S. Diane Wellman
Vignettes from a Young Girl's Life
When I was three years old my mother left my father because, among other things, he lied a lot. He’d say he was going out for a gallon of milk and wouldn’t return for days. Sometimes he came home bleary eyed with pockets full of money from a hot poker game. Other times he came back with nothing, not even the milk. Ma-maw, my maternal grandmother, hated him and swore that once mother left him he‘d never cross the bridge to her house again, not to see mother, not to see me, not for anything. I’d wait on Ma-maw’s front porch all the same.
My first memory is of cigarette smoke and jovial men who chatted at a roundtable as my father deftly dealt cards. A big friendly woman wearing an apron and button earrings would come and go with refreshments. Are you that little girl on the Sunbeam bread package? she asked. I had a special seat in a chest-of-drawers that stood behind the card table. The top drawer was pulled halfway out and stuffed with a white bed pillow. I ate raisins one at a time from a little red box and felt like a queen on a cloud.
Years later I found a black and white photograph of him, one of the few mother had kept and left intact (she cut his face out of others I found). He was walking towards a small plane, looking back over his shoulder into the camera, smiling, happy.
I understand why mother left him, why she chose a good man for her next husband, for my next father. It’s Ma-maw I’m upset with, standing at the foot of the bridge, fists against her hips, true to her word.
I’m four years old when we crowd into Aunt Bounce’s living room. Uncle Bill, a preacher, stands before my mother and a man I hardly know. I sit on the sofa in a starched dress and patent leather shoes. I feel queasy. Uncle Bill opens his Bible.
Do you take this woman to be your lawful wife?
I do. His voice is soft, tender. Mommy’s acting brave, I can tell. It frightens me, I want to run to her, to say don’t be scared, but I can’t speak.
Do you take this man to be your lawful husband? But daddy won’t come back if you say yes. This man doesn’t know card tricks and magic. Can he pull a quarter out of my ear?
I do. Sadness stings my throat, creeps out my eyes. How will I pull cherries from Ma-maw’s tree on this man’s shoulders? He isn’t tall like daddy. I sob uncontrollably. I’m so sorry, mommy, that I’m crying at your wedding. Aunt Bounce sweeps me up into her arms and carries me through the front door and out into the yard. I bury my face in her neck and cry and cry beneath the mulberry tree. Now, now, she pats my back, everything’s going to be fine.
I’m asleep in bed when Mom and Dad return from church. My stepsister, Melinda, is asleep beside me. She’s fifteen and allowed to watch my brother, our baby sister, and me. She’s beautiful, not too friendly, and usually causing some kind of trouble. Mom strokes my hair till I wake up.
“I’ve got something to tell you.” She wakes Melinda too. This is highly unusual behavior. She never wakes me to tell me anything. I think the house is on fire.
“I’ve been saved.”
“From what?” I throw back the covers ready to run.
“Your dad and I got saved at church tonight. That means we let Jesus into our hearts. Now, He will protect us and take us to Heaven when we die. It’s a wonderful thing to be saved.” Melinda flounces back over on her side without a word and pulls the covers up to her ears. “Go back to sleep now. I just wanted you to know.”
I soon realize that being saved means going to church three times a week, twice on Sundays, and every single night when a revival or Vacation Bible School takes place. Mom plays piano for the church and is there every time the doors open. Worse still, the church is thirty miles away in Prichard, where Mom and Dad have both gone, and their parents before them, since God himself was a boy. Luckily, my cousin, Ann, one year older and wiser than me, is forced to go too, since her dad, Uncle Bill, is a preacher, and her mom, Aunt Bounce, sings alto in the choir. Lucky for Ann she only has to travel to the mouth of her hollow.
Unlike Moses in the Wilderness, Ann and I come to church prepared: paper, pencils, snacks, homework. In an effort to communicate quietly we learn sign language from a deaf mute card. Occasionally someone in the congregation requests we sing a song. Ann almost always sings, “I’m Building a Bridge.” I have a larger repertoire since Mom practices hymns at home and travels locally from church to church with the Mellowtones Quartet. They’ve made three LPs and use our living room for rehearsals.
