{August 13, 2012}   Another Meeting at the Harper Valley PTA

My family moved from the city when I was eleven. In my new neighborhood, the houses were far apart and no one walked on the street. Our road was paved, but everywhere around us were dirt roads.  At the top of our street was Nickajack Road, a dirt road with a pig farm. In the summer, we could smell the sour mixture of straw and manure as hot breezes from the pig farm drifted over our subdivision. My school wasn’t close enough to walk to anymore so I had to ride the school bus. If I was invited to a friend’s house after school I had to be driven home, and there were only one or two friends who lived near me. There was nothing to do except go to the store with Daddy to buy milk, bread and candy at the Floyd Road Shoppette, a few miles away in Mableton. There was a Krystal and Barnes Hardware where old men in overalls parked their pickup trucks and hung out and talked in front of the store. The closest shopping center was Cobb Center, a strip shopping center that had a Rich’s, a Woolworth’s, a dry cleaners and a beauty shop. There was no where else to go. After school and on weekends, I’d shut the door of my room and come out only for meals. I read mystery books and played records behind the closed door. My younger brother and sister were not real company for me.

TV became an ally since I didn’t have real friends anymore. My favorite TV program was That Girl, with Marlo Thomas playing Anne Marie. Anne Marie was a small town girl who moved to New York City to find a job as an actress. Her job was as a waitress in a diner, but she went on auditions, had her own apartment, had a boyfriend (Donald) and made her own money. I wanted to live in New York City. l wanted to have my own apartment and a boyfriend like Donald, who would overlook my mistakes and still love me when I failed at audition after audition. I also liked Bewitched  but I felt sorry for Samantha.  Even though Sam had magical powers, her husband Darin would be angry when she used them. If she slipped up and used her magic, she had to keep it a secret from him or he would be angry.  Darin would always find out and Sam would promise again that she would try to live like a mortal and not let anyone find out that she was a witch. No wonder Sam’s mother, Endora, hated Darin.

When we lived in the city, Mother would take us to Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. We would eat sandwiches from the automat at the Bridge, which was between two buildings Rich’s occupied. Sometimes, we ate lunch at the Magnolia Room, which was fancier than the Bridge. You had to be dressed up to eat there; most of the women and girls wore gloves at the table. The Magnolia Room was known  for their coconut cake, and I loved it. Going to downtown Atlanta was fun, no matter where you ate. When we moved, we never went to downtown Rich’s again because it was too far to drive. Instead we went to Rich’s at Cobb Center, and ate at the Dairy Queen on the way home.

Once we moved, life changed for all of us. Mother hung around the house all day, and didn’t have much to do. No friends ever came by. Sometimes she saw her sister when she drove to our house to visit, but that wasn’t very often. Then one day, Mother announced that she was going to run for Secretary of the Jr. High School PTA. For this position, she would need new clothes. I think that was the main reason she wanted to be in the PTA.  Her favorite song that year was Jeanne C. Riley’s hit, Harper Valley PTA.  It was a song about a woman who gets a note from the PTA accusing her of setting a bad example for her daughter by drinking too much, wearing mini skirts, running around with men and going wild. So the woman in the song goes to the PTA meeting and points out embarrassing things about the PTA members, like their secret trysts, barhopping, gin drinking and exhibitionism.

Before the first PTA meeting, Mother went shopping at Cobb Center and came home with the latest fashion–a mini skirt, a pair of big sunglasses and white go-go boots. I liked the boots, but when she wore them it reminded me of another of her other favorite songs, These Boots Are Made For Walking by Nancy Sinatra. It was a terrifying song about a woman who threatened to walk all over somebody with her boots. I hoped that didn’t give Mother any ideas.

To complete her new look, Mother had her hair done at the beauty shop in Cobb Center. She had her hair dyed jet black, and CeCe would tease it high at the crown, trim her bangs and use curlers so that she had a flip. Her hair looked just like Anne Marie’s in That Girl, but that was the only way those two were alike.

