This is an excerpt from my book project – Georgia In Her Mind, a memoir. In 1997, Georgia shot the man who was trying to rape her and got twelve years. In 2002, I walked into a classroom at Troy Correctional Center for Women and she became my student in a writing and performance class. This is the story of her life so far.
A small excerpt:
I know your life on earth was troubled
And only you could know the pain
You weren’t afraid to face the devil
You were no stranger to the rain
–Vince Gill, Go Rest High On That Mountain
Vince Gill just made headlines for choking up on that song while he sang it at George Jones’ funeral. In 1995, it was coming over the cheap speakers in Thompson’s Funeral Home in Eden, North Carolina, soundtrack for country grief.
How are you like your mom? I ask her. I wonder if this question will be too turbulent. But I should know after all this time that Georgia doesn’t get angry at recognition, at patterns. Sometimes she breaks them, sometimes she just watches them go by, but she can’t afford much emotion around them. Still, she takes a sharp inhale and holds her breath for a bit, then, “I’m harsh like her. I remind myself of her when I’m being loud.”
She takes a drag from her cigarette, the double-wide trailer fills with more smoke. The stinging in my eyes is pretty constant by now, but has ceased to bother me. This is where we are.
“She smelled like cigarettes. And Vanilla Fields. No, no, it was Blue Navy and Aviance Night Musk that she smelled like. …I stole all that stuff for her from Kmart, Food Lion, Krogers. She taught me how to steal. Her and Rog’s sister Di – they got me shoplifting when I was seven, eight years old. I wouldn’t get in trouble as much as they would. Everything I stole: shoes for the boys, Christmas. On up until my adulthood life. Everything would be on my body – big baggy shirt and tight pants – that holds it in. I’d steal electronics then take it back and get the money for it. Cartons and cartons of cigarettes wrapped around my waist.”
Martha died like all die in Georgia’s life, swiftly or harshly, with no reverberations. Her death in a car accident at the age of 47, was the beginning of Georgia’s swift tumble toward prison. She was 21 in 1996. After she buried her mother, she was to bury her brother, and then her eight year-old daughter.
It seems like in the years before she died, Martha was finally learning to be something that could love better. “You know what’s weird?” Georgia tells me. “With Mike’s (Martha’s last husband) kids, my mom became a pretty fuckin great mom. It was like me and Jamie were the estranged children. You would never believe that my mother was the same one. Everyone in Eden (North Carolina) loved her. What a great mother they said. Something changed in her. I saw it. But Mike was always afraid we would take her away. But Mom did try. We had to sneak to see each other. She was keeping Christian (Georgia’s second child) for me at the time and she was really trying to have a relationship with me near the end.” So in someone else’s universe, the next twenty years would have been new ones, mended. But Georgia didn’t get that.
Though it was a car accident, Gladys swears that Mike killed her on purpose: “I mean, them boys know how to drive. They learn how to drive on ol dirt roads and big ol hills and stuff. He was passin her on a curve. He clipped her bumper. He knew what he was doin.”
The last time Gladys and Georgia talked about this, Gladys told her, “You know what Daddy wanted me to do after Marty’s funeral? He got the rifle. Told me to go in and shoot him. I’ll go around the block and pick you up he said.” They laugh a little. Georgia says you shoulda done it.
“I said no, God with take care of him.”
I don’t know if God did take care of him. He’s still alive, not too far away from Little River, still drinkin, Gladys says. Rog, too is still alive. In Georgia and Gladys’ world, the standard demographic trends are reversed. The men get pickled by beer or drugs or sex and fester on. While the women get older and smaller. Or just disappear.
Georgia says, “They say Rog is big as a porch and got two little girls – 8 or 9. But you know I wasn’t his kid so maybe… men do things to other people’s kids that they wouldn’t do to their own. You know what I’m sayin?”
“Not ok for a man to do anything like that. Period. Do it to one, do it to another,” Gladys says. And starts to talk about her sister again: “she just had to be loved.”
When Martha was dying, the hospital provided a priest for all its intensive care patients. Georgia says “priest” and I say doesn’t she mean preacher? No, priest, she says. “That’s what they had.”
Georgia had him read 1 Corinthians 13 every day that her Mom held on. Most of us know the ending: the greatest of these is love. But Georgia had him read all of it because, she says, “it explains what love is and what love should be and what I desire to have in my life.”
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
“Sometimes it was good with her. She let you stay home from school when her back went out – stay home and take care of her. She couldn’t get off the couch. We watched soap operas together. I drank mountain dew.”
But most often she’d just take off so she wouldn’t have to hear her Mom and Rog having sex. Eventually, they started sending her off instead of having to call the police to find out where she was. They would drop her at the movies, swimming pool, skating rink. And because she was afraid of what Rog might do if she ever brought friends over to the house, she never had any real friends. So in those long afternoons in public spaces, she would just be there, on the edges, a tiny girl trying not to get noticed. “The feelin I felt the most was loneliness at those times. Surrounded by so many people and not being able to buy any of it. I could only afford the admission.” Some days she would get out of the pool, walk out the gate and then keep going. When Martha did remember to come get her, Georgia was gone, on the road again until the ache got to be too much, or until it dulled. It depends on which ache – its source and its size.
She says the first time she ever felt settled or relaxed was when she met her first husband, Joe. She was fifteen. It was Joe’s mother, Phyllis, who taught Georgia how to be a lady, as she puts it. “She did the motherly stuff. At ours, Jamie and I were the ones who had to cook and clean, get them beer, make them a sandwich. It’s probably why I’m so fucking good at cleaning now,” she says and does that little smile that says, can you believe this is my life. …She pulls out another Doral.
