One evening in early spring I was driving around the eastern edge of Newnan, where the road dips and turns away from the big-box stores and housing developments, and seems to roll into the rural past. As I came around a corner I saw an old mill house surrounded by flowers, with a Harley parked in the driveway and an above-ground pool in the back yard. A woman wearing a tank top and shorts was standing outside.
I parked the car and introduced myself to the woman; her name is Tina. She said she’d been fixing a leak in her pool, and invited me into her yard. While we walked around I saw a lovers’ bench fashioned out of an old stump, a garden border made of empty bottles, potted greenery arranged on her front steps. As Tina showed me her orange double lilies and purple velvet iris, I noticed that she’d somehow nurtured beauty into bloom in every corner. I asked her if I could make her portrait, and she said yes, inviting me to come back to do it another day.
The following week, I met Tina back at her house. With her daughter grown and out on her own, Tina introduced me to her four-legged family: a Chihuahua named Penny and a brand-new litter of Mastiff puppies. The day was warm and we walked along the road by her house, with Penny following, and then we stopped near a pond to make photographs. Surrounded by the lush Georgia light, I felt that I could see right into Tina’s own beauty – all the way back to what she must have looked like as a young woman – and I told her so.
“I never had a reason to feel pretty” she said. “When you grow up in a childhood — you’re only like five or six years old – and you’re told from that time until you’re close to 50 years old that you’re nobody, you’re nothing, you never will be, you’re not pretty, nobody wants you, ‘If it wasn’t for me nobody would have you . . .’”
We sat down on a sewer cover on the side of the road and Tina continued. “My mama’s my heart,” she said, her eyes pooling up, speaking of her mother’s death more than 25 years before. “She’s the only one I could count on.”
The men in her life had been a different story.
As the afternoon rolled on, Tina spoke of years of beatings, of abandonings, of rape. She described a stranger dragging her into the back of a van, one man shoving her out of a moving car, another pressing a gun down her throat. She said she had come to Newnan when her brother, who was living here, rescued her from her last really terrible relationship with a man – someone who she was sure was going to kill her. Since then, she’d been living in her house, working at a plastics plant, and tending her flowers.
Tina said that she wanted to leave Newnan, but it had taken her many years to earn her way up to $17 an hour. “If everybody quits messing with my goals,” she said, “my plan is to work at this company for a couple more years, get my 401k built up enough that I can be okay, and get my butt out of here.”
Since my last conversation with Tina, she has been let go from her job, and is not sure what to do next. Her dream is to somehow make it out of Georgia to the coast of Mississippi. She longs for just a tiny shack – or even a motel room – where she could hear the ocean and be left alone.