In essays both intensely personal and universal, Red Dirt Women reveals the author’s own heartaches and joys in becoming a parent through adoption, her love of regional treasures found in “junk” stores, and her deep appreciation of Miss Dorrie, her son’s unconventional preschool teacher. Through lively profiles, interviews, and sketches, we come to know pioneer queens from the Panhandle, rodeo riders, casino gamblers, roller-derby skaters, and the “Lady of Jade”—a former “boat person” from Vietnam who now owns a successful business in Oklahoma City.
As she illuminates the lives of these memorable Oklahoma women, Kates traces her own journey to Oklahoma with clarity and insight. Born and raised in Ohio, she confesses an initial apprehension about her adopted home, admitting that she felt “vulnerable on the open lands.” Yet her original unease develops into a deep affection for the landscape, history, culture, and people of Oklahoma.
The women we meet in Red Dirt Women are not politicians, governors’ wives, or celebrities—they are women of all ages and backgrounds who surround us every day and who are as diverse as Oklahoma itself.
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About the Author
Rilla Askew, born and raised in eastern Oklahoma, is the award-winning author of four novels, The Mercy Seat, Fire in Beulah, Harpsong, and Kind of Kin, and a collection of linked stories, Strange Business. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.
Read an Excerpt
Red Dirt Women
At Home on the Oklahoma Plains
By Susan Kates
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
The first time I meet Violet's Aunt Crickett, she tells a Bible story to her pregnant niece. It is from First Kings, verses 16–28: Wise Solomon is dispatched to decide a dispute between two bereft mothers who lay claim to the same baby. He solves the dilemma by requesting a sword. "Divide the living child in two," Solomon instructs, "and give half to the one, and half to the other." The real mother (a phrase that will haunt me throughout this adoptive journey) is horrified by the pronouncement. She exclaims, "O my lord, give that woman the living child, and in no way slay it: she is the mother thereof." The infant is returned to the biological mother because Solomon knows that only the natural mother would give the baby up to let it live.
Crickett finishes in a grave voice. It occurs to me that she offers this narrative in support of Violet's decision to allow my husband and me to adopt her baby. The story seems odd, though, given that Solomon returns the child to the biological mother in the end. But Crickett, who is a devout Pentecostal, tells her niece, "If you are willing, like the woman in the Bible, to give this baby up, someday he will thank you for a good life." The aunt is not confident that her niece can mother this child, given that Violet already has a two-year-old son that she has sometimes neglected. I look at the petite teenager folding laundry for some indication of her response to the aunt's narrative. But Violet looks down and places a towel nonchalantly on a pile of others. Like me, the aunt is pushing forty, but unlike me, she is great with child. Crickett wears a gold cross around her neck—her blond hair flipped back from her face, Farrah Fawcett–style, in 1980s waves. Both aunt and niece have demonstrated considerable fertility over the years. In a matter of weeks they will have given birth to a total of six children between them. They also profess to have had a number of miscarriages. I, on the other hand, have found baby-making quite a challenge.
My quest for a child began years earlier with doctors who, thanks to laparoscopic photography, were able to capture color pictures of my diseased ovaries and those failed messengers, the fallopian tubes. After drugs that made me sick and "reproductive technology" that did not take, my husband Frank and I find ourselves consulting adoption lawyers.
My desperate wish is that someone would put a baby in a basket on my front porch, ring the doorbell, and run away like they do in the movies. I think about Moses, pushed into the reeds by his biological mother, adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter, and raised as her own son to become the leader of the Israelites. I take walks near a pond by my house and imagine how happy I would be if I found a baby in a floating bassinet made of sticks the way the Pharaoh's daughter did. Instead I am childless, one of the duped generation of career women who thought fertility would last forever, or at least until forty (If Madonna could do it, why not I?). Standing in line at Wal-Mart, I am resentful of women whose shopping carts are full of children reaching for candy or squabbling with one another at the checkout.
And then a phone call changes everything.
A good-ole-boy Oklahoma City lawyer telephones with plans to introduce us to a young couple. I dress for the audition of potential parent by trying to look stable, but not dull. Hip, but not trendy. Financially responsible, not snobbishly rich.