Sitting there in the hospital those seven days, she says she never let go of Martha’s hand. Told her that she was recording all her soap operas so she wouldn’t miss anything. And she took out her nose ring because her mom always hated it. As if that was some kind of promise. Those small desperate gestures, the things we do to make life last a little longer. They broke Georgia’s heart though. She had never drank or picked up a needle. A year later she was indicted for cooking crack and second-degree murder.
To pay for the funeral, Georgia wrote bad checks: a deposit on 13,000 dollars. In the end, she was the only one to do it. Mike didn’t have any money, or says he didn’t. Jamie was incapable of planning and executing something so sad. He’d fallen apart so badly when Martha died that he was useless to help. So the director of Thompson’s Funeral Home let Georgia pay in installments. What she paid for were the things she believed needed to be done right: the funeral costs – casket, service, obituary, flowers, but she also bought her mother funeral clothes and clothes for the family to wear for the funeral. That mattered to her.
Of course, those empty checks just bought some time to create something normal. To end a life the way Georgia believed it should be ended. Martha’s life insurance policy eventually came through and covered the rest of the costs. And then time sped up: “Before they could get me for the checks, the statute of limitations had run out and I was in prison for murder.”
After Martha died, Mike was all that was left. Jamie went back to his life in Virginia and Georgia didn’t know where her own husband was. She moved in to her mother’s old trailer to take care of Mike, whom she despised.
“Mom worshipped the ground he walked on. She made me promise to take care of him if anything happened to her. So I did. He was insane with grief, became obsessed with me. I did it as long as I could, then I got out. He was a piece of shit just like the others. Always had been. Ha. The first words I ever said to him were if you hurt my mom I’ll fucking kill you. …But I didn’t. I took care of him. That’s what she would have wanted. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Years earlier, when her mother’s aggressive neglect started to overwhelm Georgia, she knew if it wasn’t going to crush her, she would have to contain it, shape it into what was manageable. She said to herself “one day one of us is gonna die and I don’t wanna be the one regretting not having a relationship.” And eventually it worked. And today it’s the only thing that keeps Georgia from desperate sadness: aggressive neglect lost to a fierce will to hope all things and endure all things.
Now, eighteen years and a prison term later, she’s doing the same thing for Martha’s sister. Gladys died last night. I read Georgia’s post on Facebook and call her. She never calls me when something bad happens.
“What can I do?” I say from California.
“Nothin.” Same as she always says.
“Well what do you have to do?”
“Everything. Her family doesn’t want to pay for anything if they don’t get their way. They want her buried in the cemetery in Rosemont. That’s not what Gladys wanted. And Michelle, Gladys’ daughter, is getting a divorce, so she don’t want her ex at the funeral, but he loved Gladys and she would want him there. Amanda, I’m so fucking tired of taking care of everyone. …I gotta find 2500 bucks from somewhere. That’s what it costs if I do everything but burn her. I get the urn, Christian is gonna do the service. I write the obituary.”
In Horry County, South Carolina, where Georgia lives, the 2010 Census reported that 16 % of the population is under poverty line. Out of a total population of 282, 285, that’s 45,165 people. 45,000 funerals that no one can afford.
“Obituaries cost money!?” I don’t know why I assumed that words would be free. “Well let’s write it. Would that help?
“Yes. Yes that would help a lot.” I am so relieved to have something to do besides just write this book. Something I can do in ten minutes that would take her shifting half the day and three children and looking for quiet time and then staring into a computer screen too tired to think and worried about how much each word costs.
She’d already thought it through of course. She sent me to some websites with templates, so I’ll do it correctly. “Just talk, I’ll type,” I say.
I go through the list that the websites prescribe: what were her favorite activities, what will she be remembered for, what volunteer work did she do – questions that seem silly to ask about someone who’d spent all her years just trying to stay alive and not get beaten or conned. It’s hard for Georgia to answer some of them. In the adding up of the days of a life, there wasn’t much that stood out. “I don’t know,” she finally says. “She was just there for everyone.” Then she remembers that Gladys loved plants. I think back to the day I met her, sitting in a dirt yard trailer park on a washed out white porch next to a rusty swing, she herself small and colorless. I wish her lots of green in heaven.
Gladys is survived by children Michelle Richardson and James Richardson, and son-in-law, Richard Hawks; grandchildren Michael Kidd, Brittany Richardson, Sean Richardson, and Candice Hawks; siblings Kathleen Maxie and Barbara Dyson; and dear friend Jim Wilson. She was preceded in death by sisters Martha Bowman and Pat Roop.
I don’t know why Georgia doesn’t mention herself. I think she sees herself as the invisible one – Gladys wasn’t her real mother. She doesn’t get to claim her. There are codes that must be followed.
The service will be held Friday March 20, 7:00 pm at Lee’s Funeral Home in Little River. In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to help cover the cost of services. Checks can be made payable to Lee’s Funeral Home.
She talked the funeral home into letting her pay after. There aren’t any bad checks anymore. And from this side of her life. Georgia doesn’t want to write them anyway.
“Gladys, we know you are no longer in pain and were welcomed into heaven by so many of those we have lost and loved so dearly. Go fly with the angels.”
So Vince Gill sings Gladys out too: Go rest high on that mountain, your time on earth is done. And I think it’s right. I remember her telling me how much she loved the mountains where she came from. She doesn’t leave much of a shadow. Her thin, weary body ash now.
Georgia asks me for the recording I made of my interview with her. I ask why. It’s hard to hear and so much of it is about Georgia. “People just wanna have something,” she says.
In hardscrabble lives, the decorations, even the photos, which seem so essential – they get swallowed up in the move to the house where the rent is cheaper, in the car that caught on fire, in the box that got left at so and so’s when so and so went to prison. I am the one, here, way on the outside, in a California afternoon, holding on to someone else’s story.