copyright: Barbie Perkins-Cooper
Childhood is a time of great joy and remembrance for most people. The carefree days of laughter, hope, freedom and pride is only a glimpse into what the future holds. Most people can reflect on childhood by looking back at preserved photographs captured during birth, a first haircut, loss of the first tooth, taking that most important first step, birthday parties, and so many innocent events during the journey of life. For me, that is not the case. My childhood snapshots were tossed away by my mother when I left her home.
I have no idea why she tossed me away, like yesterday’s spoiled, rotten trash. One of my cousins said she grabbed all of my pictures and threw them away in a fit of anger when I left home. She yanked my senior picture off the wall, throwing it into the trash. “I never want to hear her name again in this house. She’s gone – forever,” my mother shouted in a fit of rage. I pictured my mother, rushing about, rummaging through my empty dresser drawers, and closet, while she swept photographs and all memories of me away, like yesterday’s trash. “Out of sight, out of mind,” she said, tossing the images of me into the trash.
The only picture I salvaged is a tattered black and white 8 x 10 photograph of me as a five-year-old. My hair was long, golden blonde locks of ringlet curls. I wore a lace dress with a ruffled collar. A pink bow was in my hair. My eyes glistened with brightness for what the future held for me. Little did I know this picture, preserved for many years in my father’s scrapbook collection, was the only image illustrating my existence.
The lukewarm water of the Atlantic Ocean tickles my toes as it rushes to reach high tide. I inhale the scent of ocean air, salt and sea delicacies, crabs, shrimp, sea turtles and the humid dampness of the ocean.
Later, as the sun is setting, I stroll along the shore, watching the warm salt water cover my toes and I am so thankful to be here, along the shores of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. Station 27 oceanfront is the place where I feel home. I have love and acceptance and such pride to be alive and accepted. Although people speak to me while I saunter along the shore, they recognize me as ‘one of the regulars here,’ but they do not know me. Yes, they know my name and they know I live nearby, but they do not know who I am or what I believe in. Nor do they know I came from the shores of the Chattahoochee River and the mill town of Bibb City. They see a reflection of success and envy in me and I must laugh when I hear them whisper my name. She’s a travel writer, they whisper.
Continuing my stroll, the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse is only a stone’s throw away. Standing over 140 feet tall, in the shape of a triangle, the lighthouse is a signature landmark for the community and was designed by the Coast Guard in 1962. Stopping to gaze at this amazing concrete structure, I recognize this is where my roots are planted. My foundation for home and life are here, along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, I feel safe, bonded in the arms of God along the shores of Sullivan’s Island at the beach at Station 27. The lighthouse stands as a beacon of light to guide me home, and that is when I realize, I have finally found home, here where my heart and soul are one.
“Home is where the heart is,” my mother said to me as a child and as a newly married woman. “I’ve never had a home,” I spat back at her, realizing I held my love back, protecting it because my life was always filled with ridicule and criticism. No one had really loved me until my husband came into my life.
I said goodbye to my mother in 1988, the morning after my high school class reunion. On that morning, my son interrupted my sleep by asking me what a whore was. I rubbed my eyes, stumbling awake to ask where he had heard the word.
“Granny called you a whore. What’s a whore, Mommy? It’s something bad, isn’t it.”
“It’s not a nice name and it’s a word you should not speak again, at least until you’re grown.”
“Why would she call you that word?”
“That’s a good question, and I will ask her in a minute. You go back to sleep.” I kissed Michael on the cheek, tucking him in with his father. I slipped on my robe, and headed to my mother’s room.
I knocked three times. She opened her eyes. “Why did you call me a whore?” I shouted.
“I did no such a thing.”
“Yes, you did.” Michael stood next to me. “You said my mommy was a whore and a drunk.”
The argument continued for an hour. Garrett awoke to the shouting. Recognizing this conversation would be an eternal shouting match of two stubborn women who butted heads all the time, he said we were leaving. I grabbed our luggage and stormed out of the house, refusing to look back. I cried an endless ocean of tears from Columbus, Georgia to Charleston, South Carolina. Michael apologized for starting the argument. I responded that he was not the problem. My life as a child of the Chattahoochee, the daughter to a woman who could not show love at all, was the problem. The only solution was to build my life with my family, Garrett and Michael.
I made the decision to leave Bibb City after my marriage to Garrett. I never looked back when we drove away. My head remained high, a happy smile on my face, my husband squeezing my hand.
Although I felt compelled to look back, to wave goodbye to my mother and the city of my childhood, I remained strong. I would not cry. I would not glance back one last time. I was taking one final giant step to freedom and my journey as a woman, laying a corner stone to a new life built with love, strength, and a solid foundation. I did not want to unlock the door to my skeletons, nor did I want the ghosts to follow me. If I weakened, if my face quivered, or if a tear slipped down my cheek, my new world would crumble. I wanted to grasp that new world, to build a solid groundwork to a new and better life. The decisions I made were the right decisions for me. Yes, I was paying a price. My mother would never forgive me for leaving her, and if I allowed her to, she would manipulate me, finding a way to destroy everything good in my new life.
When new friends asked about my mother, I changed the subject, afraid to express the bitterness she demonstrated by her actions. Once at a dinner engagement, a lanky auburn haired woman inquired about my family.
“They’re in Georgia,” I said.
“You never speak of them.”
“Did you cut your hair?” I asked.
“You’re avoiding the question, aren’t you?”
“There are some things in life better left unsaid.” I excused myself and walked away.
I realized home is where the heart is. My heart was in Charleston, not Bibb City, or the Chattahoochee. My life in Charleston was filled with suburban roots, and a solid brick foundation, not a detour route of housing projects, endless moves from one place to another during the school year, mill villages, hatred, physical and sexual abuse, and nothing to refer to as home. The windows to my world reflected love, pride, and ambition. I pinched myself to bring myself back to reality. I did not wish to remember the disturbing disconnections I shared with my mother.