Mountain Mama (cover image)
Looking Backward - Part One
It is hard to imagine a different life. I’ve come so far. Conquered so much. To say I am proud of the woman in the mirror is an understatement. I’m damn proud. I‘m fairly certain no one else is proud of me.
I was born in the ‘70s to a lower class family in the secluded forests in the misty mountains of North Carolina. My dad worked three jobs to keep our family fed, while my mother tried her best to keep us unruly kids alive. As the oldest daughter, with two younger sisters and three younger brothers, it fell on me to fill in and step up as babysitter, housekeeper, and cook when Ma’s health began to fail.
When I was 16, Ma was sent away to Asheville. We kids were told she was frail, but when Dad got to drinking, he shared a great deal more about Ma’s addictions and increasing recklessness. I guess I didn’t truly understand because she’d been sickly for as long as I could remember. The white powder she sniffed she said was for the pain. The chaw, because smokes were too expensive, was to help her loosen up. The ‘shine she kept next to her bed - she didn’t sleep with Dad after Billy was born cuz she swore she’d never have another kid - was to help her sleep. Apparently, the drugs and alcohol were hurting, not helping. I didn’t know if Ma would come home. I didn’t know that I cared. I was sixteen with a beau who was promising me the moon, even as my Dad beat me for failing to live up to his expectations in replacing my Ma.
One of his drunken fits led him to the room I shared with my sisters. I had my own bed by then. Reward for being the oldest, I guess. I woke to the stench of fetid alcohol, bad breath, and sweat in my face, his face only inches from mine. His rough hands were harsh even through my thin nightgown. He had me pinned, one hand on my shoulder, his other on my hip. He slurred so bad, I couldn’t even understand what he was saying, but the raw desire in his eyes I had seen in my beau’s eyes when we were alone. I struggled against him, whimpering in fear. When my sisters in the bed less than two feet away stirred in their sleep, Dad gripped my chin tightly and leaned close, threatening to hurt them if I woke them. Then gripping my wrists, he pulled me up off my bed and led me to my Ma’s room. What happened that night changed me forever.
Ma never did come home. Instead, she decided to divorce Dad, and us kids. She didn’t even bother getting her clothes or Bible. According to Dad, she took to living in sin with a miner over in West Virginia. I remember laughing in his face, demanding to know how he was living his life. My siblings all knew now that I had replaced Ma, in every way. Six months after he moved me into Ma’s room and bed, I realized I was pregnant.
Phil, my first love, thought it was his. How I wish it were. I had dreams of trying to run away with him, but as much as I thought I loved him, he never knew my shame. He offered to marry me. When I told Dad, who of course knew I was carrying his child, he flew into such a rage. I don’t know exactly what he did or said to Phil, but from that day on, I was an outcast. I realized our tiny community knew. I was branded.
Strangely, unwed pregnancies happened a lot in these little hamlets so there were a lot of shotgun weddings. Those were no big deal. Actually, I think those events were moments our communities actually looked forward to, plus the bouncing bundles of joy that always followed four or five months later. But for me, not simply being pregnant, but being pregnant by my own father... Well, that was still taboo. Not that Dad cared.
I carried that baby despite the continued sexual and physical abuse the full nine months. I hated that last month. I feared being a mother. I feared remaining with my Dad. I feared trying to run away, leaving my siblings behind. But before I knew it, I was going into labor right there on my Ma’s bed.
Everything happened as though in a dream. I was in the throws of the worst pain I’d ever known. My sisters had run for the midwife, and by the time she arrived, I barely realized she was there. I remember screaming a lot. Pain ripped through my gut, my back, and my groin in such powerful waves it felt like I was being ripped apart. With each wave, I cursed my Ma, and I swore I’d never, ever have another child. I’d never ever allow another man to touch me.
In the middle of this, I blacked out.
I woke up the following day in a strangely sterile white room. The sun was streaming through the windows. Machines with tubing that were strapped to my arm whirred and beeped. I glanced around, groggy and confused. I was alone. I had never been in a hospital, but I had seen some on the tv shows my Nana watched on her tiny tv. I had been brought here, but I didn’t understand why, or by whom. Dad never would have brought me.
