Pearl of Great Price

Pearl of Great Price

Back when I was a kid people didn’t talk about equality like they do today. The rich stuck with the rich and the poor stuck with the poor. If you had money you got all the breaks. And I was poor. But I had another handicap that the rest of the poor kids didn’t have. I was half black.

Funny how people never say half white. Like white is the color people are supposed to be and anything else is a mutation.

I don’t guess nobody even wants to hear about this stuff, but I like to talk about it. My mama always said that was one thing I wasn’t lacking in was words. I never seemed to be able to put them together right for the teachers though. They wanted it just so, and I figured if I could get my point across I was doing fine. My teachers always tried to get me to make everything match–the verbs and nouns and stuff. But I talked like my mama taught me. “They’s just two more months till your fourteenth birthday,” she said. My teacher would have said that was wrong, I know.

Two more months till I was fourteen and I could quit school. That was what I was longing for. Mama had quit when she was fourteen and she said that was enough education for anybody. I wasn’t learning nothing noways. They didn’t teach what I wanted to know. Even the history classes–and I love history–didn’t teach me nothing. All they wanted to talk about was what happened and when it happened and who done it. I wanted to know why. Anyways, I figured if that much education was good enough for my mama it was good enough for me.

Besides, it was hard being a mulatto. The other girls didn’t want to be around me. It was like they thought my blackness might rub off on them if they got too close. One day I was standing in line in front of two of them to go to the lunchroom and I heard one say, “Do you reckon her blood is black too?”  She said it out loud. Like I wasn’t even there or was deaf or didn’t have enough sense to know what she was talking about. Or maybe she just didn’t care. I wanted to ask her if her blood was white. But you don’t say nothing.

It wasn’t just the kids. The teachers treated me different too. I was sitting in class that day when I was just two months shy of my fourteenth birthday and my belly started cramping. I went to the bathroom and saw that I was gonna have to go home. I just lived across the swinging bridge. I could have gone home and been back in ten minutes.

I walked back into the classroom and up to the teacher’s desk. “I need to go home ’cause I started,” I said. She didn’t look up from her desk.

“Started what?” she asked.

I didn’t know what else to say so I repeated myself.

She sighed and looked up at me and in a real loud voice said, “You started what, Ginny?”

The whole class stopped working and looked at me. Then some of the girls in the back started giggling and it finally dawned on the teacher what I was talking about.

She stood up and motioned for me to follow her out the door. When we got out in the hall she walked toward the girls’ bathroom and I followed her. She opened the door and said, “Go on in.” I thought maybe she was gonna give me something so I wouldn’t have to go home, but she told me to go on back to the back stall. The back stall didn’t have no door to it, so I just stood there waiting for her to do whatever it was she had in her mind to do.

“Okay, pull them down,” she said.

I said, “Ma’am?”

“I can’t just trust you to tell me the truth, Ginny. Any girl in my class could tell me that just to get to go home.”

“But I was gonna come back,” I defended myself.

“I need a reason if I let you go home,” she said.

I didn’t know what to do. I was scared and embarrassed and mad all at the same time. So I did what she told me to do. The toilet paper I had wadded up in there fell out and landed between my feet. I saw her looking at it and then she said, “Go on home.” My birthday come two months early that year.

About two years after that a white man come down from Ohio with my daddy. Daddy and Mama had got a divorce when I was younger, but he still come to see me sometimes. The man he brought with him–David was his name–was tall and good looking and I fell hard for him. He was a lot older than me. Mama said it was a good thing because I needed somebody to take care of me. And she said marrying a black man didn’t work out good for her, so maybe marrying a white man might be what I needed.

Me and David got along pretty good till after my little Katie was born, but then he started beating on me. I took it until I seen him smack Katie across the face when she was about three. That was it for me. I’ve been cleaning rooms in that motel down there ever since. It’s easy work and kinda like I’m my own boss.

My Katie’s seventeen now and fixing to go into her last year of high school. Done been accepted by that college up there on the hill. Smart as a whip. I know the Bible says you ain’t supposed to praise your own kin. “Let a stranger praise you,” it says. But she never makes nothing but “A’s” and sometimes she’ll get a “B” on a test but it ain’t often. She says she’s gonna be a teacher. Imagine that. My little Katie a teacher.

