Opsie Grigsby Huff, a Woman of Substance

April has been a sad month in my past. My mother died in April of 1977 when I was 14. And near the end of the month two years later, when I was 16, I found myself facing another sadness. My grandmother’s life was ending, and I was entering the hospital in Lexington, Kentucky to visit with her. I knew I would never see her again. I was still grieving the loss of my mother and now I was losing my mother’s mother.

I had been told by my Aunt Virginia what to expect, but nothing had really prepared me for what I saw when I opened the door and walked into her room. It was dim, the slanted rays of the sun sliding through the blinds of the large window was the only light, and it was casting thin horizontal stripes of light and shadow on her bed. She was motionless, lying on her back, her hands by her side and her head half-sunken into a pillow. A crisp white sheet was pulled up to just below her chin. Her arms were outside of the sheet and various IV’s were inserted into her arms and other monitors were attached to her fingers. A screen above her head registered a heartbeat, making little beeping sounds. Her eyes were closed. When I said softly “It’s Jeffrey, grandmother, I’m here” her eyes opened and with her head remaining motionless, they searched the room, trying to find me. I walked to the side of her bed so she could see me. Tubes were entering her body through her nose, preventing her from speaking, but I could see so much emotion in her eyes. The eyes can convey emotion that a voice cannot, and I realized at once that she was very happy to see me, that she was embarrassed for me to see her in that condition, and she was sad to realize we would never see each other again.

A serious infection was slowly spreading throughout her body, and no medication could stop it. Nothing could be done except to try and make her comfortable as she waited to die.

It was difficult to understand how something like that could render my grandmother helpless. To me, she had always seemed big and strong and sturdy, like a mountain.

At my grandmother’s funeral, someone asked if she and I had been close. Without missing a beat, my aunt spoke up. “They were like two peas in a pod.” And it was true, I dearly loved my grandmother. She was very special to me, and I think we enjoyed a tight bond that many grandchildren never experience with a grandparent. From the time I was 8 or 10, I spent a week with her every summer. Sometimes other cousins were there, but usually she and I were alone, and those were the times I liked best.

She lived in a very small house in the very small town of Mousie, in eastern Kentucky. It’s a coal-mining town, surrounded by mountains, and the big trucks loaded down with the black chunks of freshly-mined coal would pass by the house day and night, leaving coal dust in their wake. It was like another world to me, not a particularly pretty world, but one that was unique and even exciting. It was a poverty-stricken area where no one had much money, and some of the houses were little more than tar-paper shacks. My grandmother’s house only had three rooms, but it was neat and tidy and she made sure her lawn was mowed. I heard her say once that people can’t help being poor but they can keep their houses and yards clean. The house behind her could only be reached by crossing a narrow swinging bridge that straddled a creek. It was rickety and could only hold one person at a time. At the other end, a dirt path led up the mountainside to the house which could barely be seen through the trees. Many times I saw the people who lived up there walking to and from their house, single file, the parents in front and the children following behind.

The residents of that community were very different from people I knew at home. They spoke in a very thick mountain accent that was strange to my ears and was sometimes hard to understand. I read once that in some isolated pockets of Appalachia, the accent can be traced back to Elizabethan England.  And the names also sounded odd to me. The woman who lived next door on one side was Laney and on the other side lived Deard and Gurlie Campbell. Up the road was Perl and his wife Lee Esther. And a little further up the road was a man named Bee Martin.  When the Campbells re-located to another house, an old woman named Lessie moved in. I remember meeting two of my mother’s cousins, the Sloane sisters, Herma Etta and Silva Grace. My grandmother’s name was Opsie, which would have sounded unusual in any other place, but there it seemed to fit right in. I researched the name once and found out that it is a very old name from Cornwall.

All but one of her children had moved to distant places to raise their families, and the grandchildren were being brought up in cities such as Washington DC,  Dayton, Ohio and San Francisco. Those grandchildren probably felt rather awkward and out of place when visiting Mousie and were eager to return to civilization. But I felt differently. I looked forward to summer vacations with my grandmother and I always cried a little when I had to go home.

Grandmother was a large, big-boned woman, standing five-foot-six in her stocking feet and probably weighing 200 pounds, if not a little more. She was not sophisticated. She lacked social graces and had only gone as far as the 7th grade, but she was very smart in her own special way. She spoke very plainly and always got right to the point. She was also very religious and belonged to what was called The Old Regular Baptist Church. It is a primitive form of the Baptist faith that is prevalent in eastern Kentucky. Its churches are known for their day-long services in which people shout and yell, speak in tongues, jump up and down and generally wear themselves out. The women are also not permitted to use make-up, cut their hair or wear slacks. My grandmother followed those directives and wore her hair in a big bun at the back of her head, held in place by a thousand bobby pins! On the rare occasions when I was privy to the pinning-up routine, I marveled at the way her grey-blonde hair flowed down across her shoulders to the middle of her back.

My mother could hardly wait to leave that church when she grew up, and most of her brothers and sisters also left that restrictive religion as soon as they could. But my grandmother was a life-long member and I’ll never forget how the preachers shouted as they delivered the sermons at her funeral.

Another clear memory is my grandmother cooking. She spent a lot of time in her little kitchen and would create simple but delicious meals. There was a good-sized garden in her back yard that produced a great bounty of vegetables. I can remember sitting on the back steps, shucking corn and hulling peas for that evening’s supper.  She was particularly good at making desserts and I have never tasted a chocolate pie as good as the ones that came out of her oven. But my favorite of her creations was what she called a stack cake. It sounds simple – several layers of thin cake, similar to gingerbread, with applesauce spread between each layer – but the instant a fork-full of that cake was put into my mouth, I was transported to some far-off place where pleasure cannot be measured. She never let anyone cut the cake until it had set for a day and the applesauce (lightly flavored with cinnamon) had soaked into the layers. Perhaps that was the secret. I’ll never know because she didn’t leave any recipes behind. I always begged her to make one of those cakes whenever I visited, and she never disappointed me.