I embraced the silence and despite my fear and curiosity, I forced myself to remain calm. After what felt like an eternity, the door opened and a woman in a stiff pale pink uniform walked in followed by a tall man in a crumpled white coat. The man introduced himself as the doctor taking care of me, and the nurse was to see to any needs I might have.
I didn’t know where to begin with the questions bubbling in my mind. The doctor must have sensed my confusion because he informed me hastily of how I ended up in the Asheville hospital. While I was in labor, and my sisters were dashing for the midwife, they also told Phil. While the midwife was helping me, Phil arrived, threatening to take me and the baby away. Bless him! Of course, Dad wouldn’t hear it. He grabbed his rifle and without warning shot Phil.
As I lay unconscious, oblivious, the baby was stillborn, and the midwife sent my oldest brother to run to the mercantile, the only place with a phone. She tried to keep me from bleeding to death. Police arrived and arrested Dad. Ma was tracked down to get the kids, and I was dropped off at the ER.
I was alone. Phil was dead. Dad was in jail. Ma took my siblings back to West Virginia.
The doctor said I was recovering nicely. There was no significant damage, so I could still have children. I was to be released the following day.
Looking Backward - Part Two
I left the hospital the next day as the doctor predicted. I had never been to Asheville. I had never been beyond the tiny communities tucked up in the mountains. I stepped out of the hospital and immediately felt naked in the openness of the city. There were no trees. No birds and wildlife moving and chattering. Instead, there were cars zooming down a paved road. And people were everywhere! People rushing in and out, oblivious to me and my dilemma.
I gripped the small paper bag that held the soiled clothes I had been brought to the hospital in. There was nothing of value in the bag, so I stuffed it into a large trash can by the twirling doors. I turned back to face the world, and was overcome by fear.
I had no idea how to get home. I didn’t want to go back, but I knew I had to. At least long enough to gather my few belongings and make a plan.
I guess I must have looked lost because an older woman caught my attention.
”Young lady? Are you ok?”
I tried to nod and smile at her, but suddenly found myself blubbering like an idiot.
”Oh, no. No. Come dear. This won’t do.”
The woman wrapped her frail little arms around me and hugged me tight, much stronger than she appeared. I found myself melting into her embrace, and letting the events of the past year wash over me. I don’t know how long we stood there, but she never let loose. She spoke sweet little whispers that I don’t remember, I just recall they were deeply comforting. Finally, I stepped back and wiped my face with the sleeve of the scrub jacket the nurse gave me. My cheeks burned in embarrassment.
”I’m so sorry. I...”
The lady waved a hand in my face impatiently.
”Never mind, my dear. I was going to get lunch down the street. I hate eating by myself. Come. My treat.”
I started to protest, but she waved her hand in my face again.
Meeting my eyes, she said,”I insist.”
Ten minutes later, we sat across from each other. I had already told her I had no money, but she told the waitress to get me whatever I wanted. Over a hamburger and greasy French fries, I learned the old lady, Mrs. Sally Winthrop, was a widow traveling to Colorado to live near her son and his family.
After I was done eating, she leaned toward me, her soft hand taking one of mine.
”What’s your name, dear?”
”A lovely name. A lovely face. You are quite young to be so forlorn. Where is your family, Ruby?”
I know the color drained from my face, and she must have seen my dismay.
”Oh, well, nevermind. Where do you live? Do you need a few dollars for a bus?”
I shook my head.
“No, Ma’am. The city buses won’t go that far, will they?”
”Well, I don’t know. Where do you need to get?”
”Uh, to Trust. I can find a ride the rest of the way.”
”Trust? Well, my dear, it just so happens I am heading that way myself. There’s an antique shop I intend to visit. How would you like to keep me company on the drive?”
I remember feeling distrustful. I couldn’t understand why she was being so kind to me, a perfect mess of a stranger, but I didn’t let my distrust keep me from getting a ride home.
