Farther along, we’ll know all about it.
Farther along, we’ll understand why,
Cheer up my brothers, walk in the sunshine
We’ll understand it all, by and by.
American gospel song
Ask Christians why they were baptized or confirmed, and most will offer perfectly reasonable answers including: “It meant a lot to my parents,” or “I was touched by the Holy Spirit,” or “I heard Jesus calling me.” An insufferable few may reply with a tiresome litany of John Wesley’s “prevenient,” “justifying,” and “sanctifying” grace.”
As endearing as these explanations might be, they don’t work for me. My reasons for embarking on the religious path were totally crass, having nothing to do with eternal salvation and everything to do with cheap wine and dirty feet.
It is 6:30 PM on January 3, 1967, the evening of my older brother Patrick’s twenty-first birthday. Back in Washington, D.C., he and my parents are preparing a grand party, but I am not there. Instead, I have been sitting for more than an hour with a large suitcase, guitar, and a carton of books in the lobby of the London, Kentucky airport, waiting for Nancy Armstrong to introduce me to life as a VISTA Volunteer. I enrolled with the promise of returning to Alaska, but political squabbles between President Johnson and Governor Hinkle put the program on hold, and I was abruptly reassigned to Appalachia.
The airport is terrifyingly tiny, with two rows of old wooden seats in a terminal of forty feet square. Luggage is dumped in the corner opposite the American airlines counter, the only airline serving southeastern Kentucky with two incoming/outgoing flights each day. Refreshments come from a Coke machine, which looks sufficiently abused to suggest that it steals more coins than it dispenses sodas. After family and friends greet the three other passengers on my flight, the sole ticket/baggage agent begins to lock up. As he surreptitiously watches me in hopes I might be leaving soon, two women hurry in.
“Hi, I’m Nancy and you must be … Phyllis, Felicia…” says the first, breathlessly, before rushing on, “I’m sorry we’re late – it just takes so long over these roads, and you never know when the creek’s too far swollen to let you through or if you have to get ‘round another way.” She is in her late twenties, athletic looking, with brown curls and twinkling eyes. Her bounciness is a bit unnerving, if only because it has taken me eight hours and three flights when I would rather be partying with family and friends.
Nancy, my future supervisor and the executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Economic Opportunity Office, then introduces Doris, a nurse with the County Aging Office.
“Fe-LISS? Fe-li-CI-ty? What kind of name is that?” Doris asks, with a bit of an edge in her voice.
“Actually, it’s Felicity, and it’s a rather common English name,” I answer matter-of-factly. “My grandmother was British, and my mother spent six years in a Scottish boarding school.”
They are looking at me wide-eyed, and I know that it isn’t totally because of my strange name. Alas, when I get nervous, I sometimes revert to the British clip I learned as a toddler. “And it means happiness,” I add, speaking more slowly and smiling.
“Well, that’s nice,” says Doris, softening. Then she pauses. “We hope that you’ll be happy here… It’s not an easy part of the world, and these folks have seen more than their fair share of misery… We’re doing our best to make it a little easier on them, but it’s hard.” She sighs, betraying the deep weariness of her mission. Though nonplussed by their tough exteriors, I am attracted to the dedication of the two women. Perhaps I too can make life “a little easier” on the people of Knox County, the fifth-poorest county in the continental United States.
Nancy commandeers the suitcase and lifts it into the back of the yellow Ford Bronco at the curb. I pick up the carton of books, and Doris takes the guitar, asking what kind of songs I like. “I’ve actually just begun,” I answer, not wanting to explain that my favorites are Scottish and English ballads, with an occasional Elizabethan love song thrown in to remind me of my roots. “I know that this is great folk music country, and I’m hoping to pick up some new songs,” I say instead.
“Yes, that’s good,” answers Doris, while Nancy proffers a long list of local musicians that I will want to meet.