She always seemed to be happy, but I know that she had suffered a great deal of sadness in her life. She had lost two children, one as an infant in 1938 and one as an adult (my mother). And her marriage had been fraught with disappointment and heartache. My grandfather, an alcoholic coal miner, would disappear for weeks or months at a time, then show up drunk and beat up his wife and threaten his children. They married in 1933, divorced sometime in the 1950s, re-married in the early 1960s and were divorced again by 1970. But through it all, she never seemed to stop loving him. His name was Estill Huff, and when he died in 1977, at the age of 70, she sat up all night in the church next to his coffin.

I had heard many stories of his drinking and abuse from my mother and one day when I was alone with my grandmother, I asked her why she stayed with him for so long. She told me that fairly early in their marriage, after their first two children were born, he was drinking heavily and had given her more than one black eye. He had even slapped his oldest daughter so hard “that water ran out of her nose.” She said she had made up her mind to take her girls and leave him, and she was just waiting for the right moment. They were living at the time in a small house in one of the deep hollers that are so common in that area. They are narrow valleys with high hills and mountains on either side, and there is always a small burbling stream meandering through the middle.

One day, after my grandfather had been gone for almost a week and grandmother had decided the time for leaving was right, a fierce storm settled over the mountains. The heavy rain lasted for several hours and the water rushed down from the high places and swelled the small stream into a raging torrent. A flash flood ripped through the holler.

“Before I had time to get out of the house, the water was up to the door,” grandmother said, “and then it was inside and up to the windows. There was no way I could get out, so I took the girls and put them on top of the kitchen counter and hoped the water would not get any higher, but it kept rising. I thought we were going to drown, and there was nothing I could do.”

Over the sound of the rushing water, grandmother suddenly heard someone shouting her name. It was her husband. Alarmed by the rising floodwater, he had sobered up and fought his way through the current toward the house.

“I looked out and I could see that he was holding onto whatever he could – a fence post, a tree trunk – and getting closer to the house. He finally reached an open window and yelled for me to hand him the girls one at a time. They were crying and terrified but I finally convinced Virginia to climb into my arms, and I carried her to the window and handed her to Estill. She sat on his shoulders as he managed to make his way to the edge of the yard where there was a risin’ of land and it was dry. He sat her down carefully, kissed her and came back for Louise. When the girls were both safe and dry, he came back for me. I was too heavy for him to carry, but he held onto me as we walked toward the hill. The water was dark and swift and I felt things hitting my legs, but we reached the dry land and Estill started crying like a baby. He said he thought we were dead. I realized that he really did love me and the girls and I just couldn’t leave him.”

It is a shame that the experience didn’t change my grandfather’s life. It did not take him long to revert to his old ways. But he had saved the life of his wife and children, and so perhaps he earned a place in heaven on that day.

My mother’s death was particularly hard on her, and her loud sobbing during the funeral is something I will never forget. When my father married again a few months later, grandmother was not especially happy, but took the news in her stride, sending a note of congratulations. She wanted to like my father’s new wife, but my step-mother did not make that easy. The first Christmas after they were married, dad decided to introduce his new wife to his former mother-in-law. A few presents were put in the car and we drove from Tennessee to Kentucky.

Grandmother had prepared a hearty luncheon and greeted my step-mother with a smile and a friendly handshake. She was obviously trying hard to alleviate any awkwardness, but my step-mother looked uncomfortable. She spoke very little and held onto my father. In fact, she held onto him in a way that sent a very clear message that he was hers! She stroked his hair, leaned into him as they sat on the sofa and nuzzled her head against his neck. I learned later that after we left, grandmother called my aunt and said “they acted like teenagers who have the hots for each other!” She said she was tempted to ask if they wanted to be alone in the bedroom! My step-mother was never invited back. Fortunately, I was invited back, and I was able spend more time enjoying her company and hearing her stories.

But on that April afternoon in 1979, there were no more stories for her to tell. It was her turn to listen, and as she looked at me, her clear blue eyes showing emotions she could not express, I told her how much I loved her and how much I would miss her and how much I had enjoyed her stack cake and chocolate pie. I told her that my mother was waiting for her “and I know that you and mom will be waiting for me. It might be 60 years until I get there, but for you it might only be the blink of an eye.”

Her eyes were glazed with tears, but they were smiling.

She died two weeks later.

At her funeral, I listened as the pastors named the many virtues of Opsie Grigsby Huff. They said she was a loving mother, a doting grandmother, a helpful neighbor, a loyal church member, a hard worker and a thoroughly good person who never thought ill of anyone. I dearly loved my grandmother and thought that the pastors had described her very well, but was it true that she had never thought unkindly toward anyone? I didn’t think so. In fact, I was quite certain that she had harbored some unkind feelings toward one person in particular, and it wasn’t her alcoholic and abusive husband. It was her mother.

I always enjoyed talking to my grandparents about their childhood and their parents and grandparents. My Grandmother Carrier waxed nostalgic whenever she would talk about her mother and father, and there was warmth in Grandmother Huff’s voice when she reminisced about her father, Elijah Grigsby, who had died in 1942. She told me how much he loved his grandchildren and always had several straddling his knees. But when I asked about her mother, my great-grandmother, she didn’t have much to say. For a long time, all I knew was that her name was Jenny and that her maiden name was Messer.

One day I asked my mother about her grandmother Grigsby and she was also vague. She had no memory of ever seeing her and said she was sometimes mentioned when older relatives were visiting but always in whispers. Mother said it was though her grandmother was a mysterious figure whose dark shadow fell over the whole family.

I also asked my beloved Aunt Virginia about her and the fragments of information she gave me made me even more curious. Just like my mother, Aunt Ginny had never met her grandmother Grigsby, and when I suggested she might have died before the grandchildren were born, she said no, that her grandmother had died much later. “I was out of high school and living in Ohio when my grandmother died,” she said. “It was a surprise to me because I knew nothing about her, but mommy mentioned it one of her letters.”