By the time we reached Trust, she had convinced me to let her drive me all the way home. Beyond that, she had pulled the horrors of the past year out of me. Pity, or whatever drove her to do it, I don’t know, but by the time she drove her little ‘69 Mustang up to our filthy house, she’d also convinced me to travel to Colorado with her.
As I stepped into the dark house, the weight of my life crashed down on me. I glanced back to where “Miss Sally” sat waiting. I expected her to just drive away. Surely, she didn’t mean to invite me on her journey. It was a ridiculous notion. But she didn’t leave. Instead, she waved at me indicating I should hurry. She had said she didn’t like driving after dark, and in the mountains it got dark fast.
I took a deep breath to think of what I should get to take with me. Ten minutes later, I was back in the car with a pillowcase stuffed with jeans, shirts, and Ma’s Bible. I don’t know why that tattered old book mattered to me, when it clearly didn’t matter to her, but something moved me to take it too.
Miss Sally tapped my lap gently, and smiled warmly.
”Ever sleep in a motel?”
I couldn’t help smiling back as I shook my head no. This woman was like that fairytale godmother in Cinderella.
Without another word, she backed onto the dirt road, and headed back to the main road that would take us out of North Carolina, and away from the nightmare I had endured.
There was a new life on my horizon, and I was eager to begin it.
There I was sitting in that super plush easy chair, and Dr. Morris was looking at me over his spectacles.
"Ruby, you are 43 years old now. You've been married for 21 years to Joe. You have three kids together. You both have decent jobs. You all have decent health. So, tell me, why are you here?"
I hated talking about my feelings. I hated opening myself up to people I cared up, but especially to strangers. Granted, I was in Dr. Morris' office of my own free will. I was the one that scheduled the appointment, because I didn't know what else to do. I was at the end of my rope, and I knew I needed help.
I had tried talking to my oldest sister about it - after getting married and having my three kids, I went out of my way to rekindle relationships with Ma and my siblings, but only my eldest sister wanted anything to do with me, and we ended up becoming so close that she moved here to be close to me and the kids. I had tried talking to her, but she was so self-righteous. She immediately asked me what I was doing wrong to cause these problems. I got enough of that at home, where everything was always my fault, I stopped opening up to her about my marriage at all.
I couldn't talk to Joe. For lots of reasons, but mainly because I already knew he thought everything bad in our lives was all my fault. Even knowing that wasn't true, I never had an argument or defense, so I just didn't even bother.
I looked at Dr. Morris and shrugged, "I'm here because I've got no idea what to do. I don't love Joe anymore. I haven't for a very long time. I could have left, I guess, but I wanted to give our kids a stable home. I've seen so many studies about what happens to kids from broken homes. I don't want to do that to them. But..."
Dr. Morris was writing on his notepad, but looked up as I paused.
"But..." he prompted.
"Well, now that the kids are older. I mean, they're all in high school. They can all take care of themselves. I can't help but think more and more about leaving. I'm so tense all the time. When Joe walks in the door, I just get more on edge."
"Does he hit you?"
"Does he ever force himself on you?"
I remember turning really red at the question. This was my first visit with Dr. Morris, so of course, he had no idea about my traumatic youth. My hesitation and my flushed face caused him to lean forward.
"Ruby, if he has been forcing himself on you, even in marriage, that is..."
I stopped him, meeting his gaze with the fiercest gaze I could muster.
"He has never raped me. I know what rape is. Joe has never... Would never..."
Dr. Morris stared into my eyes for what felt like an eternity, but then sat back and nodded. "Very well, but if he does not beat you and has not sexually abused you, why do you get so tense when he gets home?"
I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes. Why did I get so tense? I knew the answer. I knew it, and it made me mad. It made me mad because to get tense over words seemed so childish, so insignificant. Still, no matter how childish it felt, it was the truth.
"He is never satisfied."
I stopped and took a deep breath. Oh god, that was really hard for me to say.
"Can you please elaborate?"
I bit my lip. How was I supposed to elaborate on Joe's complete unhappiness with everything I did? He sure never had a problem telling me how I did everything wrong, or how something I wanted to do, or buy, or whatever was ridiculous.
