BIG END OF
Drawing of farmer boy and man with plow]
OF THE HORN
by Julia Canaday
Small in stature, tremendous in spirit, Julia Canaday's father was one of the few of whom it may be said: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”
Gifted, dynamic, a dedicated teacher—often far ahead of his time—he left an indelible imprint on all with whom he came in contact; indeed, on his whole state of North Carolina.
To his family, “Papa” was truly a king. He entranced them always, failed them never. And this is the story of Papa and Mama, of a little girl, of Sissy and Buddy, of Nora and Vicky, of a wonderful home. In it we meet quaint and engaging characters, among them Uncle Dolphus, Uncle Eustace, Grandpa Dennis, Cousin Willis, and a beguiling assortment of aunts.
We watch a child's growth, her awakening to the turn-of-the-century world around her, her first consciousness of her femininity, and her development in understanding and appreciation of the basic human virtues.
There is humor in her hilarious experiments in beauty-culture; there is tragedy in her accounts of disasters that shook the whole family, everywhere there is broad humanity. All in all, BIG END OF THE HORN
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is a beautifully rounded story, filled with awareness of the vital American scene in which it is set. It can be read as biography, as Americana, as a study of the growth of education in the author's own state—but most of all for sheer enjoyment.
It is easy to understand why Bernice Kelly Harris, author of Purslane and other novels, said, after reading the manuscript:
This is a beautiful and moving story of the near past, important in its sincerity and truth. It has a quality like that of some valuable period piece, authentic and chaste.
BIG END OF THE HORN is not a book for a season. It is a real contribution to the literature of North Carolina and of our country.
(Jacket Design by Wm. Ballard)
A VANTAGE BOOK
Bill BallardVANTAGE PRESS " NEW YORKWASHINGTON " HOLLYWOOD " TORONTO
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form Copyright, 1956, Julia May Canaday Published by Vantage Press, Inc. 120 West 31st Street, New York 1, N. Y. Manufactured in the United States of America Library of Congress Catalog Card Numbr: 56-6842
To the memory of my father,
JAMES P. CANADAY
who dedicated his life to the cause of education, and my mother,
IDA WOODALL CANADAY
whose selfless devotion was his never-failing source of inspiration. In gratitude for the heritage they handed down to us, their children—a possession “whose price is far above rubies.”
Only those who have actually experienced the birthing of a book can understand the labor pangs involved — especially if it be the author's first production. BIG END OF THE HORN has been a labor of love because it is chiefly about those nearest its author's heart.
To Bernice Kelly Harris, noted author, I am deeply indebted. Because of her inspiration and helpful suggestions at a crucial time, I was encouraged to take up afresh the work I had started and carry it on to completion. Her continued interest and encouragement have been an invaluable incentive.
To Dr. Charles E. Maddry, former Executive Secretary of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, I owe much for his vivid account of my father as his teacher and ‘discoverer,’ and for giving me an insight into that period of my father's life. A portion of this moving story is contained in a tribute to my father in Dr. Maddry's recently published autobiography.
To two other former pupils of my father I wish to express grateful appreciation:
The late Dr. Carl Young of Angier, for his reminiscences of student days and his sincere, glowing tributes to my father.
My brother-in-law, the late O. A. Barbour, Senior, former State Senator, for memories of people, places and events; but chiefly for the heartening encouragement of his deep personal interest in the undertaking throughout its preparation and completion and right up to the time of his death.
To Bill Ballard, Staff Artist for the News and Observer, who illustrated the book, I wish to express appreciation for his enthusiastic and loyal collaboration; for his true presentation, through his drawings, of time and circumstance; and for his sensitive portrayal of the characters — especially of my father.
My thanks to those friends who have contributed much — through assistance in typing the manuscript, through encouragement and through the inspiration of their personal interest.
Lastly, a grateful tribute to my family for their loyalty and belief in my undertaking; for their understanding and faith which helped me to come through times of illness, frustration and discouragement and to keep going.
Because of the personal nature of the book, I have in most cases used fictitious names for characters and places. But all the places are real. As for the characters, they are as real as life itself. And — as you will see — some of them are CHARACTERS!
Note — A few of the shorter chapters of the book have previously appeared, in a slightly different form, as feature stories in the Smithfield (N.C.) Herald.
1 ◀ Big End of the Horn
Money was a scarce commodity in our home during our entire childhood. Papa's salary as principal of the school in the community was, to say the least, inadequate to support a family. And the seven dollars a month board and room money from the Boys, as Papa's disciples of learning were known to us, certainly did little to swell the family till. Recalling the quantities of food they consumed each meal, it seems doubtful that we so much as broke even. After we moved to the old Ivey Place and mostly ate what we grew on the farm, things were a little better but our standard of living was still below that of most of our friends.
Not that this affected our social status in any way. Papa's position as educational and civic leader in the community assured that. Besides, both Papa and Mama were of the pioneer stock that comprised the backbone of the county — the reason for its being.
Still it was hard at times, especially for Sissy who was growing up and pretty as a picture. Sissy had reached the age when pretty things are important to a young girl's heart. All of her friends could have dresses with yards of lace and ribbon and insertion, while Sissy's were of an almost nun-like simplicity and plainness. That was bad enough. But to have no parlor was the bitterest pill of all. Since every inch of extra space in the home was occupied by the Boys, a parlor was out of the question.
On the whole, we didn't mind so much the hard way we lived, though, and not having things those around us had. Not even Sissy. For things would be different one of these days. We would have fine clothes and a parlor with a lounge and a red-big-flowered carpet. We would travel and see the world and meet interesting people. Our present self-denial was only temporary and all for a purpose. But to have that wonderful future we must work and save all we could.
Papa had a name for it. He called it “Coming out at the big end of the horn.” It was a common expression that we had heard many times in our lives but Papa gave the words a very special significance.
Sitting on the back porch in an old kitchen chair just before supper, at the close of a summer's day, he would build wondrous air castles of the future for us, while we listened spellbound. The two youngest, Nora and Vicky, would be held — one on each knee. While I, the next youngest, would be standing close by.
Sissy would be helping Mama with supper and Buddy would be
Papa would build wondrous air castles of an enchanted future.
washing the day's grime of the fields from his feet in a tin basin on the porch steps. Mama would stand in the kitchen doorway a few moments to cool off, her face flushed from the heat of the stove, and listen too.
“Never mind,” Papa would say when he learned we were unhappy about not having things other children had. “You'll have all these things, and more too, one of these days. You will all be college graduates and wear fine clothes. Your mama will dress in silks and satins — Why your mama will be a queen!” he would declare, looking proudly in her direction. An exalted look would come into Mama's tired face and her eyes would light up as she heard these words.
Yes, he would go on, Mama would be a fine lady then and not have to work so hard. But Mama was already a fine lady. She was born that way and no amount of drudgery and hard-living could change that quality in her. Deep down we knew that, even as children, though we could not then have put it into words.
We would live graciously in a beautiful white colonial-style home with big columns. (Our home at the time boasted no paint at all until Papa painted it all by himself one summer during school vacation.)
In the meantime Sissy was not making too much progress setting the table, because of frequent excursions to the dining-room door, for fear she would miss something. The grime from the day's cotton-chopping washed from his feet, Buddy would continue to sit on the steps, pinching off his fingernails down to the quick — a habit he still has when deeply absorbed in thought.
“Your Buddy will be a college professor in some big university — maybe teach Latin.” Papa had a great love for foreign languages, especially Latin.
“You girls will all be teachers too, in big city schools or colleges. Yes, teaching is the finest work for a woman.”
So what did it matter that we wore our old clothes, had only one Sunday dress, no parlor and only an occasional penny for candy or “store” cakes now?
“Why, these things don't amount to a snap of your fingers,” Papa would say, snapping his third finger and thumb together loudly to emphasize his words.
A few hours later we were not so sure about this, but at least for the time being we were convinced.
Papa was a great believer in Benjamin Franklin's maxims that a penny saved is a penny earned, and that if you take care of the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. So far as we were concerned,
they had ample opportunity to take care of themselves. ’Most too ample, we sometimes thought, for we rarely saw money in that denomination. And as for the pennies (or “coppers” as they were sometimes called), even they had pretty free rein to look after themselves, for it was a rare occasion when we had more than one or two in our guardianship.
“You just wait,” Papa would say. “One of these days we will come out at the big end of the horn.”
Yes, we must study hard and work hard and save, and always do our best. Never be a quitter (that was a religion with Papa). And by so doing, we would come out at the big end of the horn. Those who took it easy now and spent all their money — naturally they would come out at the little end. They had started at the wrong end.
The tantalizing smell of buttermilk biscuits baking and crisp streaked side-meat and apples frying would be in the air. As these odors assailed his nostrils, Papa would wax even more eloquent about the good life we would have, the life of service each of us would live, the prominence we would attain through being accomplished.
He would gaze off into the distance beyond the green fields of corn or cotton where he had labored all day and into that enchanted future which he had conjured up for us. Every word rang true, for he believed it as much as we did. And it was as real to us as the air we breathed, the food we ate — more real than reality.
Under the magic spell of his words and voice, by the time he had finished we were living in an enchanted world of dreams where anything was possible. The bright morning star Hope shed its beams upon us. They shone round about us and enveloped us in their radiance. The rainbow of promise stretched forth its shining hand and beckoned us on into a land of fulfillment.
And what about Mama? Did she believe all this too? Well, Mama believed in Papa. To her Papa was a prince among men and she was proud. She was sure that in his old black derby, shabby frock-tail coat and worn trousers, he could have walked with kings and felt at ease. And so he could have.
Possessed of a rare innate dignity of soul and a true sense of his worth as an individual, he seemed entirely oblivious of his shabbiness and made other oblivious of it. He believed in himself and in his mission in life, so sincerely and profoundly, that others came under his spell and were persuaded to believe too.
In his mind material things had their place. They had value, yes —
but only as a badge or proof that one had attained, through toil, striving and self-denial, a triumph of mind over matter, that Utopia of spirit where they were of relative unimportance and could be enjoyed as such. The concept of striving for worldly goods and for ease and luxury, as an end in themselves, was a base concept and one which he could never understand in others. Those things were a natural outcome, a by-product of victory after the fight, and must be earned. And Papa was, if anything, a born fighter.
Just what position Papa was to be elevated to in that future paradise we were to enjoy, none of us can recall. Maybe he didn't even say. But we were sure that he could be anything he wanted to be. He could be governor of the state or even president of the whole United States. If he never attained these exalted offices, it would be simply because he didn't choose to. Our faith in him was supreme. And so, by and large, our present way of living was of relative unimportance. It was the goal that mattered. And we were on the way. Never for one moment did we doubt that. It colored our daily lives and gave a sense of security and a meaning to existence.2 ◀ “That Little Man”
My earliest memory of my father goes back to the time I was about two and a half years old — which is indeed my earliest memory of life itself. We were living near the village of Chapel Hill where Papa was attending the university. It was during summer vacation and Papa had been away from home for a month or so, selling Bibles, so that he could re-enter the university in September.
He had moved his family to the little university town a year before from Johnston County where he had been teaching in the public schools. The year had been a hard one. At the end of the first semester his meager funds had been exhausted and he had been forced to leave school and go to work to support his family.
And so we had moved from the village into our present abode, a big old rambling white house known as the Henderson Place, in the Strain school district, where Papa had been fortunate enough to secure a place as teacher during the three-month winter term.
In the meantime Mama had been stricken down with rheumatism, following a severe attack of measles, so that for several months she was almost completely bed-ridden. I have a vague
recollection of seeing Papa pick her up in his arms and carry her about the house — when her pain was not too great for her to be moved — from bed to kitchen, where she could sit and help with the preparation of meals.
It was a discouraging time for a young couple — ambitious and eager for life. But neither thought of turning back. They were used to hard knocks. Papa must realize his dream of a college education. Mama was as doggedly determined on the subject as Papa. They had scrimped and saved all they could from Papa's meager salary as public-school teacher; Papa had sold Bibles and fruit trees during the summer vacations; Mama had boarded a number of boys during the period Papa was preparing for the university at the old Tarkington Institute in Brookfield. I suppose it must have been during this period that the era of “The Boys” began — though that is only a surmise.
At the time of my earliest recollection there were five of us in family — Papa, Mama, Henry, the first-born (“Buddy” to me), Nancy next in age (“Sissy” to me), and myself, Katie, the baby.
On one particular morning Papa breezed in, bringing the color, the magic and the joyous adventure of the outside world, of the open road, of all the places he had been during his absence and all the things he had seen and done. Mama had not known he would arrive that day, for he had wanted to surprise us.
And so on this summer day he had appeared out of the blue, bringing his great gusto for life with him. In the years that followed I was to learn that his arrival was always to be like that — whether he had been away for a day, a week or a month. Always he blew in like a breath of fresh, clean wind; a gust of wind from some northern clime, which invigorated the soul, cleared out the cobwebs of fear and insecurity and made you feel that it was wonderful to be alive. He was like some powerful viking of old; life was a perpetual adventure for him.
I recall little that happened after his arrival that day or during the remainder of our stay in Chapel Hill. But my earliest recollection of life is the buoyant aliveness and optimism which charged the atmosphere that morning. The picture of him as he was that day has remained with me through the years. It is priceless to me, especially now that I know so much of that period, when life was hard for him every way he turned.
