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April 2, 1985
ATTENTION: AUNT SALLY CARES
THE DALLY RIPPLE
Barium Springs, North Carolina
Dear Aunt Sally,
This is the first time I ever wrote to anyone for advice, but I have studied and studied, and I swear I don't know what else to do. Last night at supper my husband announced that he had taken our entire life savings and spent it on a family cemetery plot.
Aunt Sally, I'm only 38 years old. Why, just that morning I'd been thinking that when my girls graduate from high school this June maybe I could start to live a little.
We had even talked about using that money for something fun, like a family vacation to Myrtle Beach. Just daydreaming about what we'd do with all that money really kept me going some days.
I never, in all my life, thought he was thinking about cemetery plots!
Well, to make a long story short, when he told me what he'd done, I got all torn up, right there at the kitchen table, in front of everyone.
The way I see it, he had no right to spend all that money without talking it over with me.
He said I should be relieved to know that I'd be taken care of for all of eternity.
I cannot tell you how discouraging those words were to me.
Now don't get me wrong; my husband is a good man. But when he told me I'd be spending all of eternity resting beside him at All Souls Cemetery, right here in Poplar Grove, North Carolina, I got slicing pains in my chest.
I always thought something was going to happen sooner or later. Now I keep thinking, what if this is all there is slam up to and even after death? An everlasting eternity of nothing ever happening but the same old tired routine
If this is true, I'm desperate. Please tell me what to do before it's too late.
The Teachers Wife
Dear T. W.
It sounds to me like you think too much. You need to stay busy. Join the PTA, teach Sunday school, take up Bingo. Get creative. Enclosed is a copy of "The Joys Of Jello" cookbook guaranteed to open up a whole new world of cuisine to you and your family. Perfect tiered Jello rings, multicolored ribbon salads and scrumptious Jello strawberry pie. This will add so much excitement and variety to your life, you'll wonder how you got along without it. Especially when you see the looks of gratitude on your family's faces.
Remember you could do worse than to have a husband who knows where he's going in this world and the next. Believe me, I know.
Always remember Aunt Sally Cares.
* * *
Until recently I'd have called myself a typical smalltown southern housewife. You know, bored, but resigned to the whole thing.
But things just kept going from bad to worse until I couldn't hardly take it anymore. That's when I decided to write to Aunt Sally Cares in the Barium Springs Daily Ripple, who used to give good advice, but lately sounds more and more like some throwback to the fifties.
(I mean The Joys of Jello! You've got to be kidding! But what choice did I have? If I wrote to the Poplar Grove Expositor sure as shooting someone would have recognized me. To tell you the truth, it's almost impossible to have any secrets in a small town.)
It's easier to write to a paper over in Barium Springs since not a living soul over there knows me. It's also just close enough that if I was to run into anyone from home, I'd just say I was there for the Red Star Superette's Grand Opening Two-For-One sale. It would never come to anyone that a person would drive that far for just a Ripple.
Well, after all that driving—it took three trips and about two tanks of gas before my letter appeared in the paper—Aunt Sally gave me the same advice my own Mama Dean would have given me right here at home, for free.
Still, it was weirdest thing. Aunt Sally's advice had no sooner appeared in the evening paper than my telephone started ringing right off the wall. All at once I'd gone from bored to being busier than a one armed paper-hanger.
First, my best friend Mary Price Bumbalough called to tell me that our high school was having its twentieth class reunion this summer. Mary Price's phone call shook me up but good, 'cause from what she said, all of our old classmates are leaving home, taking lovers and seemed to know how to live.
So there I was standing in my very own kitchen, talking on my very own phone with Mary Price going on and on about the reunion, when it suddenly came to me like a flash! There is more to life than collecting Tupperware and keeping the sourdough alive and every one of my old classmates already knew it. I was the only one who was sleepwalking through life.
I wondered if it was because I'd stayed behind in Poplar Grove, while the rest of them had seen the world. Why, they'd lived in cities like Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Charlotte—you name it!
