Survival & Revival: The Day The Smiles Are Well-Earned
Why is this woman smiling?
Good question, especially because those flowers she’s holding are about to be laid on her mother’s grave.
And even more because her mother is there because she was murdered by her husband, the smiling woman’s father.
Meet Christine Horne, now of Coconut Grove, Florida. Today (December 5, 2015), she was in Fayetteville. NC. Her mother was murdered at nearby Fort Bragg by her father, Richard Mitchell, a Special Forces officer and Vietnam combat veteran. He stabbed and strangled her on December 1, 1974.
Christine was nine. She and her brother were taken in and raised by her father’s mother. He was convicted of murder and served twelve years in military prison. For many years, he told Christine he was innocent, and she believed him. Only as a teenager did she learn the bloody truth. All that time, her mother lay in an unmarked grave in the Lafayette Cemetery in Fayetteville.
Christine spent many hard years learning to cope with this trauma, doing her own work of survival and revival, work similar to that of too many military spouses and family members.
By 2007, Christine was ready to mark a milestone in her recovery, and do it by putting a proper marker on her mother’s grave. It would bring Beryl Mitchell, and her story, into the light of day.
But how? She had left Fayetteville as a child, and hadn’t been back. So she went on the internet, googling about domestic violence, the military, and Fort Bragg.
There she found a report I had written in 2002 for Quaker House, the Friends peace project in Fayetteville, of which I was then the new Director. The article reflected on a shocking series of domestic murders and suicides that had drawn national media attention to Fort Bragg that summer.
The article looked promising. Christine picked up the phone and called Quaker House. She asked me if we could help her with making the placement of the marker and the story behind it as visible as possible, particularly to help focus attention on this chronic social sickness.
Domestic violence was not on the Quaker House program agenda when I arrived. But events since then had forced it onto our field of vision. And we did help Christine, particularly with media work, staying mainly in the background.
I also asked for help from the Fayetteville chapter of NOW (National Organization for Women), which meets at Quaker House, and who are veteran activists on this issue. These woman, mostly of a certain age, have been kicking butt and taking names for women’s advancement around Fayetteville for forty years. They knew how to make things happen. And they swung into action for Christine.
Between Quaker House and Fayetteville NOW, Christine’s memorial turned into a major event. The fact that the ceremony took place at the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October; remember that, dudes!) is entirely not coincidental.
Both the chief of police and the Cumberland County sheriff showed up, along with plenty of media –though the army did not respond to Christine’s invitation. The event climaxed in the release of thirty-three lavender balloons at the cemetery.
A crowd of fifty-plus accompanied Christine to the cemetery, and watched the balloons rise into the blue sky. Among them were many women, survivors of domestic violence, who showed up unannounced to be part of the witness.
This commemoration, while very personal, was not only about closure in Christine’s life. The fact that many women unknown to Christine or any of us showed up to join in as part of their own survival and revival, underlined the fact of domestic violence as an ongoing issue in U.S. military culture (and our society at large).
And the 2007 event was not the end. Many more awful cases of domestic violence occurred at and around Fort Bragg in my remaining years there (til November 2012). And the members of the Fayetteville NOW chapter, who had worked on this issue for many years, and were powerfully moved by Christine’s witness, decided to make the wreath-laying at Beryl Mitchell’s grave an annual affair. They settled on early December, on or close to the day she was murdered.
And so they have. Each year since, in rain, in sleet, or freezing chill, they have gathered, sometimes few, sometimes more, laid a wreath and taken both comfort and strength from this quiet, often windswept ceremony. A couple of times reporters or TV cameras have showed up; but mostly it has been just us and the spirits of those concerned.
I’ve been at most or all these annual events, even since retiring. And it was on my calendar this year, when a message came from Christine: she wanted to drive up with her partner and join us. This made it even more special.
So she did. And that’s why she’s smiling, to see this “cloud of witnesses,” still there, still working and remembering, defying the toll of years and human infirmity.
Despite a freezing dawn, the weather was better this year. And a writer for the Fayetteville Observer took note of the ritual:
“After my mom’s funeral, the limousine dropped me off at elementary school,” Horne says. “Then my dad was arrested and charged with first degree murder. He told me he didn’t do it. He always told me he didn’t do it. I always thought it was someone like Charles Manson or a band of hippies.”
Horne was 9 years old in 1974, a fourth-grader at Reilly Road Elementary School. Her brother, Eric, was 2. They would live with their father’s mother in Miami.
Eventually, Horne says, she married and later became a federal probation officer in Miami and worked with domestic violence victims.
“I’ve helped a lot of women,” says Horne, who in 2007 returned to Lafayette Memorial Park, where she placed a bronze foot stone at her mother’s grave and dedicated it to all who have been domestic violence victims. . . .
Today, at 11 a.m. . . . Fayetteville NOW, which stands for the National Organization for Women, will keep the promise to again place a wreath at Beryl Mitchell’s grave, and Horne will be there, too.
“Things like this never go away,” Horne says. “And the reality is that always, I miss my mom.”
They never go away. So there were tears this morning, as Christine reflected on the experience for the gathered group. But there were many smiles at the reunion and the renewed companionship.
At a long lunch, she introduced her partner Sarah, and they talked about plans for some sightseeing and indulging in tourist pleasures as they moved on from Fayetteville, before returning home to Florida.
At Quaker House, my successors as Co-Directors, Steve & Lynn Newsom, are doing more work on domestic violence, and well as the personal and moral costs of war for many returning soldiers. As I write, the current U.S. wars are still mostly secret; but that seems to be changing, with the calls for some kind of new world “war on terror” rapidly reaching a crescendo. So Quaker House will be as busy as ever, probably more so in coming months and years.
If you’ve read this far, take a look at the Quaker House site; and if you can, send them a donation. They do not charge for their work with soldiers and families; support comes from us.
There isn’t much of a “peace movement” in view as the winds of war gather and roar ever louder. But Quaker House has been there, working at it, for 46 years. The need for it only seems to grow larger.