The Storybook Lady
Margaret was seven years older than me and I was seventeen months older than Brenda. Our brother Sonny was three years younger than Margaret so did not need the attention that Brenda and I did. Brenda and I were like two peas in a pod; we always played together, slept together, ate the same things, and got sick together. Margaret took care of all of us during the summer while Mom worked.
One Christmas Brenda and I both had scarlet fever and could not go to church to the annual Christmas pageant. We were so disappointed because Santa always showed up after the pageant to pass out gifts. I will never forget the knock on the door and the voice we heard saying “ho, ho, ho”. We jumped out of bed and were astounded to see Santa coming to visit us personally. This year was the beginning of understanding about Santa because Brenda and I had peeked when Mom was wrapping some little irons. When Santa gave us those same irons I was suspicious; Brenda was still clueless.
I can remember the smells of the countryside; burnt wheat stubble where the farmers burned off a field after harvesting wheat, the green corn shoots poking through the soil, the sweet fragrance of Daddy’s rose bushes, and the earthy smell of manure emanating from the Heiser’s barnyard. Early in the morning we could hear the lowing of the cattle as well as the gentle hoot of a barn owl that roosted in one of the trees in the front yard. The sounds created a melancholy song drifting with the breeze that I have always associated with the loneliness of farm life.
My little sister and I would play in the yard pushing our puppy, Brownie, in a baby carriage. We would push the carriage together because the yard was lumpy with crabgrass and dirt clods and the going was tough. Our fat little hands would struggle to push the wobbly carriage as well as keep the puppy shoved back inside. It was fun to have a real baby in our carriage and the puppy was happy as long as we kept moving. When we paused to chase a butterfly across the yard, the puppy would yelp with a frenzy until we ran back to give it our attention.
During the long summer days Brenda and I would aggravate Margaret when we would keep running in and out of the house banging the screen door relentlessly. Finally, Margaret would lock the door and make us stay outside until our wailing got to be intolerable.
Many hours were whiled away playing in the dirt underneath the big oak tree in the front yard of our modest white frame house in Salcedo directly across the street from the Missionary Baptist Church. We built dirt roads with our cars and trucks and placed our dolls under the tree to watch our activities. As soon as our Dad’s red, Ford pickup truck pulled into the driveway we were fleeing across the yard to greet him while begging him to lift us up into the bed of the truck where we would hang over the side precariously. Our Dad was patient and usually tolerated our antics and allowed us to play in the truck until we got bored and hollered for him to lift us down. He let us trail him to the garden where he spent time pulling weeds and watering his beloved vegetable patch after a long day sharecropping four hundred acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton.
Our Daddy always grew roses at the edge of the vegetable garden and all around the yard. He had over fifty varieties of roses. I do not know the name of those varieties because as a child I did not pay attention to those details. It was obvious that he loved those roses as he pruned and pampered each of them. We learned patience and endurance shadowing him and staying underfoot like puppies. I heard him say that a garden does not save you money but you have much better food when you grow your own vegetables. How true we know that to be today.
He would say that while vegetables are food for the body, roses are food for the soul. He took care of those roses year round and we enjoyed seeing all the beautiful blooms throughout the summer. The day our mother died after a fifteen-year illness a single red rose bloomed outside her bedroom window even though it was late September.
I am ashamed to admit that I grew embarrassed about my sharecropper father as I entered my teens. 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 it was not until I reared my own children and observed firsthand how callused children can become to the tender things learned early in life that I began to understand that Daddy set the stage for 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.
Created August 2, 2013
We lived in Sikeston for a period of time and our Dad worked for Robert R. Walker trucking company for a while. On my fifth birthday my little sister Brenda and I walked around our neighborhood knocking on doors and informing people that today was my birthday. I do not remember where we got this idea but I am sure it was not Brenda’s as she was a little shy and would not have been bold enough to do this on her own. I am guessing that I coerced her into going with me.
I got many nice gifts, mostly money, but one special gift of a cardboard store. Brenda and I played with that store for hours. I am sure my mother would have been mortified if she had known what we were up to that day. We lived in Sikeston until I was through second grade at Lee Hunter Elementary school; whether in that same house or not I do not remember.
My dad was a sharecropper meaning he farmed land for other people and paid them a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the crops for rent. Usually there was a house on the farm that we could live in for free. We moved around frequently and went to school in Sikeston two different times, and to Gray Ridge and later to Richland High School. I remember being hurt when my guidance counselor at Richland said that my family was transient; it was the first awareness I had that other people did not move as much as we did.
Once we lived in a place between two man made ditches that were created during the Little River Drainage project; a project designed to drain eleven million acres of swamp land in Southeast Missouri. One of the ditches was called Floodway and the other Angle ditch. We used to wade and swim under the bridge during the hot summer months.
Margaret was like a surrogate mom to us and had a lot of responsibilities while Mom and Dad worked. She liked to make candy before Christmas. She made fudge and divinity and caramels. She would put the candy in boxes and hide them under the bed. The fudge was good although a bit grainy as I recall. This was before you used marshmallows or marshmallow crème to make fudge creamier.
Once she got started making her Christmas batches, she made Brenda and I take turns standing on a chair stirring the hot pot of chocolate and sugar. We always thought it would be fun but we soon tired of the experience with our arms quickly wearing out and the candy popping and burning our arms. She never let us help with the divinity or caramels because that took more expertise.
Another chore that Margaret had was washing and ironing the clothes for the family. She taught Brenda and I how to fold clothes and it seemed like we always had a basket full of clothes to fold. Then she got the bright idea to teach us how to iron. She started us out ironing handkerchiefs and then progressed to pillow cases. I pestered her to let me iron my dresses and was so sorry when she let me start that. The next thing you know I had to iron my brother’s Levi’s that were stiff as a board.
