MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 32 – Early Spring 1964
Easter arrived early that year, and we had not planned to do any traveling since our old car was on the verge of falling apart, but Gene called and asked if we were coming up for the holiday.
Billy looked at me, raised his eyebrows, and told his father that we were having car trouble, and he would like to talk to me about it anyway, so Gene promised to call back the next night. I knew Billy was hoping to get a new car from Gene particularly since the floorboard in our 1953 Chevy was so rusty that at any moment I thought one of us would put our foot through it. There was also so much mechanically wrong that the owner of the Texaco station told Billy it was not worth fixing anymore. He further emphasized his point saying it would cost more to repair it than the car was worth, so both Billy and I prayed that it would start each time we used it. Billy had hinted to Gene, more than once, that our car was a piece of junk and unsafe, and that he was frightened for his family every time we rode in it. So far, even that argument had not made an impression, so now Billy was legitimately using the car as an excuse not to go to Griffin, although we both wanted to see the boys.
Helen still did not approve of me or of our marriage, or even of our son, and Billy refused to put me through the torment and tension that our visits to Griffin usually created. Now that Michael was getting old enough to comprehend the rejection he received from his grandmother, neither of us wanted him to grow up feeling as if she hated him, and his mother. Billy had talked at length to his father about how we intended to raise our son, and it was not in an atmosphere of always walking on eggshells, rather one with lots of affection between all of us.
Gene tried to assure him that Michael was not old enough to remember or to realize what was going on, but then Billy said, "Maybe, maybe not, but my wife sure is, and I am not going to let my mother treat her like she is not even there."
That was the end of the argument because Gene knew Helen better than the rest of us, and once she had formed an opinion, she rarely, if ever, changed it. We had not been to Griffin in months, and I was not happy about going now, but Billy always held much higher hopes in his father’s love than was truly there. He thought that surely, after he saw the car, he would not want any of us riding in it!
We certainly could not afford car payments since we were barely meeting our bills, taking care of our son and buying groceries, and even then, there were times that ice cream and Coca-Cola was an unobtainable luxury. There was not much money left by the middle of the month after we paid our bills and bought groceries. Since payday for military personnel came only once a month, I learned to shop for the entire thirty plus days in one visit to the commissary, except for the daily necessities, milk, bread, and peanut butter, just to mention a few. We never went hungry, and did not even have to eat many pineapple sandwiches, but we did not eat much meat other than hamburger. My old cookbook, ‘101 Ways to Cook Hamburger’, was just about worn out, but Billy had some favorites, which I cooked often.
Sometimes, if on sale, we would splurge on a ham or a chuck roast, and with just the two of us, we had many meals out of a larger piece of meat. Oh, how we longed for just one of Mr. Moore’s thick chops or steaks, but we never, ever bought them not even if they had been marked down, they were too expensive for our budget. Michael was now eating ‘grown-up’ food chopped small with lots of canned fruits, so we saved on baby food, but we now did not know how we had ever afforded to buy it since there still was no money to eat "rich," as Billy referred to steaks and chops. We were definitely among the majority though and all of us wives traded recipes that had been a success, thus expanding our repertoire of meals. It was a hard life, at times, but I could not have been more content if I had a million dollars – not without my darling Billy and our precocious son – they were my life.
Getting back to Gene’s request, Billy and I talked about it and decided, for the boys’ sakes, we would make the trip. We also decided that we would travel to Atlanta on Easter Sunday afternoon after attending church with Gene and the boys, and in that way would eliminate our son’s exposure time to his grandmother. My family had not seen Michael in months, so it was time for a quick visit. I had found an adorable Easter outfit for him in the P.X. made of a white linen type material, but washable and probably the worst color I could have put on our adventuresome son. It comprised of white short-legged pants with straps, a white jacket, a white shirt, the collar trimmed in navy, with a navy blue bow tie and even a white billed hat to match. He looked almost cherubic in his new outfit, but we knew not to let him out of our sight, not for one moment, or the suit would be a total loss. I had an old white suit that was a bit snug, but having no choice I decided to wear it anyway. With a black hat and shoes, it did not look too ‘summery’ to be inappropriate, but I hated the way I looked, although Billy always said, "You look beautiful." Especially when he sensed I was feeling anything but!
Billy, of course, would wear his dress green uniform since he did not own a civilian suit that fit him anymore, and I knew wherever we were he would be the most handsome man in the room, even with no hair on his head. He still kept his head shaved, but I had gotten used to it, and probably would have thought he looked strange had he allowed it to grow.
"Honey," he said when I mentioned letting his hair grow out, "you know I am almost gray just like my father was at my age, and I don’t know if I could get used to that. If I keep it short, no one knows what color my hair is, including me!"
