I was not an attractive child. A learned man in our town once told my Mother that he was certain that I would one day grow into a great beauty. The features were there, he assured her, just masked behind the muscular – if not masculine – pudge, ginger hair, and oversized freckles. Of course, the man was not from our time; he merely lived there. He was an outsider – a Yankee, to be precise – and perhaps one of the only people there who was capable of seeing beyond.
I was not an attractive child, but I was a bright child, and in a small Southern town where all of the girls seemed to have been of landed money that somehow entitled them to be born with blonde hair, skinny, never-ending limbs and privilege, I needed something to which I could cling in order to ensure my escape. Both then and later.
I was a bright child, but not as perceptive in hindsight as I would have then proclaimed myself to be. I was loud and brash and preferred the company of adults to the exclusionary treatment at the hands of my peers. My days were never good, at best being ostracized at the hands of the popular and yet shunned by the ones they considered undesirables. At worst, I suffered endless abuse from classmates and teachers alike. I was in my own class; between, wherein only I dwelled. I was brash and I was loud to make it seem okay. To make me seem okay.
My parents were loving – if not obsessed – and yet not overly affectionate or effusive. I knew we were the center of their world, but somehow for me, that was not enough. When you are young and insecure, the love shown by working two jobs to provide you with the best is not as apparent as showing up for school plays or field days. And so their overwhelming devotion having been interpreted by me as a slight, I was attention and affection-starved.
Our daily routine was the same. I went to school. I hated it. I longed for 3:15. After school, I went to the sitter’s house, a not very nice woman named Yvonne who for some unknown or perhaps uninformed reason insisted that her name was actually pronounced WHY-VON in the most heinous of Southern tones. The white trash kind, at the most opposite end of the dialectical spectrum from anything resembling genteel. Whether or not she knew that they phonetics of her name amplified the perception of her as having an inborn inhospitable nature, I did not and do not know. She was a dreadful woman who made no secret of the fact that she looked after children for only the financial benefit derived from filling a market void rather than from any form of maternal or nurturing instinct that may have existed within her. If possible, she liked me even less than I did her. I was not attractive and I did not obey. I would lie on the floor of humid green shag looking out through the screened front door from the time we arrived until the time we departed, just waiting for my mother’s Cadillac to appear in the driveway with the same anticipation and impatience I otherwise reserved for the school clock.
Mom would occasionally come on time, but never early. On Fridays, she was always late.
Each day after she collected us, as we made our way around the bypass toward home, we would stop by the Piggly Wiggly to pick up any groceries mom needed and to say hello to our grandmother who was a checkout lady there. I always suspected it was more the latter as mom never bought more than a two day supply of groceries in any one visit, and my dad was not enamored of my mother’s more countrified family. So the daily shop was a ruse for my mother to see her own and one which my dad tolerated knowing that doing so kept her family out of our home.
The store we went to was the new Piggly Wiggly on the north side of town where the new middle class shopped. I never saw any of the mean kids there. Their families shopped at the old one downtown if they shopped at all as most of them had their colored help do their shopping for them. The man who owned our Piggly Wiggly was nice to me. Each day as soon as he would see us enter the store he would step down from his elevated half cubby, half office to greet us – or more specifically me – with a smile and a prolonged, tight hug. I always felt as though he somehow knew that I was picked on and that my loud-mouthed bravado was merely a mask for the emotional blows that were inflicted daily, and that he was trying to tell me, in his own way, that none of it mattered. His attention was always for me rather than for my older, pretty sister and it made me feel special; relieved somehow. Each day after a friendly hello and the requisite hug, my mom would remind me not to hog his time and would drag me away and through the aisles to fulfill her list of varying lengths.
Among other regular workers in the store was a boy who then seemed very old to me, but who in hindsight must have been only about seventeen. He did not attend our school or church and so because I never saw him in any other place, I was comforted by the presumption that he was untouched by the opinion of others or knowledge of my unworthiness. His name was Joey and he was cute and friendly. Very friendly, it occurred to me, for someone much older and so much more, well, world-acceptable than I. He, too, would hug me tightly and tell me, ‘hello’ and some days would even tease me and ask me when I was going to grow up so that we could run away together and get married. And though even at my young age I sensed some desperation in his outpouring of affection, he made me feel special and not so ugly or unwanted as those kids at school. I knew little about him except that my granny said he was an orphan and that the man who owned the store had given him a job and helped him to live. This served to reinforce my belief that the store-owner-man was a compassionate and kind man; a pillar of the local church, his moral compass was sure and steady.
Our routine had been the same since I was five when we had moved into our second house in the new subdivision in the north part of town. Our schedule rarely – if ever – varied from one day to the next, the rhythm of it somehow punctuating the mundanity of it. That was until one Monday morning when I was eight.
