Family Matters; A Collection of Memories
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. Granny Mays 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 love 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 Homes 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
May 24, 2011
Tips and Tools for Writing Your Memoirs
1. Smart phone, tablet, Kindle, Nook, computer, or paper and pencil
2. Jump drive/iCloud (something to back up your stories)
1. Start now.
2. Using your device or notepad, write down your first childhood memory in twenty-five words or less.
3. Add details: setting, characters, age(s), senses (see, smell, taste, touch, and hear)
4. Date your first memoir entry.
1. Memory: I remember my little sister and I pushing a dog in a baby buggy.
2. Setting: Our home is in the country on a hill with a long driveway. The wind is blowing dust across the dirt driveway and I can smell cow manure emanating from the barn behind the house. Chickens are pecking around the yard.
3. Characters: Brenda is my sister and Brownie is the puppy. Brenda is four and I am five and we are wearing dresses.
Memoir: When we were four and five my little sister, Brenda, and I would push Brownie, our dog in a baby buggy. The puppy would squirm to get out of the buggy but we would keep shoving him back in. It took both of us to push the buggy over the rough yard filled with dirt clods and crabgrass. We wore dresses because back then girls did not wear long pants for any reason. We would play for hours in the long dirt driveway leading up to our house on the hill. The old grey barn behind the house tilted with age and weather but still provided cover for the three red Hereford cows milling about. The smell of cow manure was as familiar as the smell of leaves burning. We chased the chickens until we wore out or Mom called us for supper.
July 30, 2013
1. Memory: I remember two cousins playing in the barn.
2. Setting: Our home is in the country on a gravel road. It is summertime and Gram and I are preparing corn to go in the freezer.
3. Characters: Aaron and Lee Anne are cousins that are about ten years old. Aaron grew up in the city and Lee Anne is a cousin who grew up on a farm.
Memoir: Gram and I are blanching corn in preparation for cutting corn off the cob and freezing it in small containers. Aaron is visiting for a few days and enjoys exploring the sheds and barns on the farm with his cousin, Lee Anne. Suddenly, Aaron races to the house shouting, "emergency, emergency!" We stop our work immediately and rush to the door. "What's wrong, who is hurt?" we both exclaim. "It's Lee Anne, it's an emergency," says Aaron. "Come quickly." Aaron turns and runs back to the barn with Gram and I close behind.
"Look, Lee Anne is in the corn crib and cannot get out," said Aaron. Gram and I look at each other and smile once we realize the extent of the emergency. Lee Anne has climbed into the corn crib but cannot climb back out. Sure enough that was what happened and Aaron came to the rescue.
Gram and I talked about this precious memory for years.
August 17, 2013