Being pubescent girls, twelve and thirteen, on the verge of womanhood and sin, Ann and I are targets for redemption. It’s Wednesday night at Shiloh Methodist and the service is coming to an end. Mom quietly plays, “Just As I Am,” while Preacher Bias, old, skinny, and turtle-faced, walks up and down the center aisle, Bible in hand, making eye contact with the unsaved: Ann and me. Are you ready to die? If Gabriel’s trumpet sounds tonight are you ready to go? Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior? Let me tell you, friends, if you have there’s a crown waiting for you in Glory where streets are paved of gold and pain shall be no more. But if you have not accepted the Lord Jesus Christ, if you have not let Him into your heart, He who gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life, if He is not in your heart, sinner, you will burn in Hell for eternity! Ann hands me her can of shoestring potatoes and walks down the aisle.
Driving back home after church, my brother sleeps beside me in the backseat, and my sister sleeps in the front. We’ve not passed a car for miles. Mom is quiet, looking out the window at the dark passing hillside. Dad listens to a Cincinnati Red’s ballgame. I take my pajamas from a brown paper bag I stuck under the seat and put them on under my dress. Now I can fall into bed the second I get home. Pete Rose scores a homerun. I bet I am the only sinner left in that church.
The following Sunday night after determining that, indeed, I am the only sinner at Shiloh Methodist, I wait for the invocation then timidly walk down the aisle to redemption. Dad stands at the altar with me, his arm around my shoulders, while Mom plays “Amazing Grace.” I cry, not sure if my emotions are from the spirit of the Lord or because I feel like I’ve just given up my freedom. Immediately afterwards, Ann and I decide to get baptized together.
It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon; the hills are emerald green. Ann and I stand on either side of Uncle Bill, holding his hand, and wade fully clothed into Gragston Creek. The water is warm and brown. Uncle Bill’s tie floats. There’s a little footbridge above us to the right. People stand on the bridge and around the shore singing, “Shall We Gather at the River.” Uncle Bill says, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and pushes us backwards. I glance at Ann who unceremoniously takes a deep breath, puffs out her cheeks, and holds her nose. No way, I think, and fall back gracefully, hand to my side. The water washes over me, shoots up my nose, down the back of my throat. I panic. I’m choking when Uncle Bill pulls us from the water, but I will choke to death before letting on in front of this crowd. Somehow I hear old Mrs. Cooksey, 102, call out from the bridge, “Bless’m good, Lord!” I bury my face in Uncle Bill’s side as though I’m crying and blow on his dress shirt until water runs from my nose. I cough and finally breathe as Amens! and Hallelujahs! fill the air. Uncle Bill squeezes Ann and me to him, kisses our foreheads. The singing begins again as we wade to the shore.
Ann is fifteen and well developed in all areas. Billie Marie, her older sister, tells Ann about things like getting your period, getting pregnant, French kissing. Then Ann tells me. I’m fourteen, built like a stick, and I rely heavily on Ann’s guidance.
Prichard, West Virginia
“It’s stifling in this smokehouse.” Ann fans herself lazily, stretched out on a double bed that barely fits into the tiny room. The smokehouse is used as a spare bedroom, but mostly Uncle Bill uses it to listen to the radio or to prepare a sermon.
“STEEE-RIKE!” Skipper’s voice sails through the open window.
I rummage through a desk drawer squeezed between the bed and the doorway and find a paper fan with Rollins Funeral Home printed above the head of Jesus. “If Jesus had long hair why aren’t men today supposed to?”
“Men with long hair have sex and smoke dope.” Ann knows everything. I sit on the bed beside her bare feet, outside hear a baseball hit hard against a bat.
“Two-run homer!” yells Skip, Ann’s oldest brother. “Bring it on home, Johnny!”
“How can anybody run in this heat?” says Ann.
Restless, I get up and look out the window to the back yard. My brother, Mark, slides into home base on the seat of his red-striped shorts. Johnny, Ann’s younger brother, clears third, sticks out his chin, runs toward home and dives headfirst into Mark who tries and fails to move out of the way.
“Let’s do something,” I say.
“We could go up on the hill and smoke cigarettes.”
“You’ve got to learn how to inhale. You can’t just blow it out your nose. People will know you’re faking it.”
