James Dean Jay Byrd
When I was small, my ball sac swelled up like a persimmon. I don’t remember how old I was; it’s one of those memories of my early years that comes into focus, then blurs again almost as quickly. I could’ve been in that state for days before I noticed, and when I did, I’m sure I tried to hide it, afraid it was a sign of some sin I’d committed, for which I’d undoubtedly get a whippin’. There’s a disconnected memory coming to me now of being in a grocery store with my mother and sisters. Someone commented on how well-behaved we children were and our mother said, “We whip ’em every week, whether they need it or not!” I think she was joking.
My ball sac discomfort must’ve been bad enough to prompt me to mumble shyly my “thingie” hurt. The next thing I knew I was dropping my underpants in front of a doctor, standing naked between him and my mother, as he handled me like overripe fruit.
Like my mother, I think I grew up in the wrong family, a family that didn’t see my potential, one with too much religion, too much punishment, and no real communication. She might be surprised to hear this since she believes she went out of her way to make the lives of her three children better than her own. But by what standard do we measure an unhappy childhood?
Admittedly, my mother’s childhood was more complicated than mine, due to outside forces: alcoholics on both her parents’ sides of the family; her paternal grandfather’s suicide when her father was seventeen and training for civil military duty, hundreds of miles away from home; as well as the gruesome death on Halloween of her brother, Jimmy, when he was six and she was thirteen. Jimmy was wearing a cowboy outfit their mother made for him, complete with a fringed vest. Everything about that early evening was exciting, and anxious to share his adventures with his mother, Jimmy pulled free of his two aunts’ hands, darted across the road, and was struck by a passing motorist. These aunts, who’d been entrusted with his care, could only watch as Jimmy’s candy sack sprayed into the air like a defective firework. Dada was out of town, floundering, as they call it, off the coast of Matagorda, Texas. In both cases, the death of his father and of his son, strangers had to track him down to break the news.
My mother’s parents, my Nana and Dada, seemed to receive all the world’s challenges as tests from On High. Jimmy’s death only served to make them double down on their faith. At their preacher’s insistence, after the Lord spoke to him, they had another child and moved on. Jimmy disappeared in the wake.
When she saw the opportunity to escape her Fundamentalist homelife at seventeen, Rose Marie, my mother, jumped at it. After reading in a letter from Roy Dean, the only boy she’d ever dated, that he’d asked a girl to marry him, she responded quickly: Since you’re gonna get married anyway, why not marry me? I bet she was prettier than that other girl, and her beguiling, devilish sense of humor likely convinced my father she was the better catch, unaware of how naïve she was. As an example, after my parents returned from their honeymoon, Roy Dean heard through the grapevine that the girl he’d intended to marry was pregnant — probably with his child — whereas my mother, before her wedding night, didn’t know anything about being a wife, except what her mother cryptically shared on their way to the church: “Marie, remember, you gotta do your duty.” My mother honestly didn’t know if that meant washing dishes or cleaning the floor, but on her first night as a missus, when she found out, she said to herself, This is my duty I gotta do the rest of my life? Give me a break! She wasn’t a fan, which could’ve had as much to do with her inexperience as with Roy’s rough country boy style. Regardless, Marie was pregnant in no time at all. By the time she turned twenty-one, there were three baby Byrds in the nest: Rose Anne, Deana, and Jay Byrd, in that order.
My father was always something of a people-pleaser around the “big city” Goose Creek folks, but he surprised them all when, instead of taking a job at Exxon like practically every other relative in the family, he reported to having received a calling from the Lord to be an Assembly of God preacher. He was in the Navy one year before he and my mother got married and three years after. I can picture him hearing the Voice of the Lord in the white noise of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the bow of his blue-gray ship:
Roy Dean, I’m callin’ you to be My servant;
I’m callin’ you to preach the gospel of My Son, Jesus Christ;
I’m callin’ you to be an Assembly of God preacher and teach My One True Religion.
How could he say no?!
When I was three, we moved to Waxahachie, Texas, and my father enrolled at Southwestern Bible College. During our four years there, we lived in an on-campus apartment complex, a mobile home, a house (for one month), and, finally, in an off-campus apartment perched atop a freestanding florist. There’s a 3x3-inch photograph of my sisters and me at that first apartment, standing against a cinderblock wall in front of a stairwell. When the picture was snapped, I’d glanced down at my feet and crooked my right ankle to examine the side of my shoe. The sun beamed brightly in our faces, but my sisters, in their matching dresses our mother made at the kitchen table on her Montgomery Ward sewing machine, managed to gaze directly into the lens and offer somewhat reluctant smiles. On the back of the photograph, our mother wrote:
4 yrs old / 5 yrs old / 6 yrs old
However, that summer, I was still three, and if it was the second half of August, Deana would’ve barely turned five and Rose Anne wouldn’t yet have turned six. She probably dropped the film off at the Fotomat in the Kmart parking lot, and by the time she picked up the developed pictures, we were indeed four, five, and six.
