Imagine a time not so far away and yet so long ago . . . It is the 1970s, deep South, rural Eastern North Carolina, once the “world capital” of the tobacco farming industry. On the Coastal Plains, nestled along the Pamlico River, is a tiny town called Chocowinity.
The characters are original and southern. Donna’s father is a haunted artist and gifted carpenter. Her mother, Pam, a full-time mom, with three children by the age of twenty who attempts to keep it together in a poor family where alcohol and substance abuse became the norm. When her father’s alcoholism worsens, Donna begins to resent him. Finally, on a night when violence reached its terrifying worst, the young family is spirited away for protection, and her parents divorced. Soon her father’s demons re-emerge and he falls into depression characterized by more substance abuse. Several times, their loving extended family comes to the rescue. Among the layers and human elements of this story, there lies an ominous secret. Donna has known it as long as she can remember. She keeps it hidden, as this might change everything.
What unfolds is a funny, touching story of a Generation X tomboy growing up in 1970s and 1980s—before car seat belts were required and shoes were still optional in the grocery store. This unique story is autobiographical. Funny, original, and bittersweet, it is full of Southern culture and generational relevance. This is not just one girl’s story of growing up in a stormy relationship with her father, and their life in poverty. It is a story of coming of age. A must-read for everyone.
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MARCHING TO MYOWN DRUMMER
I was named after a hurricane.
Well, that's what some say. Hurricane Donna, it was. And that's my name. Donna.
Rumor has it that Hurricane Donna was a humdinger. It had battered the coast of North Carolina several years before I was born. I can remember sitting on Mama's lap with her telling me about the window screens blowing off and the glass smashing in the windows, all while her heart beat a hundred miles an hour. She told the story with perfect clarity; the details of her memories were always rich and colorful. It was almost as if I remembered Hurricane Donna myself as I sat, rapt, listening to her. It was here in Washington where my Mama lived; she was about ten years old when Hurricane Donna hit the coast. The impression on her young mind had been pretty significant.
It was also here in the town of Washington, North Carolina, where Mama would one day meet a dashing young athlete, my daddy. In his high school days, people used to call him "The Bruiser" when he played football. He was well known in the small town for his athletic skills, and from what I can gather, he was a very popular young man in high school. He played numerous sports, and when he ran track, they called him "Fast Freddie." Daddy always loved to tell stories of his high school glory, to remind us of how talented he had been. There was no chance of our forgetting his high school nicknames. He wouldn't let us.
The tiny town of Washington is known by the locals as the "Original Washington." Most folks think of the Outer Banks or good ol' North Carolina barbecue when they think of North Carolina, but for me and my family, one of the first images that comes to mind is of the Pamlico River.
Washington is a tiny town that rests upon the dark and narrow shoulders of the Pamlico River. The river is a tributary from the sound west of the barrier islands of North Carolina, and our coast is world famous for its many beautiful, unspoiled beaches. Historically, this area of Eastern North Carolina is called the Pamlico Sound. In later years, folks have taken to calling my old stomping grounds the "Inner Banks." That's not what is has always been called, but I'll tell you, I really like it.
The Pamlico River is the northern river branching westward from Pamlico Sound. If you look at a map of Eastern Carolina, you will see the largest lagoon on the East Coast. That's the sound that separates us from the Outer Banks. The river to the east of Washington is known as the Pamlico River, but west of Washington, it's known as the Tar River.
There are many charms we have back home that can be found in any small town. We have small-town country life, with many wholesome, good-natured people who love the land and are very patriotic. They love being American, and they love being Southern. It's best summed up by a bumper sticker I once saw: "American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God."
The food is something else that earmarks our Southern culture back home. Things such as homemade buttermilk biscuits, candied yams, collards, and North Carolina barbecue always remind me of home. One could argue that our Eastern North Carolina barbecue is as legendary as the Outer Banks themselves. But there are those of us who hail from that little place who don't think only about barbecue; we think about hurricanes, too. Because of its natural geography, and the fact that the land mass juts right out there into the Atlantic Ocean — just west of the Gulf Stream–you might think that our geographic hospitality invites those big old storms, year after year. Growing up near the coast of North Carolina, it's just part of life, so I guess it has become a part of our culture.
And yet, even after dozens of major storms over the last few centuries — both nor'easters and hurricanes — you can still, to this day, drive downtown on Second Street, near the waterfront, and see the cannonballs stuck in the front walls of the houses. They're still there from the Revolutionary War. Our town is very old and historic, and the locals are right proud of that.
I am a middle child; I grew up in the 1970s in the very rural eastern part of North Carolina. There is some truth to the middle child thing. I always felt I was in a special place, being the middle child, as, from the very beginning, I was different. I'd been told this is normal — at least that's what the grown-ups in my life had always told me.
Mama was a child herself when I was born, only seventeen years old, and I wasn't even her first baby. Naturally, this middle child blew into town on her own sweet time, exactly two weeks past my due date. To this day, I can't be on time for anything. Even so, I was born without incident, coming into the world on an uncharacteristically balmy fall Saturday afternoon, just a few days before Halloween in 1966.