In all the years that followed I have never known anybody so
consistently cheerful in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, nor one who could pack so much accomplishment into the twenty-four hours of each day. He was eternally fighting against time — his greatest enemy. One could almost believe he had a foreboding of the shortness of his days on earth, had he not been so joyously alive and possessed of so much undaunted optimism.
My father was a little man; of slight build and around five feet eight inches tall. But he was wiry and strong. Every single bit of him was bone and sinew and good hard muscle, built from years of hard labor on the farm in his youth and from expending every iota of his dynamic energy in everything that he did, whether work or play, all his life.
His size, however, was the only small thing about him. In every other way he was of Gargantuan proportions. In physical strength and endurance, in determination and ambition, in intellect and accomplishment.
He never did anything by halves. All of him — mind, soul and body — went into everything that he undertook. And so you lost sight of his smallness of stature. His gigantic spirit and magnetic personality triumphed over and eclipsed any shortcomings in physique.
Passing him on the street, a stranger would have seen a small, rather carelessly dressed person who was utterly unconscious of what he wore — but who obviously knew exactly where he was going and why. There was objective and purpose in his every step and in every movement of his lithe, compact little body. There was ease and confidence in his swing and stride — a perfect co-ordination of body and mind.
Above all, the stranger would have been arrested by the burning intensity of his coal-black eyes. Eyes that seemed to penetrate through and beyond everything that they beheld. And yet, there was a gentleness in them and a vulnerability — the sensitive eyes of a dreamer.
He was in great demand as a public speaker in his own county of Johnston and in the adjoining counties, especially Harnett and Wake. He could speak on any subject under the sun. His fund of information and knowledge seemed to be unlimited.
When he ascended a platform to speak he was completely at home. He would walk briskly to the front of the stage and pause a moment to look his audience over. There was a genial
twinkle in his eyes and a slight twitching of his moustache — the look of a friendly puppy that said, “I like you and you're going to like me.”
Possessed of a keen sense of humor, a ready wit and an inexhaustible repertoire of anecdotes to fit any occasion, he had no trouble in getting and holding the attention of his audience. Usually he would start off with a humorous story to put his hearers in a good humor and then he would begin warming up to his real message. As he warmed up, so did his audience. His complete sincerity and intense earnestness, his gentle manner and compelling personality, carried his audience along with him. They knew that here was a man with a message. Whatever the subject, he always spoke with power and conviction. As one of his former pupils has said of him, he seemed to “speak with authority.” It was on the subject of education, however, that he spoke most frequently — the cause for which he labored unsparingly throughout his entire lifetime.
My father was many things during his brief life — educator, lecturer, farmer, legislator, and always outstanding church and civic leader in his community, wherever he chanced to be. But whatever else he was, he was, first, last, and always, a teacher.
His genius for discovering hidden talent, wherever it lay, amounted almost to the supernatural. The names of those whom he discovered and whose lives, according to their own testimony, were changed completely under his influence, are legion. Many have attained eminence as doctors, lawyers, teachers, writers, and ministers of the Gospel.
One of those whom he “discovered” and who for years has been nationally prominent as a religious leader in his denomination, and in more recent years as author, has called him “Barnabas, the Discoverer.” A few years ago I received through the mail a copy of a manuscript by that title, which the author has since used in a recently published autobiography. The manuscript is a sincere and beautiful tribute to his former teacher, guide, and friend.
The writer was one of those students in the Strain School — that little “log temple of learning” in which my father taught during those difficult, discouraging days when he was attempting the seemingly hopeless task of realizing his dream of a university education, while supporting a family and caring for an invalid wife. It is an inspiring story of the courage and dauntless optimism of a human being when all the cards were stacked against him; of one
who could inspire and encourage and draw out the best in others when his own personal life was beset with discouragement, and at times, would have seemed bleak and utterly hopeless to most men.
The manuscript relates how, as a result of a seemingly casual meeting with a stranger on a winter morning around the turn of the century, the entire course of the writer's life was changed. He was almost a young man at the time of their meeting and, beaten down by the seeming futility of pursuing his education with no money, and little or no encouragement from anybody, he had given up the idea of going to school any more and decided to settle down and spend his life on the farm. As a result of the encounter with the new teacher in the district school, he was persuaded to go back to school and inspired with hope and courage to prepare himself to enter the university. He quotes his teacher as saying:
“There is no difficulty that you may not overcome if you will give yourself to the undertaking with all your mind and soul and strength.”*
The teacher made him aware of his possibilities for greatness and of his responsibility to develop and use his talents in a life of service for his fellow man.
Toward the end of the manuscript the writer says:
“He had lighted a flame in my soul that has never gone out and henceforth life held new meaning and a new purpose dominated my life. He was the first ever to tell me that there was something in my life worth striving for, and that God was always ready to help those who try to help themselves.”*
Several years ago my sister Nora and I sat talking with one of his former ardent disciples — a much beloved physician, recently deceased, who for more than three decades served his own county of Harnett and surrounding counties in the best tradition of the family doctor. Because of his sound judgment, genius as a diagnostician, and high ethical standards, he had long before made an enviable name for himself in his profession and won the respect and admiration of his colleagues throughout the state.
In the course of the conversation he tried to analyze the qualities, the source of the greatness of the teacher who had been such a potent influence in his own life and in the lives of so many[note]
others; to put into words a description of his supercharged energy, of his physical and mental endurance, and his ability to accomplish so much during his brief life. In an attempt to sum it all up, he began:
“Why, that little man — Why, Nora! Katie! Why girls! Why, that little man —!” And, words failing him, he was forced to stop. But further words were not necessary. We knew that little man too.3 ◀ The Boys
The Boys were an institution in our home. They are as much a part of my childhood memory as old Nellie, the red and white Guernsey cow that gave such incredibly thick, yellow, creamy milk; as Prince, that old aristocrat of horses, that had formerly belonged to the race track; as the two-seated family surrey; as Mama's cabinet organ; as the marble-top bureau, with the two queer little top drawers in Mama's and Papa's bedroom. Or as the old green bookcase with its collection of choice books, which included the complete works of Shakespeare in one big volume, a handsomely bound copy of Owen Meredith's Lucile, the works of Darwin and Spencer, poems by Thomas Moore, a History of Mankind by some author I cannot remember, and an enormous family Bible, generously illustrated with pictures. The last was a souvenir of Papa's life as a book salesman during his student days at the university in Chapel Hill.
Sometimes there would be a half-dozen or so of the Boys — sometimes around a dozen — of widely varying ages, sizes, temperaments, and economic status. Most of them were recruited from the cotton and corn fields of Johnston County — tall, gangly, awkward youths; some of them not many years younger than Papa himself, most of them much taller and bigger. But whatever their age, size, economic or social status, to Papa — and consequently to Mama and to us children — they became and remained “the Boys.”
But the Boys never interfered with the close, compact, inner circle of our family life, or affected the deep sense of security that was ours — strange as it may seem. Even the times when they increased in numbers, so that the only real privacy we knew was bounded by the four walls of Mama's and Papa's big bedroom
and a tiny adjoining room, we suffered no sense of loss or inadequacy. On the contrary, it seemed that the smaller our physical bounds — the closer we were forced to draw into ourselves — the more firmly knit became our spiritual ties of comradeship. Our own little family circle was, and forever remained, impregnable, safe and secure.
I do not know just how or when the Boys first became a part of our home life — a member of that big outer circle of our family. For all that I knew or cared, they were just there, and always had been, like Papa and Mama and Buddy and Sissy and Nellie and Prince.
Looking back now — recalling hundreds of incidents and impressions bit by bit — I know that they were drawn there, as if by a magnet, by the burning zeal and contagious enthusiasm of the little man with piercing black eyes and compelling personality, who was possessed by a dream — a vision of the unlimited potentialities of man, regardless of outward circumstances — the little man who was my father. Who saw in each of these tall, ungainly farm boys a potential Washington or Lincoln or Edison. Who preached and lived the conviction that nothing was impossible, no obstacle too great to overcome, for him who hitched his wagon to a star and followed where that star led.
I know now that my father, instead of possessing a vision or dream, was possessed by it, and was forced to follow it. That he could not control the consuming fire and zeal that drove him relentlessly on, till it burned out his strength, his life, and all of him that was mortal. That he lived and died a martyr to the cause he believed in.
The cause he believed in was education — not for a chosen few, but for the masses. For the boy born into an isolated, backwoods community who had little hope of any schooling beyond the three-month winter terms in the district school, as well as for the privileged class.
His was the task, as he saw it, of helping these boys break through the shackles of poverty and ignorance and discouragement; to know a richer, fuller life than their fathers had known, and to be able to point the way to others. Education was the answer. That was the key to the door of opportunity; the door that led to the Good Life — to riches of the mind and spirit, and greater service to one's fellow man.
His was the task, as he saw it, of teaching and inspiring; of pointing to the stars; of helping these tall, gangly plow-boys catch a glimpse each of his own potential star, and of setting his feet on the upward, rugged path to find that star.
I know now that he never faltered in that task. That he gave himself completely and relentlessly to the pursuit of that task. That he lived a hundred years or more in his brief span of fifty years on this earth — if measured by accomplishment and unswerving devotion to an ideal.
As fishermen left the nets they were mending, or tillers of the soil left their plows at the bidding of the Man of Galilee's magic words, “Follow Me,” so did these boys and young men from the small farms and out-of-the-way places of Johnston and neighboring counties, leave the cornfields and cotton patches, their homes, and all the familiar things they knew, to follow the little man possessed by a dream.4 ◀ Growing Pains
At the turn of the century Dickson was a country village of less than four hundred inhabitants. Its main business section was comprised of a bank, a drugstore, a jewelry shop, two dry goods establishments, three groceries, four open barrooms and two or three general merchandise establishments. The last included men's and boys’ suits and shoes, staple groceries, hardware, harness, buggy lap-robes, plow lines and, usually, plows and wagons.
At the northern end of the business section in a tiny frame building, Mama's cousin Ellen Westall, a prim spinster with an air of elegance, made and trimmed ladies’ hats and also served as seamstress for the elite of the village.
Both dry goods establishments had a millinery department, too, and each employed an imported milliner. The advent of these young ladies at the beginning of the spring and fall trade seasons caused a big ripple of excitement in the community especially if either chanced to be a newcomer or had been very popular with the young swains the season before.
A half block away from Main Street Mr. Toby Barnes, a short, stocky blacksmith, did a thriving business.
A few years before, ox carts had been the chief means of heavy
transportation. Sometimes as many as fifteen heavily laden carts could be seen moving into town, turpentine barrels aboard. Their destination was Mr. Pulaski Holley's turpentine distillery, located in the center of the main residential section and only a block away from the business area.
Cows had grazed right along Main Street and long-skirted ladies en route downtown were forced to make frequent detours. Back of most of the homes was a cow lot and a pigpen; and somewhere near these, a privy. The resultant stench and swarms of flies, especially in summer, were taken for granted. Often these were situated near an open well or pump, which furnished the family's water supply. Nobody — not even the village doctors — associated these unsanitary conditions with the frequent epidemics of typhoid which sometimes took a heavy toll of lives of the young people and children.
Shortly after the turn of the century a number of radical changes had occurred. Two fires, in 1903 and 1904, almost wiped out the downtown shopping areas and the wooden business structures were replaced by substantial brick buildings. Several new places of business were erected, one of which was an up-to-date hardware establishment. Many farmers of the community had begun to raise tobacco and so a tobacco warehouse was erected.
Soon the town enacted a stock law and at the northern and southern ends of the town high fences, with tall gates, were built to keep the stock from the surrounding countryside from wandering into town.
New families moved into the community, bringing new ideas and customs, and several new homes sprang up in the residential areas. In half a decade the contented, sleepy little village had experienced a number of definite growing pains.
It was during this period of transition in 1904 that Papa moved his family from Wake County back to the village, after an absence of several years. Six years before he had resigned as Principal of the village school and moved his little family to Brookfield, where under the tutelage of his lifelong friend, Willis Tarkington at Tarkington Institute, he had prepared himself to enter the university at Chapel Hill. Following two years at the university he had accepted a principalship in a Durham school and the next two years he had headed the Mount Moriah Academy in Wake County. Now he was returning to be principal of the village school again.
For both him and Mama it was a home-coming, for they had grown up in the community. They were returning to their birthplace, the soil from which they had sprung — to their families and the friends of their childhood — and they were happy to be home again.
On the whole, I have only vague recollections up to this period in my life, but certain memories and impressions stand out clearly. First, as I have said, there was Papa, eager and buoyant, returning from a trip on the road as book salesman. Next, a vivid memory of Mama, young and pretty, crippled by rheumatism. Of Papa lifting her in his arms from bed to chair or to the kitchen and dining room. Of the year in Durham and of a little playmate, Lola Stone; of rocking my baby brother in his cradle and singing “Wock-a-bye-Baby,” with Mama close by. Then, our move to Mount Moriah into a two-story white frame house, known as the “Penny Place”; and not long afterwards, the baby brother's death. Too young to experience much personal sorrow, I recall Papa's and Mama's grief and Buddy's and Sissy's admonition: “Be quiet, honey.”
My chief impression of life in Mount Moriah is of tall, long-legged boys going up and down stairs. Then a hazy memory of Papa and the boys and Buddy and Sissy walking down the road to the academy. Of playing alone in a meadow near the house; and of Mama teaching me the A-B-C's from my little brown primer. And then of being awakened one morning while it was still dark, and the strange feeling of eating breakfast by lamplight. Of the long ride (thirty-five miles was a long trip by buggy) to Dickson where we were moving. Of the delicious taste of Mama's buttermilk biscuits all along the way when we felt the pangs of hunger. I was four and a half years old when we returned to the village and life was beginning to assume a more definite shape and reality.