This is one of only two photographs of the three of us kids I’ve hung onto; the other has us with our father outside our mobile home, standing gleefully beside a one-foot-tall dirt-specked snowman we’d cobbled together from a rare dusting of snow that fell the night before. Looking at the kids in either of these photographs, but especially the one at the apartment building, it’s difficult to see the evil beneath the surface. Where did it come from? Even though it was the mid-Sixties, it doesn’t seem right to blame our rampage on the unrest of the rest of the country. We were Good Christians, we kept our heads down, did our best to ignore the world. Brother Roy was learning to preach the Rapture, which we’d been assured was “any day now”; the fact that the country was crumbling amid social disease was a positive sign for those of us who read the Bible as literal truth.
The summer of ’67 was officially called the Summer of Love, but in our little Bible bubble, the seasons were different. For reasons I can’t explain, my sisters and I despised our downstairs neighbors, especially the little girl, Rose. Did she not like playing with us for some reason? Was she simply a disagreeable child? Was it because she shared our big sister’s and our mother’s first names? Or had we overheard our mother saying something disparaging about the family and decided to band with her? Whatever it was, punishment was on Deana’s mind and mine as we headed downstairs after watching the Roberts drive off. We walked into their unlocked apartment like it was our own. Once we were inside, though, we didn’t act like the apartment was anyone’s home. It was laid out the same as ours, but all the furniture was wrong; the Roberts kept their curtains pulled tight, so it was deviously dark inside; and it smelled funny.
Deana headed into the bedroom, I made a beeline for the kitchen. The light from the icebox bounced off the dark marble-textured linoleum floor tiles, which I noted as filthy — a word my mother liked to use. I lifted the egg carton out, took the milk jug and orange juice pitcher from their shelves, closed the door with a leg, then slid a brown Tupperware canister marked FLOUR to the counter’s edge. These were my new toys. I tossed an egg over the sink through the opening between kitchen and living room. It disappeared without a sound, so I threw another, harder this time, which hit the far wall with a satisfying glop, leaving a bright yellow streak. Giggling, I repeated the action until all the eggs had been detonated. Next, I clumsily carried milk, orange juice, and flour into the living room, opened them, and anointed couch, coffee table, carpet, everything. Deana came laughing into the room following a stream of baby powder she was squeezing from its white plastic canister; a stripe of toothpaste adorned the front of her dress. We couldn’t stop screaming, enraptured by our actions, long since having abandoned any comparisons to well-behaved children.
The front door suddenly swung open, smoldering sunlight flooded the apartment, igniting powder that hung in the air; it glittered like magic. A silhouette stopped us in our tracks, until we realized it was the small shape of our big sister. She’d been sent to find us for supper. Rose Anne closed the door and stood next to it, leaning into the long tan curtains, which haloed her like something out of a Sunday School storybook. Her face registered jealousy we’d done this without her, had left her out of the fun, but quickly wiped itself clean. “Y’all are gonna get a whippin’…” She was right, and we knew it. At least we thought we knew it. Here, the memory blurs, and when it comes back into focus, the three of us are lined up along the front edge of our couch, our father on the green Naugahyde ottoman across from us, wringing his hands, wanting us to look at him, but unwilling to physically turn our faces.
Finally, he said, “I’m not gonna whip y’all because I’m afraid I’d kill you.”
Initially, I’m sure I was relieved, thankful even, that he hadn’t chosen to slide the belt from his waist, double it over, and push us face first into the couch, so we could pay for our sins biblical style with stinging lashes across our behinds and legs. But after we choked down cold, greasy, over-fried shrimp then crawled into bed without an opportunity to kneel and recite our bedtime prayers, I started worrying that our father hated us. Proverbs 13:24 says: Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. Maybe he did hate us in that moment; maybe he wanted to know why the Lord would test one of His servants — not yet thirty years old — with the likes of us.