Mama told me that she had been looking forward to eating collards at Granny's house that day when her labor pains first began. Other than barbecue, I would say collards are the next best food I think of when I think of home cookin'. Now it so happens that Granny made the best collards on the planet, and I know Mama was just a little disappointed that I chose to be born and interrupt her collards for dinner. Surely she made her way to the hospital with little more on her mind than the moderate discomfort of her cramps — this was baby number two, after all — but I'll bet she lamented missing those collards, as they'd just been freshly strained and chopped.
Collards are a local delicacy, a genuine delicacy. There's only one way to do them the right way — the way my people make them in a very small region of this planet. If you grew up tasting them, well then, you know what all the fuss was about. Collards were special. Especially in Eastern North Carolina. Not Collard greens, mind you. Just collards. Beaufort County collards. And that is pronounced BOW Fort. Yep. Made like nowhere on earth. That's the ticket.
Granny was like a second mother to my own Mama. Mama always made it very clear that she loved Granny as if she were her own mother. And Granny always had so much to teach anyone who wanted to pay attention to her cooking. Her collards were known for miles around. She had been perfectin' 'em since she was around Mama's age herself. Collards are a peculiar vegetable. They have more labor in them than it takes to grow and pick them, and if you don't cook them for hours, they're bitter as the dickens. They have to be done just so, just right, and that means taking your time. Yes, they take patience. They don't smell none too good cooking either, but when you know you'll be getting some yummy collards after all that preparation, well, it was something to look forward to. Whenever Granny made collards, you can bet there was a bushel basket of them. I guess she figured if she was going to put in that much effort, she was going to make it worthwhile. They took many hours of preparation and tending to, so she made a big batch when she made any at all. She had gotten used to cooking for nine head of young'uns, so I guess old habits die hard. Of course, that surely boded well for the extended family. It meant lots to go 'round. It also meant the grandchildren got in on the collards too, and most of the toddlers would help themselves to them as well, just as the adults or children might. Simply put, Granny's collards were legendary. Making good collards was truly an art. My Granny was like Michelangelo when it came to collards. She was a true artist, for sure. No one made better collards in Eastern North Carolina, and that's just the way it was.
One thing about it, though: at least collards were good heated over, which was good for Mama, since she was busy having me. In those days, microwaves were still many years off, so the way to heat them up was in a skillet on the stove. They were mighty tasty, if I do say so myself.
By the time I was born, Mama was surely beginning to think that this pregnancy thing was for the birds. She had been pregnant for almost two years between my sister and me. She had my sister, and then, only two months later, she was pregnant again. So there she was, another nine months of morning sickness, varicose veins, and a swollen belly. Sure, she had plenty of time to think about this next bundle of joy, but still, she never managed to come up with a name for me. At least not one they could agree on or settle upon, and not until the last minute.
As I recall her tellin' it, by the time my birthday arrived, not a single name had come to her. Her daddy's mother was very sick at the time, her own granny, Matilda. She seriously considered naming me for her favorite grandparent. Naturally, Daddy balked at the thought of naming me Matilda, and to be honest with you, I'm kinda glad he did. While I'm not crazy about my name, it's not bad, really. Having to endure childhood with an old-fashioned name like Matilda was more than I could imagine dealing with.
But Daddy put his foot down. "No," he insisted. No daughter of his would be called Matilda. Mama tried to justify it by saying that I could be called Millie or Maude, which are both sweet and cool. But my daddy, being an Elks, was quite stubborn, even resolute about the matter. He also had it in mind that the chances were good that I would be a boy since he already had a girl. The general expectation was that I would be a boy; Daddy was sure of it.
Mama wanted to name me Matilda because her family was full of rich, opulent characters and interesting stories with many unique names. Mama's big brother had the same name as Mama's own daddy: Thomas Marshall. Such a regal name. There were some rather unusual names in the family. Take, for instance, Mama's great-aunt. Her name was Minnie Idella Rosella Gabrella Alton. What a name! I love it! The sound of it is musical in my mouth. It rolls off my lips like a melody whenever I speak it. So, Aunt Minnie Idella Rosella Gabrella was my great-great-aunt. I never got to meet her, but I never will forget her name. So why not me? Why couldn't I get a cool name? Something nice and musical like that? Or why wasn't I named after anyone? But Mama wanted to call me Matilda, and then maybe call me Maude for short. That wasn't too bad. I mean, if my name had been Maude, a TV show would have borne my name. That would have been cool! Or, she said, I could have been called Millie. Millie was an innocent, sweet-sounding name. It would have come into fashion by the time I was grown. But that was not to be.
The actual story of how I got my name is different. We had neighbors named Don and Lynn. When I was born, these friendly folks came to greet Mama and see the little bundle of joy. When they came to the hospital after I was born, someone told my mother, "Don and Lynn are here to see you." And there you have it. The phrase Donna Lynne rang in her head, and so I was named. Think about it, named after the neighbors. Not after a great civil rights pioneer or a women's suffrage icon or even a dear aunt, but rather after the neighbors. What a way to get a name, right?
