My father brought a handgun to my high school graduation, and he threatened to kill my mother’s boyfriend if he attended the ceremony. Earlier that spring, my mother had left us, as she was having an affair with her best friend’s husband. By May of that year, she wanted to bring her boyfriend– the friend’s husband– to my graduation. No one wanted him there. My father said that if my mother brought her “friend,” he would use the gun in his pocket to shoot him.
Sitting the pews of the First Baptist Church of Kennedale (the only location large enough to hold all 63 of us graduating that day), I expected a gunshot to ring out at any time. T. S. Eliot wrote that he counted his days with coffee spoons. I counted graduate names to my mother’s boyfriend’s death. As Lisa, Pat, Melinda, Charlie, Kim, Jana, David, or Richard walked across the stage to receive their diplomas, I wondered if THAT would be the moment my father would fire the pistol.
While my classmates were surely thinking about that night’s graduation party or their future post-high school plans, I was wondering how I’d make it up to everyone that my father had ruined their graduation ceremony by murdering his wife’s lover … in the local church of all places. (If the murder had happened elsewhere, everyone would have known, but few people would have been affected. But in the church? Everyone would know and they’d be able to later claim that “they were there.”) Luckily for my mother’s boyfriend and the Kennedale High School class of 1977, the boyfriend didn’t attend the graduation ceremony.
I had no doubt that my father would have fired his gun if this man crossed the church’s threshold. My father was an angry man with a violent streak, jealous that my mother had chosen someone else. My father didn’t particularly love my mother, but he didn’t want someone else to have her, either. From my perspective, my father was protecting what was his, or he was protecting his pride. (These were the same thing.) I don’t know if Texas had concealed handgun laws at the time, but my father always had a gun. Even if the gun laws existed, he wouldn’t have paid much attention. He lived outside the laws like that.
As I sat in the church pew that day, I don’t know that any of this potentially deadly activity happening behind me registered on my face, as by this time, I’d lived with high anxiety, high stress, potentially deadly and impossible situations for 18 years. I was an old hand, enough of an “old hand” that these types of situations seemed completely normal. It took decades to realize how abnormal any of this was. I often wondered how other people, my high school classmates for example, lived such simple and easy-going lives, lives without someone threatening to murder someone else at a public event.
These classmates may not have had a homicidal father, but they had their issues. We all have (had) issues. No one is ever born into a perfect life or a perfect family. Most of us just don’t see inside the lives of other people, so we assume their lives are like ours. I had assumed that everyone lived life like my family did– as violent vagabonds– but few people I now know live like we did. Most of my classmates, I’m sure, thought my life was like their lives. We do that when we are kids: we make innocent (but wrong) assumptions. When we are old enough to talk about these challenges, though, we don’t. We don’t want people to know how dysfunctional we were or how our family didn’t fit the “normal” mold like everyone else. We don’t think people will care enough to honor those experiences. Or we feel shame. I felt shame. We don’t want anyone to know that we lived that life.
I realize now that everyone lives with some kind of dysfunction. But if we don’t talk about that dysfunction, we think we are alone in the chaos or that chaos is normal. Neither of these things are good.
Nowhere in the narrative of my high school graduation did I write about celebration, happiness, or achievement. Even by that day, I had achieved more than any other member of my immediate family, as I was the first person to graduate from high school. I would think that is what should have been celebrated, but I don’t remember any kind of celebration with my family. While I would go on to achieve the upper limits of education, when I was 18, graduating high school (not pregnant and not already married) was my goal. (Pregnancy then marriage was another of those tropes I was striving to avoid, tropes that almost every member of my extended family followed.) However, I would think there would be happiness, celebration, pride that I had achieved this marker. Maybe there was or maybe there wasn’t, but all I remember about this event was my father’s gun.
3 thoughts on “High School Graduation (May 1977)”
You right though, at 18 senior year I thought everybody in my class had the same life as me Loved the beginning.. Billie you were my captain in the drill team and I remember thinking how cool you were..
I’ve had similar things happen but it was my daughter’s graduation. My mother would not sit or speak to me or my then boyfriend. We went to talk to her after the graduation and she would not open her hotel room door. She just yelled and said they’ve gone to bed. It was 6:00 . There are so many instances worse than this. I have not spoken to her in 20 years. My brother hasn’t in 30. This will be a cleansing for you Billie and I look forward to supporting you. I always thought you and Lanny were THE coolest couple in HS, but you were the smart and beautiful one.🥰
Thank you for the comments. I’m thinking about what it is with graduations (or rites of passage) that brings out the worst in people. I think there’s something to explore there as a part of this project. And thanks for the comment about Lannie and me, although he was pretty darn cute and very talented. 🙂