In the below excerpt from my memoir, Glowing Houses, I share about our big move to Colorado. I use flashback to connect my story to earlier experiences that informed my way of being in the world.
Please note: in order to protect the privacy of others, I’ve changed all names in my memoir (except for mine, of course…and my daughter’s).
I’d never been on a long road trip before. I had no idea what to expect. The closest I’d come to an Interstate freeway was the one we went under as Goodwill Road ended just before crossing the bridge to go into town, about a mile from our house on the holler. I lived my whole life going under the thing, not knowing what it was, and except for the drive to Charleston where I had my tonsils out, which I didn’t remember the drive anyway, I had no experience of being on a freeway. I couldn’t even imagine what our drive would be like since I had nothing to compare it to. But I felt safe with Lenny, trusted him to make sure nothing bad would happen to me. Even though I didn’t’ trust him when it came to being with other girls, the trust I had for him was like the kind of trust you have with family. Even if you don’t necessarily like them all the time, you know when push comes to shove, they’ll look out for you, keep you safe. It was early morning when we finally set off for our move, which Lenny said we’d do in less than two days if we didn’t stop and took turns driving. Peg set us up with sandwiches, candy bars, chips, and plenty of pop along with a thermos of coffee for Lenny. This way we’d save money and only need to stop for the bathroom, which would save us time.
After driving most of the day, Lenny gave me a turn just after dark. I was a good driver but I’d never gone as fast as 55 miles per hour. Lenny told me what to do, though. He said to just stay in the right lane unless I needed to pass a slow poke and, like Daddy used to say, “Keep it between the lines,” he said. Except now, unlike back home where you might see a line painted down the middle of a city street in Ceredo or Flatwoods, there were several sets of lines, some white, some yellow, some dashed, some not, some in the middle, some on the sides. Although I’d passed my driver’s test (after two tries), I didn’t know exactly what the different lines and colors meant. Daddy didn’t take us girls out driving like he did the boys so I hadn’t learned about all the lines. And hollers, if they’re even paved, don’t have lines on the road, just a ditch or hillside on either side that you hoped you don’t slip into in the winter or when passing on oncoming car. Even in Flatwoods, there weren’t too many roads with lines.
But I felt good about driving and told Lenny, “Go on ahead and sleep for a while. I’ll be fine.” He slumped down into the passenger seat with Misty curled into him to rest up for his next turn. I felt proud of myself to be able to give him a break and take the wheel. After a while I was feeling confident enough to change lanes to pass a big semi-truck I’d been following for a while. Lenny explained that as long as the line in the middle of the lanes is dashed it’s okay to pull into the left lane and pass if I needed to. The rearview mirror was of no use because we had the truck so full you couldn’t see behind you, so I relied on the side mirrors. All was clear so I pressed my foot down and pulled into the left lane and gave it some gas to pick up speed to get around the semi. Being right next to the big semi made me feel like I was about to get sucked underneath like I heard could happen, so I pushed on the gas even more until it was touching the floorboard. I held the wheel and focused in my lane as I flew past.
As soon as I got around the truck I pulled back over into the right lane and slowed my speed. Less than a minute later I saw lights flashing behind me. I knew to get over so emergency vehicles and police cars could pass so I slowed down even more for the flashing lights to pass. It didn’t pass. It stayed behind me. I didn’t know what to do. I kept going a while longer. Then the lights came up next to me. I looked over to see a police car, the officer motioning me to pull over. I nudged Lenny awake and said, “I think I’m getting pulled over. What should I do?” He rubbed his eyes as he worked out of sleep and said, “Um, pull over?” as if asking me a question right back. My knees got weak I could hardly push in the clutch or use the brake. We lurched to stop on the shoulder. The semi-truck I’d just passed honked as he sped on by.
