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 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.