Sometime in the early 1940′s, a woman named Pauline Coomer traveled from Kentucky to a small town in middle Tennessee called Gainesboro, where she wound up working for my maternal great-grandparents on their small tobacco farm. My great-grandparents gave Pauline a place to live in exchange for killing chickens, cooking daily meals for the farmhands, washing, sewing, and whatever other drudgery needed tending. After both my great-grandparents passed on, the era deemed it unacceptable for Pauline to live on the farm alone with the town drunk, otherwise known as one of my great-grand uncles. She had no where else to go, so she moved in with my grandparents. The transition proved difficult.
Shunning any full time working-the-land-legacy, my grandfather become a teacher; my grandmother worked as a secretary for the state, gathering information for adoptions and other services. My granddad kept a garden up at the farm with a few animals, but never to the extent my great-grandparents did. While not fancy, their lifestyle differed radically from the farm, which Pauline missed. I also think she missed my drunk great uncle, though I know little about that. Sometimes, she’d ride out to the farm with my grandparents to help them do chores. At home, she kept busy by working her fingers to the bone and bossing around the rest of the house. She cleaned, cooked, and looked after the kids, one of whom was my mother. She also raised cain when my grandparents disciplined the children. When I was born, Pauline came to live with us. Family history says this happened because moms need help with newborns, but I overheard snippets here and there about how Pauline drove my grandmother bonkers with all her “interfering”. So, off she went.
My parents were young professionals and it was the 1970′s; growing up, Dad’s most cherished crop was whatever food he and his siblings could gather in the slums of Chattanooga, a factory town on the Tennessee River. To say he knew nothing about farming or the kind of rural life Pauline led would be an understatement that deserved an award for being so understated, but both he and my mother felt that Pauline would be happier with us.
What does this have to do with why I like books?
Well, Pauline was an orphan; in the early 1900′s, her mother ran off with a man, leaving her tied to a rocking chair. Her dad went to prison for some minor offense; her brother, Jesse, run over and killed by a drunk World War I veteran. Pauline didn’t even know her birthday. When she went to my great-grandparents, someone decided to celebrate it on May 8th. Later, my grandmother estimated her year of birth as 1903, based on old Kentucky school records. Apparently, Pauline attended school for a short time, then dropped out to survive. Her whole life was just back-breaking work.
Sounds like a Faulkner novel.
Anyway, Pauline adjusted to life with us well, mostly because of me. My great drunk uncle had passed, and any pining away ended. She spent a lot of time fussing over me, growing to love me as her own. My parents never asked her to lift a finger, but like she did with my grandparents, she insisted on cleaning and cooking to make things nice, especially for me. Easier to let her do as she pleased than to argue; the word “stubborn” fails to capture a tenth of it, my non-farming father soon learned. Pauline had a way to do things, and she did them despite what anyone else wanted. Honestly, I am glad she cooked, otherwise I wouldn’t have the memories of her homemade rolls, greens, or fried chicken, seasoned just right. She fried little homemade pies with fruit filling made by hand, and stuffed me well before my parents even got a sniff. She let me do just about anything, but if I got too far out of line, she’d pull a switch from a tree in the yard and swat my legs. That rarely happened, though. If my father or mother so much as looked at me with a sneer, she was on it. I lolled away the days happily— I spent hours singing into a mirror while a Barry Manilow 45 spun (I know, and please forgive me), playing dress-up in my favorite aunt’s old clothes, performing mini talent shows for anyone who would watch, getting dizzy on Sit ‘N Spin, and enjoying books.
Mom and dad always read to me. Dad also concocted outrageous tales, including one about me escaping from the hospital as a newborn, then driving to Florida in a stolen car. I loved just about anything to do with adventure and make believe, which probably explains a lot about how I became an actor and writer. They all encouraged it, including Pauline. She clapped at my untalented talent shows, told me stories about working on the farm, and gave me old yellow or brown towels to drape over my pixie cut so I could pretend to be a woman with long blond or brown hair. Sometimes, I put a rubber band on the towel, and brushed the “ponytail” while she read to me. We’d sit together on the couch; she’d open a book, studying the pictures before launching into the tale. I always asked for repeats of my favorites but with her, the story changed from reading to reading. I always noticed, and always corrected: “That’s not what you said the first time,” or “That’s not what happens,” or something equally annoying. She fixed it quickly, moving on to the next correction.
All the focus on books helped me read early. I particularly enjoyed taking turns reading, but when I took turns with Pauline, I noticed the words she said didn’t match the words on the page. Every time she messed up, I tried to correct her, and every time, I failed. It confounded me, so I asked mom about it. Mom explained that I needed to be nice, because Pauline never learned to read or write. I proclaimed that I’d teach her, but mom said that wouldn’t be possible. Mom said she was a “little off” mentally.
Excuse my French, but the reason why is that Pauline was not just a little off, but crazy as a shithouse rat.
With age, I realized this myself. Really, I guess it’s not surprising to be crazy after such a life. Who knows what happened to Pauline; big chunks of her existence remain a mystery. But for some reason, she simply couldn’t be taught to read, as my grandmother and others had tried to help her. Their efforts resulted in a lot of frustration, huge tantrums, or extended silent sulking on Pauline’s part.
Not being able to read meant she learned to navigate the world in other ways. When she lived on the farm, she developed methods like weighing things to make sure door-to-door sales people didn’t cheat my great grandparents. She cut the edges off of small product boxes, and asked whoever to write down a needed phone number on one side. When she wanted to make a call, she’d ask someone to find the one she needed, then match the numbers on the phone to the numbers on the cut-off edge. She kept those phone numbers bound with a rubber band around her glasses case, the same case that held the glasses never used for reading. Naturally, outrageous beliefs developed from years of wandering around with other people who didn’t know a damn thing. She warned me that strings on bananas contain poison: I carefully de-string each banana before consumption to this day, even though I know better. Often, she admitted she had no idea what year it was, even if told a few hours earlier. She didn’t understand how babies were made, but being naked with a man was bad. Any concept of a bigger world completely eclipsed her; if i talked about going overseas, she asked if that was nearby.
It didn’t matter, though. She guarded me, and later my brother, like a mama bear. Her love knew no bounds. She watched us from the window as we played, and cuddled us at night. She slipped us treats and quarters, because they seemed like a lot of money to her. She was family to us—family that thought soap operas were real and who told us she knew where the kidnappers were holding the character Roman Brady from Days of Our Lives, though it wasn’t her business to interfere, but family all the same. And yes, I tried endless times to explain that TV wasn’t real, which always lead to this:
“Well, I know I see it!”
Crazy and illiterate, but my protector and encourager, even though she knew not what she encouraged me to do. She just wanted me to be happy. I could have killed chickens, or read the classics. Whatever made me happy made her happy. She loved me. I loved her. I love her. She wouldn’t even be able to read her tombstone. In my version of the afterlife, she does.
That’s why I like books.