Ann is fifteen and well developed in all areas. Billie Marie, her older sister, tells Ann about things like getting your period, getting pregnant, French kissing. Then Ann tells me. I’m fourteen, built like a stick, and I rely heavily on Ann’s guidance. Sundays after church my family goes to Ma-maw’s for dinner then I walk down to Ann’s. During the summer we spend almost every night together. She likes to come to my house, which is closer to town, but there’s more to do in the hollow.
“I know,” says Ann. “I’ll teach you how to drive.”
“Billie taught me. Dad will let me go to the store and back by myself.” She rises from the bed. “I just can’t get on the main road. I’ll drive out of sight then we can switch places.”
We stroll nonchalantly up the back steps of the house and into the kitchen. Aunt Bounce is drying dishes.
“What are you girls up to?” she asks suspiciously.
“Nothing,” says Ann. “Where’s Dad?”
“Out on the front porch talking to Slim.”
We walk out of the narrow kitchen into Bounce and Bill’s little bedroom, through the low-ceilinged living room where my mom and dad were married, to the front porch. The concrete porch runs the length of the house and is covered with an aluminum awning. Ann and I like to sit on the porch when it rains and see who can write the most three letter words. There are over a hundred.
I dodge a strip of flypaper hanging from the awning and sit down on the steps, stretching my long skinny legs onto the sidewalk and into the sun. Uncle Bill smokes a cigarette and rocks back and forth in his favorite rocking chair. Slim, Ma-Maw’s brother who lives up the hollow, sits on the glider like a giant on toy furniture. Ann squeezes herself a seat and sits down beside him.
“You girls are growin’ up,” Slim drawls. “Got yourselves a feller yet?”
“Ann does, I don’t.”
“Daddy, can I drive to the store?” asks Ann.
“What’d your mom say?”
“She said it was all right with her if it was all right with you.”
“Ethel Ann,” Bounce’s stern voice echoes from the living room like God Almighty.
“Well, that’s what you said yesterday,” Ann calls quickly. Surprisingly, Aunt Bounce does not respond. “Please can we go, Daddy? I’ll be careful and I won’t get on the main road.”
Bill fishes into his pocket and pulls out the keys. “Get me a pack of Winston 100s, and we’re out of buttermilk. Lois, do you need anything?” he calls, but she’s already returned to the kitchen. It occurs to me that I’ve never heard Uncle Bill call my Aunt Bounce by her nickname. “Need anything, Slim?”
“I don’t reckon,” he smiles.
Ann takes the keys and I dart inside the house for our shoes. I slip on my sandals but Ann prefers to carry her shoes as we walk down the short sidewalk stained with mulberries. I open the picket gate and marvel that Ann doesn’t even wince as she tiptoes barefooted across the dirt road sprinkled with gravel and into the black cinders that form the driveway. She throws her flip-flops into the back seat of the four-door Dodge, turns on the ignition and backs onto the road with all the confidence of a seasoned professional. We drive up the steep hill and wave at Skipper as he turns from the pitcher’s mound then we round the curve and drive out of sight.
The hollow is exactly one mile long from head to mouth. There’s seven homes in the hollow and my relatives live in most of them. The head of the hollow dead ends into wooded hillside while the mouth of the hollow spills out onto Centerville Road. This narrow blacktopped road, which we call the main road, meanders for miles through hillside that sometimes sits so close to the road you can put your arms out the car window and touch the leaves. Aunt Ethel and Uncle Oscar live at the mouth of the hollow across from Shiloh Methodist where we all go to church. They have a big two-story white house with green and white striped window awnings and a long wide front porch. You can sit on the porch railing and pick sour apples from a tall tree that’s perfect for climbing. Everyone says Aunt Ethel, my Mom and Bounce’s sister, has a green thumb. Her huge yard has so many beautiful flowers it looks like the cover of a magazine. To the left of the house on Centerville Road sits their store, which has two gas pumps outside and gets plenty of business since there aren’t many other places to fill up your car.
Ann drives down the hollow till we are out of earshot and eyesight from anyone’s house and stops the car on a straight stretch of road. She turns off the engine, jumps out of the car, and I scoot behind the wheel as she slams the passenger door shut.
“Good thing Mrs. Brown’s is the only house till we get to Ethel’s,” says Ann.