Katie’s so funny. She thinks I can do things like she does. She kept on me till I went down there to Pikeville and got my G.E.D. She talked about it like it was some kind of pearl of great price and I finally went and done it. I guess I learnt a little bit. Still talk the same way, but if I was writing I’d know how to spell and get the verbs and nouns to match. Katie says, “You’re smart, Mama. You could go to college with me next year. You could learn all about the history you love to read stories about.”

I just laugh when she talks like that. I mean, it makes me feel good when she says that kinda stuff, but they wouldn’t want nobody like me. And what would I study? What could I do with history? Katie says I could be a teacher too but, mercy, I ain’t got nothing like that in me. No, I couldn’t never muster up the nerve to try that.

But Katie she keeps going on about it like it could happen and, well, lately I’ve been pondering some on it. You know, if it’s good enough for my Katie.


from Appalachian Heritage magazine, spring 2002, p. 58


Dark Shadows

It was the summer of 1967 and I was fifteen.  On the verge of being a woman but still very much a child, I had little knowledge of human relationships or why people behave the way they do.  Nor did I comprehend my own thoughts, fears, or frustrations.

My father was fifty and I hardly knew him.  For several years he had been in and out of the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, because he had a mental disease.  Mommy would commit him when she reached the point of desperation, and the hospital usually kept him for about a month each time.  They treated him with shock therapy and sent him home, where we would try to deal with a man we could not understand.  As far as we could tell, Daddy was just crazy, plain and simple.

I seldom talked to Daddy.  Some mornings Mommy would stop my younger sister and me on our way to the kitchen and warn us to say good morning to him. How I hated having to do that.  I am not a morning person and I would just as soon not speak to anyone until I decide for myself that I want to talk.  But to keep down trouble, and to please my mom, I would mumble a grouchy “good morning” so he would be satisfied and go back into the living room and watch TV.  My mom couldn’t peel potatoes to fry for breakfast till he left the kitchen.  She kept the knives hidden from him in the back of the stove, and if he didn’t leave the kitchen she couldn’t retrieve a knife.  We couldn’t afford cereal.  If Mommy couldn’t fry potatoes, we ate only biscuits and gravy.  Then, of course, Daddy would be mad and screaming for his potatoes, so it was in everybody’s best interest to say good morning to him.

Mommy and Daddy separated when I was fourteen.  He visited us once a week, getting off the Greyhound bus every Friday morning.  At first he came on Wednesday and stayed till Friday–until one of our neighbors saw him poking around in a ditch with a stick one Wednesday evening when Mommy, my sister, and I were gone to Bible study. The neighbor, knowing Daddy was mentally ill, complained to the supervisor of our housing project, and the supervisor told Mommy that Daddy could no longer spend the night with us.

It was late June, that Friday in 1967.  Daddy seemed particularly interested in talking to me.  He followed me around like a shadow all day, demanding my constant attention.  I grew weary of him, as I had no desire to talk to him and nothing to say. Don’t get me wrong, I am a talker.  When I want to be anyway.  I can talk circles around most people when I’m in the mood. But I wasn’t in the mood.

“When does school start back, Tina?” he asked me.

What a stupid question, I thought. School wouldn’t start back till late August and why did he care anyway?  But I muttered the answer.

“You gonna be in the second year of high school this year?”


“What’s your favorite subject?”

Mercy! I thought.  Can’t he leave me alone?

It was 4 o’clock and I was trying to watch my favorite TV show, Dark Shadows.  I loved science fiction, and the vampires, werewolves, and other strange creatures on the show intrigued me.  I was in awe of Barnabas Collins, the well-dressed vampire who wreaked havoc in the New England town of Collinsport every day.  The soap opera had captured my attention the first time I watched it.  Barnabas, played by Jonathan Frid, an older actor who was both distinguished and intimidating, mesmerized teenage girls, and his power over me was almost hypnotic. I couldn’t go to bed at night until I made sure all my windows were locked.  I looked in every corner of my room and under the bed before I flipped off the light and plunged under the blankets. I wanted to see for myself that my room was safe from vampires and any other nocturnal beasts that might desire my blood or other parts of me. Even after taking every precaution, I still pulled the covers up around my neck.  I didn’t want to wake up with two small holes in the side of my neck.

I feared Barnabas, but I also loved him.   I wrote his name on my school books as if he were my boyfriend.  He was my hero and my greatest dread.  I was sometimes petrified of being in the dark after watching him suck blood from unsuspecting, disposable characters who gave their lives for my thrills each day.

