Cult Child: Chapter One

Life before we leave for the U-Haul trip comes in chunks of memory and corroborating stories from my siblings. My father is a retired Naval officer turned civilian government employee at the naval station in Miramar, California where we move in 1970, one year after my birth. He is contracted to work on a project designing a fighter plane called the F-14 Tomcat. We will always brag about that, Leis, Jeremy, and I. 

“Remember when we lived by the base and waved at the jet planes going over ‘cuz we thought it was Dad doing fly by’s and test flights for the F-14, Sila?” Leis or Jeremy asks me.

I do remember gazing at a tiny speck of a plane flying in the perfectly clear, blue sky and a birthday party at Waffle House with just my daddy and the men he works with, eating ice cream with him when he rescues me after I toddle off and get lost in the neighborhood; and a house with a pretty girl who has waist-length hair, parted down the middle. We aren’t allowed to go inside that house when we visit. We play outside with her kids. There is a long yard with a tree at the end. The tree has a goat tied to it. We pet it and play together with her kids while Dad visits inside the house.

There is one time when Leis takes me to the side of the house to pee because the long-haired lady won’t let us in the front door to use the bathroom.

I will learn as I grow older about what is happening in our family during this time; that Dad is being slowly pushed out of our lives, and it is all being orchestrated by his best friend’s wife.

Lenny Nerbonne and Dad are longtime friends from the Navy, having known each other for many years. Lenny has a tall, big, bony wife named Esther. She has a stern face complete with thin, pursed lips and dark piercing eyes. Esther has been around since before the time I am born. Their family moves to California shortly before we move. Esther stays close to my mother and consistently advises on how she should properly discipline my older brother and sister.

My first memories of Esther, I am around two years old in San Diego. She is visiting Mama. I don’t like the way Esther makes me feel inside. I don’t like the way her eyes seem to be plotting behind those thin, hooded eyelids. Her eyes remind me of something I’ve never seen before. There is no glow in her eyes; just black bottomless glares like the eyes I will see later in life in pictures of monsters and reptile creatures. She looms over me like a giant and sometimes hurts Leis and Jeremy when she comes over for lunch with Mama. She uses a butter knife on their knuckles if they don’t hold their spoons or forks right.

Esther tells Mama that being left-handed is a demon because only those blessed by God can sit at His right hand, so Jeremy needs to stop doing things with his left hand. Jeremy has been doing everything with his left hand for eight years of his life already. Esther tells Mama she can help her with training him, so she makes Jeremy sit for hours writing with his right hand, learning to hold spoons and forks with his right hand. When Jeremy gets frustrated and fidgety, Esther spanks him. When Jeremy makes mistakes, he gets hit on the knuckles with a ruler or a table knife. Mama’s mind is being slowly turned toward an evangelical doctrine which promotes the severe discipline of children.

It is during this time while my father is gone working long hours for the military, that Esther invites Mama to start attending church in the town of Hemet, California. The more she goes to church with Esther, the more Mama becomes sterner at home, starting to spank mostly Jeremy and following Esther’s lead to teach Jeremy to get rid of the left-handed demon and use his right hand.

Once, Mama comes after all of us with a belt. I don’t know why we are in trouble, but when Leis and Jeremy run, I run with them. We all fly into Jeremy’s room and slide quickly underneath his bed. Jeremy positions his body in front of Leis and me. Jeremy does the best he can to protect us, taking the licks Mama lands on his body as she kneels, swinging the belt under the bed, hitting him over and over. Mama isn’t our same mama anymore. She is someone different and short-tempered.

We disappear into our bedrooms when Esther visits or hide beneath the dining room table so that the tablecloth will cover us up. Mama thinks we are outside, and Leis keeps me quiet. My heart thumps when Esther is in our house. It gets hot under that tablecloth, and my body screams to wiggle or scratch. I don’t move a muscle, though, because I never want Leis mad at me. We take the opportunity to escape from beneath the table when Mama and Esther move their conversations into the living room.

One night Mama loses her patience on Jeremy, and in a rage, she starts beating him all over his body with a belt. Then she traps his head in the bedroom door, slamming it repeatedly. Dad is home on a short military leave. He hears Mama shouting and Jeremy screaming. Dad runs down the hallway. He grabs Mama, pulls her back and swoops Jeremy into his arms.

“What is happening to you?” he screams over and over at Mama.

