Faye taking a weaving class at John C. Campbell Folk School
Faye Hiking in Grand Teton National Park
Willis Creek Slot Canyon near Escalante, UT
Summer Storm near Escalante, UT
After four wonderful, scenic, exciting, tiring weeks out West, we are home!
Benjamin and I dug for fish fossils in Wyoming—and found them. We searched for fossils in other areas with less success. But we eventually ended up with two leaf fossils, several shell fossils, and a few pieces of petrified wood. We hiked in Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah, and enjoyed them all with the partial exception for one near Escalante, Utah. Having some degree of claustrophobia, I don’t like to spend much time in canyons where the walls can be only an arm’s length—or less—away on either side. It’s especially frightening when those walls soar upwards for a hundred feet or more—impossible to climb if a sudden rainstorm 40 miles away floods the canyon faster than a speeding locomotive.
But Benjamin is an old hand at convincing me to venture out of my comfort zone. He checked with the weather people and there was no rain predicted. “The canyon is only a mile and a half long,” he assured me. “The bottom of the canyon is mostly dry—no wading. Best of all, the canyon walls are not as close as some, and a lot of the way the walls are low enough to climb, in case of flood—which,” he hastened to add, “we won’t have.”
I agreed to go. And, at first, everything was just as he had promised—walls were low and the floor was wide. Plenty of promising rocks littered the ground—possible fossils. There was a narrow little stream snaking along, but it left a lot of dry, pebbled walking area for our passage. Then as we progressed, the walls began to rise and the floor began to narrow. The steam widened to fill most of that floor and I was searching for the shallow areas before placing my feet. Finally, the walls towered overhead in undulating surfaces that a rock climber probably couldn’t handle without lots of equipment. At about one mile the sky began to darken, and Benjamin, knowing this might be a deal breaker, sped up. When a group of hikers splashed by, Benjamin called back to me, “See, there’s no danger, or they wouldn’t be here!”
“That’s probably what the passengers on the Titanic told each other,” I yelled back.
“We’re almost there,” Benjamin said. “We can’t turn back now.”
But the sky was getting darker and the walls taller. Suddenly, I heard a rumble of thunder. “Thunder just sounds louder out here, than back home,” he assured me. “We’re almost at the end.”
Thunder crashed right overhead, and I panicked. “I’m going back,” I yelled. “Right now.” I turned and, forgetting my troublesome knee, I moved as fast as I could without actually running. I forgot about finding the shallow places in streams and the flattest walking areas. I scampered over boulders that I had cautiously navigated on the way in. All at once the hikers who had passed us earlier ran past, heading in the opposite direction. One of them tripped and fell when climbing over a huge boulder. She managed to get up and limp on not much faster than I was moving. Soon they were all out of sight—including the injured one. Looking back, I didn’t see Benjamin.
About ten minutes later, I got back to the area where the banks were low enough for me to climb in an emergency, and I was able to slow down and catch my breath a bit. There was still no sign of my husband when I came to the point where the trail left the canyon. I trudged uphill. It seemed to have stretched out a lot longer than I recalled. Of course, it was the wrong trail. Fortunately, I had climbed high enough to see in the distance what had to be the parking area at the trailhead. And there was our car, still shaded by one of the few trees big enough to cast a shadow. Thank God, I knew which direction to go in.
By the time I got to our dusty old Honda, the thunder had moved further off and the sky had lightened. It was obvious that the danger of a flash food was over. Exhausted, I let the passenger seat back into a reclining position and went to sleep. No doubt my husband was going to be disgruntled by my desertion, but I was too tired to worry about it. When Benjamin woke me he was raving about the slot canyon and how sorry he was that I had missed completing the hike. I tried to put on a repentant face.
I waited until the next day to tell him I had just entered my last slot canyon.
And this time I mean it.
As a young man, my late father-in-law never had much opportunity to kick up his heels. He went from farm life to working his way through college to marriage and teaching, and then to fatherhood. When his first child (who became my husband) was only a few months old, the coach at Daddy’s school suggested they go on a weekend fishing trip, and Daddy decided to do it. Mama Gibbons probably wasn’t too happy about the plan, from the get-go, since weekends were her best chance to get out of the house. With her husband gone in the car, Mama was stuck at home.