When I was a sophomore in high school, just a few months before my dear grandmother died, the history teacher asked us to create our family tree. My father had spent a lot of time tracing his ancestors, so one side of my tree was very healthy with many limbs and branches that stretched to the top of the large sheet of paper. But the other side had a withered look, with only two small sprouts, my grandmother and grandfather. During Christmas break I spent a few days with my grandmother and I told her about the school project and asked for her help.

She had an amazing mind for details and gave me the names of her grandparents, several uncles and aunts, a few great aunts and great uncles and even a couple of her great-grandparents. She also wrote down the names of her brothers and sisters and her parents. “I’ve heard a lot about of your father,” I said. “But I don’t know anything about your mother.”  Her eyes looked toward the floor and a solemn expression crossed her face. “I don’t like to talk about that.”

“Please, grandmother, do tell me,” I pleaded. “I really want to know about her.”

~ ~ ~

When my grandmother was born in 1909, the primary industry in that area of Kentucky was mining. Southeastern Kentucky, with its high mountains and deep narrow valleys, is not an area suitable for farming or other agricultural concerns, but it has plenty of coal. The mountains are criss-crossed with wide veins of it, and a century ago coal was in great demand. Coal burning plants supplied electricity for cities all across the nation, it powered the engines of locomotives, was delivered to homes through coal chutes to be burned in furnaces and was shipped to countries all over the world. Coal mines went deep into every mountain in areas of Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but it was not a fair industry. The miners were mired in poverty while the mine owners got rich.

My grandmother married a miner but she did not come from a coal-mining family. Old census records list “cooper” as her father’s profession, which means he made barrels for a living. And he must have been very successful. With poverty being so prevalent in that area, he was able to send five of his children to college, very unusual for that time and place. My grandmother had three brothers and two sisters, and all five of them were college-educated. And they all became teachers. She was the fifth of six children, the youngest daughter.

Something must have happened to the economy in that region after World War I because in 1919 several Kentucky families migrated to Oklahoma, some to work in the oil fields and others, like my grandmother’s family, to work in cotton fields and nut orchards. Grandmother said they traveled by train, which must have been exciting for a ten-year-old. The family homesteaded on a piece of land near Stroud, a few miles from Oklahoma City, where they intended to make a new life for themselves tending orchards of walnut and pecan trees. The first year must have been a happy one for them, but problems appeared in 1920.

“My mother started acting strange,” grandmother told me. “She couldn’t sleep and would get up in the middle of the night and walk from room to room, complaining that the top of her head was burning like it was on fire. And she was always scared that someone was prowling around outside in the dark. Everything frightened her and she was very nervous.”

Her odd behavior became even more intense, which concerned her husband. After several months, he decided that she was suffering from extreme homesickness, so in 1921 he packed up the family and moved back to Kentucky. Grandmother was 12 and had just finished the seventh grade.

“We thought that mother would be fine after we got back home,” grandmother continued. “But it made no difference. Some days she would stay in the bedroom all day, staring out the window and not talking to anyone. On other days she would be angry for no reason and would yell at everybody. And then she started going outside and wandering away and getting lost. Neighbors would find her and bring her home.”

In the early fall of 1921, when the school term was about to begin, the problem became a crisis. Jenny could not be controlled. She didn’t recognize her own husband or her children and would lash out anyone who tried to touch her. She was examined by a doctor who insisted that she be admitted to a mental hospital for treatment. She was sent to the Eastern State Hospital in Lexington, the second-oldest mental institution in the United States, which had opened in 1817. It is still in operation today.

As was often the case at that time during a family crisis, the youngest daughter was asked to take on the responsibilities of running the house. With her oldest brother already married, an older brother in college and her older sisters (who were twins) preparing to graduate from high school, 12-year-old Opsie had to drop out of school to do the cooking and the cleaning. She wanted to continue with her education, like her older siblings, but she did not have a choice.

Her mother stayed for a year in the institution and was then allowed to come home for a visit. She had improved considerably and it was hoped that she could resume her life as wife and mother. No one wished for that more than my grandmother, who was desperate to go back to school. But it was not to be.

After a few days, Jenny slipped back into a mental fog and became violent.

“She attacked my father with a pair of scissors and tried to kill him,” grandmother said as she re-lived the painful memory. “I was the only other person in the house so I ran outside and screamed for help. Two men came running and it took both of them to pull mother off of him.”

Jenny was subdued and within hours was on her way back to the institution. That was 1922, and she stayed there for the rest of her life, until she died in 1955 at the age of 80. She never saw any of her family again and none of them ever visited her. She was shut away and forgotten. But Elijah never divorced her and when he died, he was still carrying her picture in his wallet.

My grandmother was never able to complete her education which greatly limited her opportunities. What could a woman in 1930 do if she had not gone beyond the 7th grade? She married a man who was probably beneath her socially, and she settled into a life of poverty and hardship. But despite that, she was a good mother and she instilled within her children an appreciation for education and a desire to seek a better life than the coalfields of Kentucky could offer.

As she was telling me the story, I detected a note of bitterness and resentment that she had probably tried to hide for years. It seemed to me that she was angry that her mother’s mental illness had forced her into a life she would not have chosen.

If I could go back to that day when I was alone with my grandmother at her kitchen table and hearing that tragic story, I would take her hand, kiss her cheek and tell her that I am glad that her life unfolded the way it did because had she not made that sacrifice, I might not be alive. When I drew my family tree, it was well balanced with tall branches on each side, and I was given an “A”. I was eager to show it to my grandmother, but she died before she could see it. After many hours of on-line research, I have been able to add even more branches to that tree and it now reaches three hundred years into the past.

Whenever I look at all of those names and see Jenny Messer Grigsby, I think of a woman whose mental breakdown put my grandmother’s life on a path she did not want, but a path that made my own life possible.

The Night I Ran Away

I stood alone at the top of the stairs, listening. Voices died down, a light in a distant room was extinguished and silence fell over the house. My father and his wife had gone to bed, so I quietly went downstairs to my room and gathered up some clothes. I rolled them up into a small bundle, slipped it under my shirt and went out the back door.