The Assembly of God faith is sometimes confused with the Pentecostal faith. They are related, sharing a similar theology, but people from both sides of the debate would be quick to point out how different they are one from the other. The biggest theological difference is the Pentecostals — at least the ones from which my people broke away and became Assembly of God — believe in the Oneness doctrine, which states there is only one God, a singular divine Spirit who manifests Himself in many ways, including Father, Son, or Holy Ghost; whereas people of the Assembly of God faith believe in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, each one a distinct entity. It warrants stating both sects believe speaking in tongues is the ultimate fulfillment of one’s Christianity, firstly, because it proves a person’s faith is strong enough to invite the Holy Ghost in, and secondly, because it’s the only language the Devil can’t understand.
The biggest external difference between followers of Assembly of God and Pentecostal faiths is witnessed more in the Pentecostals’ holiness standards of dress, grooming, and other areas of personal conduct. That’s not to say followers of the Assembly of God never observed these rules; when my mother was young, the only time she got away with not wearing a dress was on vacation, when Nana passed out the culottes. They looked like skirts, but had a secret, pant-like panel Nana sewed between the legs. My mother said their Oneness relatives in Louisiana believed all the Assembly of God girls were going straight to Hell because they cut their hair and wore culottes.
We moved into the apartment above the florist when I was six. Behind it was a wood-slatted water cooling tower like a big outdoor shower without a door. My sisters and I caught bees that swarmed around it, even though we regularly got stung. In the florist garbage cans back there, we rescued a pair of Mr. & Mrs. Claus ceramic figurines, which we wrapped and gave to our parents as Christmas presents; my mother still puts them out every year.
Throughout college, my father was a weekend truck driver for Texas-Oklahoma Express. Whenever boxes fell from trailers or got damaged somehow, the workers split the contents among themselves; my father stored his booty in a disused, ramshackle barn adjacent to the florist, making for a better Christmas that year than we were used to. I don’t recall any of the presents I got but was enchanted by my sisters’ matching light-up makeup mirrors.
We had our first black-and-white television in the florist apartment, though it was a short-lived luxury. It sat proudly upon a gold-tone chrome cart so our parents could roll it into their bedroom after we were asleep. Following a falling-out with our “filthy hippie live-in babysitter” in the trailer park the previous year, our parents took to leaving us home alone. One evening, the my sisters were watching Hitchcock’s The Birds while I played circus elephant, which entailed walking back and forth across the living room on all fours on the side of the overturned ottoman. I didn’t believe the girls were terribly interested in the movie since they spent more time hiding under a quilt than they did watching. I’m sure I also enjoyed blocking their view, particularly after they started complaining. One thing led to another, as things inevitably did when we were left alone, someone kicked the ottoman out from under me, it rolled directly into the gold-tone chrome cart, and we three watched in real-life horror as the TV keeled over in slow motion, landing sideways with a disarming thump, reducing Tippi Hedren to a bright white dot in the center of the screen, which seemed to glow for at least as long as it took our mother to get home from her job at the airplane factory. She sent us to our room to wait for our father and his belt.
From Waxahachie, we moved to a tiny Northeast Texas town called Oklahoma Community, where my father was given his first preaching assignment, thanks to a family friend whose job it was to place preachers in churches. My mother says she believes he got put in that particular church because they probably didn’t think he could do too much damage there. He took over the pulpit from Bessie and Ruby, two lady preachers who’d recently received the calling to become traveling evangelists.
The adults at church called each other Brother or Sister, as a sign of respect; kids called grown-ups Uncle and Aunt. My mother told me when she was young, she and her cousins and siblings called Bessie and Ruby, longtime friends of Goose Creek First Assembly of God, Brother Bessie and Sister Ruby. It was rumored their partnership flourished beyond the pulpit. My mother and her church friends used to change the words when they sang the old gospel song, “Daddy Sang Bass (Mama Sang Tenor)” to “Bessie sang bass, Ruby sang tenor…” I only met them once or twice but will never forget the imposing figure Bessie struck. She towered over everyone, thanks to her Pentecostal-style “doo-doo curls,” and with that accordion strapped to her ample bosom heaving in and out, and her rich, deep baritone voice, she put the fear of God in children far and wide.
