Carly Mae Foley came into the world much like any other babe in 1953. She wailed when a doctor spanked her bottom. Her woozy mother, Velda, croaked, “There you are,” and then passed out. Damon, her father, raced from waiting room to nursery when he learned his newborn had arrived. Carly Mae’s brother and sister, Ray and Blanche, flaxen-haired twins born one year to the day before her, dumped bowls of Cheerios from high chairs. They spoke in a secret language their grandmother, Missy Lake, mistook for babble as she pulled out her address book and dialed all her friends from her kitchen wall phone.
Soon Kiminee, Illinois—a town that had just grown from 1,256 to 1,257—was abuzz with the news, for whenever a new child arrived people and animals alike set aside their differences to celebrate as one joyous whole. It was the Kiminee way. Mothers jigged around kitchens. Children cartwheeled through the town square. Fathers belted out show tunes in their fields. Pigs played kick the can with bobcats; chickens dined with hawks; rabbits napped with coyotes. For little Carly Mae, even the Bendy River got in the act, burbling a tune that sounded a lot like “You Are My Sunshine” while crawdads came out of hiding to march in formation along the banks. While everyone always returned to normal in a day or two, interest in each child’s development remained keen. And it wasn’t long before the auburn-tufted addition to the Foley family became something of a celebrity. “A wonder,” “genuine genius,” “one in a million” and “uncanny” were used to describe the little baby boomer, because in every developmental area, she did nothing but astound. She sang before she talked and danced before she walked. She read Charlotte’s Web at age two, mastered multiplication at three and did long division in her head at four.
At five, she taught herself to tap dance up and down walls like Fred Astaire. When she turned six in July of 1959, she set up a lemonade stand that, in one summer, raised $70 to help families devastated by an inferno hundreds of miles away. The conflagration had killed scores of students. She’d learned of the tragedy months earlier on the TV news, and the thought of all those children who would never again run barefoot through grass made her heart quiver with grief. She posted signs to that effect at her lemonade stand, which could be why so many people gave her 10 cents for 5-cent lemonades and told her to keep the change. It also helped that the Illinois State Fair gave her a booth near the entrance on the busiest day of the year.
On a sunny Saturday when she was seven, Carly Mae was discovered.
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