Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Fate Worse Than Death

Another installment about my family. This one sheds light on my grandmother's background.

Papaw used to say that he had saved Mamaw from a fate worse than death: life as a Pope or a Smythe. “Every last one of them is a thief, liar or murderer,” he always reminded her.

In other words, he didn’t hold his in-laws in very high esteem.

There was some truth to his assertion: the
Popes--a sprawling, brawling clan that Mamaw was raised in--was linked to just about every bad thing that had happened in the holler since memory began. The Smythes weren’t much better. No one knew where either family had originally come from (a sin among people who define themselves as much by where they’ve been as where they’re going), but they had had roots in the hills for generations longer than most other families. Not that this gave them any sense of refinement; they were known to be roustabouts, drinkers, gamblers and dancers. They were also cheats: a boy hired to work for them would most likely never see a nickel of his promised pay, or the sympathy of anyone else, for that matter. Everyone knew that the Popes and the Smythes were trash, and if you got mixed up with them then well, that was your problem.

Mamaw, of course, had no say to whom she was born, and unfortunately for her, she was both a
Pope and a Smythe. Her mother, Sarah Pope, had given birth to her shortly after her own fifteenth birthday, an unwed Holiness girl brought to shame through her own wild ways. Mamaw's father was a Smythe. He was an older second cousin, already married and responsible for the three children that union had brought about. When news of the birth spread throughout the holler, more than a few folks shrugged their shoulders. What more could you expect out a Smythe and a Pope?

Horrified at her daughter’s very public and clearly unrepentant sinning, Mamaw’s grandmother took full charge of the newborn, who she named Naomi. Maybe a good, Biblical name would give her some sense, she reasoned. Her husband--a strong Christian himself--reminded her that it sure hadn’t done their own little girl much good, but it couldn’t hurt much either.

And so my grandmother was raised by Mamaw and Papaw
Pope, who had somehow escaped the curse of their surname and managed to lead fairly uneventful and steady lives. The same couldn’t be said for little Naomi’s mother, Sarah. Set free by her parent’s willingness to bear the burden of her baby, Sarah fled from the holler in the middle of an September night. Only later did people realize that Andy Smythe, the brother of her former lover, was gone, too.

Andy owned a truck. That’s what most folks figured made Sarah take notice of him in the first place, because they clearly weren’t cut from the same cloth. He was a tall, looming man built like a wall, with shoulders wider than his waist and a smallish head set straight onto those shoulders without much hint of a neck. No one had ever considered him handsome--even by the standards of the day-- because, well, most people had never really considered him. Andy kept pretty well to himself. He hauled coal in his truck, farmed, fished and drove his Momma and Daddy around visiting on Sundays. He drew about as little notice as a bootlegger, but a bootlegger was actually trying to be invisible. To Andy, it just came natural.

Sarah did notice him though--apparently as much as people were noticing her. By all reports, she had shed every last vestige of respectability after the birth of baby Naomi. Everyone had known that she’d had a tendency to wildness in her from the time she was a little girl that begged for lace collars on her dresses, but it had been held in check by her Daddy’s belt and the good preaching at Calvary Holiness Church. Now that she’d walked through the shame of giving birth unwed, though, it was as if the shell of appearances had been burned away, leaving behind what had been hiding all along. Sarah had gotten her wiry figure back almost as soon as the midwife had cleared the door with her sack of blue half runner beans, and took to frequenting the card room that ran nightly in the back of the hardware store. More than once she was seen sneaking through the dark late at night with men stumbling from too much drink. Women in the holler started squinting their eyes when her name was mentioned. Everyone knows what that squint means in rural Kentucky: whore.

“I think she knew she was done for in these parts,” Mamaw says now. “Weren’t no use in acting like a good girl, when everyone knew she wasn’t.”

Sarah never told what it was that drew her to Andy
Smythe, or what it was that drove her to leave with him that autumn. Not given to self-reflection or many words, she was happy to let conclusions be drawn and all sorts of rumors circulate around her well into her old age. The closest she ever came to admitting to the truth of what went on that summer came the last time I saw her alive. She was recovering from a broken hip, living with Mamaw and Papaw in an uncomfortably dependent state that nearly drove her mad even at over ninety years old.

“Let me tell you about that truck, Baby,” she said, using my family nickname. “That was ‘25, and trucks back then wasn’t as flashy as they are now. It was sticky with coal dust and smelled like a mine. Now, that truck that me and Andy got us in ‘75 ... that there was a truck I’d stick with a man for.”


Jana said...

Once again, I love it. I want to read MORE!!! Do you have more? Please?

Also, I like the new blog look.

Mary Grace said...

You should never, ever ask a woman from the South if she has more stories to tell about her family. All *sorts* of things will come out ... ;-)