I had been known at times, during the school year prior, to hold food in my mouth until after the lunch period was over only to then return to the classroom and spray the contents all over my desk, convulsing convincingly as I did so. I would even go so far as to save the two foods on my tray of most contrasting color until the end of lunch, just before the bell rang so that the effect would be all the more dramatic and disgusting. So convincing was that every day for three weeks mom or dad or aunt or uncle or any other available sucker would come to school to collect me shortly after my post-lunchtime display. I was amazed at how simple it had been and had enjoyed a very good run until one day at the end of week three when mom had an appointment for me to see the local internist rather than my favorite pediatrician who had historically always been on my side and would always give me the benefit of the doubt. Instead, this man was an older doctor who had known our family and most everyone in town since generation one and who had presumably also, over the years, seen and heard it all. In short order with his wisdom, down-home Southern way and one-word diagnosis of Schoolitis he burst my bubble and ruined what had otherwise been a highly effective scheme. My backside was blistered and my Holly Hobby village impounded.
So on that morning when I was eight, I could have forgiven my mom for insisting on quarantining the thermometer to ensure that the consistently high readings it was displaying were not being aided or contrived by a heating pad in my bed or by quick trips to the hot water tap on the bathroom sink. Only after the fourth confirmation that my temperature had exceeded 103 did mom begrudgingly call the pediatrician and quickly haul me off to see him still donning my yellow duck-clad flannel pajamas. Much to mom’s surprise, my doctor had suspected and a Xray had confirmed that I had somehow contracted severe pneumonia. I was put to bed for what he said would be a minimum of three weeks and though I felt physically unwell if not truly awful, the notion of a reprieve from abuse at the hands of my classmates – no matter how brief and regardless of the reason – was the most welcome of news. At least to me.
Mom did not return to work that day and instead spent the afternoon with me gathering prescriptions and making arrangements for my daycare, knowing that she would not be allowed to take the time off work to look after me herself, as back then, this was the norm. She and my dad, therefore, decided that in order to keep me in our home they would enlist the help of my other grandmother, my dad’s mom. Granny L-Belle worked the day shift at the cotton mill as she had for at least as long as my parents had known each other, but unlike my mom’s job, hers was protected by seniority and accrued untaken leave. She took the time off as unpaid vacation and my dad supplemented her income instead so that she could look after me as long as needed, unencumbered and without stress.
For the next few weeks during the day grandmother L-Belle would stay at our home with me, methodically addicting me to soap operas, game shows and grilled cheese sandwiches. She was a decent woman, but not a strong one and displayed tendencies which ran counter to her strongly professed faith. She had an unnatural fear of Christ that was nothing akin to a relationship with a benevolent deity. She had, for a time, all but banished my own mother from family lunches when she one Sunday discovered that mom had secretly been sneaking us into the Baptist church rather than taking us to our grandmother’s chosen Church of Christ where we were expected every Wednesday and Sunday, barring death or similar. For me, even then there was no difference between what her church preached and ours proclaimed save perhaps the volume and twang. According to both, I would perish in hell were I to drink, dance, fancy a man outside of wedlock or do anything that remotely resembled enjoyment. And so granny L-Belle’s intransigence on this point struck me as the sign of someone perhaps not burdened with the capacity for rational thought. She allowed the views of her especially conservative brand of Christianity to dictate choices even a person completely devoid of any spiritual alignment would not have made. Like staying with an abusive alcoholic husband because divorce is a sin.
Still, to us, she was superb, even with or perhaps because of her manifest contradictions. Being with her was always a treat, but being with her instead of at school made the eventual four weeks I spent at home amongst the best of my entire childhood.
My mother would rush home during lunch to check on me and bring me treats. My dad would even make an effort to bring me my favorite spicy sausage and biscuit with mustard from the local shake shop, recognizing that it was one of the few foods I could still taste. In the evening, the miniseries Backstairs at the White House was on TV and thought it was far too mature for my young age, mom was so intent on watching it that she had no choice but to allow me to do the same, having made my long term sick bed on the sofa in the den to keep me and my germs out of the room I shared with my sister. I had never had so much attention, and never had my otherwise strict and patterned existence been so textured and varied.
Over the course of the weeks, I had received many visitors and even more flowers and cards, mostly from people at church I hardly knew but who for some reason felt the need to pray for me and then come tell me about it in person. I even received a giant get well card from my otherwise hostile third-grade class. So one day at the height of my illness when the doorbell rang in the mid-late morning, it had not seemed out of the ordinary. But when my grandmother opened the door to find standing there the store owner man, I was so caught off-guard that my naive rationale could only reason that he was there to see L-Belle, as I knew him in one context only. Yet there he stood in our front room and apparently indeed to visit me as along with him he had brought a fresh ice cream cake on which were emblazoned the words “get well.” He insisted on sitting on the sofa right next to me, squeezing me tight and giving me well wishes despite my raging fever and hideous, chesty cough. He was – like my grandmother – a strict Church of Christ, and so to her mind, it was a divine gesture from a man she knew to be a deacon of his church and staple of our community. To me it felt misplaced, though I could not isolate or identify the emotion within me it stirred; only that it was uncomfortable.
