pushed my friend, Sharon, would was walking alongside me, aside when they began throwing larger stones. Being in a shower of stones was an eerie feeling because it was unprovoked and being done by those whom I’d known for years, my classmates.
Shielding my face with my arms, I slowly made my way toward the trees thinking they would soon stop or the playground attendants would intervene. The attendants, however, both had their backs to the scene and were busily chatting.
Embracing the gnarly trunk with both arms high over my head, the eerie rain grew more heavy with larger stones nicking my skin, drawing blood. I didn’t cry out or protest; I knew better. It seemed so unreal that I wondered if it were a surreal nightmare and, if so, prayed I’d wake up quickly.
Sharon broke through the crowd screaming at the top of her lungs. “Stop! Leave her alone!” She shielded me as best she could with her own body. “You’re hurting her!”
Her head rested at the nape of my neck as her warm tears trickled down inside my blouse. As the rocks continued to rain, Sharon kept screaming. She was close enough that her screams echoed. Her cries brought the playground attendants, teachers from INSIDE the school and even the principal.
“Run!” The word rose quickly. “They’re coming!”
A male pressed forward with a promise, “You say a word, you’ll pay!” It was loud enough that he thought I heard him speak. I didn’t, Sharon did, but she kept it to herself at that time.
The crowd dispersed quickly as they became concerned about being identified and punished. Many of them were children of folks stationed at WPAFB with rather strict military parents; others were poor white kids trying to fit in with our wealthier classmates.
Acutely aware, constantly reminded by my mom, that I was the first and only known handicapped student in the area public schools, I didn’t want to ‘rock the boat’. I wanted to be liked and respected even though I was different. To anger them could harden their hearts so I begged Sharon not to identify any of them. As in the past, I believed silence was better.
They called Mom, of course, but I refused to leave that day. Instead, I returned to the classroom. I had hearing-impaired sisters who were attending public schools. I couldn’t let them be bullied or put into Kennedy’s because I couldn’t ‘hack it’. None of the ‘authorities’--including Mom--understood why we refused to give the names of those involved. Sharon told them about ‘the threat’ so they erroneously assumed that was the reason.
The alternative was to have an assembly. The authorities said that acts of violence against others on school grounds or on the buses wouldn’t be tolerated and would be prosecuted to the fullest extend of the law.
Those who initiated the assault--boys and girls--were surprised that I didn’t act differently toward them but doing so would’ve revealed who they were. They remained acquaintances with whom I continued my education.
Sharon, however, moved the following year. We wrote for a few months and then lost touch with one another.
In the fall, at age twelve, I became head-of-the-house! Mom went to bed with rheumatoid arthritis and seldom left her bed. Helen, 15, was assigned the cooking chores, Dee Dee, 11, helped with dishes. Housework was shared.
Mom signed her checks, I’d cash them, pay the bills, buy the groceries, set up the menus for Helen, signed my younger siblings into school, took them to the doctor, etc. Mom ate in bed, took sponge baths and used a bedpan. My youngest sisters, Bev 10 and Ann 7, were her nurse’s aides--helped her wash, eat, etc. Mike 8 1/2, helped me do yard work.
Mom’s tongue was as fast as her cane. We still got lashings but less often. She ruled from her bed and no one dared cross her.
When I graduated high school in 1965, with honors, and was awarded two scholarships, Mom gave me two options: she’d attend the ceremony (in a wheelchair) OR I could have pictures taken. I chose to have Mom present. Moments after the ceremony one of the initial attackers from the sixth grade, Gale, cautiously approached me. Obviously something was bothering her.
Her soft voice nearly broke as she stumbled to get the hard words out. “You’re not only beautiful outside, you have this inner glow too.”
I started to speak but she put one of her fingers on my lips.
“Your drawings have been wall-to-wall advertising our yearbook. You’ve been on the Honor Society for years yet freely help those who fall behind in their work. You’re everywhere.”
A gentle tear cascaded down her cheek. She was beautiful, popular and from a well-to-do family . . . unlike me. “I’ve watched you excel without hurting other people and go out of your way to help others. I envy your sweetness, your good heart and your soul! It’s bothered me all these years that you never told, that none of us were punished.” She softly sobbed. “Will you forgive me? Us?”
With tears filling my own eyes, I wanted to embrace her yet knew that wasn’t the proper thing to do. “If it’s bothered you to this extent you’ve punished yourself more than anyone else would have.” Humbled, it was difficult to find my voice. “I’ll never forget it because it helped make me who I am. I’ve never held it against any of you. We were all forgiven while we were still children.”
“But you didn’t do anything wrong!”
“Perhaps not,” I explained, “but I was trying so hard to be normal that I was overdue a reminder that I was not.”
Gale nearly interrupted.
“Hey, it’s okay! Until that day I was somewhat ashamed of myself and my disability. Now I’m different but adaptable!”
She grasped my hand and squeezed tightly. “See what I mean?” Her smile was genuine. “You’re a good person and most of the time the rest of us aren’t good people.” Our tears fell on co-joined hands. “Thank you, Sandy. May your life be happy.”
We parted friends as Gail returned to the group she’d hung with for years, many of them friends from our sixth grade class. The others eagerly gathered around her--perhaps she’d spoken for others besides herself--and they all turned to wave good-bye as we parted. Our paths have never crossed again.
Before my dad died, while he was hospitalized, he whispered a secret in my ear. “Remember what I told you about the child who must suffer so my people, lost on earth, can go on to the happy hunting grounds. That child must be pure in heart, without hate, no matter what.” He kissed my cheek softly.
“You be that peacemaker. Never forget that God loves you . . . no matter what.”
I’ve never forgotten!