The coach probably fished all the time. When Daddy picked him up he had rods, bait, picnic food, and a big cooler filled with beer. It’s very likely that Daddy had never tasted beer and he probably didn’t plan to drink any of it, but once they got to the river and the day warmed up, he gave in to temptation. By Sunday morning, he was probably giving in more readily and more often.
Meanwhile, back at home, Mama had problems. She was still nursing the baby, but since her milk supply was undependable, she supplemented with bottles of formula as needed. Unfortunately, the formula ran out on Saturday. Daddy hadn’t been real definite about when he’d be home, but Mama was counting on Saturday afternoon. He didn’t make it. By bedtime the baby was wailing loud enough to rouse the neighbors, if not the dead, and Mama was beside herself with frustration. Before morning, she was angry.
Late Sunday afternoon Daddy drove up, rumpled and smelling of beer and already suffering the misery of a hangover. His troubles were only beginning. His infant son was screaming with hunger and his angry wife was asking what on earth was he thinking, leaving her at home with a baby that had been crying for 48 of the last 24 hours?
Daddy could only sit at the kitchen table with his head cradled in his hands. This was in the 1940s—stores and pharmacies were closed on Sundays. The baby kept crying and the wife kept fussing. Mama finally realized she could drive the car and borrow some formula from a friend with a baby. Daddy was too sick to make the errand, but he probably had time to revisit the wisdom of his decision as the baby screamed louder and louder.
The next morning was a school day, but Daddy was still suffering from headache and nausea. He dressed to go to work, but simply could’t make it. Mama had to use a neighbor’s phone to call the school and put him on sick leave. It was Ben Gibbons’ first time ever to use sick leave, and it alarmed the entire school. An hour later, Daddy was drinking his fourth cup of coffee when a car screeched to a stop in the yard.
“It’s your principal!” Mama whispered.
Daddy leaped up and ran to their bedroom. With no time to undress, he jumped into bed and pulled the cover up to his chin.
“Could I take you to the doctor?” asked his boss as he entered the room.
“No,” Daddy replied. “I’ll be okay tomorrow.”
“I wouldn’t mind a bit,” the principal insisted.
“Thank you just the same,” Daddy said, “It’s just something I ate. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”
When the principal was gone and Daddy was back at the table, drinking coffee, he said, “Well, I figure things this way—I can either work or I can drink. I think I’ll work.” It was the last fishing trip for Daddy for years.
And the next time he didn’t take beer.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and awarded the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction. Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazo
My Benjamin at about 4 years old.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction. Awarded the Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction. (see the following web address for more information) http://www.newsouthbooks.com/pages/2015/10/20/halley-wins-moonbeam-awards-silver-medal/ Available at: NewSouth Books: www.newsouthbooks.com/halley and Amazo
My husband’s Uncle Tommy never followed anyone’s rules, or changed his ways to suit others. Perhaps that was a big part of the reason he never married. Partly because he had been an adored first child, he always expected to be catered to and indulged. Being a hard drinker sometimes made him a burden for his family too. Yet over the years I have heard from various relatives, “Tommy had another side too.” Sometimes he would come in with a new dress for my mother-in-law, who was the baby of the family. Not just any dress. Somehow he could always pick the right size and style to flatter her. And price was no object. At Christmas time he might show up with the very children’s toys that finished out what might have been a skimpy holiday for some of the nieces and nephews. Often he would decide to buy my husband and his brother school clothes.
August of 1954 was one of those times for my husband, Benjamin. Benjamin had reached that age when he had become acutely aware of the opinion of his peers, especially in Auburn. There he was a country boy come to the “city” and had lots of opportunities for embarrassment. On this occasion his family was visiting Atkins relatives in Auburn when Uncle Tommy showed up. His pockets were loaded because it was payday, and he had obviously had a few snorts of whiskey.
“Benjie,” he said to my future husband, “we’re going to walk uptown and buy you some new clothes.”
Benjamin hung back. Uncle Tommy was staggering and smelled bad. His shirt was stained and it wasn’t tucked into his pants on one side.
“Let’s go,” Uncle Tommy said, impatient to carry out his generous impulse.
Benjamin turned to his mother to save him, but she was probably thinking that new clothes would make up for some of the unpaid loans they’d made to Tommy in the past, so she said, “You can go. Just be back in time for supper.”