“I hope I don’t run over the hill. The only car I’ve ever driven is the Dodge’ems at Camden Park.”
“You know that –D– is for drive?”
“And –R– is for reverse.”
“Always start the car in park, and give it just a little gas. That’s the gas pedal and that’s the brake. Go ahead and start it.”
I turn the key and the engine roars like it’s alive. The steering wheel vibrates in my hands.
“Give it some gas.”
I press on the gas pedal and the car rumbles like a chained dog ready to break free.
“Perfect. Now push in the brake and put the car in drive.”
The gearshift slides easily over the –D–.
“Now let up on the brake.”
The car moves forward slowly. “I forget how to guide it!”
“See that little ornament in the middle of the hood? Just line it up with the side of the road. But you’ve gotta make sure to look at the whole road in case a car comes.”
“Then what do I do?”
“Get over as far as you can and let’m pass.”
Various parts of the hollow are named like streets in town. Booger Hollow is a stretch of road that dips downhill and back up again in a short and sharp blind curve. The trees on both sides of the road have grown together at the top and shaded the curve so that even on the sunniest day Booger Hollow is dark. I stop at the top of the blind curve and listen for cars.
“Nothing’s coming,” says Ann, so I ease my way down the curve then press on the gas and climb back up the hill. My palms are sweaty, and after clearing Booger Hollow I stop again.
“You’re doing good. You can coast all the way down Tom Shannon Hill. It’s the easiest part.”
“What about Mrs. Brown?”
“She’s usually in the house, but even if she sees us she won’t know you’re not supposed to be driving.”
“Thank God there’s one person in this hollow we’re not related to.”
If you’re brave you can fly down Tom Shannon Hill on your bicycle without using your brakes. You gather so much speed that once you’re at the bottom of the hill you can coast down the road and around the curve almost to Ethel’s. One side of Tom Shannon is wooded hillside and the other is a steep drop into a long wide pasture where we race ponies and where Uncle Oscar keeps his cows. Last year when he was tending the cattle a black snake bit him, and his big toe turned black. After he got back from the doctor and had calmed down he let us look at it. I almost puked, but Ann couldn’t stop staring. I think she’s going to be a nurse.
I lift my foot from the gas pedal and coast down the long steep hill. Mrs. Brown is standing on her front porch. She waves. I honk. I round the curve then stop the car and jump out. Ann slides behind the wheel and we pull into Ethel’s giddy with adventure. We walk into the store, the screen door slams shut behind us, the wooden floor creaks beneath our feet. Aunt Ethel pops up from behind the counter like a Jack-in-the-Box.
“Hi, Ethel,” I say.
“Hey, girls.” Ethel is always pleasant and somehow I associate this with her ability to grow flowers. “I’ve got some cold Nehi in the pop machine.”
Ann opens the wide red cooler and pulls out an orange pop for her and a grape pop for me. She removes the caps with the bottle opener built into the front of the machine. Bits of ice float through the pop, so cold it makes my brain freeze.
“I really enjoyed your solos in church this morning.”
“I wish old Mrs. Cooksey would stop requesting we sing every time she walks through the door,” says Ann.
“She knows a good thing when she hears it,” Ethel laughs.
Ann and I sit down in the two rocking chairs across from the counter and sip our pop while Ethel works behind the counter rearranging a shelf of aspirin, packaged stockings, rain bonnets, sunglasses, and cigarettes.
“Daddy needs two packs of Winston 100s,” Ann says, winking at me.
“I’ll go get the buttermilk.” I walk to the back of the store where several short aisles, a deep freeze, and a refrigerator serve for groceries. When I return with the milk Ann is standing at the door.
“No need to be in such a hurry,” says Ethel.
“We gotta get going,” says Ann. “Daddy said to put this on his bill.”
“Alrighty then. You girls be careful driving.”
Ann drives out of sight and lights a cigarette. She turns on the radio and hands me the Winston. I blow it through my nose. We deliver the milk and cigarettes and without asking permission get back in the car. We drive up and down the hollow, back and forth, from head to mouth, switching places, until I can drive, and I can inhale, and we can see the evening sun setting over Ma-Maw’s barn and know that it’s time to go home.
