MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 10 – Our First Home
© 2003 Diane Sanfilippo
Chapter 10 – Our First Home
This time it was much more difficult for Billy to say good-bye. I could see it in his tear-filled eyes and his words caught in his throat while he told me to take care of myself and to finish taking the medicine. He suggested that I stay home from work a few days, which would have been nice, but I had only been working for about two weeks. It was far too soon to call in ‘sick’, and I knew my mother would practically throw me out of the house for my paycheck.
While I knew he would worry about me, he said as much repeatedly, I also knew this worry could not help but affect his focus on his studies. He needed to pass all of his courses to keep his R.O.T.C. contract, since he had already dropped a math course when he knew he could not make a passing grade. This was a vicious cycle, and without a doubt, I would worry that he would worry too much. I tried to assure him I would be O.K., but his face was drawn and sad as he held me close and kissed me good-bye, whispering how very much he loved me. I was still quite pale and very weak, and as I continued to assure him I would be O.K., I was not all that sure myself, about either my physical or mental stability. I felt as if all the blood was draining from my body while I continued to bleed heavily.
He knew, and I knew, what we had done was wrong and dangerous, but he knew I did it only for him – to keep him from having to drop out of school. Although it was important to Billy what they thought in Griffin, it did not concern me at all. Billy alone was my concern. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him, as an officer’s wife in the Army, thus the abortion was an end to a means. What greater sacrifice could I have made than to take the life of our unborn son to prove my love?
Promising to pick me up the next Saturday afternoon for one short night together, this time with plenty of sex, or so he hoped, with one last long kiss, and a hug filled with the need to hold me close, yet worrying should he squeeze too tightly, he got into the car. I held his hand until he was out of reach. I still could not hold back my tears as he backed out of the driveway and turned the car north towards the distant mountains.
As soon as he was out of sight, I rushed into the house. Bypassing my mother, I ran straight to my room where, clasping Billy’s shirt to my face, I cried for hours and then fully dressed fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning my mother did not question me about our weekend. As usual, she was not at all interested in what I did as long as I was making money to pay for my ‘room and board’, and for once, I was grateful. I was not ready to talk to anyone, not even to Janet. In truth, I never would be.
Sunday I spent my time playing quietly with my baby sister, thus keeping my mother from bothering me with too many questions. Unknown to me, she had found a pair of bloody underpants I had forgotten and left soaking in the bathroom sink, and she had called my father, who was living, off and on in a trailer on his mother’s land. I did not question it when he arrived at the house in the late afternoon, rather this was just part of a sick pattern – they could not live with each other, yet without each other, they were miserable. Ever since I had walked out after graduation, he had been living between Dalton and Sandy Springs, and their divorce was never final since they could not remain apart for the required year. He did not say anything much to me that night, rather seemed to study me in an odd manner, and I thought perhaps he just could not see me as a married woman. As usual, he fixed supper, and, as usual, I only picked at my food, but remained at the table since it was my ‘duty’ to clear the table.
He addressed me only once during the long meal, – my mother always ate slowly - and this was to ask if Billy and I had a fight. I told him that we had never been happier. He then said that if I was happy, he sure would hate to see me sad, and I just snapped back that I was never happy anymore unless I was with Billy. He left me alone after that, and while waiting for my mother to finish, I stared out the window into the dark. We used to joke that she digested her food before she swallowed it.
Monday, I managed to drag myself to work which, in spite of the conditions on the job, was still better than staying at home, being my mother’s slave all day, and listening to her caustic tongue. Although I continued to take the paregoric, which was supposed to lessen the bleeding, I still felt sapped of all energy and now I was passing huge clots of blood. There was no pain, but my face remained drained of all of its normal color, and before I left that morning, amazingly my mother noticed, and asked me if I was coming down with something.
With no concern for anyone but herself, she said I should not get too close to Lynne, whom I adored, just in case I was getting sick. I know she was thinking that if Lynne became sick, she would be fussy, and perhaps would even require a visit to a doctor and that cost money. With her big bright blue eyes so much like our father’s eyes, and her crooked little smile, she was the only bright spot in this house of horror where I had been so miserable. I took every opportunity I could to play with her, rock her and read to her. In truth, I suppose, I was preparing for the day when Billy and I could finally afford to have our own babies, and little did I realize we would never be able to afford them, but that certainly never stopped us from having them.
