A Willful Child

A Willful Child

by Janet Steele Holloway
A Willful Child

A Willful Child

by Janet Steele Holloway


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A Willful Child A story of Betrayals and Beginnings Janet Steele Holloway's debut is as dazzling as the West Virginia countryside she describes. Her father a hardworking coalminer, her granny an unrepentant bootlegger, Holloway remembers a childhood grasping at the shards of a shattering family. She emerges as a young woman ready for anything. This memoir is poignant, brutal, funny, inspired. Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss Painful, warm and wise, Janet Steele Holloway's debut memoir, A Willful Child, vividly portrays a remarkable yet ordinary family whose life is more typical of post-war America than we'd like to think. At the mercy of an unstable, beautiful mother and a coal miner father in the boom-and-bust mountain economy, Holloway's childhood is spent on the move from coal camp, to her granny's beer garden, to a farm in southwest Virginia, to both coasts of Florida, and back to the mountains. Billie Brown, her pragmatic bootlegging granny, supplies rootedness, but cannot assuage her own daughter's restless discontent or shore up the headstrong streak that will become her granddaughter's greatest strength. A Willful Child shows us how a girl-becoming-a-woman gathers courage, confidence, and wisdom to weave a self from the pieces and places of a fragmented life. Leatha Kendrick, author of Second Opinion This gripping story speaks for many Appalachian women and children who broke away from mountain culture to live a life of promise and success and never forgot their mountain heritage. Janet Holloway tells an engaging story of a bright child caught in the ruins of her parents' marriage and her determination to create a productive, creative life for herself. Jane Stephenson, founder of New Opportunity School for Women; Author, Courageous Paths: Stories of Nine Appalachian Women

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781477281086
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 10/22/2012
Pages: 180
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.41(d)

Read an Excerpt

A Willful Child

By Janet Steele Holloway


Copyright © 2012 Janet Steele Holloway
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4772-8108-6

Chapter One

Picture a wild green density cut by cramped, intimate hollers tucked into steep hillsides and ... winding, dizzying roads that seem ... tentative, as if always threatening to break off on the edges or collapse and fall to ruins among the forests, and weeds.... Imagine a world that dwells in the space of the gap, in a logic of negation, surprise, contingency, roadblock, and perpetual incompletion.

A Space Beside of the Road, Kathleen Stewart

A Willful Child

1944, Switzer (Logan County), West Virginia

It was a burning summer in the West Virginia mountains in 1944, with humidity settling down heavily on everything that moved.

I wanted an ice cream so badly I tortured my mother with down-on-the-floor, screaming tantrums until she opened the front door and screamed back, "Well, go get it then."

I was three years old. We were living in Switzer, in a small white house just off Route 119, the main road that led to the county seat. It was the first of dozens of places we would live in over the next sixteen years.

"Go get it," she said again, pointing to the quarter-mile curve where Johnson's Grocery claimed the only retail site in Switzer. "Just stay off that highway. Stay on the dirt side, Miss Priss."

I can imagine my pouty, chubby face; feel the sweat on my head and the determination in my spine to get what I wanted. I walked off the porch, looking at the distant store, turning back to look home only once. Mother stood on the front porch, my baby brother on her hip, flailing about, fighting sleep.

Few cars passed on the road and when they did, the yellowish dirt from the shoulders rose like mist and resettled on patches of wild grass and thicket on the creek side. The blacktop shimmered with heat. The hot summer day let loose a dense crop of grasshoppers, and their smell reminded me of the fireflies we'd chase on summer evenings. Grasshoppers flying among the weeds didn't come close to distracting me from my goal, but Johnson's Grocery seemed awfully far away.

I kept to the side of the road, like Mother told me, kicking rocks, scuffing my shoes. The neighbors' yards were quiet, empty of children and dogs. I could hear the hum of electric fans in front of open windows. It seemed no one wanted to be out in the mid-day sun.

As I neared Johnson's, I saw an old man sweeping the dirt in front of the store. He stopped, took off his cap, and nodded as I opened the screen door and went in. The ceiling fan moved around the hot air in the store, where Andy Johnson was draped across the meat cooler, smoking a cigarette. No one else was inside.

Stella, Andy's wife and my Granny Bill's sister, came from behind the curtain that led to a storage room after she heard the bell on the screen door.

"Why, 'pon my honor! Look who's here," Stella called out. "Where's your momma? Melba's not with you?"

Stella favored my granny in looks but there was something about her that seemed scary and witchlike.