He did not stay long as the conversation waned and from my withdrawn body language I think her perhaps discerned that he had stepped – at least to me – out of one world and into another and without any invitation to have done so. After he departed, my grandmother placed the cake on the kitchen counter and quickly returned to sit with me so as not to miss the start of Wheel of Fortune, which came on every day just before the noon news. As was the routine by now, it was not long after that we heard my mom’s car pulling into the garage as she made her daily trip home for lunch. Shortly thereafter, I heard the kitchen screen door swing open and the sound of mom’s clunky heels on the linoleum kitchen floor, rushing in and talking out loud to us in the next room as she threw together her meal from whatever the contents of the fridge could offer. As she did so that day, she noticed the cake on the countertop where my grandmother had left it and with her mouth half-full of pimento cheese sandwich and a glass of tea in her hand came to join us in the adjacent room, and to enquire as to whom had brought such a nice surprise for me. But when the answer came back from my grandmother, rather than responding with any expression of delight or even approval, she had a change of demeanor which was immediately and decidedly negative.
With her mouth full and tea glass sloshing about and displaying what even an eight-year-old could see was a muted alarm tinged with incredulous-ness, she did not even draw a breath before she began riddling my grandmother with rapid-fire questions about why he had brought it and what he wanted and how long he stayed. And whether she had left me alone with him. My grandmother seemed at first dumbfounded then defensive and though I could sense my mom’s emotions and had myself felt something less than ordinary about the encounter, I did not fully understand. What could make my mother so quickly seemingly horrified about an otherwise apparently benign gesture from such a nice man?
Realizing that she was attacking my grandmother for reasons not clear, mom gathered herself quickly and asked to speak to L-Belle in the next room. When they returned after only a very few minutes, it was as though nothing had happened. The store owner’s visit nor the subsequent reaction was ever mentioned in my presence again. That’s how we did things in our family, in our town, in the 70s South, sometimes to the extent that I would wonder if I had imagined entire episodes of familial discord or neighborly discontent. We never discussed any thought, urge or emotion that could be perceived as being any more controversial than switching from Velveeta to cheddar.
That night after dinner, mom gave me a piece of the cake but did not have any for herself. Yet even as I ate it she seemed to watch me with a concentrated gaze, as though trying to balance the urge to throw the cake in the garbage with her maternal need to make everything seem okay. But after just one piece mom declared that the cake was not good for my congestion or for my weight, took my plate and told me she would freeze the rest of it until I was better.
The rest of my illness-induced break from reality went quickly and without incident, or at least without any that involved uninvited cake or conspiratorial whisper-shouting. Almost another month passed before I was allowed to return to school, but even then I faked a relapse on the first day back and earned myself another week back at home amidst parental recriminations of, “we sent her back too soon.” So by the time I had fully recovered, it had been almost two months since I had been subjected to the normal routine of school, ridicule, sitter, Piggly Wiggly, home.
When the first full day of normalcy did finally return, it was as though no time had passed at all. It was the first time in my life that I realized everything would go on, with or without me. There was a natural order and there would also be someone else on whom the pretty kids could prey in my absence and the teachers could ignore. It was all the very same. The only slight variance being that WHY-VON seemed to have become even less pleasant toward me during the intervening time apart. I had half-expected at least a modicum of sympathy, but the economic reality of having lost almost two months of income from not having me or my sister in her charge greatly outweighed any inclinations she might have had – however slight – to expend energy on pretense.
So when mom’s car finally appeared in the driveway that day, I was probably more anxious than ever prior to make our way to the Piggly Wiggly, as I was certain that there, at least, I would receive the requisite amount of attention and fawning due to me after such a prolonged absence. But that day when we arrived at the store and stepped inside, the store owner came down and gave me only a slight half-hug and soon sent me on my way with my mother. Perhaps my memory of the past had been more generous than the reality, or my imagination more fertile than the inevitable, but it seemed to me that there was a less assertive enthusiasm in his greeting than had previously been the norm. To me, it mattered little as it was really Joey whom I had looked forward to seeing more, and as we wandered the aisles I expected to see him stocking the shelves or putting price stickers on groceries at every turn. But he was nowhere to be found. Perhaps he was in the back and would come out and sneak up on us as he often times did. Perhaps he was planning to surprise me. But he did not.
Crestfallen, I wandered behind my mom, stalling here and there in the hope he would appear, and even briefly considered making a mess to see who they would call on the tannoy to come and clean it up. Having thought better of such drama, though, and when I still had not seen him by the time we reached the checkout and as my other grandmother was giving my mother her change, I looked up and asked her innocently where Joey had gone. Leaning back against the waist-high wall of the checker stall behind her, resting her back and her legs from what had been a very long day on her feet, she looked at me with her country simplicity and weary, knowing eyes and said – before my mother’s abbreviated gasp could signal her to stop – simply, “He killed himself, honey. Right out there in that parking lot. He had problems you did not know about and do not need to,” and as she said this, glanced up to the elevated office of the store owner man.”