The cop said I was going over the speed limit. Like a lot. He wanted to know what the hurry was and told me how dangerous I was driving. He lectured me and I started crying. I wasn’t used to messing up like that and felt embarrassed and scared. The cop asked, “Why were you going so fast? Where’re you kids headed?” Lenny spoke up and used a voice and words he must have learned in his Basic Training. I’d never heard him say “Sir” or act so serious before. He said, “Officer, sir, I’m in the Air Force and this here is my fam’ly. We’re drivin’ from Kentucky t’ Colorada where I’ll be stationed for the next six months.” The cop looked at me and I added between my sobs, “I just wanted to get past that truck so I could get a better look at what’s ahead.” The cop told us to slow down and be careful, especially with that baby in the car. Maybe stop for the night at a motel, he said. He let us go without a ticket, just a warning. I traded back with Lenny so he could drive and so I could collect my nerves for my next turn at driving through the night. Lenny didn’t even get mad at me. That’s part of why I loved him so much. He was easy going and it took a lot to make him mad. He said, “Sweetheart, don’t’ worry none over it. We’ll be in Colorada soon and this ain’t gonna matter not one bit. Hell, I been pulled over s’many times it ain’t even funny. You was with me one time, r’member? I was drivin’ Dad’s Ford and racing that guy in the corvette? R’member that?” I nodded as an ease filled my throat. “Don’t worry now. W’ell be in Colorada ‘fore ya know it. Let it go now.”
Lenny said Colorada. With an A on the end and not like how I saw it spelled with an O. I wondered about why he used an A like that when it was spelled with an O. I didn’t say it like that, with an A, but I don’t know why, other than being sensitive to how the first part of the state’s name—color—was said which could have made me more sensitive to whole word itself. The reason I was so sure I was saying the first part, color, right was because of what happened in seventh grade, where I first started interacting with the town kids, the outsiders, people who also had a little twang in their voice but didn’t talk like me, a hillbilly. Some of the town girls were gathered around me, telling me how pretty I was, how my eyes were so green and just being awfully nice, so nice I was growing uncomfortable, like it wasn’t for real. And I was right because they began teasing me about how I talked. In particular, they teased me for saying collar for color when I said, “Yeah, my eyes change collars dependin’ on what I wear. My mom said they’re hazel collared but mostly green.” I heard one of them laugh out loud just a little and say, “She has collared eyes?! Like this collar on my shirt?” as she reached and touched the collar on her shirt. She was tickled with herself for pointing out my stupid talk. A little gasp on my part made the embers in my gut light up, stoking the never-ending fire inside my belly. It burned up through my chest and exploded on my face where the heat made me sweat. From then on, the word color would remind me of the importance of finding out how a word is said. First, though, you need to know how it’s spelled. And to find out how a word is spelled you must read. Which I didn’t do.
Being made fun of or looked down on for things that come from being poor and neglected—things like greasy stringy hair, crusty ankles, rotten teeth or wearing the same ole worn out clothes every day—paled in comparison to being caught in my ignorance, my illiteracy. Nothing shines a light on your ignorance, your stupid ways, more than how you say a word or how you use it (wrong). I figured the O part of Colorado must be said like an O but really I couldn’t be for sure. Shoot, take the word color, for instance; if you really look at it, it could easily be said as c-OH-l-OR so sometimes it’s just really hard to know until you hear it said out loud by people who know how it’s supposed to be said. I decided I’d wait and see how the people who lived there said it and then I would say it like them.
Even when I thought I knew a word, I learned through the pain and shame of exposing my ignorance that certain words I didn’t have right at all. And the more I interacted with people who said words the right way, like the town kids and teachers at high school, especially my Language Arts teacher who often rolled her eyes at me, the more embarrassed I got and the less I talked and the more I tried to fade into the background like you do at a party when you feel like you don’t belong. My poor grammar shone a light on my ignorance more than anything. I’d say things like infactuate instead of infatuate, aggerfate instead of aggravate, chimley instead of chimney, or take something for granit instead of granted. It wasn’t just me, of course. Katherine once overheard Mom answer the question, “Who made it?” by saying, “Homemade it.” Kay later told me she wondered who Ho was for the longest time.
I could tell I’d said a word wrong by the look on the person’s face. And the heat in my belly was always right there, quick to rise into my face. In a lot of cases I wouldn’t even know what the hell a teacher was talking about because I’d never even heard a certain word before, let alone seen it written out. Once I learned how to say a word, though, it was practicing using it in context that made it stick with me. Something that Language Arts teacher must have been trying to show me, I figure. When you don’t use words correctly, it’s a dead giveaway (to those who know words) that you don’t read, that you’re stupid.
Having my ignorance exposed through simple conversation with teachers and other students that didn’t sound like me taught me to pay attention to how the fancy people talked because if I was to make it in their world I’d need to shield my simple mind until I filled it with some ways of the world; in particular, words—how to say them, when to use them.
Thanks for reading! I will post more in a couple of weeks.