“You abide by your actions and pay for your sins. It’s the only path toward redemption,” he preached then, according to Mother darling, and preached now.
I remember the first time I was arrested for shoplifting. The policewoman knew my grandparents and asked me how I could behave so badly coming from a solid, religious, and loving home. Wasn’t I just a self-centered ingrate?
I fixed my eyes on her and said, “My mother didn’t want me. My grandparents forced me down her throat, and she never stops throwing that back at them. How would you like living in such a solid, religious, and loving home?”
She blinked as if she had soot in her eyes and then grunted and went off mumbling about teenagers. I was just barely one. It was two days after my thirteenth birthday and the first time I was arrested. I had shoplifted a number of times before, but I was never caught. It amazed me how really easy it was. Half the time, if not more, those machines that are supposed to ring don’t; and the employees, especially of the department stores, don’t seem to care enough to watch for it. I practically waved whatever it was I was taking in front of their faces. Many times I threw away whatever I took almost immediately afterward. I couldn’t chance bringing it home.
Grandpa placed all the blame on Mother darling, telling her she was setting a very bad example for me by dressing the way she dressed and singing in places “the devil himself won’t enter.” He would rant at her, waving his thick right forefinger in the air like an evangelist in one of those prayer meetings in large tents. He made me attend them with him when I was younger, claiming he had to work extra hard on me since I was spawned from sin. Anyway, he would bellow at Mother darling so loudly, the walls of the old farmhouse shook.
Grandma would try to calm him down, but he would sputter and stammer like one of his old tractors, usually concluding with “Thank goodness she took on your mother’s maiden name, Kay Jackson. When she goes singing in those bars, I can pretend I don’t know who she is.”
“You don’t have to pretend. You don’t know who I am, Daddy,” my mother would fire back at him. “Never did, never will. I’m writin‘ a song about it.”
“Lord, save us,” Grandpa would finally say and retreat. He was close to sixty-five but looked more like fifty, with a full head of light brown hair with just a touch of gray here and there, and thick, powerful-looking shoulders and arms. He could easily lift a fully grown Dorset Horn sheep and carry it a mile. Despite his strength and his rage, I never saw him lift his hand to strike my mother or me. I think he was afraid of his own strength.
My grandparents owned a sheep farm about ten miles east of Columbus, just outside the village of Granville. The farm was no longer active, although Grandpa kept a dozen Olde English Babydoll sheep that he raised and sold.
Before she went anywhere, Mother darling would practically bathe herself in cologne, claiming the stench of sheep and pigs permeated the house. “It sinks into your very soul,” she claimed, which was another thing that set Grandpa on fire, the farm being his way of life and his living. Mother darling had the ability to ignite him like a stick of dynamite. Sometimes, I thought she was doing it on purpose, just to see how far he would go.
The most I saw him do was slam his fist down on the kitchen table and make the dishes jump so high, one fell off and shattered.
“That,” he said, pointing to it and then to her, “gets added to your rent.”
Ever since Mother darling quit high school and worked in the supermarket and then began to sing nights with one pair of musicians or another, Grandpa insisted she pay rent for her and for me. It wasn’t much, but it took most of her supermarket salary, which was another justification she used for her singing, not that she needed any. She was convinced she could be a big star.
I knew she was saving up for something big. Suddenly, she was willing to work overtime at the supermarket and she took any singing gig she and her partners at the time could get, from private parties to singing for an hour or so in the malls in Columbus.
Then one night, she slipped into my room, closing the door softly behind her. She stood with her back against the door and looked like she had won the lottery. Her face was that bright, her eyes seemed full of fireflies.
“We’re leavin‘ this trap tomorrow night,” she said in a voice just above a whisper.
“What? To where?”
“I’ve got a job in Nashville with a three-piece band my old boyfriend from high school, Cory Lewis, runs. He’s the drummer and they lost their singer. She ran off with a car salesman to live in Beverly Hills, which I’m sure was just an old tire which will go flat before they get close. Not that I care. It’s become an opportunity for me. We’re going to play in places where real record producers go to listen for new talent.”
“You don’t make it in country music if you don’t make it in Nashville, Robin. Now here’s what I want you to do. Quietly pack one suitcase. It’s all I got room for in the Beetle.”
Mother darling had an old yellow Volkswagen Beetle that looked like someone with a tantrum had kicked and punched it for hours. The car was rusted out in places so badly, you could see through to the road beneath, and it had a cracked window on the passenger’s side.
“But isn’t Nashville very far away?”
“If you attended class more often, you’d know it’s only a little over four hundred miles from here, Robin. Four hundred in actual distance, but a million in dreams,” she added.
“That lawn mower you drive won’t make it.”
“Just shut your sewer mouth and pack,” she ordered, losing her patience. “We’re leavin‘ at two this mornin’. Very quietly. I don’t want him on my tail,” she said, nodding toward Grandpa and Grandma’s room.
“How long are we gonna be there?” I asked, and she shook her head.
“Girl, don’t you get it? We’re leavin‘ here for good. I can’t leave you with Grandpa and Grandma, Robin. Believe me, I wish I could, but they’re too old to be watchin’ after you, bailin‘ you out of trouble every week. And it’s now or never for me. I’m gettin’ nowhere singin‘ in the honky-tonks here. It’s nothing for you to leave the school, so don’t make like it is,” she warned. “You’ve been suspended a half-dozen times for one thing or another. They won’t miss you when the new year begins and you’re not there,” she reminded me.
“And don’t try tellin‘ me you’ll miss your friends, Robin. Those nobodies you hang out with just get you into more trouble. I might be savin’ your life the same time I save my own. Be sure you’re quiet,” she said.
Despite her bravado, Mother darling was still frightened of Grandpa.
“If we’re lucky, he won’t realize we’re gone until it comes time for him to collect his rent. In his mind that was a way of imposin‘ penance on me for havin’ you. Pack,” she ordered, then opened the door quietly and slipped out as fast as a shadow caught in the light.