They explain that I will be spending a few nights with Barney and Billie Sue Gatliff in Kay Jay, Knox County, Kentucky. The hamlet of about fifty was a thriving mining community in the 1920’s, but coal has long since run its course. Barney and Billie Sue have an extra bedroom now that their children have moved north to find work, and I should be comfortable there until Nancy and her staff can figure out what to do with me. “It all happened so fast, you know,” says Nancy, reawakening my chagrin at not returning to Alaska. (Nine months earlier, I had spent three months teaching English and music as a teacher’s aide at a boarding school for Alaskan natives. Enchanted and enlightened by their gentle wisdom and grace-filled psyches, I volunteered for VISTA after receiving a promise that I would be assigned to my icy Promised Land. But political squabbles between President Johnson and Alaska’s Governor Hickle meant that all Volunteers were abruptly reassigned the day before I was scheduled to arrive.)
The forty-mile drive takes nearly two hours, with the last ten on a road that dwindles from two lanes to one, to gravel, to dirt, and finally to wide ruts requiring four-wheel drive in the lowest gear. Going two to three miles an hour through the darkness, Nancy expertly navigates between ruts and gullies, as my possessions and I rock and sway in the back. After brief introductions, Nancy and Doris leave, promising to be back in the morning to show me the country.
I feel instantly at ease with the Gatliffs, an Appalachian version of Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus. Sporting well-worn Dee Cee overalls, Barney matches his girth and rosy cheeks with roly-poly good humor. Billie Sue doesn’t seem anything like her name, which is vaguely reminiscent of some forlorn woman who jumped to her death off a bridge somewhere in Tallahatchie. Also well fed, she wears a splotchy apron over a floral cotton dress, and gives the impression that she can cope with whatever catastrophe might come her way.
The pair are as warm and cozy as the twelve-by-fifteen-foot living room with the coal stove glowing hot in the center. A large metal teapot, blackened with use, has a permanent place on top of the stove, and Billie Sue grabs it, asking if I want coffee. Despite the late hour, they seat me at a small table and bring out a plate overflowing with fried chicken, greens, applesauce, grits, and thick gravy throughout. I remember reading about this kind of cooking, where the meat and the vegetables and the gravy are all about the same consistency and of a similar hue, though I have never eaten it as regular fare. The Gatliffs share pictures of their extended family as they describe the “good ol’ days” before the Depression, when men worked the mines, mothers made babies, and children played in the creeks and forests all day. But the mines that once provided a living are now the ruination of the land, as enormous and impersonal machines make everyday sons and fathers irrelevant. The dirt and coal slag that remains after the mountains have been leveled and stripped silts up the streams and rivers, killing the fish and creating massive flooding. The Gatliffs are hopeful that President Johnson’s War on Poverty will turn things around, but it is a good that their five boys have found factory work in Cleveland and Detroit and their three girls are married and also living up north. “But hit sure would be nice if’n they was livin’ closer … I miss them grandkids,” says Billie Sue, looking at me wistfully.
I spend the week with Nancy by day and the Gatliffs by night, waiting for administrative details (especially transportation) to work themselves out. When the time needed for Nancy to pick me up and deposit me back in Kay Jay becomes too onerous, I move in with Doris in her apartment in Barbourville, the county seat. I learn that she had been a nun in her twenties, but abandoned that calling for the joys of a husband and children. Two years previously, in her late fifties, divorced, and with her children grown and living out west, she moved from Missouri to Knox County hoping to leave a legacy of love somewhere, somehow.
Without a car of my own, I accompany her day and night, in awe of her calm courage as she makes house calls and tries to develop programs for the seniors in the community. I long for the kind of faith that gives her such quiet perseverance. The fact that she has the physique and no-nonsense personality of my favorite aunt, about five foot six with dark hair beginning to gray, brings calm.
After two weeks with Doris, I travel with other VISTAs in the county, trying to learn their craft. Eventually, Nancy finds an old Studebaker for me. Erratic in starting and unable to manage the more remote “hollers,” it nonetheless provides independence and the possibility of doing good. I am assigned to Salt Gum, a community of about two hundred families in the northern part of the county, where the previous volunteer, a middle-aged man, had gotten into trouble with some of the younger women and made a hasty departure a few days earlier. “I figure that at least you won’t make that kind of mistake,” smirks Nancy as she explains my assignment.