It was a Sunday night in early October of 1977, and I was running away. I was only 14 and would not have been able to explain exactly what I was running from, but I knew what I was running to. I wanted to go to a place where I was cherished, where I felt that I mattered. I was running to the house of my wonderful, dear sweet friend, Bulah Vaught, a woman in her 60s who had been a like a mother to me all of my life. She lived more than five miles away, but I had to get there.

It was a dark night. There was no moon to guide me as I entered the woods that surrounded our house. I could have easily walked down our long driveway and followed the main road to town, but I did not want to be seen. I knew the forest very well, as I had spent many hours exploring the paths that meandered under the beeches and oaks and birches. But my exploring had been in daylight, and the woodlands were very different at night. I looked back at the house a few times until it was completely out of view, but I kept going, deeper into the darkness. I tried to stay on a path that I knew would eventually take me to a hillside behind the high school, but occasionally I wandered into thickets and had to retrace my steps. Twigs cracked under my feet and low-hanging branches brushed against my face… but I did not stop. I could hear small animals rustling in the undergrowth nearby and I imagined that bright eyes were watching me from behind ferns and saplings. A small eddy of wind gathered itself and crossed the path in front of me, stirring the trees slightly as it went by.

Finally, the darkness began to give way to a faint light. I could see the path more clearly and finally I rounded a turn and saw that the woods ended sharply directly ahead. I walked out onto the crest of a hill that sloped gently down to the edge of the high school parking lot.

I walked downward through the tall grass until my feet touched the pavement, and then I strolled around the school and followed the road to a bridge that crossed Furnace Creek. There was a well-worn path that followed the creek all the way to the east side of Mountain City. I had walked along that path many times during the daylight, and it was just as easy to navigate at night. The creek splashed and gurgled beside me, and was oddly comforting. If only my troubles were as simple as that small creek burbling along, gently finding its way to the sea. But they were complicated, a series of creeks pouring into a rushing river that tumbled into a sea of anger and confusion and resentment and guilt and fear. I was adrift in those churning waters, sinking and crying out for help. But no one heard me.

I was still grieving the death of my mother who had died a few months earlier. I was having sexual fantasies about men, which racked me with guilt. I was adjusting to new step-mother who was not very compassionate or understanding, and who made catty remarks about my mother’s taste as she announced plans to change the carpets and curtains and replace the furniture. I was miserable in school and had just learned that I was failing three subjects. I was being bullied in gym class by some older boys who called me “faggot.”  It was just too much to handle all at once.

The path brought me to East Main Street, and from that point on, I knew I would have to walk in the open, illuminated by street lights, with nothing to shield me. I realized that I might be spotted, that my plan might be thwarted, but I had to continue onward, onward toward peace and calm.

I had managed to walk almost the entire length of Church Street, from the center of downtown all the way to where it merges with highway 421 without being seen. But before I could reach the point where the two streets joined, a dark truck came up behind me. It was obviously following me, as it slowed down so that it was almost matching my walking-speed, about 50 feet away. My heart started racing and I began to panic. I had heard about wayfarers being picked up on highways and never seen again. I was just passing several large storage tanks that were used to hold some sort of flammable liquid, oil or propane, probably. One of them blew up about 20 years later, destroying a couple of buildings and shattering windows for half a mile in all directions. But that night they were quiet and still and I thought they would offer some protection. I quickly darted down a small gravel road and hid behind one of them. To my horror, the truck turned onto the same road, the gravels crunching under its wheels. At that moment, there was a flash of far-off lightning and a low rumble of thunder. A heavy rain started falling. I also became aware of lights on the other side of the highway. It was a service station, so I slipped out from behind the big tank, ran in front of the truck, which had stopped next to a nearby tank, and fled. I crossed the road as fast as I could, not even looking back to see if the truck was in pursuit, and burst through the front door of the service station.

I wiped the rain out of my eyes and caught my breath.

“We’re just closing,” a voice said from somewhere. I looked up and saw a middle-aged man putting on a jacket. He came out from behind the counter and regarded me curiously.

“It is after midnight and we’re closed,” he said. “I was just about to lock up and go home.”

I just stood there, dripping all over the floor. Finally, I spoke.

“Someone was following me,” I said. “I saw your light and thought I would be safe here.”

His demeanor softened and he started asking questions, questions I did not want to answer. Who was I, how old was I, why was I out walking so late at night in the rain?

I merely told him that I was trying to get to a friend’s house, I had no way to get there except to walk, and I was doing just fine until it started raining and a truck started following me. He looked concerned, but then he smiled. He had a nice smile, kindly. I wondered who he was. My father was very well-known in Mountain City and I knew that if I told him my name, he would immediately call my dad. So, when I avoided answering some of his questions, he looked at me thoughtfully and said, “So you are a runaway,” and then added “I can tell that you are a nice kid and I hope you find what you need. I probably shouldn’t do this, but I’ll drive you to your friend’s place. But please call your parents and let them know you are OK.”

I gave him directions to Bulah’s home and we didn’t speak as we rode along in his old Volkswagen with its sputtering motor. The rain had stopped by the time we reached my destination, and a bright moon was shining. As I got out, he shook my hand. “Take care of yourself,” he said. “I hope everything works out for you.”

The shades had been pulled down in all of Bulah’s windows, but a faint light was showing through one of them and I knew she was still up, probably stretched out on her sofa watching television. I knocked loudly on the door and I saw a shade move slowly to one side as she peered out to see who was knocking. “Jeffrey!” I heard her exclaim as the front door was opened. “How did you get here? Do you know what time it is? And look at you, you are soaking wet!”

“I’ve run away,” I said to her with a quivering voice. “I had nowhere else to go.”