What a happy time this was! Mama was well and could walk again and there was a constant coming and going of old friends and neighbors to welcome them back home. One of the earliest visitors was “Miss Nolie,” a lifelong friend of Mama's who had been her music teacher in her girlhood. Miss Nolie was strikingly handsome and her good looks and aristocratic bearing made a lasting impression on me. Though she is nearing ninety now, she has retained her aristocratic bearing and still gives music lessons in her community. Until a few years ago she was pianist in her church and walked three miles to Sunday school when the family car was out of order.
The house we moved into was a white frame six-room cottage with green shutters and with a rose trellis over the front gate. The landlord, a bachelor, had recently moved out and left a red carpet on the parlor floor. Sissy thought this carpet was the epitome of elegance and luxury. Since our home was always filled with boarding students, the furnishing were necessarily of a utilitarian rather than an aesthetic quality. The floors were bare, the furniture plain and durable.
We moved in August, two weeks before the opening of school. Even before we were settled the room was filled with young men. Whether they had been with us the year before, or were new recruits, I can't say. I only know that always, wherever we lived, the boys were with us — these tall, gangly devoted disciples of Papa's. Soon after their arrival in our new quarters a tragedy occurred. One of them accidentally overturned a bottle of ink and the beautiful red carpet was ruined! Mama was heartsick and Sissy's lamentations of grief were long and loud.
At this time the village was divided into two strongly opposing forces — the “wets” and the “drys.” Soon after his arrival Papa became the ex-officio leader of the “drys,” and because of his unceasing crusade against open barrooms, he made bitter enemies.
It had never occurred to Papa, however, that he was in danger of physical violence, until he was tipped off by an attorney friend, who had a weakness for the bottle, of a plot to take his life. The would-be assassins had gathered in a dark alley on a Saturday night to waylay Papa as he walked home from town. Somehow Papa had not gone to town that Saturday night, as was his custom. When a few days later the friend overheard some remarks in the barroom about the plot that had misfired, he hurried to Papa to warn him of his danger.
The barrooms had inner swinging half-doors which partially shielded the interior from the public eye. Not that any such badge of identity was needed, however. The strong whiskey stench which assailed the nostrils of all passers-by, and the frequent exit of inebriated customers, were sufficient proof of what went on inside. Long-skirted women hurried by these “dens of iniquity,” looking straight ahead, and little girls were taught to do the same.
One day when Sissy and I were downtown, dawdling along and looking in at the store windows, I spied a stray kitten running into a building a few doors up the street. I ran after it and before Sissy could stop me I had dashed through one of the forbidden
swinging doors. So preoccupied was I in capturing the kitten, I paid no attention to my surroundings until I heard a familiar, kind voice say: “Honey, this is no place for a little girl.”
I looked up into the face of the father of one of my dearest playmates. He took me by the hand and escorted me to the door where I rejoined a horrified and embarrassed Sissy who was starting in after me. Sissy, of course, gave me a good sound talking-to about not noticing where I was going. But my shame was short-lived and by the time we had reached cousin Pet Westall's dry goods store on the corner, whither we were bound to buy a spool of thread for Mama, I had forgotten all about it.
As in all rural communities, the church and the school were the central points of the social life of the village. The annual school commencement drew crowds from miles around. As the important occasion drew near, Papa had an enormous canvas tent erected, with a huge rostrum against the front wall of the building. The ground was thickly carpeted with wagonloads of sawdust, and row upon row of sturdy, backless plank benches were constructed for seating.
In the afternoon there were declamations, recitations and debating contests. At night there were dialogues, also a play (written by Papa himself, when he couldn't find one to suit him) and at the close, an address by some important personage imported for the occasion. Sometimes this speaker was one of Papa's former students who had gone out into the world and attained prominence.
Papa's crowning masterpiece as a playwright, however, was a Biblical drama, “Jeptha's Vow,” which he not only wrote and directed but for which he supervised the costumes and scenery as well. The play was presented in the Baptist church; and old-timers (who were young men at the time and took part in the play) still declare that it was the best thing that has ever been presented in the community.
The village belle was Miss Nellie Pleasants, daughter of the local banker. Miss Nellie had beaux, not only from the surrounding towns and villages, but from the state capital, forty miles away, and from Durham and Greensboro, and even more distant cities. The banker had another daughter, Miss Lily, who married soon after we moved to the village. Miss Lily did not possess the flashing, seductive beauty of her younger sister; but instead, a serene, Madonna-like
loveliness which was equally pronounced — the kind of loveliness which endures, because it is of the spirit. Today her face is still serene and unlined, and framed by her silver hair, it has grown even more beautiful with the years.
Papa was a staunch Democrat, as were, in fact, practically all of the leading citizens of the town. I can recall only one of the better families that was Republican. At one time, on the occasion of a big political rally, just before some important election, there was a grand parade through the town. In the parade was a two-horse wagon-load of us little girls, all dressed in white, and little boys in their Sunday best, waving flags and singing patriotic songs, as we rode through the streets.
We were sorry for our lone playmate, who was conspicuously absent because his father was a Republican. To us there was a stigma attached to little Willie which we had not recognized before. When we passed his home singing lustily, we felt sure that he was hidden under the bed in shame.
Mr. Bob Tool, the village shoe cobbler, had his shop in a tiny shanty near the depot. In good weather he usually worked outdoors in front of his shop. He was a big, jolly simple soul, always good-natured, and liked to have us children stop by after school for a visit. As he cut the leather for the sole and fitted it to the shoe, or hammered away at the shoe on the last, he told us exciting tales of his boyhood and of the very beginnings of the village. The fact that he remembered clearly the first train that passed through, increased his importance considerably in our eyes. He and his small birdlike wife and their son lived in an unpainted, two-room cottage by the railroad track, a quarter of a mile from town. Sunday afternoons often found a crowd of us playing jump-rope and hide-and-seek in their front yard. Mrs. Tool kept a supply of sugar teacakes baked and, like her husband, seemed happiest when children were around. All afternoon we raced in and out of the house for teacakes till the last one was consumed. The fact that we scattered crumbs on the floor, tracked in dirt, and let in flies, bothered them not a bit.
A year after I started to school, we moved to a white farmhouse situated in a grove of oaks, on a hill, a half-mile from town, so that Papa could farm during vacation time and thereby add to his meager salary as principal of the school.
Usually Sissy and I took the more circuitous route home from school, through the business district, instead of the shorter route by way of Church Street. This route offered more possibilities for adventure. In a year or two Sissy thought I was old enough to be out from under her protecting wing. So she began walking home with the older girls.
Some of the exploits of that period of my life seem almost incredible now. There were three or four of us who were particularly daring. The railroad ran through the center of the village, just as it does now, and one of our most hazardous feats was to crawl beneath a waiting freight train to the other side, while the engine puffed and snorted and gave threatening sounds of starting up again. When the wheels did begin moving, soon after we had crawled through to safety, we shivered with fright and horror over our narrow escape — but that did not keep us from doing the same thing all over again.
Sometimes we walked down the railroad track to a trestle near the Tool home, where we spent a thrilling half-hour sliding down the steep embankment on small boards, or on our bottoms, and wading in the water underneath the trestle.
When we felt unusually daring we walked the outer sills of the trestle, not daring to look down at the yawning abyss below, lest we lose our nerve and our footing as well. In addition to the hazard of falling, the possibility that a train might come along and catch us midway on the trestle was part of the chance we took and only added to the thrilling sense of adventure.
I took care that my family never knew anything of those after-school adventures, for I knew that I would immediately be placed under Sissy's guardianship again and that would put an end to the exciting business of living dangerously.5 ◀ Readin’, ’Ritin’, ’Rithmetic
It was a mid-August day when I was five years old that I started to school, and a new and important era in my life began. Mama had taught me at home for a year; so I had finished primer and first reader and was half-way through the second reader. I could do simple sums on my little slate. Now I was to study and recite and play with a crowd of girls and boys. I was to be initiated into all those exciting things I had heard Sissy and Buddy tell about
He could ’most always spot the offender.
for so long — recess, “taking in books,” blackboards, chalk, erasers, having a desk and deskmate. Yes, a wonderful adventure was opening up for me.
The school building consisted of a big barnlike oblong room for the “big children” and a smaller right-wing for the primary grades. I soon learned, however, that the smaller room would not be put into use until November when “free school” opened. For the first three months school was operated on a tuition basis and was known as private or “entered” school.
There must have been around sixty-five or seventy of us herded into that old barny room. The subject matter taught ranged from ABC's and primer to algebra and Latin; the ages from five years to the middle twenties.
There were three long rows of double desks on each side of the room, separated by a wide passage way in the middle. The boys sat on one side, the girls on the other — the big students at the back, the little ones at the front, and the medium-sized in between. A long recitation bench was on either side at the far end of the room, facing a raised platform called “the rostrum.” In the middle of this rostrum was Papa's desk and chair. When he was having a history or civil government or reading class he sometimes sat but most of the time he was standing or walking the length of the rostrum as he lectured, asked questions, explained — using the long blackboard back of him to illustrate what he taught.
Nancy recalls that during the physiology lessons he would draw the different parts and organs of the human body on the board and explain the purpose and function of each so clearly and simply and in such an interesting way that the whole room sat up and took notice. She recalls how fascinated she was by these drawings and Papa's explanations.
To Papa no subject was dull. Under his tutelage all subject matter was brought to life and made interesting. Unlike most teachers of that day, he used the cut-and-dried textbooks only as a guide. Frequently he would have the entire room lay their books aside while he told fascinating stories of those who had made our country great — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin, Edison. He quoted choice passages of poetry and prose and strove to make his students aware of their indebtedness to those who had bequeathed to us our rich heritage in literature. He organized a debating society, which met every Friday night, and after working
with might and main with each of the opposing sides during the week, was as excited as the contestants themselves when the decisive night arrived for the matching of wits and persuasive oratory.
Everybody had a deskmate, of course, and the big girls sometimes slipped me in between them. Papa said nothing as long as I behaved. Sometimes when I didn't, the big girls would fib to save me from punishment.
In this overcrowded room where all sizes were herded together, Papa was forced to have strict rules of discipline. There was a tough crowd of teen-age boys in school then; so tough in fact that a former principal had remarked that he would rather go to war than attempt another school-year there. Papa, however, was a match for the worst of them. His piercing black eyes could ’most always spot the offender — even in the back of the long overcrowded room — when there was a disturbance. He was an excellent marksman too. With scarcely any interruption in the lesson, he would pick up a small piece of chalk from the trough of the blackboard behind him and aim it at the culprit. Rarely did he miss his target. Sometimes it landed on the offender's desk, sometimes on his back, shoulder, or some other portion of his anatomy. Startled, he would look up to find Papa calmly going on with the lesson. At any rate it worked. In fact it put a quietus on the whole room for quite a while.
Papa had a unique punishment for fighting during recess — and that worked too. After recess the opposing pugilists were called to the middle of the wide center aisle and, still glaring at each other belligerently, they were made to hug and kiss. Unable to control the dogs of laughter plaguing him, Papa would finally break forth into a big whah-whah. This would set the entire room to laughing — the fighters themselves, very grudgingly at first, finally being forced to join in — till the very rafters of the old building seemed to rock and shake in mirth. The laughter having subsided, the pugilists went back to their seats, rather shamefaced — and, if not good friends, at least no longer wanting to fight.
Free school, which began sometime in November, was for me much more interesting than private or subscription school had been. It was then that the hordes from Broad-Slab and Swinge-Pig and all the other backwoods communities swarmed in. They brought with them their dirt and smells, their lice and their backwoods
talk. They brought huge tin dinner pails — usually lard buckets — of backbone, sparerib, fried link sausage, great chunks of corn pone and big juicy yellow yams. When they brought biscuits, which was seldom, they were big and heavy and yellow with soda. Biscuits were obviously quite a luxury, for some of them at least. Sissy discovered that one day when one of them confided:
“Umm — I'll be glad when Sunday morning comes!”
“Why?” inquired Sissy.
“’Cause,” he explained, “we allers have biscuits for breakfast on Sundays.”
The free-schoolers regarded the principal's children with something akin to awe — which was very satisfying to my inflated ego. In fact I basked in their homage and loved them — dirt, lice, smells, and all. Their backwoods talk was a new and foreign language to me and by and large I found them much more colorful and interesting than my usual chums and playmates. A tall girl named “Leilyer” was my especial admirer. Leilyer's mousy-colored hair seemed to be a particularly fertile breeding place for lice — according to the grapevine rumors in the room. She was swarthy and jolly and had deep dimples in her cheeks when she laughed, which was a great deal of the time. Almost from the beginning Leilyer was my ardent champion in all the disputes and mischief I got into and she bitterly resented any punishment meted out to me by the teacher.
Mama had a battle with lice in my long curly hair. Sissy also had long curls but she took care of her own lice. Frequent shampoos were not indulged in in those days. They were considered dangerous in cold weather. But Mama's daily after-school work-out with a fine-tooth comb was a must. How I rebelled against that daily work-out! It was an ordeal both for Mama and for me.
