In the one photo I have of her when she was young—Daddy’s about 6, standing shy with his hands in his overalls pockets, leaning against her—she’s beautiful, perfectly symmetrical face of a 20s movie star, short-cropped hair dyed blonde, parted on the left. She looks at him as though she knows full well what’s going to happen to them both, can’t stop it, can’t not leave. She must be 24 or so. She had him when she was 17, by a young town hustler who didn’t bother to stay. There’s a convoluted story about how someone paid someone to marry her, but that was for show. She left Daddy with her parents and went somewhere. I don’t know where, or to do what. I only knew her from two or three visits to Olive Hill and her small house with the acre of garden out back and a dirt cellar full of tomatoes and green beans and peaches put up in rows of glass jars. Supper there was chicken and green beans cooked with bacon, and the cornbread and pinto beans Daddy liked, all covered with a sheet when the meal was over like we never did at home.
She seemed old then, tho what was she, late 40s? Don was her husband, the second or third one then, and she wanted us to call her may-maw, like the kids she took care of did. It was just another part of that foreign language she spoke and we couldn’t. Chicks outside called biddies. A bathroom called an outhouse. We called her granny. Daddy always called her “my mother.” The next visit, a few summers later, her husband was Birch, an old man in overalls who sat with other old men on a wood porch and spat into coffee cans set on the ground below. All of them used to work in the brick yard or the mines, and most of them had lung trouble. No one worked now. Just the women. She and her sister Alma made quilts and sold them. Alma’s house was hung with them and it looked just like a gallery in the Museum of Modern Art but with choke cherries outside, and the boy she adopted who wasn’t quite right making noise in the back.