On the day of our first meeting at the attorney's office, I see that Violet is a slight girl with long chestnut hair and hazel eyes. She could be any schoolgirl, but she has been in no one's class since seventh grade. Her boyfriend, Dusty, has his right arm in a cast (I will later learn from punching out a window while doing lethal amounts of methamphetamines). His unruly blond hair sticks out beneath a ball cap. Despite the light goatee that could be read as a gesture of rebellious masculinity, he does not look tough. A skull-and-bones tattoo flexes across his bare shoulder with a caption that reads Lucky. They tell us they have been together off and on since Violet was fifteen. In a stormy relationship that already has resulted in the birth of one baby, they determine they cannot afford another.
The lawyer holds a crumpled piece of paper with large curly-cued handwriting. "Violet has some questions she would like to ask you," he says, pronouncing "yew" in a drawl that makes him sound like a preacher instead of an attorney. Have you ever been abused? Have you ever been in jail? Do you drink or use drugs? I am conscious of a lump in my throat produced by sadness for Violet that she is in a position to need these questions answered. At the same moment I am indignant and sorry for myself that I must be asked such questions in order to become a mother. In this instant I learn that adoption will not be a clean or easy process, but there is no way I can understand yet how truly messy it will be. "I want to get to know you," Violet insists earnestly. "I don't want to just hand baby to you at the hospital" (she says patting her stomach). "I have to know you," she emphasizes in a voice that sounds brave for a minute before it trails off again.
Getting to know you is the theme of open adoption. Open adoption is a relatively recent, and, by some people's account, radical process in which the birth parents and the adoptive parents form a relationship brokered by lawyers or social workers. As we sign up for this procedure, it feels hazardous, and I understand why many people pursue foreign adoption in Russia, China, or Timbuktu, where the chance of encountering the birth parents is much less likely.
But I am glad that we have come a long way from hiding pregnant women in homes for unwed mothers and whisking infants away abruptly and destructively from birth parents. Oddly enough, a woman who chooses adoption over abortion receives little acknowledgement in a nation where mothers and motherhood are sacred. On a recent TV show about celebrity adoptions, Rosie O'Donnell was the only featured parent to express any appreciation to the ones who had made it all possible. "I am the beneficiary of other women's tremendous generosity," she said. It was the first time I could recall anyone using the adjective generous to describe someone who relinquished a child for adoption. Unwed mother and woman in trouble are terms that more easily come to mind. Voices of birth parents have more often been silenced. These individuals are supposed to disappear gracefully, forget, and go on with their lives. They are often the ghosts that haunt adoptive families: fearsome kidnappers or fantasy parents, sources of hidden genetic defects, holders of the ever-elusive key to history and identity.
* * *
Over the months as I get to know Violet, I come to think of her as a rescuer, someone who might, depending on the outcome, rescue me from childlessness, but certainly someone who, on many days, shakes me from my own self-absorption and self-pity. Abandoned by her own mother, raised in the midst of alcoholism, domestic violence, and extreme poverty, Violet is struggling to do the right thing, whatever that may be. She tells me that she does not want any child of hers to endure what she had to as a kid, when she was left to wander the streets of Sulphur eating at the Helping Hands Mission after her mother had disappeared and there was no sight of her or her next meal. Violet compares herself to friends who are living out the legacies of their neglectful parents and pauses thoughtfully: "A few of my friends called me a 'baby seller' the other day. These are people," she proclaims in an injured tone, "who live in filth and do drugs in front of their children."
I have met these friends, two in particular named Carolyn and Cheyenne. They are sitting in the living room of her current apartment smoking cigarettes one afternoon when I come to visit. They despise me, though I have brought along some purses I thought I might pass on to them the way my girlfriends and I trade our wares around when we tire of them. But I should have known better. These girls assume I am trying to buy Violet's baby with designer bags. Besides that, there is a clash of tastes based on generation and social class: no one wants the Adrienne Vittadini or Coach purse. They want what LeAnn Rimes and Britney Spears carry these days. More sparkle, more glitz, more youth. Violet takes a Ralph Lauren backpack to be polite, but I can tell it's not her style. I ask the girls about their boyfriends and where they are from. They don't say much, but Carolyn, whose boyfriend is locked up in Juvie tells me of her plans to open a Nail Shack. She holds out her own manicure as proof of her expertise and I admire her orange fingernails and wish her luck in this venture. Carolyn has a toddler that her mother is raising just as Violet's two-year-old is being raised by his paternal grandmother. Cheyenne, whose big blond hair seems too large for the rest of her body, whispers to Violet at one point, "Why don't you tell that lady to get her own baby?"
