Her daddy named her Zerah. It started with a letter at the end of the alphabet, and she would be the baby of his five children.
Then he found the name in the Old Testament. It means “sunrise” or “dawn.’’
She looked up the name once and found a man named Zerah Colburn. He was a 19th century mathematician from Vermont. He was born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.
“Isn’t that crazy?” she said. “He had too many, and I don’t have enough.’’
Zerah Bond came into the world on the first day of August in 1965, the daughter of Horace and Nadell Bond. Her father was a shipfitter in the naval yards of Charleston, South Carolina.
It was later in life before a geneticist would identify her birth defect as ectrodactyly, a cleft disorder that causes a split hand and foot malformation. She was born with a thumb and one finger on each hand. Her left foot is clubbed. She has a single toe on her right foot and wears a child’s size 1 shoe.
“She probably won’t ever walk or talk,’’ the doctors told her parents. “And she won’t be able to care for herself. We don’t know what could possibly be wrong in her brain. There are places for children like these. Put her in an institution, and you won’t ever have to worry about it.’’
Those words made Horace Bond angry.
“Yes, there is a place for this child,’’ he told them. “It’s called home.’’
She walked on her first birthday. When she was older, she clutched crayons in her hands and drew pretty pictures. She learned to tie her shoes, comb her hair and eat her vegetables.
“Every day, my daddy told me the measure of a person is not in pounds and inches, or fingers and toes, but what’s inside of them,’’ she said.
Her brother, Dwight, and sisters Nina, Bonnie and Octavia never let her roll over and play dead. They challenged her. They encouraged her. She rode horses and jumped on trampolines. She told her father the only thing she could not do was ride the bicycle he bought for her when they were living in Folkston.
Other children were sometimes cruel. They called her a freak. They avoided her like a crack in the sidewalk.
“I’m sure people looked at me sympathetically, but I never picked up on that,’’ she said. “I would just see them draw away from me and turn their children away, too. That was hurtful. So I would always try to remember what my dad said.’’
It helped that she was as cute as a button and had a vivacious personality. It helped deflect the stares and ward off the awkward pauses if someone reached for her hand.
When her family moved to Lizella and their house was on U.S. 80, she walked to school at Redding Elementary. As she got older, she became more self-conscious about her feet, especially when the other girls wore high heels to the prom and sandals in the summer.
She graduated from Southwest High School in Macon in 1983 and got married at the Bibb County Courthouse the following year. She could not wear a wedding ring. Her fingers were too deformed. She accepted it, though. She had made peace with that a long time ago.
Zerah gave birth to a daughter and a son, Jessica and Wyatt Pyles. They were born 12 years apart. She worked for Bloomfield TV Service and was a rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service.
She delivered the mail.
“Then I dropped off the map,’’ she said.
DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN
It’s hard to say how it happened or why it happened, just that it happened. You cannot erase the past, like chalk from a blackboard. You can only learn from the chalk dust. She blames herself for the poor choices she made.
She has never been a tall person, all of 4-foot-10 standing on a phone book.
When she shrunk to her lowest low, the woman whose name means “dawn’’ was swallowed by the darkness.
She got divorced in 2001. She became heavily involved in drugs. She was unemployed. Her children went to live with their father.
“I was homeless, going from doorstep to doorstep,’’ she said. “I wasn’t living under the bridge, but I did not have an address.’’
Her life was as reckless as that “mayhem” guy in the insurance commercials.
The week before Thanksgiving seven years ago, she went to hell and back along a dark stretch of Lower Hartley Bridge Road.
She was so strung out on drugs she doesn’t remember how she got there. But she hit the brakes on the old Datsun to reach for a phone number written on a piece of paper. In the black night, she also reached for a cigarette lighter. Almost before she realized what was happening, the car was in flames.
“There was fire all around me,’’ Zerah said. “I was hallucinating to the point I was seeing demons. It was like something was trying to pull me under. My pants were on fire, but I wasn’t able to grip what was going on. I got a big whiff of smoke and felt like I couldn’t breathe.’’
Then she heard a voice.
“She is mine,’’ it called out.
Zerah believes it was the voice of the Lord.
“God saved me,’’ she would later tell people. “Jesus saved me.’’
She crawled out the car window and managed to extinguish her burning clothes in a nearby puddle. Two men driving by in a truck called 911.
Her shoe was melted to a prosthesis, but she did not have a single burn on her body. There were no singes in the long hair that flowed down her back.
The deputies came. An ambulance took her to the hospital. She was transferred to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville for observation. After undergoing rehabilitation at River Edge Behavioral Health Center in Macon, she spent five months in the Bibb County LEC on an arson charge.
“I was desperate for help when I got out of jail,’’ she said. “I knew if I went back to the life I was living, I was going to die.’’
Family members placed her in Wellspring Living, a women’s care facility in Duluth.
After eight months, she was ready to pull the rip cord on her new life.
‘YOU JUST NEED FAITH’
In many ways, overcoming her substance abuse and other problems were greater obstacles than all the physical challenges she has had to deal with in life.
Today, she has three jobs to stay busy and provide for her children -- and now grandchildren. She is a cashier and works in the front office at Harveys Supermarket in Fort Valley. She holds a part-time position at Fort Valley Ace Hardware.
At home in her living room, she makes dog bows for Bardel Bows, a Fort Valley company that is the largest supplier of dog bows in the U.S.
Although Zerah’s sister, Nina, had done work for Bardel in the past, co-owner Delise Knight had reservations about Zerah’s ability to make a new design line called Bow Fascinators.
“I was quite skeptical. They are very complex to put together, and I honestly wasn’t sure she could do it,’’ Delise said. “Boy was I wrong. Not only could she do them, they were perfect.
“Zerah is such an inspiration to us all,” she said. “She is determined, motivated and most of all a true joy. She always has a smile on her face. We are forever changed because of Zerah. Anything is possible. You just need faith.’’
When people go through her checkout line at Harveys, they often share their stories. They tell her about their children and grandchildren. They watch her scan cans of green beans and jars of mayonnaise. They marvel at her spirit.
“I’m not self-conscious about it,’’ she said. “I know they pray for me. When children stare at me, I tell them it’s the way God made me. He makes some people with blue eyes and brown eyes. And he makes some people with 10 fingers and others with four fingers.
“It doesn’t matter what is on the outside. When you have Jesus inside, you are whole.’’
Her daddy named her Zerah.
A sunrise service.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org