Thumbing through some old journals I stumbled across an entry in one that brought back the memory of something I thought I would never forget ….. But I had.
In 1999 I booked gigs in North Carolina for my first on-my-own storytelling road trip. I was performing at Meredith College in Raleigh and at the Museum of the New South in Charlotte for an event sponsored by the Mecklenburg County Women’s Commission. I was so excited about telling, Flesh on Old Bones, my stories about my North Carolina women that I did not think about the dreaded eight hour drive ahead.
Saturday afternoon before I was to leave on Sunday, I was moving fast around the house to get ready for the road trip. I stepped out onto the deck to ask my husband, Jim, who was working in the yard, a question. He answered and when I whirled around to go back into the house I tripped on the doorway. I splatted forward and met the kitchen floor full on my face. I felt my glasses dig into my cheekbone on the right side.
Jim heard the commotion and rushed in. “Stay still until I check you out.” His doctor-self always jumped to the rescue. He did his checking and then he helped me to a near-by couch.
“Ellouise, this eye is going to look bad. It is already swelling. I will ice it for you.”
I reached up and when I touched my forehead and the area around the right eye it was tender.
“Jim, what will I do. I have to drive to North Carolina tomorrow.”
He was crushing ice in the kitchen.
“We will see. Just keep you head down for right now.”
” I have to go.”
His doctor’s voice answered, “We will see, Ellouise.”
By next day my face was swollen and the right side was now a deep magenta. I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror.
“Jim, ” I called out. “I look like I have been beaten up. How can I tell stories to people?”
Please look at this, my eyelid is so swollen I can’t see out of my right eye.”
Jim carefully lifted my eyelid. Then he reached in the medicine chest and brought out the band-aid box. “This might work.” He taped my eyelid up so that I could see out of the right eye.”
“Ellouise, I don’t think you can drive to NC like this ….
plus the way you look you are going to scare people.”
“I am going.” And, I did. Changing the band-aids frequently and wondering how I was going to get along.
First stop was Meredith college where those folks were ever so delicately, so painfully polite they never mentioned my face. Only the young guy who wired me up with a lapel mic said anything –
“what happened to you, Lady.”
After that I told my hour program of stories feeling like a gold fish in a bowl as I stood in an amphitheater looking up into about 100 young faces who looked to me like they were wondering “what happened to you, lady.”
When I called Jim that evening he was encouraging,
“Jim, they act like they don’t believe me when I tell them I fell.”
“ Honey I was pretty sure they wouldn’t.
“Sounds like your eye is all right. You are doing a good job. Keep it up.”
“That felt good but I would have felt better if there had been a strong warm hug to go along with it.
Next day, still using the band-aids to hold up the eye-lid so that I could see to drive, I drove on to Charlotte, to perform for the women’s commission event. A woman met me at the museum to help me set up. She gasped when she saw me. Then she explained that the issue they were working on for this year was Domestic Violence. We both agreed I looked like they had brought me in as a poster for the issue. I was embarrassed and felt a bit dumb, that I had not made the connection between my face and their issue work.
I swallowed hard and explained how I had tripped in the kitchen.
“Well, tell them that when you start your program. Some of the women will believe you – some won’t.”
At least that would be better than ignoring what a sight I looked like as I had done at Meredith.
Oops. I had forgotten about my mother.
She lived in Charlotte, where I was born and raised. Part of my trip was a visit with her. Yes, she was coming to the performance – with my Aunt. Sure enough, they came all dressed up and a little early.
When I saw them come in I hurried to the back of the room to greet them. They both gasped. Mama seemed to have lost her voice but my Aunt Katherine was never without words,
“Good lord a mighty Ellouise, what happened to you, girl”. And I told them the thumbnail version of the story.
Mama had gotten her words back,” well, I knew Jim didn’t do that.” I hugged her..
The woman who spoke after my stories was a survivor of Domestic Violence who now spoke to groups to educate the public. When she was called to the microphone she paused and waited a moment before she said –
“I used to look like that,” she looked over at me “but it wasn’t because I fell in my kitchen – like she did. It was because my husband hit me.”
They liked my stories that night – they laughed and listened and they told me so afterwards.
But there is no question that the story that was the “eye-opener” was the survivor’s story.