T. K. Tolbert: Miss Geneva (an essay)
My Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Southern Ohio, where driving forty five minutes one way puts you in West Virginia and thirty five minutes the other way puts you in Kentucky. I was raised by good, god fearing Kentucky folk who ended up in Ohio to get out of the coal mines. I spent a great deal of my life in Kentucky, some in Florida and I reside in Alabama. I do hope Y’all are not just laughing right now, saying Ohio, or if you will disregard my work all together. I was brought up southern and taught to be proud of my heritage. Southern is not necessarily what line you were born on, it can also be who you were born to. My heart is southern, as are my morals. I am as southern as the day is long. When I was small I was taught to sing “Dixie” and play it by ear on the piano. I was taught manners and respect. I have taught my daughters to be southern ladies and my sons to be good southern gentlemen. My accent is thick because those that taught me to speak spoke that way. I have no formal education and I am not published.
The dirt under the porch was cool to the touch. I hid under there sometimes. The concrete block that surrounded me made me feel safe. It was my secret hiding place. I could hear Grandma calling me. “Tammy Kay Laurie! You come Right Cheer! Right now, if you don’t come right now, Imma gettin a switch!” she was screaming. I was sure everyone on Stoney Creek could hear her. It was time to eat. We ate early on Wednesday nights. Church started at six and my little brother Tony and I would be expected at Youth Meeting. I did not want to go. I wanted to see my Mommy. I thought she might come get us soon.
It had been hot all day. Grandma and Grandpa had gotten us up early. They always did. Grandpa would march through the house, clap his hands saying “Time to warsh yer hands and eat your eats.” We would always get up for him, whether we wanted to or not. I slept on the floor in the living room. Grandma made me a pallet every night when I stayed. She would use two cushions from the couch, she would tuck a white fitted sheet all around and she gave me a feather pillow. She would put down a yellow and orange-flowered flat sheet and a green blanket that had an Army stamp on it. It had belonged to my Uncle Frank. It was itchy without the sheet but if it was cold it kept me warm. When it was hot I would fold it down and just use the sheet. Grandpa would help me make up the couch in the morning and we would fold my sheets and blanket. He would hold one end and I would hold the other. We would both fold our end until we met in the middle.
Grandma would have breakfast ready and Coffee in the percolator. I liked to watch the coffee pop up and down in the little rectangle glass knob on the top. Grandma would give me and Tony a half cup of coffee with milk and sugar. A bowl of oats and toast. There was butter and always some of her black berry preserves. a little glass of milk and sometimes we would have sliced canned peaches. She always had jelly jar glasses and ice water on the table too. I loved staying there. We always had food. Everything was clean. We helped with chores but it was fun. Grandpa was more fun than Grandma, but I loved them both. I missed my Mommy. I didn’t understand why she didn’t stay. I worried that she would not eat. Mostly I worried that Daddy might hit her.
I used to like church until I saw them make Miss Geneva leave. She was really nice. She had big Moon eyes and Silver hair. She would roll her eyes and smile while she played the piano. She would sing along when she played for our youth group and I thought she was funny. She always had peppermints in her purse and she would tuck one in a tissue and slip it to me during service. I remember my Mommy crying once while she was praying. She was kneeling, down at the altar and Tony and I were rubbing her back. She needed money for rent and did not have it. Miss Geneva slid a tissue into her hand. But it had a hundred- dollar bill in it. She whispered to me “Don’t you let yer Mommy throw that away, there is somthin in it for her”
We were at church on Sunday night and When Miss Geneva came in all the elders from the church said they had to have a meeting and she should come speak with them. I had heard them talking earlier. Someone had said She was worldly and things like that will spread. Someone else said something about how she never married. Mom Warner said “A women wearin pants in the Lord’s house just ain’t a fit example for these young people” My Grandma said “Hmmmff, judge not lest ye be judged” She went to the front pew and sat with her arms crossed. I thought Miss Geneva looked nice. She had been wearing a powder blue pants suit with ruffles and shoes the same color the past few weeks. She wore a brooch that she called a cameo. It had a picture of a woman and a blue background with white trim and a little pearl on it. When the men came out with Miss Geneva she was crying. She was holding her purse and she dropped her Bible on the floor. She bent down and picked it up and said “I am a godly woman, shame on all of you” and she went out the door.
Everyone took their place and the Reverend guided us in prayer. He gave a sermon about the evils of the world corrupting our minds. He cautioned us against worldly ways. He said “If you cast your heart into the darkness, you will be damned to the Fire and Brimstone of hell, pray for those that have fallen and continue to walk a righteous path” Everyone said amen and shook their heads but no one got the spirit. No one got up and ran from one end of the isle to the other. No one called out “Thank you Sweet Jesus” No one waived their hands in the air with tears streaming down their cheeks, when we sang “Just as I am” they passed the offering basket. No one played the piano and No one seemed happy. My Grandpa had tears in his eyes for almost the whole service. My mommy always wore dresses to church, but not at home. I wondered if they would make her leave if she wore pants. It made me sad.
When it came time for church that Wednesday night, I hid under the porch of the burned trailer we used to live in. When they found me. No one had eaten dinner yet and we were all late for church. Grandma said “What do you have to say for yourself?” I started to speak and she said “Don’t you dare say a word, not one word.” I knew I was in big trouble when Grandma contradicted herself like that. Grandma made me pick my own switch. I hated to do that. If I got a big one it hurt, but a little one would leave welts.
She switched me good and told me to go clean up. I ran a bath and got in. and my legs stung. I scrubbed my hands and face and hair. I had old black dirt and soot all over me. She came in and seen that I was bleeding just a little. She got that old glass bottle of Mecuricome out of the medicine cabinet and used the dabber to put it on me. She took an old blue robe off the back of the door and told me to just wear it. It was too big but she tied the belt around my waist. She had me go sit on the couch. Tony and Grandpa were eating fried chicken and corn on the cob. Grandma came in and sat by me. She said “Why on earth would you scare us like that? What were you thinking? and up there at that derned old burnt trailer no less. We searched all over, we nearly called the Sheriff. Tammy Kay you scared the life out of me”. I told her I was sorry, I said I would never ever do it again. I promised her and Grandpa.
Tony just grinned and didn’t say anything. He was always in trouble, not me. Grandpa said “Let her eat somethin, she has got to be hungry”. I started to stand and my legs stung. Grandma told me to sit still. She got up and made me a plate. Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, corn on the cob with butter and salt. Sliced tomatoes and cucumber and onion that grandma had soaked in a bowl of white vinegar and ice water. Grandpa asked me how the corn tasted, he said it did good this year. Grandma decided we shouldn’t watch television since we missed church. Grandpa said that was okay. It was going to storm and he was not going to turn the antennae if there was lightning anyway. Grandma opened the Bible and started to read some verses from book of Job. Tony helped grandpa clear the table. I finished eating. and Tony came and took my plate. Grandpa came in and started reading from his Bible. Grandma got up and washed the dishes. I sat and listened as I watched Grandma. She began to hum. “Bringing in the sheaves” I fell asleep and they just covered me up. No one made a pallet for me that night.