by Peggy Ernest
My Daddy died in 1945, the week after I was born. He was three thousand miles away fighting in the European theatre. I have the Medal of Honor he was awarded for his bravery and sacrifice. It’s framed in walnut, with a dark blue background, and hangs over my sofa. I’d rather have had my Daddy.
My Mama said that on the day I was born she woke up thinking she was constipated, but it turned out that it was me, her only offspring, trying to be born. She said I had been a blockage in her digestive system ever since. My Grandmother, always trying to supply what Mama denied me, repeated constantly like a mantra, “Rise above, child, rise above.” I held onto Mama with one hand while she pushed me away, and pushed Granny away with my other hand while she held onto me for dear life.
So there you have the background for all the conflict in my life.
According to Granny, Mama was never the same after she got the telegram saying Daddy wouldn’t be coming home. That was her way of trying to make me more sympathetic to my neurotic mother. Personally, I don’t think Mama was ever normal and I don’t think she truly loved anyone but herself. It took me a long time to figure that out and I have never quite grown beyond its reach.
In one way, Mama and Granny were alike. They each had a simple philosophy of life. Mama’s, though she never stated it out loud, was, “Me first, no matter what.” Granny’s, which she voiced regularly, was, “Hold on, things will get better.” Neither of them knew much about raising a complicated child, and only one of them made an effort.
“Hilda Josephine Crump,” Granny said to me on the day I was seventeen, “Ye’re going to make sumpthin’ of yerself in spite of yer Ma and me.” We were sitting on the front porch of our little mill village house in Greenville, South Carolina. The peeling paint and sagging steps badly needed repair but weren’t likely to get it any time soon. The postman had just delivered the day’s mail and I held in my hand a letter telling me I had won a full academic scholarship to Winthrop College. I left for Winthrop that fall and didn’t come back for five years – for Granny’s funeral. After that I didn’t come back at all. Until now.
My 50th high school reunion is in two days. I’ve been asked to speak. Several years ago I was awarded a Pulitzer for a series of articles I wrote for the Atlanta Constitution on vestiges of slavery in the South. That catapulted me into my fifteen minutes of fame and now everyone wants to say they “knew me when.”
Fifty years ago I would have been glad for a little recognition that I was even in the room with some of my classmates. I always felt like a fish out of water. Most of the other kids lived in nice homes with a mommy and daddy and siblings. They didn’t exactly ostracize me but there was no serious attempt at friendship. On my part, it was easier to remain anonymous than to have to answer too many questions.
That attitude carried over into my college years. I wanted friendship but had not learned how to make friends. It was easier to use the excuse of being too busy. That actually wasn’t a stretch because, in spite of my scholarship, I had to work to feed and clothe myself. It also gave me a good excuse for staying away from home. I felt a little guilty on Granny’s behalf, but I stayed in touch with letters and phone calls. I knew she was proud of me and my accomplishments, but neither she nor my mother bothered to come to my graduation.
My journalism degree opened doors for me, as did the Master’s I struggled to earn while working full time. Over the years I had great success, working my way up from Society Page drivel, to cub reporter for the local beat, to investigative journalism and eventually the series that led to the Pulitzer. However, life wasn’t all rosy.
I married and had a precious daughter who died of SIDS. The resulting depression took time and professional help to overcome. After divorcing my self-centered husband, I suffered from loneliness and rejection. Through it all, writing was my salvation.
Now that I’m retired, I have time to write for personal expression. I’ve found this has led to a lot of introspection and a cathartic quest. As a result, I’m trying to better understand the events and emotions that shaped me.
Early on, I discovered that shutting out my feelings helped me get along. It took a lot of living and the grace of God to bring me to a different place. I now know it’s important to feel emotions and not deny them as I did for too many years. Our feelings make us human and help us relate to other people, but compassion was something I had to learn.
The 50th anniversary banquet is in two days and I have to write a speech. My laptop sits on the desk in the hotel room, mocking me because I can’t decide what I want to say to those long ago classmates. What can I possibly share that will be of any use? Simply entertaining them is not who I am. I’ve given many speeches over the years, but none as personal as this. After a lifetime reporting other people’s lives, what do I have to say about mine, especially to these people who were there at the beginning? They have had their own journeys and could probably teach me a thing or two about life.
I sit back down to the computer, at last with some idea of direction, and begin to put words together.
“Thank you for inviting me to speak this evening. I’m sure most of you have few memories of me during high school because I did my best to hide. That was my life then. The intervening years have been, as I’m sure yours have also been, filled with joy and tragedy, missed opportunity and success. At this point we have almost come to the top of the mountain. We look back at the long climb and forward to the not-so-long climb ahead.
You asked me to speak tonight based on a little notoriety I garnered in my journalism career. As I prepared these few words, I realized that anything worthwhile I can say is summed up in the things I have learned, the life lessons that have shaped me. So, here we go.
I have learned that we never outgrow our childhood. It’s woven into the fabric of who we are and it informs the rest of our lives. We must embrace it.
I have learned that we must extend forgiveness for any wrongs done to us and use them as stepping stones. The hardships of life are more valuable in shaping us than the blessings.
I have learned to be grateful for much of the hurt in my life because it launched me in new directions I would not otherwise have considered. I made a lot of mistakes and wrong turns, but the road has brought me to a place of contentment that covers much of the ugly of the past. Awards and laurels are nice and everyone needs recognition for hard work and accomplishment. However, inner peace is much more important than the fleeting praise of men.
I have learned that compassion is needed in order to adequately relate to other people. No one gets through life unscathed. People need kind words and a helping hand. When we extend those things to others, they come back to us tenfold.
I have learned to not value my own opinion too highly, to listen to the advice of others and to deny arrogance when it rears its ugly head. We all benefit from a little humility and if we don’t practice it, the world will surely serve us a large helping.
I have learned that the grace of God is sufficient to help us rise above the clamor and instead spend time being glad to be alive and able to make our own choices.
Thank you for giving me this time to share some of my life lessons. I hope you will go away from here more inspired to share your hard-earned wisdom with the world around you.”
Hmm. Not a bad speech, if I do say so myself. You were right, after all, Granny. “Rise above, child, rise above.”