He runs with Jeremy into the master bedroom while Mama sobs in the hallway that she doesn’t know what is happening to her; that she feels like she is losing her mind. Mama wails while Dad calls one of his friends, a Navy doctor, to come over to the house and check Jeremy out.

Dad doesn’t want to take Jeremy to the hospital on the base, because he doesn’t want the doctors to take us kids away. Dad doesn’t know what to do. Mama has become scary. It seems like she is going crazy in her mind. Jeremy says that is the night he became permanently afraid of Mama.

Dad starts being locked down at the naval base for weeks on end, doing testing on the F-14 they are building. When he comes home, he and Mama do nothing but argue. Mama is always talking to Dad about coming to church, insisting that he needs to go. She wants him to come with us to the farms that the church is building. She says that the end of the world is near, and we must get ready to go into the wilderness. After all, she accuses my father, isn’t he helping build a war plane?

Dad says Mama is out of her mind, and his job keeps us all in a nice house in a good neighborhood for the kids. I listen in corners, a toddler with a mind beyond my age, soaking in realities without any reason to accompany them. Dad fights for Mama’s mind. He fights hard.

The longer Dad’s job requires him to be gone working at the base, the more time Mama starts filling our house with church people. She moves bunk beds into the spare room so new church members can have a place to sleep.

She consolidates my bedroom with Leis and Jeremy’s and moves more bunk beds into my bedroom. They are taking over our house slowly. I lose time, my mind empty during those days, just ghost memories of unsurety and a steady flow of strangers.

The weekend after Mama moves bunk beds and church people into our house is the last time, I remember being together with Dad as a family. When he comes home and sees what Mama has done to our bedrooms, he angrily marches into their room, and throws some of his clothes into suitcases which he drags out to his station wagon.

I watch the scene from the corner, sucking my thumb as Jeremy cries and clings to our Dad’s leg. He is begging Dad to take him, please, please take him. But Dad doesn’t have a house for us to live in, he is saying. He will be back for us. He promises. Dad’s eyes will enter my dreams forever; haunting and filled with the worst helpless apology a man can silently release through a tear-filled stare as he leaves the house where he has both loved and lost his children.

So it is that life turns into an endless stream of church services under the watchful eyes of Esther, who always remains close with our family. Mama makes the almost two-hour drive from our house in San Diego to the church in Hemet as often as possible. She loads us up in her Volkswagen Bug and off we go, with the wind whipping my hair in the back seat.

The church is really someone’s home, made into a church. These are called body houses, where people are recruited to go to farms.  The ministers preach loudly from the front of the living room. Whenever the preacher says something that the group thinks is great, they all praise them, shouting and cheering.

“Praise the Lord!”

“Amen!”

Sometimes the preachers demand answers by loudly screaming.

“CAN I GET AN AMEN?” everyone answers in a chorus of “AMEN!”

Mama calls the preachers “The Father Ministry” and speaks about them with her eyes glowing in wonder like they are magic men.

The Father Ministry is all male, and everyone shakes their hands proudly, giving them loud flamboyant welcomes. When the father ministry visits, the ladies cook extra nice food, bringing casseroles and baked goodies made special just for them. The Ministry is always served first, sits at their own table together and are constantly having quiet, very private conversations that no one else is allowed to be a part of.

I stay close to Leis most of the time, hovering behind her. Everything in the atmosphere feels thick above me, unsafe and strange. It isn’t just what my eyes can see, but also senses of smells and feelings in the air around me. There is fear and uncertainty shrouded inside of many unfamiliar faces.  I view people beneath the layers of their skin, into their bones and brains. I can feel the bad and the good. Some are either all good or all bad, while others feel like a mixture of both. The latter two are the ones that I fear.

I can see their thoughts, like expressions that live behind the masked faces they let everyone else see. I know when Mama is lying about being happy and excited or that Esther is really thinking cruel thoughts behind her fake, thin-lipped smile. I just can’t define it or speak it. I am too young, yet I can sense intent behind people’s words and actions. Mama will always say that I am wise beyond my years.

There are men sometimes who stare at me, and my heart pounds with fear of them. Their eyes are dark and shadowy sending goose bumps across my skin. I consistently stay with Leis, watching the strangers with their hands raised up to the ceiling, eyes closed, fists clutching the black books they call Bibles. They write with ink pens in the margins of the book pages, folding the corners down to mark their places, and they form groups on the weeknights to study the words they read.