"Nothing I ever do is good enough for Joe."
Dr. Morris scribbled something on his pad; the scratching from the pencil grated on my nerves and I clenched my hands in my lap.
"Nothing you do is good enough. As in parenting? Or keeping the home? Or..?"
"You want me to give you an example?"
Dr. Morris nodded.
"Fine," I sighed as I thought back. "The other day, we were all going out as a family to go fishing. I was packing lunches and snacks. Joe walked past me in the kitchen and just casually commented, 'Oh, you're putting the pickles next to the cheese? It's so much better when the pickles are next to the meat. I thought you knew that'."
Dr. Morris said nothing, so I continued.
"Then when we got to the lake, I was showing Daphne, our youngest, how I like to put my worms on the hook. It was something I learned as a little girl. One of my few happy memories. Anyway, Joe comes and stands behind me. 'Oh, that will never work. Here.' He reached around me, took the hook and worm from me, and did it his way. 'There, that is the correct way'."
"So, you feel as though he is undermining you?"
"Undermining me? Yes. That is part of it. But no, really, the biggest part is that I sincerely don't believe he loves me anymore. How can someone be so critical of every teeny tiny thing and still love?"
Dr. Morris scribbled something quick and then looked back at me.
"Does he often criticize you in front of the children, or other people?"
"Yes. Especially in front of his family. And he constantly compares me to his mother. I don't do this like his mom. I should do that like his mom. I should call her and ask her how to... Oh, my god! It's infuriating, and honestly, has made me despise that woman a bit even though she has been nothing but kind and supportive of me, of us."
Dr. Morris laid his tablet to the side and he leaned toward me.
"Tell me, Ruby. How did you and Joe meet? What was it that drew you together, that you loved about him, that caused you to marry him?"
I sat staring at Dr. Morris for a minute. Did he really want that story? From over twenty years ago? I wasn't even sure I remembered anymore! I wasn't sure it mattered anyway, because Joe and I both had changed so very much over the past two decades. We would never recognize the people we used to be if they were standing right in front of us.
When Dr. Morris stared right back at me without prodding, but without backing down, I realized he was serious.
Our love story. The story that was never supposed to end.
I leaned back in my chair and thought back to the winter I met Joe. I could hear Dr. Morris scribbling just before I began talking:
Miss Sally, the woman that took me to Colorado with her, had hired me to stay on as her housekeeper once we got there. Her son and daughter-in-law were both lawyers in the city, and they had helped her find a small house near them. She was an easy to please woman, and so kind to everyone, myself included.
I agreed to work for her for a year and then see if I could find a way to get out on my own. She had me running all her errands, which I didn't mind. While her son worked in the city, the place they lived, and Miss Sally too, was just a small town. I still didn't know how to drive, but the town was small enough, I could walk for nearly all the errands she needed done.
We had been there about six months, I guess, when I first met Joe. I was at the local hardware store and was looking for nails to help Miss Sally stretch out her doilies with. As I was trying to decide which little nails would be best, this hulking giant of a guy stepped beside me and nearly shoved me out of the way to reach for some nails he wanted that were right in front of me.
"Excuse you," I said to him, and he stepped back abruptly.
"I'm sorry. I'm just in a hurry, Miss."
I stared up at him and any feelings of anger I had at being pushed around dissolved in an instant. It's always been like that with Joe. I can't stay mad at him. Even during the worst years in our marriage, when he thought I was cheating with a coworker...
Anyway, I just looked in his face and my annoyance vanished.
I don't remember how we started dating. We sorta kept running into each other, you know? Small town, you kinda do that. He was a bit older than me. He was going to one of the colleges in the city, but lived in town with his folks to help save money. Plus, he worked a part-time job as a mechanic.
But we kept seeing more and more of each other, and then, I realized I wanted to keep seeing him. Our dating relationship was so strange, because I could not come to terms with my promise to myself that I would never let another man touch me after my dad had used me the way that he did.
Talking to someone like you, Dr. Morris, just wasn't what anyone did back then, you know?
