A Mended Vessel

By Pearl K. McCullough amendedvessel@gmail.com Blog: amendedvessel.wordpress.com This article appeared in the Monterey County Herald
18 JANUARY 2010

Carmel writer's autobiography a story of healing
BY DENNIS TAYLOR

T

he Appalachian Mountains are where Pearl Katherine McCullough's childhood memories were formed. Some are as warm as her grandmother's loving embrace. Others are so horrifying that, at age 87, she still sees them in an occasional nightmare. "A Mended Vessel" is McCullough's first book and tells the story of her early years in the remote mountains of Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. "I've been planning this book for 44 years. I had 10 boxes of notes when I finally started writing," says the Carmel resident. "I feel like the book has taken a great burden off my shoulders because I no longer have to worry that people will find out about me, that they'll judge me, that they won't like me. I only wrote it to let people know they can overcome their problems, whatever they are." In vivid detail, she describes her upbringing in Appalachia's dense, magical forests, and a childhood among its mountain people — unique, colorful relatives and acquaintances — who taught her about life. The book is simultaneously the story of unspeakable acts of abuse that shaped the rest of her life. She was one of seven siblings, two others died, in tiny Tom's Creek, Virginia, and only 6 years old when her mother summoned all the children to her bedside to say goodbye. She told them the story of another mother who loved her children, but had to go away and leave them with their guardian angel. Pearl’s mother died a few days later, leaving the kids with their father, Harrison Gilbert, who McCullough describes as a harsh man whose philosophy was that girls and women brought unpleasant things upon themselves by the way they acted.

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When her first-grade teacher raped her among the spiders and cobwebs under the school building, Pearl, afraid to tell anyone, retreated into a shell of silence. After six months without speaking a word, Pearl became aware that her father, who was financially devastated by The Great Depression, planned to send her to a mental institution. That's when her grandmother came out of the mountains of North Carolina to rescue her. "She was a strange, little character in granny boots and a long dress, and I'd never met her before," Pearl recalls. "She was talking to my dad, and I could hear what was going on. I knew he was going to send me away. So I crept to her bed that night and held onto her all night. The next day, she took me home, to her little cabin and I lived there for five years." She remembers her grandmother as wise, giving, loving. She was a healer who nursed her neighbors back to health. She was a farmer and a nature lover. Pearl had found happiness, but didn't break her silence for nearly two years, after a bout with whooping cough left her delirious, talking in her sleep. Then, at age 8, she was beaten and raped again by a farmhand, a mentally disabled boy who attacked her in a barn. A few days later, Pearl's attacker was found dead at the bottom of a cliff. "I can't say for sure, but I truly believe in my heart that Granny killed the boy who had raped me," she says. A Virginia man took her out of the mountains at age 14, the first of her three marriages, and he, too, abused her. A divorce left her on the streets of Harland, Kentucky, considering prostitution, until she met a streetwalker named Ruby. "She had been thrown out by her madam because she was pregnant. We became friends," Pearl says. "She had worn a girdle so tight that her baby grew into her womb and she couldn't give birth. She died a short time after I met her, but she probably saved my life." Though anger and hatred were difficult adversaries over the years, McCullough slowly overcame them through acts of love. She stared down the Ku Klux Klan, including her second husband, who objected to the relationship she had with black people. After moving to Monterey in 1961, she began working at a convalescent hospital, and started counseling the many "ladies of the night" who populated the streets in those days. She shared her home with 27 foster children. Her healing process accelerated greatly after she met and married Victor "Mack" McCullough, a retired Army captain who has loved her unconditionally for the past 16 years. "I read her (manuscript) and told her, 'Nothing has changed.' In fact, my feelings for her probably deepened," Mack says. "By the time I met her, she was already a mended vessel." "The bad memories are still there, but I try to concentrate on the good things — things that are wholesome, things that I enjoy," she says. "I've learned to forgive, I've had to ask a lot of people to forgive me, and I've had to learn to forgive myself." Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 and dtaylor@montereyherald.com ###

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