One evening while attending church at the Hemet house there is a woman in the back of the living room. She is stretched out on a pallet made from blankets. She has on a thin, cotton gown and there is another lightweight blanket on top of her which is pulled up to her waist. Her legs are spread wide open underneath the blanket. I can see her knees sticking up as she leans against the wall. I stare at her as she keeps squeezing her eyes tight, tears gushing out of the sides of her eyelids and sliding down her cheeks.

She lifts her hands towards the ceiling, praying, and crying, as I stand frozen, staring at her open legs and agonized expression. Leis jerks on my dress to make me turn my face back toward the preacher and tells me to stop staring at her.

“What happened to her?” I ask in a loud whisper.

Leis says the woman was burned when she put boiling water in a rubber hot water bottle, and it melted all over her lower stomach and thighs. That is why we all gather at the body house holding a prayer meeting to ask God to heal the burns. The Father Ministry says we don’t need to go to doctors for anything. Doctors are tools of the Devil. Doctors think that they know more than God. Only praying and believing in God can heal us.

 I pray to him hard that night along with the adults. It’s like I can feel the woman’s pain streaking through my thighs.

“Please, God, please heal her.” I whisper with my hands clasped tightly beneath my chin.

Sometimes my thighs wince even now, when I think about how much she must have hurt; healing those burns with nothing to make the pain go away. 

In March of 1973 I turn three. The Father Ministry preach that it is time for all of God’s chosen people to move into the wilderness and prepare for the end of the world. Mama appears so excited about the end times that her eyes become dreamily distant and glazed when she talks about it, as if she is looking into a world I cannot see. She says we are all so incredibly special to be chosen to go into the wilderness. It is a great opportunity for our family to have a better life, away from the dangers of the world which has sin, war, and iniquity everywhere.

I like that word, ‘iniquity’. I say it over and over until Jeremy pinches me and tells me to shut up.

Mama says that in the wilderness we will be protected by God, and we will help all the world’s people get ready for a man named Jesus to come back. She reads me a little children’s book with a pale skinned man on the cover. There is a huge light shining out of his chest, and he is floating in the sky.

Mama sings a song about how much Jesus loves me.

“For the Bible tells us so!” she sings, horribly off key.

I sing along with her.  Even as a toddler I love to sing. Jesus sure does look like a nice man with his gentle smile lines around his eyes and open hands beckoning me to run into his arms.

Dad must go live on the military base while mom and dad’s divorce is finished. We lose our military sponsored house in the suburbs. Mama relocates us into a duplex located in a lower income part of San Diego. It is a harsh change from the quiet of our former middle-class neighborhood. Our nights become filled with the echoes of bikers revving their motorcycles, whooping, and hollering, police sirens and the voices of people arguing from the neighboring houses.

We stay inside most of the time; especially when it is dark because Mama says it isn’t safe. The next-door neighbors make their German Shepherd dogs fight in the back yard. We can see them through the crack in the curtains. I put my hands over my ears to muffle the sounds of the growling dogs and the loud whimpers of the one who loses the fight.

Mama stands peeking through the curtain slit, holding the long spiraling telephone cord stretched all the way from the kitchen as she whispers to the police a play-by-play description of what is going on.

“I am so scared,” she says into the phone, “that they might see me and know I’ve called.”

Mama feels full of fear. She fears almost everything except the church and going to the wilderness. She doesn’t laugh like she did in the days before Esther became her friend, when our mom and dad went to parties at houses with pools in the back yard.  She never goes out dancing like she used to with her old friend, Ginger Vizena. She is now a stern and focused member of God’s special army.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child, Jane. That’s what the Bible says.”  Esther constantly reminds her, drilling it, pounding it in like nails into Mama’s head, that she has to be strict with us kids.

I don’t remember Mama spanking Leis or me as much as she does Jeremy. Leis says it is because Mama always sees Dad’s face whenever she looks at Jeremy. Leis says that makes Mama sad, and because Jeremy is high strung, he drives Mama up the wall.

All I know is that our whole world shifts downward quickly. It goes from feeling safe and happy to never knowing what will happen next. Now, in the rare times that Mama does laugh, it is only when she is talking about Jesus or our move into the wilderness. Nothing else seems to make her happy. Nothing else makes her face light up except talking about what the man named God is going to do for us all. It is like she can see a life that is invisible to me; a life filled with rainbows and fields of flowers.

I will see fields of flowers for sure, but the way I will travel to them is beyond anything I can imagine at this young of an age.  

