To my loyal readers: This story is based on two of the characters from my memoir (When Monsters Come Out to Play)
Do you know what I’ve discovered? There are various methods one should use when being attacked by bears. If it is a grizzly bear, you are supposed to fall down, curl into a fetal position with fingers and hands tucked in between your tummy and the ground and pretend to be dead. Even when The Grizzly is poking your body with his massive claws and sniffing and growling to see if you’re really dead, you’re not to lose control of your bodily functions, nor should you proceed to become “undead.” You should simply play possum in the hopes that The Grizzly isn’t one of the smart ones in the family of bears and eats your death-poser ass anyway. However, if you are attacked by a brown or black bear, you are advised to turn and face the sucker, puff up as large as you can make yourself (arms and hands in attack mode above head), yell aggressively (“HY-YAH”), and beat the bear about the face (snout, eyes, head) with anything heavy you can find (rock, tree branch, or heavy Coach purse) until it hollers “ouch” and runs way. But don’t ever, ever run away from any color or kind of bear because they are so much faster than humans they will catch you and eat you for sure.
Although I occasionally hike, I don’t know much about woods or bears. My “how to thwart a bear philosophy” is “it is better to never encounter a bear in the first place than have to figure out what to do with one when you do.” So when I’m hiking, I jingle my car keys incessantly and talk a mile a minute as loudly as I can (without taking a breath) about any and everything (sort of like whistling in the dark) so that if there are any bears in the area, they run the other away. I don’t know if it’s really effective against bears — I do know it makes my husband’s head explode.
What I know a lot about is growing up poor, black, and parentless in the inner city. In the ghetto the Bear Survival Manual instructions actually work rather well because that’s how I “got over” and lived to tell about it.
My mother’s mind got eaten by a mental grizzly bear when my good-for-nothing-father vanished when I was three years old (let’s hope my father’s sorry ass got completely eaten by The Grizzly). This left my sister and me homeless — touring the Cleveland foster care system of the 1950s and 60s – only slightly one step up from a Charles Dickens work-house story of the 1800s. I learned two things when I was growing up about the fear of monsters: some of the monsters that cross your path aren’t worth a moment’s notice (they are powerless to harm you even though they have loud aggressive roars), but a few of the monsters are truly deadly and are meant to be faced head-on with the enlarged stature of a warrior who knows something that bears don’t: you may be small and you may be scared, but you’ll fight to win.
As a Ward of the State, I journeyed through more than a half-dozen foster homes and a children’s receiving home (temporary orphanage) before reaching adulthood. No other foster mother personified the type of monster or bear that just needed ignoring like Edwina Burley.
Edwina Burley, “Burley-pig,” as she was derisively known to me, had the looks of a female Idi Amin, the body of a giant walrus, and the skin-color of asphalt. Her face bore a jagged scar from the right corner of her lip to the top of her right ear — souvenir of a knife attack from an intruder in a mansion in Shaker Heights where she had once worked as a domestic.
The first time I met Mrs. Burley was when my caseworker of the hour took me for a visit to see if I would hit it off with the Burleys and their child – a ten-year-old wallflower of a boy. Rowena Burley proudly took us on the grand tour of her tiny cookie-cutter 1940’s house that had been ordered as a kit from the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue by a previous owner. The minute she opened her mouth I knew she was a poser in everything from her furnishings to her bastardization of the King’s English.
“Why don’t y’all come into the livin’ room and make yo’selves declinable.”
Burley-pig practically sang her next line as she impersonated what she thought a rich white woman would say as we toured her “mansion”:
“I gots whore-doors and drinks for allllllllll.”
As we stepped onto the carpet (covered entirely in thick plastic), her son took a running leap to an organ bench while the rest of us made our way through a living room so full of Sears Catalogue items (lamps, end tables, a miniature organ, coffee table, and a buffet side board all covered in plastic), we had to walk single-file in order to get to a couch and two chairs. Our feet burped their way across the plastic on the floor, while my caseworker’s high heels hole-punched their way in and out of the plastic runway to the nearest chair. When I sank into the couch, my butt connected with the plastic seat cushions and without warning my ass emitted the sound of a
plastic-fart that could have been a replica of a giant passing gas had we all known what that sounded like. I recognized that I had entered plastic hell as the preening Mrs. Burley’s lard-ass connected to the couch that belched her final plastic-fart pronouncement:
“This here’s our anointed livin’ room that we constrains for our most impotents of guests!”