So they left, with Benjamin lagging as far behind as he dared. Tommy shouted hello to a neighbor and waved to someone in a passing car. Unfortunately, he knew everyone in town–and every dog. Every dog they met wagged a welcome, and one–Miz Agnes Zeller’s dog, Jiggs–fell in behind and began sniffing at the seat of Tommy’s baggy pants. Unfortunately, the reason soon became obvious.
Br-r-r-r-rip! came a muffled explosion. Uncle Tommy laughed. “Comes from eating second helpings of beans and cabbage,” he said. “Git away, Jiggs.”
“You come here this minute, Jiggs,” yelled Miz Zellers.
Jiggs ignored both her and Uncle Tommy.
Br-r-r-r-r-r-p! “Think I ripped my pants that time,” said Uncle Tommy.
Mortified, Benjamin wished with all his heart that the sidewalk would swallow him up. It didn’t. His steps slowed and he pretended a sudden interest in the upthrust root of an oak root mounding the sidewalk in front of him.
“Times ‘a wasting, Benjie,” Uncle Tommy bellowed up ahead. “I don’t have all day.”
Benjamin speeded up a bit only to slow again when he heard Uncle Tommy break wind once more. A moment later Tommy turned and said, “Benjie, I’ve messed my pants.”
Jiggs barked agreement.
“Let’s go home,” Benjamin suggested.
“Nah!” said Uncle Tommy, starting on. “I finish what I start.”
They reached the store and Uncle Tommy held open the door for him. “We’re going to get this young man outfitted for school,” he told Mr. Green, the store manager. “Two pair of pants, two shirts, socks, and shoes.”
“You must be loaded,” said Mr. Green.
“You don’t know the half of it,” Benjamin mumbled. The manager wrinkled his nose and shooed Jiggs out. “That dog musta rolled in something.”
“Wouldn’t doubt it a’tall,” said Uncle Tommy.
Suddenly the manager seemed in a rush to take care of Tommy’s list. Eyes on the floor, Benjamin followed the manager from one table and rack to another while Uncle Tommy shadowed them, talking as he went. Customers and sales people cleared the floor around them. It seemed like hours before Benjamin was handed the bag of clothes and he could rush outside.
Jiggs was waiting.
“Guess I’ll take Jiggs home and set a spell with Miss Zeller,” Uncle Tommy said.
“Good idea,” Benjamin said, hugging his school clothes to his chest and breaking into a run.
Back behind him he thought he heard another explosion.
My family was poor in my growing up time, but we did not really see ourselves as poor, since we always knew people worse off than us–sometimes much worse off. True, we seldom had anything beyond basic needs. No birthday gifts, and often no Christmas gifts either. Shoes for kids were not in the budget unless it was cold weather. Mama’s kitchen staples were flour, meal, sugar, lard, canned condensed milk, dried beans, potatoes, and margarine. We almost never had crackers, peanut butter, cookies, fruit, or fresh milk. We couldn’t store things needing refrigeration, since we had none. But during gardening season, we had all kinds of fresh vegetables that we raised.
One thing that was good about poor families back then is that they usually had no debts and no big monthly bills. Our rent was usually $20 or less because Daddy simply would not rent anything more expensive. The electric bill, after we began renting houses connected to power, was maybe $4, because all we had using electricity were lights, a radio sometimes, and an iron. Back then, anyone borrowing money was looked down on. About the worst thing you could say about a person was,“He owes everybody in the country.” “We don’t spend money we don’t have,” our folks frequently said when we heard of someone in debt.
There were exceptions to that rule. If one of us got sick enough for a doctor–and that had to be pretty sick–then the doctor’s bill was charged until the next paycheck. I didn’t go to a doctor until I was sixteen. Daddy didn’t believe in dentists except for pulling permanent teeth that were hurting–baby teeth HE pulled. The second exception was groceries. Daddy insisted on shopping at a mom and pop store where he could “put it on the bill.” He rarely paid the bill in full, so it would gradually climb to levels Mama could not tolerate. At $150 or so she would find a job at one of the mills, if one was to be had, and pay it off herself. I’m sure Daddy sometimes owed for whiskey, but there was fortunately a limit on how much his drinking pals would lend for that, and whiskey dealers didn’t extend credit. Even if they had, Mama refused to pay for whiskey.
