Archive for the ‘Interviews with Special People’ Category

What makes a person special?  I guess you could say we are all special, but what I particularly appreciate in people is when they rise to the occasion, overcome situations, are curious, exploratory, contribute and are engaged in life. The first time I met Connie, she was cutting my husband’s hair.  I had just moved to this tiny Georgia mountain town, feeling culture shock and wondering whether I had made a mistake moving to a slow paced, almost claustrophobic-in-size place to live.  Her blonde hair is the kind that would make you notice her all the way across a Walmart parking lot.  Long, usually worn straight and very blonde.  Up close, Connie’s eyes are the feature that draw you in, make you wonder how eyes can be that color, seem to be connected to a otherworldly wisdom that is beyond this small town, beyond her simple upbringing, beyond her life time experiences.  And believe me, that is saying a lot because Connie has had her share of life’s handouts and a couple of truckloads full of someone else’s.

            Connie was born somewhere in the middle of ten kids, now 45, but her impoverished story reminds me of my mother’s who was the youngest of ten, dirt-poor, farm-raised in a blip of a town not far from here.   Because of hearing my mother’s childhood stories and falsely imagining that things must have improved for the next generation, it is startling that someone almost my own age could have a nearly identical hardscrabble start in life.  Sitting in Arby’s, after agreeing to let me interview her, Connie lists off her siblings to me, scattered from Alaska to Philadelphia to Oklahoma, struggling to remember their ages and order of birth.  Four of her 5 brothers are dead: car accident, stabbing, gunshot, accidental overdose.  Her sisters, one married to a gypsy, one lost her daughter after 3 heart transplants, married a younger man and moved to Alaska leaving her other 3 children behind, one married to an Indian in the hotel business, believes her oldest sister was her mother in another lifetime, the oldest with 5 living children, lost the first child to crib death.  Drug abuse, gambling, alcoholism, obsessive-compulsive disorders, depression, poverty, tragic death, homelessness; Connie’s family has not been untouched by any of these.

            The mountain road on which she grew up used to be called Hunching Holler Road by locals; it was the place teenagers would park to make out.  Her parents still live in her childhood home; a split-log home built by her grandfather, set a mile or so off the main road down a tree-tight, dirt trail.  Now the type of land property that would be coveted byAtlanta’s elite seeking a second, mountain-home retreat, then was the cast-off property of poverty, no plumbing, an outhouse, no hot water, dirt yard and glaring gaps in the house wall planks.  “We used newspaper for wallpaper inside, mostly to cover the cracks.  The outhouse was over there (she pointed next to the stream on the back side of the house).  At night we’d use a pot on the porch or pee off the side of the porch because the snakes were so bad and we were scared to go in the dark.  We did have electricity, though, and television.  My mom cared about cleanliness, even without hot water.  She made us sweep the dirt yard.” 

            Connie and her closest siblings, Johnny and Jimmy, played all over the mountain, sometimes roaming until dark, never really worried about the wild boar and bear.  “We dreaded the snakes more.  There always seemed to be a lot of snakes here.”  They fished with lizards, ate wild berries, hunted honeysuckle and used their ample imaginations.  Connie had dreams of being an archeologist, digging in a shed behind the house, finding old horseshoes and not much else.  “My childhood was sort of innocent and idyllic, in a way, besides my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s self-absorption, their frequent fights and the lack of almost every material thing.  I still feel a deep connection to the woods and the mountains.”      

            Creating a family of her own has brought its own story of adversity.  Connie divorced her first husband, a drug addict/alcoholic and father of her four children, after staying for too many years.  She remarried a good-looking cop, the adopted, only-child of doting parents.  “He was raised in a nice home.  His family is so normal and safe compared to mine.” Connie explained.  They were a “Godly” family and I felt like my life was “Drug, sex and rock and roll.  My family was definitely NOT normal.  The truth is, I’ve learned to prepare myself for bad things to happen.  This way I’m never surprised by what life is going to hand out.”  Connie’s kids have not been spared either, son in prison for meth abuse, daughters kidnapped and assaulted by a deranged, drug-crazed stranger, left with traumatic nightmares, low self esteem, poor choice-making, the youngest son a life-drifter, purposeless and still living at home.  Peering at me intently across the table she says, “Do you think some families are just cursed?  Do you think we can ever break that spell?”   I don’t know how to answer her, the heaviness of her life like a tangible thing, like a body bag shackled to her heart. 

            “I think other people’s impression of me as a child was that I smiled a lot, seemed happy.”

            “Were you happy?”

            “I guess, in a way, but I hid things so I could fit in, I listened and learned about people that way, I laughed to get along with everybody.  I was pretty competitive growing up.  And I liked to have fun.  I started getting into trouble in middle school, like the time we were playing battle ball in a mud hole.  We used to mess with other kid’s lockers, cut-up in class.”  One of her hand-drawn pictures collaborated with a friend depicted “My dream boat drowned in a puddle of mud.”   The picture was posted in the school hallway by the teacher for punishment.  “We didn’t care.”  By high school, Connie had an older boyfriend (her first husband) who introduced her to grown-up excitement.  “I cut school at lunch to go to Cleveland, met my boyfriend, smoked pot and had sex.”  By 17, Connie was married.  “He made me feel special.  He was good-looking.  I thought I was in love.  I had my reservations about getting married, but did it anyway, probably because I didn’t have any better plans.” 

            “What made you decide to become a beautician?” 

