Mays Cousins Memoirs
My Aunt Toni
Sue Mays Swinger-Ellbogen
Toni Geraldine Freeland was born October 30, 1921 and has been one of the most important women in my life. My Aunt Toni has been a part of my life since I was born. Aunt Toni was married to my Dad’s brother, Quinn and she and my Mom were dear friends. Aunt Toni was an important part of my childhood since my aunt and uncle were our closest relatives in both spirit and distance. My Uncle Quinn and my Dad farmed together and our families had dinners and parties together frequently. When I say parties, I mean things like making homemade ice cream.
My family had three girls and one boy and my Dad’s brother, Quinn, had three boys and one girl. My sister, Brenda, and I loved to go to Aunt Toni’s house. They had this u-shaped table built into the wall with curved benches around three sides. We had never seen anything like that before. Aunt Toni let her boys eat cheerios for breakfast and that fascinated us because we mostly had biscuits and gravy at home. We would all squeeze into that nook and tuck into those cheerios like we had never eaten before. Everything tasted good at Aunt Toni’s.
Another thing that my Aunt Toni and Uncle Quinn had in their home was a den. I had never heard of a den in my life. We loved to hang out in that room, swing our legs and take in that unusual setting.
Wayne and Danny were closest in age to Brenda and I, but Sonnie and Larry just a bit older so we all played in the barn loft together and romped in the big cotton trailers. One of my favorite adventures was when we all walked down the railroad tracks and Larry killed a bird with a slingshot. Those boys decided that we would build a fire and roast the bird. It sounded like they had done this before so we agreed. I don’t think I ate any of the bird, but Brenda wasn’t afraid to take a bite. She was way more adventuresome than I was.
Summer was always a fun time for us kids. Sometimes we got to go to our cousins’ house and play tag outside in the evening while our parents make homemade ice cream using an old wooden White brand ice cream freezer. As the sun set, our cousins Larry, Danny, and Wayne helped us catch fireflies and put them into a mason fruit jar with holes punched in the lid. When we tired of catching fireflies we played tag until the folks called us for ice cream.
Our sister, Margaret and our cousin’s older sister Joyce did not play with us or even come out to eat ice cream with the rest of us. They stayed in Joyce’s bedroom listening to records and swooning over a new artist called Elvis. All of us younger cousins annoyed both of them when we would grasp hands and pretend to faint while we keeled over laughing. The girls locked the bedroom door and turned the music up louder.
Meanwhile my Dad and Uncle Quinn would jab an ice pick into a big block of ice in a galvanized washtub and chip off shards. They use the ice chips to surround the metal freezer sitting in the middle of a wooden barrel. They liberally salted the ice with rock salt and packed wet burlaps bags on top to hold the cold. The freezer contained lots of fresh cow’s milk and cream mixed with eggs and some vanilla bean flavoring. My Dad locked the crank into the cog at the top of the lid and traded off turning the crank with my Uncle Quinn as it got harder and harder to turn when the ice cream started to firm up. Larry and Sonnie got old enough to take a turn at the crank too. We younger kids would dart up the driveway grabbing a chip of salted ice to suck on while racing around the yard in the dark trying not to get tagged.
My Mom and my Aunt Toni chopped fresh strawberries and liberally sprinkled them with sugar, then set aside the bowl of berries to let the sugar dissolve to make a wonderful syrupy topping for our ice cream. We could barely stand to stop playing tag to go in the house to eat the delicious ice cream. The bite of the strawberries tasted pungent followed by the sweet creamy vanilla ice cream so full of cream it coated your mouth. It was a bit of heaven to have that on your tongue. We kids ate swiftly so we can go back outside before our folks loaded us up to start home. We had to be careful not to eat too fast as the coldness will give us a quick headache. Our parents took their time enjoying their percolated coffee and savoring every drop of the precious, tasty dessert. Those were happy times in all our lives.
Aunt Toni used to take us fishing on Little River Ditch. She would pack us all in the car with the cane poles and hooks and a shovel so we could dig for worms to use for bait. She taught us all how to bait the hook with the squirmy, wiggly worms. She would sit us all down a few feet apart on the banks of the river and help us get our poles set in the water with a bobber on it.
Larry and Danny and I were the most serious about fishing, Sonnie was too old to be out with us youngsters. Wayne and Brenda cut up and probably scared more fish away than we caught. Aunt Toni had the patience of Job and tolerated the kids’ shenanigans better than most. She would smile that sweet smile and and scold them gently.
I took my own girls fishing because Aunt Toni taught me how important it is to do simple things like that with your children. Aunt Toni had a commitment to her family and made time to be physically and mentally present for them. I always admired that and patterned my own childrearing after her. I am sorry that I never realized it until it was too late to thank her.
Brenda and I counted on our Aunt Toni so much because our Mom was sick a lot during our growing up years. There were many events at school that my Mom could not come to, but Aunt Toni was always there. Aunt Toni was the first to come when we would call her frantically saying something is wrong with Mom.
Aunt Toni cut my hair every couple of months. No, she was not a trained hair stylist, but she cut the boys’ hair and happily agreed to cut mine. I always had the cutest short, red, curly hair in school—all the way through high school.
Aunt Toni was my Mom’s best friend and cared about her dearly. They went to the same hairdresser every Saturday morning, gossiped and ran around together. Brenda and I loved to sit at the Half Way Café watching them drink coffee and talk. We loved to go shopping with them and watched them laugh and try on clothes. Both Mom and Aunt Toni were very stylish dressers. They went to the Salcedo Baptist Church and I can remember when both my Dad and Uncle Quinn were baptized—likely because of their influence.
Aunt Toni helped my Mom rear our family in so many ways as well as helped my Mom when she was ill. Aunt Toni was always at the hospital or at the bedside whenever my Mom needed her. And she was always there for us kids.
My Mom was ill off and on for many years of my life and subsequently died at age 45, three days before my Uncle Quinn died of cancer. A year later my Dad and Aunt Toni married and I couldn’t have been happier. I loved that woman dearly.
