In the beginning of our relationship, I saw Barry several times a week, usually for dinner. Sometimes, he took me hiking in the forest surrounding the rental cabins and often, we spent an evening talking in front of a cozy fire. My rental cabin was a fairly large and one of a cluster of cabins around a small clearing. I had rented mine for the summer while the others were rented for a week at a time. I enjoyed the solitude and spent most mornings painting or reading or writing in my journal.
In the third week of my stay in the outskirts of Habersham County, I was sitting outside enjoying the setting sun and dozed for a while. I don't know what it was that woke me, perhaps an unfamiliar sound. I only knew when I opened my eyes, I smelled smoke and off in the distance, I thought I had seen a flash of fire. Before I had a chance to think about what should be done - should I drive into town? Notify someone? - Barry's pickup truck came crashing over the makeshift road. I came around the side of the cabin as he bounced out of the cab of the truck shouting for me.
"Hope! Are you alright, girl? Hope! Where are you?"
"Here! I'm here, Barry. What's wrong?"
"Thank you, Jesus," he muttered as he hugged me tight. "I was drivin this way an spotted the smoke an fire an thought ya might be nosy enough t' check it out. Stay away from there, ya hear?"
I nodded. It had to be something bad for Barry to be upset that I might be anywhere near the fire and I had learned that when he was stressed, his words and his Southern drawl were more pronounced.
"What is it? What's on fire?"
"Oh baby," he murmured and I was suddenly cradled in his arms as he carried me inside the cabin. He sat heavily on the couch in front of the fireplace and settled me on his lap. His face was serious and his words were more than a little frightening. "It's a KKK meeting - not somethin a pretty Yankee gal like you'd be welcome at."
"KKK? Ku Klux Klan? Do they...? Um..." I didn't know how to ask if he knew if this particular Klan firebombed churches or set fires to people's homes or did worse. I didn't know if there was a particular protocol for discussing these heinous acts with a native Southerner. I remembered my parents discussing the boys that had been murdered in Mississippi. I knew about "Freedom Riders" and Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement to register black voters. But what I didn't know was where Barry stood in all this.
"Hope," he said softly. "I need to tell ya some things. I want ya to listen, ya hear me?"
I nodded again. Barry's voice had gone one-hundred percent Southern; for sure, he was upset.
"This here is the South - died in the wool, deep South. This is the South that used to own slaves, had plantations an where a slave lived or died by his master's word. Yeah, we're a little more civilized now an laws have changed, but generations of teachins an preachins haven't left a lot of room for most of us to change our ideas. My Daddy was an honest man an if he hired someone - black or white or any other different kinda fella - an that fella did an honest day's work... Well, it didn't matter to him what the fella looked like; he got paid an that was that."
"I was raised this way: Take a man at face value an go forward from there. There's good an there's not-so-good in all of us. The trick is to make sure the not-so-good doesn't suck you under an make you evil. Thinkin y'all are better than anyone else... well, that's not what the Good Book says an while I don't pretend to be a church goin man, I believe God meant for all of us t' have the same chances in life."
"Another thing I know is that I love livin here in these mountains. I want to stay here an raise a family here an t' get along with my neighbors, I don't cotton t' what they do but they know better than t' brag in front of me. I won't lie. I've been recruited t' join the Klan but that's not me an they know it."
I had been quiet while Barry talked and I leaned against his chest when he finished speaking. I needed to digest his words and I admit - the thought of KKK active right here in northeast Georgia - where I was - scared me.
"Am I in any danger?" I finally asked.
"No. Just don't go lookin for trouble, ya hear me?"
"I won't," I promised.
"Being my girl protects you," he finally grinned after such a somber moment.
"Being my wife would keep ya from all harm, too."
"Was that a proposal, Mr. Adams?"
"Barry! Don't you dare!" I scolded and jumped from his lap, afraid he was going to spank me again.
"I think I need to prove something to you once and for all," he said, his words carrying less of a drawl but his voice going much too soft. He reached for me but I slapped his hands away. Little good it did me. He upended me so fast I was dizzy.
And then I was on my back in my bed and my robe was open, T-shirt rucked up my chest and Barry's face was between my breasts and his hands... Oh Lord! His hands and his mouth - touching here and there and his warm lips... His kisses so sweet and the magic took over and whatever we were wearing was discarded and I wanted him.