I find a two-room shack two miles up a rutted dirt road, where I live with a coal stove, no running water, two electrical outlets, and a one-burner hotplate. The owner offers it for free, but I insist on paying him five dollars a month from my stipend of seventy dollars. The wallpaper consists of cardboard from laundry and cereal boxes, and most of the porch is rotted out, but I look out over a long ridge of partially strip-mined mountains and take my water from a mountain spring fifteen feet from the front door.
I soon become friends with the family living across the riverbed, and they loan me an old mutt that reminds me of Snoopy. “Spots” and a 22-calibre rifle that can’t shoot straight at twenty-five feet keep me safe and happy. With an abandoned pew bench for a sofa, a free bed, a classical guitar, and a cheap record player, I find contentment wandering in the village, volunteering in the one-room school, and visiting people that Nancy, Doris, the two schoolteachers, or the county judge have referred. The children from the farm across the way bring me fresh milk and vegetables in exchange for my helping them with homework, getting them on food stamps, and vaccinating their pets for rabies and distemper, something the local druggist taught me to do, since there isn’t a veterinarian in fifty miles.
A few weeks after I arrive in Salt Gum, Wanda, an elderly woman with an enormous heart and a dying husband invites me to come with her to the local Baptist church. Seeing attendance at church as a way of gaining credibility, I quickly accept her invitation. The fact that my parents had rebelled against their parents by scoffing at all things religious means that I vacillate between admiring my grandparents and other people of faith while also thinking of religious belief as an historical and sociological anachronism. The only religious experiences I understand are the sensual delights of sacred music and religious poetry. The only public worship I have known is the formal and well-ordered services at one New England Congregational church, two prim Episcopal churches, and various European cathedrals.
And so I am pleased to join Wanda one Sunday morning in early spring, heading up the dusty road to the white clapboard church with a band of folks happy to be praising the Lord in community together. Watching Forrest Gump years later reminded me of the joy and fellowship of that gathering.
Because it is Palm Sunday, the church has procured the services of a much-heralded itinerant preacher who shows up three or four times a year. They planned this Sunday as their annual communion and foot washing.
“Oh dear,” I explain to Wanda. “I was baptized in my grandfather’s church when I was three months old, but I’ve never been confirmed. And so I can’t take communion….” As ignorant-atheist-cum-quasi-Episcopalian, I know that taking communion before being confirmed is sinful, even though I don’t know why. In fact, it might even be a form of apostasy, which is even worse than sinfulness, although, again, I don’t know why. What I do know is that, even if I might or might not believe in God, I definitely don’t want to mess with Him.
“Oh now, who told you that?!?” demands Maddie, one of Wanda’s friends, who has overheard us. “It musta been one of them Catholics! Phhh!”
“Gosh, I don’t know. But that’s what I always heard…”
“Are you … Catholic?” asks another of the women, gawking.
“No, I’m not,” I hastily answer. “It’s just that I was baptized but never confirmed.”
“Confirmed – I hain’t never heard o’ that,” says another.
“Pay it no mind, child,” says Wanda. “You don’t need to be confirmed – that’s jes fer fancy folks.”
Sally Sue, the choir leader, pipes up: “Well! Whoever tol’ you that stuff about not takin’ communion until you was confirmed was jes’ dead flat wrong and should be taken up an’ quartered fer blasphemy! If you wants communion, then you jes’ better take yer communion and the good Lord will be happy, that’s fer sure!”
Maddie agrees. “Yes’m. You remember hit’s the Lord’s Supper, not some damn church’s supper. You come on an’ just eat your fill of the good food of the Lord!”
Clearly, all hopes that I might be accepted as a trusted member of the community hinge on whether or not I will eat and drink of the Wonder bread and grape juice that lie under a white paper napkin on the altar. OK, I ponder. If it’s to be the unknown wrath of God versus the known wrath of the Baptists, I have no trouble siding with the here-and-now.