One summer my sister Margaret was mowing our lawn and ran over some wire. The mower flung the wire out the back and slashed her ankle. She screamed and fell to the ground like the drama queen she was. We all ran to her and my mom sent me to get my dad who was threshing beans in the field behind the house. He could see me running and waving my arms and knew something was amiss. He turned that big combine right in the field and drove it across rows toward me. He stopped long enough to let me climb up into the cab and we drove on to the house as quickly as the big lumbering machine would go. They rushed my sister to the hospital in Sikeston where she got her ankle stitched up.
Sonny stayed home to watch Brenda and I but he did not keep as close an eye on us as Margaret. Brenda and I went straight to Margaret’s closet and dressed up in her formals and danced with our life-size teddy bears. Brenda had a panda bear and I had a plain brown bear. We loved those bears. When we tired of dancing we harassed Sonny until he thought of a way to keep us entertained. Sonny showed us how to light the gas stove and we roasted marshmallows over the burner. They were delicious. I dropped a sticky mess on my dress and knew we had a problem. Sonny gave me a dry towel and told me to clean it up. I scrubbed it as best as I could. There was still some sticky stuff on the dress so I took it off and stuffed the dress in the back of Margaret’s closet before they got home. I never remember anyone finding that dress or questioning what happened to it.
Margaret had several stitches in her ankle and it was quite painful for a while. A few months later her ankle was healed enough for her to wear high heels down the aisle to get married when she was barely seventeen.Fried Chicken
Created February 12, 2012
The summer that I turned twelve my parents let me go to the Rio Grande valley in Texas to spend the summer with Granny and Grandpa Mays and my Aunt June’s family. This was the first big adventure in my life. Several things happened that summer that made it memorable. Being away from my family was exciting and I experienced many firsts: I learned to speak Spanish, fell in love with tacos and tortillas, went to Mexico, splashed around in the Gulf of Mexico and got a horrible sunburn, picked oranges and grapefruits directly from my grandparents groves, and helped make Sunday dinners. The one dark spot on my trip was getting a letter on my birthday telling me that my cousins in Missouri had been in a serious car accident and Patty, the oldest, had been killed. I felt sad but oddly distanced from the incident and pushed it out of my mind for the rest of the summer.
Having grown up in the country I was a barefoot girl and preferred to go shoeless whenever possible. I learned that in the Rio Grande Valley I needed to wear shoes when I walked from my Aunt June’s house to my grandparents because the dirt road got so hot it would burn the soles of my feet. The one time I went without my shoes I had to hop from one foot to the other trying to find sparse clumps of grass to rest my foot on. The heat was something I could never get used to in Texas but this day was special and I was excited to be a part of the semi-annual butchering of chickens.
Granny Mays raised chickens and sold the eggs throughout the year. Once a week Granny would kill one of the younger, tender fryers to make fried chicken for dinner. When she wanted to stew a chicken to get broth or make chicken and dumplings she would slaughter one of the older hens. It was a part of life on the farm at that time so I was not shocked by the process but I had never participated in the mass slaughtering of chickens before.
As soon as I got to Granny’s house I knew it was my job to help round up the chickens. I took off running after one red bantam hen chasing it all over the dirt yard dotted with crabgrass clumps. My bare feet pounded the earth as I leaned close to the ground and stretched forward to grasp the squawking chicken. Never mind that I had fed this chicken all summer and had even given it a name—Gloria was destined to be the main course at this Sunday dinner. Sunday was the one day of the week we would have meat or poultry to go with stuff from the garden like beans and potatoes, green onions, tomatoes, sweet corn, and okra. My mouth watered as I thought about fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and biscuits with gravy. I lunged forward, grasped Gloria around the middle and rolled over on the ground hanging on to the hen for dear life. I struggled to an upright position holding Gloria tight against my chest. I proudly handed the chicken over to Granny Mays but quickly ran to the front of the house so I would not actually have to see Gloria’s demise.
I know that Granny wrings Gloria’s neck off and lets the hen flop to death on the ground with blood spurting all over the place because I have seen her do it to other chickens. 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. She plunges the dead hen into the big cauldron of boiling water that is set up in the back yard on a tripod over a wood fire. The pot has been heating up for hours and is used for the purpose of loosening up the feathers. Then Granny plucks great hands full of feathers from the bird. After she has pulled out all the bigger feathers she will hold the bird over a flame to burn off the rest. The smell of singed feathers lets me know that Gloria has been plucked and tiny pin feathers burned off.
This day the process will be repeated until there are dozens of headless chickens flopping around the back yard. The friends and neighbors who have arrived to help with the slaughtering will form an assembly line with some wringing the necks or using an axe to chop the heads off while others are dipping the hens into the boiling water and plucking feathers. Some of the men took the job of gutting the birds and pulling the entrails out and dumping into a lard can. Care is taken to make sure the liver and gizzards are saved and dropped into the white granite bowl sitting on the makeshift table atop two saw horses.
I returned to the kitchen when I heard the screen door bang shut behind Granny as she carried the denuded Gloria to the butcher block table. Granny took her meat cleaver in hand to start chopping the hen into frying size pieces. I swallowed hard and struggled not to turn away. Only the thought of Granny’s fried chicken made me persevere. Granny could fry chicken better than anyone in the whole world.
It’s Later Than You Think
May 22, 2012
This is part is dedicated to my brother, Sonnie, and my sister, Brenda, who lived through all of this with me but have their own perspective.
