I think my mother fears her narrative will be lost with no one to carry on the Smoak legacy she proudly wears every day on her right ring finger. A ruby and diamond ensemble secured by a gold band, her father re-shanked it in the eighties so that it live forever. “Thank you. It’s the only thing I have from my real mother,” she says, graciously smiling upon the daily complement.
She always smiles, white teeth contrasting the blue eyes she inherited from her dad. They are the Chesapeake on a sunny afternoon at the Eastern Shore; as fierce and vengeful as the Atlantic during hurricane season; as translucent and placid as the Gulf. Those are the waters she and her father drove to up until his death. A dynamic duo in a worn-silver Cadillac, two rogues looking for the next opportunity. For Poppy it was often an attempt to find a wife or the pursuit of another love. He was a widower who worshiped a tiered altar: Wild Turkey whiskey followed by the melodies of “The King” and any plate that steamed hot from his Grandma’s stove. If he couldn’t have one or another he found comfort in his instruments, his favorite the Banjo he strung after dinner—a plate of fried chicken or catfish.
Upon cooking and cleaning in the evenings, his chores would shift to a different type. A construction manager by day, he used his rust stained hands to curl his daughter’s hair for school on Sunday nights. They gazed at the television, frowning back at the Technicolor family who waved to them from a white picket fence. My mother sat bundled in a towel that matched the orange shag carpet. Against the rug her dark brown hair lost its luminosity and became a stark contrast to her father’s—whose blonde waves, among other things, were slicked back to resemble the likes of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
But when a cigarette wasn’t between his lips it was a pin, anticipating the next strand as he wound each of her brown locks. He wanted her to fit in and look like the other girls with Patent Mary Jane’s and porcelain cheeks—girls whose mothers didn’t die unexpectedly when they were four.