I don’t have many memories of my father’s short preaching career, though the time he almost burned down that church with a cross he’d carved out of a piece of Styrofoam is lodged in my mind like a splinter in the funny bone. He lined the cross with birthday candles, connected by string, assuming when he lit one end of the string the candles would light each other down the line, eventually displaying (ahem!) a burning cross. It was meant to illustrate his sermon about interconnectedness. As soon as the first candle was lit, though, the string dropped to the Styrofoam and the whole thing went up in flames, choking the congregation in acrid smoke. My father ruined a good pair of Sunday shoes stomping out the plasticky fire. Regardless of that first performance failure, though it hints to my father’s bigger ambitions. His childhood friend, Arvil, told me my father complained early in his preaching career, “I’m never gonna make any money at these Podunk little churches, so I’m gonna become a telly-evangelist!”
My mother refutes that conversation between Arvil and my father taking place. “Your dad would never have made a good TV-evangelist, all that screaming and hollering they do; he wasn’t loud enough.” This is more likely a comment on how my mother viewed my father than it is about the actual capacity of his voice. I for one recall him yelling on many occasions, including once the year before he died, when he complained I was being “damn difficult as hell.” It’s true; I was as difficult and surly a fifteen-year-old as possible. But the shock of hearing such words come out of his mouth for the first and only time made me submit. My mother says, “Ya can’t trust everything Arvil says; he makes things up.” She should know; she and Arvil were an item for a decade or so in the not-too-distant past.
I’m not sure if making my father stop preaching was an attempt on my mother’s part to emasculate him. Looking back on his short thirty-nine years on this planet, it seems she succeeded in making him appear weakened, at least in my eyes, even while insisting he be the man of the house. My mother expected an awful lot of my father. When she met him and talked him into marrying her instead of that other girl, my mother expected to be freed from the chains of her homelife, sprung out of the prison of religiosity where she was currently serving a life sentence. But my father pulled a fast one, colluded with the Heavenly Father to transmit her sentence to their new home. My mother became prisoner and warden.
It surprises me she’s never denied her Christianity; to this day, my mother holds firmly to the beliefs instilled in her by her parents, and by the many hours spent in the pew every week of her life from the day she was born until a short while after my father’s funeral. She was thirty-seven.
In 2016, when I interviewed her about her life, my mother reiterated her confirmation. “I’m a Christian,” she said, waving her cigarette like an incense stick and her Crown Royal and splash of Sprite like a chalice. “I believe in the Bible and all that. What I have a problem with is religion. I’ve always said, Religion never did me any good.” It’s incredible to me she doesn’t see the connection between all those years of church and her dyed-in-the-wool faith.
Shortly after my father’s death, my oldest sister Rose Anne started dating a mixed-race boy; they were both eighteen or nineteen. I couldn’t escape the arguments erupting outside my bedroom, orchestrated by my mother. “How would your father feel if he knew you were dating a nigger?” she yelled at the top of her lungs.
Rose Anne replied, “Daddy would’ve given him a chance.”
“Give me a break! It’s in the Bible, Rose Anne!” She kept saying, “He’s a nigger!” over and over, with such venom, I could only imagine what she might be yelling if she knew everything there was to know about me. I turned my headphones as loud as they would go, but it wasn’t loud enough for Supertramp to drown them out.
It seems disingenuous for my mother to have professed caring about my father’s feelings, and devious to use it as an argument against my sister dating one of the best-looking boys in Goose Creek, Texas. My mother never berated our father in front of us kids, but I always harbored a hunch that, behind closed doors, he was her puppet. And I was eager to join in, like all of those eighth graders who started calling me Gaybird after they saw how it affected me. Everyone seems to enjoy punching a sad sack when he’s already down; there’s something so uplifting about completely crushing another person’s soul. I guess. What else could explain it?
Looking back at my mother’s (and my own) behavior toward my father now, I see that he was rather resilient. Perhaps his country bumpkin upbringing made him too ignorant to spot ridicule, though I’m prone to believe his Christianity, modeled after his in-laws — my Nana and Dada — transmuted the browbeating and intimidation into an even deeper faith.
When my mother forced him to abandon his calling to be a preacher, it didn’t have the effect she may have hoped for. My father wasn’t debilitated or swayed from his steadfast determination to serve the Lord. Far from it. Even without a pulpit, he found a way to minister. I recall an afternoon trapped in the cab of his pickup on the way to a job as he warned me against using words like “darn,” “shoot,” and “jeepers” because they’re derivatives of curse words and therefore as bad as curse words, the same way Matthew 5:28 accuses people of sinning merely by thinking about the sin.
There were hundreds of people at my father’s funeral, spilling out into the street in front of the church, many of them I’d never laid eyes on, which speaks to my father’s deep service to the Lord. However, led by what I saw as my mother’s disdain for him, I was having none of it, especially after puberty hit.