At the beginning of the free-school session the adjoining primary room was always put into use for us “little ’uns.” I recall vividly the succession of teachers — both regular and substitute. There was pretty Miss Callie Goodwin who very inconveniently (to Papa) resigned in the middle of the term because “Mama is sick and needs me at home” — which correctly interpreted meant: “I am in love and want to get married.” There was one teacher whom most of us heartily disliked, but the day she announced that she was leaving found all of us weeping copiously (she and her “pets”
started it and the rest of us followed suit). One term Mama taught, though she was taking care of a houseful of boarders and had to walk the half mile to school. Sometimes Uncle Eustace or Uncle Dolphus substituted for a day or two at a time. Then there was the substitute who incurred my lifelong dislike for scolding me soundly before the room one day for drawing a picture in my tablet. Most teachers considered any form of art work a waste of time then. Of course Papa didn't, but Papa was years ahead of his time.
The teacher who stuck the longest and whom I remember best in those free-school days was Miss Mary Thompson. Miss Mary used to spend nights with us and sleep with Sissy in the little cold room off Mama's room. We had gay times on those occasions. Miss Mary and Mama would take turns playing the organ after supper and Papa, and sometimes some of the boarders, would join in the singing. Mama's selections were usually of a sentimental or nostalgic nature, the songs she had played and sung during her girlhood days.
Miss Mary, however, preferred the more rollicking type. She was tall and big-boned and jolly and always sang at the top of her voice. Her favorite seemed to be “Billy Boy.” Each stanza consisted of a question addressed to “Charming, charming, Billy Boy” and his response which always ended with “She's a young girl who cannot leave her mother.” Miss Mary's hearty soprano led the singing, Mama furnished the alto and Papa came in on the bass. With the good smell of supper still in the air and an oak fire roaring up the great chimney, these were festive times indeed.
It was during this period that Papa began having considerable trouble with one of his eyes. At night he would work by the flickering kerosene light with his bad eye closed. An examination by one of the local doctors revealed that he had a cataract and an immediate operation was advised. The next day he went to school as usual, had his morning classes, and had one of the older students (Mr. Willis Williams, a pleasant, dignified young man with a mustache) take over until he could return.
During the afternoon recess I saw him coming from town. I can see him clearly as he came swinging along at his usual buoyant gait past the little old white frame Methodist church. I left my game of jump-rope and ran to meet him. A thick bandage covered
one eye. For Papa to be ailing at all was a new experience. In fact, I couldn't recall ever having seen him any way except strong, buoyant, and in complete command of the situation. And he was now.
“Howdy, Babe! Recess nearly over?”
“Papa, does it hurt?” I couldn't help being distressed over the bandage.
“Well, not so much now, Babe,” he replied casually. “Guess it will when the drug wears off.”
He went on talking as usual in his cheerful way while I trotted along beside him on the way to the school house. He rang the bell for “books to take in” and went on with his teaching as though having a cataract removed from an eye were a commonplace everyday occurrence. The operation by the local doctor evidently was a success and Papa's quick recovery was nothing short of miraculous. So far as I can remember, he had no further serious eye trouble as long as he lived — even though he used his eyes continuously, reading, studying, teaching, day and night and often until the wee small hours of the morning. Whatever he started he must finish. There was never any thought of sparing himself and life was too precious to waste any small part of it.
Papa never did anything by halves — even laughing. Moreover, when something struck him as funny, he simply had to laugh, regardless of time, place or circumstance — great, deep, racking whah-whahs that shook his whole body and seemed to come from the very depths of his being. Of course, the funnier the incident, the more powerful the whah-whahs. It was as though some mighty dam holding back a great sea of mirth had burst so that the sea, no longer restrained, came gushing forth in powerful torrents beyond control. I believe he suffered real physical torture at those times until the fury of the sea had spent itself and left him weak almost to exhaustion.
I witnessed this many times in my childhood but my earliest memory and consequently the time I remember best was the Pud Lucius episode. Pud's real name was William but the only time we ever heard him called that was when the teacher called the roll first thing in the morning.
According to age and size, Pud belonged in the room with the big children but because he was “not all there,” his scholastic progress was very slow, so he was still in the primary room.
One day Uncle Eustace, who was substituting for the regular
teacher, sent him to the “big room” on some errand. The connecting door between the two rooms was at one end of the rostrum. Seeing Pud enter the room Papa thought (and with good reason) that he had sneaked out of the primary room just for mischief, and told him to go back where he belonged. Uncle Eustace asked him if he had delivered the message and when Pud shook his head in a bewildered way, sternly told him to go back and deliver it. Papa, seeing him back in the room immediately, gave him a wallop on his behind with a book in his hand and sent him back. Uncle Eustace beholding him back in the room a second later, gave him a wallop at the same place and ushered him through the door again.
Pud had not yet uttered a word — perhaps because he was too bewildered by all the shuttling back and forth. Anyway, this time when Pud entered the room Papa went to Uncle Eustace for an explanation.
I never knew how it all happened until I heard Uncle Eustace himself relate it after I was grown. I do recall that at the time it happened I chanced to be in the big room for some reason, probably to borrow paper or pencil from Sissy. Anyway when Papa learned the true state of affairs the dogs of laughter broke loose.
There he was walking back and forth the length of the rostrum with his head thrown back, emitting those great, terrible, uncontrollable whah-whahs that seemed to have complete possession of his being — tearing at his very vitals as they escaped. Not understanding, it was painful for me to witness. He would stop for a few brief moments and then start up all over again. Of course, the entire room was soon in an uproar of laughter that subsided only when Papa, entirely spent, could no longer emit even little weak whah-whahs.
A few years before her death, I related the incident to Aunt Easter, Papa's sister. Aunt Easter gave one of her deep, throaty chuckles and then said:
“Your papa couldn't help it, honey. He came by it honest. Didn't you ever hear how your great-granpa broke up court one time with his laughing?”
Of course, I had heard it years before from Papa but I wanted to hear it again. So I sat waiting and after several more of her rumbling, earthy chuckles she began.
6 ◀ Great-Grandpa Breaks Up Court
“It happened over a hundred years ago, child, when your great-grandpa was in his prime,” said Aunt Easter digging her toothbrush deep into her box of Railroad Mills snuff. “One day in spring he drove his team o’ mules to the county seat to do some tradin’. There warn't no such thing as shoppin’ in them days. Folks went to town ‘to trade.’
“Well, soon after yore granpa got into town, he found out court was a-goin’ on. So after he finished his tradin’, he decided to drop into the courtroom for a spell and see what was a-goin’ on.
“Now it chanced that just as he walked in, the feller bein’ tried (for stealin’, I think it was — though I ain't sure) was a-bein’ put through a lot o’ questions by the lawyer on the other side. The pore fellow was ignorant about the doin's of the court and scared to death too, I guess. So the lawyer soon had him so mixed up, he give a idiotic answer to a question.
“When yore granpa heard that, he broke out in a big whah-whah a-laughin’. An’ was that judge mad! He pounded his gavel down on his desk an’ bellowed:
“ ‘Order in the court! Sheriff, arrest that man an’ bring him to the bar!’ ”
At this point Aunt Easter took time out to send a big squirt of brown snuff juice expertly through the air into the fire and then continued:
“The dogs o’ laughter were still a tuggin’ at yore granpa's throat when he stood before the judge.
“ ‘I fine you five dollars for contempt of court,’ the judge said.
“ ‘Yore Honor,’ yore granpa somehow managed to gasp, ‘I apologize to the court, but I couldn't help it. If you'll just let me laugh a bait, I'll pay you ten dollars.’
“ ‘Court's adjourned for five minutes,’ the judge ordered.
“Well, then yore granpa just let go. Them dogs o’ laughter had been a-strainin’ at the leash an’ now they broke loose so violent that granpa's whah-whahs seemed to rock the whole building. His chunky little body was near ’bout bent double — just like he was in hard pain.
“An’ would you believe it, honey, the whole court was soon
Soon the whole court was a-whah-whahing, too.
a-whah-whahing, too. Yes siree! even the judge — he was a-whah-whahing as hard as anybody!
“Well, when yore granpa was just plum spent an’ couldn't do nothin’ but just gasp out some weak ‘Whee-ees’ the court was still a-guffawin’.
“ ‘Order in the court,’ the judge ordered again (weak-like this time) when the five minutes was up.
“An’ yore granpa, he dug down in his britches pocket an’ pulled out a ten-dollar bill an’ handed it to the judge an’ walked on back to his seat, jest as if nothin’ had happened.
“Well, the lawyer took up where he'd left off,” she continued with a deep chuckle, “but nobody was interested in what went on any more. Yore granpa had done stole the show.
“So you see, child,” she concluded, “your papa come by his laughin’ honest. Like your great-granpa, when something tickles him, he just can't help it.”7 ◀ Aunt Easter
Aunt Easter, like Papa, was a go-getter. Esther was her correct name, she would often remind us emphatically. But “Easter” she had somehow become when a child, and so remained to the end of her days.
At a time when a married woman was supposed to have no active interests outside the confines of her home, Aunt Easter ran a millinery establishment, put the whiskey dealers out of business in her town and built the first Methodist church in the community.
While Papa was crusading against open barrooms in our town, Aunt Easter was making things hot for the saloon keepers in hers. While Papa was educating the youth of his community, farming and making speeches over the county at school commencements, church reunions, Sunday-school conventions and various other important occasions, Aunt Easter was running and bossing her household, making and selling hats, holding perpetual open house for the young people of her community and overseeing the building of the little church on her lot at the foot of the garden.
She and Uncle Joe had moved to Leesville from their farm in Johnston County soon after it was known that a branch railway line was to be built through the little town — which was then a
mere village. Aunt Easter shrewdly foresaw the future business possibilities of the community. Married when she was but sixteen, as she grew older her restless pioneer spirit and ambitious nature could no longer be content on the farm. Besides, she missed her older son, Jason, who had left the farm to take a business course in Richmond, and had afterwards taken a job, married, and settled there to live. So with Uncle Joe, her son, Durvey, and her household goods, plus a headful of ideas, she set forth on her new venture.
Uncle Joe was the exact opposite of Aunt Easter — easy-going, good-natured and always spoke and acted as if he had all the time in the world. He didn't seem to mind Aunt Easter's bossiness too much, though in later years I came to the conclusion that being a peace-loving soul, he was merely following the line of least resistance. It was:
“Joseph! Fetch me my snuff box.” Or: “Go to the store and get some sugar and molasses, Joseph.” Or: “Fetch in the wash from the line, Joseph, and build a fire in the cookstove.”
And patient, plodding, soft-spoken Uncle Joe would fetch and carry and do as he was told. He could never be hurried, and his easy-going ways and lack of ambition riled Aunt Easter no end. Part of the time he worked as carpenter and part of the time at various other odd jobs in the village. Between jobs he stayed at home and did most of the cooking and other household chores and, of course, performed double-duty fetching and carrying for Aunt Easter, while she was left free to carry on her millinery business and her manifold duties as religious, civic, and social leader of the community.
When they first moved to the village Uncle Joe had built a little shop for her next door to the house — “My Store,” she called it importantly. The little shop held enchantment for my older sister and me — especially the little back room where Aunt Easter worked, with its conglomeration of hat frames, flowers, ribbons, veiling, velvet, and plumes. Since the shop was poorly heated, in very cold weather she moved part of the conglomeration to the house and carried on her business from there.
Her customers would begin coming early in the morning during her busy spring and fall seasons. So if Uncle Joe chanced to be on a regular job then and the cooking was up to her, she would arise long before light, put on a pot of black-eye peas or “roas'n ears” to
cook, fry a big platter of ham and eggs, bake a fruit pie and a great pan of thick biscuits and have her cooking out of the way for the day. There was always a huge pot of boiled coffee — which she drank hot for breakfast and cold for dinner and supper.
Aunt Easter was a born salesman, for she liked people, had a glib Irish tongue, and a keen eye for a dollar. Soon she had amassed enough capital to buy a lot adjoining hers, on which she had Uncle Joe build a house to rent out. In another year she bought the two lots next to this and Uncle Joe built two more houses for rent.
One winter, a few years later, a fire destroyed her home, her millinery shop and all three of the other dwellings — on none of which, strangely enough, she carried insurance — and she had to start from scratch. Immediately after the tragedy she rented three rooms over the village bank and moved in with what few possessions she had been able to salvage from the fire. She borrowed money from the bank to buy millinery stock for the on-coming spring season and soon was conducting her hat business in her new living quarters as if nothing had happened. In an incredibly short time she had saved enough money to rebuild her home (with a much nicer structure than her former home) and her shop, and a year later to buy two farms on the outskirts of the town.
Whatever she put her hand to seemed to flourish. She loved flowers and her yard was a riotous mass of color almost the year round.
Aunt Easter was a staunch Democrat and she thought there was something radically wrong with anybody who was not. “Them black Republikins!” she would say with distaste. These she classed along with the whiskey dealers and would have little traffic with them except in a business way.
She was equally biased in her religious beliefs. She firmly believed that Methodists were the chosen people, the elect of God; that they, and they only, were really qualified to enter the Pearly Gates and to walk the Golden Streets. Of course, there would be a sprinkling of Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations there. But the Methodists would occupy the highest seats and places of authority. Of that she was sure.
Now, Papa was a Baptist — but that was different. She had an intense, almost worshipful, admiration for Papa. She herself would personally vouch for “Brother Jimmy” and his family to Saint
Peter, if there were any question as to our being admitted. Though she was sure that Papa would be quite capable of handling the situation himself. Of his important position in Heaven, she had no doubt, for she felt Papa would add prestige to any community — even to a heavenly one.