The Johnsons seemed pleased to see me. Andy tried to pick me up but I pulled away, staying close to the check-out counter, out of his reach. His lower lip was always wet and nasty looking, and I couldn't stop staring at it.

Stella kept saying, as she wiped the counter, "Where's your momma, little girl?" I told her she was at home. Stella looked at Andy and frowned.

Andy Johnson gave me the frozen Creamsicle I wanted and asked if I'd like to sign the bill. I shook my head no and he laughed, his extended belly bouncing as he did. Stella picked up the phone and gave the operator a number to call, waving her handkerchief at me as I pushed open the screen door.

"Don't you want to sit a spell, cool off?" she called out, moving her ample frame to a high stool behind the counter.

"No, thank you."

I headed for home.

On the way back, I thought of nothing but the ice cream in my hand. Then, for some reason, I stopped. I stopped and looked at the highway. I was tempted, but why? Because it was there? Because I was free, for that moment, of my mother's requirements? Because I was angry with her?

I looked to the left and I looked to the right, just like I'd been taught. I put one foot on the black top, then pulled it back, very, very slowly.

I re-focused on my melting ice cream and getting home.

There she was, sitting on the steps. "You better watch your ass, little girl," Mother growled as she stood and held open the screen door.

I said nothing but headed for the bathroom to wash the stickiness from my hands.

"You just always have to be one step over that line, don't you?" she followed. "You better start paying me some mind, girl, or you're going to be sorry."

I went into the room I shared with my two-year-old brother. He was sound asleep, and I curled up on the rug beside his crib, listening to him breathe.

I heard the phone ring and could tell it was Granny Bill because of the way my mom was talking. I heard the sharp edge in her voice as she said, "Stella had no right to be calling you. Nobody knows what a handful this child can be!"

I must have fallen asleep because the next thing I remember was the sound of Granny's voice in our living room, telling my mother to keep her voice down.

"Melba, you don't know what you're saying." Granny spoke in a loud whisper. "There's no way you're leaving here."

"I can't stand it anymore," I heard my mother say. "My head feels like it's going to blow off. I can't do anything right. He never helps out. He comes home from the mines and goes to that couch and sleeps 'til dinner."

My mother's voice was high and breathless.

"He's worked hard all day, honey," Granny said. "He's entitled to some rest."

"What about me? When am I entitled to something? I feel like I'm going crazy and nobody's doing anything about it. Nobody cares what's happening to me."

I heard the screen door slam, and I scrambled off the floor. Danny was still asleep. In the living room, Granny stood near the electric fan, holding out her skirt to catch the cool air.

Seeing me, she said, "She'll be back, honey. Don't you worry. She'll be back."

My mother liked for Danny and me to look good, present a "good face" as she called it. Not true for Granny Bill: she didn't care what we wore as long as we had clothes on. These photos show me at 4 and 5, with my brother, a year younger.

What's In a Name?

1946, Omar, West Virginia

Family rumors about my mother's birth and legitimacy rose up or faded away depending on the state of Granny Bill's health over the years. Granny always countered any query about Mother's birth with, "It's none of your damned business. She's my baby!"

When a doctor diagnosed Granny with her first cancer, the rumor mill cranked into high gear, with her siblings fearing my mother would inherit what they felt was rightfully theirs. It wasn't that Granny had so much money; it was just that, with her various businesses—some legal, some not—she had more than anybody else in her family and they all wanted it.

My mother's interest in her origins wasn't strange at all; it fit with her lifetime insecurity and feeling that she never belonged anywhere. Even as a child, she told me, she never felt part of Granny's extended family.

To start with, her name, Melba, was an unusual one; no one else we knew had a name like it. Mom always said she was named after Nellie Melba, an Australian opera singer in the early 1920's. Mom sometimes produced an old newspaper photo and article from her Book of Dreams. The tattered, yellowing photograph showed Nellie Melba lounging in a plush, overstuffed chair, smiling seductively at the camera, all the while buttoned up from her chin to her boots.

The article highlighted her career.

"Nellie Melba had ... abandoned her family in Melbourne for her career and ... according to her contemporary [and rival], Emma Eames '... if a singer's greatness can be gauged by how detested she was by colleagues, then Melba would undoubtedly be the greatest singer of all time.'"

The article went on to describe how Melba tolerated no rivals; tenor John McCormack, on the night of his London debut, apparently attempted to take a bow with her on stage. She pushed him back forcefully and reportedly said, "In this house, no one takes a bow with Melba!"

What I remember most from that article, lodged in the "Dreams of Being Chased" section of Mom's Dream Book, was the expression, "more comebacks than Nellie Melba," satirizing Melba's endless series of retirement tours in the 1920's.