… Mississippi moon won’t you keep on shining on me, keep on shining your light, gonna make everything, pretty momma, gonna make everything alright, and I ain’t got no worries cause I ain’t in no hurry at all …
The Doobie Brothers boom from the clubhouse speakers at Dreamland swimming pool. It’s a hot July afternoon and I’ve just swum to the big float, a round aqua island of concrete perched like an oasis in the deep end of the pool. I sit, legs outstretched, and catch my breath. Beads of water roll off my tanned oily skin. I face the clubhouse, an art deco, turquoise and white palace that spans the length of the pool. It serves as the grand entrance with a large spouting fountain in front while the back opens up into this paradise of blue water. You can walk down the back steps and straight into the pool. It’s supposed to be the ninth largest swimming pool in America, and I believe it. I wonder how it could be that I’ve never been on the third floor of the clubhouse where dances and parties are held and where my parents used to court. I like thinking of my mom up there all dressed up, my father twirling her around the dance floor. She plays piano for the church now and the closest she gets to dancing is tapping her foot to the Singing LeFevres Gospel Quartet. Divorce followed by religion will do that to you. I have a rare black and white photograph of me as a baby being held by my father on the ladder of the little slide. I’m laughing my head off. I turn my gaze to the baby pool, a football field’s length away, and see that very same slide. I try to remember him holding me, climbing the ladder, looking into mom’s camera, but I can’t recall a thing.
I’ve worn my two-piece today, and every time I dive into the water my bottoms go down to my ankles. I can barely get them up before running out of air. I wish I could hold my breath longer, like Brenda Conway, who can swim underwater from the little dive, past the big float, to the lifeguard chair on the other side of the pool, turn around and make it back to the big float without coming up once. It’s unbelievable. Her breaststroke is the smoothest I’ve ever seen, she half glides, half flies over the water. I can’t even make it from the little dive to the float underwater and think I’m going to die when I’m down deep and can’t get to the top fast enough.
From where I sit I can see my little brother, Mark, in line at the little dive. We’ve got a summer pass to the pool, almost everyone does. Mom drops us off in the morning then picks us up late afternoon. She gives us money for lunch at the concession stand, which has the best corn dogs and shaved ice Cokes around. I watch the diving board until it’s Mark’s turn. He goes to the end of the board and jumps once, twice, gets the spring up, then curls into a ball for a flip. He almost makes it but can’t get his legs out in time. Not enough spring.
Time to Turn, So You Won’t Burn – W-K-E-E
My two friends, Sandy and Theresa, climb the ladder to the high dive. Sandy has the best tan at the pool; she’s almost black. Her silver bikini, long jet-black hair and perfect body go with her perfect tan. She gets to the end of the board and looks down.
“Hey, Sandy!” I call from the float. She spots me and we wave. Sandy has been giving me diving lessons. She dives with her fists balled up because she says it helps break the water and keeps your head from getting smacked. So I’ve been diving with my fists closed too. I’ve actually gotten used to it, and now when I try to dive with my hands open it feels unnatural and makes me lose my balance. I like to dive, but I’ve only done so off the floats or the sides of the pool. I’d love to dive off the high dive, but I’m afraid I would belly flop and kill myself or lose my bottoms entirely. I jumped off once and felt like a fool. I watch Sandy spring out into space, graceful and fearless as a bird. She does a jack-knife in slow motion, touching her toes with her fists, then straightens out her tanned body and dives straight down. Hardly a splash. She swims underwater till she reaches the float and comes up beside me, her blue eye shadow sparkling on her dark skin. She holds onto the side of the float and turns to the diving board. We both wave at Theresa, who is wearing a new white one-piece with a matching headband that holds her long brown hair in an I Dream of Jeannie ponytail. She does a perfect flip, arms and ponytail straight above her head, pointed toes breaking the water.
When I get to the top it’s higher than I remember. I get dizzy walking out on the board. It feels like a tightrope or a plank. I look behind me and there’s a line waiting their turn to jump. I’m eye level with the third-floor balcony of the clubhouse. I imagine my mother in her dancing dress, her future full of possibilities.
