A metamorphosed fundamentalist crafts her memoir
by Rob Neufeld
Virginia Redfield, age 88 of Asheville, has written a remarkable book—“Night Bloom,” a memoir about her liberation from a closely guarded fundamentalist household, aided in that passage by a humanities education and ultimately supported by her parents’ rock solid love for her.
Her childhood in Depression-era Miami had included no playmates. One girl, for instance, was found guilty of wearing shorts when she’d visited, and was banished.
Virginia—called “Baby” by her mother, and “Mister” by her father—also had no pets, except for a duck soon sent away for annoying neighbors, to be replaced by a voiceless Muscovy, which Virginia disconsolately rejected.
Until she was grown, Virginia slept in her parents’ bedroom, gladdened only by the scent of night-blooming jasmine outside her window.
Her mother kept giving their handyman, Jack, instructions to cut the unruly plant. Virginia learned from Jack that jasmine sends off shoots that root, and is very hard to kill—a symbol.
“The nights I dreaded,” Redfield writes, were the ones when her mother could be heard “padding along the tile floor…Often she fell on her knees beside my cot and began to pray, sobbing, stretching her body across mine.”
Mama begged God to take her precious child. “I’d rather dig a hole, O Lord,” she pleaded, “and put her in a box and put the box in the ground than have her be like Rosalie,” Mama’s wayward younger sister. She’d tell God how she’d given her only child to him before she was born, “like Hannah in the Bible.”
For over half of the book, we see Virginia grow up in this environment. It is a privilege to get a first-hand, unadorned, insider account of life in such a rare, true, private society.
And it is rare. When Virginia’s mother goes to her daughter’s high school principal to protest the “indecent gym outfits” that girls are required to wear, he tells Mrs. Haynes, “Five hundred and ninety-nine other mothers don’t find them indecent.”
At the Haynes’ dinner table, “Mom” prays that her loved ones be saved, and lays out their current transgressions. “Dad,” a property buyer and fixer, does not share his wife’s passion for righteousness, but accedes to keep the peace.
The family’s experience with Central Church of the Nazarene provides much interest, as preachers come and go and stay at the Haynes home. A trio of “Prayer Warriors” convenes in Sister Haynes’ “Prophet’s Room,” their news and deliberations overheard by Virginia in her hiding place.
When a hurricane converges on Miami, several families camp out at the Hayneses, for the house had survived the hurricane of 1926. In fact, that earlier event leads off the novel. Virginia’s mom had moved her baby into her and Dad’s bedroom from the crib room moments before the crib room’s roof had blown off and crashed down.
Away from homeward
Virginia’s graduation from high school starts the process of her finding herself. Her parents allow her to take an English 101 summer course at the University of Miami before heading to Trevecca Nazarene College in Nashville; and when Trevecca literally sickens Virginia, they allow her to go back to the university (only three days a week, so she can be monitored for ungodliness in between).
At the university, Virginia encounters Dr. Tharp, who introduces her to Thomas Wolfe and “Look Homeward, Angell.”
“By saying what he felt,” Redfield writes, “Thomas Wolfe gave me permission to acknowledge to myself what I felt—beyond the Bible, beyond the preachers, beyond Mama.” Like herself, Eugene Gant was searching, via literature, for a way to break free of a confining upbringing.
Redfield also writes, “The person I was at Church was my base; school was an excursion.” From her church base, she took away a passion for stripped-down honesty, minus the fear of temptation’s damning power.
“‘Night Bloom’ has been in the making for several decades,” Redfield notes in her acknowledgements.
A full appreciation of her achievement takes into account the accomplished way in which she has constructed her story. What may seem like simply the chronological presentation of key episodes at first turns out to be a building up to perfectly placed, held off revelations.
I wanted to know more about Virginia’s inheritance from her parents, and about their legacies, and wondered if I’d get that deepness from the book; and I did.
It also has to be mentioned that the two chapters in which Virginia and her father meet and talk with Thomas Wolfe’s mother, Julia, are a treasure. Not only do these chapters add significantly to Wolfe lore and serve as a credit to Redfield’s remembering power, they also beautifully reveal the father’s character.
The publication of “Night Bloom” is a testimony not only to the author’s life, but also to the writers’ support community in Asheville. Noticed by Tommy Hays, director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNCA, the manuscript was passed to other writers, and nurtured, and eventually published as an e-book with help from Kevin McIlvoy, a member of the faculty in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College.
“More than one of us found ourselves saying, ‘Yes!’” to the question, “Read anything great lately?” McIlvoy relates, and “sharing our frustration that it (“Night Bloom”) had not yet found publication...and, eventually, sharing our determination that this remarkable book be given its chance to lay claim to others’ hearts as it has claimed our own hearts.”
Night Bloom: A Memoir by Virginia Redfield (e-book, April, 2012, 296 pages).
HOME PAGE PHOTO
Virginia Redfield and her parents in the 1940s (from the author’s website, www.virginiaredfield.com)