We all grew up and went our separate ways. When my Dad died seven years later, I was with my Aunt Toni at the hospital during that horrible time. It got harder to stay connected as the years moved on; Toni would call me from time to time and I would visit occasionally when I came to Missouri. How I wish that I hadn’t gotten so caught up in living that I missed opportunities to be with her more. I will always cherish Aunt Toni as being one of the greatest women I have every known; although she is not with us in body, she will always be with us in sprit and she left a fabulous legacy. Aunt Toni is the only other woman that I know who has more last names than I do. I love that!
In Loving Memory
Toni Geraldine Freeland Mays Mays Conner
October 30, 1921 to April 06, 2017
Pistol Packing Mama
By Sue Swinger-Ellbogen
"A combat aircraft designed to carry and drop bombs" according to the American Heritage Dictionary.
They were the quintessential air to ground (or sea) delivery system during World War II.
Dedicated to Brenda Mays Thurber, a modern Pistol Packing Mama
I am told that I was pretty scrawny and sickly when I was born. I was seventeen months younger than my sister, Sue, who was pretty robust, so I must have seemed even smaller than ever. They say that Mom and Dad used to walk the floor holding me on a pillow so I could breathe. I never grew very big in my whole life. I was ninety pounds when I married and only gained about ten pounds when I quit smoking. I thought I was plump.
Sue claims to remember standing in the crib watching our folks carry me around while she stood in her wet, sagging diaper bawling her eyes out and no one would pay attention to her. I am sure she was just remembering being told the same stories as I was—and likely exaggerating. My Granny Hodges used to call me “Bennie” and no one ever knew why. She called another cousin “Sidney” all her life and her name was Cindy. So maybe Granny just liked to call people by her own special names. My Uncle Preston called me “Cricket”. Sue said that some of the cousins still refer to me by that name.
One might think this fragile beginning would define me throughout my life, but you would be wrong. It is true that I never grew to be very big; I was five foot tall and ninety pounds, soaking wet, most of my life. Sue says that was ninety pounds of pure dynamite. Not only was I the baby of the family and, clearly, the favorite (in Sue’s mind), but also I was a scrapper. I used to put my head down and ram our brother, Sonnie, right in the breadbasket. I liked doing that because he would bully Sue and I all the time. Sue did not find it funny, as I would jump out and tackle her when she was walking through the living room with a book in her hand. I scared her every single time; I still laugh to think about that.
Daddy and Sonnie like to egg me on and make me wrestle Sue. She was only 5’3” at her tallest, but she towered over me. I was as strong as an ox and Sue would laugh and pretend that she was amused by me trying to take her on. Refusing to wrestle with me was the only thing that saved her from being humiliated and bruised constantly. It stopped being fun because she would not even try. Sonnie and I would gang up on Sue just because we were always up to some mischief. I feel kind of bad about that now, but at the time, it was just kid stuff and I liked being a terror.
Being so close in age, Sue and I slept together, ate together, played together, got sick together and, quite simply, grew up together. Sue was the dreamer, always walking around with her head in the clouds daydreaming about something or other. I was a warrior who took life head on. I played with the boys instead of doing my homework, rode my bicycle up and down the road, I got into fights with girls (to Sue’s horror) and did not let anyone or anything stop me from doing what I wanted (Sue pretended to be appalled, but I think she was secretly envious).
We irritated our sister, Margaret, to no end. We ran in and out of the back door so often, slamming the screen, that Margaret locked us out of the house for hours at a time. No matter how much we squalled, she would not let us in. We spent many hours playing in the dirt under a big oak tree.
In the fall, Sue and I had to pick little piles of cotton on the rows ahead of Margaret and Sonnie. If we started playing or got distracted by birds flying overhead, Margaret would yell at us. She told us the “Biscuit Eater” would get us if we did not stay on the row and pick cotton. We believed her and darted back before the Biscuit Eater could get us.
Sue wasn’t very good at looking after her little sister. One time I got on the wrong school bus and walked almost three miles before someone stopped and picked me up to take me home. I knew I was on the wrong bus when I didn’t see Sue on it. Another time, we were trick or treating and Sue was racing around with the older kids and I struggled to keep up with them. I know I was very annoying to her. I fell down as they ran ahead of me. Suddenly, Sue looked back to see me sitting on the ground crying. She, reluctantly, went back and helped me up and let me stay with her the rest of the evening.
One time I talked Sue into covering up for me when I snuck out of the house. Sue ended up in trouble. Daddy had checked on us and Sue said that I was asleep already. He came back in a couple more minutes (Mom told him he had to check again—she must have been physic) and found that I was not in bed. Sue had to confess that I had slipped out to meet a boy. We both got a belt whooping. Daddy said that Sue was getting to be old enough to date, but not me. She agreed, but didn’t understand why she should have been punished. She was mad at me for weeks.
As we got older, Sue wanted to have her own space so she asked if she could sleep in the basement. Now, I thought that was brave because that big old, unfinished basement was scary. Mom and Dad agreed to let her and put a bed down there for her. I have to admit she slept there every night even after a neighbor reported a peeping tom. The man finally got arrested and Mom did not tell Sue until it was over. She still stayed downstairs; I think she really wanted to get away from me although she let me sleep down there once in while.
One time we had some girls stay over night and we plotted to slip out the basement window and steal some hubcaps from the neighbors. We did climb out the window, but since none of us had any idea about how to remove a hubcap, we chickened out and just hung around outside for a while. That was about as adventuresome as Sue got.
She did not join in with some of the other escapades, like the time some of us kids put salt on a rose bush to try to kill it. A man had planted a rose bush on the big oak tree that we liked to climb on and we did not like that one bit. The salt did not seem to have any effect on the rose bush so no real harm done.
I don’t mean to imply that I had a budding criminal mind; at least I don’t think that my nefarious activities followed me into adulthood, so that should prove something. Maybe I was just a tomboy and following those boys around, like my cousins and others in our small village, got me into scrapes. One time we trouped down to Little River Ditch and discovered that a Mexican family had moved into the house by the river. They had some chickens and we decided to steal one of them. It’s hard for me to believe that I came up with the idea, regardless; I do remember that I went along with it. I guess the squawking of the chickens roused the attention of the owner and he came out to see what was happening. We hit the river running as hard as we could. I was so scared, but excited at the same time.
