“If you’ll eat this, you’ll be the highest jumpers ever,” Dorothy told her children, including her oldest daughter Tamara “Tammy” Perkins.
At the time, Tammy’s dad, Don Perkins, was out of work after being temporarily blinded when someone at work hit him on the head with a hammer. At least, that’s the story Tammy was told. She was around ten years old. Looking back, she’s not even sure if her dad cared if they had food. It’s possible the reason she was given for an empty stomach was made up.
“He was not going to take help from people,” Tammy remembered, which was part of the reason they had no food. “But my mom was wise,” Tammy continued, “and stored some food storage without him knowing.” However, the food Dorothy stored was not appetizing, forcing her to improvise to get her children to eat it.
“[My mom] would get us baby food jars that she had stored full of wheat that she had soaked—this is really funny. And she’d hand it to us, and she’d say, ‘If you’ll eat this’—because there was nothing to go with it—‘If you’ll eat this, you’ll be the highest jumpers ever.’ So we were eating down that wheat thinking we could jump higher than normal. We’re out there jumping all over the place,” Tammy said, laughing.
Fortunately, at the time, she lived in a place her family termed “the mountain” in Portland, Oregon, which naturally produces wild berries and cherries. Tammy, her siblings, and their mom lived on soaked wheat and whatever they could find in the forest, and eventually, they were able to obtain more food. Although, Tammy doesn’t remember how.
Tammy was once told by a counselor that her childhood could not even be described as satisfactory. She laughs at her younger self jumping around “the mountain,” convinced her mom’s stored wheat gave her super-jumping abilities, but her childhood often consisted of neglect and abuse, usually because of her dad.
She often struggled to remember the exact timeline of her life. “There are layers,” she said. “Everything’s connected.” Her memories of her family, what she’s been told about her family, and what she now understands about her family are often interwoven.
When asked to describe Don, her dad, Tammy recalled him catching squirrels, hoping to keep them as pets. He would draw and doodle on everything, making squares while talking on the phone. He was a carpenter, and Tammy remembered him working on a car. He wouldn’t let Dorothy learn how to drive, however, which helped to isolate her and the kids on “the mountain.”
He also attempted to shoot Dorothy.
Don would mix prescription drugs intended for Tammy’s brother with alcohol, and the result was an abusive husband and father. When Tammy was about ten or ten and a half, her mom came into her room, scared, and hid under a desk near Tammy’s bed. Don followed with his gun, and told Tammy, “I don’t know what to do—I don’t want to hurt your mom.”
Tammy knew he was drunk and, she thought, “If he turns his head, he’ll see her [Dorothy], and he’ll shoot her.” She prayed and prayed that he wouldn’t see her. Besides praying, Tammy tried to help the situation by convincing him that he was just tired and needed to go back to sleep.
When asked about being afraid of her dad, she said, “I was more afraid for my mother and my brothers. . . . He’d chase them [her brothers] like on the roof and beat them with a belt. As for me, he wouldn’t beat me.” She wasn’t sure why, and although Don wouldn’t beat Tammy as frequently, she does remember him kicking her.
Her older brother once admitted that their dad taught him how to steal. He’d load up several shopping carts with mechanical merchandise, then he’d bring it to the front of the store, claiming he wanted to return everything in the cart. They’d give him money for something he never bought in the first place.
Tammy lived in several foster homes and was often separated from her siblings. Two of her siblings died young: one from unknown causes, the other when two diesel trucks ran over him, while crossing the street. Several of her siblings have now ended up in jail or passed away along with her parents.
Being sent to a foster home after her dad threatened to kill a neighbor was hard, but she remembers her first foster parent “Grandma Bacon” with fondness. However, she ran away from another foster home after her foster father told her and another girl to change from their pajamas to their street clothes in front of him. As a teenager, she returned to her mom.
“My dad had a darkness about him,” she recalled. “You always knew he was coming.”
Not only did her dad bring a “darkness,” but he always drove a Camaro. When Tammy and her family would attempt to escape her dad’s abusive behavior by running away to Utah, where her mom
had family, any Camaro would set Tammy’s heart racing. Despite her fear of her dad, Tammy was defiant. Don found them in Utah on one occasion and told Dorothy, “You’re going to come with me. If you don’t—”
“Dad,” said Tammy at age thirteen, standing between her parents, “you’re going to have to go through me. I am sick and tired of this.
“And I just laid into him,” Tammy recalled. “I didn’t hit him or anything, but I stood right there, put my hands on my hips just like Superman. . . . I was ready for him to hit me. I was thinking, I’m going to beat him up.” Tammy laughed at this, explaining that now she realizes how impossible that would have been, but as a teenager, she believed she could take him.
“From that day on,” she continued, “it was like, ‘I’m in charge of me and you’re not gonna do anything.’ Because . . . I had to do a lot of fixing as a kid so when it came to that point at thirteen, I thought, I am sick of this. I’m done. So I was just ready for the war to happen. I was gonna fight back. I. Was. Done.”
Tammy wondered why her dad became the man he did. She traveled to California and talked with his cousin, Ruby, to find answers.
“She actually showed me yearbooks of my dad . . . and my uncle,” said Tammy, “and they look like your typical high school kids—like things were just fine and very normal. And I was really shocked. I was just really, really shocked that he actually went to school to be honest with you. It was really refreshing.”
After talking with Ruby, Tammy learned that Don’s mom would seldom let them spend time with their cousins. Ruby believed she was jealous of their family. Ruby also explained that Don’s mom often would steal things and she and her husband were alcoholics.
Tammy wanted to learn more about her dad to understand him but also to let go of the bitterness that was her childhood.
“I don’t want to get to the other side and be holding a grudge,” she said. “That happens to too many people in the world, and I refuse to do that. So I just try to have fun with a lot of different things.”
When asked if she resented her dad, she said no.
When asked how she was able to move on with life and have her own family, she described an experience from school. The teacher explained family cycles, basically showing how children will be like and parent like their own parents.
“I thought, Okay, that’s the worst thing you’re going to be teaching a whole class of kids,” said Tammy. “So if you have a kid like me, sitting in this classroom, thinking that’s their cycle of life, you’re an idiot teacher. . . . You don’t teach that in a classroom. You teach that you can break out of that. And I remember hearing that and I remember having my foster parent tell me, ‘You’re never gonna graduate. You’re never…’ You know. And I thought, Oh my gosh, I’m so sick of people telling me what I’m not gonna do. So I came out fighting for me because no one’s going to fight for me but myself. And so I guess that is the bottom line: no one’s going to fight for me but myself.”
At age fifty-nine, Tammy is currently married with six kids and twelve, almost thirteen, grandkids. She said, “Yes, this grandma is smiling. I love my grandkids. They say you love your kids, and it’s so true. But those grandkids…mmmh it’s something else.”
Her house is covered with pictures of her family. During the interview, her cellphone interrupted us with a text from her husband that read, “Wanna go on a date?” Yellow daffodils adorned her kitchen table, sporting a note: “I love you, Tammy.”
Life did not hold only rainbows and sunny days after she grew up. But the cycle stopped. Her childhood was not even satisfactory, but her life did not end at childhood. She fought, and continues to fight, for the ability and right to be the mom and grandma she wants to be. With prayer and with family and friends, she still resembles that defiant teenage girl, hands on hips, a laugh in her throat, and smile on her lips—just like Superman.