But communion is the easy part. The bigger problem is my feet. Although I sponge-bathe daily, one doesn’t scrub between the toes when all that’s available is a fresh spring and a one-burner stove. Inside the socks, the spaces between my toes are a dark gray. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then the very act of taking off my socks will proclaim me to be a child of Satan in no time at all.
Fortunately, one of the senior members of the ladies’ auxiliary has sensed my plight. She announces, emphatically: “Oh yes, she’s gotta have the Lord’s Supper or she hain’t no Christian, but she don’ have to do the foot-washing unlessen she’s a Baptist. It’s her choice.”
Thank God, I think! Or perhaps I shouldn’t thank God, but rather this nice older woman who apparently can feel my pain…
And so, while moved by the tenderness of the ritual as people bathe each other’s feet in imitation of what Christ did for the apostles, I am relieved that my flannel gray feet stay well hidden within the gray flannel socks. And because the gospel music and the spontaneity of the community’s prayerful outpourings are moving, I entertain the possibility of returning.
Then comes the sermon. After starting slowly and softly, the preacher is now building to a screaming crescendo. He reaches full voice in about ten minutes, screaming out a short phrase and then punctuating it with a loud inhaled sucking, as though agonizing on his deathbed. Preaching about right conduct on earth, the wages of sin, and the penalties of hell, he gets louder, his phrases get shorter, his face gets redder, and his gasps are becoming increasingly gruesome to hear.
“Yes, dear Lord [gaaasp] if you don’t repent now [gaaasp] and change your ways [gaaasp]” – louder and louder, redder and redder – and I’m thinking ohmygod everyone around here is a coal miner and they all probably have emphysema, and most of them smoke – and people are crying, “Yes, Jesus” and “Help me, Jesus,” and I realize that all of these nice women who are now wailing have sons dying in Vietnam; they probably just got the telegram last week that their last son had been killed – and the preacher is now pounding his fist on the lectern and crying out, “Yes, Jesus, you need to repent [gaaasp] and be borned again [gaaasp] or you will die [gaaasp]. Do you hear me, Jesus? How many people [gaaasp] yes, how many thousands and millions and billions of people [gaaasp] will be looking up [gaaasp], yes, will be looking up from the burning [gaaasp] oh dear God, the searing, scorching, agonizing [gaaasp] fires of Hell!” He spits out the final word with a fury and disgust that is itself scorching.
A few are saying “Amen,” but many more are sobbing, he is choking, and all I can think about is that I learned first aid in VISTA training, but what am I supposed to do? Do I run up right now and try a Heimlich maneuver on this old man who is in the process of breathing his last? Or do I just give in to the terror and pee in my pants in total fear? “Dear God, let this end. Please, God, let it end. Or tell me what to do! Now!”
God is slow in responding but eventually the preacher and the congregation end their incredible performance as though nothing had happened. I am flabbergasted. Is this what religion is all about…? How can people accept this manipulation and believe that it comes from God? Surely this confirms my parents’ claim that most religious people are anti-intellectual, anti-humanist, anti-scientific, probably sanctimonious, and certainly stupid. I can hear their cackles at witnessing this preacher and the cathartic effect he has on the congregation.
Spiritually adrift, I cannot find God and I cannot find myself. The signposts have disappeared. Involved as a young adult in the civil rights and anti-war movements, I recognize the church as an instrument of social reform without understanding its call to spirituality and personal growth. When I am in church with my grandparents, I feel good. But why? How to explain it? Now, in Appalachia, watching the power of religion in this newfound way leaves me feeling abused. I yearn to claim the good stuff (music, poetry, social justice work, and fellowship) without the crud. Fearing that my parents will disown me if they discover that I love Baptist hymns and the exuberance of the service, I nevertheless want to be welcomed into the hearts of these good people and feel strangely warmed by the palpable kindness that surrounds me when I go to church. But I cannot divest myself of my intellectualism and am confused by worship that seesaws between effective catharsis and dramatic contrivance.