He wanted me.
We loved each other like death was at our door and our union was the salvation we needed to keep on breathing.
I used to read romance novels when I was younger. The hero always saved the heroine from some villain. He was always handsome and dashing and she was always pretty as a picture. They married and had children and lived happily ever after and those stories were a great escape from reality and were the foundation of my teenage dreams.
At that moment, in my cabin, we weren't living a romance novel. Barry hadn't saved me from a villain but he is a good looking guy. I'm not exactly pretty but I think, in all modesty, folks would say I'm attractive. And when we were joined, there were no whistles and bells, no rockets blasting and no violin music. There was something else that was even better.
There was deep contentment in each other's arms and we both wanted more.
From that time on, we saw each other every night and by summer's end, I had promised to marry Barry Adams and live with him in Habersham County.
And then I met his mother.
"Ya 'member the first time Barry brung you home?" my mother-in-law asked as she wiped her eyes. "I 'member thinkin ya was right pretty even if'n ya was a Yankee. Oh yeah. I knew ya was a Yankee. Everyone in Habersham County knew that lil bit of truth. An ya knows whut they say 'bout Yankee women. All whores an such. Now don't be lookin at me all funny. Whut're we s'posed to be thinkin? All them women mouthin off 'bout equal pay and bein as good as a man and wearin pants! Never did see the likes of that nonsense. Oh I guess men's pants is good when ya're out in the fields or milkin' the cows but t' work an t' go t' town an t' church? Jesus forgive me! I don't see the right of that a'tall. A woman needs t' look like one if'n she's gonna attract a man an mark my words, missy. If'n she wants t' keep her man, she needs t' 'member that."
"Now youuuu," she continued, the "u" stretched out on a long breath like she was taking pains to talk clearer. "Ya always wear dresses. I 'spect that's Barry's doin but that's neither here nor there. Ya wear them an ya always look like a lady. I give ya credit for that. But when he first brung ya through the door, I couldn't help but 'member that time Mr. Adams an I went down to that there Atlanta. Oh Lord! That's a heathen place if'n there ever was one - all highway kinda roads an these tall buildins an folks hurryin like they was on fire an the women! Oh sweet Jesus! Hard t' believe their mamas let them out of the house a'lookin' like they did."
"I 'member Mr. Adams stopped at a gas station t' make use of the telephone an this young man jus upped an walked right up t' me. Talked t' me like I was his long lost next of kin! He was talkin trash, too. Never did tell Mr. Adams whut that was all about an I turned my head away from him. Made him mad, it did, but he walked away. A young Yankee man he was, cold as February. I tell ya, he chilled me right down t' the bone. So here's my boy walkin in the door with a Yankee gal. I was a'screechin inside my head jus at the thought."
I remembered that night. Barry had been blunt in the introduction. No sooner were we inside his mother's front door than he announced who I was and that he had asked me to marry him. She took a long look at me and gasped out loud. "Y'all a Yankee, ain't ya?" I said yes and from the look on her face, was surprised she didn't faint on the spot.
I quickly learned she had a steel spine and like many Southern women who had familial memories of the Civil War and all the hard times that followed, there was far more strength to her than was obvious just by looking. Remembering her manners, she asked me to sit at the dining room table and in mere minutes, served coffee and cake.
And then she took hold of my left hand and fingered the ring Barry had put on my finger. It had been her mother's ring - one beautiful diamond caret in the center, four small emeralds - two on each side of the diamond - an old-fashioned but beautiful setting.
"I can see ya said yes t' my boy," she said quietly. "Ya gonna change the way it looks an make it one of them modern things?"
"No, ma'am," replied. "I love it the way it is and I'm thrilled it's a family heirloom. I'm going to enjoy it and when the times comes, I hope to pass it on to one of our children or grandchildren."
She gave me a long look full of curiosity but said nothing. Later, I learned that I had earned a place in the family. It may not have been a permanent one and it certainly wasn't a close one, but it was a start.
"I didn't much care for ya," my mother-in-law said. "But ya growed on me an I gots to say, I was downright proud for the way ya handled yoreself the night the sheriff come t' the door..."