Reva and I sit surrounded by boxes full of clothes, shoes, make-up, sheets, and miscellaneous items such as wind chimes, incense, CDs, a blood pressure monitor, and a couple of dolls with eyes so blue they look like marbles. It might be the stock room in a Family Dollar Store instead of someone’s living room.
Reva is wearing a faded nightgown even though it is the middle of the afternoon, and I am wearing a pair of hot-pink pedal pushers and a white blouse with a prim lace collar from the ’50s that I dug out from one of the boxes. I have been having my own private fashion show from these boxes, and I prance back and forth in front of a broken mirror with each new outfit.
“I’m thinking of having a yard sale,” says Reva, flicking the ashes of her cigarette into the already overflowing ashtray.
“Right,” I say, taking a sip of vodka. “And I’m thinking about going to treatment right after I return from my vacation on Mars.”
Our eyes meet and we laugh, but there is a trace of despair in our laughter, as we have both been promising ourselves to do these things for months, without either one of us making a single step toward our goals.
Despite all the chaos inside the house, Reva and her family have become a kind of sanctuary for me. Reva and I have a bond with one another that runs deep and we sometimes have conversations without words—through gestures and long, soulful looks. There are moments when we just burst into laughter without knowing why.
Though we grew up in the same rural town in Middle Tennessee, our circumstances couldn’t have been more different. Whereas I only had to point at some shiny, useless object and say “mine” for my parents to buy it for me, Reva’s family barely had enough food, with her mother having to walk 4 miles each morning to catch a ride to the shirt factory she worked at 30 miles away.
“She used to stop at the little store along the way and buy a piece of chocolate,” Reva say. “A small part of it she would eat on her journey, the rest she would save for us kids when she got home.”
I marvel at the love and devotion behind the sacrifice of such an act.
“So your mother walked 4 miles in the morning along highway 127 and then again at night, probably in the dark. Eight Miles a day.”
I shake my head in wonder, remembering with shame my whining and complaining when the bus was 10 minutes late. We are a spoiled generation.
“It was a big deal for us to get one Coke,” Reva says, “which we would share and it was such a treat.”
She pushes her long hair out of her eyes. Reva is quite beautiful, with creamy skin, high cheekbones, and the forthright manner and Southern drawl of an Appalachian woman. It is her simplicity that I find so appealing, without even a trace of affectation.
“When I was a little girl,” she says, “there was an old man up at the Kayo service station who used to give me little toys from Cracker Jack boxes. That old man put light in my world because there wasn’t much at home. He would see me coming up the hill, all excited to get my treat, but once in a while he would tease me.
“‘Little Doll,’ he would say, putting me on his knee. ‘I’ve got some bad news.’ My heart would sink. ‘The treat fairy didn’t make it in today.’
“‘Oh, that’s okay,’ I’d say, my heart breaking.
“Then all at once he’d take something from behind his back and give it to me. A caramel, a Reese’s Cup, or maybe a miniature ballerina dressed in pink from out of a Cracker Jack box—and my heart would soar. On rare occasions I’d sneak one of the candies, but mostly I saved them in a Mason jar to share with my brothers and sisters for their birthdays.
“‘You’ll always be my little doll, no matter how tall you grow,’ he said.
“‘Promise?’ I asked.
“‘You know it,’ he said, after which I would skip happily home.”
Home was not always a happy place for Reva and her siblings. A veteran of World War II, Reva’s father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. At that time, not much was known about PTSD, so he dealt with his emotional anguish the best way he knew how. He drank. He also ran a still with drive-through service.
Unfortunately, like many people who drink excessively, her father would sometimes go into violent rages, which would wreak havoc on the family.
When Reva was 10, her mother delivered a boy that was stillborn. “They didn’t have the money to have a proper burial, so Daddy took the baby out in the woods and buried him there. He never told anyone where he buried him but it affected him and he sometimes cried in the night over it,” she says.
When Reva was 12 she was raped. “When I tried to tell the sheriff he just laughed,” she says. “He and his deputies had a great time over this, so I went home, got into Daddy’s moonshine and got drunk. When my brother got home, he beat me to a pulp for being drunk. So I never mentioned it again until now.”
Despite the hardships of her life, Reva remembers the good times they had, too. “We used to hop freight trains and ride them as far as they went, then come back home,” she says, smiling at the memory. “It was great fun. And then we would jump on an old tire and ride down Duck River.”
It’s wonderful to see Reva’s smile—like a rainbow rising up out of a dark forest. And her ability to remember the good things from out of the bad is a lesson we could all benefit from. I glance at the clock and see that it is almost time for my bus.
It is getting dark and I must run to catch the bus. As I go through the woods and on to Springdale Street, I hear Reva call out to me: “Get to bed early!”
“Why?” I ask.
“We’ve got to get up early, have that yard sale, and get you into treatment.”
I laugh and feel utter joy and abandon, for suddenly I am 10 years old again and have a best friend that was made just for me.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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