Oh, yes, one more incident I remember that corroborates the idea that I might have just a touch of delinquency—no—that’s not a good word to describe me—misconduct is better. Some of the kids and I would slip into the strawberry patch near the curve and steal some berries. One day, the owner of the patch saw us, hitched a ride on a trailer and caught us in the act. He yelled at us, but did not attempt to run after us us. He was too old to catch us; we really should have been ashamed, but we weren’t. Youth can be so insensitive; I can admit that now.
So it is true that I engaged in activities of misconduct periodically and I am surprised that I lived to tell about it. Perhaps, it was just childhood misbehavior and to be honest, some things just happened to me. Like the time I dropped one of Mom’s little sample perfume vials on the floor and it shattered. I tried to clean it up before Mom would discover it (I guess I didn’t think the smell would be a dead giveaway). Anyway, I accidentally stepped on a piece and drove it into my foot. Mom had to take me to the emergency room where they probed and removed the piece. That procedure hurt like the dickens and my foot still throbbed even after the wound healed. I would tell Mom that something felt like it was sticking in my foot and she would make me sit down so she could examine it, but the bottom of my foot was smooth and she could find nothing wrong.
Just because I was the baby of the family did not mean that I acted like a baby; my foot really did hurt for almost a year. One day, something started pushing through the top of my foot. I thought it was a splinter and had Mom take a look at it. She got her tweezers and gently started pulling on the splinter. She was shocked to pull out a sliver of the glass vial. I was not shocked because I had been telling everyone that something was wrong with my foot! Now, maybe people will believe me when I tell them something.
One summer, Sue and I rigged up a record player in the garage and turned John Phillips Sousa marching band music up as high as it would go (we didn’t care about the neighbors). We would march up and down the driveway twirling our batons for hours. I think we had the idea we could become a twirler even though we were not in band. I was a cheerleader because I could do the high kicks while Sue could barely jump off the ground. I think she was a little jealous when I got selected, but she acted proud of me.
Sue joined every group in school like Red Peppers, yearbook staff, Job’s Daughters, Beta Club, debate team and more. She was active in church and took piano lessons even though we did not have a piano. She practiced at church and I was always embarrassed when she played for the entire church and they tried to sing along. She would stand up in front of the whole congregation and talk with no fear at all—usually about stuff she knew nothing about. I wouldn’t even say a verse in the Christmas pageant. I was so shy; I wouldn’t even agree to stand on the stage with a group of people singing Christmas carols. The reality is that I could have cared less about any of these activities. I was too busy trying to figure out how to do something exciting like slip out of the house or how to annoy Sue.
I remember tormenting Sue at night as we lay in our twin beds before she moved downstairs. I would make sounds to try to scare her or keep her awake. I told her that someone was under her bed and they would reach up and grab her feet. She was afraid to stretch her legs out for months. Then I told her someone was in the closet and she would scream “Mom, Moooom, make her stop”. Daddy would come in and tell us to settle down, but as soon as he left, I would start clicking or making smooching sounds quietly. Thank goodness she got to move downstairs or she might have not survived. She couldn’t wait to grow up and get out of that house. It happened all too quickly.
We both married our high school sweethearts at a young age; we were barely out of high school. Sue had a baby girl right away; that made her grow up quickly. I actually liked it when all the kids were out of the house except me. That was one of my best years in school and I liked having Mom and Dad to myself. I should have enjoyed it longer, but instead, I got married too. You guessed it, my marriage did not work out, but I did manage to get pregnant and had a baby boy. One day after my no-good husband left for work, his sister took me to the bus station and my baby, Charlie, and I moved back home with Mom and Dad. I know my parents were crazy about Charlie and enjoyed him tremendously. He was a cutie.
I worked at a bank in Sikeston for a while and then Mom and I started a women’s dress shop called “Mode O’ Day”. We worked together and I think Sue was envious of our close relationship. I felt so chic and liked doing important work while Sue was married and lived in St. Louis taking care of Lee Anne. I know she had big dreams, but not much was happening.
Sue thinks I was way more courageous than she was. She had a traditional life for the next twenty-five years while I loaded up one day and took Charlie to Dallas to live. We had an aunt in Dallas, but other than her, I knew virtually no one when I moved there. I met a woman in the complex who would babysit for others and got her to keep Charlie while I worked.
Here’s where the exciting part starts. Sharon, the babysitter, introduced me to her brother. Loren was in the military and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and was home after his second tour in Vietnam. He told Sharon that he was going to marry me after meeting me one time. Did I mention that Loren was kind of arrogant, impulsive and a little nuts? I really did not like him at first. Sharon told him he was dreaming, but above all, Loren was smart and, also, very persistent.
Let me tell you a little bit about Loren. He’s not a big guy physically, but he is a force to be reckoned with. If you can picture a short Sergeant Bilko from the long ago Phil Silvers show, not as goofy and a lot more handsome—that’s Loren. In the TV series, Sgt. Bilko was in charge of the motor pool at an army base. He was a good-natured con man; Loren was a modern day Bilko; smooth talking, not really a con man except in trying to win me over, but barking orders like Sgt. Bilko.
Loren called me every morning before work and came to Dallas every week. A habit he has kept up for over forty years—calling every morning when he is on the road and at the end of the day. See what I mean—Loren can pour it on with charm. Six weeks after we met, we were married. We went to stand up for another couple getting married and Loren suggested that we get married. He said, “You might as well marry me while we are down here. If you don’t marry me now, you never will.” See what I mean, he was slick, right? Of course, I have to admit that I got a peek at his checkbook one weekend and he had $800 in the bank. Given that I was barely making $200-300 a month at that time, I was impressed. Not only that, Loren had a brand new car and looked really hot in his uniform. Above all, he was a real gentleman.
You might think that he bullied me into marrying him, but I am not easily intimidated and can hold my own. The old judge got out from under his car that he was working on to marry us, as well as the other couple. The other couple divorced after two years, but we are still together after all this time. I think a song was written about us.
