At 77, Estelle Herndon’s stomach still bears the mark her father’s belt buckle left when she was just 15 years old — his punishment because she dared to sit on a boy’s knee. But many of Estelle’s deepest wounds aren’t as visible as that belt buckle mark.
She was 2 when her mother died, and her father sent her, her brother and twin sisters to live in an orphanage. It was a different time back then; it was against the rules for her to see her brother at night. But when the twins died three years later, Estelle cried in bed every night, and the people who ran the orphanage took pity on her and let her brother lay on the floor beside her bed. Soon after, their father brought her and her siblings back to live with him and his new wife.
Only things didn’t improve as you might think they would.
“I was … abused in every way possible,” Estelle remembers. “I always say that (my father) used me when he was mad, sad or glad — whatever. I was just his puppet.”
Estelle was only 5 the first time her father sexually abused her as she lay in her baby bed. Looking for help, she told her new stepmother — just one in a long line of mothers — but she didn’t believe the girl. And when her father got home that night, he beat Estelle for telling her stepmother what happened, saying he would kill her if she ever told anyone else.
He demanded silence.
Altogether, Estelle’s father had 21 biological and step children, but Estelle says she and her siblings didn’t know they had more family until they were older.
“We were not allowed to ask questions,” Estelle says.
One of her previously unknown brothers died trying to swim across the Chattahoochee River. He was almost famous for a bit — until his last stunt proved to be too daring. Estelle learned he existed when her father loaded her up into the car and took her to his funeral. She was too scared to ask where they were going, but she figured it out when they walked into the funeral home and saw the casket.
Her fear of asking questions also means Estelle never really knew why he was so mean. His father possibly abused him as well. She knows her father served in World War II and may have suffered from PTSD. And she knows he once shot and killed a man who talked to one of his wives.
Yet it was only Estelle he used as his personal punching bag, only Estelle he sexually abused.
“That touch is still in my mind to this day,” Estelle remembers.
Estelle married young to get away from her father, but the marriage didn’t last. Every time her husband touched her, she was afraid it would hurt — just like her father hurt her. She divorced her first husband and married her second husband a few years later.
There were some sweet moments in Estelle’s early life, though — although they are few and far between. She won an award at school — something like a prom queen or homecoming court — and cried because all she had to wear was a dress from the Salvation Army. But when her brother found out, he brought her a new gown to wear for the ceremony.
If the first part of Estelle’s story breaks your heart, the second part will heal it.
When Estelle was a child, a woman she worked for taught her about Jesus. Estelle cleaned the woman’s home, and in return, the woman took her to church. Yet, while the idea of Jesus and God wasn’t far-fetched, she spent a lot of her life not understanding why God let her father abuse her.
“I asked the Lord where He was and why He was doing that, and He told me one time when I was on my knees, ‘I am your father, your mother, your brother and your sister, and I am enough, and I will take care of you,’” Estelle says. “He’s there. When I look back over my life, I know that He’s always been there.”
In her late 20s, Estelle went on a mission trip to Raven Gap, Georgia, where they spent one night going around the group giving their testimonies. For the first time, Estelle told everything. For years she had been keeping her upbringing a secret, but that night, she was ready to tell her story.
The more she learned about Jesus, the more she realized she needed to forgive her father for what he did to her. It took a lot of courage and determination, but she called him one day to tell him she forgave him and ask for his forgiveness. But she was too late.
Her father had died hours before she called.
“The reason I wanted to ask for (his) forgiveness is so that I could be clear with my Lord — so I could be free,” Estelle says. “Sometimes you carry all that stuff, and it blocks you from a total relationship with your Lord. And that’s what I did.”
The healing process hasn’t been easy, but she says it has been worth it. She’s been married to her second husband for 52 years, and they’ve overcome every obstacle that has come their way. That alone is worth an accolade.
These days, Estelle’s trauma heightens her discernment skills. She works as a paralegal for her lawyer husband, where she often talks people through hard times and painful situations.
“You wonder why the Lord just allows things in your life. But the longer I stay on this Earth, the more I see that I use it every day to help someone else,” Estelle says. “He brought me through it. And without Him, I could not have gone through all of that.”
The average person reading this story could easily replace every mention of “her father” with any profanity of choice, and it would read the same.
But Estelle isn’t the average person.
She talks with that warm, southern Georgia drawl that makes you feel like you’re sitting on a wrap-around porch in the middle of a deep south summer. She’s the grandmother telling you all she’s learned about life and love, hope and forgiveness. Or the feisty lady at church who isn’t afraid to speak truth whenever she needs to. Her dream is to go back to law school when she’s 80. And given her spunk, Estelle Herndon just might do it.
Estelle’s determination to get past her childhood shows what a strong woman she is. They just don’t make them like that too often anymore.
“I am free through the blood of Jesus Christ,” Estelle says. “I can’t shout that enough.”
We can’t hear it enough, either.
Read Esther’s story in her book, “Finding His Strength.”