Mother ran for PTA Secretary and won. Now she had power. She heard all the tidbits about other parents in the school. After the meetings, she was often complemented on how she looked. Every month, Mother would shop for a new outfit for the PTA meeting. She had to look her best, she said. Mother also volunteered to be a substitute teacher for my class when my teacher was out sick. She was at my school all the time that year. I didn’t like it because I couldn’t get away from her, not even at school. The kids in my class liked Mother as a substitute because she let the class run wild and didn’t make them do any work. My friends told me they thought she was pretty. I liked the new look Mother had, but it didn’t make her act any differently. She was always nice in front of other people, but not when we were home.

That same year, Mother started singing in the choir at the new church, Glory Hills Baptist. It wasn’t because she became religious. It was because she had new clothes and needed some place to wear them. The church became Mother’s stage on Sunday mornings. She would have her hair done at the beauty shop on Saturdays so she would look good for Sunday. She wore her hair teased in a flip or sometimes had it twisted into a beehive bun. Sometimes the bun had fake blonde strands woven into the beehive, held together with bobby pins and hair spray. Since Mother only had her hair washed once a week, she would wrap her hair in toilet paper every night so she wouldn’t mess it up in her sleep. My parents slept in twin beds. That might have been because Mother didn’t want to get her hair messed up by sleeping in the same bed with Daddy.

Mother made us kids go to Sunday School with her but Daddy refused to go. He said he worked all week and didn’t want to go anywhere on Sunday mornings. He said he didn’t believe going to church made anybody a better person. He said he wasn’t afraid of being left out of heaven; he said he’d just take his chances. I didn’t like Mother’s new church. Everyone had to be dressed in good clothes to go there, especially on Easter when women and girls wore hats and gloves and new shoes.  I liked my Paw Paw’s church. People there didn’t care if they weren’t dressed in the latest fashion and when they were nice, they weren’t acting. In Paw Paw’s church, you could sing hymns as loud as you wanted. You could cry in front of people and they would put their arm around you and let you cry. They also had homecomings where people brought fried chicken, ham, potato salad, beets, rolls and sweet iced tea in gallon jugs. But at Mother’s church, they had afternoon tea.

One day, the minister of Glory Hills Baptist visited our house. I was surprised that he was there to talk to me. I sat on a piano bench in the living room and listened while he explained that it was time for me to think about being baptized. He said that I was old enough now to consider it. He said baptism was the passage into heaven. I told him that I had already been baptized at Friendship Methodist, my Paw Paw’s church. I asked him if I had to be dunked underwater in the blue tank behind the pulpit so that my baptism would count in this church. He said yes. It would only take a second. I told him I’d think about it.

At Friendship Methodist, they didn’t dunk you. The preacher would sprinkle water on top of your head and that was it. Paw Paw said baptism was symbolic so you don’t have to be dunked underwater to be baptized. I believed that, too. But I felt embarrassed when I saw the minister at Glory Hills the next Sunday. I still hadn’t given him my answer. The church only offered baptism a few times a year and if I didn’t agree to do it now, I would have to wait. The minister said he had to know in advance if I was going to do it because I’d have to learn some bible passages by heart and recite them before the baptism. He told me that once I was baptized, I’d be a member of the church. I finally decided–why not. Even though I’d already been sprinkled at Paw Paw’s church, it wouldn’t hurt to take out a little insurance on the baptism. I told the minister that I would do it. He said he was happy to hear that.

A few weeks later, I was baptized in the blue water tank behind the podium. The minister said some scripture and pulled me backwards down into the water then lifted me back up. That was it. I didn’t feel changed, but I figured I did the right thing just in case they were right–that no matter what good deeds I did in my life, not being baptized  would keep me from going to heaven.  Now I was safe.

Mother’s church-going lasted for about another year. It ended abruptly when the minister at the church resigned. I heard it was something involving a woman from the church. I never knew what happened after that because we never went back to the church. Whenever the subject came up, people would whisper and I couldn’t hear what they were saying.


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