Culture War Associates
“Life is hard . . . and then you die.”
So read a well-known bumper sticker in my mother's time.
That's what my Mom said. And it was death, she told me, that was an all-too-present turning point in both our lives.
The “hard” part I know well enough. There were a lot of things that were hard about my life. My first year being raised by my Mom - a single mother - was tough, but I don't remember it.
After that time, I was more aware of how things were not like the lives of other kids my age.
My existence began in about May of 1994. I say “existence” because the death became that turning point before I was born. I was probably a couple of months from conception when my Mom's life - and my life - was altered forever.
On that day, as my Mom finally told it, she waited. She was waiting for the man who was then the most important man in her life.
She was impatient. First she sat on the sofa, then she stood and paced - her arms always crossed in tension and anticipation. “When the hell will he get here,” she wondered.
Then she tried to relax again. Then it happened. It sounded like a car backfired. “I hope that's his car,” she thought.
The sound came again. Then again. Then again. Then she ran to the door.
Looking outside she saw everything at once as though in a collage of photos all thrown together.
Central in the collage was him - the man she waited for - lying in a pool of blood next to his truck.
He was unmoving. She saw the truck, door swung wide, bullet holes abounding. She saw the man.
A tall, blonde-haired man loping slowly away and casually tossing aside a long, black object.
She saw the object, a shotgun, lying on the ground. She saw the back of the blonde man as he sauntered down the street.
After that, it was a blur. My Mom doesn't know how she got home from his place that day. She never went back.
The cops interviewed her but, in the end, she never had to testify. It was unnecessary for her to go through the additional publicity and trauma, the prosecutors told her.
There were eyewitnesses enough to the actual shooting to convict the killer.
And convict him they did. They sentenced him to death. Mom said she never could find the strength to follow the story further than that. She didn't want to know.
What she knew of the trial was horrible enough. The killer sat through the trial with a calm, otherworldly grin.
In the end, he would leave behind his own wife and three children. Why? She didn't want an answer.
She moved and avoided any means of finding out.
When my birth came, Mom was settled into an apartment in Grand Forks, North Dakota - a place small enough for one to hide and big enough for a pregnant, 20-year-old with no discernible skills to get a start.
Why North Dakota? Mom always said she just picked the place furthest from anywhere she might run into family or friends.
That was North Dakota, all right! But it was really an accident. Her plan was to head to the opposite corner of the country - Seattle - but the car broke down in Grand Forks.
She didn't have the money to fix what was wrong with it, but she did have enough to rent a room. There was little choice, though Mom first thought she would only stay a while - long enough to get on the road again.
It never happened. Mom got a cook's job at the local farmer hang-out restaurant on the edge of Grand Forks. She had learned pretty good fry cooking skills when she was growing up and simply adapted them to cooking for more folks.
She told me she almost got fired twice the first week because she was trying to cook like she would for a family instead of cooking for a mob.
Her job was only saved by the insistence of the customers, who all enjoyed seeing a new face around - especially one as pretty as Mom's, and especially with the funny, slight twangy Southern accent of the Florida Panhandle.
It was fresh entertainment in a town that was usually fresh out of entertainment. I want you to understand. Mom wasn't promiscuous, but with my father gone, there was a hole in what Mom always thought of as a family - a father, a mother, and children, in this case, a child.
Among the “job saviors” was David. He was 30 and, like almost all of those who congregated starting at 5 a.m. at the restaurant, a farmer - or at least what was left of those who owned local farms.
Most of the farms had been sold off to the large agri-businesses.
Those that remained in private hands were leased to them - a small, but pride-laden distinction in the eyes of those like David, who refused to “abandon the family farm.”
Work consisted mostly of these remaining farmers hiring out to run the combines and other machinery for the huge farming businesses.
It was a living. Anyway, David kind of favored Mom even though she was pregnant and without a husband. Tongues wagged, but Mom was smart enough not to let much slip about her past.
Eventually, the story was that Mom had fled a tragic situation “down South” where my father had been killed.
Mom was happy to leave it at that. With that story came the clucking sympathy small towns are known for. Heck, that was the story I believed until Mom finally told me the whole thing.
David did not fully enter our lives until I was about a year old. Of course, I don't remember that either.
What I remember first is the weirdest thing. I remember my third birthday party. It was just David, Mom and me.
But when the birthday song was finished, Mom just grabbed me and squeezed until I thought I wouldn't be able to breathe - and she wailed.
Now I had heard Mom cry before, but this was not crying. She was wailing! I struggled but couldn't speak.
David stood there aghast as men tend to do when women weep. He finally moved. He pried me out of her arms - and just looked at her mystified as she collapsed on the floor and continued to moan.
Some first memory, huh? If that had been the end of it, it would have been one thing, but it wasn't.
Mom had serious bouts of depression.
I didn't know until I was older what it was called, but it was miserable. It happened every year in mid summer - as regular as the swarming of the mosquitoes in North Dakota's warmer days.
These - and my subsequent birthdays - were the granddaddy depressions. Crying, moping, the sudden and desperate hugs were all part of the picture.
There were mini-episodes, too. Weird things would seem to set them off. Mom would take me to the playground and come home in a funk. Needless to say, I knew better than to bring my friends home from school.