"It's cool," Violet replies. "This is her baby. Let it go, Cheyenne."
"But he's part of you," Cheyenne says, louder, glancing my way.
"I know it," Violet adds, putting her arm around her friend, "I know it."
I gather up the purses no one wants and place grocery money for Violet on the kitchen counter. (This is legal in open adoption.) "Hey, don't leave," Violet says. "Did someone hurt your feelings?"
"No, no," I respond. "I need to get home and grade some papers." These girls remind me of the fourteen-year-old high school freshmen I used to teach. But Carolyn, Cheyenne, and Violet have all dropped out of classes. They look hard and soft at the same time; too much eyeliner and fingernail polish and too little guidance from someone, anyone. Violet recognizes the considerable odds against them and herself. "What right do they have to judge me?" she later asks.
Nor can I judge Violet, no matter what she decides to do. Had I been a mother at nineteen, I could have no more cared for a needy puppy than a child. Faced with an unplanned pregnancy and no income, I would never for a minute have thought of carrying a baby to term and planning an adoption as Violet was in the process of doing. "I don't believe in abortion," Violet tells me thoughtfully one day. "That's just wrong." She hands me a tiny photo album of the baby's first ultrasound pictures tied with a red ribbon. "Happy Valentine's," she adds with a smile. "It's kind of scary if you've never seen these pictures before," she warns. "The baby looks kind of like a Martian at this point, but it's all normal." There is nothing about this process that seems normal to me, least of all the embryonic dream that floats within this tiny piece of celluloid.
In the remaining four months of her pregnancy, Violet and I spend at least three days a week together and talk on the phone frequently. We eat at Sonic, that twenty-first-century drive-in, drinking Dr. Pepper and eating cheddar fries. Thumbing through pages of the National Enquirer, we speculate on the lives of the rich and famous. "I'd sure dress better than that if I had her money," Violet says one day, pointing to a particularly trashy-looking Britney Spears. I couldn't agree more. We drive the untidy streets of Sulphur, where houses with tin roofs and porches have rusted and buckled and the only gesture toward curb appeal in this low-rent district are a few yards where someone has taken the trouble to plant pink petunias in old tires. Violet is as knowledgeable as any small-town tour guide, and she narrates the known history of Sulphur's inhabitants. "J.J. has a meth lab there," she says, pointing to a hollow-looking trailer lodged sideways between two houses, "and that's where a preacher who tried to help me lives." She points up to a cottage where a chalky blue Cadillac sits in the gravel driveway. "That's where Shawnda stays. She gave up a baby for adoption a long time ago."
* * *
Other days when I come to visit, we make trips to the Sulphur K-Mart, standing mute before an assortment of baby accoutrements: plastic bathtubs, cribs, strollers. As an experienced mother with a two-year-old, Violet, at age nineteen, is in a position to give me advice on the care and feeding of newborns, a subject on which my forty years of life experience are no help at all. One particular afternoon, we encounter a pregnant fifteen-year-old named Heather, who has run away from home and taken up with Violet's sixteen-year-old drug-dealing brother. She is wearing an oversized black t-shirt advertising the name of a heavy metal band. Heather eyes us some distance away from the baby department, hands on her hips. "I need to talk to you Violet," she says, ignoring me. She flips her waist-length brown hair behind her back with teenage-girl attitude: "It's important."
Violet excuses herself and the two discernibly pregnant girls do several slow laps around the store. In a serious tête-à-tête, they walk the aisles of women's clothing, toys, and automotive equipment, passing me repeatedly as they discuss something that appears to be more than your average teenage trouble. I feel absurd waiting there among baby bottles, diapers, and pacifiers that I cannot believe I will ever have use for. It occurs to me that Heather and Violet should be at a skating rink or a shopping mall gossiping about fashion or boy crushes. They should not be pregnant at the K-Mart in Sulphur, Oklahoma. They should not have boyfriends in trouble with the law. They should have mothers in SUVs who pick them up from cheerleading practice and gymnastics, fathers who coach them for college entrance exams.