I was sixteen when Lynne was born, the summer before my senior year in high school. Although humiliated by my mother’s pregnancy, particularly when she insisted on meeting my dates at the door, having a baby sister was worth it. After living with two brothers, one a colossal tattletale whose prime goal in life was to get me into trouble, and the other who could be bought off with a quarter, I was thrilled with this tiny baby girl. My mother even allowed me to name her, which I did, after my best friend, Janet, and my favorite ‘name’ of the moment, Lynne. I had taken turns with mother getting up during the night when she finally came home from the hospital and we worked out a schedule where the one that got up with the baby at night, slept late the next morning. I was more than willing to help. Poor Lynne was a colicky baby and I learned if I placed her on her tummy over my knees and bounced up and down on the bed it seemed to soothe her. While I sang silly songs to her, it never dawned on me it certainly was good practice for the day when I would have my own baby! At the time, I had no thoughts of being a mother, not anytime soon, but it was good practice anyway, and I loved her with all my heart. Then again, I had not yet met Billy McConnell and truly fallen in love.
Just before supper on Tuesday night, my father finally said something about my pallor. He asked if I had not been feeling well since the weekend. Observing that I had been abnormally quiet and spent a lot of time in my bedroom, he wanted an answer. Certainly, it was not odd that my father noticed my tired and wan face since, when sober, he seemed to care far more for his children than did our mother, except for one exception, the brother closest to me in age who, as far as she was concerned, had been her only child.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, my father had not been drinking for a while (he was a binge drinker, unlike Billy’s mother who drank daily), so he was far more observant. He knew something was wrong with me. He questioned me over, and over about the previous weekend, and I knew he suspected what we had done. Even though I had been careful to put my soiled pads in a paper bag, take it to work with me and dump it in the trash bin behind the building where we all parked, I knew he knew.
After an hour of grilling, I finally confessed about the abortion and in an arrogant tone retorted, "Like mother, like daughter"!
Now I think back, I cannot even be sure he knew about my mother’s botched abortion the year before Lynne was born. After all, he had been gone on one of his ‘adventures’ and my mother had been playing ‘pay back’, visiting bars, and bringing home strangers. It now occurred to me that she would never have had the abortion if she thought the baby was his. After all, when she discovered she was pregnant with me, she followed him to New York City.
The look on my mother’s face was one of horror and anger and had I been close enough I am sure she would have slapped me. My father just looked sad. I sat waiting for the other shoe to drop, or for one or the other to lose it. Instead, after dragging the entire horrible story out of me, my mother screeched she was going to call Gene and have him arrested for financing the abortion, while my father vowed to kill both Billy and Gene! I knew as soon as their initial anger had run its course their rage would finally fall on me, and almost in unison, both said they wanted me to leave their house at once, without a thought about where I would go! Reluctantly and in tears, I called Billy and between sobs told him about the conversation and my parents’ ultimatum. I sobbed while I told him he had to come get me, not knowing if he could or even would.
However, with hesitating, he agreed to drop what he was doing, and told me to pack, that I would not ever be going back to live there. So, for the last time, I packed my few belongings while Billy drove straight to Sandy Springs and pulled up into the driveway less than two hours after my call. He had wasted no time.
Thankfully, my father was not there when Billy arrived, he was probably out buying a bottle since my abortion was a terrific excuse to go on a binge, and I long ago realized any unusual event, whether good or bad, was sure to trigger that reaction. Billy pulled into the driveway and began to load my suitcase and footlocker into his car when my mother ran out of the house. Screeching at him at the top of her lungs, she accused him of not loving me enough or he would never have put my life in danger.
Saying nothing, just ignoring her shrieks and insults, Billy finished loading the car and I climbed into the seat beside him. Much to my horror, just as we were ready to leave, my father pulled into the driveway right behind us, blocking our exit. It was obvious, by the manner he was driving, he had already been drinking, and how well I knew he liked to pick fights when he was drunk! He thought he was King Kong with a little bit of alcohol in his system. However, Billy, wanting to avoid any physical confrontation, if possible, and since I had once told him how much I hated it, he locked the car door, drove onto the lawn around my father’s car, and we were gone before he could reach us. I never looked back.
