I was fourteen years old, and we’d just moved into the parsonage in White Hall, Virginia. I was walking down the road to Wyant’s Store when a girl about my age came speeding up behind me on a fire-engine-red bicycle and almost ran me down. I jumped into the ditch as she raced by, laughing.
When I got to the store, she stood in the back by the drink machine sipping an orange Nehi. She tucked a strand of brown hair inside a head-scarf tied tightly to her chin and flashed an impish grin at me. That grin led me to believe she’d brushed by me on her bike as a tease. I hadn’t made any friends in White Hall, so I approached her. “Hi,” I said.
She burst out laughing, sprinted up the aisle, and bolted out the door.
“What the heck?” I muttered.
Old Mr. Wyant, standing up front by the cash register, shook his head and smiled. “Don’t mind Daisy, son. She’s peculiar. Runs in her family.”
Mr. Wyant was being kind. “Tetched in the head” was the phrase most people used to describe Daisy and her kin.
She wasn’t a teenager like I thought. She was 24 when she chased me off the road with her red Schwinn Phantom. She was still riding that bike at age 34 ten years later when I left White Hall. In all that time, I never saw her without a scarf covering her head. One of the girls from the church told me Daisy always wore scarves because she didn’t wash her hair. And although I saw Daisy laugh and giggle many times over the ten years I knew her, she never spoke a word in my presence. I don’t know if she couldn’t talk or just had nothing to say.
She lived in a trailer in the woods with her mother, Lottie. Lottie was in her mid-fifties, short and stumpy with a weathered face, hearty laugh, and wide smile sporting a gap where her upper front teeth should have been.
Something about her made me uneasy. I told one of my friends she gave me bad vibes. “You can’t let your guard down around her,” he said. “She’s the kind would sneak up on you in your sleep and cut your throat.” He based that comment on a rumor that Lottie sold Daisy’s favors to a man, and when he wouldn’t pay, she cut up his face with a penknife. I doubt this was true. There were lots of stories about Lottie and Daisy, but they were usually short on names and details.
Daisy’s father, Ray, and Lottie split up before I moved to White Hall. He lived by himself in a little shack near Moorman’s River. He was in his sixties, tall with a melon-sized bald head, round blubbery face, flabby chest, and bulbous belly that jiggled when he walked. They say he was a good farmhand in his day, but he no longer worked by the time I came along.
People made fun of him for his curious affliction. About every ten seconds, he would emit a “Teep!” It was continuous, like a permanent case of the hiccups. I don’t know how he got any sleep.
My buddy and I were squirrel hunting one afternoon when we heard a strange sound coming from the other side of the hill. We hid in the brush and watched as Ray passed by us, stalking small game with a shotgun, trying his best to be stealthy, but even with his lips closed tight, the Teep came through. “Bup … Bup … Bup.”
Daisy’s oldest brother, Martin, was a rail-thin scarecrow with dark sunken eyes. Most days he pedaled a rickety bike to the old Piedmont Store and stood in a corner, staring vacantly into space. When spoken to, he replied, “I’m f‑f-fine. H‑h-how y‑y-you?” That was about as far as he could carry a conversation.
He suffered from an affliction similar to Ray’s, but his was episodic and it came on like a seizure. We were working in the fields on a hot afternoon loading hay bales on a flatbed wagon when one of his spells hit him. He began to roll his shoulders and duck his head. Then a raw, hoarse cry, like the honk of a goose, came up out of him from deep down in his chest. It repeated about every ten seconds. Again and again. Martin’s spell lasted about fifteen minutes, then died off as inexplicably as it started, and we all went back to work.
I saw him struggle through several episodes over the years. They followed the same course. When they were over, we all went about our business and acted as though nothing had happened.
One of Daisy’s older brothers, Ned, worked full-time as a farmhand. He lived alone in a room over a shed on the farm. In 1964, I worked beside him all summer. He couldn’t read or write and got most of his information from the radio. He was amazed that I knew so little about world affairs. He patiently explained to me that Hitler was alive in Argentina planning a Nazi come-back, that the end of days would come in 1968 at dawn on Easter morning, and that the Russian launch of a cosmonaut into orbit was fake. “Don’t seem like you know much with all your book learnin’,” he said, curling his lip. Despite my ignorance, we got along well, and I learned a lot from him. He was a knowledgeable, reliable farmhand; he worked hard every day; and he paid his own way all his life.
Daisy’s youngest brother lived in the trailer with her and Lottie. He usually went outside only at night when no one was around, but I caught a glimpse of him in a rare daytime sighting. My pal and I were rabbit hunting on an old fire road in the woods when Daisy and a tall lean man with coal-black hair came around a bend. At the sight of us, the man cried out and ran away, and Daisy followed him.
“That’s Jack,” my pal said. “He’s afraid of people.”
A couple years later, Lottie and Daisy showed up at the parsonage, sobbing. “Please help us, preacher,” Lottie said. “We don’t have no one else to turn to.”
Dad drove down the grassy road to the trailer. When he opened the door, blood spilled out on the steps. Inside, the shotgun was still propped between Jack’s knees. When the sheriff and medical examiner were done, Dad cleaned the floor and walls as best he could, and Lottie and Daisy went back to live in the little tin box where Jack had killed himself. They had no place else to go.
These old memories lay dormant in the shadows of my mind until last week. Researching a White Hall family on Ancestry.com, I stumbled across Daisy’s obituary. Since then, I’ve been thinking about her and the others in ways I was too immature to consider when I was a boy.
I wonder now how they got along. Federal welfare programs were just getting off the ground back then; Virginia’s Department of Social Services was in its infancy; and non-emergency healthcare didn’t extend to people who couldn’t pay. Jack’s psychological disorder, Ray’s affliction, Martin’s seizures, and Daisy’s arrested development all went undiagnosed and untreated. I don’t recall anyone even suggesting they should receive medical attention.
The White Hall community provided a safety net of last resort. When they got in big trouble, someone always helped them out, but day to day they had to make do on their own with all their disadvantages, and yet all of them, except Jack, lived into old age. Lottie and Ray died of natural causes in 1980, Martin in the 90’s, then Ned, and Daisy last in 2006.
It seems to me now that perseverance in the face of immense obstacles and myriad disappointments should have earned Daisy and her kin some respect, but most people back then, including me, didn’t give it to them. Daisy’s obituary implies she went to her grave without gaining it.
“Daisy Lee Hatch, 69, died November 6 at Martha Jefferson Hospital. Born March 8, 1937, in Free Union, she was the daughter of Raymond and Charlotte Hatch. She will have a private service.”
Three sentences. Thirty words. Terse, dismissive. Nothing about a life spanning seven decades. No mention of surviving relatives or mourners. My guess is private service meant no service.
Daisy and her family lived hard lives. I wish I and others had treated them better when it would have done them some good, but those days are gone and can’t be changed. All I can do now is remember them, tell a small part of their story to keep their memory alive, and hope their ghosts will pardon the thoughtlessness of the boy who lived in the parsonage sixty years ago.