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Holy Roller: Excerpt

The following excerpt is from Holy Roller: Growing Up in the Church of Knock Down, Drag Out; or, How I Quit Loving a Blue-Eyed Jesus by Diane Wilson.

Momma’s pregnancies were hellacious. First she vomited her guts out and then she cried about it. If that wasn’t enough to cement the connection between hell and pregnancy, six months into her fourth pregnancy, while hanging out a washtub of wet clothes on a line tied to a rain cistern where rats and birds fell plus we got our water, a blood clot froze in her eyes and she went blind in one. One-eyed and one year later, Momma had me. (Nothing slowed down her baby train.) It was October, the dead-last phase of the moon, and summerlike with the windows open but screened to keep out the mosquitoes that were always worse after dark. I was delivered, howling like a banshee, in my grandma’s bed by Aunt Teny, whose curly, frizzy hair mine eventually resembled.

I was not the first grandkid born at Grandma’s but the fifth. And while babies might have started at home, they always ended up at Grandma’s because she had an indoor toilet and many helpful girls: Goldie Belle, Silver, Tena Perlina (Teny), and June Bug. (Grandma had attempted to name all her girls after precious jewels mentioned in the Bible, but she quit and settled on a month of the year for the youngest girl because a neighbor lady said Garnet sounded like Jezebel.) Grandma had a couple of taboos on childbearing. One, don’t mention that nasty word! But if you must, then call it PG. Two, a woman’s insides would fall out if she set foot on the floor too soon after delivery so for two solid weeks, Grandma and her three girls waited on Momma hand and foot (this was the only time Momma was queen of anything), and in the evening fried chicken and dumplings and biscuits in a covered skillet were toted from the bayou house (where Grandma and the girls were) to the shinnery house (where Daddy and the boys were).

Then Daddy showed up from shrimping one day and, lo and behold, there was a new screaming baby in the house. Daddy was indifferent to the whole baby thing and the most he’d do was put one rubber fishing boot against the baby’s butt and say, “Goldie, this baby’s diaper needs changing.” Only once was a baby (my brother) delivered in Momma’s iron bed and for once Daddy got to see the whole messy little affair from scratch and in her delirium Momma called Daddy Billy Bones, which she never did again.

Most screaming babies take a couple days to calm down, a month at the most, but I never calmed down. I screamed like I had a hot poker stuck to my foot—until I didn’t. And I stopped because I was sent to Houston to visit my curlyhaired Aunt Teny (who had only one kid) and I fell in love with their cement sidewalk. Momma thought it was the 150-mile ride that ended the crying, but it wasn’t. The cement sidewalk did it.

The cement-sidewalk love affair was cut short, though, ’cause Daddy liked all his kids in one spot and not farmed out (for a starving fisherman, he had an inordinate amount of pride), so I was sent home to Momma, who had two more babies, and my fascination with cement was transferred to a baby bottle that I sucked until I was four. I didn’t see my Aunt Teny again until a hurricane sent an open invitation to her and her feisty union husband and her one kid: come to Seadrift and live with Grandma in the Land of Plenty. Which was exactly what they did. They moved from Houston to Grandma’s bayou house that had shifted off its blocks in a storm and left them a leaning metal bed to sleep in.

If Aunt Teny’s husband had a horse he would have rode it out of town quick because Seadrift was a town that had no love of union men. She only loved fishermen. But he didn’t have a horse so he got over it soon enough and set up a store that for nine long years was a Main Street attraction along with a picture show, a dry goods store where unsold clothes hung so long on the racks that the sun rotted the seams, and a Western Auto store where fishermen bought rope, shackles, and webbing with promises of payment come a good shrimp season.


I was sitting (hiding) in Uncle Bill’s empty potato bin and not because I was scared of Uncle Bill who cussed on a dime, shouting, “You demon, you demon! I’m gonna keeel you!” if you messed with one iota of anything of his; I was hiding because crying had wore my young life out and hiding was the extent of my projection into the world. And anything would make me hide. I hid because the sun came up funny. I hid because of a bad dream. I hid because somebody said I had a big bottom lip and did I play the trumpet? Did I pout a lot? Once I hid because my brother burned my paper dolls that I’d cut from a Sears catalog and had propped up on a pillow with a quilt covering their paper legs.

And the potato bin wasn’t the first place I’d hid, it was just the latest. I hid in weeds and in ankle-deep mud with foam nearly in my nose, and sometimes I hid in an old wrecked car in the pasture and watched a million yellow jackets track across the blurred windows and beat their wasp wings like Momma’s finger beating against my chest. You listening to me, Silver? You listening to me? Well, one part was and one part wasn’t and the part that wasn’t, Momma said, was one queer girl. One time I hid in a high leafy branch overhanging the only road in front of our house and a man on a tractor came by, looked up, saw my funny little face, and nearly ran into the ditch. Another time I was underneath Momma’s bed and I forget who all was left in the bedroom while Momma was pulling off her Sunday dress, but Pill was warting the fool out of the cat hiding under the bed with me.

Pill leaned down and her voice cracked when she bent over. She said, “Whooo do you luuuv, Siiilvaaah? Whooo do you luuuv?”

I grabbed the yellow cat lying in the dust and shouted, “I love Jesus and Brother Bob! And Abraham Lincoln!”

Momma yelled, “Leave her alone!” and Pill said, “Whyyy?” And Momma said, “You know.” That’s what Momma said: “You know.”

Well, half the you know was five women in the same house with one having a whole room to herself while three slept in the same bed with the one nearest the window hiding and taking notes on the windowsill. Of the three sisters in the same bed, Sheena was the cleverest, the oldest, and the prettiest (Pill was just the cutest) and she liked conflict as much as Momma hated it and I disappeared before it arrived. For instance, in the cold early-morning hours after a howling norther blew the leaves off every tree and shoved half the water from the bay, Sheena tossed us out of bed just to rearrange the quilts and the pillows and the sheets. She was boss of the bed. Any questions? Any takers? Well, not Pill, who just grogged around, saying, “Ughhh.” A real deadhead seeking warmth. Even a thimbleful. So half the time she ended up curled in a knot on the floor while I ticked away in silence and devised a bomb for Sheena’s fat head. A big ax to fall on her big fat skull. Finally she told me to go back to my spot at the window. And I did.

Sheena was twelve years old and every boy cousin we had (we had six) was in love with her. She was as sophisticated as it was gonna get at her age and living in the country like we did. (My oldest sister’s, Nina’s, level exceeded all our expectations. She was sixteen, had a room to herself, and possessed a huge can of perfumed talcum powder that she got as a graduation present and for being so smart and she used it on every nook and cranny in her body and in the process drenched the floor, the walls, and a cedar hope chest where a half dozen of Grandma’s string rugs and one crocheted white-shell afghan nestled until the D-day of her marriage.) After Momma hid Ticky’s box of California underwear out behind the cow shed to keep us girls from rushing headlong into prostitution or Jezebel-style dressing, Sheena was the first to find the box, cut off one of the black silky nighties up to her bum, then swing through the trees, calling herself Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

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