The next day, twelve-year-old Vernon and I are waiting in Dr. Sandler’s office. All the seats are taken, so Vernon plays solitaire on the floor with a set of tattered and mismatched playing cards, while I perch on the window sill. Still spooked by the worship, I am happy to recede into the background as others make conversation. While enjoying the easy familiarity of Appalachia (where everyone has an opinion about everything and is more than willing to share it), I also long for the formal intellectualism of New England. Claiming my identify and purpose in life requires knowing what I believe. But my psyche and soul resemble a Jackson Pollack painting, with no known beginning, middle, or end. What should I believe and what must I do in order to make life worthwhile? Sure, I can go to church with my neighbors, take children to hospitals, and sign up parents for food stamps, but my helplessness in alleviating suffering is unsettling. I agonize over the innocent children who yearn for divine or human intervention to remove them from their earthly hell.
An old man in faded Dee Cee overalls turns to his neighbor, a young woman with a small baby, and interrupts my daydreaming. “Yeah, like you was sayin’, hit’s not whether a man goes to church ever’ Sunday that’s gonna git him to heaven….”
“No, hit sure hain’t!” she replies. “A man kin go to church ever’ Sunday in his life, but that hain’t gonna git him into heaven. Hit’s how he lives durin’ the day, if he lives a moral life, that’s what’ll git him to heaven….”
“Well!!!” pounces a large matron from across the room. “Ah don’t care what nobody else says. You look hin the Bible, and what hit says thar is that a man’s gotta be borned agin before he even gets a chance to go to heaven. That’s what hit says raht thar hin the Bible, a man’s gotta be borned agin!”
“Yeah, well, that’s right, too….” answers the old man, trying to placate her.
“Yessir!” she continues, “And the way Ah see hit, there hain’t many that’s a-goin’ to get there, too! After you git borned agin, then out of hall the millions, there’s goin’ to be a few that’s a-goin’ to get there, that’s for sure.”
“Well, now…” muses a younger gentleman from the corner. “That’s what I wonder about sometimes: like in some of them other religions, you don’t exactly have to be born again – well, like the Catholics. Now, I don’t rightly understand how they work at all. But they do a lot of good things for people, and such.” He takes out a can of Prince Albert and begins rolling a cigarette.
“Yes, well John Kennedy was a Catholic, and he was a good man,” answers the young mother.
The old woman is gathering steam to let us know the error of our thoughts when – thankfully – she is called to the doctor’s office.
“Yeah, them Catholics is the best people for gettin’ things done,” says the younger gentleman.
“I’ll reckon a lot of hit is jes’ learnin’ how to love yer neighbor as yerself,” muses the old man to himself.
He is called next. The remaining patients embark on a discussion of the inadequacies of the local medical profession, and I pick up Guideposts, the sole magazine in the room.
I continue going to the Baptist church with the older women in the neighborhood, although I make sure that it is an “ordinary” Sunday without any special preachers, communions, or foot washings. Eventually, I alternate my Sundays there with attendance at the nearest Episcopal Church, twenty miles away in Corbin, Kentucky, where I find solace because it reminds me of home.
With its familiar elitism, weekly communion, and associations to my beloved grandparents, the Episcopal Church brings a strange comfort to offset the terror of my inadequacy. Hoping for enlightenment, I become confirmed during the bishop’s annual visit.
Actually, I lie. Forget the wonderful Anglican psalms, the Book of Common Prayer, kind and well-educated ministers with gently modulated voices, learned and literary sermons, parishioners in clean dresses, nice suits, stockings, and indubitably clean feet. Forget the stained glass, the rich chocolate paneling, the occasional flying buttress or two. Sure, all of that is comforting and comfortable, but the real “call” is the wine. If the truth be known, I am confirmed for the booze. It reminds me of home, sitting around the dining room table with a glass of wine, chatting about politics and art and the humdrum of our lives using words and grammar born from privilege. In a dry county, nearly a hundred miles from any legal alcohol, the smallest sip of cheap, sweet communion wine represents long-lost family get-togethers, culture, and hopefulness. I know many alcoholics who came to acknowledge a higher authority through Alcoholics Anonymous; in my case, I discover the divine through the reverse process: it seems that I have backed into God.