When Violet returns she is crying. It turns out her brother is in jail. "I was going to take you to meet him today," she says. "Why does he have to be such a goddamn meth-head?" Later we drive past a rusted trailer where her brother's pit bull is tied up and barking in the mud in front of the mobile home. Violet knocks on the door to no response, and returns sobbing. She does not say anything for a long time. Finally she suggests, "Let's go see Uncle Pig." She cheers herself with this thought and we head up the potholed streets of Sulphur until we come to a tiny, grey-splintered shack at the top of a hill.
"Let's pinch our cheeks and say hello," Violet says as she presses her fingers to her face and bounds out of the car. It turns out that Uncle Pig raised Violet. While her mother was out drunk for weeks or months on end, Violet lived with this gentle relative. "Why do you call him Uncle Pig?" I ask, stepping up the disintegrating sidewalk to his house. "It's because he has some kind of pigmentation on his hand. When I was a little girl they called me Grunt, and I named him Uncle Pig." Violet pulls a greeting card out of her purse for her uncle. "One with mostly pictures," she whispers, "since Uncle Pig can't read."
A tall, thin man with no teeth comes to the door and smiles shyly. I like him instantly. The inside of his house resembles a Walker Evans photograph. Magazine pictures, tacked to the cracked plaster, form haphazard wallpaper. Uncle Pig says, "Hello ma'am," and then proceeds to focus on his favorite niece. "This is the lady; it's her husband and this lady who is going to adopt the baby," Violet tells him in a voice laced with shame. The uncle acknowledges me again, smiles, but turns his attention back to Violet and waits, as if she is the translator and I am a stranger from a distant country.
We sit in the little room on a shabby couch with exposed foam cushions while a mini TV with an aluminum-foil antenna brings in One Life to Live. Despite the bad reception, I make out a scene where a middle-class couple converse about the heartbreak of infertility. They hug one another with exaggerated soap-star tenderness, contemplating a childless future or the possibility of adoption.
* * *
Once a month, Violet and I visit the OB-GYN together, viewing new ultrasound pictures and asking questions of the doctor. "Look, he's waving to us," Violet says one day, her enormous belly a gel-covered planet. The ultrasound pictures reveal a sweet infant's face, a tiny hand raised in an Okie hello. I want to lift my hand to his, say see you soon or something like that, but I am cautious. I have worked hard to practice distance, despite Violet's insistence that she will go through with this. To make myself brave, I read about famous childless women who made plenty of their lives without babies, women who wanted children but found other ways to live remarkably and fully in their absence. Women like Rosa Parks, who became the mother of the civil rights movement while she waited for a baby but none came along. I practice at the role of supporter, telling myself that my job is to help Violet make a decision that she can live with no matter what that decision turns out to be. I say hers, not mine when I stare at the ultrasound pictures. I say hers, not mine when Violet urges me to feel the baby kicking. I say hers, not mine when her teenage friends stare at me with contempt.
One day after an ultrasound appointment, Violet turns to me in the car and asks, "What are you guys gonna name him?" It is four weeks before Mother's Day, a holiday that has caused me some grief in recent years. I feel obliged to reply, "He's not our baby to name yet, Violet. You have every right to change your mind."
She looks sadly out the passenger window. "I'm not gonna change my mind." Turning back, she tries again: "Just tell me. What names do you like?" Finally I give in. I say, "Carson. We like Carson."
As we drive along, Violet's hair whips out the window, a shiny brown flag. In a high-pitched teenage-girl squeal, she wags a playful finger at the dashboard, trying the name out. "Stop that Carson! Put that down Carson! Come back here Carson!"
"Do you like it?"
"Sure I like it," she grins, "but you're the one who's gonna be yelling it for the next twenty years."
Excerpted from Red Dirt Women by Susan Kates. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword, by Rilla Askew,
Introduction: Prairie Women, Prairie Places,
Great Plains Salvage,
Miss Dorrie at Big Sky,
Girls in the Ring,
The Bird Watcher,
Queens of the Pioneer Outback,
Lady of Jade,
The Ideal Home,