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. It happened while she was painting portraits of Buster, a thirty-pound, tricolor husky-sheltie cross with a lopsided grin and only one ear. The dog had arrived on the Foley family’s doorstep as a scrawny pup the day Velda and Damon brought Carly Mae home from the hospital. He looked like he’d been mauled by a bear, with gashes all over his body and one little ear torn off, but his eyes were bright and his energy high, so they let him in, tended to his wounds, and joked he was likely descended from the husky-sheltie pups that, according to local lore, had survived a drowning generations ago. He soon became the babe’s constant companion and co-conspirator—a good thing since the twins were only mildly interested in their sister at the time. As the subject of her paintings, Buster was helping Carly Mae raise money for a new cause, the Touch of Kindness Rest Home, which was in danger of being shut down due to a leaky roof. She sold poses of her imperfect pooch on the sidewalk in front of the Kiminee Five ‘N Dime for $1. There she caught the eye of Jasper Skrillpod, an art dealer passing through while on the hunt for antiques with his wife, Emily.
“Whoa! Look at that little girl painting right out there on the sidewalk.” Jasper’s unusually large brown eyes opened wide as he braked his Willys wagon. “I’ve got to check her out. Look at her red-brown Heidi braids. And do you see that dog? What a Norman Rockwell scene.”
Emily fanned herself with a flyer for a pancake breakfast she’d picked up in a nearby hamlet. “Do we have to stop? I don’t feel well.”
“You were fine just before we pulled into town. I wonder what happened.” He brushed sandy blond bangs off his forehead.
Beads of sweat formed at Emily’s temples and the nape of her neck, moistening her dark brown hair. “I don’t know. I’m just overcome with nausea. It came on suddenly.”
“I don’t have to meet our little Picasso right now. We should go to the motel.”
Knowing how much her husband loved introducing new talent to the art world, Emily decided to rally. “Maybe it’ll pass if I just sit here while you go.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want this to bring on bad dreams tonight.”
“You worry too much. I haven’t had a nightmare in ages. Go on, go.”
“Thanks, love.” He leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I owe you one. I’ll only be a minute.” He exited the vehicle and strutted to Carly Mae. Five minutes later, he returned with a 7-Up. “Didn’t see any Vernor’s or Canada Dry inside, but this should help.” He handed her the drink through the passenger window. “It looks like your color’s coming back a bit.”
“Thanks.” Emily took a sip and closed her eyes. “I think my stomach has settled down some, and this is bound to help.” She sipped again. “So what did you find out?”
“That sweet little girl, Carly Mae’s her name, she’d love to see if I can sell her paintings, but I need to get parental permission. The mom’s helping with inventory at the store, and Dusty, the young man working the cash register, said he’d fetch her.”
Behind him, Velda stepped out of the Five ‘N Dime. She straightened her pedal pushers, tucked in her sleeveless blouse, then patted down her disheveled brunette waves and stomped over to Carly Mae. “What’s going on? You need my permission for some crazy thing?” she said to her daughter.
Carly Mae looked up from the canvas and frowned at the only mother in town who was always difficult to track down. “Where were you this time?” She dabbed a bit of white on Buster’s ear.
“Now listen here, Carly Mae, you may be smart as a whip, but you have no call to question my whereabouts.”
“I think the mother just arrived.” Emily pointed toward Velda. “She’s the spittin’ image of Natalie Wood—well, a disheveled Natalie Wood.”
Jasper turned his head and said, “Right you are. … Bear with me, can you? I’ll be quick as a wink.”
“I’ll do my best.” Emily closed her eyes again and sipped more soda, relieved it was going down.
Twenty minutes later, Jasper returned and loaded five canvasses of Buster into the back of the wagon. “Sorry it took so long. That woman sure took some convincing. It was one question after another.”
Emily wiped her palm across her moist forehead. “I’ve been okay so far, but I really need to get out of here and lie down.”
Jasper slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “We could cut the whole trip short and head back home.”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course not. You’ll be home in case this turns out to be the flu coming on, and I’ll get back to the gallery with these paintings. I don’t know why, but I think they’ll be a big hit.”
They hurried home to Chicago, and within one week, Jasper sold all five paintings at his gallery for $25 apiece, keeping 70 percent of the proceeds for himself. Carly Mae’s art soon became so popular, he sold her paintings at $75 a pop as fast as she could create them. He raised Carly Mae’s cut to 50 percent when her dad, Damon, complained. Carly Mae earned more than enough for the rest home’s roof, so she funded new bay windows in the rec room, as well.
Several months into her art career, however, Carly Mae discarded painting in favor of playing a violin she found in her grandmother Missy’s attic. Family lore goes that her great, great grandfather had marched it to and from the battlefront during the Civil War. He even hid it high in a hickory at Gettysburg, and retrieved it when the three-day bloodbath ended.
“Why are you throwing away your art for a squeaky violin?” Damon asked. “You’ve never been particularly interested in music.”
“I don’t want to be some famous painter, Daddy. I only want to be me,” she said.
Jasper, who envisioned championing Carly Mae all the way to international acclaim, pleaded with Damon to convince her she simply had to keep painting. “People who have gifts most of us can only dream of have a responsibility to use them,” he urged.
Damon backed up his daughter. “She’s seven years old, a child. I’m not asking her to do anything except live by the Golden Rule. And who knows? She might be a gifted musician, too.”
Velda sided with Jasper, but Carly Mae locked herself in her room and practiced the fiddle when her mom scolded her about the newfangled acrylic paints going to waste in the hall closet. Ever patient with his unpredictable wife, Damon got her to stretch out on the couch, massaged her perfect size six feet and asked her to try to remember what it was like to be a little girl. Ray and Blanche, precocious in their own right, took time out from preparing for a chess tournament to take their sister’s side. They believed she should be able to do what she liked without everybody making a big fuss about it. Nevertheless, a fuss was made. Throughout town, from every curve and swimming hole along the Bendy River, each cornfield and every meadow, each business and every home, people had passionate discussions about Carly Mae, for she was the butter that anointed their morning toast, and while they knew she was Velda and Damon’s daughter, they felt she was their very own.
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