But only sometimes. Too often, my well-intentioned efforts fall short because, fundamentally, I lack the courage and faith to be the Christian I want to be. My head and my heart are always at war, and I seesaw between existentialism and belief. I want to have it all: intellectual certainty and spiritual delight, and I keep failing miserably at both. But I can’t admit defeat, either. I don’t believe in God – I just wish I did.
I have been avoiding a return trip to Desolation Holler, but the time is come. Walking along the dusty trail, I reflect on the worship of the Baptists, both satisfying and empty. Though I cherish the Episcopalians for their ability to assuage my homesickness, it still requires a healthy amount of mental gymnastics to say the preposterous statements of the creeds, prayers, and hymns. Does God know I’m a fraud? Is there something wrong with me – or with the world around me? Can people switch God on and off like a light switch? The emotionality of it all seems facile and manipulative to me, but effective and invigorating for everyone else.
How do some people have faith while others don’t? Most people seem to come to it naturally because their families and friends are believers. Even so, there is often a period (usually in late adolescence or early adulthood), where they spend considerable intellectual and emotional energy devising personal explanations for God, afterlife, the reasons for suffering, the purpose and meanings of rituals, and the like. As various joys and crises come their way, they may tweak the explanations of the tenets of their faith, but the basic switch that says “yes” or “no” to God seems to be activated rather early in life. Further, faith seems to be a key element of personal identity – as foundational as sex, race, sexual orientation, or any other of the key genetic and social features that make up personality. Some people seem to have the “God gene” and others don’t. For me, I am not sure whether or not I have it. I am an outcast in my immediate family of non-believers, but neither do I have the faith and certainty of my grandparents and cousins.
Being catapulted from an intellectual and non-theist upbringing to the passionate and simple faith of Appalachia was unsettling in the extreme. I had enjoyed theological discussions during high school and college, arguing about fate versus free will and innocent suffering versus divine intervention. But Appalachia countered grandiose theology with gut-wrenching reality. I could not imagine a loving God who would allow the poverty, suffering, and despair that I witnessed. But I couldn’t explain life with science and philosophy either. I searched for pragmatic answers, and find none.
I wondered who was getting more out of this year as a VISTA Volunteer: my assigned families in rural Appalachia, or me? For them, I was an anomaly, overly talkative with a strange accent. For me, it was an education more powerful than either my time in Europe or the freshman year at college. For both of us, the intentions and workings of both God and human are opaque, and life flows on whether we capitulate to the mystery or rail against it with all our mighty legions of mind, body, and soul.
And so I meander along the path to Desolation Holler, hearing again the wailing of a baby kicking on a rotted mattress, the fight of two small boys over a coke and a root beer, a freckled child relating her adventures in school… hearing again the different accents and voices of a neighbor, a social worker, a teacher, a grocery store owner, as they relive their desperation, as they relive their fruitless attempts to alleviate another’s misery:
“But it’s no use, you can’t help that family. You kin try, and you kin try, but it’s…well, you just can’t do nothin’. Hit hain’t possible. Hit just hain’t possible….”
“Mrs. Truman…now she’s hopeless. She jes’ don’t care about nothin’…not about her house, her husband, her children, herself…She jes’ don’t care. What can you do with a woman like that?”
“But if she did care, she’d drive herself batty – because what could she do? What in God’s name could she possibly do to improve her situation?”
“Well, Ah reckon thar’s no harm in tryin’. Them’s the cutest little young’uns ya ever set yer eyes on. Them sure deserves better ‘n what they got.”
Punctuating the echoes from my soul is the voice of ten-year-old Mary Truman, oldest daughter, housekeeper, and surrogate mother, pleading, “Will you come back? Will you come back?”
“Yes, I’ll be back,” I had answered a month ago, hoping to muster enough fortitude to keep the promise.
