HAYWOOD SMITH is the New York Times bestselling author of fourteen books. She lives on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta, Georgia.
Don’t you just hate it when God hits the replay button on the tough stuff in your life? I sure do, and when He hit it in my life a year ago, it was a biggie.
A lot has happened in the year since that day: wars were fought, disasters raged, great things began, and great things were lost, but I was too caught up in the minor miracles and tragedies of my own little life to notice. (I did vote, though; happily on the local level, but when it came to Washington, I had to choose the lesser of the evils, which I am seriously sick of, but I voted anyway. Use it or lose it.)
On that blazing July seventh a year ago, I took the long way back to my mother’s (Miss Mamie to everyone, including my brother Tommy and me) at 1431 Green Street in Mimosa Branch, Georgia.
Despite all my efforts, there I was, moving back to my mother’s domain. Again.
The phantom umbilicus that connected me to my mother had turned into the string on a yo-yo.
Ten years older than I was the first time I’d had to move back home. Ten years tireder. Branded as the local scarlet woman for something I didn’t do. And really, really ticked off.
Anger was the only energy I had left.
Through all the tribulations I’ve endured—and there have been a few—my prayer has always been Please, God, let me pass this test the first time, because I sure don’t want to have to take it again.
Apparently, I must have flunked the first test ten years ago when I’d had to move in with my “eccentric” (read: crazy) Southern family in the town I’d married to escape.
I hadn’t had any other options then, either. My straight-arrow CPA husband of thirty years had gotten engaged to a stripper and supposedly spent all our money (including what we owed the IRS), so I’d lost everything but what I could carry and the furniture I’d squirreled away with friends in Buckhead who’d promptly dropped me after the divorce.
This time around, I had the economy to blame. After years of working twenty-four/seven selling houses during the building boom, I’d finally managed to buy my own little brick ranch ten miles from town, then disappeared into the blessed anonymity of exurbia. My own little Fortress of Solitude.
Boy, was that a relief after being under constant scrutiny in Mimosa Branch.
But when the real estate bubble blew, plunging the economy into a depression, I was once again reduced to penury, upside down in my mortgage.
So on that hot, fateful July seventh a year ago, I’d signed over my house in a short sale for a fraction of its true worth and finally given in to Miss Mamie’s pleas to come home and help her with the house, now that the General and Uncle B were roommates in the Alzheimer’s wing of the Home, as the local nursing facility was known by one and all in Mimosa Branch.
Everybody but Tommy and I called my daddy the General—not because he’d been one in the military, but because of his dictatorial personality and the fact that he’d been the premier general contractor in Mimosa Branch for fifty years, till age and Alzheimer’s caught up with him.
Heading for my mother’s from the lawyer’s office, I tried my best to be grateful that I could move into the garage apartment again. I couldn’t even scrape up a deposit for lodgings elsewhere, much less commit to paying rent. At least I wasn’t in a shelter, which definitely wouldn’t have fit my small-town aristocratic sensibilities, or my mother’s.
Which left me right back where I’d started a decade before: not-so-instant replay, on a cosmic level.
Give thanks in all things, the Bible says, but I wasn’t doing very well with that one under the circumstances.
As I had in my divorce, I climbed up in the Almighty Creator of the Universe’s lap, beat on His chest, and asked Him why this was happening. Again.
And cussed about it, but only in my mind. Not as bad as I had cussed ten years ago, mind you. Back then, I’d been so hurt that vulgarities I’d never even thought, much less said, became my mantra for almost a year. My very prim Christian marriage counselor/psychiatrist at the time had told me that if cussing was all I did, I was doing great, all things considered.
Ever since, I’d done my best to clean up my act, but my thoughts were still rebellious. I’d replaced the cussing with shoot and rats—and in extreme cases, antidisestablishmentarianism, backward—but God knew what I really wanted to say. Yet He is still steeped in grace, putting His arms around me in comfort, not in condemnation.
So there I was, towing a crammed U-Haul trailer behind my crammed 2009 Chrysler Town and Country minivan (paid for when I was selling houses hand over fist, thank the good Lord). I turned onto Main Street from South Roberts, only to find myself the last in a long line of stationary traffic.
Traffic, in olde towne Mimosa Branch! (The merchant’s association had tacked on the extra es at the height of the building boome.)
About ten cars ahead of me, a restaurant delivery truck was blocking all of my lane and half the other at our local upscale bistro, Terra Sol, which was probably a major traffic violation, since there was a perfectly good alley in the back. Definitely wretched timing, unloading during the lunch rush.
Not that I was in any hurry to finish moving into the garage apartment I’d renovated on the first go-round, but I’ve always been a face-the-music-and-get-it-over-with kind of person.
Taking advantage of the traffic backup, I punched in the previous calls screen on my Walmart prepaid cell phone, then scrolled down to my best friend Tricia’s number and pressed the green receiver button to call her. I heard a nanosecond of dial tone, then the phone beeped out her number in Alexandria, Virginia. After four rings I was about to hang up when she picked up the phone, breathless.
“Sorry,” she panted out, “I was out deadheading my roses.”
Thank goodness she was there. I really needed to vent. “Well, I’m headed back to Miss Mamie’s from the lawyer’s office with the last of my earthly goods, and I feel like throwing up.”
“Poor baby, poor baby, poor baby,” she commiserated, one short of the four poor babys I felt the situation merited. “I don’t blame you for feeling sick,” she soothed. “So the house closed?”
“Finally.” An ache the size of Stone Mountain squashed my heart. “So this is it. Back to Miss Mamie’s turf. Back to having my every move evaluated and criticized by the whole town.”