“Sister Day” was a great favorite with the preachers of her denomination. She was a zealous worker in the little church and kept the flock well under control during the out-of-town pastor's absence. Her home came to be the natural abode of each succeeding pastor on regular preaching Sundays, and of visiting preachers during revivals. Those who had formerly served the church came back on visits, whenever possible, bringing their families along.
Like Papa, Aunt Easter could make you feel that life was pretty wonderful, in spite of all its ups and downs; that there were always better things just around the corner, if one had the gumption and courage to keep going till he reached the corner. Under the spell of her jolly nature, her warmth and hearty welcome, her guests could, for the time being, forget their pastoral cares and responsibilities, the drafty, uncomfortable parsonages they often had to live in, and their feelings of apprehension and uncertainty as conference and moving time drew near.
Both Aunt Easter and Uncle Joe loved music and they always had one or more musical instruments around. When they lived on the farm Aunt Easter owned a guitar and Uncle Joe a fiddle. Frequently one of the neighbors would come over with his banjo and there would be lively times in the home, as they played and sang the popular songs of the day — Aunt Easter always supplying the alto. When they played lively dance tunes Aunt Easter would pat her little feet to the rhythm of the music, her black eyes twinkling merrily and her broad mouth widened to a reminiscent smile, as her mind traveled back to her girlhood days when she had tripped the light fantastic to the same gay tunes.
When they moved to town a tall music box supplanted the guitar and fiddle. She called the music box her “Myrie” because of the word “Myra” on the underside of the lid, designating the make of the instrument. The merry, tinkling sound of this music box enchanted us children on our visits and we played the few records over and over again.
Sometimes all of us would pile into the old family surrey and go for an overnight visit to Aunt Easter's. She would greet us boisterously,
smother us children with hugs and hold us off for inspection, always detecting some hitherto unnoticed family resemblance in each of us.
I can see her clearly now as she was on those visits. Settled well back in her low cushioned rocker, one sturdy, short leg flung comfortably over the arm-rest and dipping her Railroad Mills snuff, her sharp, twinkling eyes would snap and dart around at her audience, as she told her extravagant tales for her own and for our enjoyment.
When bare facts were not sufficiently interesting to make a good story, her fertile imagination easily supplied all that was lacking. Each telling had an extra embellishment and departed a little farther from the original — until finally a simple incident became a masterpiece of drama or comedy. After a few recitals of her finished product, she was convinced that everything had happened just as she told it.
Her flow of conversation and deep, earthy chuckles would be punctuated by the hissing of the red-hot coals in the fireplace, as she spat through the wide space between her two center front teeth (which nature seemed to have especially designed for that purpose). With her index and third fingers pressed against her lips, and forming a perfect “V” for an opening, she could send the rich, brown juice an incredible distance through the air, rarely missing her target.
When I was growing up I often spent a week with her during my summer vacation. Soon after I arrived for one of these visits she announced that we were boarding the train early next morning for an excursion trip to a city not far distant. Aunt Easter was as excited as a child over the trip. On reaching our destination, she insisted that we head for the amusement park. And there she led me a merry chase — not satisfied till we had ridden on every contraption that could be ridden on (some of them over and over again), and had seen and done everything that could be seen and done. You can imagine what she was like when, a few years later, she spent an evening at Coney Island, on a visit with Durvey who was living in New York. It seems that she was going strong long after the others in the party were completely exhausted, and that she refused to leave before midnight.
Aunt Easter was unofficial hostess and confidante for the young people of both sexes in her community, and she prided herself on being a “match-maker.” When any of them came to her for counsel she put as much thought and zest into the solving of their romantic problems as she did into running her church and millinery establishment.
Her broad veranda was a gathering place for them on summer evenings.
Seated in her favorite porch rocker, padded with gay patchwork cushions — which long use had conditioned to conform to the curves of her well-padded little body, her hearty voice and merry laughter would ring out on the evening air and mingle with the sounds of fun and festivity of the young people. The fragrance of honeysuckle, petunias, phlox, and old-fashioned pinks would rise from the tangled growth about the porch. At the far end of the porch, by the well, a big watermelon would be cooling in a tub of water, awaiting the proper time for consumption.
Sometimes a buggyful of young people would arrive unexpectedly from a distance in the county to spend the night. Aunt Easter always welcomed them with open arms, fried great slabs of country ham or extra links of home-made sausage, well seasoned with sage and red pepper, got out some of her winey peach preserves from a small stone churn (Aunt Easter was sparing with sugar, so her preserves always had a winey, half-fermented taste), or some of her brandied peaches, baked an extra quantity of her thick, soggy biscuits, added extra coffee and water to the accumulated grounds in the pot, and soon everybody sat down to eat and had a wonderful time. After supper, more than likely, some of the young folks of the village would drop in for the evening.
Aunt Easter savored every moment and morsel of the fun and gay bantering that went on in the little parlor or on the veranda, interspersing it with her own Irish wit, jokes and tales. Occasionally a speculative look would enter into her eyes, as they rested on a certain paired-off couple — ever mindful of her role as match-maker.
When late bedtime came and all had left except the overnight company, she would escort her female guests to the musty-smelling guest-room with its fancy chair tidies and braided rugs, which she had somehow found time to make; remove her embroidered “Good night,” “Good morning” pillow shams from the bed, plump up the bolster and pillows and turn back the covers. Then with a “Sleep as late as you want to in the morning, Children,” she would leave them — knowing that they would giggle and talk in bed an hour or two longer before they slept.
Next morning she was up at dawn as chipper as ever. Long before her guests were stirring she had done her cooking for the
day and settled herself on the side porch for a leisurely dip of snuff before her hat customers began to arrive.
From her position she could keep a sharp watch-out on the front of the shop. When she spied somebody approaching who looked like a prospective customer, her frisky little body would cover the few steps to the back entrance of the shop in a twinkling and be all ready for business when the customer walked in.
The odors of black-eye peas and freshly-baked pies mingled with the breakfast odors of ham and eggs and coffee. Both Aunt Easter and Papa liked peas so well that they could eat them at any time. Aunt Easter had already eaten a plateful of them along with the ham and red gravy. Her young guests were still sleeping peacefully; her sturdy body was well-fortified with breakfast. She dug her black-gum toothbrush deep into her Railroad Mills snuff and smiled contentedly. Life was good.
Her guests arose late and breakfasted leisurely and happily on the cold ham and eggs, thick biscuits, and lukewarm coffee. Aunt Easter bustled back and forth between shop and home — carrying her warmth, her vitality, and her zest for living into both.
What did it matter that the food was poorly cooked, the furniture coated with dust and the tables and corner cupboard stacked with newspapers and mail-order catalogues several years old? Everybody basked in the magic warmth and hospitality of their jolly little hostess. At the close of their visit in the early afternoon, when they waved a last good-by from their buggy, everybody left declaring there was “nobody in the whole wide world like Mrs. Day.” And they were right — there was not.8 ◀ The Green Years
After living around from pillar to post during all of the fourteen years of their married life, Papa and Mama longed for a feeling of permanency — a home of their own. They decided on a farm known as “The Ivey Place,” about a mile from town.
The Ivey Place consisted of forty acres of land, a third of which was uncleared, an unpainted four-room dwelling, a smokehouse, and a barn. The house had two large rooms, a front porch with a tiny room at the left end, and an outdoor kitchen.
It was on a bitter cold day in January that we moved. I recall
clearly how my fingers ached from the cold as I trotted along beside Papa to school next morning. Sissy had stayed at home to help Mama get settled and Buddy had gone on earlier.
Sissy and Buddy and I were excited by tales we had heard of the old place being “hainted.” It had been deserted for some time but there were rumors of weird music being heard around midnight by the last occupant. We lost no time in exploring our surroundings but all that we discovered to bear out the ghost tales was an old sunken-in graveyard, enclosed by a rotting rail fence, up in a field back of the house. We climbed the fence, half-expecting to find bones and skulls sticking up out of the sunken-in graves; perhaps fleshless claw-like fingers and toes. But in this we were disappointed. Still the discovery of the resting place of the remains of those who had lived there long ago fed our imagination and, we thought, gave authenticity to the tales we had heard. As to the weird music at midnight, we never could stay awake long enough to hear it; so we had no positive proof of that.
The next summer when Sissy and I went blackberrying one day we discovered uncommonly large berries inside the graveyard. We climbed the fence and picked two tin pailfuls. I was but a wee bit of a girl but the thought that the rotted flesh of the dead had fertilized these berries was too much for me and at dinner I could not eat a bite of the luscious, juicy pies Mama had made.
The big front yard was a wonderful playground. There were several huge elm trees and a few oaks which made excellent hiding places for “hide-and-seek” and good “bases” for such games as “Fox in the Wall.” A big rosebush at the edge of the yard, by the walk, was full of fragrant pink blooms in the spring — the kind of fragrance that only the old-fashioned variety of roses can boast.
A whiff of that fragrance in May can take me back through the years to a certain spring morning more than four decades ago. I see a little barefoot six-year-old skipping down the walk as she starts out to school. Her gold curls bob up and down as she skips and her little tin dinner bucket sways rhythmically back and forth. She pauses a moment to bury her nose in the fragrant blooms and pulls a petal to “pop” on her forehead. The older girls said that if it popped, your sweetheart loved you. My sweetheart's name was Junius. He was eight years old and he wore a blue sailor suit trimmed with red braid.
To the left of the house was a well that went dry every summer.
Then we had to tote all of our cooking and drinking water from Mr. Bob Toole's house, a half-mile away until Papa discovered a spring at the foot of the slope in front of the house. Near the well stood a mimosa tree with a huge gnarled horizontal limb which provided a good stout support for a swing. We roamed the woods and in autumn found chinquapins, hickory nuts and “hog” apples, and in the field near the woods we discovered two trees full of ripe, tangy persimmons.
And what became of the Boys when we moved into the little four-room house? Why, they went with us, of course. That much I know. Just how and where they slept in the beginning I don't recall. Only Papa could have solved that — as he did, in some miraculous way. What I do recall clearly is that immediately the front porch was boarded up and a stove flue installed to provide an extra room for the Boys. This room we called “the Entry.” In an incredibly short time after that two large bedrooms were added plus a long, narrow back porch and dining room.
The porch extended back to the outdoor kitchen and connected it with the dining room, the two doors facing each other, with the width of the porch forming a passageway between. With the northern exposure of this portion of the house, carrying food and dishes between kitchen and dining room through the open passageway in the dead of winter must have been an ordeal for Mama. But neither comfort nor convenience seemed to enter into the architectural plans of that period. And Mama, though endowed with a frail body, had a stout heart and an undaunted spirit.
There was neither stove nor fireplace in the dining room. The great pot of steaming coffee, mounds of smoking hot food, the animal warmth and vitality of youth and Papa's tremendous aliveness and optimism supplied all the warmth we needed. Even racing through the icy blasts of the long, narrow porch to breakfast in the early morning was fun, for awaiting us was plenty of hot food, cheerful talk and laughter — and Mama.
We wore heavy, warm underwear, thick-ribbed black stockings and high, buttoned or laced shoes—our buttoned shoes were usually for best wear. Having lost two babies from what the local doctors diagnosed as “tonsilitis,” Papa and Mama were frantically afraid of colds. So Sissy and I wore so many petticoats that Mrs. Ad Ryles (“Miss Mary”) had to make our cold-weather dresses extra large. With my naturally plump, round body and the “hood” I wore in winter, I'm sure I must have looked like a little Eskimo.
In warm April weather when the other children were going barefoot to school, there was no such delight for us — not until the last days of May. Arthur Goodyear was always the first to shed shoes and stockings — which was the first mild day in February or March. The morning that Arthur appeared at school minus shoes and stockings marked the end of winter, so far as we were concerned. That event, more than the song of the first robin, was for us the real harbinger of spring. Arthur never let us down during the cold March winds, ice and frost, that followed either. Whatever the weather, our hopes were kept high, for Arthur donned no more shoes till late the following November.
During that first winter tragedy struck our home; Baby Irene died. It was my first real experience with grief. Papa came into Mama's room where she was resting, exhausted from strain and grief and I noticed that Papa's eyes were red from weeping. Mama took me up on the bed with her for comfort, saying, “Well, honey, you are Mama's baby again.” We had no photograph of Baby Irene, and so a photographer came and made a picture of the little still, lifeless form in her cradle. Somebody had found a few violets blooming in the cold raw February earth to place in the small baby hand. My anguish seemed almost unbearable as I sat with the family during the funeral service in the church listening to Reverend Stringfellow say those gentle, tender words that are always said over dead babies and I felt that I could not endure my grief during the prayer that followed. The next days were hushed and sad for all of us. But our lives were busy and full to the brim and spring was on the way with its promise of warm, sunny weather and green growing things; so by the time the peach orchard was pink with blooms and the big elms and oaks in the yard were filled with birdsong, life began to seem pretty much as it had before.
I discovered a wealth of wild violets and snake lilies in the sloping field in front of the house and filled my gingham pinafore with them time and time again. It is true that I missed my baby sister dreadfully, especially when I went to see my best playmate, Ina Smithson, and helped her care for her baby sister, Ruth. But in June Nora was born, so from then on there was no loneliness for I was full-time baby-sitter and Nora proved to be a handful.
After school the Boys and Buddy would compete in games and races in the big front yard; broad jump and high jump, leap frog, and wrestling and running contests. Papa often joined in these
games and contests for a few minutes, sandwiched in between his after-school farm chores.