~ ~ ~

My mother was ill with leukemia for six months before she died, and her death hit my father and me very hard. I had always been closer to my mother than my father, but during the first few weeks after she died, we started to bond, and it felt so very good. We spent time together talking and sharing memories. But he was very lonely and instead of allowing himself to grieve, he directed his energy toward finding another wife. In early June, about five weeks after mom died, he went on a date with a woman named Eleanor Snyder Holloway. I remember how nervous he was all that afternoon, changing his clothes several times and worrying about the color of his tie. Bulah Vaught was staying with us that summer, taking care of the meals and managing the household responsibilities. We’d laugh at him every time he would walk into the room wearing a different combination of trousers, shirt and jacket and ask for our opinion. We finally persuaded him that he looked fine and sent him out the door.

When he got home later that night he was in a happy mood, a broad smile lighting up his face. He began seeing Eleanor regularly, at least once a week. She was a local businesswoman, a recent widow with two grown children. I was happy for him. But our relationship started to change. We weren’t spending much time together any longer and I could feel him slipping away.

I did not blame him because I understood his motivations, but I did feel that I had been pushed to the side. I was still coping with my mother’s death, but he didn’t seem to notice; he was always looking forward to his next date with Eleanor. He brought her to our house often for dinner and they would always end up cuddling on the sofa. And they did look very cute together. Although Eleanor was polite to me, it was a cool politeness. I did not feel any warmth from her. I suppose it would be understandable if I had behaved badly, but I always made an effort to be nice, and I did like seeing my father so happy. He had gone through such agony during my mother’s illness and death, and he needed some joy in his life.

In mid-July, a month or so after their first date, they announced their engagement. He wanted to get married right away, but she persuaded him to wait a little longer, and they decided to exchange their vows during the Sunday church service on September 11. Dad arranged for another pastor to deliver the sermon. Every seat was filled that morning, but I am sure that no one was listening to the sermon. They were impatiently waiting for “The Wedding March” to begin.

And it was a lovely service. They had written their own vows and even included a few words for the children to speak – my step-brother, my step-sister, and me. When they drove off, with “just married” streamers attached to the rear bumper of the car, I felt happy and hoped that it would be the beginning of something good for all of us.

After honeymooning for a week in Indiana, I’ll never forget the night they returned. It was just after eleven, and my father was no longer the head of his house. It was obvious that Eleanor was now in that position.

The first thing she said to me was to ask why I was still up at that hour, that children my age should already be in bed. She did not hug me or speak kindly to me; She just ordered me to go to bed. I looked to my father, but he said nothing. He averted my eyes and walked into another room.

For the next month or so I tried to be friendly, but I slowly grew more and more unhappy. Eleanor never spoke to me with affection. Although she did not say anything that was actually unkind, her tone was chilly as she laid down ground rules. She did not compliment me, and as I look back on that time from this distance, I think she was trying to find flaws in my character, which she could point out to my father. I do remember her saying to him once, “His mother was too soft with him. He needs a firm hand.”

I missed my mother more than ever, especially as all traces of her were removed from the house. One afternoon when I was at home by myself, I did something I had never done before and have not done since — I put on women’s clothes. Everything that had belonged to my mother had been put into boxes and stored in the garage. I went through one of them and grabbed some of her things. I put on a blue and white dress, pulled her blonde wig over my dark hair, found a pair of pumps and even used some lip rouge and face powder. I was walking around the house talking to myself in a falsetto voice when my father opened the front door. I had never seen him so angry! I stood there shaking in mother’s Sunday shoes as he scolded me and berated me and demanded that I immediately remove those clothes. His face was hard and his voice was tense as he said “you are too big to spank, but I wish that I could take off my belt and slap you with it!”

Then his expression softened and his voice was gentler. “You look so much like your mother. Seeing you in her clothes was a shock. I’m sorry I lost my temper… but please don’t do that again.”

He told Eleanor about my escapade and the next day she found me alone and confronted me. “I want to talk to you,” she said sternly. “I know what you did yesterday. If one of my children had behaved like that, they would not have been able to sit down for a week. What is wrong with you? I know people think that you are a good boy and that your mother would be proud of you. Well, let me tell you something young man, if they knew you the way I know you, they would have a different opinion. And if your dad and I ever catch you doing something like that again, you will be in big trouble.”

I was a few weeks into my freshman year of high school, but things were not going well. I found it difficult to concentrate and when the first report cards of the semester were handed out, I saw D’s and F’s and C’s. I had gotten A’s and B’s all though elementary school, with an occasional C thrown in for some variety. My father had to sign the card, and I hesitated to show it to him, but I don’t think he looked at it closely. He just signed it and handed it back to me. And none of my teachers took me aside to ask if something was wrong. The woman who taught algebra assumed that I had a learning disability. I was slipping between the cracks.

I did not enjoy any of my classes, but gym was especially torturous. I had never been athletically inclined and a couple of the upper classmen started picking on me, giggling to themselves and pointing at me. I heard one of them say “look at that faggot.” I didn’t even know what the word meant, but I knew it was an insult. I started skipping the class and the teacher gave me an F, writing “excessive absences” in the margin of the report card.

The only thing I could think of to do was disappear, hide, go away… but the only thing I really wanted was to be hugged by someone who cared about me.

~ ~ ~

“Sweetheart… why did you run away?” Bulah asked. “Did something happen at home?”

“I can’t stay there anymore,” I said dramatically. “I can’t stand to be there another minute.”

I did not tell her everything. I did not mention that I had been called a faggot, or that I fantasized about seeing boys naked and kissing them. I did not tell her that I had put on my mother’s dress or that I was making D’s and F’s. But I did tell her every unkind word my stepmother had said to me, every time she had needled me, and how she made me feel that I was a bad person.

Bulah put her arm around me and sat me down on the sofa next to her. She had listened carefully to everything I said, and then she pulled me closer, put her hand on my head and gently stroked my damp hair.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she finally said. “I was afraid that was going to happen. I’m sorry that your dad isn’t standing up for you, but try to understand what’s happened to him. He can’t help himself. He’s a man and maybe that’s just the way men are.”

“What do you mean?”

