(I have struggled mightily with telling such a personal story as follows below but I believe my mother would approve. She would think it’s worthwhile to share her experience if it helps others understand how complicated love, marriage, and child-bearing can be, and why no politician or government has any business meddling in the personal affairs of women).
“The heart is not an instrument of precision.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald
She stood on the platform about to board the train, not much more than a baby holding her baby. At seventeen and bound for America with her newborn daughter, the girl who was to become my mother knew nothing about life’s challenges and human frailties. Who does at that age? But even then, she was stubborn and determined. Joyce’s heart was pulling her away from her widowed mother and her two brothers and a sister.
“You’re going to have a very difficult life, my child,” her mother said. “I hope you don’t regret it. But I am so afraid you will.”
Joyce was too naïve for regrets and her pulse raced when she thought of the mustachioed U.S. soldier who had become her husband and gave her a child before being sent to Europe for the final push to end World War II. James was a military policeman and had been assigned to patrol the Southside of the harbor in St. John’s, Newfoundland. When my father stepped into my grandmother’s house to seek a temporary reprieve from the December wind off the North Atlantic, Joyce set loose her girlish imagination.
“The only thing I knew about the states, son,” she told me decades later, “Was what I had seen in that movie Gone with the Wind. Your dad was the best-looking man I had ever seen, though. I was right about that. But I was wrong about everything else I was dreaming.”
I have wondered through the years if my mom had lived with a yearning for a male presence in her life after her father died when she was only four years old. My grandfather, George C. Hiscock, had fought in World War I at Gallipoli and the Battle of the Somme, two of history’s deadliest battles, and had survived. A bit more than a decade after returning from Europe, he cut his leg while sharpening a knife at a fish plant and was dead within a week from gangrene. Penicillin had already been discovered and was starting distribution but had not made it to the outports in Newfoundland.
She might have been dreamier than most Southside girls on St. John’s Harbor. If she had asked my father enough questions about his background, she probably would have hesitated and parsed her affection a bit more carefully. Her beau had suffered a nervous breakdown at age sixteen while out in the fields chopping cotton. My grandparents, subsequently, had driven their son to Memphis and gave him up to an institution that did nothing more than incarcerate patients with mental health issues; they were considered embarrassments to their families.
I did not realize until late in his life how his abandonment by his parents might have affected my father. He had not shared the story until he was in his seventies, and I had ridden my motorcycle up from Texas to sit his porch. Fireflies were rising from the Mississippi long grass as he swung his feet and described a story that I found incomprehensible.
“It was just like a prison, buddy boy,” he said. “Momma and Poppa just left me in a jail.”
“What do you mean, Daddy?”
“I was behind bars. Wasn’t no bed. Just straw on the floor and a slop jar in the corner. I had one a them white gowns and underwear to sleep in. No windas. Got outside maybe a couple times a week but I couldn’t even tell what time it was, so I didn’t know.”
“Did they try to help you? Did you talk to a counselor or anything?”
“Aw, hell naw. I never saw nobody but the man who brought me my food and water a couple times a day. Then I went and jumped him and that was the wrong thing to do.”
“I tried to get the hell outta there, that’s what happened. But he was bigger ‘n me, pushed me down, and kicked me in the belly with his pointed boots. Poked a hole in me and my guts was hanging out.”
“Oh, come on, Daddy. That’s kinda hard to believe. Did they take you to emergency?”
“Naw, I lay on that hay for a month holding in my intestines until I scabbed over. Nobody come to look at me.”
I was silent, listening to crickets in the lowering dark.
“You don’t believe me, do ya, buddy boy? I’ll just show ya.”
“What are you talking about?”
My father, stiff from years of hard labor, rose from his porch swing, unbuckled his belt, and lowered his pants and revealed a large and purple scar across his lower abdomen.
“That’s where the boot went in.”
I was ashamed I had doubted his story. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I had no idea.”
If my father had been mentally frail coming of age as a young man, his incarceration in Memphis must have compounded any psychological issues. There was also probably nothing curative about the fact that he was handed a hoe when he finally got home six months later and was sent back to the cotton patch. His fate was no different when he returned to the South from the war. My parents were in a sagging, wooden shack in the middle of a vast cotton field in the Mississippi River bottomlands and were trying to make it as sharecroppers.
“No running water or electricity,” Mom said. “I had never even seen an outhouse before, son. We could see the stars at night between the slats in the roof and we tacked newspapers over the spaces between the wall boards when it got cold in the winter. You know I thought I was going to a big house with white columns and a balcony, and I figured your dad managed a giant farm or plantation or whatever.”
They lasted four years until a friend of Daddy’s came rolling down the two-track through the sea of green driving a shining new car and telling them stories of factory jobs in the north that paid more in a month than an entire season’s worth of growing cotton. After scraping together enough money, they bought bus tickets to Flint, Michigan, a city they had never seen and where they knew not a soul. My mother had two baby girls to manage before she was twenty, and only an eighth-grade education when she wandered among the passengers with her young husband. Even in a booming post-war economy, their prospects were not good; Daddy’s education ended at tenth grade.