Usually there was company for Sunday dinner. Some of the Boys would go home for the week end and that gave extra room at the long dining table. After the grown-ups had done full justice to the chicken stew and backbone, well-seasoned vegetables and fruit pies, we children would troop in, with our companions, to clean up the remains. We didn't mind eating at second-table; we were used to it and there was always plenty left. But sometimes Papa would become so absorbed in conversation that he forgot that we were waiting to eat and Mama had to give him a signal.
Sometimes Grandma and Uncle Eustace would spend Sunday with us and sometimes Reverend John Butler, the Baptist preacher who drove over from Brookfield to conduct once-a-month services in Dickson.
Sometimes the whole family of us would be invited out to Sunday dinner in town or in the country. Other times we would spend the day with Grandma Westall or some of our other kith and kin. On these occasions Mama had to leave mounds of food prepared for the Boys who had not gone home for the week end.
Attending Sunday school and church was taken for granted just as going to school was. Papa was as zealous in his church work as he was in his chosen calling of educator. In fact, he was one of the little band of pioneer Baptists of the community. Sunday morning found him standing before a Bible class of men imparting words of wisdom from the Great Book or serving in the role of superintendent of the Sunday school or, if necessary, doing both. He and Mr. Jim Bonner organized a Sunday school in the “Dog Eye” community and Papa often walked the two miles on Sunday afternoons to teach a class and lead the singing in the little one-room school house where it was held.
Once in a while, usually during summer vacation, we spent a Saturday night at Grandpa Dennis’ in Elevation Township, seven miles distant. We always left for Grandpa's just before dark, after Papa had done a full-day's work on the farm. I loved those summernight rides, watching the stars come out, and the moon sail the sky, always keeping pace with us as we jogged along in the old open surrey. I pondered over this mystery along with the other mysteries of the night.
We would arrive at Grandpa's unexpectedly after Step-grandma
Martha (Grandpa's third wife) had washed the supper dishes and was resting barefoot on the porch from her day's toil. It is little wonder that she was disgruntled over having to turn in and cook supper for the six of us and get beds ready to sleep us. Mama would demur, of course, over these unexpected visits but Papa was sure of a welcome for his family at “Pap's,” as he was sure of a welcome everywhere, regardless of the circumstances.
At any rate, hiding her disgruntlement as best she could, Grandma Martha would very soon have the little woodstove in the kitchen red hot and a big iron pan of thickly sliced ham frying, while Mama ground the freshly “parched” coffee and set the table. Those late suppers of juicy ham with red gravy and Grandma Martha's thin griddle-cakes were an experience of gustatory delight that has lingered with me through the years. Papa and Grandpa would sit on the porch talking during supper preparations and afterwards till around midnight.
The next morning we would drive over to Aunt Mary's, a distance of only two or three miles from Grandpa's. Aunt Mary was Papa's older sister. She had a sweet, gentle nature and bore the look of one who had suffered much and long ago resigned herself to the inevitable. I think she must have been more saint than human. She had to be to endure her hard life. All of her married life had been one of toil, sacrifice and trouble. But she still had a merry laugh and a keen sense of humor.
It didn't matter about arriving unexpectedly at Aunt Mary's. It required such quantities of food for her big family and the pack of bird dogs Uncle Rufe and the boys kept for hunting that six more mouths to feed made little difference. Besides, Aunt Mary was used to all kinds of emergencies and she idolized “Brother Jimmy” and his family.
Sometimes as we drove up we would see Aunt Mary out by the well dressing a couple of chickens for dinner. If it chanced to be winter, her round little body — head and all — would be bundled up to protect her from the cold.
The old house was drafty and there was a constant opening and closing of doors, letting in the cold outside air and the barking of dogs.
Uncle Rufe was strongly addicted to the bottle and went on frequent “sprees.” His face had a raw red look and a strong smell of whiskey was always with him. However, he was not a bad sort
when he was sober. He habitually talked in a quarrelsome, complaining tone, though he was really good-natured so long as nothing came between him and the bottle. There was nothing stingy about him. He liked big roaring fires and a table laden with good food. He joked with us children, teased Sissy, who was getting to be quite pretty, about her beaux, and was always gentle with the baby — whichever one of us it happened to be — as he was with all small, helpless things.
“Oakie,” he would yell if we arrived on a cold day, “you and Bookie cut some more literd and bring in a turn o’ wood. An’, Press, shut up them yapping dogs — so damn much noise I can't hear myself think. Here, you little ’uns slip up closer and warm your feet.” With an oath he would hurl another lightwood knot into the leaping flames and soon we would all be moving our chairs far back into the room.
“Oscar, did you feed them mules? Press, you and Willie look after Jimmy's horse. Give him plenty of corn and fodder and water him good too.”
When the barking of the dogs had abated and the fire was roaring to his satisfaction, he would draw a plug of tobacco from his britches pocket, offer Papa a chew and bite off a big hunk himself.
We sat down to a long table groaning with food. Unless Uncle Rufe saw the big dish of chicken stew in front of his plate the second Papa finished the blessing, he would yell: “Mary, for Gawd's sake, bring on the chicken works. If you're gonna wait on the table, for Gawd's sake, wait upon it!” Aunt Mary's sturdy little body kept the path hot between kitchen and dining room, replenishing the fast-diminishing food during almost the entire meal.
Uncle Rufe ate gluttonously and expected everybody else to do the same. An hour or two after dinner he would go back to the kitchen, put a heaping spoonful of baking soda in his mouth and wash it down with cold coffee.
In spite of her hard life, Aunt Mary had found time to help organize and build a Baptist church in the community. Her life was full of good deeds and she was greatly beloved. It was a proud day for her when “Brother Jimmy” stood before the crowd assembled in the newly completed little church for its first service. The audience was proud too — not only of their new church, but of the speaker. He was a native son of the community who had gone out
into the world and made good, and, what was more important to them, he had remained one of them.
Some of the Boys usually remained with us during the summer months to “work out” their board and tuition for the coming school year. This extra help on the farm came in especially handy after Papa started raising tobacco. Barning days were great occasions — full of activity, excitement and festivity, especially for the young people of the community. Papa and his “crowd,” which consisted of the Boys and Buddy and Sissy, would go to some neighboring farm on the big day there and the neighbor would reciprocate by bringing his “crowd” to our place on barning day. In addition, extra “hands” would be recruited for miles around to assist with the cropping, handing, and tying.
At noon work would cease for an hour for the big midday feast prepared for the occasion. Mama had been up since dawn baking stacks of fruit pies and great crusty pones of corn bread, and boiling quantities of vegetables with ham bones. A pot of chicken stew had simmered down to the right degree of goodness and a cooler of fresh buttermilk had been let down in the well early that morning. After dinner Papa and the other men napped on towsacks spread under the oaks and elms, while the young people gathered round the organ or piano for singing or laughed, chatted and giggled on the front porch till time to go back to work.
Whatever season of year, the best time of all was the close of day when Papa, relaxed from the day's toil, told us wonderful witch and ghost tales and stories of his boyhood. He was a marvelous storyteller for he had a vivid imagination, a strong sense of the dramatic and an almost uncanny memory for details. Sometimes he entertained us with rollicking songs he remembered from boyhood. With the two youngest on his knees and the others gathered close, he would hold us spellbound with his songs and tales.
Mama enjoyed these times as much as we did. In cold weather when we sat indoors, by a great oak fire, she would settle down with her darning and mending, and glancing up from her work from time to time she would have a look of supreme happiness on her gentle face. There had been a time when she joined in the merry laughter and singing, supplying the alto for Papa's gusty baritone. But her health was beginning to break now and she
looked tired and worn. Instead of taking part in the merriment, she looked on and smiled tenderly (and sadly, I recall now) at those she loved supremely — content in the knowledge that we were happy; and so for her, too, I think life at those times seemed abundant and good.
With all of its ups and downs, life at the old Ivey Place was a wonderful life. Looking back, those six years now seem the most significant, the most abundant of my entire life. For they were the fledgling, the untried years, budding with hope and promise — the green years. We had little of worldly possessions but we were rich in love and security; and life — golden with opportunity and adventure — stretched endlessly ahead for us.9 ◀ Uncle Jeems and the Georgia Watermelon
Of all Papa's stories we liked best the one about Uncle Jeems and the Georgia Watermelon. (According to the seed catalogue, the full name of this melon is “Georgia Rattlesnake.”) I believe it was a favorite with Papa too, for he never tired of telling it.
Uncle Jeems belonged to his boyhood — to that dimensionless well of memories into which he could dip at will and bring forth amazing characters and events for his listeners’ delight. With his keen sense of the dramatic he could weave magic into any event, as he went along.
This uncle, the “queer one” of Grandpa's numerous brothers, after much drifting about, finally came to live on Grandpa's farm in Elevation Township, when Papa was a little shaver eight or nine years old. A strange, silent, lonely figure, Uncle Jeems was regarded as slightly “teched” by the older people in the community. Frequently he would mysteriously disappear for days at a time, suddenly returning in the early hours before dawn. His only explanation of these absences, when questioned, was “Been off.”
It fell to Papa's lot to sleep with this unpredictable uncle in a little shed-room off the back porch. One night in mid-July the boy was awakened by a persistent shaking of his little sleep-drugged body and a commanding “Get up!” In the moonlight he could see Uncle Jeems partly dressed in “galluses and breeches.” Too sleepy to be fully aware of what he was doing, he obeyed and followed him out into the night.
On the man led through a field of tall corn that sloped down to a watermelon patch next to the woods — the boy pattering along behind in his little nightshirt. His sturdy short legs were half-running in his effort to keep up with the long strides of the man.
Suddenly he began to have forebodings of danger. What did this mean? Where was this strange uncle taking him at this hour? The lonesome cry of a whippoorwill broke the silence of the night and from far off came the eerie, ill-omened call of a hoot-owl.
When he noticed that the boy was beginning to slow his pace the man halted and commanded him to “Step lively!” They reached the bottom of the slope next to the woods and again he halted. It was evident they had reached their destination. From his hip pocket the man drew out a murderous-looking knife with a long blade. He tested its sharpness by running his thumb over its keen edge.
The boy stood paralyzed with fear. His heart was thumping wildly as he was ordered to “Come closer!” But he was rooted to the spot. He could not have moved if his life had depended on it.
Now the man was squatting, bending over something. What was he doing with that long-bladed knife? Suddenly he stood up and turned toward the boy.
At this point in the story Papa paused for effect, while we breathlessly awaited the little boy's doom. Then in a hoarse dramatic stage whisper:
“And what do you think that man was holding in his hands?” Then after another well-timed pause: “The great bleeding heart of a big Georgia watermelon!”
For a few moments longer we were still in the moon-drenched field with the little boy and the strange man with the murderous knife. When we finally came back to reality we bombarded Papa with questions. Of course, the little boy had his share of that “great bleeding heart” of melon. That was taken for granted even before we were told. But what did sharp-tongued, Step-Grandma Joanna say and do when she found the little boy's juice-stained nightshirt next morning? To this and to all other questions we had to supply our own answers.
Papa was too good a storyteller to add an anticlimax. Besides, it was time to study our next day's lessons. And nothing was ever allowed to stand in the way of education — not when Papa was around!
10 ◀ Come Hell or High Water
It was on a Saturday afternoon in August, soon after the midday meal. Papa had hitched Prince to the old surrey and was ready to start out to keep a “speaking” appointment somewhere in the county.
There had been a long spell of heavy rains that had badly damaged the crops and made deep ruts in the roads for miles around. Creeks and rivers were swollen, so that in some places bridges were under water or had been washed away.
Mama had been standing close by while Papa was hitching up, an anxious look on her face.
“Oh, Jimmy, do be careful,” she pleaded.
“Now, Ida, don't worry. I'll be back before dark,” Papa assured her, feeling in his vest pocket to make sure the little black notebook was there. The little black book contained the notes for the speech he was to make. He always looked over the notes on the way to his destination.
For the first mile or two of the trip everything went well, in spite of the washed-out roads. At times the wheels of the surrey would sink down to the hub in a deep rut or mudhole. But Prince was used to taking his master over rough roads, and he always came through. The road had gotten a little smoother and Papa had let Prince slow down to a walk so he could look over his notes and jot down new ones he'd been thinking up since he started.
Suddenly he was jolted out of his concentration when Prince stopped stock-still, then backed up and made a frightened, whinnying noise. In a flash Papa saw the reason for it. A few yards before him there loomed a great sea of black water, foaming and spreading farther and farther out into the road, like some angry beast reaching out to destroy them.
Papa had been over this route many times in his travels over the county, so he knew exactly where he was and what had happened. This was Black Creek. It had overflowed its banks, washed away the bridge, and now was spilling out into the countryside, so that the road was already flooded for a hundred yards or so and travel was impossible. Nearer and nearer came the angry sea of water and Prince, with head lifted and nostrils distended, kept backing away and making those frightened, whinnying sounds.
Steadily Prince swam through the black, foaming water.
Papa was already out of the buggy now, looking the situation over and considering what to do next. Suddenly he knew what he would do.
Backing up a safe distance from the water, he drove into a thinly wooded stretch beside the road and started unhitching. This done, he led Prince back to the edge of the water. Again Prince backed away. Papa tried to calm him by talking to him and rubbing and patting him on the back. Then quick as a flash he had his clothes off and had rolled them into a tight bundle.
Suddenly it was as if the horse understood and was ready for what he must do. He had been on the race track in his young, virile days and had scored many a victory. This was another victory to be won — a victory over that great angry monster blocking their way and threatening to destroy them.