My first memories are of a place where we lived in the country about twenty miles west of Sikeston; a house sitting back from the road and on a slight ridge with a long driveway. It was owned by Kenneth Anderson. My little sister, Brenda, and I would play in the yard pushing our puppy, Brownie, in a baby carriage. I am not sure if I remember this for real or from seeing pictures of two little girls in dresses leaning over a baby carriage trying to contain a puppy. I think it is real because I can still smell burnt wheat stubble where the farmers have burned off a field after harvesting the golden grain. A whippoorwill hoots ever so gently and his melancholy song drifts with the breeze. Sometimes it would make me feel lonely. I remember walking around the yard and listening to the birds and imagining myself driving a little car all my own. This was in the fifties so the idea of a little car was novel and ahead of our time.
Brenda and I push the carriage together because the yard is lumpy with crabgrass and dirt clods and the going is tough. It is fun to have a real baby in our carriage and the puppy is happy as long as we keep moving. Our fat little hands struggle to push the wobbly carriage as well as keep the puppy pushed back inside. When our Mom calls us in for supper, we reluctantly tug the puppy over the side of the carriage and let it run free while we race to the backdoor. Our cold biscuits and jelly are long gone since breakfast.
My sister and I were seventeen months apart and when one was sick, the other would get sick too. One Christmas we both had scarlet fever and could not go to church to attend the annual Christmas pageant. We missed seeing Santa who always appeared at the end of the pageant. I will never forget the knock on the door and the booming voice we heard saying “ho, ho, ho”. We jumped out of bed and were astounded to see Santa coming to visit us personally. I remember that we got little irons for Christmas that year. Later I found out that Clarence Cantrell, a member of the church, was Santa.
We moved to Sikeston next and my Dad worked for Robert R. Walker trucking company for a while. On my fifth birthday my little sister Brenda and I walked around our neighborhood in Sikeston knocking on doors and informing people that today was my birthday. I got many nice gifts, mostly money, but one special gift of a cardboard store. Brenda and I played with that store for hours. I am sure my mother would have been mortified if she had known what we were up to that day. I do not remember where we got this idea, but I am sure it was not Brenda’s as she was a little shy and would not have been bold enough to do this on her own. I am guessing that I coerced her into going with me.
We really liked the next place we moved to. It was somewhere near Vanduser, a small town outside of Sikeston, Mo. We went to the Baptist church in Salcedo. We lived in a little white house with a bathroom, but no bathtub or shower. We would take baths every Saturday in a big galvanized tub on the back porch in the summer time and in the kitchen during the winter. One time Margaret, our older sister, got the tail of her skirt caught in a motor that was generating the water in the bathroom and had her skirt torn off. She screamed and screamed and Daddy came running, but she was not really hurt. She got mad at all of us for laughing at her.
The house was across the road from the Williams family. Mrs. Williams stayed at home with her two boys, Mark and Gary, while our mother worked every day. Mrs. Williams was very sweet to us even though it was evident that she disapproved of some of the things we did. She made Brenda and I go home one day and get a shirt on before we could come inside her house to play with Gary. They had a wonderful upstairs with a train set up on tracks. We spent hours playing there. I learned to ride a bicycle when Gary let me try out his new bike. I was six years old and the first time I got on the bike I rode off wobbling, but never fell over. Gary had cars and trucks that we would play with in the dirt. His mother would help us make little dolls out of flowers and toothpicks.
Another detail I remember about that house was that my mom worked for a carpet company in Sikeston. She earned enough money to buy some beautiful white French provincial furniture that we were not allowed to sit on. We also got our first telephone and television while we lived there. Brenda and I thought we could tell if a call was long distance or not by the sound of the ring.
Don’t Go To The River
The two neighbor boys and my brother always had more fun. They would go and go and do and do whatever they wanted. They stayed out late after dark—my brother, Sonnie, would run in at the last minute and plop down to dinner without having to help. He would go out to play without taking out the stinky garbage or ironing his own clothes. He would laugh and let the door bang behind him and keep on running. He never cried or whined.
The boys did not seem to mind if I would hang around them and join in their rock throwing or running cars around in the dirt. I could climb trees and bait hooks. I did not cry if I got skinned knees or got a hook in the thumb. I could spit and say cuss words and wipe snot on my sleeves.
It was natural to tag along with the boys when they decided to go to the river to fish and throw rocks. We were all excited about finding that special fishing hole where we would catch a big one. We waded under the bridge where the water was shallow and there were no snakes. Then we went down the ditch bank to deeper water and put worms on the hooks of our cane fishing poles. We threw out the baited lines and the bobber would settle in the water and signal to us when we got a nibble. Echoes of my daddy saying ‘don’t go to the river’ faded as I skipped along to keep up with the boys.
We did not catch a big one but we did see a cottonmouth snake; a variety of water moccasin snakes: the most dangerous water snake in our area. It was across the ditch from us and swam down the other way. We watched to make sure he did not come ashore and sneak back behind us.
I could not get my rock to skip no matter how hard I practiced or how smooth and flat my rock was. When my arm got tired I stopped and joined the boys digging for crawdads. They built a reservoir and placed the crawdads in it to keep them from scurrying away.
Warmed by the sun, slightly sunburned, and with clothes dried and stuck to us, we walked home. Walking on the gravel road, kicking rocks ahead of us, everyone was subdued. Some were probably thinking about their supper, some were thinking about getting their ears scrubbed because we have gotten so dirty, but I was thinking about my Dad. I was thinking about how he warned me never to go to the river.
Daddy was waiting for me as I walked up the driveway with my older brother. I could tell by the look on his face that I was in trouble. Sonnie walked past my Dad and into the house leaving me to face the music on my own.
There was only two times in my life that I remember my Dad physically punishing me. Both times he talked to me and tried to make me understand why punishment was necessary. I never believed him either time. He took a bundle of thin limbs from the sugar maple tree and switched them up and down my backside. My back and legs got the worst of the welts. Margaret put medicine on them as I sobbed uncontrollably. My heart was broken; not that I hurt so badly or because I had disappointed my Dad but mostly because I was punished and the boys were not.