Loren liked Charlie too. Not for the reason you might think—like that Charlie was as cute as a bug and adorable. No, because Charlie tossed a cat over the balcony to see if the cat would land on his feet. This tells you something about Loren, doesn’t it? Morbid sense of humor, perhaps. They bonded over that cat—which survived—by the way.
So we started our married life and lived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma for three years. Our daughter, Tina, was born there at Reynolds Army Hospital. Tina was a miniature Loren—high energy, a talker and charming. Her gregarious personality has stayed with her throughout her entire life.
Next we moved to Neu Ulm, Germany where we lived for three and a half years. I did a lot of baking during that time. I sent Sue a bunch of recipes. I didn’t have much choice in what to do and not a lot of options for how to fill my time. I know Sue said my life seemed so glamorous, but I did get really homesick. To help me get though that homesickness, I pulled an invisible shield around my family and myself and believed that I did not need anyone else in my life. It helped me get through a difficult time and prepared me for an independent life living away from family.
When we came home from Germany we moved to Fort Riley, Kansas where we lived for five years before moving to Bridger, Montana for the next five years. We really thrived in these locations and started to look forward to life out of the military. We started buying quarter horses and breeding them and selling the colts. We continued horse-trading and breeding when we moved to Montana and had a really good time. We loved the big sky country and flourished there.
We moved back to Dexter, Missouri for one year, but being near family did not outweigh our love of the wide-open spaces and horse country. We moved to Marlow, Oklahoma in 1987 and have been there ever since.
While in Oklahoma, we raised Percheron and Friesian horses for years. I purchased a set of draft horses for Loren; the first were Belgian horses, which, of course, originated in Belgium. Then, we bought all black Percherons including a stallion and started breeding them. Later, I bought a Friesian stallion and started crossbreeding with the Percherons and sold colts all over the United States and Mexico. People were waiting in line to buy the three to six month old colts. I bought some full-blooded Friesian mares to breed with Asher, our Friesian stallion. They were all black, both mares and stallions. We had many return customers calling for these colts.
For a side activity, we had the horses pulling wagons or carriages in parades. We had a coach where we would carry brides and grooms to their wedding. These are types of draft horses that you might not be as familiar with as Clydesdales (like the Anheuser-Busch horses) who were more common in the United States although they originated in Scotland. Percherons came from France and mostly closely resemble the medieval warhorses. The Friesians or Frisians originated in Friesland, which is in the Netherlands.
Okay, here is something that freaks Sue out; I handled my Friesian stallion for breeding. He would never breed until I told him to. I would put a certain halter and lead rope on him and take him to the mares and wait while he did his thing. I would, then, tell him to get back in the pen and he would go. I loved that stallion. Sue loves the story, but not the visualization so much.
Loren left the army after 22 years due to the drawdown after Vietnam. He was a Captain when he met me and a Major when he retired. He was still a young man and drove over-the-road trucks for the next twenty years, but his military training never left him. He was always dependable, on time and reliable. So much so, that he almost never retired; his boss still keeps calling him to do one more run.
I stayed busy while Loren was driving trucks from one side of the country to another. It turns out that I am very entrepreneurial and started one business after another. In addition to managing the horses, I had seven greenhouses and grew annuals, perennials and roses for flower gardens as well as water lilies, lotus and bog plants for water garden ponds. Additionally, I grew vegetables to sell at the farmers market and later opened my own produce stand. One year, I planted 1000 flats of watermelons and cantaloupes for the farmers to sell as well as my flowers. I had two and a half acres of vegetables plus blackberries and strawberries. Loren and Charlie liked to work in the greenhouse at planting time, but Loren would complain about all the hours of watering. I told him to “button up and keep watering.” He didn’t like that, but when he was not on the road, this was the work to be done. Maybe that’s why he likes to keep driving. To be honest, I had to have his help because I did garden designs and landscaping too.
I admit I stay busy—always. Sometimes I have to laugh when Sue calls and I am out cutting down trees with a chainsaw or shooting skunks and other feral animals (cats). She can’t believe that I do all these outdoor activities. One time, I trapped thirteen opossum and Sue was shocked. Loren told her about me shooting a baby skunk straight through the floor of the outbuilding. I could see the little eyes peeking through the cracks and did not want to go any closer for fear of getting sprayed. I just blasted five pops through the floor and that took care of that little pest. When you live on a ranch or out in the country, you do whatever you have to do. You can’t be calling someone to take care of tasks like this. Sue grew up in the country, just like me. She even lived on a farm for twenty-five years before she moved to Chicago, but she is a bonafide city girl—always has been; always will be. I am happy that she admires my life and we love our differences and like to share funny stories. I think we are lucky to be friends as well as sisters.
The next interesting thing I did was open a deli called The Plum Thicket—can you imagine that—horse breeder to baker and chef. We would cook homemade meals that were our daily special. We, also, had soup, sandwiches and salads. We baked cookies, cakes and pies, all from scratch; we did not use anything out of a box. I made Thanksgiving dinners for families to take home. I cooked every dish and boxed it up for them ready to heat up and serve. Sue always says that Thanksgiving is my favorite meal to cook. I know she would have been my first customer if she lived nearby or she would be coming to my house for Thanksgiving dinner!
The first Christmas, I made thirty-two platters of cookies and candies for a local veterinarian to give away to his customers. We baked lots of pies, sweet breads and brownies at Christmas time for customers. One Fourth of July, we had a huge barbeque for the entire town. We served over 249 plates for lunch. That was an awesome day.
I had a baker in my shop, but lots of customers came to me instead of them for cookies and pies; also, made jams, pickles, relishes and salsa to sell in the deli. For Christmas gifts, I sold baskets filled with the different jams and jellies. I’ll tell you another secret—people would ask me if I could make them a certain pie or cake and I would say, “sure”. I had no idea how to make it, but I did and they liked it. That happened numerous times.
We would have special luncheons for clubs and churches. It was a lot of work, but I really enjoyed it and Loren did too. Charlie liked it because he would get free cookies. The town had an open house around Christmas time and the local florist asked me to bake her cookies to give out to customers. I made 2,000 cookies for them to hand out—all different varieties. This was on top of making goodies for our own shop. I had a lot of fun and really miss the deli.
