I COULD GIVE YOU a long list of my publications and bore you with a recount of my humble, meager awards and accolades, but you can go to my author page on amazon or on any one of the publishing house sites where my books are listed and learn those things. I think I would rather talk to you about the really important things, the things that qualify me to write about the things I write about. I’d rather talk to you about what my parents taught me about living.
I was born in the Appalachian foothills, one among seven children. We were so poor that we had no indoor plumbing, no phone and no central air or heat. I remember when eating wild game was our main source of meat. Then we got a cow, but she ran over a bluff and killed herself. After that, we took to raising hogs and leasing tobacco crops. My daddy also worked at a sawmill where he sawed hickory baseball bats. He did everything he could to feed us and Momma raised a big garden every year. We raised anything that would grow, even our own peanuts. I say we were poor but I never felt poor, not until someone told me that I was poor. I was like Dolly Parton in her song, “Coat of Many Colors’. “I felt rich as I could be.”
There were times when all my family had was each other and somehow, that was always enough. My parents taught us that love is the only thing of true value in this entire world and whatever is not of love, well, it’s not eternal. I have lived my mortal life in the light of immortality. We never believed in final good-byes, only “see you laters.” I recall a memory of one summer night when my parents were lying on a quilt on the hillside behind our house. We had no TV at the time and so we would play outside until dark and sometimes our parents would come outside and watch us from the hillside. This particular night I was talking about all the stuff that some of the kids at school had.
I can still hear my daddy’s voice saying, “If you ain’t got love, you ain’t got nothin’ in this life.”
Then Momma chimed in and said, “Money can buy you a lot of things, but money can’t buy real love. If you have love and family you have everything.”
Daddy said, “Remember that, Sis.”
My daddy was a storyteller and every night he’d gather us around the old aluminum kitchen table and spin his tales for us. He couldn’t read but he could remember and he had an imagination. He told stories that had been handed down from his grandfather and his childhood and he told stories that he made up. Each night I would be the last kid listening, begging for just one more story. My parents would have to make me go to bed. We had very few books, but we did have stories and then there was Momma’s sacred book, a high school literature book of poems by Edgar Allen Poe and short stories by O’Henry. I read those poems and I knew…knew with everything in me… that I was a poet, too. I started writing poetry on every thing that had a surface to write on, even my grandmother’s giant squash. I checked books out from the school library and read like there was no tomorrow. I fell in love with far away places and adventures. I loved stories written ones, spoken ones, sung ones…I just loved stories.
In the fifth grade the Gideons came to school and passed out little red New Testaments. It was the most special thing to me, my very own book full of stories. And in the back? Blank pages. I was certain that God himself had left those pages blank so that I could add my story to them. I took an ink pen and wrote an imagined story about my Great-great-grandpa crossing the Rio Grande and coming to the U.S. It was, of course, completely fabricated from Daddy’s tales and my imagination, but it didn’t matter. It was MY story. I think I was 9 years old at the time. But with the gift of a New Testament, a writer’s dream was born.
Momma believed in my dream. That Christmas we were so broke that it looked like we would get no presents at all. A charity group came to our house and brought gifts and fruit. I’ll always be grateful for that group, but Momma and Daddy wanted so much to get us something that they went to a loan company and borrowed a little money and that year when my siblings got toys, I got a college dictionary for Christmas. It was the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, because I knew that it had come with sacrifice and with hope. Momma said, “One day you’re going to go to college and make something out of yourself and you’re going to need to know all of these big words. I felt bad not getting you a toy, but I felt like that you would like this better.” I hugged that dictionary and thanked her for it.
A Bible and a dictionary in the same year. My future had been set in motion. Little did I realize that one day I truly would write my story and Daddy’s story and Momma’s story and maybe the story of a million other 9 year-old dreamers.
In the years to follow I held onto the dictionary. I still have it today. The cover wore off and I recovered it in discarded wallpaper. Eventually, even that wore off. If you were to visit my home and see that old book with no cover, you’d think maybe it was a piece of junk but it’s not. It’s a symbol of my mother’s hopes for me.
My mom left this world at 38, one month before I graduated high school. She never got to see me go to college and use the dictionary that she gave me to help me through my classes. She never got to see me win the Art scholarship that made it possible for me to go, never got to hear me play guitar or got to see her grandchildren. But she did see. She saw it when I was 9 and she used her today to plan for my tomorrow. Thank you, Momma. Your dreams carried me through until I could see my own dreams and your dauntless, unselfish love, made me want to impact the life of everyone I meet.