Of course, Mary Price never got out of Poplar Grove either and she still lives an exciting life. But then that's Mary Price. Not only does she have a house, a husband, and two kids, she and Hoyt sing and play country music every weekend at the That'lldu Bar & Grill. She's also taken to parading all over town dressed in cowgirl outfits complete with hats and boots. When I told her people were starting to talk about her she just laughed. Mary Price is absolutely fearless.
The more I thought about Mary Price and Hoyt and everyone else who graduated with me, the more I wanted to add some excitement to my own life. But I swan, what with one thing and another, I just wasn't sure how to get started. I mean, just how far can a nice Methodist girl from Poplar Grove, North Carolina, go? Especially, when you consider all the obstacles in my way.
First, there's my husband Steven. Steven is a high school biology teacher who makes love only when his vas tubes are blocked. The only time he "spent money like a drunken sailor" was when he bought the cemetery plots.
Next, there are my twin teenage daughters, Amy and Jill.
Amy is a clean, wholesome, honor-roll student. She wears a smooth shoulder-length bob, cultured pearls, and preppy clothes. Her goal in life is to get into an expensive college, marry someone worthy of her, and leave tacky us and tacky Poplar Grove far behind. Why, even Mama Dean, her great-grandmother, says Amy's got more airs than an electric fan.
And Jill. For three years, Jill dressed in an army shirt with the name PFC Presson emblazoned on the pocket. Then, last year, she saw an Indian on TV who sold chain-saw art out of the back of a truck in the parking lots of malls. Next thing we knew, Jill was wearing her blonde hair in a fat braid, dressing like Hiawatha and dedicating her life to dragging logs, branches, sometimes whole dead trees home to the garage workshop.
Also, there's my Mother and Mama Dean, who live three blocks away. Mother is a crisp, no-nonsense Licensed Practical Nurse, while Mama Dean is suspicious and high-tempered. They only have two things in common: a deep and abiding mistrust of men and keeping an eye on me.
So besides being Methodist, my family is a big part of why I never learned how to throw caution to the wind and really live.
Well, as if I wasn't already shook up enough, I'd just hung up with Mary Price when the telephone rang again. It was another old classmate who had never left Poplar Grove either. Dreama Goforth. Actually Dreama Goforth Nims since she married poor old Bucky Nims. (Bucky owns Nims Hardware down on Main Street.)
Twenty years ago, Dreama Goforth was the biggest gossip in the entire Poplar Grove school system. Now she's the biggest gossip in all of Poplar Grove. And to make matters worse she pretends she's Miss Holy Christian.
Naturally, the minute I heard who it was, I put up my guard. The first thing out of Dreama's mouth was that she was in charge of the reunion ticket committee. This didn't surprise me one bit since this way she can find out everything about everyone who's coming.
After pussy-footing around for awhile, Dreama finally asked, "How many tickets are you gonna need for the reunion, Maggie Sweet? One ticket, just for yourself, or will Steven be coming along with you?"
Since I wasn't sure what she was getting at, I was real careful. "Why Dreama, you know I'll need two tickets. Steven and I do absolutely everything together." Which of course is a lie, but I'd rather hang out wash on a wet day than tell her any different.
"Well, I think that's just wonderful, Maggie Sweet," Dreama purred. "I'll just put you down for two tickets then."
For a minute, I relaxed and let down my guard and then she said, "Oh, by the way, hon, you'll never guess who I just talked to."
"I'm sure I couldn't say, Dreama." My voice just as cool and disinterested as can be.
"Well, the least you can do is guess," she said, and I could just picture her bottom lip pooching out in a pout.
When I still didn't say anything she sighed real loud right into the receiver. "All right! All right! I'll tell you. But you better sit down."
"Dreama, please. I'm just real busy right now."
Then she hit me with it. "All right Maggie Sweet, but I warned you. I've only been talking to your old flame, Jerry Roberts, that's all!" She paused for a minute to let that sink in.
Well, I guess I should have sat down. For a minute I felt like someone had cut off my air.