It was a lifetime later that I learned to appreciate that my Dad was trying to protect me. At first I thought he was concerned about the river and potential drowning and about the snakes and getting snake bit. Then I thought it was just because I was a girl and I resented 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.
My dad was a sharecropper meaning he farmed land for other people and paid them a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the crops for rent. Usually there was a house on the farm that we could live in for free. We moved around frequently. We went to school in Sikeston, Bell City and Gray Ridge, back to Sikeston for a couple of years and finally to Richland High School. I remember being hurt when my guidance counselor at Richland said that my family was transient; it was the first awareness I had that other people did not move as much as we did.
One place we lived was out in the country down the road from the first home, not on a hill but rather down a long flat lane between fields of corn. It was called the Hunter Place. We lived between two manmade ditches that were created during the Little River Drainage project; a project designed to drain eleven million acres of swamp land in Southeast Missouri. One of the ditches was called Floodway and the other Angle. We used to wade and swim under the bridge during the hot summer months.
Three incidents make this home stand out in my mind. One is a major fight my parents had and my Mom threw a ceramic elephant at my Dad and it crashed against the wall. They fought until Mom packed a bag and Dad drove her to the bus station in Sikeston—about twenty-five miles away. We kids were doubled up in bed, Brenda with our brother Sonnie and me with our older sister Margaret. Sometime during the night I heard the car pull back into the carport next to my bedroom and I could hear my Mom talking so I knew she had returned. I know we had all prayed fervently that she would not leave.
The second was when my sister Margaret was mowing our lawn and ran over some wire. The mower flung the wire out the back and slashed her ankle. She screamed and fell to the ground dramatically. We all ran to her and Mom sent me to get Dad who was threshing beans in the field behind the house. He could see me running and waving my arms and knew something was amiss. He turned that big combine right in the field and drove it across rows toward me. He stopped long enough to let me climb up into the cab and we drove on to the house as quickly as the big lumbering machine would go. They rushed my sister to the hospital in Sikeston where she got her ankle stitched up. Brenda and I stayed at home with Sonnie and dressed up in our sister’s formals and danced with our life-size teddy bears. Sonnie taught us how to roast marshmallows over the gas flame on the stove in the kitchen. We roasted and ate marshmallows until I dropped a sticky mess on Margaret’s dress. We cleaned the gown as best as possible and hid it in the back of Margaret’s closet before they got home. I have no idea when she ever discovered the damage.
Margaret was seven years older than me and was like a surrogate mom to us and had a lot of responsibilities while Mom and Dad worked. She liked to make candy before Christmas: fudge and divinity and caramels. She made Brenda and I take turns standing on a chair stirring a hot pot of chocolate and sugar to make fudge. We always thought it would be fun, but we soon tired of the experience with our arms quickly getting worn out moving that heavy spoon around and the candy popping and burning our arms. She would put the candy in boxes and hide them under the bed. The fudge was good although a bit grainy as I recall. This was before you used marshmallows or marshmallow crème to make fudge creamier.
The third incident happened when I was in the third grade and fell off a merry-go-round and hit my head on a tree. The teachers put me on the bus and the bus driver had to take me off the bus when we got to my house because I just sat in the seat and cried. Mom took me to the emergency room at Sikeston and they determined I had a concussion. Our cousin, Marilyn Patterson, was a nurse and popped in to the emergency room to ask if I knew who she was. By this time I was coming back around and I said her name. They let me go home then; I had migraines for several years after that.
I finished fifth grade while we lived on this farm before my Dad moved us to Salcedo where we lived until I was grown and married. It was in this grade that I wrote and directed my first play for our class; it was a Polynesian theme since that is what we had been studying. I wish I had kept that writing.
Saturday Night Hamburgers
My Mom grocery shopped at Kroger every Friday night after work. She would toot the horn when she pulled in the driveway and Brenda and I would bolt out the door to help carry in the bags. She almost always picked up a chocolate fudge cake at Nancy’s Sweet Shop that was a special Friday night treat.
We would quickly put away all the food while Mom changed her clothes and got out of those spiked high-heels she had worn all day. On her way back to the kitchen Mom would put on some music for us to listen to while making dinner. It was usually the Blackwood Brothers who sang gospel music with the best harmony and deepest bass voice I had ever heard. She also listened to Eddie Arnold and Ed Ames whom we kids especially liked because he played Mingo on the Daniel Boone show and we felt we knew him personally. We loved singing along with Fats Domino when he sang, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill” while we washed and dried dishes.
Many Saturday afternoons my family would drive into Sikeston so our Mom could get her hair styled while Dad and we kids would hang out on the street corner greeting familiar folks. The highlight of the entire year was a Saturday in the autumn when the Cotton Carnival came to town. We girls got to ride the ponies in a circle and hung on tight to the carousel horses on the merry-go-round. Our Dad bought hot dogs and cotton candy for us and spent hours walking the grounds holding our hands and stopping to talk to fellow farmers and neighbors who drove in from small towns all over the county.
Zorro came on television every Saturday night at seven o’clock. My Dad always cooked hamburgers for our family on Saturday and we were allowed to eat in front of the television on this night only. We would take our plates and sit on the floor and watch Zorro.
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 would eat together and watch the next episode of Zorro. We loved that masked man.
This tradition continued through the Bonanza series with first Margaret dropping out followed by Sonnie as they got old enough to go out on a Saturday night. Before long Bonanza ended and so did our special Saturday night camaraderie.
The Old Pickup Truck
Grandpa Hodges, my Mom’s father, had an ancient black Chevy pickup truck with standard shift that he crept around town in when no one was watching. Grandpa Hodges was retired ever since I could remember and he liked to drink and chew tobacco a little. Granny Hodges would fuss at Grandpa, but he would just smile and ignore her.
