The woman looked over the selection of books, picked up four and smiled.
“My husband said to buy whatever I wanted,” she said.
She handed them to me to sign and told me her name. “I enjoy what you write so much. It’s the way I was raised. I understand it.”
Then she pulled up a chair, sat down and began a conversation. Life had wearied her. Her eyes told the story before she had a chance to speak a word. This woman, I thought to myself, has been a soldier on the battlefield of life. She has slain dragons of adversity and monsters of tribulations. It was no more than three or four minutes before she said what her eyes had whispered.
“I growed up hard.” She paused. “There were eight of us kids and four still at home when mama left.”
“Your mama left?” I repeated, puzzled. You don’t hear of that much. You don’t much hear of a woman in the rural South, especially all those years ago, who just up and quits her husband and her kids.
She nodded. “Never come back, either. The ones of us kids that were old enough went to work to help make ends meet. I was 16.”
My husband, Tink, sat quietly in a chair in a corner several feet away. He always does that when I have an appearance, despite my protests.
“No,” he will say firmly. “They come to see you, not me. I want them to have their time with you.”
So there he sat, somewhat in the shadows, fiddling with his cellphone. As she quietly began her story, I sensed that his fingers had fallen silent and the phone had been placed in his lap. She sensed it, too, for she looked his way and said, “Are you her husband? The one I read about?”
He nodded, stood up to greet her and took the hand she offered. Then, this woman continued her tale. She did not bat an eye at telling her childhood sorrow in front of this man still somewhat foreign to the ways of her kind of rural raising.
“It was hard.” She looked away toward the window and gathered her thoughts. “About a year later, Daddy died. He’d already had heart attacks, and we found out later from a friend of his that he had just stopped taking his heart medicine. Stopped it about three weeks before he died.”
Her pale blue eyes watered.
“He died of a broken heart,” I said softly.
“Yep,” she nodded. “He did. My grandmother had always lived with us, so she finished raisin’ us. My brother, who was in the Army, he and her got custody of us.”
As often happens with these stories of the Gothic South, there was an upside, a triumph of which she was rightly proud. Though she had to quit school to go to work, she was bound and determined that her children would have a college education. She rattled off their successes — one was a high-level civil engineer, another a bank president. Four out of five had college educations, but the fifth, well, he wouldn’t listen to what Mama had tried to tell him. He works with his calloused hands to make a living that is hard.
These kinds of stories told so easily and without hesitation amaze Tink for he comes from places where people keep their secrets. They tell them to no one, not even friends, especially not to strangers.
“You Southerners,” he said later, as he marveled at her bravery in calmly telling the story, “tell everything to each other. You’re so open about sharing your heart and your sorrows. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s quite admirable.”
Yes, this is my South, of which I am so proud, a community, broad and vast, where tribulations and triumphs alike are shared.
Because we’re like family, and we all understand.
Rich is the author of “There’s A Better Day A-Comin.’” Go to www.rondarich.com to sign up for her newsletter.