I struggle to remember their names: Mary, of course, with curly blonde hair, dimpled cheeks, and enormous blue eyes. Except for the grime, she reminds me of my younger sister Amanda, a poster child for the all-American girl. Then Betty, about eight, freckled, also blonde; Tommy and Mark, both six, urchins and warriors; what’s-his-name, the four-year-old who trembled naked in the corner, never returning my smile; two three-year-olds; and the nine-month-old Patty. And Mrs. Truman, the mother. And the filth. And the odor: the unbelievable smell of abject, stomach-gagging poverty that hangs on your hair and your body and your clothes.
As I plod along the muddy path, my throat muscles harden in anticipation of the stench – the stench that you will never forget as long as you live. The stench that you take in your memory through the fancy colleges, the lovely homes, the good marriages, and the delightful children…the stench that makes you gag over fifty years later when you write about it, the stench that you hope you will never experience again, ever again, in your life. I remember the wisdom of some locals:
“That’s one of the reasons they call it Desolation Holler – there hain’t nothing up that but three scattered families, and them Trumans is the worst.”
“When it rains, you walk the four miles up Stinking Creek to get there. Otherwise, you can drive along the creek bed two-and-a-half miles, and walk the rest.”
“Jes plan to shower and warsh your clothes when you git home.”
My unwillingness, coupled with the flood season, has kept me away. Today, however, I stroll along fortified by spring madness and happy to walk the entire four miles. On glorious spring and fall days, I used to envy postal workers who were paid for walking. Finally, I am in a similar position: although my term lasts for a year rather than a lifetime, for the most part I am outdoors and doing what I want. The stipend of seventy dollars a month is barely enough to live on, and the shack I live in has no heat or plumbing, but I am young and healthy, adventurous and invincible.
And certainly on this day, the poplars are in bud, rustling with a warm breeze reminiscent of a long-ago Indian summer, and the meadowlarks and warblers share a love song that gives me courage. Courage enough for the Trumans, I hope.
In the distance, a small head bobs from behind a tree: Mary. I pass the barn, nodding acknowledgment to the skeletal mule. It looks me over, then resumes poking through the brush for clumps of grass.
Mary is charging down the path to greet me. Barefoot and flushed in a flimsy cotton dress, she deftly jumps rocks and crab grass. Except for the stains on her dress and the bleakness of the homestead, she could be Heidi gamboling like a mountain goat down the Alps. “You’re back! You’re back! I thought you would never come! But you did!” She hugs me fiercely.
“Yes, I’m back. I should have come sooner. I’m sorry.”
“But you came back!” She is so happy that tears escape from her eyes.
“Why, sure I came back. I said I would, didn’t I?” I try to make her laugh. She doesn’t answer, but hugs me still harder, staring adoringly into my eyes. I smile until the anguish of deification – and the expectations that come with it – makes me look away.
After two long minutes, she loosens her grip, nodding up the path to the house where her brothers are roughhousing on the porch. I ruffle her hair and follow. “How’s school these days? What are you studying?”
“Well, it’s all right, I reckon. We’re workin’ on subtraction. It’s sort of hard. I git mixed up a’ the time.”
“Yeah, I remember having the same problem. But keep working on it, and one day…often suddenly, it seems…you’ll catch on. If you want, we can go over it together, if you have some questions…”
She beams. “I’m so glad you came back.”
At this point, the rest of the horde is descending on us, and Mary, the gracious hostess, presents them to me. I hug Betty, but the boys shy away, so I tousle their hair. Then Tommy and Mark skip off to their grandfather’s house in the distance.
Mrs. Truman, standing in the doorway, says nothing.
“Hi, Mrs. Truman. Do you remember me? I took too long in coming back, but…”
“Well….” she murmurs, in that drawn out way that turns a one-syllable word into two and sounds more like a languorous “wail” than “well.” I look around and want to “wail” myself.
“How have things been going by you? All right? You look pretty well.”
“Well…” She clenches the sides of her dress together. It is filthy and buttonless, like those of her children. Her hair hangs matted in greasy strands, her three teeth are brown and rotted, and she is about seven months pregnant. “Ah hain’t been expectin’ company,” she says, with a trace of hostility.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, but I wanted to let you know that I was still working on getting you more food stamps and I just wanted to check on you and the kids… Isn’t it a beautiful day? Maybe spring is coming at last.”
