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An Orphan at the Age of 9

Poet Phoebe Marrall passed away in 2017.

This tribute to poet Phoebe Marrall, 1932 to 2017, is written by Gayle Beede.

A survivor of The Depression, and of child abuse, Phoebe learned to cope with her grueling childhood by embracing the potential, usefulness, beauty, and grace of objects and creatures big and small. In her work, no insect deserves a death sentence; even a cobweb holds mystique. Breath is not something you should waste, nor is a sheet of paper, a threadbare doll, or a pair of socks—nor an opportunity to slap a coat of empathy onto just about anything.

Born on August 11, 1932, the fourth of five girls, Phoebe Smale Marrall grew up in the dusty town of El Cajon, California. Theirs was the family you might find written into a film script if you wanted to portray the impoverished, the backward, the extremely emotionally wounded. In her writing, she describes herself and her sisters as “feral, ashamed, fearful, intelligent, unsocialized, and deprived of comforts and sustenance.” The phrase damaged goods certainly applied. Except for the Disney films Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Pinocchio, the world of entertainment was denied the five Smale girls. They dressed in hand-me-downs. To call his children in for supper, the girls’ father, an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, would shoot at them with a BB gun and giggle at the way they’d run for dear life. And during that meal, no talking was allowed. The dinner table was not a place for family socializing. “The daughters were cogs on the parental gear. Protest was punishable.”

Nina Lishuk Shutterstock
Source: Nina Lishuk Shutterstock

In her writing, Phoebe recalls her mother’s death in 1941: “One of her symptoms was an inability to keep her eyes sufficiently open. A fatigue of some sort also ravaged her. She couldn’t handle the housework and finally, around the week before Christmas, she took to her bed. The two youngest daughters never saw her again; the three oldest had to help transfer her to the ‘good’ bedroom. What funeral services had been arranged were disallowed for the daughters.”

Of her father’s death just two months after her mother’s, this has been recorded in the same body of work: “He took to lying down on the dining room cot. He worsened. Someone decided each of the girls would spend one day a week staying home from school to care for him. No one explained how each girl was to do this. When it was my turn I took to my heels at the goat barn, not once checking on our father. Who knew if he needed a glass of water? Who knew if he needed assistance rising from the cot? Still feeling ill, he donned the only suit and tie he had and drove to a neighbor’s home. Could the neighbor drive him to San Diego to the Naval Hospital? The neighbor did assist him. The death certificate indicates he was admitted at four o’clock p.m. on February 24, 1942. He died at four o’clock the following morning. None of this was known until the children’s grandmother told them when they arrived home from school: ‘Your papa is gone.’” Accordingly, two of the sisters remembered joining hands and dancing in joy: their father couldn’t hurt them anymore.

Phoebe was an orphan at the age of 9.

As an adult, she saw a therapist four days a week for 35 years.