I suppose the idea for the whole concept started because I made Loren’s boss fudge every year for over twenty years. I always liked to bake and learned a lot of unique recipes when I was in Germany so I guess I thought I could make anything. I loved it when people came in for lunch and sat for hours talking to their friends or reading a book. I would probably still have The Plum Thicket except some kid ran his car through the window narrowly missing me at the register. As I commenced working with the insurance company, I found out the owner of the building did not carry insurance; I could have been liable for everything. I decided to take my insurance money and not rebuild.
Sue and I have stayed close throughout the years even though we have gone for long periods of time without seeing each other. I was so heartbroken when she lost her daughter, Lee Anne, to breast cancer. I called Sue every two weeks or more often for a year trying to be encouraging, but feeling so helpless. Our brother is terminally ill and soon, it will just be Sue and I. We have determined to stay in touch and see each other more often. I am grateful that we are both in good health as well as our husbands.
Sue calls me “Pistol Packing Mama”, probably because of that little skunk incident, but she says it is because of the B17 bombers in WWII. She says my life has been as dynamic as the pinup girls painted on the tail of those planes. As I look at my life compared to hers, I guess it has been a little bit more like the Wild West (not sure about the bombers—that’s her creative imagination in overdrive). I can honestly say that I have enjoyed my life and believe I found a man who is my match. We both like to travel the back roads in our RV, taking our two grandkids with us some of the time, stopping to pick cacti along the way, walk on beaches and watch fabulous sunsets. What a beautiful way to start the next chapter of our journey.
The Rose That Would Not Bloom
Dedicated to Margaret, Sonnie, and Brenda who were there too
I took off running after the red bantam hen chasing it all over the dirt yard dotted with crabgrass clumps. My bare feet pounds the earth as I lean close to the ground and stretch forward to grasp the squawking chicken. Never mind that I have fed this chicken all summer and have even given it a name—Gloria is destined to be the main course at Sunday dinner, the only day of the week my family have anything to eat besides stuff from the garden like beans and potatoes, green onions, tomatoes, sweet corn, and okra. My mouth waters as I think about fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits with gravy. I lung forward, grasp Gloria around the middle and roll over on the ground hanging on to the hen for dear life. I struggle to an upright position holding Gloria tight against my chest. I proudly hand the chicken over to Granny Mays but quickly run to the front of the house so I will not actually have to see Gloria’s demise. Granny wrings Gloria’s neck off and lets the hen flop to death on the ground with blood spurting all over the place. When the hen finally bleeds out and becomes still, Granny picks Gloria up by the feet and drains more blood out of the neck cavity. Then she plunges the dead hen into a pot of boiling water to loosen up the feathers so she can pluck Gloria clean. The smell of singed feathers lets me know that Gloria has been plucked and tiny pinfeathers burned off.
I return to the kitchen when I hear the screen door bang shut behind Granny as she carries the denuded Gloria to the butcherblock table. Granny takes her meat cleaver in hand to start chopping the hen into frying size pieces. I swallow hard and struggle not to turn away. Only the thought of Granny’s fried chicken makes me persevere. Granny makes fried chicken better than anyone in the whole world.
Summer is always a fun time for my sister and me. Our sister Margaret takes care of us when my Mom has one of her spells and has to go to bed. When Mom is feeling good we get to go to our cousins’ house and play tag outside in the evening while our parents make homemade ice cream using an old wooden White brand ice cream freezer.
The men jab an ice pick into the big block of ice in the galvanized washtub and chip off shards. They use the ice chips to surround the metal freezer sitting in the middle of a wooden barrel. They liberally salt the ice with rock salt and pack wet burlaps bags on top to hold the cold. The freezer contains lots of fresh cow’s milk and cream mixed with eggs and some vanilla bean flavoring. My Dad locks the crank into the cog at the top of the lid and trades off turning the crank with my Uncle Quinn as it gets harder and harder to turn as the ice cream starts to firm up. We kids dart up the driveway grabbing a chip of salted ice to suck on while racing around the yard chasing fireflies.
My Mom and my Aunt Toni chop fresh strawberries and liberally sprinkle with sugar then set aside to let the sugar dissolve to make a wonderful syrupy topping for our ice cream. We can barely stand to stop playing tag in the dark to go in the house to eat the delicious ice cream. The bite of the strawberries tastes pungent on my tongue followed by the sweet creamy vanilla ice cream so full of cream it coats my mouth. It is a bit of heaven to have that on your tongue. We eat swiftly so we can go back outside before our folks load us up to start home. We have to be careful not to eat too fast as the coldness will give us a quick headache. Our parents take their time enjoying their percolated coffee and savoring every drop of the precious, tasty dessert. Those times when our Mom is happy makes all of us very happy.
During the day in the summer, my sister Brenda and I aggravate our older sister Margaret, who takes care of us so we will not upset our Mom or make her headaches start. We keep running in and out of the house banging the screen door relentlessly. Margaret locks the door and makes us stay outside until our wailing gets to be intolerable.
Many hours are whiled away playing in the dirt underneath the big oak tree in the front yard of our modest white frame house situated directly across the street from the Missionary Baptist Church. We build dirt roads with our cars and trucks and place our dolls under the tree to watch our activities. As soon as our Dad’s red, Ford pickup truck pulls into the driveway we are fleeing across the yard to greet him while begging him to lift us up into the bed of the truck where we hang over the side precariously. Our Dad is patient and usually tolerates our antics and allows us to play in the truck until we get bored and holler for him to lift us down. He lets us trail him to the garden where he spends some time pulling weeds and watering his beloved vegetable patch after a long day sharecropping four hundred acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Daddy stuffs a burlap sack with straw, wraps a rope belt around the waist and neck to fashion a scarecrow that stands in the garden. This is his attempt to scare off the crows and blackbirds that like to pull out and feast on young tender corn shoots and vegetable plants.
The most worrisome plants are the strawberries. They have to be weeded constantly because the weeds can quickly choke out the delicate strawberry plants that grow low to the ground. Bending over to pull out those weeds or picking the fruit on the vines makes your back ache even when you are a kid. The work is worth it when we eat those vine-ripened strawberries topped with homemade ice cream made in that old crank ice cream freezer.