Sandy and Theresa are varsity cheerleaders. So is Brenda Conway. I didn’t make varsity because I’m not a gymnast, which is what cheerleading has turned into in the eleventh grade of 1975 – a gymnastics competition. I was a cheerleader in junior high, and last year I was captain of the “B” team. I tried out for varsity practicing front flip handsprings till I knocked the breath out of myself. I finally learned how to do it, but when I got to tryouts everybody was flipping backwards too. Team spirit and a good split are no longer enough. It’s the marching band for me.
Raindrops keep falling on my head, but that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turning red, crying’s not for me. I’m never gonna stop the rain by complaining because I’m free, nothing’s worryin’ me.
My secret heartthrob, Dale Persimmon, emerges from the water like a prized fish. He hoists himself onto the float, not bothering with the ladder, and stands over me dripping water from his red trunks. I suck in my gut and act outraged. He sits down beside me and stretches out his lean hairy legs.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I lie.
“I’ve been playing basketball.” There’s a basketball court behind our blanket area and a tennis court behind the concession stand. Dale is quarterback of the football team, number 21. Even wearing shoulder pads he looks thin, but he’s fast and graceful and I’ve had a crush on him for over a year. Unfortunately, he’s dating Brenda Conway, who sees us together from the other side of the pool. I watch her dive in and glide over the blue surface faster than a water snake.
“When’s football practice start?” I ask.
“Next week. I guess you won’t be cheering for me this year, huh? Sorry you didn’t make the team.” He sounds so genuine I’m not even upset.
“I’ll cheer you on from the sidelines.”
He smiles his best smile. His teeth are so perfect and white he could do a Pearl Drops toothpaste commercial. Brenda reaches the float and sits down beside him. “Hi, Brenda,” I say, getting up.
Sandy and Theresa have already headed back to the high dive. My brother is on the little dive again. This time he jumps on the board till it rattles, curls up, and flips. A perfect landing.
I dive into the water and catch up with him. “Nice flip, Mark.”
“Thanks, Sissy.” We swim to the ladder together.
“Do you think Brenda Conway is pretty?” Mark may be my little brother but he’s cute and he’s in the ninth grade, and that’s high school.
“She’s okay, but nothing like her,” he says, pointing to Sandy, who flies off the high dive and sails through the air like a trapeze artist.
“I wish I could do that.”
“You can dive. That’s just a little higher.”
I look back at the float and see Brenda talking at Dale, his head bent like a scolded child. Sandy emerges triumphant from the water. Something comes over me like a spell.
“Wait here. I’m going to do it. If I belly flop I want you to pull me out, but don’t let anybody see you.”
“Just stiffen out and go at an angle.”
Instead of climbing the ladder to get out of the pool, I swim to the opposite corner and get out by the high dive. Sandy is on the float with Dale and Brenda and sees me climbing into orbit. She yells and gives me the thumbs up.
When I get to the top it’s higher than I remember. I get dizzy walking out on the board. It feels like a tightrope or a plank. I look behind me and there’s a line waiting their turn to jump. I’m eye level with the third-floor balcony of the clubhouse. I imagine my mother in her dancing dress, her future full of possibilities. In the distance the baby pool sparkles like diamonds. And suddenly I remember. My father’s arm is tight around my waist as we climb the steps of the slide and turn to face my mother’s camera. Exhilarated by the height, I laugh and clutch a curl of his hair. “Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I’ve got you.” Through space I hear Theresa call my name. I put my toes on the edge of the board, draw my hands into a fist, and plunge headfirst down an invisible angle. The water comes up to meet me, and it takes forever. My body is straight and my legs are together when my head hits the water. It feels like my skull has been hit with a ball bat. The fist theory does not work twenty feet up. I dive so far down that my hands touch the smooth bottom of the pool. My bathing suit wraps itself around my ankles, and for once I take my good sweet time underwater and pull it back up. I push off the bottom with my feet and begin my victorious ascent, seeing the sunlight breaking through the water, five feet, three feet, two feet below the surface.
When I finally breathe air I hear my brother say, “Way to go, Sis!” I see Dale and Sandy and Theresa cheering me on from the float. Brenda has disappeared.
As I walk back to my blanket I realize that for one brief moment while standing on the high dive I saw the world for what it is: a series of snapshots. Freeze frames capture the moment and become a reference to what happened before and what happens after. My father let go of me; my mother did not. I dry off in the sun feeling changed by this knowledge, feeling myself growing older.