"You'll just never guess what he told me," she went on. "Him and that wife of his are separated and he wouldn't miss this reunion for anything in the world! He is abso-lute-ly dying to see you, hon."
By now I was barely breathing at all. But Dreama just kept chattering away so I was pretty sure she didn't know how hard this had hit me.
"Maggie Sweet, it'll be just like old times. You and Jerry together after all these years. I wonder what he looks like. I wonder what he'll think of you. Maggie Sweet, are you there, hon? Now just what was it you were saying darlin'? Did you say you wanted old Steven to come along or did you just want one ticket for yourself after all?"
Dreama Goforth Nims is a nosy, interfering old busy-body, and I purely despise her, but she sure can ask some questions.
It was later, when I was breading meat for country fried steaks for supper, that I wondered how I'd answered her. I think I said I'd call her back. But I wasn't sure. Because even after all these years when I thought about Jerry Roberts I ran slam out of breath.
That night, I didn't get a wink of sleep. All night, I had this feeling that soon, very soon, my life was going to make a big change. But, to tell the Lord's truth, I'm not sure if I was more thrilled or scared about the whole thing.
Finally, around five a.m. Steven rolled over in the bed and started snoring, so I gave up and tiptoed downstairs to start the coffee.
When the coffee was ready, I carried a mug out to the glider under the magnolia tree, my favorite thinking-things-over spot.
For awhile, I just sat there, drinking coffee and swinging and thinking about what had happened to all my old classmates and what had happened to me. But it all just kept going round and round in circles in my mind. So I decided to go clear back to the beginning.
I was baptized at the Pea Hill Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, thirty-eight years ago. Everyone says I look younger 'cause I'm small, have a Sally Field face, and hardly any bust.
Steven, my husband, was my high school biology teacher in 10th grade. But in those days I only thought of him as a teacher. The only reason he stuck out in my mind at all is because he blushed. I thought a grown man blushing was real sweet. But, he was the teacher. It would never have come to me to feel that way about a teacher.
No. The real love of my life all through school was Jerry Roberts. I thought Jerry had hung the moon.
But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
I'm the only child of Betty and Jack Sweet. When I was four, Mother brought complete disgrace on the family by divorcing Daddy after he took up drinking in Seoul, Korea, during the war. Mother said Daddy just wasn't the same and she was real sorry but she just couldn't live that way.
That's when Mother and I went to live at Mother's mother—my Mama Dean's—boarding house here in Poplar Grove.
One of my first memories, after we moved, was overhearing Mama Dean tell a neighbor that my daddy was really dead. Since she considered death much more fitting than divorce, she figured telling everyone he was dead was the best way to ward off gossip. At the age of four, I hadn't figured out how her mind worked, so I thought Daddy really was dead. Naturally, I had a pure fit and went screaming to Mother. And to Mama Dean's everlasting shame Mother carried me from house to house and told everyone the truth.
Smilin' Jack Sweet, as my daddy was called, stayed in touch. Once a month he'd drive from Raleigh to see me. We had dinners at truck-stops, then on to drive-in movies in his old Ford pick-up. Sometimes he'd even let me drive the truck. Since I was too little to reach the pedals, I'd sit on his lap and steer while he did the foot-work. 'Course he only let me drive in safe places like parking lots, but even so, I knew better than to tell Mother or Mama Dean.
We saw movies like Mighty Joe Young and Francis the Talking Mule. He'd let me drink RC cola right from the bottle while he drank something (which I now know was white lightning) from a bottle hidden in a brown paper sack in the glove-box. Daddy must have taken me to every carnival and fair in that part of the state. Sometimes he'd buy me so much cotton candy and Co'cola I'd be sick.
Since my everyday life with Mother was made up of Walt Disney movies, early bedtimes and foods from the four basic food groups, my visits with Daddy seemed downright reckless.
Daddy had nicknames for me. He called me "Rebel" or his "feisty little brown-haired girl." I loved it and begged him to call me "Scout" after being told that I looked like the little girl in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout never caught on, but his other nicknames made me feel that Daddy saw something bold and spirited in me, something no one else seemed to notice.