Lifting his head high, he stepped toward the water, as Papa mounted his back and took hold of the bridle, and then he began wading in. Higher and higher the water came up about his legs and body till he could no longer walk. Then he made ready to swim.
And Papa, with the bundle of clothes held high above his head in one hand and the bridle in the other, settled himself more firmly on the horse's back and made ready, too.
Steadily Prince swam through the black, foaming water till he reached the other side. When they were safely across, Papa slapped the horse on the back and let out a shout of victory.
“We made it, old boy! We made it!”
Whether or not Prince understood the words, he must have understood their meaning for he tossed his head vigorously a time or two and gave a responding neigh of triumph.
And now Papa knew that he would barely have time to make it to the place where he was to speak. The crowd would be waiting — were even then already beginning to assemble. Drying himself as best he could with his handkerchief and with the help of the hot August sun, he put on his clothes, again mounted Prince, and they were off.
As for Prince, instead of being winded from swimming the stream, he seemed miraculously rejuvenated. Once again he was the old race horse, young and virile, with the lure and feel of victory singing in his blood. Papa had difficulty holding on till they reached their destination.
It was said by those present that Papa made the greatest speech of his whole life on that occasion.
Mama was at the gate waiting when he drove up at dusk. The anxious look had not left her face all afternoon. For an hour now she had been watching the lane leading to the house. As always, when she caught sight of Prince and the old familiar surrey turning into the lane, her face lighted up and shone as if all heaven had suddenly opened before her. Now she just stood waiting for Papa to step down from the buggy and then, unable to speak, she ran into his arms.
“Oh, Jimmy!” was all she could finally say.
Later we learned that Mama had felt a strong presentiment of danger when Papa drove off after dinner and that not long after he left the feeling had grown so strong that she knew he was in trouble. So the story he told of what actually happened was no surprise to her. At the supper table, however, she looked very proud as she said:
“But, Jimmy, I'm glad you did go!”
We children were deeply impressed and excited by Papa's dramatic account of the incident and kept asking questions. I think he enjoyed retelling it as much as we enjoyed hearing it for now that it was over, he appreciated the real drama of the occasion. Suddenly he grew quiet and thoughtful.
“Ida,” he said moments later, “sometimes I can't help thinking that Prince has a soul; and that there must be a place in Heaven for faithful animals as well as people.”
“Yes, Jimmy,” mused Mama, “I think you're right — there must be.”
As for us children we never for one moment doubted it; for Heaven without Prince would have been unthinkable.11 ◀ The Blue Hen's Chickens
To be called “one of the blue hen's chickens” was to be paid just about the highest compliment in Papa's vocabulary. If he had been away from home and Mama told him we had been “real smart” while he was gone, he would beam at us and say, “Why sure — they're the blue hen's chickens!” If we studied hard at home and had good lessons next day, we were the blue hen's chickens. If one of us
showed unusual will power and determination under trying circumstances, that was sure proof that we were the blue hen's chickens.
The legend of the blue hen's chickens came about in this way. In a brood of chicks hatched one spring there was a pullet different from all the rest. Her feathers, as she grew, showed an unusual bluish tint. Not just blue-black but decidedly bluish. However, that was only one of the ways she was different. From the day she was old enough to scratch for her living she went about it as though she knew she had been born into a hard, tough old world and was going to have to fend for herself. While the rest of the brood followed around after the mother hen or came running when she called them to feast on a worm or other choice morsel, the little blue chick was off scratching for herself and usually either didn't hear or didn't heed the call. As she grew older and reached the laying stage, she proved to be the best layer in the barnyard. Her eggs were small, for she herself was small. But she did her best and more than atoned for size by the numbers she produced. Buddy, Sissy and I clamored for the “little blue hen's eggs.” Somehow they seemed sort of special. For by this time she was known to all the family as the little blue hen.
And how she could fight when the need arose! In fact she proved to be the best fighter in that spring's crop of chickens, and could hold her own with the pullets almost twice her size.
When the little blue hen decided it was time to start a family she picked a nest away from the house hidden in a clump of underbrush down at the edge of the woods. Buddy found it one day when he went to the woods to cut some saplings for “tom walkers.” Then one day she came strutting up to the house importantly, followed by twelve little chicks. Every egg had hatched!
Never was there a prouder mama. Or one who protected her brood more fiercely. We had to stay at a safe distance even when feeding them. She would ruffle out her blue feathers like a peacock ready for war, if she thought we were getting too close.
As they grew older most of her brood had the same blue feathers and proved to have the same qualities of fight and integrity that their mother possessed. And so they came to be known as “the blue hen's chickens.”
In the years to come the legend of the blue hen's chickens came to have great significance in our lives — a significance out of all proportion to its simple origin. To be one of the blue hen's chickens
was really something to live up to. It meant sticking to a job until it was finished. It meant swallowing Bromo-Quinine tablets when we had a cold (how I hated those little gray tablets! — I can still taste them as I write this) and vile castor oil — the genuine stuff in those days and no orange juice or root beer to help kill the taste. It meant showing will power and courage under all sorts of circumstances. The ruse worked. Papa had a marvelous understanding of child psychology and made use of it.
One time when I was about seven years old I had an aching, throbbing tooth. There was no such thing then as oil of cloves or such, to give even temporary relief. When a tooth ached there were only two things to do — endure it or have it yanked out.
Now it so happened that a young man in the county had just hung out his shingle to practice dentistry in Dickson — a Mr. Claude Jarvis, Dickson's first dentist. His office was in two upstairs rooms over Mr. Tim Jarvis’ dry goods store. Up to that time the three local M.D.’s had had to serve as dentists as well as general practitioners. If a tooth just had to be pulled, you sat down in a hard straight chair and endured the agony without benefit of anesthesia. Their only dental equipment was a pair of forceps which we called “pullikens” (and with good reason, since they usually pulled you straight up out of your chair).
All week end my tooth had ached and throbbed until it seemed almost unbearable. So I resolved that on Monday I would go to Dr. Jarvis and have it pulled. It was not aching Monday when I went to school, but my agonizing experience during the week end made me determined to go through with it. So at “dinner,” as we called our hour lunch period, I gathered together three or four of my little pig-tailed friends to go along for moral support. It was “a real jaw tooth,” I explained importantly on the way.
Dr. Jarvis was a kind, gentle, soft-spoken young man, pleasant-looking and obviously fond of children. After examining the tooth he said:
“Yes, that's a bad tooth, Katie, and it ought to come out.”
“Will it hurt bad for it to be pulled out, Doctor?” I asked.
“Well now, it may hurt some, but I can fix it so it won't hurt too bad, I think,” he said. I'm glad now that he didn't lie to me. Otherwise my confidence in adults might have been completely shattered then and there.
When Dr. Jarvis began getting things ready, I began to weaken
on the proposition. I had a premonition that it was going to hurt like the mischief, and I became more and more terrified. All of those unfamiliar gadgets looked like instruments of torture — even the raised comfortable chair I was sitting in. So I began crying uncontrollably — scared out of my wits, and sobbed that I didn't believe I'd have it pulled that day.
Dr. Jarvis was kind and patient — even though it was his usual lunch hour — and he just waited. I started to walk out of the room and join my sympathizing friends waiting just outside the door (there was no reception room that I recall). But some kind of fierce pride made me go back and just stand sobbing. Finally I crawled back up into the chair without a word — still sobbing but determined.
Dr. Jarvis administered the cocaine and talked to me about school, trying to divert my mind. But it was just a shell of a tooth, and wedged in so tight that it took a lot of pulling. So it did hurt like everything, even though Dr. Jarvis was as gentle as possible and tried his best not to hurt. When it was over I was still crying. It seemed I could never stop.
“Now, you've been a brave little girl and that old tooth won't ever hurt any more,” he said.
“Charge it to Papa,” I sobbed and walked out of the room to join my admiring moral supporters.
When Sissy saw us coming back from town she left her game of jump-rope with the big girls and ran to meet us. From my confederates she learned the full details of my heroism and later told Papa all about it.
That night after Papa and Mama had gone to bed and thought we were sound asleep, I overheard Papa relating it to Mama.
“That little Katie's got a lot of will power,” he concluded proudly. Of course, Mama just as proudly agreed with him.
Next morning at the breakfast table, with a knowing twinkle in his eye, Papa beamed at me over his third cup of coffee and paid me that highest tribute:
“I'm proud of you, honey. You're one of the blue hen's chickens!” My cup of joy was full and overflowing.
12 ◀ The Jinxed One
In a family of any size there is apt to be one unfortunate offspring who seems to get into more predicaments, have more accidents and close calls than the others, and who seems to be always saying and doing the wrong things at the wrong place and time. In our family I was that child.
There was the time I jumped into a bed of hot ashes where the hired man had burned a pile of brush heap in a gully not far from the house the night before.
It was the day of the annual Sunday-school picnic at Raynor's Pond and Buddy and Sissy and I had waked up in high glee that June morning. Papa had sent us to plant peas in a little patch of corn down in the apple orchard before time for the picnic. In our glow of anticipation we didn't mind the half-hour's work. It was all part of the day's fun, and we raced to finish before time to get ready.
Buddy made the holes between the hills of corn with a hoe, I dropped the peas in each hole, and Sissy covered the peas with another hoe. We had just finished and were hurrying to the house. Swinging my little tin bucket of the left-over peas in my hand, I was skipping along, a little ahead of Buddy and Sissy, when I spied the bed of ashes in the gully. The ashes looked soft and fluffy like down. I stopped to look at them.
“Whee,” said Sissy coming up, “wouldn't they feel good squishing between our toes!”
Of course, Sissy was only fooling, but no sooner were the words out of her mouth than into the middle of the deep hot bed I jumped! My resulting agony was unbearable. I jumped and danced about screaming, not able to get out, but still holding on to my little bucket of peas. Finally I did somehow manage to get out. But needless to say, there was no picnic for us that day. My suffering was intense for days; and for weeks afterwards my inflamed, blistered feet were so crippled that there was no running and jumping, and very little play of any kind.
Accidents of a more or less minor nature were always happening wherever I was. But the odd thing about it was that they usually happened to me. Sometimes, they were of a major nature like the hot ashes episode.
There was the time when I drank the bluestone water. I don't recall just what the bluestone water was to be used for but, as far as I recall, it was used to soak cotton seed before planting. Anyway,
Papa had a bucket of the solution out on the back porch shelf one night.
It was a balmy night in early spring, just after supper, and the good smell of fried sausage and pancakes was still in the air. Old Uncle Bob McNeill was eating in the kitchen and I was standing by, watching his strong white teeth chomp into his collards and sausage and backbone, and asking questions. Uncle Bob lived alone in a one-room log cabin up in the cotton fields back of the house. He dug ditches and cleared the new ground for planting after we moved to the Ivey Place. He was enormous in size and height, wore high-top boots and was always good-natured and ready to talk.
“Uncle Bob,” I asked, as he got up from his chair and reached high over his head to pull off a boll of red pepper from the string hanging from the ceiling, “won't that red pepper burn up your insides?”
“Lan’ sakes, no, child. Effen it had, I'd a-been plum burnt up long time ergo. Just gimme some collards and backbone er turnips and hog jowl, wid a boll o’ dis yere red hot pepper an’ some corn pone er sweet tater, and I'se happy. Tones up de innards,” he said, digging his teeth into the juicy depths of a big piece of backbone.
“Long erbout dis time o’ de year,” he continued, “yer innards gits kind o’ lazy and folks say dey's got spring fever; an’ dey wants ter sorter lay down on’ de job. Now dis yere red pepper,” he explained, chopping the big red boll into small pieces with his knife and mixing it with his collards, “does to yer innards jest what a little keen peach limb does to a lazy young ’un when his ma wants him ter run to de wood pile and git ’er a turn a stove-wood rat quick. Yas-sir,” he chuckled “it sho do! It beats any sulphur an’ lasses an’ such truck, a whole mile.”
With that he took a long drink of buttermilk and smacked his lips with satisfaction.
That reminded me how thirsty I was after my sausage and gravy and pancakes. I ran out on the porch to get a drink of water, just as Papa entered the kitchen to speak to Uncle Bob.
There were two long shelves — one on each side of the narrow porch, that connected the kitchen and dining room with the rest of the house. Each shelf held a wooden bucket for drinking water and a tin wash basin. On the wall over each bucket hung a tin dipper. It was too dark for me to see that the bucket from which I took a drink was different from the buckets which held the drinking water. One big thirsty swallow made me cry out.
“Papa, this water tastes funny!”
In a flash Papa knew what had happened. With a bound he was on the porch which he had left only an instant before.
“Lord, honey — you drank the bluestone water! How much did you drink?”
“Just one big swallow, Papa. I didn't drink any more.”
Even now — as I recall that night, I can still taste that swallow, brackish, peculiar, sickening.
Mama was already in the kitchen doorway, crying and wringing her hands.
“Oh, Lord have mercy! Jimmy, she's poisoned — she's poisoned! Where was the bucket?”
“Right here on the shelf where I'd been mixing it — but I was gone only a few seconds,” Papa explained contritely. He was plenty scared and remorseful but there was no time for self-recrimination.
“Ida, I'll run for Doctor Mason. You fix a pitcher of strong warm salt water and keep her drinking it. We've got to get the stuff out of her stomach quick.” And with that Papa was off for the doctor. There was no time to get Prince out of the stable. Papa could run like lightning and we learned later that he had run every step of the mile to town and back.