He taught my sister Margaret to drive when she was fourteen. Brenda and Sonnie and I watched intently from the wraparound porch of the big white house on Gladys Street in Sikeston, Missouri where my grandparents lived for a while. Margaret ground those gears and squawked the tires as she let out on the clutch too quickly. Grandpa had the patience of Job and finally had Margaret driving down the alley behind the house.
We would run back and forth to report on the progress to Uncle Preston who lived with them, giggling as we thought we were keeping everything a secret from Granny. Sonnie was itching to try his hand at driving, but Grandpa said he was too young. Sonnie was four years younger than Margaret and was envious of her good luck.
It was not long before Daddy would let Margaret drive his old red Ford pickup to the cotton fields. She would take all of us kids along with a gallon of water where she could babysit us while picking cotton. Brenda and I would run down the cotton row and pick bolls of cotton and pile it up in the middle of the row for Sonnie and Margaret to put in their cotton sack when they caught up. We would run ahead of them and pick a few more bolls before a rabbit or bird that flew over would sidetrack us. Soon we would be running across the field getting in the way of the other field hands.
Margaret would let us run and play for a while before she would yell for us to get back on the row and pick cotton. She used to scare us by telling us that the Biscuit Eater would get us. We were terrified of the Biscuit Eater—we never dreamed it was a tall tale. Before you knew it the sun was dropping low in the sky and it was time for all of us to load up in that old red pickup and head for home.
Soon our older sister started dating. I remember seeing her dressed up in formals for school parties; she would have pictures made in the front yard sitting on the grass in her fancy dresses posed like a movie star. She still took care of us kids while Mom worked and we tormented her relentlessly.
When I was eleven I received a diary for my birthday and it was the most memorable birthday gift ever. I held the beautiful pink vinyl book in both hands and reverently traced the words ‘My Diary’ embossed in blocked letters on the front of the book. I raised the book to my face and bussed it gently with my check and sniffed the acerbic oily smell of new vinyl. The diary was already my best friend in the whole world.
I fingered the key that dangled from the lock on the diary. This signified that I was truly growing up and could keep secrets. I would be able to document all my private thoughts and say whatever came to mind without fear of criticism or mockery. This was a very important day and time in my life.
I clutched the book close to my budding chest and walked dreamily from the kitchen where my family gathered briefly to see what gift my mother picked up for my birthday. Birthdays were not celebrated greatly in my family; rare to have a birthday cake and never a party, but there was always a gift.
Dear Diary: “I am taking great care as to my writing instrument as I do not want to make any mistakes in my diary. I need a pen that will write with permanent ink but will not smear. I have pressed down on the center of the book to fold the diary in order to make the pages lie perfectly flat so the words will flow evenly across the page. I am so happy to be a writer”.
Dear Diary: “I jumped out of bed this morning and shivered as my bare feet hit the icy wood floor. I grabbed my diary and fountain pen off my nightstand on the way out the bedroom door. I took my time walking to the bathroom because I get up before my lazy brother and annoying little sister. I don’t have to fight for privacy that early in the morning. I lock the bathroom door and examine my face and teeth in the bathroom mirror. I straighten my shoulders and smile brightly as I imagine that Elvis Presley is spying on me through the mirror. I brush my teeth while tilting my head just so and this makes Elvis smile at me and nod as he silently applauds my taking care of personal hygiene”.
“Thankfully the toilet is positioned well away from the mirror over the sink and Elvis will not have to witness my ungraceful peeing. Settling myself on the toilet I open the diary to write notes regarding the previous day. I have learned to write in code because of my nosy sister and brother who lost my key so I can no longer lock up my diary”.
Dear Diary: “Last night I let a boy kiss me in the front seat of his car. We had already LK but this was the first FNH. I do not know what he thought he would accomplish, but when I heard that Z sound I shoved him off of me as quickly as I could with a steering wheel hindering my attempts”.
Dear Diary: “I finally did it. It was a long time coming, but I am thrilled and excited and scared at the same time. I am really a woman now and have to think like a woman. My life is so busy that I am using ballpoint pens for writing because I have to write so fast that I make a mess with my fountain pens. As you know, I do not like a messy journal—that’s what I call my books now—journals instead of a diary. It is somehow more womanlike to write in a journal.”
Dear Diary: “My journal helps me keep perspective on how far I’ve come since my first diary. I was such a child then and thought like a child although I still admire how I used code for my writing. That was very clever if I do have to say so myself. I don’t visualize Elvis watching me any longer, but I still take pride in my posture and hygiene that was adopted during that phase. I went from dreaming about Elvis to imagining a gigantic magnifying glass centered entirely on me every time I walked into school. How insecure I was back then!”
Dear Diary: “Today I moved out from my family’s home and am ready to strike out on my own. I cannot wait to see what is down the road. Goodbye Diary”.
The original pink vinyl diary got left behind as I left home for the wide-open highways convinced that I was a woman destined for great things. When my Mom died and my Dad remarried, the pink diary disappeared forever: decades later I still long for that old friend.
My Mom’s Mirror
I do not know where Mom kept the little gold-framed mirror, but after she died I chose to take that as a keepsake. I kept it in my bedroom to remind me of her. She always dressed beautifully and let Brenda and I watch her get ready for work each day. She would look carefully in the bathroom mirror to make sure her makeup was flawless. Then she would look at herself in the dresser mirror to make sure her blouse was tucked in neatly. Finally she would look in the full length mirror to make sure her seams were perfectly straight in the back of her stockings and check that her two slips (a full slip and a half slip) did not peek out from under her skirt. Then she put on her high-heeled shoes and looked over her shoulders once more. She held up the small gold-framed mirror and looked at the back of her hair. If she had a packed down section she would hand the comb to my sister or me and we picked it out for her.