So, we started dating. Sort of. But I wouldn't let him touch me. Wouldn't let him kiss me. I kept telling him it was my faith, but he learned quickly enough that I had no religion. Finally, after a couple months, I had to tell him the truth. I wanted to, you see. I was hoping to push him away. I didn't want to love him. I didn't want him to love me, because I was so certain that he would stop loving me once he knew about my past. So why wait? Why put off the inevitable?
Miss Sally spent her Saturday nights at her son's and then would come back to her house the following Sunday after church luncheon. She had tried so hard to get me to go to church with her, but I never would.
Anyway, she had told me that Joe was more than welcome to visit with me. She just expected us to behave properly. I knew what she meant, and while I knew that would be no problem, I wondered if she thought I had already gotten over what happened with my Dad.
So, I invited Joe over for dinner. We just had frozen pizza, and I had splurged on some Breyer's ice cream. His favorite was Mint Chocolate Chip, so I made sure I got a quart. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect... To tell him the truth.
After dinner, he wanted to get lovey again, and I wouldn't let him. Of course, he got frustrated. He said all kinds of things. I didn't love him. I was playing games. I was playing hard to get. I was a tease. And I couldn't be mad, because I knew that was how I was acting.
Finally, I jumped up and yelled at him that I had been raped.
Oh, Dr. Morris. Joe's face. The color drained from his face, then it turned red. Then the veins in his neck looked like they were going to pop. He started to speak and then stopped so many times. He got up and paced the room. Back and forth, with nothing to say, for like thirty minutes.
I remember I just sat there. I no longer shed tears over my shame, but I did still feel shame. It was raw like a fresh wound. I watched him pace for a while. I tried to say something, but he waved me quiet several times, and I realized he was trying to decide what to say or do. It was at that moment, when I saw him visibly struggling with how to respond, that I realized I wanted him to respond by telling me it was okay. That my past wouldn't affect his love for me.
Yeah, after only a couple months of dating, I wanted him to tell me he loved me. I wanted him to tell me everything would be okay. Because in that moment, I realized that somehow, despite my vow to myself, I loved him.
Finally, he stopped pacing. He came over to where I was sitting and he sat on the floor in front of me. I remember so well. He sat Indian-style, his hands on his knees. His face was streaked with tears. His eyes bore into mine, and my heart stopped for a minute.
He reached out and took my hand in his, and he told me that he wanted to love me. He wanted to protect me. He wanted to help me heal. He wanted to understand. Then he asked me what happened.
After I told him the whole story, and how I never wanted to be touched like that again, and how I never wanted to have another child, I still expected him to leave my life. Instead, he held my hand, and he cried.
From that point on, our relationship changed. We were more or less joined at the hip, but he respected my boundaries. I ended up staying with with Miss Sally for nearly five years. Joe and I dated all that time. I loved him more and more for choosing me and sacrificing so much to be with me. He graduated from college, and got a job offer in Wyoming.
I urged him to take it, but he wanted me to go with him. I was not religious, but he was. So when I said I would go with him, he insisted I go as his wife.
I told him nothing would change between us physically. It couldn't. He said he was okay with that, and so we got married and moved to Wyoming.
So... That is how we met and got married.
I sat forward and grabbed a bottle of water that was on the small table in front of me. Dr. Morris said nothing for a moment, and then looked at his watch.
"I think that is all for now, Ruby. Before you go, I want you to think about what you told me today. Relive the memories of how you and Joe met, and how you fell in love with him, and why. When we meet again next week, I'd like you to be prepared to talk to me about how you think you stopped loving him."
I grimaced, but I nodded.
I stood up and without saying goodbye I left. I walked out to my car and sat down in the driver's seat. Switching on my phone, I saw I had messages and texts from Joe and all of the kids asking where I was.
I quickly texted all of them that I was at the store, service was bad, I would be home within the hour. Then I checked my face in the mirror, and drove over to Wal-Mart to get groceries for dinner. I dreaded the next appointment, and I hated keeping these appointments from Joe.
© 2021 Heidi Relge