I knew my father would continue drinking and eventually take it out on my mother, particularly if he had not known about her abortion. I never did understand why she never had enough sense just to leave him alone until he passed out, rather she would nag and nag until he hit her. I fervently hoped I would never again have to come back and live in this house of horrors, but for a second time, I felt guilty deserting my baby sister and my brothers. Soon though, the boys would be big enough to defend our mother from our father’s drunken rages; something I had been helpless to prevent, but who would protect my mother from her own mouth – no one because she simply did not ‘get it’.
Years later, after year a decade of sobriety, and after my father’s death, when I asked her why she continued to nag when she knew she would be hit, to my amazement she said, "I was lonely and I wanted him to talk to me!"
No one ever figured out my mother and why, with all her vanity, she allowed him to beat her up, and eventually joined him in the bottle.
Although neither Billy or I had a clue about where we would live, it was time for me to begin my married life with an adored and adoring husband, not one who would get drunk and hit me. That I would never have tolerated, and I had told Billy so from the very first date, but it was something he never wanted either having seen so much abuse in his own home. We were going to have the perfect family and be perfect parents who loved and nurtured our perfect children and, most of all, loved and nurtured each other.
Now that the situation at my parent’s house had become intolerable, and we knew I would never be welcome at his parent’s house, with or without him, we had to find a place of our own. Then, I had to find a job to support us. The most humble shack filled with our love would be far better than the homes either of us came from, and both of us vowed to work hard to make our marriage work and for our parents to have to eat their bitter words.
We drove slowly back to Dahlonega while Billy kept his arm around me the entire trip, and still exhausted, I laid my head against his strong shoulder and slept. At last, I felt completely safe for the first time in my life, and I knew that in Billy’s arms I would always feel this way.
There were very few places to stay in Dahlonega since the tourist boom was a long way from happening. Fortunately, Billy had money left over, so we could afford to stay near the campus, and we checked into the tiny Cherokee motel just across the street. Since neither of us had eaten, after putting my overnight case in the small, musty room, we walked over to the attached restaurant.
We both ordered hamburger steak and Billy ate all of his and half of mine. He then ordered the customary lemon meringue pie for dessert – but this time he ordered a whole pie while I ate one piece. He took the remainder back to our room where I knew he would finish it before the night was out. I had to learn how to make that pie, and quickly!
Later, as we lay in each other’s arms, we talked about what we would or could do next, and Billy assured me he would find somewhere we could live together. He told me not to worry, but to let him handle it, and assured me all would be well by the next evening. That was one of the things I loved most about him, if he set his mind to something, that something became reality.
He admitted that leaving me at my parent’s house was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do, and my frantic call was more a relief than a bother. Naturally, we were unable to have sex that night but Billy seemed to take this slight divergence from our usual routine in stride, and while he caressed my face, I fell asleep in his strong and loving arms. I slept soundly for the first night in several nights, and I dreamed pleasant dreams of a cozy little cottage with a white picket fence, but then again I had always been a dreamer. Actually, it did not matter where I lived with Billy, in my mind, it would always be that cozy little cottage.
The next morning as he hurriedly showered, shaved and put on his uniform, he urged me to sleep as long as I could, saying he wanted me to rest and regain my strength. I knew him well enough to know he also was wondering about how long it would be before we could once again resume making love.
He had to be back on campus for drill and breakfast since he had not yet given up his room at the dorm, and the responsibility he had as a platoon sergeant was important to him, as were all things military. He promised he would be back right after midday drill and kissed me long and tenderly then covered me with the extra blanket since he would not be there to keep me warm. As he slipped out the door into the early spring morning, I held the pillow he had used close to me and fell back into a deep sleep, dreaming I was in his arms.
Still sleeping soundly, I awakened abruptly when a very excited Billy rushed into the room between his morning classes and told me he had heard there was a possible vacancy in ‘Fertile Valley’. He then asked if I was O.K. or if I needed anything, and I assured him, he was all I ever needed. With a big grin, he promised he would check out the rumor, and that he would know more by lunchtime, so with a quick kiss, he hurried back out the door into the bright sunshine.
