If you'd like a refresher of previous posts, here are parts 1, 2, 3, 4, & 5.
Mamaw’s memories of Indiana are far-off and hazy, the kind of recollections that many people have of their very earliest years. Naomi was not a young child when she crossed the state line riding shotgun in her stepfather’s pickup, so the only reason she has come up with for the lack of concrete memories is the sleep-deprived state she recalls enduring for months on end.
Sarah and Andy had already made a name for themselves in rural counties all over eastern Kentucky and on up into southern Indiana when they had lured Naomi away from the safety of her grandparents home. Their reputations as hard drinkers, reckless drivers, good dancers and fast fighters attracted a very specific element wherever they traveled. It seemed as if a Triple-A Guidebook to honkey tonks had been burned into their very DNA; wherever Sarah and Andy Pope found themselves, a party was sure to be happening.
These were no tame “please pass the tea cakes” parties. Naomi’s vague recollections center around Mason jars being emptied of their clear “likker” and of fist-fights that didn’t come to an end until someone was down--usually for good.
The three of them drove through back-water towns for a few months, shacking up in unpainted cottages with folks who were apt to open their homes to the likes of Sarah and Andy. More often than not, Naomi found herself sleeping in the dirty floorboard of the truck, hiding from drunk men whose eyes looked at her in a way that she couldn’t quite understand.
If she’d had a whit of sense, she would have gone to a pay phone and called for someone in the holler to come and get her. She knew she could call collect, knew she that there were a handful of people in the holler with their very own telephones who would gladly get the message to her grandparents. Her Papaw would ride up to get her--probably with the pastor--and he’d take her home.
It wasn’t pride that stopped her from calling, she remembers. It was shame.
“Seems I never could get my mind out from under the fact that that wild thing was my own momma,” she says now. Seeing her mother dance on top of the hood of a Chevy with her own two eyes was bad enough. But the shame of her grandfather seeing it was too much to bear. She figured the hurt of it would probably kill him.
The months of sleeping in the daylight and drinking boot-legged moonshine at night came to an end when an unsuspecting truant officer knocked on the door of a particularly fallen-down shanty where the threesome had been invited to spend the night. The man was making his rounds to check on a pair of wild-as-a-buck ten year-olds who hadn’t darkened the door of a school in more than a year. When he caught sight of Naomi--playing cards in the middle of the day with two men more than twice her age--he asked to speak to her parents, too.
“He threatened to put the law on ‘em,” she says, “for keeping me out of school for so long. Now, I’d seed my momma cuss out a revenuer over the state line, and she weren’t no more afraid of him than she was of me. But something in that truant officer put the fear of the Lord in her. She told him right off that yes, sir she’d have me signed up to the school the next day. And she did it, by golly.”
Naomi was excited to return to school. She thought that somehow, the normalcy of it all might rub off on her mother and stepfather. Maybe they’d rent a little house of their own, settle down and live like people should. Sarah seemed excited, too; she took Naomi into town and bought her two new dresses with money she’d won shooting pop bottles off of a log behind the beauty salon in town. The only problem with the dresses, Naomi told her mother, was that they fit too close in the chest. Sarah said they looked fine.
The next morning, Naomi walked to school alone. It was the biggest schoolhouse she’d ever seen: a huge stone building with students segregated by grade. She found her way to the office and was walked to a class.
“I thought I’d died and been sent to the hot place,” my Mamaw tells me.
The children in that class were all two or three years younger than Naomi, but all light years ahead in their schooling. The boys were mean, and wore tight, short trousers and slicked back their hair with something that stunk like coal oil. The girls wore dresses that reminded Naomi of the ones she had seen in Sears catalogs. They looked at the gangly new student as if she had just arrived direct from another planet.
“And that was what broke me,” Naomi admits. She cried all the way to the phone booth in front of a Davis Drive-In Motel that afternoon after school let out. Calling collect, she got Lucinda Miller’s mother on the line and managed to choke out her wherabouts. To this day, she has no idea where she was exactly.
“Just some little town in Nowhere, Indiana,” she says.
She can’t remember where she had been, but she recalls the scene of her homecoming well.
“My mamaw came out on the front porch and was waitin’ on us to pull up. I reckon she heard us on the drive. Anyhow, she had a big old afghan quilt in her hands, and she wrapped that around me the minute I got out of that pastor’s car. Didn’t even look at me, just wrapped me up and took me in, like she knowed already that I wouldn’t be wearing nothing decent.”
Two weeks later, my mamaw met my papaw for the first time. She was twelve years old now, but wiser in the ways of the world than most 20 year-olds in the holler. When she first laid eyes on the boy with the jet-black hair and the dirty overalls, she saw trouble. What kind, she had no idea. But trouble was trouble just the same.