Another in a continuing series of stories from my family history. If you're just joining me, you may want to read parts 1, 2, 3 & 4 first.
While Papaw could never let Mamaw forget where she had come from, it sure didn’t slow him down when he made up his mind that he was going to marry her. By all accounts, he was as aggressive in courting her as he was in hunting down the odd jobs that kept his pockets lined with extra dollar bills.
Mamaw had spent her earliest years safely under her grandparent’s roof, learning how to cook, to sew and to sit stock still through even the most impassioned preacher’s fiery sermon. Life in that house was warm and good, she remembers. Food was plentiful. Dresses were kept clean and pressed after each washing. The schoolhouse, which was a mile and a half away, was a familiar sight to the girl known then as Naomi; she walked to class each day, surrounded by girls like herself--girls who took no interest in the growing agitation that seemed to be gripping the county.
“Seemed like every feller you talked to wanted to tell you how he was goin’ to Detroit, headed north to make him some real money,” she remembers. “But me and my girlfriends, we just wanted to stay put. Raise us some babies and some shuck beans and stay put.”
Mamaw had never been outside of the holler, and had no reason to believe she ever would until the day she walked to the grocers to get herself a bag of penny candy with the money she’d earned watching her great-Aunt Mabel’s four scrappy little boys.
“I was walkin’ along, thinking how it hadn’t hardly been worth the effort, me keepin’ those hellions just for a bag of sweets, when she pulled up alongside me in that shiny black truck.”
In the eleven years since her birth, Naomi had come close to seeing her mother a handful of times. Though Sarah had drifted in and out of the area for the better part of a decade, she stayed clear of her parents and, most especially, her daughter. Usually, she came through at night, like a thief. Huddled in her bed on the other side of the coal stove, Naomi would listen through the walls at her grandmother’s angry rant as she hissed about sin and fornication. The voice that answered was always calm and unswayed, a slightly musical voice that never seemed to feel the weight of the damnation being heaped on its owner like so many burning coals. Naomi knew that the voice belonged to her mother, but she could never work up the nerve to peek around the doorframe and see the woman who had abandoned her with her own eyes.
But now, on a dirt road eight miles off the highway that connected this part of Kentucky to the rest of the world, Naomi came face to face with her mother for the first time.
As the big black truck had rolled to a stop, Sarah had thrown herself across the lap of the man next to her so that she could hang out the driver’s side window. Her hair, Mamaw remembers, was dyed red and curled so perfectly that she knew this woman had actual rollers on her head at night instead of the bobby pins she herself had dreamed of experimenting with. She wore lipstick that looked out of place against the yellow blue sky. But most striking of all, Mamaw says, was her smile.
“I always thought she would look sad. But here she was, and any fool could see that she was happy as a lark.” Mamaw recognized the woman without any introduction, just as, clearly, Sarah had recognized her.
“You get up in this truck, Naomi,” Sarah told her, and without thinking, Naomi obeyed. It never occurred to her what her grandparents would think when she came lurching up the drive in the company of her scarlet mother and whoever it was that was behind the wheel of the vehicle. This was a total suspension of her nature; while she was not known to be shy, she was always exceptionally careful, and far-sighted for a girl her age. At school, it was generally noted that Naomi Pope was not given to flights of fancy, nor was she easily impressed. But on this day, sitting in the biggest, loudest truck she had ever seen in her life, the past seemed to melt away.
Naomi rode shotgun all the way home with her mother and the man she soon discovered was her step-father/uncle. Then, after sitting numb through a supper punctuated with shouts and accusations on all sides, she quietly packed a sack full of her prettiest dresses and hairbows climbed back onto the bench seat of that lumbering truck. She had no idea where she was headed. No idea what she was doing. And no idea how to do anything but ride until someone told her to get off.
That someone would be my Papaw.