Craziness, Bad Luck and Sadness
Written by Beverly Boone
I was probably nine or ten years old when I first saw Mrs. Flora Jenkins lying facedown in her front yard, screaming for my mother’s intervention, while her husband, Mr. Willie, pounded her face into the dirt. This was my first introduction to domestic violence. However, it would be years later before I knew it by that name. During the late 50s and 60s, this behavior was described as the “craziness” that some men do; the “bad luck” of the women who marry them; and the “sadness” of the children they bear. We lived next door to it all — the craziness, the bad luck, and the sadness. My sister Sivi and I referred to Mr. Willie and Mrs. Flora Jenkins as the nursery rhyme characters — Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat and his wife, who could eat no lean. Mrs. Flora was indeed a hefty woman, probably weighing three or four times as much as her pole-skinny husband. “Such a pretty face…if she could just lose that weight,” is how most people described Mrs. Flora. She had a laugh that could lift you off your feet and a singing voice that caressed your cares away. However, the best thing about Mrs. Flora to me was her cooking! Hands down! She made the best crispy fried chicken and mouth-watering sweet potato pies in the world! Eons ago, Mrs. Flora’s gut-wrenching screams sliced through the calm of so many of our family dinners. “Mrs. Tero… Mrs. Tero, help me! He’s trying to kill me! Help me, Mrs. Tero…please, help me…help me!” “Willie Jenkins, Willie Jenkins, Willie Jenkins.” Mama’s level of disdain and frustration appeared to escalate with each repetition of her neighbor’s name, which always ended with a “Help me, Lord” plea. When Mama stood up from the dinner table, tightened her apron strings with a whiplash pull and then mumbled an ugly word that I pretended not to hear; I knew how Lois Lane must have felt watching mild-mannered Clark Kent enter that telephone booth and come out Superman. Mama was Mrs. Flora’s Superwoman, now ready to save her once again from Mr. Willie, her alcoholic and abusive husband. Mama marched onto the Jenkins’ front yard with her countenance frozen with conviction and her hands authoritatively winged on her hips — conveying that all 5’5” of her 125 lbs. meant business. “Willie Jenkins, stop that right now! Do you hear me? Stop this foolishness! You’re drunk and a disgrace to your family! Mama blasted. “Yes, Ma’am, Mrs. Tero. You’re right. I’m sorry to bother you and your family. I apologize. I’m just so sorry. I’m going inside now. Thank you, Mrs. Tero.” With these words, Mr. Willie would begin sobbing uncontrollably and move quickly away from his battered spouse. He exchanged his profanities and violence for apologies and tears that were meant for everyone except Mrs. Flora and his five children. The next morning, Mr. Jenkins would be seen sitting on his front porch. His gentle, soft-spoken, and shy demeanor now restored as he waved affectionately to persons walking by his home. Who would believe that beneath the surface of Mr. Jenkins’ affable personality and scrawny statue, was a vicious and violent storm, waiting for nightfall and a fifth of Johnny Walker? The Jenkins’ five children, our playmates –- Eddie Lee, Johnny, Lester, Sara, and Roselyn — were always ready for a long bicycle ride or an exhilarating game of Hide-and-Seek, played until every drop of daylight was thoroughly soaked up in fun and laughter, never speaking of the trouble in their home. When he turned 13, Lester’s aggressive behaviors were undeniable. Perhaps this was a harbinger of the tragedy yet to befall the family. Lester was always the tallest and strongest of his two brothers. Sometimes, he appeared to deliberately want to make us girls cry with his powerhouse hurling of Dodge balls against our bodies. One day, he almost knocked me unconscious when the ball exploded on my head: “Lester Jenkins, are you crazy? Stop throwing the ball like you are trying to kill us all! “No friggin way am I going to be soft on you girls. Toughen up or sit it out and let the boys have all the fun, ” he retorted unmercifully. Years seemed to fly by instantaneously. All grown up, it was time for Sivi and me to leave the familiarity of home for the challenge of college life. In doing so, we both lost contact but not interest in the Jenkins family. Still, we always kept them in our prayers just as Mama taught us to do: “Prayers going up mean blessings coming down,” she would always say. Sadly, I continued to hear stories of Mr. Willie’s drinking binges and violent ways while in college. Mama was heartbroken when Mrs. Flora – fleeing from another one of Mr. Willie’s violent rampages – took a hard fall and broke her femur, the hardest bone to break in the human body. Mama reported the incident in