It did not take long before, once again, I was sleeping soundly as if my body demanded that I rest and heal, and I did not awake until Billy came back to the room after noon drill. Hurriedly I dressed and we went over to The Dixie Grill for hamburgers. He was so excited while he told me there definitely was a new vacancy in the valley, but, on the down side, he had heard that the place was filthy. With the help of some of his friends, he wanted to clean it up before he took me to see it, especially since the couple living there had actually used the shower for a garbage receptacle. He insisted he would not allow me to do any cleaning so soon after the abortion, and he was concerned if I saw the tiny trailer in the shape he had heard it was in, I might change my mind about staying in Dahlonega. I have no idea just where he thought I might be welcome!
Following lunch he drove me over to Lewis Hall where I stayed in a friend’s room visiting, while he and his friends went down to the valley to clean the trailer. One benefit of living off-campus was that we had the car at our disposal 24 hours a day, which would be necessary when I found a job in Gainesville.
Since there was no official, or college sponsored student housing, the owner of a famous local restaurant and inn, The Smith House, had seen the need for the returning WWII veterans. Usually married, they wanted to complete their interrupted college educations on the G.I. Bill. Acquiring some temporary military housing, he moved the tiny wooden units, eight in all, to the land between his building and the campus. There was a steep climb from the housing to campus, and a less steep climb to the inn, creating a hollow of sorts, thus the word ‘valley’. I do not think I have to explain where the ‘fertile’ came from, and we used to joke and say it was in the water. Rare few wives ever escaped the ‘curse of the valley’.
Constructed of heavy plywood propped on cinder blocks, with no insulation, the so-called trailers were nothing more than utilitarian, and most residents had to use the small gas oven for heat. Other tenants had electric heaters, but often the use of these would blow the fuses, as would any overload of appliances. The owner of the Smith House had added a large closet on the side of each unit to accommodate the cadets’ many uniforms, but my present kitchen, in our empty nest home, is twice as large as the entire trailer. There was a living area with a built-in countertop island separating it from the kitchen, which had efficiency size appliances: a refrigerator that fit under a cabinet, a two-burner gas stove, a tiny oven, and a single sink.
In order to eat a meal, someone would have to sit on the brown vinyl couch, hot in summer, cold in winter, while the other set up a card table. Then with the table moved in front of the couch and a chair on the opposite side, two could eat together. The person in the chair, usually the wife, served the meal and the person on the couch remained trapped for the duration.
The bathroom was so tiny you had to sit on the toilet or stand in the shower to close the door. The shower was so small that Billy several times cut his head and brow on the soap dish when he leaned over to pick up a bar of dropped soap. I had never seen a three-quarter bed before and of course could not find sheets to fit it, but we just used double sheets and tucked them in all around. After all, there was no such thing as fitted sheets anyway. Perhaps it could have been the size of the bed that caused so many pregnancies. That certainly was a good excuse, but not the only factor. We slept in each other’s arms, not only from desire, but also in order to fit in the bed, so there was no going to bed angry at each other. Once we touched in the narrow bed all grievances fell by the wayside. Not that I minded a bit, nor did Billy.
Some couples were even raising babies in this tiny, tiny place, and a portable crib was the only size baby bed that would fit between the bed and the wall without blocking the closet and the door. The only way to reach the baby was to crawl onto the bed. Most of the wives had made their tiny homes pleasant and unique, and kept them spotless. After all, it certainly did not take much time to clean the entire trailer from top to bottom!
It was almost 4:00 pm when I saw Billy’s car pull up in front of the dorm. I rushed downstairs rather than have him come inside since in reality I was not supposed to be there, not even to visit during the week.
All that afternoon I had spent my time describing my ‘miscarriage’ to a small group of friends, who knew about the baby. Whether it was a guilty conscience or my imagination, I felt sure some suspected the truth, and I have never been good at telling a lie. All of my close friends were excited I was back in Dahlonega and moving into the ‘valley’ with Billy, and all promised to come see me as soon as we were settled, although I knew my first priority would be to find a job.
There was not much doubt I would have to commute to Gainesville. Employment opportunities were limited in this small college town, other than working for the college and students held all the part-time jobs, and once hired full-time, no one ever quit! Besides, the pay was better in Gainesville and the opportunities more versatile.