In the fifties and sixties lots of things began to change. People we knew began to buy houses, instead of renting. People were saying, “House payments are less than I was paying for rent, so why keep throwing away money on somebody else’s house?” The same people were buying washing machines, electric stoves, and refrigerators too, and paying for them “on time.” Finally, Mama found a house that was affordable and convinced Daddy to apply for a mortgage. Sure enough, the payments were about the same as rent. Then, by buying on time, she began getting, one at a time, the modern conveniences other people were enjoying. I think she got her refrigerator after I left home for college. Then she got Daddy to put in an “indoor toilet” on the back porch. Eventually, she added a “warm morning” heater, a water heater, a mixer, measuring cups and spoons, and casserole dishes. When I came home from college I was amazed at each visit how things had changed.
On one of my holiday visits, Mama was trying to sell Daddy on the notion of a freezer chest. “They’re on sale at Frakers,” she said.
“Yeah,” Daddy replied, “Dealers got Cadillacs on sale too, but that don’t mean I’m buying.”
“With a freezer we could eat out of the garden all year long,” she said.
Daddy snorted. “I can buy from the grocery store all year long too.”
“Not as good as garden stuff.”
“Good enough for me.”
“Think of all the money you could save on groceries,” Mama persisted. “The freezer would pay for itself.”
“Good!” said Daddy. “When it pays itself off, you let me know, and I’ll borrow a truck and go pick it up.”
Daddy was so proud of that comeback that he told it for months every time we had visitors, however, he eventually gave in and he got to enjoy the garden all year long.
My mother was not one to go strollicking too often. It was way too much trouble. “I druther stay home,” she’d say even as us young’uns were piling into the car for whatever trip had been forced on her. If you ignored her complaints, sometimes she would go on, especially if the trip didn’t cost anything except the gas to and from. But on occasion she herself would take a hankering to “go somewhere.” These times seemed to coincide with the times she was provoked at Daddy or someone else who seemed to be having more than their share of fun. “I’m tired of just setting here at the house,” she would declare when one of those moods struck, “I’d like to go somewhere myself every now and then.” But no matter how long the trip, Mama never stayed more than one night if she could help it. In the late 1980s, my brother, John, must have called when she was in one of those adventuring moods.
“Mama, I want you to come visit us in Texas,” he told her in one of his weekly phone calls. By this time Daddy had died and Mama was living in a better neighborhood in a house John had bought for her. Our sister, Jean lived with her.
“I can’t drive to Texas,” Mama said, her false teeth clicking, “and I sure ain’t going to fly.”
“How about coming by train?” he suggested.
“I can’t afford tickets,” Mama said. She had $75,000 in the bank of hard-earned savings for her “old age” and she never spent a penny of it.
“I’m paying,” John said.
That was a different story. “Wait’ll I get my teeth fixed,” she replied. John knew that would be never. Her children had given her money several times for new teeth, but, instead of going to a dentist, Mama would find a fly-by-night garage operation and buy a cheap set, adding the remaining money to her savings. The first set teeth soon broke into several pieces, the second set soon had teeth falling out, and this latest set was so big that they rattled and clicked as she talked.
A few weeks after the original invitation John called Mama to tell her the travel plans. Jean had agreed to accompany Mama. They would get on the train in Dalton and stop over in New Orleans before continuing on to College Station, Texas. “I’ll put you up in a big hotel in the French Quarter during your layover,” he went on. “You might like to take a tour of New Orleans.”
Mama rejected that immediately. “I can see everything I want to see without going on no tour. I ain’t lost nothing down there.”
“Well,” John teased, “You’re going to be right in the part of town where all the partying goes on. You know, Jimmy Swaggart hangs out there a lot.”
“Jimmy Swaggart? Is he that preacher that was hiring them strippers to pull off their clothes for him, and then when he got caught claimed he was mentally ill?”
“That’s the one,” said John, “so if a big Cadilac pulls up and a man in a shiny suit and slicked back hair leans out and offers you a ride, don’t go.”
“Well, let me tell you one thing,” Mama said, “If I was to strip off my clothes for him, he’d be cured.”