detail, but I was crying too hard to remember most of it: “She was almost at my front door when she fell! … her leg twisted…the bone was sticking out of her leg…blood-curdling screams…an eternity before the ambulance…” Two surgeries and a five-day stay in the hospital followed, leaving Mrs. Flora in need of constant care. Roselyn decided to delay community college to care for her mother. Only home a few months, Mrs. Flora died suddenly after a blood clot dislodged in her leg and traveled to her lungs. I am uncertain as to why I chose not to attend Mrs. Flora’s funeral. Perhaps it was the weight of what I knew of her turbulent life that made it too difficult…too sad to bear. Mama and Sivi did attend. Mama expressed her outrage that Mr. Willie refused to attend or participate in any aspect of Mrs. Flora’ funeral. “Let my children bury their mama,” were his final words on the subject. “ Willie Jenkins, God help that man! Can you believe that he refused to attend his own wife’s funeral? How he could disrespect poor Flora’s memory like that is just a sin and disgrace!” I didn’t tell Mama that I disagreed with her. I was glad that Mr. Willie gave his children, family and friends time to say good-bye to Mrs. Flora without his presence, which would have only awakened old wounds and memories about the “craziness” that some men do; the “bad luck” of the women who marry them; and the “sadness” of the children they bear. After the funeral, Sivi gave me the scoop on the Jenkins siblings. Eddie Lee completed military boot camp and was preparing for an overseas deployment; Johnny dropped out of high school and was working at the hosiery mill; Sara had a baby girl and was working in the high school cafeteria; Roselyn finished cosmetology school and was looking for employment; and Lester, well, he moved back home after his release from jail for multiple DUI offenses and was looking for employment, women or trouble – whichever came first. Why Mrs. Jenkins would never fight back is a question that baffled me for years. Her size alone, I thought, should have given her an advantage over scrawny-looking Mr. Willie. As a teenager, I remember asking Mama this question. “Mr. Willie beat all the fight out of that woman a long time ago.” “But Mama, how much strength would it take for Mrs. Flora to pick up a frying pan and just …” Mama quickly interrupted me with a response that I will always remember: “It takes more strength to love yourself than it does to pick up a frying pan. Flora and Willie Jenkins stopped loving themselves a long time ago.” As her children grew, Mrs. Flora had depended more on them than Mama for protection against Mr. Willie. Lester was always the one most violent in attacking his dad in his mother’s defense. So it did not surprise me when Mama called just a couple of months after Mrs. Flora’s passing with the tragic news that Lester had fatally stabbed his father in their front lawn, where Lester had witnessed his mother’s abuse countless times. Lester was sentenced to twelve years of imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter. That was the last I ever heard about the Jenkins’ family. To this day, I still include them in my prayers, just as Mama always said to do. Just before my college graduation, Mama died in her sleep from a massive heart attack, forever changing my life and ending all that I knew of home. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. I Corinthians 13:11” Willie and Flora Jenkins died before my 21st birthday. Naiveté and confusion characterized my responses to the troubled lives of my neighbors living 100 footsteps from my front door. As a child I did not possess the maturity or experience to understand that this family was trapped in a maze of violence, alcoholism, and abuse, with no clue as to how to escape. Mama did the best she could but knowledge and experiences have made it abundantly clear that the Jenkins family did not need a Superwoman or Superman; They needed an informed community of organized service providers committed to domestic violence prevention and implementation of effective programs to guide victims from the maze of confusion into avenues of support and healing. According to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, police reports identify that one-third of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. While women are cited as 85% of its victims, domestic violence is an epidemic that crosses gender, racial, ethnic, religion, and economic distinctions. Coordinating all community resources — legal interventions, 24-Hour crisis lines, domestic violence shelters, religious organizations, treatment facilities, counseling services and most importantly, supportive family and friends — all are essential in fostering positive life changes for those impacted by domestic violence.