The contents from the temporary duplex in the poor part of San Diego are now packed into the U-Haul. We are curled up trying to breathe through our sickness and the hot desert wind whisking into the open windows. The U-Haul is filled full to the rolling door with everything we own: our furniture and clothes, pictures of us as babies, toys, my dolls, and all of the memories of our broken-up lives.

Here I am with my brother and sister, deliriously bumping along I-10 with Mama trying to find another Christian radio station. She moves the dial rapidly back and forth until she hears the Bill Gaither Trio and gets excited that she’s finally found one. I fall back into lucid sleep, listening to the Gaithers sing “Contented” while Mama softly hums along.

When we get to Oklahoma, we find out that the weather warning is right, because there is a tornado coming. Mama drives in pounding rain pushing through into the nearest town so we can stop. After a long three days, we are all finally feeling better. Leis and Jeremy are starting to argue about who should get to sit in the front seat. Leis says I should sit in the small space behind the seat for a while, because I’m the youngest of us, and because I have been in the front seat the whole time we’ve been traveling. Mama finally agrees to let us rotate, and I crawl back behind the seat while Leis clambers over me to the front.

I don’t like it back here. I feel like my chest is going to burst out, like I am buried in a coffin. I whine to Mama that I’m too tall until she yells for everyone to shut up, that she’s sick of it, all the whining and arguing. We should all just shut up! I must sit sideways trying to stretch out my legs, and I can’t see anything outside. I stare at my broken crayons, focusing on my coloring book while Jeremy purposely pokes at me with his foot. I glare at the back of Leis’ head as she sits haughtily beside Mama. I hate this life already.

Mama says we need to all just calm down and be quiet until we get to a motel room. She’s not sure if the tornado’s coming right through the way we are driving, but she doesn’t want to take a chance. She pulls into a Motel 6 and tells us to wait and behave until she gets back. I am bursting to get out of this tiny space in the truck cab and get to sleep in a real bed for the night. When Mama comes back, she pulls the truck around to the side of the Motel 6, and we all finally get out.

I’m so happy to be stretching my legs. The motel is teeming with other travelers stopping along with us to heed the tornado warning. I stay close to Mama; afraid I’ll get lost in the whirlwind of people scurrying to get to their rooms. Our motel room is on the upstairs floor. Mama pulls out some bags from the back of the truck for Jeremy and Leis to carry to the room.

There are so many people around that Mama makes me hold the bottom of her skirt, so I don’t get lost in the shuffle of their bodies. The walkways to the motel rooms are busy with activity as people prepare for the pending storm. There are doors opening and shutting as travelers rush to bring in bags from their vehicles. I hold tight to Mama’s skirt while she unlocks the door to our room. After the bags are on the bed, Mama leaves our motel room door open so we can see outside.

There are people on the upstairs walkway talking with each other like they’re old friends, strangers bound together by a coming storm. The air is eerily quiet. They’re not talking in normal voices but, instead, in low whispers between themselves. Mama gets up and goes out to join them. I tuck into a fold of her skirt as I stare through the railings up at the sky. It is going dark very quickly with thick gray clouds hovering above us. Silence takes over as everyone gradually stops talking.

The sky has gone so dark it is almost black. It’s the color of places humans shouldn’t go; places that the traveling Father Ministry say demons, and an evil person called Lucifer, live, in the deep caverns of Hell where there is no light or hope of water for anyone’s tongue. Images of screaming and dying people begging for water run through my mind as I stare at the sky and feel my surroundings. My eyes and skin are talking to one another. I push myself as far into Mama’s skirt as I can, becoming as tiny as possible in case one of the demons dives down from this darkening sky. There’s no movement or sound; no birds chirping or engines on the highway.

It’s the quietest I’ve ever heard the world. I am covered in chill bumps all over my body. I feel doom in the air. It gathers me up in the worst kind of fear. The world is turning bad for me, and it is starting with this storm. 

I stare through the railings, as the wind begins to pick up. I don’t know what is waiting for me. I have been living a new and suddenly consistently changing life surrounded by strangers. I am afraid of this unknown.  

As the rain starts to come down, I lose myself into the droplets hitting my face. Soon it’s time to go to sleep. We will wake up nice and rested to continue the rest of the trip, Mama says.

This journey into the abyss of enslavement will soon fade deep into the dark recesses of my memories; so deep that I will have to dive back in later in life to retrieve them.

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