Such is the conversation. I ask about the children, school, the baby, pausing for replies that do not come; smiling, laughing, with only a cold stare or a “wail” in response. Chained to the porch yelps a starving part-beagle puppy. “Can I come inside and see the baby?” I ask. She steps out of the doorway, begrudgingly.
Just then, Tommy and Mark arrive panting from their chase. Tommy holds in his fist a limp violet, which, with encouragement from Mark and Betty, he nervously pushes into my hand. I thank him and poke him in the ribs; he giggles, hops onto the porch, and steps inside. The others follow.
The shack, divided into two rooms of about ten feet by fifteen, is wallpapered with Tide and Cheerios cardboard, just like my own. The one window is paned with torn cellophane that now crackles with the temper of the wind. Clothes, rank and mildewed, lie in heaps near the doorway. Patty, the baby, is sleeping. Mary goes to pick her up, to show her off to me. Out of the corner of my eye, Mrs. Truman’s scowl prompts me to say, “Maybe Patty should sleep. What do you think?”
Mrs. Truman says nothing. I tweak Mark’s ear, desperate for some kind of diversion. “How’s school for you?” I ask. “You’re just learning how to read now, aren’t you?” He grins and nods.
Tommy pounces on him, screaming, “You’re it,” which begins a frenzied flight between bedposts, around the small coal stove, and onto the porch. Finally the baby begins to cry, so Mary picks her up and rocks her vigorously in her arms, speaking tenderly while her sister wails even more loudly. Mrs. Truman watches with detachment.
The baby soon quiets and, when returned to the rotting mattress, falls asleep.
Mary comes over to me, to hold my hand again. I hold Betty’s hand also. Mary stares adoringly into my eyes, and I return her smile, awkwardly. Looking squarely at Mrs. Truman, I tell her that she has the most beautiful children I have ever seen. For the first time, the mother smiles openly. I can relax and breathe deeply, despite the stench.
Just then Mary tugs on my arm, and as I look down, matter-of-factly speaks three words I will never forget: “You’re my mother.”
Mrs. Truman and I both gasp aloud. Once again, I hear the voices from my soul:
“You might be able to help. Just go and be a friend to them. Go at their own pace – you’ve got to be gentle, and it’s not easy, but that’s what they need. Just be a friend. That’s all that Christ would ask of you…”
“Them children deserves better ‘n what they got, that’s fer damn sure…
“Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight…”
“Try to see Christ in all persons…even Mrs. Truman…”
“No, I’m not your mother. That’s your mother over there. I’m just a friend.” I fake a smile and watch Mary’s gaze fall to the floor. A hardness has settled on Mrs. Truman’s face. “I’m just a friend. That’s your mother over there,” I hear myself repeating. “I’m just a friend. That’s your mother over there…” my voice trails off. My soul is imploding upon itself and silently I fling my helplessness and anger against the instructors who have not prepared us adequately and – dare I say it – God or whatever benevolent forces exist in this life to help us through situations like this.
Mary is crestfallen and despairing. Mrs. Truman is flabbergasted and furious. I am unnerved and impotent. “What would Jesus do?” – God only knows.
Desperate for a diversion, I say, “Patty seems in good health. Is she doing well, Mrs. Truman?”
I feel like a fraud in the do-gooder department. I can’t help Mary or her family. I can’t even help myself. I have absolutely no idea what to do or to think. I am not even sure whom to be angry at.
I tell Mrs. Truman about the meeting on the program we are starting for the older elementary and junior high school girls. She won’t be able to make it. I say that I will come back in a few weeks and ask if there was anything I can do for her. She shrugs.
Then I begin my hike back to the road, nearly four miles distant. Tommy and Mark charge ahead, frisking behind trees and down the path like lion cubs in their game of tag. Mary and Betty and I hold hands, skipping along together as we sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
“Am I doing your will, Lord?” I silently ask the sky and the clouds. The distant mountain ridges answer me with a long, languorous, wailing “Well…”