Mama made it to College Station unmolested by Jimmy Swaggart or anyone else and stayed all of two nights before she declared herself ready to go home. For Mama, that was a whole lot of strollicking.
Lura and Gene Atkins Newly Married
Lura and Gene Atkins Celebrating Their 50th Wedding Anniversary
Lura Johnson Atkins always looked for the good in every person or situation. I used to say that if a hurricane blew away their back porch, she would say, “Really and truly, it was for the best. We needed a new porch anyway.” She met me before my future in-laws did, and gave them a glowing report on me. And I wasn’t the only one. According to Aunt Lura, she had wonderful in-laws, her boss was a fine man, her neighbors were all lovely people, and Auburn was the best town anyone had ever lived in. Such declarations were usually followed by her trademark saying, “Honey, I’m not kidding.”
This positive outlook must have been part of what drew Eugene Atkins to her. A friend took Gene by the Johnson farm one evening in 1936. Twenty year old Lura had already rolled her hair and gone to bed. She only reluctantly got up and put on a robe to greet the guests. Gene was smitten at once by the pretty, dark-haired girl. When they left the house, Gene said, “Well, tonight I met the girl I’m going to marry.”
“You’re dreaming,” his friend told him. “Lura’s keeping steady company with a high school principal.”
“Not any more,” answered Gene. And he was right. Soon Uncle Gene was the one taking Lura to church and to the movies. After Gene’s mother saw they were serious, she took Lura aside and confided that if she married Gene, there would likely be no children. “The mumps fell on him.”
That had to be a disappointment to Aunt Lura, who loved children so much. “But what could I do?” she said. “I already loved him.” Sure enough, there were never any children. But their home was seldom empty. Gene’s father spent his last years with them after he was widowed. He loved to play dominoes and Lura was his partner in many games every day. After dementia set in, Lura was the only one who could calm him. A number of Auburn students, including my husband, made the Atkins house a second home. Every one of those students would swear that Aunt Lura made the best fried chicken ever to grace a southern table. Finally, Lura’s mother spent her declining years with them. Then I saw firsthand Aunt Lura’s calming ways work miracles. Mama Johnson seemed permanently discontented, except when Lura was dealing with her. Lura gave her a basket of towels to fold, and the old lady folded them over and over and over. “You fold towels better than anybody,” she would say, “and honey, I’m not kidding.”
Aunt Lura was a career woman too. She started off as a lowly sales clerk at the Poly-Tek, Auburn’s premier women’s clothing store. She had a way with customers and many sought her help in deciding which outfit to buy and what to match with what. Eventually she was the buyer for the store and would go to fashion shows where she made the decision which items to stock of each designer’s offerings for the season. The owner of the store coordinated his retirement with Lura’s so that they both left Polly-Tek at the same time. “Charlie was the best boss in the world,” she frequently said, “and, honey, I’m not kidding.”
After retirement, she and Gene fully enjoyed each other. They visited friends, worked at Auburn’s First Methodist Church, and hosted family gatherings. At home, Uncle Gene did most of the housework and dishwashing, Aunt Lura did all the cooking. By this time Uncle Gene’s health was going down. He had heart by-pass surgery, cancer treatments, and a bad case of shingles from which he never completely recovered. Yet with Aunt Lura’s confidence and cheeriness, Gene seemed to feel that he would live to be a hundred. He did not make it anywhere near that long. He was still in his seventies when death overtook him.
I visited Aunt Lura soon after Uncle Gene’s funeral. “Could I tell you something?” she asked.
“Sure,” I answered.
“Don’t tell this to anyone. They’ll be saying Lura has gone around the bend. But, honey, I’m not kidding. It really happened.”
“I saw Gene two days ago. I had just laid down, thinking, how am I going to live without Gene? Then I looked up and there he was, a few feet away. He was smiling and holding his hand out to me. I knew he was trying to tell me he would be with me every day. And he’s waiting for me on the other side.”
“I believe you,” I said, and I still do.
Aunt Lura kept working at the church until well after 90. Even after she went to the nursing home she was still playing dominoes and keeping up with what was going on at church. She was looking forward to celebrating her hundredth birthday a year from this July, but God had other plans. Week before last, she took bronchitis, which led to pneumonia. On May 9th she told her niece, Teresa, that she was ready to go home. A short while later, on Mother’s Day, she did.