The mirror sat on my dresser and was not really used for years. It was just there to remind me of my mother who was long gone. Every time I walked past it, I thought fondly of my little sister and me picking out mom’s jewelry and running to the front closet to pick out the exact pair of shoes she described. We were thrilled if we had picked the right pair; the black ones with two black straps with white stitching or the navy pair with the blunt, round open toes or the cream patent leather ones. If we got it wrong or she changed her mind, we raced back to dig around in the bottom of the closet for the right pair. Those were happy memories and it was always important to me to keep that mirror safe. Thinking that my mom had handled the mirror and clearly liked mirrors was special.
Mirrors became important to my life and me as they reflected how I looked and how well I was keeping myself up. Now I have a full-length freestanding mirror with heavy wood trim in my bedroom. It is a giant sized mirror. I keep that small gold-framed mirror on my office desk wherever I work. I use the mirror multiple times a day as I freshen my lipstick or check my teeth. I have a mirror sitting in a corner where I can see if someone enters my office from behind, but which I also use to check my hair and appearance. I use mirrors as decoration on the walls in my home because they reflect light and serve as a neutral break in family pictures. I love mirrors and find them to be very warm and loving. I imagine that mirrors reflect back to us what we are inside and outside. As long as I take pride in myself and am not afraid to look in those mirrors, I am alive.
I cannot imagine what to do if the mirror breaks, but I will not stop using it. I never realized how important it was to me until late in life, but it makes me feel a connection with my Mom.
The Motel Room
I had a girlfriend whose family lived in a motel when I was in high school. It’s not as bad as it sounds. They owned the motel and they ran it with the parents living in a double room next to the motel lobby. The two daughters had a double room at the bottom of the u-shaped motel. It was a very unusual situation during the early sixties. The father had a construction business with his brother as well as owning the motel. They had a good business so it seems a little odd that they lived in a motel, but I did not really think about it at that time. Perhaps because they were in construction is how they got the idea for taking out walls and making living quarters out of the motel rooms.
I loved staying overnight with Doris Alsup, my girlfriend. She had an older sister Eileen that we all looked up to. It was exciting to be in a room so far away from her parents. It felt like we were living on our own. There was a laundry chute in their room that we used to sneak out of the room and go across the street just to show that we could. We never really did anything.
For all the fun of staying at the motel, the thing I found to be so intriguing was the fact that they left their radio on all night long. My family never did anything like that. Maybe it was because my parents were in the next room to yell out for us to turn the radio off.
We listened to WLS out of Chicago, the big 50,000-watt rock and roll station. That was the strongest signal at that time and we listened to Dick Biondi as he played all the newest hits. He was the first DJ to play the Beetles in the United States. We loved lying in bed listening to him.
Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and hear the music. One night I woke up about midnight and heard “Town Without Pity” by Gene Pitney. It felt so sad and made me feel lonely. For some reason that song and that night has stayed with me all these years.
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 or money. You spend your time just busting 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 belonged 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 borders 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 Margaret, Sonnie, Brenda, and I.
There is a lot of backbreaking work that goes into growing cotton before you get to this picturesque stage. There is a 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 in this rural area 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 Brenda and I just ran in the row ahead of Margaret or Sonnie 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 nine or ten, 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.
Brenda 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 our Dad’s red, Ford pickup truck pulled into the driveway we were fleeing across the yard to greet him while begging him to lift us up into the bed of the truck where we would hang over the side precariously. Our Dad was patient and usually tolerated our antics and allowed us to play in the truck until we would get bored and holler for him to lift us down. He let us trail him to the garden where he spent some time pulling weeds and watering his beloved vegetable patch after a long day sharecropping four hundred acres of corn, soybeans, and cotton.
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 frozen 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. Our Aunt Toni taught us how 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.
My Daddy always grew roses at the edge of the vegetable garden and all around the yard. He had over fifty varieties of roses. I do not know the name of those varieties because as a child I did not pay attention to those details. It was obvious that he loved those roses as he pruned and pampered each of them. We learned patience and endurance shadowing him and staying underfoot like puppies. I heard him say that a garden does not save you money, but you have much better food when you grow your own vegetables. He would say that while vegetables are food for the body, roses are food for the soul. He took care of those roses year round and we enjoyed seeing all the beautiful blooms throughout the summer. The day our mother died after a fifteen-year illness, a single red rose bloomed outside her bedroom window even though it was late September.
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.
Now I live in a city and have an urban garden meaning everything is grown in containers or pots. I have a tiny vegetable garden with a separate pot for a tomato plant and yet another for a strawberry plant. In the corner of the patio is a climbing rose bush. I think of my Daddy fondly as I work in my little garden.
A More Innocent Time
When I was in third grade someone took my headscarf. Another girl and I saw it and the next day slipped into the coatroom and took it back. In the meantime, the teacher sent me and the other girl around to all the rooms saying we had lost our scarves and described them. The other girl (thief) said hers had fringe and I did not know what fringe was, so I said mine did too.
While we were making the rounds, the third girl (my accomplice) told the teacher. My teacher t hugged me and whispered, “Bring the scarf to school tomorrow”. When I did, the other girl (thief), agreed that it was not her scarf. It was a traumatic incident to get caught and reprimanded by the teacher, especially when I was in the right!
I remembered this story as my own daughter, Heidi, related an incident about her son, Dodge, where a boy gave him $10 so Heidi could buy the boy a Phiten necklace like she did for Dodge. Heidi explained that the necklace costs a lot more than $10 and Dodge should give the money back. Lucas, the boy who gave Dodge the money, was not at school so Dodge gave the money to Tanner who lives two doors down from Lucas. Tanner said it was his money anyway; that Lucas had borrowed from him. Oh, my gosh!