I had to agree that he would look different, although I thought distinguished, with gray hair, but I could only imagine since by keeping his head shaved, he was ready to go to Ranger School at a moment’s notice. Despite my protestations that I just knew something would happen to him, the one thing I had remained firm about, he tried repeatedly to get into a class. I knew that some day he would get in, and I dreaded the thought.
We set out for Griffin on a rainy Good Friday evening and arrived there about suppertime. Helen was already well into her alcoholic stupor, so Gene suggested that we all go out to eat, not including her in the invitation. She acted as if it had been her choice to stay home and said she was tired, but Gene would never have taken her out in public after she was already well on her way to passing out.
We went to our favorite restaurant just outside of Griffin on the road to Atlanta. Once again, the boys vied for who would sit by me, and once again, Billy had them draw straws. Charles won this night so David and Dickie consoled themselves by sitting on either side of Michael who was now using a booster seat, although I would rather have had an adult sitting next to him. He was now one of the McConnell boys and relished the attention he received from his young uncles, and was always ready, willing, and usually capable of doing their bidding.
We had a pleasant meal with Michael only spilling his milk once, and by the time we got back to the house, all was quiet and Helen had retired, or passed out, for the night. I knew Billy wanted to talk to his father alone, so as soon as the boys went to bed, I excused myself saying I was tired, which was partially true. Billy knew I would be waiting for him to take a long hot shower, and I had a feeling he would need more than a shower if the conversation did not go well.
As I expected, it was not long before the talk erupted into the usual shouts of anger, and in about another fifteen minutes Billy came into the bedroom and slammed the door behind him. He almost woke Michael who rolled over, raised his head, but then went back to sleep. Calmly I asked him what had happened, and he said his father had tried blackmail again, and had agreed to buy us a car only if, when Billy’s two year obligation was over, he would resign his commission, and either come back to work at the store, or go to law school. Well, both Billy and I knew his grades were not good enough for him to get into any law school, and so did Gene. He would wind up working for his father for the rest of his life, and everything we had would be compliments of him, which was completely unacceptable to either of us. Gene also repeated his offer to build us a home on Lake Jackson, and I asked Billy what he said to the proposal. Almost shaking with rage that his own father would attempt to blackmail him, he said he had told him the same thing he had told him every time the subject came up, that he wanted to stay in the Army, and now that he had his airborne wings, he wanted to complete his dream by attending Ranger School. He then added that when he made 1st Lieutenant in June his pay would increase, and that he could buy his own damn car. With that, he stormed out of the room. Billy knew that working for his father, he would be constantly under his Gene’s thumb and never allowed to make any decisions. Without a doubt, he would be his number one salesman, but their disagreements would be frequent and loud.
We both knew Gene desperately wanted Billy to take over the business some day, but he was not that old of a man and it would be years and years before he would give up the reins to his oldest son. Billy told him by the time his retirement age approached one of the other three boys would be old enough to take over, and that he really did not want to have to discuss the subject again. He reiterated that he had chosen the Army as his career for many reasons, one of which was to travel, and to get as far away from Griffin as possible. This was partially true, but that night was the first time Billy had put it that way to his father, and that was when the shouting erupted. Obviously, Gene refused to loan us the money to buy a car, and Billy told him this would probably be our last trip to Griffin for a long, long time, if ever.
It broke my heart to see my husband so utterly defeated after he had been so sure his father would see the wisdom in buying us a car, but soon, after our hot shower, I made him forget all about their argument, at least for a little while. He fell asleep almost instantly after our third or fourth trip to the moon, although now I could not sleep, so with Billy’s arms around me, I lay awake looking at this man, my husband, who I loved more than life itself. In our innocence, little did we know that our path in life would bring us back to Griffin much sooner than either of us had planned.
Sunday morning Gene tried to act as if no argument had occurred the night before, and offered to take us all out for breakfast before church. That was fine with me since I had never felt comfortable in Helen’s kitchen since the Christmas she had been so angry with me for daring to feed HER family in HER kitchen. We all dressed for church, and Michael looked like an angel! Billy, the proud father, picked up our son and carried him out to our old car since he refused to ride with his father, and he knew that Gene would be embarrassed when we drove up to the church in our old heap. After all, Gene was a man of means in his community and could well afford to give us a decent car, and Billy was determined to expose Gene for whom and what he really was. Actually, there was not much room left over for us anyway once the boys were in the car, although usually they would ride in the back of the station wagon. Today though everyone was dressed in their Sunday best and Billy told his father that the boys would get wrinkled and dirty if they got in the back, and our son would want to join them, so we would drive our own car. I also think that Billy did not want to be with his father in closed quarters, fearful that the subject about the store would come up again, so he concluded the conversation by saying that he wanted to be with HIS little family alone.