She’s walking hand-in-hand with Uncle Gene now, and I can just hear her telling St. Peter that those gates are the nicest she has ever seen, and, honey, she isn’t kidding.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the 2015 Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.
When my husband’s Uncle Tommy was born he almost died, and so did his mother. As a result his grandparents cared for him while his mother regained her strength. It took Mama Atkins several years to get well, and by the time Tommy returned to his parents he was utterly spoiled and convinced that he was the center of the universe. All his life he was always having to be bailed out of trouble, frequently at a lot of trouble and expense for his siblings. This was true even into his adult and older years. and most especially when he was drinking.
Uncle Jimmy was the middle child in the same family and he always felt he had it harder than anyone else and that he had somehow ended up having to rescue Tommy more than his fair share. “But that’s all right,” he’d say, playing the martyr card, “If everybody feels that’s right, then I’ll not be the one to complain.”
One year Jimmy decided to raise turkeys at home to supplement his income at a chicken processing plant. I’ve always heard turkeys are not easy to raise. They can’t get too cold or too hot, and they have to be fed just right or the meat isn’t good. Then, of course, you have to protect them from predators or none would get grown. They aren’t the smartest birds in the world–or at least the domesticated ones aren’t. Apparently, Uncle Jimmy had done everything right, and the day before Thanksgiving he had sold every turkey he raised except the one he’d kept for himself and his family. Just as he was about to slaughter it, Tommy came driving up, and Jimmy could tell his oldest brother was three sheets in the wind.
Jimmy put his hands on his hips and let out a big sigh. “What do you want, Tommy?”
Tommy opened the car door and staggered out. “Who says I want something? Do I have to want something to come and see my brother?”
“Usually,” Jimmy said.
Tommy laughed. “You got it right this one time, little brother. I come to get me one of them turkeys.”
“You waited too late,” Jimmy said, “they’re all sold except the one in the pen and it’s mine.”
“I’ll take it,” Tommy said.
“Well,” Jimmy said, “While you was wasting your time, drinking and having a good time all these months, I’ve been taking care of them turkeys so me and Velma and Billy could have a little extra money. I’ve done without to buy them birds food, Even brought ‘em in during that cold snap we had in the spring. And I saved this last one for my family to have a little something special for Thanksgiving. Now, if you’d take the last bird I got, take it knowing that me and Velma and Billy won’t have nothing but peas and cornbread tomorrow for dinner, then you just go ahead and take it.”
“Wrap ‘er up,” said Uncle Tommy.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the 2015 Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.
My father’s family wasn’t big on family reunions. They used the Hopewell Baptist Church Homecoming every second Sunday in June as their extended family gathering. But one year someone decided we needed a genuine family reunion. I’m sure it wasn’t my mother. Only a few months before she had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was even more reluctant than ever to be in crowds. I still recall her grumbling as we loaded food dishes into the trunk of Daddy’s financed Hudson Hornet.
“I wish ever’body would keep their tails at home where they ortta be,” she said. “Ever’body could eat their own food at home and mind their own business.” But at least she wasn’t fussing about liquor. At this time Daddy was trying his best to stay sober, as he swore to do after a near death experience when he recently had pleurisy. He had unknowingly combined medications that formed a near lethal mix. In a constant struggle with alcohol craving, Daddy was nearly as nervous and cranky as Mama.
Us kids weren’t getting along much better. I was fourteen, which these days is considered reason enough to be in a permanent bad mood. But there was more. I had a lot more responsibilities for housework and childcare since Mama’s breakdown. Even worse, Daddy kept hinting to visiting relatives that “another little un” would solve all Mama’s problems. I was sure it would only make everything worse. Since I had recently learned the “Facts of Life” from Reader’s Digest, I knew that pregnancy could be prevented, and in my opinion, certainly should be in this case.
Then there was car seating to wrangle over. Jerry sat in front with Mama, because he was “the baby.” That left Jean, John, and me to fight for the window seats in back. As I recall, the Hornet’s backseat wasn’t too roomy to begin with, and the middle position was worst of all. It was also the hottest place on this July day. Jean and John had been faster than me and were clinging like mud to the window positions when I shoved in.
