Papa’s behavior towards us became worse over the following year.
We would hear him slap Mama on more than one occasion after a night of drunkenness. He was harsh and rough with us, especially if we were punished. He avoided us the rest of the time. I wanted to run to Mama and comfort her and I wanted to punch Papa in the nose. I succumbed to such anger on those nights I could barely sleep.
Joe was in the Army somewhere in Europe where the war was continuing. It was now me, Leah, and two of my younger brothers pulling the weight on the farm. Papa was almost always on his tractor or in the barn so we rarely saw him until supper most days.
I could hardly wait until my eighteenth birthday.
Working in the field, I had many days where I’d daydream about getting married to Andy Hall. But I’d already decided if he didn’t court me soon, I’d have to make a plan for my life. Bits and pieces of this plan would come to me while I was picking leaves in the hot field. I’ll go two towns over in Franklinville and get a job at the drugstore. I knew how to sleep outside so if I had to do that awhile I could. These daydreams often led to less productive work, which caused Leah to boss me around and bickering to ensue. I was still the oldest girl after all. We usually kept it out of earshot from Papa though, because all of us were tired of his belt.
In August of 1944 I had my first kiss.
Andy and I had whispered in secret a few times at church before he came to my house and asked Papa to court me. I’ll never know how Papa answered, but Mama was delighted.
I fell fast and hard. Truth be known I’d been in love with Andy for years. My folks had known his family for more than 10 years since we first started going to the church, and I had memories of a childhood Andy peppered throughout that time. Now this older, mature Andy was unlike anything I’d ever known. Just being around him made me nervous. I often stammered and could barely hear my own voice when I spoke. But boy did we have fun together. Our courting always involved at least one sibling, yet that didn’t change anything because we never had a dull moment.
He talked about God the Father a lot on our outings and I would ponder over what that meant.
I couldn’t imagine a father being anything like what he described. I wasn’t even sure if the way God loved Andy could even be close to the way God loved me with all the things I’d done.
Andy wanted to be a preacher and let me know it right off the bat. I remembered Mrs. Hatfield once saying that I needed to be quiet with a kind and gentle spirit in order to be considered lady-like. I kept my hands folded in my lap and crossed my legs at the ankles when I was around him. I wanted to make sure he knew I was a class act, even if I had to scrape dirt from my fingernails before I saw him.
Although I wasn’t sure how I would ever make it as a preacher’s wife with such rebellion simmering below the surface, I held on to him like a lifeline. He became my world, my future.
My first kiss nearly stopped my heart. Andy had only courted me twice at that point, but he clearly liked me as much as I did him.
It wasn’t hard to sneak out after he brought me home most nights. On that particular night, we tiptoed out in the field near the creek bed to stargaze. He held my hand and we waded into the water up to our ankles before sitting on the hill. He told me about his mom and dad and his plans for being a preacher the next year. He suddenly stopped to face me, my hands still holding tight to his. “You make me the happiest man in the world Lily. You are not like any other girl I know.”
He pulled me close, kissed me softly, then quickly searched my eyes for signs of emotions. They told him how every star in the sky that night couldn’t hold all of my feelings for him.
For the first time in my life I felt that I finally belonged to someone.
Then came a set of unfortunate circumstances. At the end of September 1944, I had my first broken heart.
The fall blew in harsh winds from the north along with the news that Andy would be joining the Army. Our courtship was over and we both held each other in sobs of tears at his Mama’s house when he broke the news. It crushed me. When he left, I felt waves of grief that were so strong I didn’t think I’d ever recover. I couldn’t even go see him off when his mama asked me to. I knew my heart would never be the same because I would’ve followed Andy to the ends of the earth.
My birthday rolled around the following year in February. Still reeling from my loss with Andy, I found solace in the arms of Paul Harper. He was wild and free and lived only a few streets down. He was working in a mill already and looking to settle down.
I was looking for a way out.
He said all the right things to balm the ache in my heart and I felt I could try and belong with someone again. Couldn’t I? I was certain I’d never see Andy again after months of not hearing from him. We never had a real relationship anyway and I was still crying over lost schoolgirl dreams.
It was time to wake up.
My romance with Paul was anything but. We lived off emotions and made decisions around that. Papa refused to bless my marriage to Paul, of course. He would’ve kept me slaving on the farm until I was eighty if he could’ve. His heartbeat was the Carver farm; his first love.
Paul took me to a courthouse since Papa went to our preacher and forbid him to marry us. He told everyone how I was the most stubborn girl in the world and how I was trying to ruin the family name. He wouldn’t let Mama or any of my family come either.
Just as well because I didn’t need anyone there anyway. With defiance ruling, I knew I was ready for adventure. I was finally 18 and starting a new life.
The worst part of my decision to marry Paul did not take long to surface. Paul fell in and out of work and often drank himself into a stupor. He didn’t love anyone but himself and I knew I didn’t love him.
He spent all of our money on liquor. He lost his fourth job around the time I became pregnant a couple of years into the marriage. I was at a loss. I spoke to Leah when I saw her down at the gas station one day. She missed me something fierce and in that moment I ached to be near her. She begged me to run off, but it was different now. I had to take care of this little one growing in my belly, and babies needed their Papas too.
We stayed together about 3 years while I endured cycles of neglect and emotional turmoil. I’d taken myself to the hospital and birthed the most beautiful little boy with blue eyes in my third lonely, sad summer with Paul.
Gary Lee Harper was the only reason I made it through.
I didn’t belong anymore. I was consumed by loneliness, even with all the new things I had to take care of. I felt something in my chest closing off to a world where dreams felt alive and hope lived abundantly.
I stared down at Paul one morning watching him sleep while he was sprawled out on the couch with empty liquor bottles near his head. I felt a twinge of guilt but mostly I felt hatred. Then a strong surge of fire in my veins.
Looking at him was like looking at Papa.
I decided to leave.
This is Part III of a Part V series.
Photo by Stijn Swinnen