Once again, we went to the same restaurant where we had eaten the night before, and attempting a joke I told Billy that Gene should buy a share in the business since he ate here so often! The words were no sooner out of my mouth than I realized that Billy was not in a joking mood, but he managed to grin at my attempt to minimize the bad blood between the two of them.
Deliberately making his father wait, we talked for a few minutes, then holding my hand and carrying his son, my handsome soldier walked in to join the rest of the family. How could Gene look at Billy in his uniform and not be proud of him? He looked the epitome of a soldier – tall, handsome, proud, and strong. I know that my heart skipped a beat when I looked at him, and my pride knew no bounds to be by his side.
We arrived at the First Baptist Church with time to spare, and Gene insisted we put Michael in the nursery during the service since he did not want any of us to have to leave if he began to fuss. Since Billy and I both knew how desperately Michael hated any nursery, I was not happy with the idea and offered to be the one to leave the sanctuary if Michael became too loud. Billy told his father that Michael hated nurseries, but in spite of our plea, Gene insisted, told us that one of Billy’s old teachers was in charge, and she would welcome our toddler son. Billy was not backing down though, and I feared another power struggle coming, but where his family was concerned, I knew he would win this one. Wisely realizing that his father and his brother were deadlocked, Charles offered to stay in the nursery with Michael, and while that seemed to suit all parties, I told Billy that if Michael cried when we left, I was not leaving him and he agreed.
For once though, Michael seemed satisfied to play with the toys and the other children, at least while Charles stayed by his side. Charles, the dutiful young uncle, promised that nothing would happen to him and that he would come get me if he cried. Such a good little uncle, taking charge of his small nephew, and I have always wondered if he realized that he had stopped a major confrontation between his beloved brother and his father.
Satisfied that all would be well, we made our way to the main sanctuary, meeting and greeting the members of the church on our way inside. Gene had been a deacon of First Baptist Church for a long time, and of course, all the older members had watched Billy grow up. I thought surely Gene must have felt tremendous pride as his oldest son, in his uniform with his airborne wings gleaming on his chest, shook hands with old acquaintances and introduced me to all of those I had not met. I just wished that our son could be with us so we could show him off too!
The McConnell family settled into a pew about halfway towards the front of the church on the right hand side of the two-aisle sanctuary, and not long afterwards, the organist began playing the prelude music that included all the old traditional Easter hymns.
I loved the old hymns and as I settled back in the pew, I thought about attending church with my grandmother at Grace Methodist in Atlanta. We would go to the evening services, which were far more informal, and with a lot more singing than the televised morning worship service. The Reverend Doctor Charles Allen was the minister there, and he made me think he was talking directly to me as he preached, and according to his popularity, I was not the only one. I can still see the old red brick church with the open windows and doors, as the warm summer breeze cooled us as much as possible, and the smell of fresh baked donuts from the Krispy Kreme shop across the street would tempt us with the aroma. At the end of the service the congregation would be asked to come forward to the altar to the strains of the organ playing, ‘Only believe, only believe, all things are possible, only believe’. I have often used the words to that wonderful hymn in times of distress and need, and they have always soothed me with the belief that all things truly are possible.
Abruptly, I realized a disturbance in the back of the church awakened me from my melancholy; I looked around to see what was happening. All heads turned to witness Helen as she walked down the aisle, rather stumbled, while she looked for Gene and the boys. She was dead drunk! It was obvious she had dressed in a hurry, as her hair was not even combed, but still flat from lying in the bed, and her makeup was splotchy with red lipstick smeared on her face where she had missed her lips. When Gene finally realized the commotion was coming from her, he stood up so she could see where we were sitting, although I knew Billy wanted to sink through the floor and me with him! She finally reached our pew and squeezed in beside Gene, and her perfume was obviously eau de bourbon and she absolutely reeked of the foul odor. Apparently, she had resumed drinking that morning after we left for breakfast. First, she loudly berated Gene for not waking her and taking her with us, and then she started on Billy for not doing the same. I could see she was searching for something to say to me when Gene whispered in her ear, and instantly, she became quiet. He must have threatened to take her home if she continued her tirade, so she sat silently glaring throughout the rest of the service.
However, the damage had been done, and Billy had that look on his face that I only saw when he was VERY angry, and I knew this visit would be the last time we came to Griffin for Easter or probably any other holiday. Dickie and David had looked horrified and humiliated, but thank goodness, Charles, spared his mother’s grand entrance, was sure to be more than happy he had remained in the nursery with Michael.