It seemed odd to me that I enjoyed Dark Shadows.  I certainly didn’t enjoy the terror in my own life. Daddy threatened us often, especially before the separation.  “If y’all knew what I was going to do tonight you wouldn’t go to sleep,” he sometimes warned.  I had seen what he could do. I watched him throw my younger sister against the wall. I dodged bullets from his gun on numerous occasions.  Many times I had come home from school to find my mother’s clothes ripped and see bruises or cigarette burns on her arms and legs. He wasn’t always like that. Sometimes he could be sweet and kind, but we never knew when the demon in him would manifest itself.

Yes, horror reigned supreme in my life.  But perhaps that’s why Barnabas captivated me.  Even though he possessed horrific and extraordinary power to destroy, deep down I knew the truth–Barnabas wasn’t real.

Daddy got up from the couch and ambled over and sat down on the edge of my chair.  If he wants my seat I will let him have it, I thought.  I stood up and moved to another chair.  Daddy finally gave up and sought out my sister.  A few minutes later he headed for the front porch to wait for the bus.  Before he reached the door he paused and said, “I’ll see you Friday, Tina, if I’m not in the hospital.”

Now ordinarily that might have caused me to look up at him and ask what he meant. But I was engrossed in my horror soap opera and tired of Daddy for that week, so I ignored him.

I heard the bus coming. I heard it stop. I knew my daddy was walking across the ditch and up the bank and climbing into the bus.  I always watched him do that.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I wanted to know that he was safely on the bus.  Or maybe I simply needed to know that he was gone.

But that day I didn’t watch Daddy.  I was irritated with him.  I was enthralled by the pain and misery Barnabas was inflicting.  I was tired.  I don’t know, but for whatever reason, I didn’t watch as the bus drove away carrying my daddy back to Mare Creek and his little house in his brother’s back yard.

Monday morning around 10 o’clock the phone rang, and my mother answered it.  “Oh no,” she said, and then hung up the phone.  “Young’uns,” she said to my sister and me, “I’ve got something to tell you.”

I put my hands over my ears.  “Don’t tell us!” I screamed. Somehow I knew what she was going to say and I didn’t want to hear it.

She ignored me.  “They found your daddy in bed dead this morning,” she said, “all wadded up on his knees, clutching his chest.  Drunk paint thinner last night, they said.”

I could discern no emotion in her voice. I saw no tears in her eyes. I didn’t know what to do.  I might have tried to comfort her but she didn’t seem in need of comfort.  My sister was oblivious, or at least she appeared so to me.

This was our life.  It was how we always handled bad situations. Go to school every day and make believe that we were just like everybody else. Study hard. Get good grades. Gain respect because we were smart.  Don’t let anybody know what went on inside the walls of our home.  Pretend we lived a normal life and maybe nobody would ever suspect.

I turned and wandered out onto the front porch.  I gazed across the ditch to Old U.S. 23, where Daddy had climbed into the bus three days earlier.  Why hadn’t I watched him leave? Would he still be alive if I had?  I walked out into the yard and rambled around aimlessly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry–whether to curse God or thank Him.

They put a blue suit on my daddy, though he had never worn a suit in his life.  I looked at him once in the church building.  He looked so different, so handsome, so young.  So dead.  He reminded me of Barnabas sleeping away the daylight hours in his coffin in the old house at Collinwood.

I slowly reached out and touched Daddy’s hand. It was cold and hard.  I jerked back and my arm instantly grew numb from my shoulder to my fingertips. It scared me so badly that I was afraid to look at Daddy again.  I preminisced the nightmares I knew were inevitable–my crazed daddy in a blue suit roaming in and out of dreams I could not control.

When it came time to bury Daddy I watched the men lower his casket into the ground.  I watched them fling shovels of sweet-smelling earth down on top of him.  I heard the man standing near the grave croak out “Time is filled with swift transition.  Naught of earth unmoved can stand.  Build your hopes on things eternal. Hold to God’s unchanging hand.”

The preacher’s wife was talking to me–trying, I knew, to bestow comfort. But I didn’t want her comfort.  I wanted to watch my daddy go home.


from Appalachian Heritage magazine, spring 2001, p. 22

Confounded Life

We were poor.  Not because my daddy didn’t have a good job. He did. We were poor because he wasted his money on whisky.  I never could figure out why he needed to buy it when the sheriff habitually confiscated it from others and brought it to my dad.  I couldn’t understand that either since the sheriff later had to bring Daddy home falling-down drunk when he caught him weaving up and down Mare Creek in his old beat-up Chevy truck.