Daddy solved that squabble. “If ya’ll don’t shut your traps, I’ll pull out my belt and give you something to belly-ache about.” I took the middle seat.
We began what seemed like a long, long drive from the Tunnel Hill community just above Dalton, Georgia, to Uncle Roy’s house on Talking Rock Creek in Carter’s Quarter. Likely it was a lot shorter than it should have been because one of Daddy’s greatest thrills was “showing what the Hornet will do.” As he whipped around curves and passed slower vehicles with inches to spare, Mama kept up a continuous wail. “Lord, have mercy, George! Slow down! You’re going to kill us all, George. Don’t pass. Don’t pass two at a time! Lord, have mercy!”
I guess the Lord heard Mama–we arrived intact at Uncle Roy and Aunt Mame’s house. Many of the family had arrived earlier. Several wagons were parked around the yard. There were trucks and a few cars too. most of the newer vehicles belonged to the “rich” Junkinses from somewhere over in Alabama. Daddy pulled up between the improvised picnic tables and the well where everybody could see his car. I knew that he would soon have the hood up and be showing every interested man or boy what a fine motor Hornets had. No doubt, he’d be dangling the necktie he was wearing on to the motor.
Actually, he ended up pulling the tie off to wipe the oil dipstick.
Girl cousins all around were dressed in their best and some had brought their sweethearts. I heard some of the aunts asking Mama “Ain’t Faye going out with the boys now?” I burned with embarrassment and chewed at a fingernail as I pretended not to hear Mama’s standard reply, “No, she don’t care a thing about boys.” She was right, and she was wrong. I was interested in the idea of dating, but scared of ending up like practically every married woman I knew–trapped with a domineering, abusive husband and a houseful of children.
If I could go back to that day, I would talk to all the older people at that gathering. I would ask grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts, and uncles about their lives, what happy things had happened, what scary things, what advice they would give me. But I was too young and too unhappy to see this opportunity. In the photographs taken that day, I can see the sadness in my face. In one photo I am in the background biting my nails. In our family grouping, Mama looks even sadder than I recall. She is 29 years old with four children, and, if my arithmetic is correct, the fifth one is barely on the way.. As much as I didn’t want him, Mike turned out to the baby I loved as if he were my own. A more beautiful baby I have never seen.
I remember one other thing about that long, long day. On the way home Daddy would not stop for me to pee. I begged, almost crying, but he just kept saying, “You can wait. No place to stop anyway, this late on a Sunday.” Mama pointed out places, but Daddy ignored them.
Finally, I took the only option I had. In the darkness I eased up my skirt, tugged down my panties, and peed into the upholstery of the 1949 Hudson Hornet.
I’m still not sorry I did it. And I still feel the relief.
My latest book, HALLEY, awarded 2015 Jefferson Cup Honor for Historical Fiction, awarded the 2015 Moonbeam Silver Medal for Young Adult Fiction, and the 2016 Frank Yerby Award for Fiction.
The week after I won the Yerby Prize, I was surprised over and over. First, I was amazed that HALLEY got that award. There were four other nominees, after all, and I told myself, as I suppose Oscar nominees do, “The odds are against me–just being nominated is an honor.” Then I did win and was overwhelmed by the number of people who congratulated me–mainly by email or Facebook. Four days after the Yerby Festival, a package arrived from Amazon, addressed to me. I had ordered nothing. It wasn’t Mother’s Day or Christmas, and Valentine’s Day was history. I opened it and found a frog puppet and a pop up book about a big-mouth frog. The giver of this present had not revealed his or her name. Who knew I loved puppets? Maybe a few people, since I own about ten animal puppets that many visitors have played with. But how many know I love frogs? How many know I don’t spray for bugs on my back porch or carport because I might harm some of my little green tree frogs that come back in warm weather year after year? Very few.
My husband suggested one of our daughters-in-law. “Not me,” said Aca. “But it could be anybody, Mom. So many people love you.”
“Oh, shucks,” I said, modestly, looking around for a tire to kick.