Now it is funny to see how things happen, but when I was a kid I did not tell my parents anything about my escapades. Another time, something a little frightening happened that I never told anyone about when I went to Sikeston with a girl friend after church and we walked a couple of blocks to a park.
Another More Innocent Time
We raced across the park with my red sausage curls flying back from my freckled face. Arms and knees pumping furiously I remember laughing as I looked over my shoulder to make sure I was keeping the lead from Sheila. I ran up the steps of the huge, white, block gazebo that is a permanent fixture in the old city park near the A&P grocery store and hurried to hide behind the big column. When Sheila caught up I pounced out and we both shrieked as we clasped hands and jumped up and down.
"Look Sheila, this is just like a little house," I said looking all around the structure. The gazebo was big enough to hold a small orchestra, a gospel quartet, or a three-piece string band; groups who showed up routinely to perform for community activities. There were benches built into the walls at the perimeter of the foundation.
We held hands and plunked down ungracefully on the edge of one of the benches and swung our feet back and forth happily. We prattled continually pausing to point out the playground and the sandbox where toddlers were playing. We walked single file on each of the benches jumping down and back up again until we have walked the circumference. I climbed to top of the walk and proceeded to walk around the edge of the gazebo holding my arms out wide from my side and tried, unsuccessfully, to coax Sheila to do the same.
We each took a turn at performing a dance in the middle of the wide floor. I would swing my arms wide back and forth while tapping first my toes then my heels in an attempt to tap dance. Sheila pirouetted gracefully on her tiptoes with arms stretched overhead as she performed a short ballet routine.
We both lived in the country and came in to the town of Sikeston on Sunday after church to visit Sheila’s cousins. Sheila’s parents and younger brothers were at the aunt’s house after Sunday dinner, which is held at noontime instead of evening in this part of the country.
Sheila was smaller framed than I was and was quieter by nature. Her straight brown hair and pleasant demeanor was a contrast to my wild Irish looks and personality. We have been friends for two years since we were in first grade and had Miss McGee for our teacher at Lee Hunter Elementary School.
I know I was a little bossy and generally Sheila went along with all my high jinx and escapades. As much as she would have wanted to, Sheila would not have gone to the park if I had not been along.
“Let’s go swing, said Sheila. We can take turns pushing each other, okay?” Just then we heard a loud ‘PSST’. An old man with a bit of a stubble and longish hair wearing an overcoat and neat looking trousers was sitting at one end of the bench with his forearms resting on his knees. In his outstretched hand was something that looked like candy. He motioned with his head for us to come over. Without hesitation we promptly slid off the bench and walked over to stand in front of the man to see what he had to offer. We each took a piece of gum and innocently let him guide us to sit on each side of him. He kept his arms loosely around us as we took our treat and chomped merrily on the bubble gum.
Shortly, we became restless and wanted to continue with our activities and go to the swing set. As we rose to move away, the man tightened his grip around us preventing us from getting up. Not fully understanding my motive, I decided to be more assertive.
“We really have to go," I said. Sheila chimed in to agree. The man did not acknowledge, but held us firmly. We began to get antsy and I was beginning to have some anxiety over the situation. Although I did not understand what was happening it did not feel right. I sat up as straight as I could and pretended to look over the edge of the wall.
"Look Sheila there are your two little brothers!" I said. I pointed across the wall.
"No, there's no way my mom would let them come to the park alone," Sheila insisted. She was not catching on to the ruse.
I persisted. "There is your mom, too. See right over there, can't you see her?" Sheila sat up as straight as she could to try to see her mom.
"No, that's not my mom," said Sheila shaking her head. Sheila still failed to catch on. The old man loosened his grip on us as he gazed around the park to see if anyone was really looking for us.
"Sheila's mom will come looking for us if we don't get home right away, I know she will," I said firmly. Sheila agreed they had been gone long enough for her mom to start to worry. The man relaxed his hold as he shifted to see if anyone was watching.
I broke free and grabbed Sheila's hand and pulled her across the gazebo floor and down the steps. We did not stop running until we got to the edge of the park. Stopping to take a breath we looked back and saw the old man following us. We crossed the street and ran all the way to Sheila's cousins’ home. We burst through the screen door talking animatedly about the man that gave us gum and would not let go of us. We talked over each other excitedly and insisted that the man had followed us.
The adults flurried around us to make sure they were hearing the story correctly. Taking a big gulp, I recited the events leading up to the incident. Sheila butted in to explain how the man held us tight and would not let us go until I insisted that Sheila’s mom would come looking for us. We were resolute with our story. Sheila’s dad walked out the front door and to the end of the sidewalk looking first one way then the other. He stood out there for several minutes before returning to the house.
When he came back in he said that it was old man Renslo headed down the street and that he was harmless. He assured us we were safe; that we had done exactly the right thing in running away and coming straight home.
Years later, I cannot help but wonder what might have happened if we had not been quick-witted enough to get away from the harmless old man. He may have just been hungry for human warmth, but we will never know for sure.
Summer of 1959 or Fried Chicken
The year I was twelve years old my parents let me go to the Rio Grande valley with my Aunt June to spend the summer with her and my Dad’s parents. I was away from my family for the first time in my life. Margaret was married by now and had a baby daughter named Debbie. We were crazy about Debbie and I hated leaving her the most, but the thought of a trip was very exciting.
My Aunt June and Uncle Benny took me to Mexico and I ate tacos with goat meat. We walked around the markets and bought a few souvenirs. Another time we went to Padre Island and I got severely sunburned from playing in the water and on the beach. My Aunt June talked me into getting my haircut; it was the first time I had not had a ponytail in years. I loved it and kept it short for many years after that.
I would play in the orange and grapefruit groves while Grandpa Mays checked out the trees. There were canals or moats around the trees with water for irrigation. We would play in the water, but Grandpa would warn us about snakes so I was always cautious. It was so hot I had to wear shoes most of the time because the sand would burn the soles of my bare feet.