Then I grew up. One Saturday, when I was about thirteen, Daddy appeared early, smelling of Wrigley's spearmint, Chesterfields, and Aqua Velva. He looked downright boyish the way he was grinning from ear to ear. He told me the circus was in town and he had taken the whole day off so we could go.
'Course now that I was a teenager, I thought I was much too old for childish things like the circus. I wanted to do what I considered mature things, like shopping for makeup and jewelry at Woolworths, and seeing the new Elvis movie uptown.
I was just about to tell him this when I saw the pride in his face. A look that said he'd saved a long time to give me this special outing. After that, I always acted excited over anything he wanted to do.
So, even though I knew Daddy drank too much, changed jobs too often, and would probably never grow up, I also knew he loved me just about better than anyone. Because when it was time to drop me off at the boarding house he'd say, "See ya' around fart-blossom," his voice all gruff and casual-like. But now, I saw the tears in his eyes when he said it.
Between Mother's pay as an LPN at Providence Hospital and Mama Dean's two little old-maid teacher boarders, we got by. They agreed to let Smilin' Jack visit because, "After all, he is her Daddy." Later they'd question me about where he had taken me and how much he had spent, with a satisfied, "I might have known, the pig," attitude. So if the grown-ups in my life were completely opposite, it was never boring for too long.
And then Jerry Roberts came into my life.
We met at a sock-hop in the high school gym the summer before our junior year in high school. I was standing on the side-lines talking to Mary Price and some other girls, when I heard, "Do you want to dance?"
When I turned, our eyes locked and it was like we were the only two people in the gym. I don't even know if I answered him, I just remember stepping into his arms as if I'd always known him, as if I'd been waiting for him my whole life. I wanted to say, "Do you know me? I know you, I've known you forever."
He was purely fascinating to my half-reckless, half-rule-abiding sixteen-year-old mind. He was my age, but seemed older: drove a souped-up '48 Chevy too fast, wore a ducktail haircut, carried his Marlboros in the rolled-up sleeve of his T-shirts, and had no curfew. (I loved to think of him as an outlaw.) And as if that wasn't enough, he had the most beautiful face I'd ever seen, eyes as blue and velvety as pansies, and (wonder of wonders) he liked me too.
But what really got me, what I'll never forget, is that we could talk about everything for hours. And sometimes, Jerry my sweet outlaw, read poetry to me.
Of course, everyone else only saw Jerry's outlaw side. The first time he drove me home from school with the radio blaring and the glass-pack muffler roaring, Mama Dean, who was drinking iced tea and watching Search for Tomorrow, must have come out of her chair like it had given her an electric shock. She went right to the porch light switch and flicked it off and on, my signal to get in the house pronto. When I ignored this signal, which was impossible to see on a bright October afternoon, she threw the old couch afghan around her shoulders and marched out to the driveway.
"Maggie Sweet! What do you think you're doing?" she said, her jaw stuck out and her eyes blazing.
"We were just talking, Mama Dean," I stammered.
"Hmph," she said. "That's your tale and I'm a' settin' on mine."
After she hauled me red-faced and wailing into the house she went straight to the phone and called Mother at work. In a high, hysterical voice, she said, "Betty, get home. Some rampageous wolf in sheep's clothing is fixin' to carry off our baby."
And Mother came straight home and tried to talk some sense into my head.
Nothing like this had ever happened before. Mother never took time off work for anything. That's how torn up they were over me seeing Jerry.
Until then, I'd mostly done what they said, but I would have walked through fire to be with Jerry.
Between Mother's speeches of "Listen to me, I'm your Mother," and Mama Dean's glinty-eyed tales about my philandering grandfather who had deserted her years before, I met Jerry every chance I got.