After the service was over, Gene did not linger as he usually would, and leaving Helen’s car parked at the church for later retrieval, we all went straight back to the house. With nothing more to say, we said our good-byes since Billy had packed our small suitcase and Michael’s playpen before we left for breakfast, and we were off to Atlanta. Again, we never knew what we would find there either.
Billy seemed greatly relieved to be leaving Griffin, and he and Michael sang silly songs on the short trip. Obviously, he was not ready to discuss his mother’s grand entrance, or any future trips to Griffin, if there were any, but I knew that would come when Michael finally fell asleep. The trip was too short for our overly excited son to nap, and we feared he would be cranky and obstinate for the rest of the day, although he seemed to be still capable of going strong.
This child required little sleep, or at least not as much as I thought he should have at his age, but when he reached two, it was as if his own clock told him naptime was for babies! Sometimes I could get him to sleep if I lay down next to him on our bed, but usually I was the one who fell asleep while he slipped out of the bed and into the living room where I would find him watching cartoons. Billy had taught him to cut the television on and off, and this was not always a good thing, but at least he did not try to leave the house.
Our first stop was my grandmother’s apartment in the Darlington across the street from Piedmont Hospital. She was waiting for us to take her out to my aunt’s house where we would have dinner and see the rest of the family. My parents would be coming up after the meal so we would see my sister and my brothers, and they all could see Michael.
My grandmother lived on the fifteenth floor and Michael thought it great fun when his father held him up to the panel in the elevator and showed him which button to press. That was far more fun than visiting since her apartment was chock full of dainty bric-a-brac, and I held my breath for the short time we were there. Before we left for my aunt’s house, my grandmother insisted on taking snapshots of us in front of the large shrubs on the apartment’s grounds. Michael decked out like a child in a catalog, and Billy handsome in his uniform, and then there was me in my too tight white suit and my too large black hat.
Michael was holding his Easter Basket since the Easter Bunny had visited him in Griffin, and he was tugging on my arm as if he was anxious to get going and he probably was. He loved to go to my aunt’s house since he knew Ginny and Lynne would be there, and my aunt and uncle, who treated him as their own. Naturally, he loved to play with the two little girls, and he enjoyed the attention of the adults. As the first grandchild, and a handsome, precocious one at that, everyone spoiled him, and I was as guilty as the rest. I recently gave the snapshots taken at my grandmother’s that Easter Sunday to Michael’s wife, as it is time for me to share my children’s young lives with their children.
We had a nice visit and dinner with the family, and Michael enjoyed playing with his cousin and aunt, and never seemed the least bit tired or cranky, but then again he always got his way with both of the little girls. After dinner, we stayed for a short visit, not wanting to eat and run, and then we said our good-byes again and left for a very short visit with Bubba and Pop on our way back to Columbus.
Bubba had a ‘goody bag’ stuffed with Easter treats for Michael, and Pop enjoyed taking him for a walk, holding his tiny hand in his large one, on this lovely Easter Sunday evening. At least our day had gone uphill from the disaster in Griffin, but it could not have gotten much worse.
During the trip home with Michael sound asleep in the back seat, Billy finally broke down and talked about his mother and his feelings when she came staggering into the church. He said he had wanted to duck down between the pews so she could not find them, but I assured him his father had been wise to stand up in order to hasten her drunken search for her family, and finally he agreed. Billy could understand why his father did not love her anymore, nor had he for a long, long time, but what he did not understand was why he continued to subject his brothers to the embarrassment she created almost everywhere they went. Gene no longer told her what time the boy’s ball games were since they all wanted to quit playing when their mother showed up drunk at the games. Gene, who had been a semi-professional baseball player when he was younger, did not want his boys to feel that they had to quit because of their mother, so he never mentioned the games to her, rather he would just leave the store unannounced and attend alone.
I knew it was a hard life for them since I had witnessed some incredibly embarrassing scenes myself, and had often had a new date turn into the driveway next door to our house when a police cruiser was in ours. Then there was the time during my senior year in high school when my father made the front page of the paper. High on alcohol and prescription medications, he was perched high over Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, threatening to jump out of a hotel room window. My grandmother used to joke and say that if she had been there, she would have pushed him! Yes, indeed, I knew how those adorable little boys must feel and how my handsome husband had felt when he lived in that house, but I also knew he was as determined as I was not to subject our son to the ravages of alcohol.
"Come on over here, woman!" my husband ordered, and obediently like a good little wife, I squeezed as close as possible to him, and with his arm around me, and while I held his hand to my cheek, we rode back to our home where we were safe from the sins of our parents.