The next day I had no time for investigation–I had an appointment in Montgomery. But I thought about the book and the frog. Both seemed too fragile to allow the youngest grandkids to play with unsupervised. No, they would fare best on a high shelf, I decided, except for those special occasions when I could make sure they were handled with care. When I arrived home Benjamin announced that the mystery was solved. Our older son Ben had called. “He said since his family won’t be here for Jacob’s birthday, (Jacob is our youngest grand child), he hoped you wouldn’t mind wrapping the gift they are sending from Amazon.”
POOF! So much for all those loving and thoughtful anonymous gift-givers I had on my list!
But the surprises were’t over. At the end of the week, I received another package, which announced on the outside that it contained flowers. “Benjamin,” I cried, “you shouldn’t have!”
“I didn’t,” he said.
Opening the box, I found two dozen perfect pink roses and a note from my friend and first editor, Miriam Rinn. She congratulated me on my Yerby Prize. What an extravagant gift!
Finally there came the announcement from my only granddaughter–also my prettiest, smartest, and best granddaughter. “Oh, Grandmama,” I can already hear her saying, “Everybody knows I’m your ONLY granddaughter.” Anyway, Sarah told me that she is now reading my blog. Wow! Sarah doesn’t read just anything. This both a surprise and a prize. That’s about as good as it gets, folks.
I heard recently on television a request for essays on “the person who made the biggest difference in your life.” Immediately, I knew who that person was for me. I passed over both my parents, though they certainly influenced my life profoundly. My father, in particular, in both negative and positive ways helped to make me who I am. My Grandmother Junkins formed my conscience. She set an example of one who lived by the scriptures and wanted me to do the same. While I don’t always live up to her standards, they are indelibly stamped into my conscience and form the example by which I judge myself.
My Aunt Hilde, a war bride from Germany planted the idea that if I became educated, I could rise above what my mother expected of her children. Mama thought that a good job in the Dalton, Georgia mills was the most any of us could aim for. That was especially her expectation for her two daughters, and she frequently reminded us that we didn’t need a high school diploma for that. But as powerful as Hilde’s influence was, there was still another who was more powerful. I won’t use her real name, though, if she reads this, she will certainly recognize herself. I will call her “Cora Lee Humphrey.”
“Old Lady Humphrey,” as my mother resentfully called her, chose me as one of those girls who might be capable of making something of themselves, but lacked encouragement from their families. She wanted more than good grades from me. She wanted a well rounded educational record. So I had to take geometry, even though math was the one area where I consistently made low grades. I had to take home economics class, because a well rounded woman needed to know how to plan meals, set a table, and operate a sewing machine. I had to join clubs, because I needed to participate in worthy organizations, and I needed to accept leadership roles, because I had to learn responsibility. I had to do the devotion for student assembly because I needed to learn poise in front of an audience. She pushed me into writing an essay about “The Home: The Cradle of Democracy” sponsored by the American Legion. I had to rewrite that thing five times before she called it adequate. To my amazement, I won first prize at the school, county, and district levels.
Then Mrs. Humphrey decided I needed to work as her helper on Saturdays for pay. This gave her a chance to teach me even more about meal planning, cooking, mending, and how to operate a vacuum cleaner and how to use a food mixer. It gave her more opportunities to talk about college, too, and how an education could give me a better life. She found a loan fund where I could borrow to supplement what I could earn at a work-study school in Rome, Georgia. She pushed me into taking a college aptitude test and I was accepted at Berry College. After my high school graduation, she presented me with a check that she and others teachers contributed to help me begin college in May, 1957.
I learned something else on those Saturdays during my senior year of high school. I learned that not every marriage had to be based on the model I had grown up with–a relationship in which the man had all the authority in the family and the wife simply did what she was told. My mother could not control her envy. When I would mention that Mr. and Mrs. Humphrey were planning together which car to buy, or what to plant in the garden, or where to go on vacation, Mama would always say, “Well, I guess he’s scared not to do what she says. I wouldn’t have a man I could boss around.” Eventually, I figured out that the Humphrey marriage was the only model I would be able to live with–a relationship where both partners had a say in decisions. Thanks to that close-up example, I recognized when I met my husband-to-be that he was the kind of man who also wanted that kind of marriage.
Mrs. Humphrey gave me a new pattern for my life. In doing that, she provided a vision to my younger siblings of how they, too, could have a better life. I’m sure I was only one of many mountain young people whose future she shaped.
Thank you, Mrs. Humphrey.