For two years it went on this way. Mother was sure that sooner or later her sensible genes would surface and I wouldn't go back on my raising. But Mama Dean, ever mindful of my grandfather's taint, followed me everywhere. Since we never owned a car, she was hard to miss. Sometimes during school I'd get that prickly feeling you get when someone is watching you. I'd glance out the window just in time to see a short, stocky woman in a flowered house-dress, disappear into the Red-Tip bushes.
Once, coming out of a movie (Psycho, I think) Jerry swore he saw an old woman in pink fuzzy house-shoes dart between parked cars.
Finally, one day, I caught her. I was in Dixie Burger, having a Coke with some friends, when a gray head peeked through a window, not two inches from my face, then disappeared. I marched out of the shop and found Mama Dean crawling around on all fours pretending to dig in the dirt.
"Mama Dean!" I shrieked.
"Hey, Maggie Sweet," she said, grinning like she'd been caught with her hand in the collection plate. "I think I lost my house key."
This time I said, "Hmph!" and went straight home and bawled to Mother. "You've got to stop her. She's ruining my life."
Mother said, "Oh, foot, Maggie Sweet!" But she did talk to Mama Dean, who said, "All right! All right! But don't come to me when her tail gets full of burrs and expect me to curry them out."
So, Mama Dean quit following me and tried to be satisfied with reading my diary, listening in on my phone calls, and getting Miss Skurlock, my homeroom teacher and one of our boarders, to spy on me.
And after two years of just kissing and petting (above the waist but not under the clothes) my outlaw-poet was making his own demands.
"Do you love me?" he'd ask, trying to get his hand under my angora sweater.
"You know I do," I'd say truthfully, slapping his hand away.
"Then prove it," he'd say. "I'm only human. I'll still respect you." As his hands went everywhere and wrestled me to the car floor.
I'd end up crying, and Jerry would say he was sorry. But the very next date was another pure wrestling match.
It finally got so bad that during our senior year we broke up almost every weekend. All this had my nerves so torn to pieces I cried all the time.
Then, on Monday, after breaking up Saturday night, there he'd be, waiting for me at my locker, like always. Even though he never said it, I could tell he was sorry. Why, three separate times that spring he gave me a rose and a Baby Ruth. Just like that old song from the fifties, "A Rose and a Baby Ruth." Now if that's not sorry, I don't know what is.
Our last date, the week before graduation, was prom night. Because of my curfew we'd left the prom early so we'd have time to make out at Belews Pond. But this time, when one thing led to another, Jerry wouldn't stop, even though I cried several times. It got so bad, I just couldn't control myself. The only thing I could do was to get out of the car and start walking up that dark country road, in my turquoise prom gown and strappy high heels, turning my ankles on every rock, and crying my eyes out.
The next thing I knew, Jerry was following me in the car, driving real slow, staying even with me. But I was too broken up to so much as look at him. Then, I heard his voice. It was so low and hoarse I could hardly tell it was him.
"Get back in the car, Maggie Sweet. For the Lord's sake, please get back in the car."
I will never, in all my life, forget how he sounded that night.
When we got back to my house, I told him we couldn't go on that way and gave him back his class ring.
I cried all week, even in school. I waited, hoping he'd come to my locker like always. But this time he didn't. I lost five pounds and was jumpy as a cricket. Kind of like Natalie Wood in Splendor In The Grass when Warren Beatty wouldn't take "no."
All I could think of was getting Jerry back, so I made up my mind. If I wanted him back I had to do something daring. Even if it meant hardening my heart to Mama Dean's tragic broken figure, and the hurt in Mother's eyes, graduation night, I'd do it. I'd give myself to Jerry.
Posted December 15, 2004
I absolutely ADORE this book. I simply bought it because the cover was PINK and was cute--you know...just had one of those days in the bookstore browsing; looking for nothing in particular. I could not put this book down. JM Stacy lures you into the small town lives of the women in this book. There are actually times when you want to smack 'em in the head, pat them on the back, or just hug their necks. Thanks Mrs. Stacy for such wonderful fiction and for taking MY smalltown southern female mind on such a wonderful journey. I'm looking forward to more from you! Hurry! hee heeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.