I smiled at the similarity of both women. My mother had made quite a few comebacks herself.

What was agreed upon among family members was that my mother was born on August 8, 1922, outside of Abingdon, Virginia. Whether she actually was put in a basket and left on Granny's doorstep, as some said, or given to her by a friend of the birth mother, has never been verified by anyone. Both stories were passed around the family, and, because I was only four or five at the time, the adults talked about it in front of me, thinking I was too young to understand anything.

My own research into courthouse documents years later revealed only that Granny Bill—Rebecca "Billie" Spriggs—had married Chester Brownie in 1920. They had one child, Arthur, who died within a few months. That's all that can be confirmed. And then a year or so after Arthur died, my mother was brought into their lives.

From what I gathered, Chester didn't stay around very long after that. The family story was that Chester went out for razorblades one night and never came back.

The Early Days

1935, Logan County, West Virginia

Uncle Paul was my mother's first boyfriend, when she was thirteen, in 1935.

"He smelled like lilac soap," she told me. "He had the prettiest curly brown hair and big blue eyes," she told me. "I had such a crush on him."

My heart must have fluttered with the thought that she, too, once had a crush on my favorite uncle.

I was around five or six when she told me this story of Uncle Paul and how he introduced her to my dad for the first time. I was excited, expecting a fairy tale, filled with romance and happy endings.

"There was an event in the auditorium of the Omar Grade and Junior High School where students were performing," she said, "and I sang The Beautiful Lady in Blue, wearing my new, blue dress."

I smiled at my beautiful, lip-sticked mother, imagining her on stage. She sang around the house when she was happy—songs like Allegheny Moon and Red Sails in the Sunset—and it made me happy to hear her sing. Her voice was throaty and deep, she said, because of all the cigarettes she smoked.

Wide eyed, I waited for her to continue, impatient to hear how she and daddy fell in love.

"Paul was so much better looking than your father, and fun to be with."

This wasn't exactly the fairy tale I was expecting. I wondered if I'd heard her right.

"Paul came backstage with Millard, your dad, who shook my hand and said, 'I'm happy to meet the beautiful girl in blue in person.'"

I held my breath. Maybe it will have a happy ending after all.

"I liked Paul better; he liked to laugh and tease me. He had a reputation for being a little wild, even though he came from a good family. Your dad was older, more serious. But once your Granny Bill met Millard, that was it. She wouldn't let me date anyone else. I was thirteen."

She made it sound like Granny was bad for doing this. My granny? There had to be more.

"So what happened then?" My eyes stared, my mouth hung open, wanting a happy ending and afraid I wouldn't get one.

"So your dad and I got married on my sixteenth birthday and you were born two years later."

A sensible close, on the surface, but something didn't feel right. My stomach growled, like I was hungry or getting sick. Her story confused me. Who was I supposed to root for in this story? Who was the prince? Where was Cinderella? In this fairy tale, it seemed like everybody lost something, though I couldn't explain what.

As a child, I followed my Uncle Paul everywhere. I snuggled into his lap on Granny Steele's front porch swing after he had washed off the coal dust. I sat on the toilet seat to watch him shave, fought with my brother to get the seat next to him in the car. As much as I loved my father, I adored my Uncle Paul—his easy laughs and chuckles, the teasing, the way he always made me feel like I was his girl, sitting on his lap in the swing, singing, counting the coal cars passing through downtown Logan. He once told me that the more coal cars we could count, the happier everyone would be. I tried hard to learn my numbers after that.

I was born in Uncle Paul's room on Flag Day, 1941. Some said that my dad's mom—Granny Steele—and one of my aunts pulled me out, and Dr. Carney arrived just in time to cut the cord and give my mom a sleeping pill. Others, including my mother, denied it and made it clear that Dr. Carney did the job.

Years later, I tried to remember if Uncle Paul had ever married. Mother's reply was terse.

"Paul never did get married, although he dated some Hunky girl for a few years before he died. You know he died in the mines? He was on his back digging coal when he smelled gas. He raised up real fast and hit his head on one of those support beams and it killed him."

Why did she keep reminding me of this? I was ten when he died and had heard the story dozens of times. It always made me sad. She knew it made me sad, so why remind me of it?

Granny Steele's tiny cinderblock house in downtown Logan, West Virginia, backed up to a cemetery on a narrow street that overlooked the Guyandotte River and the railroad tracks. As kids, when we visited Granny Steele and our aunts and uncles, we used the cemetery as our playground, playing hide and seek in the hollow vaults and empty statues.