My Daddy grows over fifty varieties of roses at the edge of the vegetable garden and all around the yard. He prunes and pampers each rosebud. My sister and I learn patience and endurance shadowing him and staying underfoot like puppies. He takes care of those roses year round and there is a montage of beautiful blooms throughout the summer.
Every Saturday afternoon my family drives into Sikeston so our Mom can get her hair styled while Dad and we kids hang out on the street corner greeting familiar folks. The highlight of the entire year is a Saturday in the autumn when the Cotton Carnival comes to town. We girls get to ride the ponies in a circle and hang on tight to the carousel horses on the merry-go-round. Our Dad buys hot dogs and cotton candy for us and spends hours walking the grounds holding our hands and stopping to talk to fellow farmers and neighbors who drive in from small towns all over the county.
My Mom grocery shops at Kroger or the A&P every Friday night after work. She will toot the horn when she pulls in the driveway and my sister and I bolt out the door to help carry in the bags. She almost always picks up a chocolate fudge cake at Nancy’s Sweet Shop that is our special Friday night treat.
We quickly put away all the food while Mom changes her clothes and gets out of those spiked high-heels she has worn all day. On her way back to the kitchen Mom will put on some music for us to listen to while making dinner. It is usually the Blackwood Brothers who sing gospel music with the best harmony and deepest bass voices. She also listens to Ed Ames whom we kids especially like because he plays Mingo on the Daniel Boone show and we feel like we know him personally. We love singing along with Fats Domino when he sings “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill” while we wash and dry dishes.
Zorro comes on television every Saturday night at seven o’clock. My Dad always cooks hamburgers for our family and we are allowed to eat in front of the television on this night only. We take our plates and sit on the floor and watch Zorro while we eat.
Hamburgers with potato chips and a glass of milk never tasted better as we enjoyed doing something strictly forbidden any other night. The entire family will eat together and watch the next episode of Zorro. We loved that masked man.
This tradition continues through the Bonanza series that airs on Sunday night with first my older sister dropping out followed by my brother as they get too old to hang out with the family. Before long Bonanza ends and so does our special family night camaraderie.
“Jesus loves the little children.” I smile broadly and take a deep bow in front of the packed country church. There is standing room only at the church’s annual Christmas program. The adults enjoy the music and the pageant; the children are frenzied with excitement about seeing Santa at the end of the program.
Rube Shoaf gives me a pat on the head as I go out the church door. Rube works at the shoe factory in town during the week and spends most of the weekend cleaning the church and getting everything ready for Sunday worship. He always lets some of the children help him ring the church bell by pulling the long cord dangling from the bell tower in the front vestibule. Rube’s wife, Helen, is a soprano in the church choir and one of the only women to wear red lipstick and nail polish. Some in the church suspect she dyes her hair because it is coal black. I like to sit by Mrs. Shoaf during church and look at her red fingernails and that pretty black hair teased up into a bouffant hairdo.
Rube is a good man; everyone says so. For ten years he drove people to the shoe factory in an old school bus and back home every day. He retired from the shoe factory and turned the school bus into a camper; he is handy that way. He takes his family over to Kentucky Lake in the summer. He is a good and faithful man. Some folks think Helen is a little flashy but Rube loves her so much that no one wants to say anything to hurt him.
During the rest of the year I attend Gladys Holmes’ Sunday School class every Sunday morning. Gladys is a member of a Pentecostal church but that church is too far away for her to attend. She wears long-sleeved dresses with no makeup and twists her long hair up in a bun. Gladys does not go down to Floodway or Angle ditch to wade in the water under the bridge, holding her skirt up to her knees, and splashing around having a good time like most everyone else does during the hot summer months. I suspect Gladys does not want anyone to see her immodestly nor having fun.
On Saturday night we walk to Preach Springs’ General Store and watch films projected on the back of his building. Gladys Holmes does not attend because watching movies is against her religion too.
It is confusing to me to hear ‘thou shalt love thy neighbors as thyself’ in church yet hear the same people say ‘stay away from those 'N…..'. My family has a lot of respect for John who lives down the road by himself and has a crow for a pet. We kids walk down and talk to John as an excuse to look at the crow perched on the arm of his cane chair as they sit on the front porch.
James lives on the same road as we do and has a much nicer home. He has a good job in town and a boy and girl who both have shiny red bicycles.
Dave and Boots is a young couple who work for my Uncle Quinn. Boots comes to clean our house sometimes when my Mom is sick. Mom says it is okay to play with their children as long as we stay outside.
My family treats all these people with respect except for using the word ‘N’ word. Even so, Daddy forbids us children to use that word but rather tells us to use the word ‘colored’ instead.
My Mom and Dad are Democrats; I do not know what that means but I do know that a young man running for the office of President named John F. Kennedy is Catholic and this causes some consternation in our church. In the early 1960’s Southern Baptists do not exactly trust the Catholics. My folks vote for Mr. Kennedy anyway. Later, an incident happens miles away from rural Missouri in Cuba that causes my parents to be proud of their decision.
For seven nights our family sits in front of the RCA television set to watch the nightly news as history unfolds during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We do not understand exactly what is going on but we are scared because our Mother tells us that this is an important time in history. She is worried that World War III will start based on the outcome of this incident. We all breathe easier when Russian Primer Nikita S. Khrushchev stands down and orders all Soviet supply ships away from Cuban waters and agrees to remove the missiles from Cuba's mainland.
Although a crisis is avoided, the world is stunned when this young president is assassinated a year later. We sit in front of our RCA again and sadly view the processional. Seeing that little boy saluting his father’s casket will stay in our minds the rest of our entire life.
My Dad worries about another man named Martin Luther King, Jr. as we watch the riots and incidents in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama on television during our regular nightly news. Daddy says that Mr. King is courageous but talk like that will get him killed. I am shocked when my Dad’s words prove to be prophetic.