Eventually this wore thin with David, too. He was a kind man, and patient, but he was simply unable to bear whatever unseen and unknown weight Mom carried along with his ordinary responsibilities.
Like most men, David wanted to fix what was wrong. He was good at fixing things - at least he could if he was allowed to see what the problem was.
But there was a dark veil hiding whatever needed fixing with Mom. After five years, they split. I hated it.
I liked David. He was the only father I had ever known. As much as he and Mom tried to convince me that I was not to blame for their break up, I always felt I was at the core somewhere.
The feeling haunted me. Now, don't think that Mom's depression was all there was to my life. We had a lot of good times.
Despite her somewhat morbid refrain of “Life is hard . . . and then you die,”
Mom was really more optimist than pessimist. Most times when she made that comment, it was a joke whenever good things happened.
It was a contrast. More often than not, Mom would suddenly tell me, “I'm so glad I have you!”
That was what made her depressions all the more inscrutable to me. By some strange arithmetic, in my mind, it all added up to, “Life is mostly good. Be grateful.”
That wasn't the message David got, though.
Well, word travels fast in Grand Forks. David's experiences were just added to the folklore about Mom's tragic past. It was all like a living soap opera to some people, but we were again, alone.
Five years of life on the farm, with Mom only working occasionally to help keep the bills paid left her again in a bind.
David let us stay for a while until Mom could make other arrangements. He lived in the tool barn for a short while. Thank goodness the weather was decent.
Mom found a job with a large, national store chain that had opened up a phone center in town. Their catalogue sales were run out of this place. The company had made a good move.
Jobs and money were scarce in farm country, but the work ethic was strong. People who showed up on time for work - instead of 15 or 20 minutes early - were considered slackers.
The company had a large pool of people in need of work, who gave a good measure of work for their pay. It was a bonanza.
Even though Mom had not grown up in the area, she always worked hard. She got the job and eventually advanced to supervisory positions. It paid the bills - and a bit more.
I went to school like all the other kids, but my home was pretty much off limits to my friends. I never said it in so many words, I just avoided the risk of having something happen. I finished high school and went to college in Fargo.
I always kidded Mom that I didn't “go far.” I got a business degree and met Sam at the same time.
Sam was an engineer. and hailed from Minnesota.
We married, and that brings us almost to the present.
After I headed off to college, I noticed a change in Mom.
Over a period of time she had seemed to come to a place of peace. It was only detectable in slight ways at first - phone conversations, letters, watching her cook when I returned during college breaks.
She had started to go back to church again, she said, and liked it very much.
It was odd because she had never said much of anything about God or religion before. I had long known that she had been raised going to church, but she had stopped when she hit 16 or so.
She said she had actually left it all behind several years before but kept attending so as not to shock her strongly-Christian parents. But here she was. Going to church. Reading the Bible. All that stuff.
I have to admit, she did seem to have changed. In fact, the second summer after all this stuff started was when I noticed that there was no valley of despair that occurred.
I was home, as usual, for summer break, and, as Sherlock Holmes noted in the Hound of the Baskervilles, “The dog didn't bark.”
In fact, the sensation that something was missing loomed over me and I couldn't figure it out until I returned to school in the fall. There hadn't been a wailing fit. I chalked it up to a fluke until I returned the following summer and, again, the dog didn't bark.
And every subsequent summer. After graduation, Mom came to Minnesota for the wedding. Sam and I settled in Fargo, half-way between the families. Life was mostly good. It wasn't long until I was pregnant.
Life is very good. I thought it would be cute to invite Mom to spend some time in Fargo and go shopping together, then to spring the news on her.
“Hey, Grandma! Get a move on!” I thought of calling to her in the Mall. Truthfully, I thought of a million scenarios for breaking the good news.
I was two months along when she arrived. But I thought better of the scene in the Mall. I just sat down with her at dinner with Sam and told her plainly. Then it happened. She was across the gap between us in a blink and was squeezing me like I hadn't been squeezed since my third birthday.
She was wailing again - but it was different. The sound was not of agony, but joy. I saw a paralyzed look of alarm in Sam's eyes, but he was frozen.
Suddenly, she realized how hard she was holding on and let loose holding only my shoulders in her hands. “God is so good! Life is so good!” she said. I didn't understand.
I had expected her to be happy, but nothing like this. It wasn't like I had come up with the cure for some dread disease or won a Nobel Prize.
She had a grandchild now, true, but this seemed all out of proportion. She saw the puzzlement - and a tinge of retro-fear - in my eyes and knew.
It was time to tell the secrets of her past. What followed was a tearful, sorrowful story. It would be too difficult to repeat it in her words without the power of her emotions behind it. Yes, death had been the turning point in our lives.
But without that death it was I - and now my child - who would not be alive. You see, the most important man in Mom's life on July 29, 1994 was not my father but a man named John Bayard Britton whom Mom was paying to kill me - to abort me.
No wonder she would get depressed. It wasn't Britton’s death that haunted her.
Every time she looked at me - especially on anniversaries of that day - she was reminded that she had tried to kill me.
Now, I owe my life and the life of my child to another man - the killer.
Thank you, Paul Jennings Hill, wherever you may be.