When my caseworker asked me if “this seemed like a foster home I could be happy in,” what the hell was I supposed to say? It seemed like a plastic insane asylum, but I was already seasoned enough in the foster-home-visit-drill to know they would all turn out the same: I’d live there for six months to a year — max — and then get thrown out for my “bull-headedness or sassy mouth (code for ‘she wouldn’t let us abuse and use her without putting up a fight’).” I had no choice but to stay; it was either the obsequious Mrs. Burley or the orphanage. However, I’d been in enough foster homes to know there would be an “unveiling” of the lady of the manor. Within forty-eight hours, the lilting, preening, malapropism-spewing Rowena Burley gave way to the caustic, mean-spirited, ignorant Burley-pig of a bitch who posted what she called the “Rules of My Domain, or How to Get Along to Get Along.”
“Primarilyist: My boy is the onlyest one ‘lowed in the livin’ room so that he cans play with his organ. He’s
gonna be famous like Nat King Cole someday — a true dignitary of our race. I betta’ not catch yo’ little fat ass in my parlor messin’ wit my boy’s instrument.
“Secondarily: Elnura, let’s me give you some advertisement, chil’. You way too ugly and stupid to have the friends you do. You needs to hang out wit people uglier and stupeedier than you is (if you can find ‘em – hee, hee, hee), ‘cause it don’t help yo’ case none to have smart, glamor-pussing friends — it jes pontificates both yo’ ugliness and yo’ ignrance.
“Thirdesly: My boy gets the chicken thighs — you gets the neck bones and the chicken’s butt, and you best be happy wit’ it, cause in most places you wouldn’t even get that. It’s only cause I’m a good Christian woman and considers it my God-fearin’ dutability to provide a home for wayward chilrens of the worl’ that I even lets you into my manor born — so’s you best be grateful for everythin’ I gives you.”
Burley-pig was a monster I was never afraid of. Her words and actions were hurtful but what she called me I never responded to because I didn’t believe her. On one hand, I knew I was intelligent and someday that intelligence would prove her wrong. I just needed time and a miracle. On the other hand, I didn’t know if I was pretty or not; I just knew the Burley-pig was as ugly as sin and a pot sure couldn’t call a kettle black.
“What they call you is one thing; what you answer to is something else.”
(Poet, writer, educator/1936-2010)
I did run into other bears in my childhood who caused me great fear and a grizzly bear or two that almost destroyed me. Those encounters made me realize that some bears aren’t just out to protect their territory; some are out to destroy you and your destiny. Usually, the grizzly bears of life (debilitating addictions, poverty, racism, illiteracy, childhood sexual and physical abuse, abandonment, mental illness, to name a few) endeavor to swallow you whole no matter what you try and do to thwart them. I found that I personally needed a power higher than myself and a couple of mentors to help me get over a few of these or I’d be a carcass in the woods today. A major grizzly bear that attacked me during my most formative years was a racist social worker who had been assigned to me when I was sixteen years old. Defeating her has made all the difference in my life.
SWOTW (Social-worker-of-the-week): “Eleanor, I asked you to come see me today because, as you know, you’re being asked to leave your last foster home due to an insubordinate attitude and behavioral
problems,” said SWOTW, barely able to contain her ennui. She didn’t even bother to look up from her papers when she delivered my fate.
“In all honesty, we have nowhere else to place you because the Court no longer has responsibility for its wards once they’ve turned sixteen. However, we have some terrific news for you. We have decided to provide a
stipend for you to rent a room at a boarding facility that is kind of like a Colored Women’s YWCA for homeless women. We’ll pay for a room there until you’re eighteen and supplement your income with an allowance for a pass to eat in the cafeteria. It has been decided since you are somewhat articulate we can help get you a job at the telephone company as a switchboard operator. That should give you what you need for bus fare, clothing, and incidentals.”
ELEANOR: “No,” I said, trembling from head to toe while turning to face the bear (bear tactic one).
SWOTW: “What do you mean, ‘no?’” asked SWOTW.
ELEANOR: “NO as in N-O! I want to stay in school. You didn’t say anything about staying in school. I have two more years before I graduate high school,” I said, puffing up my body to appear larger than I was (bear tactic two).
SWOTW: “And do what? You can legally leave school at sixteen and given your prospects, getting out of school now and getting a secure job is nothing to sneeze at, young lady. As a Colored girl, whether you leave school now or two years from now, the outcome will be the same. Now, I’m not asking you, I’m telling you.”
ELEANOR: “HELL, NO! I make all A’s. You can’t do this to me. Have you even bothered to check my report cards or talk to my teachers or principal?” I said, frantically looking around for something to clobber the
bear with (bear tactic three).