Summers are still the best time of the year. School is out and my sister and I return to being ordinary kids playing baseball behind the church and going fishing on Little River ditch. I am better at fishing than Brenda because I have inherited my Dad’s patience and can sit for hours holding my cane pole watching my bobber to see if a fish takes a nibble. I pray that I will catch a fish. I try hard to muster up enough faith to have my prayers answered. I learned in Sunday School that all one needs is faith the size of a mustard seed, which I have been told is very tiny. Disappointment prevails time and again. Obviously, I deduct, there is more to faith and prayer than what I have learned from Gladys Holmes’ Sunday School class.
Brenda tires of fishing quickly and takes her shoes off and wades in the water at the edge of the ditch squishing mud between her toes and chasing minnows and crawdads. My Dad and I keep a lookout for cottonmouth snakes that are common to the area; not that any are likely to come near with Brenda splashing in the water like crazy. We have a picnic lunch and find a grassy spot under the trees high on the banks of the river and spread out our lunch of fried bologna sandwiches and potato chips with kool-aid and sweet tea.
My Dad breaks my heart the summer I am ten years old. I am envious of the boys who always get to have more fun. They go and go and do and do whatever they want. They stay out late after dark—they run in at the last minute and plop down to dinner without having to help. They go out to play without taking out the stinky garbage and they never have to iron their own clothes. They laugh and let the door bang behind them and keep on running. They don’t cry.
The boys do not seem to mind if I hang around them and join in their rock throwing or running cars around in the dirt. I can climb trees and bait hooks. I don’t cry if I get skinned knees or get a hook in the thumb. I can spit and say cuss words. I can wipe snot on my sleeves.
I decide to go to the river to fish and throw rocks with the boys. We are all excited about finding that special fishing hole where we will catch a big one. We will wade under the bridge where the water is shallow and there are no snakes. Then we will go down the ditch bank to deeper water and put worms on the hooks of our cane fishing poles. We will throw out the baited lines and the bobber will settle in the water and signal to us when we get a nibble. Echoes of my father saying ‘don’t go to the river’ fade as I skip along to keep up with the boys.
We do not catch a big one but we do see a cottonmouth snake. It is across the ditch from us and swims down the other way. We watch to make sure he does not come ashore and sneak back behind us.
I cannot get my rock to skip no matter how hard I practice or how smooth and flat my stone is. When my arm gets tired I stop and join some other boys digging for crawdads. They build a reservoir and we place the crawdads in it to keep them from scurrying away.
Warmed by the sun, slightly sunburned, and with clothes dried and stuck to us, it is time to go home. Walking on the gravel road, kicking rocks ahead of us, everyone is subdued. Some are thinking about their supper, some are thinking about getting their ears scrubbed because we have gotten so dirty, and I am thinking about my Dad.
Daddy is waiting for me as I walk up the driveway with my older brother. I can tell by the look on his face that I am in trouble. My brother walks past my Dad and into the house leaving me to face the music on my own. Daddy has a long slender switch from the sugar maple tree in his hand and a hard look in his eyes.
He takes my arm so I cannot pull away; I do not resist. He turns me around and flicks the switch up and down my backside. My back and legs get the worst of the welts. My sister puts medicine on them as I sob uncontrollably. My heart is broken; not that I hurt so badly or because I have disappointed my Dad but mostly because I am punished and the boys are not.
It is a lifetime later that I learn to appreciate that my Dad is trying to protect me. I resent the fact that girls are not allowed the freedom boys enjoy. Now I know there are dangers awaiting young girls on every front and a Dad does all he can to keep them safe.
That is the last really fun summer that Brenda and I have. Our Mom succumbs to clinical depression and our older sister leaves home. We grow up fast as we have to assume more responsibility for taking care of Mom and the household. We learn to cook and start supper every night instead of playing baseball. Our Dad is patient with us as we pan-fry potatoes, make macaroni and cheese, and heat up ham hocks and beans night after night. We do not know how to season food or how to vary the menu. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day because my Daddy always gets up early and makes coffee, fried eggs, biscuits and gravy while he listens to country music on the Portageville radio station. I wake up early just to be with him; he works and I sit in silence and drink coffee with lots of milk and sugar.
Brenda and I fold and iron clothes on the weekend instead of going fishing. I am eager to leave home and get shed of these responsibilities. As a young adult I turn away from my family because all I can remember is the hard work, the anxiety about our Mom, and the frustration when prayers are going unanswered. I vow to make a different life for myself and I am ashamed to admit that I became embarrassed about my sharecropper father and ill mother. It is not until I rear my own children and observe firsthand how callused children become to the tender things learned early in life that I begin to understand that parents do the best they can.
The day my mother dies after a fifteen-year illness, a single red rose blooms outside her bedroom window even though it is late September. I think that rose blooms just for my Daddy who took care of us as carefully as he nurtured those roses. He tried to take care of my Mom but that rose would not bloom.
By Sue Swinger-Ellbogen
All I have ever known is black dirt. I was half grown before I learned that dirt comes in other colors like red clay and sandy loam. Black dirt is what we had; gumbo is what my Daddy called it. “That dratted gumbo sucks the water up until the ground cracks,” he would say. “Then you can’t get a plow through it for love nor money. You spend your time just bustin’ up dirt clods.”
I do not know why it is called gumbo. It is just rich, black dirt that is in the delta that lines the Mississippi River for forty miles on either side. It comes from the land being swampy and mostly under water for hundreds of years. The soil can grow the best ‘dad-blame’ cotton in the country according to my daddy who was a sharecropper in Southeast Missouri for almost forty years. He had a love-hate relationship with that land which was our livelihood. He never owned any land but tended to it as though every acre belong to him.
We were almost too far north to grow cotton being in the Missouri boot heel, the lower southeast corner of the state shaped like a boot that bordered Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas. That was about as far north as you would ever see cotton growing.
Of course, everybody and their cousin that is driving through had to stop and gawk at the cotton fields when the bolls are popped out fluffy white as far as the eye can see. It is a picture to see all that cotton spread out over a forty acre field, not that many people know what forty acres looks like much less a section of land unless they are a farm kid like me.
There is a lot of back-breaking work that goes into growing cotton before you get to this picturesque stage. There is lot of heartache too if the rain does not come just right, or the sun is not hot enough, or the boll weevils come to town bringing their brothers and sisters and cousins.
