Follow Terry

By Sue Monk Kidd

Years ago, while walking on a South Carolina beach with Terry Helwig, we had what turned out to be a propitious conversation. Close friends for over twenty years, we often walked the corridor of sand on Isle of Palms, talking about our lives and our work. On this October day, we were discussing the peculiar fact that many readers of my then recently published novel, The Secret Life of Bees, sometimes believed the story was based on my own childhood. They assumed that like my fourteen year old character, Lily, I had been forced to kneel on grits, had lost my mother when I was four and run away with the housekeeper to escape an abusive father. Of course, my childhood was nothing at all like Lily’s.

After listening to my bemusement about this oddity, Terry said, “If I wrote the story of my childhood, it would be just the opposite. The story would be completely true, but no one would believe it.”

We laughed at this little irony.

I knew the saga of Terry’s childhood, which rivaled the sorrow and crazy-making adversity I’d invented for my own fictional Lily. Yet Terry had managed to arrive in adulthood with her soul beautifully intact, without a trace of victim-hood, cynicism, or bitterness. Indeed, she was one of the most remarkable, loving, and utterly together persons I’d ever met.

Walking beside Terry that day, marveling at how such a mysterious transaction as that occurs in the human spirit, I almost missed the tacit suggestion in her comment: If I wrote the story of my childhood.

My pace slowed till I was at a standstill. “Have you thought of writing it?”

“I’ve thought of it,” she said. “But–does the world really need another memoir?”

It was just like her to ask that question. It would not occur to Terry to write a memoir just because she could. In her mind, it needed to exist for a larger reason; it needed to be the sort of story that served something worthwhile; it needed to be needed.

“The world needs your story,” I told her.

“I’ll think about that,” she said.

We can all be glad she did.

It soon became apparent that Moonlight on Linoleum had been lying innate, dormant, and fathoms deep inside of Terry for most of her life, waiting for the right culmination of time and realization. For years, I watched from the periphery as she worked on the book, laboring to render her story with unflinching honesty, bringing to it her indomitable humor and humility, and filling it with her deep and luminous vision of life.

The book is both a tender recollection and an unblinking portrayal of a heart-breaking, yet heart-stirring childhood, one that unfolds among the little oil towns of the American West. The transience, privation, abandonment, abuse, anguish, and havoc in Terry’s young world is, startlingly enough, met with equal portions of hope, dignity, resilience, ingenuity, funniness, and love.

The story reveals a family hovering on the unraveling edge of life: Carola Jean, a complex and unforgettable mother whom you may want to rage at one moment and hug the next; a good-hearted, oil-drilling step father, plus an array of other colorful men held in Carola Jean’s thrall. Terry’s five younger sisters fall under her tutelage, in the formation of an uncommon sisterhood that transmutes suffering into salvation. And at the center of it is Terry, a girl clinging to hope in the face of crushing realities, a girl determined to stay connected to her dreams, determined to save her sisters, as well as herself.

If I were asked to explain the statement I made on the beach that day when I told Terry the world needed her story, I could probably come up with a whole panoply of reasons for why it’s true. But I will simply give you one . . .

Remember that mysterious transaction in the human spirit that I marveled at where Terry was concerned? The one that allows one person to transcend life’s hardships, becoming stronger, wiser, and larger in spirit, while another person succumbs to life’s injuries, growing hardened, contracted or stuck? Well, there are no explanations for that, there are only stories. The world needs Moonlight on Linoleum because it is just such a story. It is what redemption looks like.

--Sue Monk Kidd