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In this story from May 1964, the TV and recording star (and, later, businessman) recalls when he faced up to the bitterness in his heart.
It’s strange how little, unexpected things can change our lives–like the telephone call I had a couple of years ago. I was at home when the call came. I picked up the phone and heard a voice that made something inside me tighten with anger and resentment. The voice at the other end of the line belonged to my father.
How can a son despise his own father? In my case, it wasn’t hard because I felt I had plenty of justification. To explain, let me go back through the years to the time when I was 11, my brother Don was nine, and we lived in Plainview, Texas.
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That was a long time ago, but I can still see my mother’s drawn face as she tried to explain the grim fact that our father had left us. Had walked out. Had deserted us. I remember the deep hurt in her eyes and the numbness in our hearts as she told us we all would have to work hard just to eat and stay alive.
She was right: it was hard, brutally hard. Mama opened up a one-chair barber shop in our rented house and cut hair for our neighbors at 15 cents a head. Don and I did everything we could about town to earn money. We pulled cotton and cleaned out chicken houses and milked cows and helped build windmills.
My mother had a little garden, and we worked it with her. We needed the food we got from it.
I remember Mama tacking paper on the ceiling of the house we lived in. The ceiling was so thin that if she did not plug up the holes, dirt would fall on us and our food.
The only clothes Don and I had were bib overalls. At school we were kidded cruelly by our classmates. I hated those kids and the school and wondered in pain how my father could walk out, leaving us with this shame and this need.
One day, I finally came home and told my mother how we were being ridiculed and asked her why we couldn’t get some other clothes.
“Overalls are nothing to be ashamed of", she said. “They’re something to be grateful for. Besides, it’s what you wear inside your heart that counts.”
If I knew then what I know now I never would have asked her that question. Imagine how much it must have hurt her.
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Mania always told us, “Be yourself. If people don’t like you the way you are, they’re not going to like you when you pretend to be someone else.”
Our life was not all despair, though. On Sundays, we would walk the three-quarters of a mile from our house to the Sethward Baptist Church. Then, after Sunday dinner, the neighbors would drop in, and Mama would play our old piano, and we’d sing from the green-backed Boardman Hymnal.
Later we’d parch peanuts and eat them. Sundays weren’t bad at all.
We never heard Mania complain about being poor. There was never any doubt that we would outlast it. Hope was in all of us; deep hope because it was nourished by a deep faith.
Mama got this faith from her father and Don and I got it from both of them and it became part of our lives and our being.
We called Grandfather “Papa.” Maybe because for the brief time we knew him he was all the Papa we had.
He was a short man with tall beliefs who held that in times of distress you depended on your prayers. All that happened was God’s will, he would tell us, and if you couldn’t see the why of it at the time, it all would be clear later on.
Mama told us how a hail storm once destroyed half a section of Grandfather’s wheat. A section is 640 acres, and 320 acres supplies a lot of wheat; in fact, it is a year’s work.
The storm lasted less than 30 minutes. Grandfather stood on the back porch watching it and when the destruction was over he said, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.”