SWOTW: “I don’t need to check with your school about this decision, because according to the aptitude test you took with Human Services last month, you scored only two points above the retardation level. Do you get it – you’re considered feeble-minded? You should be grateful I can get you a job at the telephone company, and you don’t have to become a domestic.”
ELEANOR: “NO, YOU’RE THE IDIOT!” I screamed in a gruff voice (bear tactic five). “I don’t know anything about your stupid tests or even if they are accurate. What I do know is what I have in my book bag: A copy of A Tale of Two Cities that is ‘fun reading’ for me, a book of Langston Hughes poetry, and a German language test that I’ve just aced. Oh, and by the way, I just found out I’m in the top 1% of my class academically,” I said as I picked up the “book bag of my future” and metaphorically clobbered the SWOTW bear repeatedly on her nose (bear tactic six).
SWOTW: “Well, that’s not the point; you’re a Colored girl and this is as good as it is going to get . . . .”
ELEANOR: “Fuck you! FUCK YOU — that is precisely the point! This is not as good as it is going to get for me. I’m going to talk to my guidance counselor, my principal, my voice teacher, and my mentor; they won’t let this happen to me because they say I’ve got real potential and that I’m going to college – even if they have to help pay for it themselves” (bear tactic seven).
The SWOTW was so pissed she cut me off from any stipend except housing (I don’t think she could legally do otherwise). I was able to stay in school because of one of those liberal government programs from heaven that let me work in my school before and after classes. As in all great “into the woods stories,” the monster briefly reappeared in my life during my senior year in the form of the pissed-off caseworker who tried to reassert her authority over me and challenge what she considered the folly of misguided busybodies. But when a village
takes up arms to fight the grizzly bear trying to destroy a child (a surrogate mother and mentor, a visionary principal, a tireless guidance counselor, a wealthy patron, and a passionate young voice teacher), they did what villagers often do to monsters, and they kicked the social worker’s ass. I never heard from her again and neither did they.
It’s been more than forty-seven years since I sailed into my future. In fact, I’m rapidly coming to the end of it. I have discovered that “living well” truly is “the best revenge” against all the bears in the land – the ones who aren’t worth our attention and especially the ones who try to destroy us on the spot. Burley-pig and the SWOTW’s heads would have exploded if they could have seen what the future held for me and how beautiful on the outside and the inside I would become. With the SWOTW I didn’t have to wait too long because within five years of the altercation in her office, the Cleveland newspapers would run an article with my picture about how I’d made the dean’s list at the liberal arts college where I was a junior — having gone to that particular college on a full scholarship: INNER-CITY KID ELECTED TO WHO’S WHO IN AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES AND COLLEGES. And on one of those rare, sweet, self-indulgent moments in life, I returned to Cleveland after an eighteen year absence and showed Rowena Burley just how much she had miscalculated me as well.
My mother died at age seventy, completely losing her battle with schizophrenia, and I went back to bury her. I discovered that Burley-pig still lived in the same Sears and Roebuck house, was still a domestic for white folks, except she’d gotten even fatter; and her only child was uneducated and aimless. She was one of the deaconesses at the church where my mother’s funeral was held, and she purposely placed herself in front of the casket, so she wouldn’t miss me. I imagined she did so to gloat in case I had become what she and the SWOTW predicted.
As I glided into the funeral home like a rock star, accompanied by my handsome, brilliant, and successful husband (WW), my beautiful little sister, and one of my major mentors in my color-coordinated, black and white suit that had been designed for my athletic size-eight body, Burley-pig’s jaw dropped to her feet. I had become a runner, a college honors graduate, a music teacher, and if I do say so myself, I looked like a freakin’ fashion model for a “Black is Beautiful” centerfold in Jet magazine. As the preacher crowed about my career accom-plishments from the pulpit, the stupefied look on Burley-pig’s face was a gift from heaven — absolutely, fucking priceless!
I discovered when I had children that the victories of courage I had in my childhood weren’t necessarily transferable to them. I could give them my stories as a legacy and my faith as a beacon, but they had to choose not to give in or run away from their monsters, choose to use the proper fighting tactics, and choose to stand up to their own bears and save themselves. I can’t save anyone: That has been the hardest part about being a parent and an into-the-woods bear slayer.
“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” Andre Gide
“I have accepted fear as part of life – specifically the fear of
change. . . .I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back.” Erica Jong
All text and photos
by Eleanor and John Tomczyk © 2011
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Eleanor Tomczyk and “How the Hell Did I End Up Here?” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.