            “I think because I never felt pretty, never felt smart enough, never had enough of anything.  I wanted to help other people feel better about themselves because I know how bad that feels.  It’s almost like I want to protect other people because I see their vulnerabilities.  I’ve always been a very naturally giving, caring person.  As a child, I would read the bible to my younger sisters; I wanted things to be good for other people.  I like figuring people out, what makes them act the way they do, why they feel like they feel.  I love my work.  I can’t imagine doing anything else.  My work is who I am.” 

            I asked Connie why she thought she had made some of the choices in her life that may not have been the best for her.  “I think I keep looking for approval, wanting to be good enough.  I never felt like my mother was a safe place, she sort of had a “meanness” about her.  My dad was more caring, his family was more regal, mannerly, “they ate meals at the table,” they weren’t yellers.  My mother’s family was chaotic, loud, gossipy.  Mom could be very hurtful with comments, shoving me in the middle of her arguments with dad as if she was jealous of me “Why don’t you ask her?”  When mom would leave after fights, I would be put in the position of being the mother.  My dad would say things like, “Don’t you know how to make coffee?”   I felt inadequate, unprepared, unprotected.  There was no one there to comfort me, understand me, share some of my burden.”

            “What things did you hide to fit in with other people?”

            “Underneath my laughter and smiles is sadness, a deep grief.  I’ve come to be okay with that.  I don’t really want to burden other people and I know I can handle anything.  And I want so much for my kids to make positive choices, to be free from the chains of fear, anxiety and unworthiness; the chains that I want to be free of myself. I want to be FREE.”  Tears well up in her deep-blue eyes.  “I’m so tired of dragging around this burden of grief, taking on the whole family’s wounds; it’s like my soul is crying to be released.  Sometimes it’s hard to get out of the bed in the morning, the endlessness of it all.” As I watch Connie’s face, I see her eyes blaze with a quiet confidence, a battle-scarred defiance of evil and hard-times. “One thing I KNOW, though.  I can deal with anything.  I’m the strongest person I know, except for Sheila, maybe.”  Sheila owns the beauty shop where Connie works.  “Sheila is really strong, but I see her vulnerableness because she hasn’t had that many bad things happen to her.  She doesn’t KNOW because she hasn’t had to deal with everything. I KNOW because I have.” 

            It takes a moment, but the sadness passes as Connie sips on her coke. A ray of sunlight spills through the window and illuminates her face. “I love sunshine.  I like to wake up in the morning knowing I have a purpose.  If everything I’ve had to go through in my life was for a purpose, I would want it to be to help other people.  You can help people with just a smile.  A smile is a huge gesture.  I want people to know, especially my kids, that life is what you make it.  I have loyalty towards people; loyalty is being optimistic about other people’s potential.  This is what Sheila did for me.  She saw my potential, my strength and how hard I work.  When people don’t believe in themselves, it makes me sad.  I want people to see that there are many opportunities.” 

            We leave Arby’s and stop at a Conoco on the way back to her work.  She looks tiny, a teenager’s body as she climbs out of her husband’s big, black Chevy truck to pump gas.  Women drive huge, four-wheel trucks in this town, I’ve noticed.  Some older men stand around the crude, hand-carved wooden bench outside the store.  She speaks to them and you can tell she brightens their day, gives them a feeling of being noticed and cared about.  Back in the truck, driving off, she mentions that she comes here every morning to sit on the bench and drink coffee with the “old fellas.”  “They are so interesting.  I love hearing their stories.”

            “You come here every morning?”

            “Yeah, I try to time it so I get here early enough to talk to them but before the younger guys stop here on the way to work.  I don’t want anyone to think I’m available.  I just like hanging around the old guys.”  The image of her meeting them here every morning, chatting over coffee, warms me. 

Back at her shop, I watch her cut a little boy’s hair, his first hair cut.  His father had brought the boy and his older sister, dressed impeccably, the girl complete with ribbons in her hair.  “Who fixed her hair?”  Connie asks the father.  “I did, all by myself,” he said beaming.  Connie is quick and expert, cutting the boys hair before he starts wriggling.  Her touch is kind and soothing, like a loving balm. 

Watching her in her element, reflecting on our talk, I am reminded of the massive stone with a perfect round circle indented on the top she showed me earlier today in her childhood yard.  “My grandfather tried to crack and split the rock to get it out of the yard when he was building the house.  See where they ground into it with a chisel?  It wouldn’t crack though.  As a child, I used the hole it to crack open walnuts because it held a walnut perfectly.” 

            Connie’s challenging childhood, her tough life could easily have splintered her, shattered her, leaving her feeling bitter and lacking.  Many people make the easier, non-caring, victim-mentality choice.  Instead, she’s interested in people, feels purpose in helping others, wants others to connect with their potential, likes to help people discover their beauty and worthiness.  I asked her why she thinks she is different, why she still cares, is so giving.  “I feel like my faith, my belief in Jesus has helped me, although I feel more spiritual than religious.  I’m getting stronger in my heart because of my faith.  I believe in my heart.  I know it is pure and kind and I can trust myself to care about other people.  My kids will never doubt my love for them.  I know that, for sure.”  As you spend time with Connie, you know that for sure, too.  She will not break, her heart is true and she makes room for all your imperfections.  Her wounds have created purpose, like the stone in the yard, unwilling to be destroyed and later used for cracking walnuts.  Connie’s life embraces and nurtures; she gives smiles away freely.  Her dream to “just be free,” heal her wounds, let go of fear, is coming true, one kind gesture at a time.  This is why I feel honored to know her.  This is what makes Connie special.


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