In later years, my mama reassured me that she had always liked the name Donna especially after her harrowing experience with Hurricane Donna in 1960. That name obviously made an impression on her. And, she told me, we did have neighbors Don and Lynn, but she thought Lynne went well with Donna, so it wasn't really how I got my name. It was one way or the other. And being the girl that I am, I choose to say I was named after a hurricane. It's a better story.
I've heard a lot of folks say that Donna is an all-American sounding name. I don't mind that either. 'Cause I love being an American. As far as I am concerned it's the greatest nation in history. Whatever the case as to how I got my name, I grew to accept it, not minding it so much. It could have been worse. By the time I was in grade school, I knew I should be glad I had a "normal" or "modern" name. I became extremely thankful that I didn't get a name that rhymed with "snot" or "smelly" or some other word that children like to repeat in the schoolyard. So Donna it was, and Donna it is.
Mama said that GrandMama Hoffman cried the day I was born, because she was very superstitious and she said beautiful babies didn't live. One glance at me and her face went dark with dread. Mama said she hated to hear that and reassured GrandMama that it was just a silly superstition. Whether or not Mama believed it, I can't really say. But if there was any truth to the myth, it must have skipped over me. By all reports I was a wonderful baby who preferred to be left to play with her toes in her crib.
My big sister, Wendy, had been born only eleven months earlier, and she possessed the red-haired, freckled skin of Irish descendants. My GrandDaddy Isaac — or "Ike" Elks, as he was known to most — was my daddy's father. He had red hair. And though GrandDaddy Ike had no red-haired children among his own nine children, he would leave a legacy of a half a dozen red-headed grandkids.
I'm told that the red-headed gene skips a generation. And Wendy got that red hair. The rest of my elder cousins were all blond or red haired. And yet here I was, looking nothing like the rest of the Elks' young'uns or any of the other grandkids.
They said I took after Mama's side of the family, the Hoffmans. The Hoffmans could pass for just about anyone of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or Indian heritage. Somewhere, in the fertile furrows of a young child's pondering her own arrival on planet earth, I had imagined Daddy's presumption that I would be a boy. Probably in his mind's eye, he pictured a red-haired little boy. Was he in for a surprise!
On more than one occasion, I'd heard the story that at first, my daddy thought I was a black baby. He had known the nurse from way back in his high school days and he said she had the reputation of being a little bit of a practical joker. When the moment came for his second born to be presented to him, his first instinct was that she was playing with his mind. There I was, in all my darkness, light mocha skin swaddled in tiny white blankets, with that jet-black curly hair.
Daddy would later say that he was inclined to backhand the nurse, because he thought she was putting him on. Where did that dark skin and those big brown eyes come from? And that tight kinky hair? He sure didn't expect it. But by all reports I was a gorgeous little baby. I'm okay with believing that, anyway. A kid tends to believe what they're told.
But there, in a single moment, when he took a second, closer look at this dark little baby in the nurse's arms, my daddy looked into my face. He must have seen some wrinkled little creature — looking more like a cooked sausage than his own second born. Even he admitted he wasn't quite sure what to think at first. But as he looked down into my eyes, he admitted that it was then and there that he saw something recognizable — however vague — in my face, and his memory harkened back to my big sister, Wendy, and how she had looked when she was born. Even though she had the fair skin and red hair of the Elks folk, Daddy saw something in me that he remembered in her, my big sister. He later told me it was that familiarity that told him I was his own.
That was good to know. Daddy always did have a bit of a temper. Even though he was a practical joker himself, sometimes he wasn't the best subject to prey upon. He wasn't good at being the object of the practical joke.
Being born second of three children is a double-edged sword. From the time I was a mere toddler — before I began to walk — my family worried that I was the "special" one. I was very different from my big sister, and my young parents were always comparing me to my big sister. Wendy, the eldest, did everything fast. She was walking 3 months before I was even born. She spoke in phrases by a year, and she was all over the house with her independence and curiosity. She seemed to always be in a hurry to get somewhere. That was just her way.
Naturally, this didn't set the stage too well for me. By the time I had entered my fourteenth month of life, I still wasn't walking. I wasn't saying a whole lot, and I'm told that my favorite pastime was being left peacefully in my crib. Even when I did not sleep, most accounts report that I preferred to be left alone in the crib to play with my toes. They thought I was "special." Maybe Mama though I had polio or something. I just would not walk. According to my daddy, I was just lazy.
As I was told these things about my infancy, I never worried too much; I never saw these things as being so bad. I guess, for them, the contrasts between Wendy and me were so vast that it caused my young parents to worry about my potential in life. But Granny had different ideas. "She marches to her own drummer," she would say. "You just wait, she's going to turn out just fine, and she'll probably be smarter than any of us!" Of course! Granny always knew best. At least I like to think so.
Excerpted from "Possum Track Chronicles"
Copyright © 2017 Donna Elks.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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