Connecting the Dots

Dad didn’t come around much as I was growing up.   We only lived together for about three years in Panama City, Fl., before Mama left him.  He stayed in Florida, moving eventually to Orlando.   Mama and I headed to Rome, Ga., then Pensacola, Fl., and then back to Rome.   Mama’s home base was Rome because her parents lived there; they were our safety net.   Dad hated Rome, though it was his hometown as well.

I stayed connected to Dad through his mother, Mama Cotton, who still lived in Rome.  Mama Cotton owned a little neighborhood grocery on the run-down side of the railroad tracks, i.e., where the black folk lived.   Mama Cotton was a tough woman, not liked by many — including my Dad.  She lived alone in the back of her store, having run off her fourth husband long ago. Born in 1896, she was always old to me.

Mama was committed to making sure I maintained connection with Dad’s family.  Bless her heart.  When we were living in Rome, Mama would “force” me to go with her to visit Mama Cotton every few months.  Like a normal teenager, I resisted going to sit in an old house in a “sketchy” neighborhood while she and my grandmother talked about people I didn’t know.  Later, I came to appreciate Mama taking me on these forced visits.  Otherwise, I would have never come to know this strong-willed, independent woman whose life spanned most of the 20th century and whose hand cast a long shadow over my Dad.

Dad was the youngest of a large brood of kids.  Mama Cotton had given birth to over 10 children, though quite a few didn’t survive long.  Dad was the only child of Mama Cotton’s third marriage, which also didn’t survive long.

Best I can tell, there was nothing happy about Dad’s childhood.  Not only did he grow up poor without a father in a rough part of town, but he was terrorized throughout his young life by his half-brother, T.W.  T.W. routinely threatened to kill Dad, sometimes with weapon in hand.   When T.W. , often drunk,  came looking for Dad, he would run.  Dad jokes about how he was skinny and fast as a kid.  You know, survival of the fittest.

T.W. was well known by the Rome police.  Legend has it that while he was serving time in a prison in Atlanta, he managed to escape and take the warden’s wife hostage.  In any case, years later, T.W. was shot and killed by his own son.  My cousin had enough of his father beating on him and his mother.  The police looked the other way.

Yep, this family history explains a lot about my Dad.

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Choices of the Heart

I always wanted to be brave, but I lacked the confidence.  Mama and I moved around a lot when I was growing up, so I was often the new kid on the block.  I was shy and awkward, almost always the tallest girl in the class and the one with the thickest glasses.   If that were not enough to make me a target of class bullies, my hair was “stringy,” as Grandmama called it, and my unstylish hair went well with my unstylish outfits made by her.

It was my sense of mission that gave me courage, or at least the courage to hope that I would be courageous if the need arose.  A transformative moment was when I watched a TV movie in 1983 called “Choices of the Heart.”   The movie was about Jean Donovan, an American lay missionary who at the age of 27 was raped and murdered, with three nuns, by a Salvadoran death squad.   Jean had traveled to El Salvador in 1977 to serve the poor.  She stayed for three years despite the increased danger that drove others out of the war-torn country.

I was greatly affected by the dedication and courage of Jean Donovan to stand by the poor in the face of torture and death.  I wondered if I would have stayed.  Would I have even gone?

In seminary, my favorite classes were those about social justice, race and religion, and liberation theology.  I dreamed of having the opportunity to serve the poor in Central America or in some inner city.  I wondered if all the great social movements were over, and I had missed them.

Strong Mountain Women

I love the Appalachian mountains.  I was born and, for the most part, raised in Rome, Georgia, a small town nestled in the foothills of Appalachia.  My Mama, her parents and I would “go riding,” at least once a year, deep into North Georgia mountains, sometimes in the fall to see the leaves and buy apples and sometimes to see Bertie,  wife of Granddaddy’s first cousin, in Clarksville.  Bertie, as Mama describes her, was “a good ole mountain woman.”  There was a lot of gossip, laughter and just hanging out on these trips.

Mama was very close to Bertie’s daughter, Linda.  As a teenager, I really admired Linda.  As far as I could tell, she could do most anything.  She made — among other things — dolls and ceramics.  Her and her husband even built a house by hand deep in the woods.   Linda also took care of her daughter, B.J.

B.J. and I were born about the same time.  There is a cute picture of her and me on a blanket, just a few months old.   But while I developed mentally and physically at a “normal” pace, she did not.  BJ was a constant reminder to me of how fortunate I was.  In 1980, BJ had a stroke and had to be taken care of around the clock.  Linda took on this responsibility, and like many a strong mountain woman, Linda found a way to survive in the dark times.  As she sat day in and day out by her daughter’s side, Linda discovered a talent for art.   A video of Linda and her folk art can be found at http://www.gpb.org/stateofthearts/term/anderson.