“When Your father brought Eleanor to the house for the first time, I could see right through her,” she said. “A woman can fool a man, but she can never fool another woman. I could tell that she was after your dad. She wanted him and she was determined to have him. And now she’s got him right where she wants him. He is wrapped around her little finger and he is so mesmerized that he can’t even think straight. It’s not his fault, so don’t be angry with him. He is a good man and I know he loves you. But she wants him all to herself and you are in her way. She is never going to be nice to you, so don’t expect her to be. Just try to stay out of her way. In a couple of years, you’ll have your driver’s license and you can get out and have more freedom, and you know you can come and see me whenever you want to.”

And then she put her hand under my chin and held my face still while she looked me right in the eye.

“Now that you know what is happening, you can rise above it and not let anything she says upset you. You are Louise’s son and never forget that. Nothing that Eleanor says or thinks matters. It’s too bad about your father, but he’s under her spell and you can’t do anything about it.”

She said she was going to have to call my dad and tell him where I was. “And when he gets here, don’t tell him the reason you ran away,” she added. “Don’t tell him that it’s because of Eleanor. Make up some other reason and don’t tell what you’ve told me. He won’t want to hear it, and he might not even believe it. He is not looking at you as a boy any more, a boy who is hurting. And if he tells her what you said, it will make things even worse.”

About half an hour later, his car pulled into Bulah’s driveway and he knocked on her front door.

“Hello, preacher,” Bulah said as she let him in. “Jeffrey is here and he’s fine. He was upset, but he is OK now. And preacher,” she continued, “whatever it is that is bothering him, remember this. Jeffrey is only 14. You can’t put a man’s head on a boy’s shoulders.”

We drove home in silence, but when he pulled into the drive way he put his hand on my knee. “Let’s sit here and talk for a few minutes before we go in,” he said to me. “Can you tell me what’s wrong?”

“I’m embarrassed to tell you,” I said softly. As we had been driving along, I thought about Bulah’s advice, and I had decided exactly what to say. “It’s gym class. The older boys are harassing me because I’m not good at sports. They hate me. I can’t go back. Please don’t make me. And I’m failing the class. I got an F.”

“Why didn’t you talk to me about this?” he responded, sounding concerned but also relieved. “That’s not a big problem. It just seems like a big problem to you. We can take care of it. Get some sleep and we can talk about it more in the morning. It won’t seem so bad after a good sleep.”

The house was dark and very quiet as he unlocked the front door. I went to my room and he went to his.

There was some awkwardness at the breakfast table the next morning. Eleanor did not speak to me and kept glancing at my father, obviously expecting him to take a firm stand on my running away the night before. He did not say much, either, but when it was time for me to leave for school, he surprised me by saying he would drive me. I normally walked.

Instead of dropping me off at the school’s big double-doors, he pulled the car into an empty space. “I’m going in with you,” he said. “We are going to talk to the principal.”

John Butler, with his stern expression, dark-rimmed glasses and silvery hair, was a formidable man. I don’t recall ever seeing him smile and he was treated with exaggerated respect. We were ushered into his office just as the first bell was ringing.

The amenities were dispensed with quickly and my father got right to the point, explaining that I was being bullied in gym and he didn’t want me to have to attend the class. After first arguing that attending gym was a requirement, Mr. Butler did suggest that I could attend physical education classes at Appalachian State University in nearby Boone, NC. I could go there for summer school, and if I earned two credits, the high school requirement would be satisfied. My father agreed, and they shook hands. Mr. Butler asked me not to talk about it because “I am doing a favor for you that I would not do for other students.” I walked dad to the school’s front door and thanked him. “I am glad that I could help,” he smiled, patting me on the shoulder “Now there is no more reason for you to be upset. I don’t want any more running away.”

I had mixed feelings about the agreement. I was glad that I didn’t have to go to gym class and endure the taunts, but I also knew that the primary reason for my discontent had not been resolved… and might never be.

Bulah was right about the feeling of freedom I enjoyed after I learned to drive. It was wonderful to visit with my friends, and go to her house. She and I always had great conversations and I could be totally honest with her about my life at home. She was my only confidant. My step-mother and I were never on good terms, and although I followed Bulah’s advice and stayed out of her way, the undercurrent of tension was always there. It wasn’t until my father’s death that she started treating me with some respect.

And I did enroll at ASU for two sessions of summer school. One summer I took a tennis class, and the next summer I got an A in bowling. Not only did the two credits satisfy the high school requirement, but I was able to transfer those credits to college when I entered as a freshman.

I was never able to talk to my father candidly about why I ran away on that September night in 1977. I was never able to tell him how his marriage to Eleanor had affected me or that I felt that he was forgetting me when I needed him most. I was never able to tell him that I had forgiven him.

An Encounter that Changed My Life

For almost eight years I lived in New York City, and every time I would find myself on 34th Street, I would walk toward 9th Avenue and stand in front of the William Sloane YMCA and look up at a window on the sixth floor. It was at that window on a rainy August afternoon in 1985 that I spoke to a stranger who altered the course of my life.

I had spent a week in Connecticut working with silent film actress Patsy Ruth Miller on her autobiography. It had not gone well. She was not in a good mood and had been very critical of the writing I had done so far. She said rather bluntly that asking me to help her with the book had been a mistake. “I don’t think that you have the ability or the skill to take on this project,” she said.  “I’m sorry, dear, but you just don’t have the talent.” My self esteem was at a low ebb and I had no confidence in myself. I was so discouraged and depressed that I had left her house a day earlier than planned and was spending a night in New York City before flying back to Tennessee the following afternoon.

It was my very first visit to the Big Apple and I was very nervous. I had never been in such a big city all by myself and after taking a cab from Grand Central to the YMCA, I was reluctant to go outside. I thought if I went out the front door, I might be mugged or accosted or caught in the crossfire of a gangland shooting. And hearing the constant sound of sirens was very disturbing.

