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Cheryl Hughes: My Career As a Woman

My niece, Naonna, moved back home this month—she is from the Shelbyville area.  She has been living with us off and on for the past two years.  Naonna is in the National Guard, and she took a new job in supply in Frankfort.

She and I have often said she should have been my daughter.  It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate her own mother, it’s just that we are a lot alike.  We have the same sense of humor, the same tolerance for differences in others, and we both believe that Peyton Manning is the best quarterback ever.  I’m going to miss watching movies and Colts games with her, and I’m going to especially miss her “Why is that?” questioning of the inconsistencies of life. 

Naonna did two tours in Iraq, and I have a board full of pictures from that stint: Naonna on a camel; Naonna standing next to British troops; Naonna holding an M16.  In all of the pictures, her hair is completely covered by a bandana or helmet and bandana.  Her hair, long and red, is sometimes a distraction in her line of work.  People indigenous to the Arab region are mesmerized by the color and can’t resist the urge to touch it.

It didn’t surprise me when she joined the National Guard straight out of high school.  She was always the risk-taker as a child.  She and her younger brother and sister would spend a couple of weeks every summer with me.  She was always into something.  If I ever noticed she was afraid of anything, I would encourage her to face the fear.  She got on a horse and climbed to the top of a rock wall, but I was never able to get her to kill a spider.  Anything from the arachnid family would shut her down.  To this day, she becomes paralyzed at the sight of a granddaddy-long-legs.

Naonna has always had a sense of retribution.  She is not one to stand back and wait for the justice system or God to take care of an injustice.  She is a leveler.  If it happens on her watch, she’s going to take care of it.  As a child, she got even with a couple of particularly snobby little girls, who wouldn’t let her into their group in the apartment complex where her family lived, by emptying a bottle of ketchup onto their heads as they sat on the stoop below her upstairs landing.  In Iraq, she chased down a local man and took back the candy he stole from children who had just received it from U.S. troops.  “I couldn’t shoot him,” she told me, “But he didn’t know that.”  She is the kind of soldier that makes it easier for the rest of us to sleep at night.

Naonna has what she calls, “freakish strength for a girl.”  She hurled a trailer-load of lumber into my barn loft with guided-missile-like precision.  She carried buckets of tomatoes and corn from my garden, and if she ever saw me struggling under a heavy load, she would tell me to get out of the way and let her do it.  I’m going to miss her help, but mostly I’m going to miss her support.

I’m always hatching what my children refer to as hair-brained schemes, which make them roll their eyes and say things like, “Here she goes again.”  Naonna just laughs and helps me gather the materials.  “We could gather pieces of driftwood and make horse sculptures like they do with drift wood along the coast,” I say, “Or we could take old record album sleeves and make storage cubes, or we could cut sections of barn wood into tiles and panel the spot above the fireplace.”  Naonna always responded the same way, “It could work.”

She’s going to do well wherever she ends up, but just as importantly, those around her will do well.  I can’t remember which basketball coach said it, but he hit the nail on the head when he said, “The mark of a good player is that he makes those around him play better.”  It is a wonderful thing to brush up against a person who makes you “play better.”


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