Many a night I'd awaken to the sound of the train whistle; I'd climb out of the bed I shared with my Aunt Shirley at the time and curl up at the foot of Uncle Paul's bed, thrilled with the sound of the train and Paul's soft snore.

What was it that bound me to him as a child? Did my body infuse the fragrance of his Old Spice and Brilliantine into my molecular structure? Did the static of his short-wave radio configure the synapses of my young brain? Could it be that the evening train whistle laid the tracks for my passion to travel, to move on, move out? Perhaps it was simply the fact that I was given his name, Janet Paul. Mother used to wonder aloud about my attachment to Paul.

I had no questions about it. It just was.

Sixteen. Mother married my dad at sixteen, when he was nineteen, in 1938. She'd just finished tenth grade, and he'd graduated high school with honors and worked for Mason White, installing records on juke boxes in restaurants and beer gardens around Logan County. They eloped on her sixteenth birthday, driving to Canada, Kentucky, where no signature was required.

I often wonder if that impulsiveness was a symptom of her later illness. It certainly characterized her later years, like the time, in the winter when I was eleven, I came home from school to find the note on the mantle. I didn't cry, like my brother and father did. Somehow, I knew I had to be strong. I emptied a can of green beans into a pot and turned on the stove, like my dad told me, then took a bath while they cooked, splashing the tepid water in the pink bathtub with my legs, shaking my head fast, whispering, "I won't cry. I won't cry." Trying to erase the words, "I'm sorry to leave you all. I have to go away."

That departure and loss were to be repeated over the years.

I don't have many memories of my father before he came home from World War II in 1946, when I was five. There are pictures of me at about twelve months, just beginning to walk. I'm smiling, held up on his shoulder. He's looking dapper in his dress khakis and perfectly pressed shirt, sometimes holding a cigarette. He left for basic training in Texas in 1944 and then for Japan when I was about three or four. He spent a year, year and a half in Okinawa during the Occupation.

The war required sacrifices of everyone. Even as children, we were encouraged to save the silver covering from any chewing gum we might get, and roll it into a ball, as well as scour the creek banks and trash heaps for metal parts and save them all for the scrap man who came each month. Women were expected to keep the family together and take one of the jobs left open by the men leaving for war.

I remember stories of Mom travelling by train to see my dad in Texas when he was in basic training. I can see her, at about twenty one, beautiful in a suggestive, sultry, Gene Tierney way; dressed to the nines, long dark hair in place with old-fashioned rats in back, wearing white gloves, seamed stockings and heels, her green eyes taking in the sights, excited to be on a train going somewhere, anywhere away from West Virginia. She hadn't yet committed to enrolling in cosmetology school. I wonder if she planned to discuss it with my dad or had she already figured out that it's easier to apologize after the fact than try to get approval up front. On this trip, she would have had few, if any, worries, knowing the two grandmothers were caring for my younger brother, Danny, and me. And knowing they'd keep us if she did decide to go to school.


Excerpted from A Willful Child by Janet Steele Holloway Copyright © 2012 by Janet Steele Holloway. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


A Willful Child 1944, Switzer (Logan County), West Virginia....................1
What's In a Name? 1946, Omar, West Virginia....................7
The Early Days 1935, Logan County, West Virginia....................11
The Mountains and the Coal Camps....................21
Billie Brown's Back in Town 1920's and '30's....................33
Getting to the Truth of Things 1946, West Virginia to Boone, N.C....................41
Christmas Revelations 1947, Beckley, West Virginia....................47
The Parties and the Music 1950, The Pioneer Inn & Beer Garden, Sarah Ann, West Virginia....................59
West Virginia Politics 1951, The Pioneer Inn & Beer Garden, Sarah Ann, West Virginia....................65
Stuckey and the Bus Early Summer, 1952, Sarah Ann, West Virginia....................71
Summers on the Farm 1953, in Sarah Ann, West Virginia and at Granny's farm outside Abingdon, Virginia....................79
Let's Go in Here and Talk 1952, Granny's Farm....................91
Making It Work Spring, 1953, From Granny's Farm to Florida....................101
New Friends 1954, Tampa, Florida....................111
Looking for Love....................119
A New Understanding....................125
Breaking Free 1958-1962, Logan and Huntington, West Virginia....................133
The Call that Changes Things More than 30 years later, March 1996, Lexington, Kentucky....................151
Still Not Doing It Right April 1996, Lexington, Kentucky....................155
Hurricane Rains Sixteen Years Later, 2012, Lexington, Kentucky....................159
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