I was assigned to a room on the sixth floor, and after settling in, I stepped out into the hallway and noticed a bright window at the end of the hall. As I got closer, I could see the silhouette of someone standing there. It had started raining, and little rivulets of water were running down the windowpane. As I got closer, I could see that it was a young man, gazing pensively out the window. I must admit that I was immediately attracted to him. He was young and tall and slim, with an athletic build. His hair was blonde and it had started to thin at his temples. I slowly approached the window, which looked down onto 34th Street, and said, “when did it start raining?”

When he turned to look at me, my heart skipped a beat. He had a handsome baby face, with bright blue eyes. I was still deep in the closet at that time, but I couldn’t help staring at him.

“A minute ago,” he said. “There is something very relaxing about watching rain. It is very soothing.”

I was immediately drawn to him. Not only did he have a gentle manner but he had an accent that caressed my ears. It made everything he said sound very mysterious and poetic. “Yes, I suppose so,” I managed to say in reply. “May I ask where you are from?”

He said he was from Hamburg, in Germany, and was visiting America for the first time. “I’ve been here for only one day,” he added. “Where did you come from?”

I told him that I was from Tennessee and that it was my first time to be in New York City. “I’ve been here for only one hour.” He laughed, and I was hooked.

We stood there at that window for a long time. The rain stopped, the sky cleared and we continued to talk, even as the sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows over the street below. We were so curious about each other. I learned that he would be in the US for two weeks and was spending his time in New York. He wanted to see some Broadway plays and visit the famous tourist attractions. He was especially looking forward to walking through Central Park. I told him all about my little hometown in Tennessee, the college in the north I had attended and about the book project with Patsy Ruth Miller that had come to an abrupt end.

Suddenly realizing that we were hungry, we went down to the little restaurant that adjoined the lobby and continued our conversation. I was particularly impressed by how well he spoke English. He said he had been studying the language for a few years and was also fluent in French and Latin, something he had in common with many of his German classmates. I assumed he was a college graduate, but he said no, that he would be enrolling in a college in Berlin that fall, to study computer science and economics. His worldliness and sophistication, knowledge and experience made me think he was several years older than me, probably around 28, but he surprised me by saying he had recently turned 21. We were less than a year apart. It was obvious to me that German students were certainly better educated than American students!

I admitted to him that I was very curious about New York City but did not feel comfortable going out exploring on my own. “I have only seen a little of the city so far,” he said, “so let’s go and explore together.”

It was an invitation that thrilled me, so when the meal was over and the bill was paid, we went out the front door and turned onto 34th street, heading east. We had walked several blocks when we spotted a movie theater. BACK TO THE FUTURE had just opened to rave reviews, and when we saw the title in big letters on the marquee, we quickly bought tickets! We loved it, and the film is still one of my most favorite movies. We later found ourselves on Broadway and walked up to Times Square, where we marveled at the stores, the crowds of people and the brightly lit marquees advertising such plays as THE ODD COUPLE, BILOXI BLUES and BIG RIVER. There was so much excitement and energy around that famous intersection that it was impossible not to be caught up in the mood, which was intoxicating. We walked into an arcade, which were so popular at the time, and spent all of our quarters playing Centipede, Space Invaders and Pac Man. As we were enjoying the sights and sounds of Times Square, I realized that all my fears and apprehensions had disappeared. It was after 2 AM when we finally returned to the YMCA, and despite the late hour, I felt so happy that it took me a very long time to fall asleep.

The plane to Tennessee was departing LaGuardia the following day about 4 pm, so I invited my young German friend to join me in exploring more of the city before I had to leave. We met in the lobby the next morning, had some breakfast at a diner, and walked to the Empire State Building. We purchased our tickets and took the elevator to the very top, the observation deck on the 102nd floor, where we walked out into the open air and looked out over the city and the world beyond, almost able to see the curvature of the earth! I’ve been to the top of that building twice since then, but nothing can compare to the exhilaration I felt on that warm August morning in 1985. When our feet were back on the firm pavement of 5th Avenue, we took the subway all the way down to lower Manhattan, to Wall Street, and walked over to the World Trade Center. I’ll never forget that magnificent lobby with its enormous floor-to-ceiling windows and the bright red carpeting. We went to the highest floor of Tower One, to the observatory. I think it may also have been floor 102, but unlike the Empire State Building, visitors could not feel the wind rushing around their heads as they looked down at the city. It was an enclosed space, and we had to peer through thick-paned windows. But it was just as thrilling, and the windows were tilted slightly outward, so you could lean against them and look almost straight down.

A quick subway ride took us back to midtown Manhattan and we emerged at Grand Central Station, where we grabbed a quick lunch at a deli on Lexington Avenue. It was close to 2 pm already and there was just enough time to walk back to the YMCA, past the famous New York City Public Library with its two enormous lion statues in front. I picked up my suitcase at the front desk and waited for the airport shuttle. I had grown to feel very close to my young friend, and I was delighted when he climbed onto the shuttle and sat with me until it was ready to leave.

“I’ve just realized that I don’t even know your name,” I grinned. “My name is Jeff, Jeff Carrier, and it has been a great pleasure to spend time with you.” He shook my hand and said his name was Christian Pless. “It has been a pleasure for me, also,” he added.

A plan suddenly took shape in my mind and without even thinking it through, I blurted out, “come to Mountain City, Tennessee!” As he looked at me with wide-eyed surprise, I continued, “don’t base your idea of the United States on New York City. You should also get to know people who live in the rural areas. That’s where you’ll find true American values.”

As the shuttle driver announced that we were ready to depart, I scribbled my phone number on the torn half of my Empire State Building ticket and handed it to him. I’ll be home tonight. Call me and we can talk about it.

There was just enough time for him shake my hand again, put the number in his pocket and leave the shuttle before the doors closed and we drove off. I could see him on the sidewalk, watching as we were swallowed by the traffic.

