A curvy two-lane road bordered on one side by old growth pine and the other by a wide ditch, some say it’s a ravine, but ditch is a better description. A ditch where people throw trash from their cars and discard useless junk they don’t want anymore. TVs, old refrigerators, even a rusted out flat-bottomed boat stuck up out of the ditch for a while. Until old man Mosley hauled it to his scrap yard, hoping to patch it up.
Millie knew the road well. It led to the choir director’s house. The Tingle family had once owned all of the land in that corner of the county. The choir director’s wife had been a Tingle. Her grandfather, Graham Tingle, had farmed tobacco and his father before him. Tradition dictated the Tingle family lead the way for economic development in the county. To Graham that meant growing, warehousing, and selling tobacco as well as supporting charities his wife, Angeline, found worthwhile.
The cut-off road was the result of a settlement with a neighboring farmer over a water rights dispute. The rocky, uneven land was of no value to the Tingles, unfarmable and not suitable for livestock. So, it became a short cut through the farms to County Route 29, the children’s home at one end, the state mental hospital at the other. No one ever talked about the mothers and children separated by that winding serpent that slithered from Mercy’s Hope toward the edge of despair, a complex of low, white buildings that held tortured souls and silent screams of mill workers, farmers, and the ones just passing through who became trapped inside the county lines for one reason or another.
Millie learned to hate that stretch of twisting blacktop. Too many times sitting in the back seat while the choir director’s wife rushed to get to the church or the state hospital where she volunteered, Millie became violently ill, causing the choir director’s wife to strongly reconsider her choice to become a foster parent.
“Hurry up. I’ve got to get to the church before the deacons’ wives start showing up. Why did you do this after I spent so much time picking out just the right outfit for you? Millie, I think you do this on purpose.”
Nothing was sacred. Any infraction could instantly jeopardize the foster parent foster child arrangement, as fragile as the egg shells Millie often found herself walking on when the choir director’s wife threatened to assert her option to revoke Millie’s privilege.
“I’m sorry. Please.” Still retching and green, Millie staggered a bit trying to wipe off her dress with the Kleenex the choir director’s wife had tossed over the seat to her before she finally pulled over.
“My hills are sinking in this muck! Millie, do you want me to be embarrassed? Sometimes I think you’d rather go back to Mercy’s Hope. Is that what you want? Because if it is…”
“No, please. I’m really sorry. I don’t want to go back. Please don’t send me back.”
Millie’s heart was throbbing. Her head was throbbing. She started to get down on her knees and beg for forgiveness but she was afraid she’d throw up on the choir director’s wife’s shoes. The car sickness made worse by the threat of being sent back to endure Miss Genevieve’s strict rules became a regular part of their routine. Millie was grateful when school started, free from the daily requirement to be the traveling companion of the choir director’s wife. Times Millie knew she’d have no choice, she learned not to eat beforehand.
It was true. The choir director’s wife had been charmed by Millie’s innocence that Sunday after the storm that ripped a hole in the roof at Mercy’s Hope.
“What’s the difference between a miracle and a blessing?” Millie’s question caught the choir director’s wife off guard.
“Miracles and blessings are acts of mercy and grace,” she said.
“So, do you think my escaping that tree that crashed through the roof was a miracle or a blessing?” The seriousness of Millie’s expression was precious. The choir director’s wife gave Millie a gentle hug.
“Both,” she said.
The tenderness of that moment seemed a distant memory as Millie and the choir director’s wife stood there that morning on the side of Tingle Cut-Off.