Since I had just received my first and last paycheck from the brief job I had in Marietta, Billy and I drove into Gainesville that evening and bought the necessary linens we would need to stay in the trailer that night. He had checked out of the dorm, but it was too far into the quarter for him to receive a refund on room and board, and now we were completely on our own. We shopped at Belk’s, the only real department store in the town, and bought one set of sheets with pillowcases, an inexpensive set of pots and pans, and a four place setting of melamine dishes with four glasses. Next stop was the grocery store for the small amount of food we knew we could store in the tiny refrigerator. We were ready to move in. Billy and his friends had done an amazing job cleaning, and the tiny trailer sparkled, but North Georgia was the perfect training ground. Most cadets could clean circles around the coeds!
It was not quite dusk when we arrived back in Dahlonega. I waited in the car while Billy stopped at The Smith House, to pay our deposit and our rent for one month. We were finally going to spend our first night together in our first home, and I could not have been more excited.
That evening after a supper of grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, we heard a timid knock on the flimsy door of our tiny home. Thinking, perhaps, a neighbor had come to welcome us, Billy opened the door. He found no other than Dr. Hoag, the president of the college! You can imagine our shock! Why would the president of the college be calling on us?
The one thing we were certain of was that it was not to welcome us to the ‘valley’ or to offer his congratulations. He asked Billy if he could come in and welcoming him, we apologized for the disarray, explaining we had just moved in that very day. He told us not to worry, and taking a seat on the ugly vinyl couch, he got right to the point and told us he thought we should know that my father had called him at his residence, and he was quite drunk. Incoherently, my father had tried to tell Dr. Hoag the entire sordid story, but mostly he threatened to kill Billy. Instantly I turned red with shame, but Dr. Hoag comforted me by once again telling me not to worry, that he had been a Navy officer (like my father), and he had run into a lot of this during his tour of active duty. Reluctantly, he promised my father, from one old Navy officer to another, that he would find out where we were living and would make certain I was okay.
My humiliation deepened once I realized Dr. Hoag knew about the abortion. I think by then Billy was beginning to worry about the effect of this incidence on his eventual commissioning, and wondering what he had gotten himself into with my crazy drunk father.
Kindly and obviously sensing our anxiety, Dr. Hoag assured us we had nothing to worry about from him or the college. He explained the reason he had come to see us was not only so he could return my father’s call and hopefully calm him by telling him he had seen me and I was fine, but to advise us he thought we should take out a peace warrant just in case my father was capable of driving this far. He was on our side! He said he would tell my father that I was happy, had a roof over my head, was living with my husband as I should be, and he would be wise to leave us alone. He then stood up, turned to leave, and asked us again to think about obtaining a peace warrant, and not to worry or to be embarrassed. His last words were that he had been young and in love once too, and smiling kindly at both of us he disappeared into the dark night.
Breathing a sigh of relief by Dr. Hoag’s understanding and fatherly attitude, Billy ceased worrying about any effect this might have on him at the college. However, we did take his advice and immediately called the sheriff’s office. The sheriff told us to save our $50 for the peace warrant, and asked for my father’s tag number, which I did not know, only that he had obtained it in Whitfield County while separated from my mother. He said that was good enough, and assured us that he or his deputies would stop any car of the description we gave. If it were my father, they would offer him their very best ‘room’ for the night, and then escort him to the county line the next morning. That was just what we needed – my father in the very jail that was right behind our trailer!
Fortunately, he never came as Dr. Hoag’s return call must have calmed him, or else he simply passed out before he could carry out his threats, or he took out his rage and helplessness on my mother. I never knew the results of that night and I did not ask. Several years later, I once again saw Dr. Hoag at a parade in his honor at Fort McPherson, and was tempted to ask him if he remembered me, but I could not get up the nerve, and was afraid I would cry if he asked about Billy.
Even before we heard Dr. Hoag’s car leave the ‘valley’, trembling I turned to my new husband and when he took me into his arms, he whispered, "You are safe now, little girl. I promise you he will never hurt you again."
I knew he meant every word, and again feeling safer than I ever had in my entire life, I slept soundly in Billy’s arms knowing my nightmare was finally over. At long last, I had found my knight, and I knew I would always love him more than life itself.