A Memoir by Gwen Hicks
On March first I had a heart attack. I was in a high risk bracket being both overweight and having hypertension. Still I never expected to have a heart attack. When I was awakened in the middle of the night, I did think of heart attack but I still didn’t think so. I allowed my daughter to call 911, but all the time I was thinking, it’s nothing, I’ll get to the hospital and they will say you have gas. I realized later that was a part of the pattern that had been set years ago. The pattern that said ignore yourself. It said that you are not important, nothing about you can be important. In the emergency room I was told” well we have to keep you 12 hours because that’s protocol”. The next morning before my 12 hours was up, I was informed that I was being transferred to Vassar Medical Center because one of my tests was abnormal. I was only informed after I got to Vassar that I had had a heart attack. A mild one, but still a heart attack. I had to have a cardiac catherization and it was subsequently discovered that I had a blocked artery. A stent was inserted into the artery and the doc said you’re good for another ten years. I was discharged with recovery instructions the next day. Once I was at home, I began to think about my life. It felt unfulfilled, devoid of the joy that I felt it should have. I have suffered from depression for most of my adult life. I had a wonderful childhood up until I was 12. I lived with my grandmother and my aunt who had no children. My life wasn’t perfect, but it was good. I always felt that my grandmother loved me. There was little I could ask of her that she wouldn’t try to get for me. Money was not as plentiful as it is now for black people in the South. We lived in a segregated society. We had never known anything else. We experienced the back of the bus, the water fountains marked white and colored. We couldn’t sit at a lunch counter and have a meal. If you wanted food you had to go in the back door, get it and leave by the back door. Still we managed to have a happy childhood. We were surrounded by people who loved and cared for us. Our teachers were determined to see that we learned everything we needed to know. Our little tight knit community encircled us so that we did not feel the most brutal hand of white supremacy.
When I was twelve I went to live with my parents. What a shock for a kid whose only chore was to dust the whatnot on Saturday and wash and iron you hair ribbons. I went to a house where I was a maid, babysitter, cook and cleaner. My father had a terrible temper and I was immediately terrified of him. A little thing could set him off and it was woe unto the one in his way which was usually me. When I had the heart attack, I began to wonder what it was about me that caused him to be so angry. I still haven’t figured that out, maybe I never will. My mother and my younger sister did not have the same effect on him, just me. I began to be the subject of regular beatings. One night my pajamas stuck to the bloody welts on my buttocks. I regularly had welts and bruises. We moved to a bigger apartment and that just meant more chores for me. I had to take my younger sister to school first and as a result I was always late for school. I was always in trouble for being late. At lunch I had to go home and feed her lunch. The lady next door picked her up, but sometimes she dawdled and would be late getting there. I couldn’t leave to go back to school until they came and my sister had lunch. I was often late getting back from lunch so I’d be in trouble again. When school was out I had to hurry home to relieve the baby sitter, clean the house and make dinner. My friends at school began to call me ‘Mary the Maid’, because I had so much to do and I always had to go right home. Needless to say I was miserable and unhappy. I wanted to go back to my grandmother, but my parents said no. My father’s outbursts became more frequent and more vicious. My mother picked up on my fear so she began to use the threat of telling my father to get me to do what she wanted. I was frequently called names and told that I smelled. I was also told that I was crazy and I believed them. They were always comparing me to other teenagers and I was always lacking. It was during this time I think I began to eat for comfort. It was the only thing I had and even that wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t allowed to drink orange juice, because that was my father’s. I wasn’t allowed to eat donuts, because they were my father’s. I was called greedy and a pig and all kinds of other names. I think I began to build a shell around myself because it was the only way to survive. I was constantly being lent out to babysit for others and I was constantly having to cook and bake for the church. My mother would promise all kinds of things to individuals at church and I had to make them. We spent a lot of time at church. It was during this time that began to do things in church. I wrote short plays and put them on to raise money for a new building. I began to sell icees out of our apartment to help raise more money for the new building. I had been an “A”B’ student, but was failing in school. When informed by the school that I wanted to return to live with my grandmother, my parents said no “they were used to me now”. My father used to beat me until he became exhausted. I was forbidden to talk to boys. I was so afraid of my father that I would run if a boy tried to talk to me. I was afraid that my father was going to kill me in my sleep so I was always terrified to go to bed. On Saturdays I had to do the work that wasn’t done in the week. I had to clean the bathroom and it was a must that the floor be scrubbed with a rag on your knees and not with a mop. I had to do the laundry and when it was done then I had to iron my father’s underwear. He couldn’t wear underwear that wasn’t ironed.
I was always saddled with children and chores. Gradually I lost any sense of self that I had. All of the life was just squeezed out of me. I didn’t know what it meant to be happy and I didn’t know what it meant to feel like you mattered to anyone. I became depressed and I once attempted suicide, because I thought anything could be better than this. The one saving grace was that I had a couple of nice neighbors. My mother even tried to break that up. I used to wonder how a merciful God could allow such things. No matter how I tried I could never please my parents. If I cleaned I missed a spot. For years after I had my own house I wouldn’t clean for fear that I’d miss a spot. I woke up from my procedure and realized that my whole life had been spent beating myself up because I couldn’t get it right. I realized that for all of my life I felt that I deserved to be punished and beaten. I thought that there was nothing about me that was good. It never occurred to me that my parents were horrible people and that I wasn’t the person I thought I was. I realized that as a teenager writing plays I should have been encouraged instead of denigrated. I realized I wasn’t the horrible person they always told me I was. As I got older sometimes people would tell me how nice and caring I was, but I never believed them. I would dismiss it without a thought. It’s taken me 70 years to realize that wasn’t me. I was never the person they told me I was. I was much more than that. I was smart, gifted and talented, but there was nobody to care and encourage me. I was so beaten down and destroyed that I couldn’t see the real me. I only saw me through the eyes they gave me. The eyes that were flawed, mean and vicious. I believe that I couldn’t achieve, because in my mind I had to fulfill the image that they had of me. It didn’t occur to me that that vision was flawed and distorted. I had been so brainwashed that it was the only vision I knew. When I realized that I could have another vision, I realized I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know how to decide what to do. I was stuck in a prism where the part of you that told you what you wanted had been erased. I didn’t know where to go. I told my therapist that I didn’t know how to decide. He pointed out to me that I had never had that chance before so it might take some doing. So I started working on finding me. This is my journey to find me. I’m a work in progress. Yes I’m a work in progress. Sometimes I wonder if I know what that means. It means I need to work at finding the things that give me joy.
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