Daddy had bought his truck from B&D Motors for $200.  It never did run right, so Daddy often told everyone on the creek, “Don’t buy nothing from B&D Motors. You know what their name stands for, don’t you? Bad and dirty.”

Mommy tried to feed us and keep us clothed the best she could, but often we missed supper.  Daddy came home drunk and either made us all so nervous we couldn’t eat or, in a drunken rage, turned over the old metal kitchen table and dumped the food all over the floor.  To make sure we ate, we usually tried to hustle and get our food onto our plates and sneak out of the house to eat on the porch–or into the bedroom in the winter–before Daddy made it home from work.

Daddy was drunk on my eighth birthday.  I knew I wouldn’t get any presents. I never did. But I so hoped I’d have a white cake with white icing and maybe some homemade vanilla ice cream.  I loved homemade ice cream.  I loved watching Mommy make it. She’d stick her finger into it to check it and let my younger sister and me lick it off.  How I loved that ice cream.

She was making some when Daddy drove up into the yard.  When I heard the truck, I jerked my head around and looked toward the kitchen door.  “Reckon he’s drunk?” I asked, looking up at Mommy.

Mommy’s smile turned into a deep frown and her forehead wrinkled.  “Likely so,” she muttered.

My sister and I ran into the living room. We had just climbed onto the couch and were on our knees looking out the window when the house shook.

“Mercy, young’uns, what was that?” Mommy asked as she hurried into the living room.

The house shook again.  “He’s driving the truck into the house, Mommy,” I said.

I wasn’t surprised that he would do this.  The month before, he had driven the truck into the swelling waters of Mare Creek when the ’57 flood wreaked havoc all over the Big Sandy Valley.  A neighbor had waded out into the creek, water up to his waist, and carried my younger sister and me to safety.  Mommy, Daddy, and my older sisters somehow managed to make their way to the bank.  Just the week before my birthday, he had come home drunk and shot up all the porch furniture.

“Get on in the bedroom, girls,” Mommy told us. “I’ll see what’s the matter with him.”

She went out onto the porch.  My sister and I stayed on the couch and watched through the window.  Daddy kept backing up and ramming the house.  As I watched and listened, I thought about my ice cream, melting I was sure.  He might even pour it out, or demand the whole batch for himself.

“Bennie, what in the world are you doing?” Mommy called to him.  If he heard her, he didn’t acknowledge it.

Finally, after maybe twenty times of hitting the house and backing up, Daddy backed up one last time, turned off the truck, and got out.  Mommy didn’t say anything. She just looked at him.

“What are you looking at?” he demanded, his hands on his hips.

“Nothing,” Mommy responded.

“You spoke the truth for sure that time, woman,” Daddy said.  “You ain’t looking at nothing.”  He staggered from around the truck and tried to amble up the three weak steps that led to the back porch.  But on the second step he stuck his right foot too far back and it fell through the crack in the back.  His leg got caught and the rest of his body spread itself out in different directions.  “Confounded steps.  Confounded truck.  Confounded stupid life,” he almost whined.

I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw a tear on my daddy’s cheek.  At that moment, for the first time in my life, I saw Daddy as a person. Not the big loud being that lived in our house and kept me scared out of my wits most of the time, but a real, live, breathing, hurting person. A person who had needs and wants the same as I did.  A person who didn’t have what he wanted, didn’t know how to get what he wanted, and hated himself and the world because of it.  And, no, I didn’t put it in those words. Not at eight years old. But I knew.  Somehow I knew.  Just as I was not in control of my own destiny, neither was my daddy.

Mommy looked up and saw my sister and me in the window.  “Go get your sisters!” she yelled.

I jumped off the couch and found my two oldest sisters, and they went out and helped Mommy carry Daddy inside.  Mommy bandaged the cut on his leg and he quickly fell asleep on the couch. Listening to him snore, I ate my vanilla ice cream, only a little melted, and white cake with white icing.  I felt sorry that Daddy was missing the wonderful flavors. But I guess he was happier snoring on the couch. No confounded truck to think about. No confounded steps.  No confounded stupid life.


from Appalachian Heritage magazine, fall 2000, p. 49