Thanks to Miss Mamie’s prayer chains, both Baptist and Methodist, who saw me as the sum total of every mistake I’d ever made and every sin—real or imagined—I’d ever committed.
I went on, “I hate losing my privacy. And the awful thing is, I don’t think I have the energy left to escape again.” I inched forward as the line of SUVs and pickups condensed. “I am too old to start over.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said.
Oh, sure. Easy to say when all you have to worry about is deadheading your rose garden. Tricia had scored big in her divorce.
I’d gotten zip.
Oh, Phil had signed the divorce decree granting me decent alimony. Then he’d promptly quit his job and disappeared. I’d gotten several contempt-of-court convictions on him before I realized I was just wasting time and money.
It was up to our son David—furious at his father—to inform me that friends had bumped into his dad living high on the hog on St. Bart’s with his “fiancée” Bambi Bottoms (she’d legally changed it to that) on the money he’d squirreled away offshore. And bragging about it.
Humiliated and furious, David had promptly called and told me.
Thank you so much. Like I needed more reason to resent his father. I mean, really.
At least David had his great job and his great wife Barb in Charlotte to distract him, plus my precious grandbabies—Callista (what were they thinking?), four, and sunny-bunny Barrett, two. But after my only child had told me about his dad, David had become oddly distant, so I hadn’t nagged him about not calling me. Yet I sure missed hearing about his job and his family. I’d tried calling them, but they politely blew me off. So I left them alone, hoping things would work out some time before I died.
All I had to distract me were bills and useless contempt citations.
Considering my destitution, I wondered if I’d get a percentage if I ratted Phil out to the IRS. The trouble was, I had no idea exactly where he was.
“Are you still there?” Tricia asked.
“Sorry.” I rescued myself from useless resentments and vowed to stay in the present. “My mind wandered. It does that a lot lately.”
“Stress,” she diagnosed.
Then she promptly ignored the rules of our Poor Baby Club and lapsed into it could be worse, with, “At least the apartment is air-conditioned this time around.”
I wasn’t in the mood. “Why did God let this happen to me? Again,” I demanded for the jillionth time.
Tricia let out a brisk sigh. “God didn’t do this. Your crooked ex and the crooked banks and subprime lenders and the politicians did. Everybody’s taken a hit.”
Except Tricia’s ex, who did high-security alternative-power backup systems for the Fed.
When I didn’t reply, she said, “Anyway, you’ve been praying that God would bring America back to its knees, whatever it took.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t think that would mean I’d be driven to poverty. And have to move back home. Again.”
Gratitude, my inner Puritan scolded. At least you have a place to go, with people who love you.
Love me too much, I mentally retorted. At sixty years of age, I did not need to be mothered. Or constantly evaluated, no matter how subtly.
I looked up at the traffic. Rats. The blasted delivery truck was still there. “I’ve repented and cleaned up my act since Grant Owens.” My one disastrous fling. “God knows, I have. So why am I having to repeat this purgatory?”
“Honey, you’re the best person I know,” Tricia told me, and I knew she believed it, but compared to the politicians and government contractors she still hung out with, anybody half decent looked like a saint. “Bad things do happen to good people.”
Surely Jehovah God, Author of All Things (including me), wouldn’t punish me with destitution just for mentally cussing Him out when nobody else was around. Well, maybe not mentally all the time, but it was my sole remaining vice.
“Are you still there?” Tricia asked.
“Yes. I’m thinking.”
God bless her, she let me.
Other than cussing in my brain, I did my best to live a good Christian life. I went to see God at His house most Sundays and tithed, and I tried to be compassionate with everybody—well, except my ex. (Not that I’d had the chance. He’d been out of the country for ten years.)
I’d forgiven Phil long ago as an act of obedience and spiritual self-preservation, but my emotions hadn’t quite gotten the memo. Especially since I’d found out he was still screwing me over, and in the Caribbean.
Not that I hated Phil—I didn’t have that in me—but I’d love a chance to give him a good sheet-beating till he coughed up some cash. Wishful thinking, but I didn’t encourage it. Life goes on.
As my Granny Beth always said, “Being bitter is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill the other person. It only hurts you.”
I wasn’t bitter. At least, not till the bottom of my life had dropped out. Again.
“I just don’t understand why a criminal like Phil can break all the rules,” I complained to Tricia, “and end up in the catbird seat, but I’m the one who’s homeless and destitute.”
Tricia sighed and quoted scripture. “‘Why do the evil prosper?’”
“So the question isn’t a new one,” I griped. “I still want to know why.”
“Remember what your Granny Beth always used to say,” Tricia reminded me. “‘Why doesn’t matter. It’s the devil’s most destructive distraction. What matters is how you deal with it.’”
“I did not call for logic or solutions, missy,” I scolded. Our Poor Baby Club expressly prohibited logic or solutions. Only sympathy allowed. “Or it could be worse. And this is definitely a four, not a three.”
“Poor baby, poor baby, poor baby, poor baby,” she corrected. “Now, whine away.”
So I did, till both of us had had a crawful.
Disgusted with myself for going on so long, I ended with, “Sorry I dumped my pity party on you. Next time I call, I promise to be more positive.”
Tricia chuckled. “You can dump on me all you want. Anytime. Lord knows, I dumped on you a lot more when I got divorced. So you still have a serious whine credit with me.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Bye.”
I always felt better after talking to Tricia, but nothing could make this day any easier.
I, Linwood Breedlove Scott, was officially returning to the Mimosa Branch Hall of Shame.
Copyright © 2014 by Haywood Smith