One day a month my Granny Mays would slaughter chickens. I had never experienced anything like this. I helped to catch the chickens and took them to Granny Mays but quickly ran to the front of the house so I will not actually have to see their demise. Granny would wring their neck off or chop their heads off with an axe and let the hens flop to death on the ground with blood spurting all over the place. When the hens finally bled out and became still, Granny picked them up by the feet and drained more blood out of the neck cavity. Then she plunged the dead hens into a pot of boiling water to loosen up the feathers so she can pluck them clean. The smell of singed feathers let me know that the hens have been plucked and tiny pinfeathers burned off.
I would return to the kitchen when I heard the screen door bang shut behind Granny as she carried one of the denuded hens to the butcher-block table. Granny took her meat cleaver in hand to start chopping one of the hens into frying size pieces. I would swallow hard and struggle not to turn away. Only the thought of Granny’s fried chicken made me persevere. Granny made fried chicken better than anyone in the whole world.
We received a letter from my Mom on my birthday in July relating some bad news from back home. My cousins had been in a car accident and the oldest, Patty, was killed and the others injured. I felt very sad about this, but it was already over and she was buried by the time I heard about it.
My summer came to an end and Aunt June put me on the Missouri Pacific train to go back home. I remember talking to a nice man on the train and then I went to sleep. When I woke up he was gone, but had put a pillow under my head. Aunt June had sent me a sack lunch, but I was too embarrassed to eat it. I visited with another family and got off the train with them in Dallas and started following them until the woman stopped and told a Red Cap (porter) that I needed help. The porter looked at my ticket and had me get back on the train and proceed to Poplar Bluff.
My little niece Debbie had forgotten about me while I was gone and would not have anything to do with me. This broke my heart, but she soon got over it.
Jesus Loves the Little Children
There is usually standing room only at the Salcedo Baptist 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 kids a pat on the head as they 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. Brenda and 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 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 was handy that way. He would take his family over to Kentucky Lake in the summer. He was a good and faithful man. Some folks think Helen was a little flashy but Rube loved her so much that no one wanted to say anything to hurt him.
I attended Gladys Holmes’ Sunday School class every Sunday morning. Gladys was a member of a Pentecostal church but that church was too far away for her to attend. She wore long-sleeved dresses with no makeup and twisted her long hair up in a bun. Gladys did 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 did during the hot summer months. I suspect Gladys did not want anyone to see her immodestly or having fun.
On Saturday night we would walk to Preach Springs’ General Store and watch films projected on the back of his building. Gladys Homes did not attend because watching movies was against her religion too.
We had some black people in our community and my parents had a lot of respect for them. We kids would walk down the road to talk to John as an excuse to look at his pet crow perched on the arm of his cane chair as they sat on the front porch.
James lived on the same road as we did and had a nice home. He had a good job in town and a boy and girl who both had shiny red bicycles. Dave and Boots is a young couple who worked for my Uncle Quinn. Boots would come to clean our house sometimes when our Mom was sick.
My Mom and Dad were Democrats; I did not know what that meant but I did know that a young man running for the office of President named John F. Kennedy was Catholic and this caused some consternation in our church. In the early 1960’s Southern Baptists did not exactly trust the Catholics. My folks voted for Mr. Kennedy anyway. Later, an incident happened miles away from rural Missouri in Cuba that caused my parents to be proud of their decision.
For seven nights our family sat in front of the RCA television set to watch the nightly news as history unfolded during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We did not understand exactly what was going on but we were scared because our Mother told us that this is an important time in history. She was worried that World War III could start based on the outcome of this incident. We all breathed easier when Russian Primer Nikita S. Khrushchev stood down and ordered all Soviet supply ships away from Cuban waters and agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba's mainland.
Although a crisis was avoided, the world was stunned when this young president was assassinated a year later. We sat in front of our RCA again and sadly viewed the processional. Seeing that little boy saluting his father’s casket will stay in our minds the rest of our entire life.
My Dad worried about another man named Martin Luther King, Jr. as we watched the riots and incidents in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama on television during our regular nightly news. Daddy said that Mr. King was courageous but talk like that would get him killed. I was shocked when my Dad’s words proved to be prophetic.
Summers were still the best time of the year. School was out and my sister and I returned to being ordinary kids playing baseball behind the church and going fishing on Little River ditch. I was better at fishing than Brenda because I inherited my Dad’s patience and could sit for hours holding my cane pole watching my bobber to see if a fish takes a nibble. I prayed that I would catch a fish. I tried 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 had been told is very tiny. Disappointment prevailed time and again. Obviously, I deducted, there is more to faith and prayer than what I have learned from Gladys Holmes’ Sunday School class.
Brenda tired of fishing quickly and would take her shoes off and wade in the water at the edge of the ditch squishing mud between her toes and chasing minnows and crawdads. My Dad and I would keep a lookout for cottonmouth snakes that were common to the area; not that any were 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.
That is the last really fun summer that Brenda and I had. Our Mom was sick more and more and Margaret got married and left home. We grew up fast as we had to assume more responsibility for taking care of Mom and the household. Brenda and I folded and ironed clothes on the weekend instead of going fishing.
We learned to cook and start supper every night instead of playing baseball. Our Dad was patient with us as we pan-fried potatoes, made macaroni and cheese, and heated up ham and beans night after night. We did not know how to season food or how to vary the menu. Breakfast was my favorite meal of the day because Daddy always got up early and made coffee, fried eggs, biscuits and gravy while he listened to country music on the Portageville radio station. I woke up early just to be with him; he would work and I would sit in silence and drink coffee with lots of milk and sugar.
My Aunt Toni
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 as 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.
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.
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
Created August 03, 2013
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.