As the plane made its way to Tennessee, I wandered if I would ever see Christian again, if I would ever hear that interesting accent or look into his sparkling blue eyes. But to my delight, he did call me at home later that night. He said he had been to the Port Authority and purchased a bus ticket. “I could not buy a ticket to Mountain City,” he said, “but I did buy a ticket to Abingdon, Virginia. I was told that it is very close to Mountain City. Is that right?” I assured him that it was indeed close, about 30 miles away. He was calling from a payphone and had run out of change, but before he was cut off, he did manage to tell me that he would be getting to Abingdon at 10 am in two days.

At 10 am on that morning, I was waiting at the bus station, my heart beating fast as I watched for the Greyhound to pull into the lot. It was a few minutes late, but when it arrived and I saw him get off, I could not control my excitement and I ran to him with my arms out-stretched. It was a wonderful reunion. He had been on the bus all night and was tired and hungry, so we drove down the highway to Bristol, where we had a hearty breakfast. The road from Bristol to Mountain City winds its way through hills and mountains, and Christian marveled at the scenery. He said it reminded him of Bavaria.

He stayed several days with me in Mountain City. I don’t remember how many exactly, perhaps four or five, and every day was like a dream. By the time I had to drive him back to Abingdon to catch the return bus to New York, I’m sure that I was in love with him, but it was something that I did not dare discuss or allow myself to show. I think he preferred women to men, or at least that was my impression, especially after he told me about having a passionate encounter with a young woman in a Paris phone booth.

Everyone in my hometown who met Christian was totally charmed by him. My father grew very fond of him, particularly after learning that his grandfather had been a Lutheran minister. My step-mother was a bit suspicious at first, but she also succumbed to his charms and surprised him by including sauerkraut as a side dish one night at supper. The only person I knew who did not want to meet him was my dear friend, Bulah Vaught. I had planned to bring him to her house one afternoon, but when she learned that he was German, she cancelled. “I don’t want a German in my home,” she said.  I had to accept the fact that some people of her generation, who had been born during the First World War and had lost friends and family in the Second World War, still harbored ill feelings toward the Germans. It made me feel sad and disappointed.

He made a big hit with my friend, Kay Adams. She was a local radio personality and invited him to spend an afternoon with her during her shift at WMCT, Mountain City’s country music station. She put him in front of a microphone and chatted with him between songs, asking him about his homeland and what he thought of Tennessee. It made him a celebrity for the afternoon! Several people called the station to ask him questions and he was invited to the high school to talk to the students who were learning German.

Kay planned something special for his last night in town and drove us to the Appalachian Fair near Johnson City. We had great fun looking at the livestock exhibits, sampling baked goods, riding the ferris wheel and taking in some of the side shows. I think Christian learned more about America at that fair than he could have by spending six months in New York City. I was a little jealous of Kay. She and Christian were very chummy and I noticed them occasionally holding hands. But I was glad that he was enjoying himself so thoroughly.

There was a popular song at the time by Phil Collins called “One More Night” and it played on the radio as we drove back to Mountain City. I would have to take Christian to the bus station the next day, and as I sat in the back seat as we drove along through the dark, the lyrics took on a new meaning. “One more night, one more night. I’ve been trying, oh so long to let you know, let you know how I feel.”  I felt a tear run down my cheek.

The drive to Abingdon the next afternoon was a sad one for me. I did not want to see Christian leave, but all good things must come to an end. He told me how glad he was that he had made the journey, that I had made his trip to the States exciting and memorable, and that he would never forget his time in Tennessee. And then he his voice took on a more serious tone.

“I want you to promise me that you will search for your destiny,” he said. I gave him a quizzical glance and he continued. “Don’t spend your life in Mountain City. It is a beautiful town and the people are very friendly, but I think you need to spend time in other places. It is too small for you. You have a good brain. Use it to explore ideas and go on adventures. Meet new people and learn from them. And don’t give up on Patsy Ruth Miller. She needs you to help with that book. No one else wants to work with her, so don’t feel discouraged. Make it happen.”

And then he reached over and gently rubbed my shoulder. “I know you are searching for someone to love. You won’t find him until you move away. He waits for you somewhere else.” I could not say anything. 

We had reached the Abingdon Greyhound station and the bus was already being loaded. We stood together near the bus for a few minutes, but I was too emotional to say anything. If I tried to speak I knew that my voice would break and I would cry. I think he understood, because he started to shake my hand, but hugged me instead and whispered in my ear “I will never forget you. To me, you are America.”

The drive back to Mountain City was a miserable one. I don’t think I have ever missed anyone as much before, or since.  But by the time I reached home, I felt better. Meeting Christian had changed me. My confidence had returned and I could sense that something exciting was waiting for me.  I felt a strong desire to go back to New York. He had inspired me to find my place in the sun. And I knew, as though it had been written in letters of fire, that what my heart had been longing for all of my life, was out there, just beyond the horizon.

And I did get back to that Big City, but it took me two years, first to attend graduate school at NYU and then to begin a career. I stayed in Mountain City for several months, working as a reporter for the local paper. The first story I wrote was about Christian, and when I sent the clipping to Patsy Ruth Miller she called me right away. “The story about the young German man was very good,” she said. “I think I was wrong about you. If you work with me on my book and write as well as you did for the newspaper, we’ll have one helluva book!” Her memoirs were published in 1988, and I wanted to tell Christian the good news, but I did not know how to find him. We kept in touch for a few months after he returned to Germany, but the last letter I sent to him was returned marked “Gerührt. Keine Weiterleitungsadresse.“ (Moved. No Forwarding Address). That was in early 1986, and there has been no word from him since then.

Hardly a day has gone by in the last 35 years that I have not thought of him, wondering where he is, what he is doing, what kind of a life he is living. Did he became a computer programmer? Did he marry and have children? Does he ever think of me?

The YMCA is no longer there, but the building still stands, and so the next time I am in New York City I will go to 356 West 34th Street and gaze up at a window on the sixth floor. I will be thinking of a young German who helped a kid from Tennessee with low self esteem to regain his confidence and find the courage to leave home and go out into the world.

I love you, Christian, and I hope that wherever you are, you are happy.