He got work as a laborer at the car factory up on the Dixie Highway, a manufacturing facility whose destruction would be central to Michael Moore’s film Roger and Me a half-century later as General Motors executives mismanaged their vast automotive empire. Mom started work as a waitress, carrying open-faced sandwiches and burgers and fries to truckers and assembly line hourly workers at the car plants. My parents’ days were long, and the Midwestern nights were cold, but the children kept coming. There were soon six of us, four girls and two boys, crowded into an 832 square foot house set within sight of an assembly plant that had produced tanks to defeat the Germans, and had then been returned to automobile manufacturing.
Daddy and Mom were caught up in the optimism of that age. Using his VA benefits, they got a mortgage to buy the little house, which had been set in a former bean field with a few hundred others of similar design and construction. The white Southern diaspora filled up the neighborhood where every home had a cedar sapling in the front yard and a flowerpot below the large picture window.
James Clinton Moore, U.S. Third Army Infantry, Sharpshooter, and soldier at the door
Something broke in my father, though. Maybe he felt trapped by his growing family and a mortgage and the cost of raising children. Might have even been memories of fighting in Alsace Lorraine at the end of the war, walking across Europe and shooting and killing other young men. Who can know? There was no diagnosis for PTSD. Soldiers were expected to put away the horrors and get on with their lives. Whatever the cause, though, my father fell apart. He endured multiple nervous breakdowns, frequently became violent, and harmed his wife and sometimes a few of his children. Eventually, he was institutionalized three times and given two dozen electroshock treatments.
As their marriage began to suffer, my mother sought to take control of her life. After five children, she underwent a tubal ligation to prevent another pregnancy, but it failed. Their last child, my youngest sister, was born. My father refused to use birth control, and Mom was unaware of what was available to women in the fifties and early sixties and afraid of what her husband’s reaction might be should she try to stop her childbearing. She only learned his feelings when she discovered she was carrying a seventh child, and told him.
“We ain’t havin’ no more damned kids,” he said. “I can’t afford ‘em, and I don’t want ‘em.”
“Well, what do you suggest I do?” Mom asked. “I didn’t do this by myself.”
“You get rid of it, that’s what you do!”
He did not immediately have an answer for how she might accomplish that, but Daddy got a payday loan for $100 and came home from work and gave it to Mom with strict orders how to use it.
“Take this and find one a them doctors or whatever they are that get rid of babies before they are born,” he said. “I’m going down to Mississippi to see momma and when I get back, I want that baby gone.”
Mom did not want another child, either. She wanted a divorce but was afraid her husband would beat her again if she suggested the idea. We do not know how she found an abortionist, but she left on a Friday evening and told only her second oldest child, Beverly. Abortion was illegal and yet she met a practitioner in Saginaw. I always assumed one of the truck drivers who stopped in the restaurant where she worked gave her a connection, but I only got pieces of this story much later in life. Mom did not ever speak about it directly with me; my sisters did.
“She was gone Friday and Saturday nights,” Bev told me. “And I had no idea where she was, only what she went to get done. But when she didn’t come home Sunday, I started thinking about calling the police. But what would I tell them?”
I have never been able to comprehend what my mother must have felt, arriving alone at a motel in a factory town, meeting a stranger who was about to perform the most intimate and personal procedure imaginable. I know my mother would have grieved the unborn child, but she would have been equally frightened about having another child with a man she no longer loved, and who was prone to violence and fits of rage, while also adding an additional burden to living off a waitress’ tips and her husband’s hourly wage with seven kids. I am certain she was afraid, forced into a frightening position by men who had made laws that made no sense.
Mom nearly bled to death in a rundown motel room. I was told she was barely conscious when she was discovered by a housekeeper. We did not hear details of what medical care she received but Bev said she was pallid and fragile looking when she had returned. The fear of Daddy’s temper and any threat of violence she might have faced for having another child had been exorcised.
A few weeks after Mom had the procedure, whatever it might have been, the local newspaper ran a story about an abortion doctor in Saginaw who had been arrested for running a clinic out of a motel. Pictures were of dark filthy rooms with trash and rumpled blankets and tossed bloody towels. I do not know if my mother ever saw the story in the paper because she had gone back to work right after returning home. She had no choice.
Nothing changed with my father, though. He continued to suspect her of being with men she met at the restaurant and his jealousy often led to violence. One confrontation between them unveiled a level of anger that frightened me much more than any other time the police had been summoned to our house when Daddy had been taken away. My sense has always been that I repressed the details of this fight in my memory, but I began to recover images and language when I spoke about it with my sister Beverly, who was at college when this happened.
“….ain’t gonna put up with your goddamned lyin’ about it no more….”
Daddy had on his fresh work clothes and looked like he was ready to leave but had decided to stop and attack his wife before he punched in on the time clock at the factory.
“I didn’t do anything, Jimmy,” Mom held her hands up to protect her face against her husband’s slapping and punching.
“Stop it, damnit. Please. You’re hurting me.”
My little sisters and brother were screaming and crying behind me, “Daddy, stop. Don’t hurt, Mama.”