When the cotton is about six inches high you have to go in with a hoe and thin it out so you get a good stand of cotton and not a bunch of spindly plants. As much as I do not enjoy hoeing cotton, I like it a lot better than picking cotton. It is generally not yet hot weather when you hoe cotton and after you develop some calluses on your palms you do not get so many blisters.
Now picking cotton is done during the hottest time of the year—early fall. Back then the schools let out for cotton vacation because most of the students were pulled out of school to work in the fields helping to get the crop harvested. This was before mechanical cotton pickers came along. About four weeks is all you need to get the crop in; if it sets in to raining you have got a problem. If it rains long enough you can get mold on the cotton as well as the cotton getting stained and the price goes down. If it is too muddy you have to wait until the ground freezes over to finish picking the cotton.
You have heard the old saying, ‘make hay while the sun shines’; well it is the same with picking cotton. I have picked cotton since I was five years old when I just ran in the row ahead of my sister or brother and had a pile of cotton for them to pick up when they drew near with their long, white, canvas cotton sacks hanging from their tired, bent backs.
When I was about seven or eight, not realizing what I was getting myself into, I begged Daddy to make me my own cotton sack out of a burlap grain sack. He did it and I loved filling my sack until about ten o’clock in the morning and then I wanted to quit. But that was not part of the job; we had to pick until late afternoon. We had to tape our fingers because the prickly bolls would stick and scratch our fingers until they bled. I can still smell the cotton mixed with the dirty, dried leaves caused by defoliation designed to dry up the stalks and leaves to make the cotton picking cleaner. Just talking about it makes me feel worn out.
My daddy loved working with the soil so much that even after the long hours he spent in the field he would come home and work in his vegetable garden until dark. Daddy would plant his onions, radishes, and lettuce as early as February or March since the weather pattern during the late fifties and sixties was mild all winter long. I can remember some Christmas dinners that we had outside because the temperature was seventy degrees. Spring came early to Southeast Missouri and Daddy was itching to get outside and work with the dirt.
My little sister and I followed our Daddy’s every footstep. We were always getting in the way and tripping over his newly planted hills of potatoes or tomato plants. As soon as we were old enough he showed us the eyes that had sprouted in the potatoes he had saved from last year and put us to work dropping quarters of a potato with at least one sprout in the holes he had dug. He showed us how to plant the radish seeds and set the tiny onion bulbs in the ground. We had the job of putting the plastic caps over the tomato plants every night for the first six weeks so the tomato plants would not freeze when the temperatures dropped after sunset.
Daddy planted pole beans and set up a teepee of canes to train the beans to grow upward. The Blue Lake green beans were vines that sprawled over the ground and produced buckets of good green beans that we enjoyed fresh and then canned a hundred or more quarts so we would have green beans once or twice very week. Daddy never did think that frozen green beans were as good as the canned.
We always had a dozen rows of sweet corn in Daddy’s garden. He did not let us kids weed the corn because the weeds and corn look so similar when they are young that we were likely to pull out the corn as well as the weeds, or worse, pull out the corn and leave the weeds. Daddy would stuff a burlap sack with straw, wrap a rope belt around the waist and neck to fashion a scarecrow that stood in the corn patch in an attempt to scare off the crows and blackbirds that liked to feast on young corn shoots. We put up corn in the freezer, a few ears on the cob, and about fifty bags of corn cut off the cob. We blanched the corn on the cob and flash chilled them in ice water, but we never thought the corn on the cob was nearly as good as the fresh corn on the cob. The cut corn was delicious whether sautéed fresh in an iron skillet with butter, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar or taken out of the freezer and prepared the same way months later. The iron skillet made all the difference.
Big Boy tomato plants flourished in our garden. We could always count on having fresh tomatoes and corn on the cob by the fourth of July. By September I had tired of all those tomatoes and certainly tired of canning them. We gave away as many as we could to neighbors and friends but those plants still kept producing. We would pick the tomatoes, plunge them into boiling vats, dip them out quickly, and peel the skin off. Our fingers would be puckered from handling all those tomatoes. We would can hundreds of quarts of tomatoes because we used them in cooking all year.
Okra was one of Daddy’s favorite foods and he always liked to grow lots of okra in his garden. Okra is the worst vegetable to harvest because it is so prickly and scratches your hands. It does not hurt as badly as picking cotton because you use a knife to slice off the tender young pods, but it sure would make your hands itch until you washed them with soap. It took us a long time to learn how to freeze okra so it would not be a mush when we thawed it. We finally learned to slice the okra into half inch sections, coat the okra in flour, and place on a cookie sheet to freeze individually before putting in a bag together.
Squash, cucumbers, watermelons, and pumpkins were very fun plants. Their vines sprawled all over the ground and the blossoms were colorful. We did not have to worry too much about weeds because the vines smothered them out. We learned to freeze squash the same way as okra. The watermelons we just ate fresh and the pumpkins were more for fun. We did not do anything with the pumpkins but decorate them for Halloween. Lots of people make pickles with their cucumbers but I guess we did not know how because about all we did was eat them in a cucumber and onion salad with a vinegar and oil dressing.
The most worrisome plants were the strawberries. They had to be weeded constantly because the weeds could choke out the delicate strawberry plants. Bending over to pull out those weeds and finally picking the fruit on the vines made your back ache even when you were a kid. The work was worth it when we had those delicious strawberries sweetened with sugar and topped with homemade ice cream made in the old crank style ice cream freezer. We learned to freeze the strawberries too but they were always mushy and never had that nice fresh taste.
As a young adult I turned away from gardening because all I could remember was the hard work and toil endured in the cotton field as well as the vegetable garden. I vowed to make a different life for myself and I am ashamed to admit that I grew embarrassed about my sharecropper father as I entered my teens. It was not until I reared my own children and observed first hand how callused children can become to the tender things learned early in life that I began to understand that my Daddy set the stage for my life with his gardens. To this day I cannot see a rose without thinking of my precious Daddy and the lessons we learned from his gardening in all that black dirt.
By Sue Swinger-Ellbogen
November 20, 2009