I was between them by the stove, scared and stunned by my father’s animosity. He grabbed Mom by the shoulders and slammed her back against the wall. Her head hit with enough force that it could have dented the sheetrock. I ran to Daddy and pressed against his waist and started swinging my arms and fists against him.
“Don’t hit my Ma, Daddy! Stop it. Please stop it.”
He pushed me away, backed off from Ma, and grabbed the broom from next to the back door.
“I don’t gotta put up with your cheatin’ and lyin’ no more,” he said.
Daddy held the broom handle at both ends, lifted his knee, and cracked it in two with a loud snap. The pieces had sharp, pointed edges to the wood, and he took the one without the brush on it and moved slowly toward my mother, raising it up in a threatening manner.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, my god, what are you doing?”
She had barely recovered her senses from being slammed against the wall when she saw him coming at her with the pointed broom handle and wielding it like a knife.
“You ain’t lyin to me no damned more.”
Daddy’s voice sounded different, like a growl. Ma moved to get away and he caught her with one of his big arms. I could not stand the sound of her fear and jumped up again at my father, hitting him in the stomach with my small ten-year-old fists. He ignored me, and when I looked up at him with my pleading face, I saw him bring down the wooden broomstick like a knife just as Mom raised her arms to protect her face.
This stabbing action plunged the wooden shiv several inches deep into the soft flesh of her forearm, and a gusher of blood rushed out and down to her elbow and the floor. I remember her scream turned into kind of a howl and Daddy pulled the broomstick free from her arm and stepped backwards with me still clinging to his belt. He hit me with his open hand and knocked me to the floor and slammed my head against the stove, which put me in and out of consciousness. I heard Mom and the girls crying and saw Daddy’s feet as he left the room.
“I thought your dad was going to kill me that day,” Mom told me when we finally talked about the incident. “I don’t know what made him stop. Maybe it was just the blood. I don’t even know what started it all. I think he was accusing me of being with one of the customers at the restaurant or something. I was scared of what was going to happen next because I always let him back into the house after we fought, even when the police came.”
She had regained enough composure to call the police and tell them she needed an ambulance, and she used a wet washcloth to hold over the flap of loose and bleeding flesh that Daddy had dug out from the bone in his anger. I rode with Ma to the emergency room and while her arm was stitched back together, I was checked for a concussion. The police also asked Mom if she were ready to file charges this time against Daddy; especially since his offense was so horrid, and to let him get away with such behavior might be putting her life and the lives of her children at risk.
Mom remained hesitant. She had come of age as a child raising children and had no guidance from anyone other than the husband who had hit her. I do not think she knew what her best choices were. Like many abused women, she probably kept hoping my father would change and she would never again be hit, and they could begin to build their happily ever after. More than fifteen police calls to the house did not seem to cause her to waver, until Beverly convinced her there was no hope for her marriage.
My mother found the courage to file for divorce after Daddy was arrested and sent back to the state hospital for more treatment. She did not falter, though, as a parent raising her six children. Mom got a loan to buy a small coffee shop and became a businesswoman in the early sixties, a relatively uncommon experience for the time. The restaurant required 14–16-hour days, though, and the factory workers who stopped by daily introduced her to Benzedrine to stay awake and work. An eventual addiction led to her collapse, and she was later diagnosed with a debilitating form of cancer, and she lost her restaurant. I came to feel as though every dream she ever had fell away from her, except for her children.
Elizabeth Joyce Hiscock Moore, Businesswoman, single mother of six
In a grotesque fashion, the governor of Texas has set me to thinking much about my mother in recent days. Greg Abbott, and the radical conservatives who kick their jack boots to salute his political whims, are the type of people, generally white males, who nearly killed my mother with an absurd law. Women confronting problem pregnancies do not need to be driven to unlicensed butchers and dead-end shamans because of the religious beliefs of a minority. I might have lost her. My brother and sisters might have lost her, and all because one man thought he controlled her body and other men made laws that exercised that control.
Abbott’s absurd belief that he can gather up rapists and keep them all off the streets, which has never been accomplished, nor will it ever be, is a low traveler’s excuse for invading the privacy of another human. He, the Texas legislature, and the U.S. Supreme Court, sustain a notion that oversimplifies the most profoundly complex decision a woman will ever face. To trivialize it by claiming he can end rape is a vulgarity beyond description, and it ignores the cascade of circumstances women are forced to unravel in their personal lives. My mother’s problems were horrendous and beyond my understanding, but probably not that uncommon. Families are often a mess, marriages frequently imbalanced. Countless times, they become traps.
Daddy, though, slowly found a kind of grace with his electroshock and the shame of his own behavior disappeared from his memory. He went home to Mississippi to listen to the woods and grow tomatoes and corn, but he bought two burial plots up in Michigan. Behind his uncontrollable rage, there lay the interminable connection to the only woman who had ever shown him love, and, in the end, he wanted her beside him, eternally.
Mom refused into her early eighties, but as the lights of the world dimmed for her, she began to think differently, and let it be known she wanted to be next to the handsome soldier who had come into her house out of the cold. She was put to rest beside him, and just walking distance from the little house where they started out dreaming.
I wish they had another chance.