Mama ran to fix the salt water, still crying and imploring: “Lord have mercy!”
In a few minutes I was hanging over the edge of the porch, feeling that my very insides were coming up. You'd have thought I had drunk a quart of the bluestone water, instead of a swallow, for everything that came up had that peculiar brackish taste.
Mama had set a lighted kerosene lamp on one of the shelves and she sat in a chair, holding my head with one hand, as I hung over the porch, and administering the salt water with the other. As soon as there was a moment's let-up from retching, Mama put the pitcher to my lips again.
“Drink it, honey, drink it,” she begged, when I felt I could stand no more.
“Mama, I just can't,” I finally rebelled.
“Just a little more, honey — just a little more,” she pleaded. I took another swallow and leaned over the edge again — holding to the post for support. By now I was feeling pretty weak.
Throughout all this excitement Uncle Bob had gone on calmly eating his collards and red pepper and backbone, occasionally letting out a low, amused chuckle, as though he thought all this was much
ado about nothing. The old Negro had weathered too many storms in his sixty-odd years to fear the world was coming to an end because of a swallow of bluestone water.
“Uncle Bob, do you ’spose there's anything else I can do before the doctor gets here?” Mama asked.
“Hm-m wall now, ma'am, I'd stop worrin’ effen I was you. ’Pears to me lak all dat stuff's boun’ ter be outta dat chile's stummick by now. Co'se I has knowed folks ter swaller ’bout a spoon o’ hog lard fer pison. ’Twon't do no harm, nohow,” he concluded philosophically.
Anxious to leave no stone unturned, Mama ran to the lard stand and brought back a spoonful.
“No, Mama! No!” I yelled, leaning over the edge and retching again at the idea. “Well, just one more swallow of salt water then, honey,” and she raised the pitcher again to my lips.
“Mama, I can't — I just can't,” I gasped.
But just then Papa ran up out of breath and saved the situation for me.
“You needn't give her any more, Ida,” he panted. “It's all right. Doctor Mason said she'd be all right,” he said between pants, “just to get it all out of her stomach.”
“It's all out, Papa,” I managed to gasp. Though for the next hour or two I had good reason to doubt it.
“Doctor Mason says there's nothing more to do. ‘Just put her to bed and keep her quiet,’ he said, ‘and she'll be all right in a day or two.’ ”
“Oh, Jimmy!” And Mama choked up and cried a little more — this time for joy and relief from strain.
“Katie, darling, Papa says you're going to be all right,” she said.
Of this, though, I felt extremely doubtful, as I leaned over the porch and started all over again. After this onslaught I had a few minutes’ respite. So Papa lifted me in his arms and put me to bed in his and Mama's room. With Mama sitting on the bed by me, I felt good and secure once more for a few minutes. I recall the good homey smell of her gingham apron — a blend of comforting reassuring kitchen smells. The world seemed settling back into place again and I was about to doze off, when I started all over again.
But all bad things finally come to an end. So mercifully around
ten o'clock, completely exhausted, I dropped off into a long deep sleep from which I did not waken till long after Papa and Buddy and Sissy had left for school next morning, and in two or three days I was as good as new.13 ◀ The Smokehouse Era
Papa had long ago acquired quite a reputation as a public speaker. So he was in great demand for addresses at school commencement exercises, for Sunday-school rallies or conventions and all-day church meetings with picnic dinners served on the grounds. He seemed to have information on every subject under the sun.
His thirst for knowledge was insatiable and he had an almost uncannily retentive quality of mind. After a hard day's work at school and on the farm after school hours, he would study and read far into the night and early morning hours when the rest of the world was sleeping.
And so he could make a speech on practically any subject on short notice. Sometimes he wrote out his speech the night before the occasion. Sitting in a low straight chair at his usual place by the big old square study table, around which all of us were gathered, he would demand absolute quiet until he finished. His brows knit in deep concentration, he would work steadily for about an hour. During this period his face was an interesting study, for it registered every emotion. In fact, this was always true whether he was talking, studying, reading, or writing. And so if a smile played around his sensitive mouth or if he broke into a sudden haw-haw of laughter, we knew he was using one of his rich anecdotes or jokes in that speech. After finishing he would rehearse his speech to Mama and us children. Of course, we children were too young to understand much of it but we knew enough to sit at respectful attention, listen intently and at least look as if we understood every word of it. And in Mama, of course, he always had a satisfactory audience. She gave him just the kind of stimulation and appreciation that he needed.
Sometimes he prepared his speech on his way to the meeting-place. He would slow Prince down to a walk while he made notes in a little black notebook which he carried in his vest pocket. Occasionally he would take Sissy and me with him on these trips.
Seated on the back seat of the old surrey, we wanted to chatter. But Papa's injunction: “Be quiet, Babe, I'm making up my speech” would stop our flow of talk. Then we would try whispering but that bothered him as much as the talking. Shortly before we reached the place he would put the little black notebook back in his vest pocket, then turn around to inspect us critically. Both of us had naturally curly hair and wore it in curls parted in the middle. Always he would put our curls back of our ears. “So people can see your face,” he would say. Papa was a great believer in “an open face.” He thought we had open faces and he didn't want any part of them hidden by our curls. Of course, we were not interested in having open faces — we wanted to look pretty. So when Papa's back was turned we put our curls back in place.
When Mama could go he liked to take his whole family along, especially if he had to be gone overnight. He was very proud of his family. We would leave in the middle or late afternoon to spend the night in some friend's or “cousin's” home near the place he was to make his speech next day, sometimes not arriving till long after dark. His friends were legion and he claimed kin to the fifth or sixth generation. Consequently, practically everybody in the county was either friend or cousin. How they felt about the entire family descending on them unexpectedly for a meal, and occasionally to spend the night, I wonder now. But Papa was confident of a warm welcome for his family as well as himself, and as I recall, the reception we always received fully justified his faith — at least to all outward appearances.
Sometimes we would leave in the morning if his speech was to be made before noon. On the way Mama would say:
“Jimmy, where are we going to eat dinner?”
“I don't know yet,” Papa would reply, “but we'll get plenty of invitations.”
Mama was not so sure about that.
“But, Jimmy,” Mama would inquire anxiously, “what if we don't?” Mama was thinking of the three or four India-rubber stomachs on the back seat and the one on her lap — with nothing but the rapidly diminishing supply of sugar teacakes brought along to stave off starvation.
“Oh, we'll get plenty of invitations,” Papa would assure her. “Don't you worry about that for a minute. You'll see!” and sure enough we did.
More often he would go alone to his speaking engagements. He would come in from the field in the middle of the afternoon on a scorching summer day — his clothes drenched with sweat — after doing the work of two men; rush into the house with:
“Ida, where's my shirt?”
Mama would come running from whatever she was doing and lay out his clothes. The shirt was white, the front made of small pleats or tucks, which Mama had starched stiff and ironed slick with flatirons heated in an open fireplace. The high separate collar had been laundered stiff as a board. Sometimes he wore a celluloid collar. A white piqué vest was kept clean, starched and ironed as part of Papa's dress-up, speech-making outfit. In summer he sometimes wore a white or tan linen suit also painstakingly laundered by Mama. Last but not least in importance for his trip was his watch and chain with fob (his orator's medal won while at the university) and the little black notebook for his vest pocket. In an incredibly short time he was ready to hitch Prince to the surrey and take off.
If the appointment was only a few miles away he would return about dusk. Mama would be watching for him and at the first glimpse of Prince and the surrey coming up the old familiar lane she would run out with the baby in her arms to meet him. Every reunion — no matter how short the separation — was as though they had not seen each other for years.
At supper Papa would be full of talk about his day — the anecdotes and jokes he had told in his speech, news he had gathered along the way, unexpected, interesting things that had happened on the trip. Somehow interesting things were always apt to happen wherever Papa was.
And finally something like this would come out — (Mama had no doubt been more or less expecting it):
“Well, Ida, it looks like we'll have more Boys than ever when school opens.
“Why, Jimmy, you can't mean — Why, Jimmy, where will we put them? Are all the others coming back? There's just not any room to put up one other bed!” And she would stop, too bewildered to go on, a look of despair on her face. At last: “Who else is coming?”
“Well, Jim Jones wants his oldest boy to come and Luther Thomas and Preston O'Neil asked if we couldn't keep them. And,
oh yes,” as if he'd just remembered, “Neil Stancil said he wanted to come if he could be spared at home — His pa's been suffering with rheumatism and Neil's needed to help house the crop.”
“But, Jimmy,” Mama would helplessly protest in a distressed voice, “You know we can't have four more Boys! What will we do with them? We just can't!”
“Now, Ida, just don't worry. We'll find some place to put ’em,” Papa would say confidently.
And, strange to say, they always did — simply a matter of discovering a few more feet of space here and there where another bed could be wedged in or closing up a porch, and transforming it into a bedroom.
After one of his speaking engagements, when the house was already bursting at the seams with Boys, Papa was rather quiet at the supper table — a most unusual occurrence. Mealtime was a lively time with us. We did not have to observe the prevailing code of discipline: “Children should be seen and not heard.” We asked questions freely, ventured ideas freely, and Papa explained and elaborated patiently and gladly — proud of our interest in the subject at hand.
In fact, mealtime was also instruction time for us and one of the few times when Papa relaxed. He would talk of world happenings of the time — things of both national and international importance: That brilliant young Italian Marconi who had invented wireless telegraphy, the successful flight of the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk, the work of that Negro educator, Booker T. Washington — a biography of that noble pioneer was in the old green bookcase on a shelf alongside Darwin's and Spencer's Theories of Evolution. And always Papa would be making predictions for the future. How some day “great ships would be in the air, flying over our own home, just as easily as the birds.” They would carry great loads of people and of freight. They would be ready if war should come between the continents. Some day in the not-far-distant future we would be able not only to send messages by wireless across the ocean but to converse with people in other continents. Often the talk would be of things nearer home: That up-and-coming young fellow Clarence Poe, editor of the Progressive Farmer, and how methods of farming would be revolutionized by machinery. And always, of course, if he had just returned from a trip, he would be wound up with choice bits of news about that trip.
But on this particular night he was strangely quiet and preoccupied. Mama hurrying back and forth between kitchen and dining room, then finally settling down to feed the baby, who had grown loudly impatient over the delay, was keenly aware of his abstraction and lack of interest in food.
“Jimmy, you're not eating,” she observed anxiously.
“Uh, what? What did you say, Ida?”
“You're not sick, are you, Jimmy?”
“Why no, Ida, of course not. I'm all right — I was just thinking — Well, I might as well tell you, Ida. We've got four more Boys coming — And we've got to find a place to put ’em.”
Poor Mama! She'd had many shocks during her life with Papa — things that seemed impossible of solution, being sprung on her. She should have been shock-proof by this time; immune to any surprise. But this was too much. She could only gasp in a bewildered way:
“Why, Jimmy!” And then stop and stare at Papa dazedly.
“Why, Jimmy,” she ept repeating helplessly, “you can't mean that. There's not an inch of space left where another bed could be put. No, Jimmy, you can't mean that!”
“Well, Ida,” Papa said, stopping eating altogether and taking a pull at the right corner of his mustache — a habit when he was deep in thought, “I've already figured it out.”
Mama had sat motionless all this time still looking helpless and bewildered, waiting for the blow to fall.
“We could,” announced Papa matter-of-factly, “clean out the smokehouse, build a stove flue, and cook and eat in there. There's a good-sized window for light and ventilation, you know, and plenty of room. Then we could put up beds and heaters in the dining room and kitchen.”
Mama knew it was useless to protest. When Papa made up his mind about a thing, it was as good as done. Even if it would have done any good to object, she could not bear to see Papa unhappy. He was not only her lord and master, he was her beloved — hers to follow to the ends of the earth if necessary. His will was her law.
And so the dining room, a narrow, oblong room separated from the rest of the house by the back porch, was the next day converted into a bedroom while we ate on the porch. In the meantime a stove flue was being added to the smokehouse only a few feet away and the unceiled room scrubbed, scalded and scoured from beam to beam and rafter to rafter as clean as pots of scalding water, lye
and Gold Dust (“Let the Gold-dust Twins Do the Work”) could make it. Soon the kitchen which was opposite the dining room and separated from it by the width of the porch, was stripped of stove, safe, table, and cooking utensils and also transformed into a bedroom. And a week later the Boys had arrived and were gulping down Mama's buttermilk biscuits, scalding coffee, great platters of fried-crisp streak o’ lean meat and black molasses as casually and happily as though eating in a smokehouse was the most natural thing in the world.
Nancy distinctly recalls two of the Boys who were with us during the smokehouse era. She has a vivid mental picture of the Barton twins, Jonathan and Oliver, eating fish on a Sunday morning. We children always ate at the second table, but Nancy recalls standing by with mouth agape, in amazement that anybody could eat as fast — especially fish — as those two. She thought they must have swallowed bones and all. Little did she think as she watched, that thirteen years later she would marry Oliver, who by then would be an established lawyer in Dickson, and have served two terms in the state senate, as its youngest member.
The Smokehouse Era proved to be not too bad — except for Mama and for Nancy and “Miss Celie.” Miss Celie, who was an old maid, had been living around with various members of her kith and kin and I guess was willing to try anything for a change. Of course she hadn't bargained for such a drastic change. Up to then her life had been entirely uneventful. Suddenly she found herself in a world as swarming with activity as a beehive. In the wintertime, with snow on the ground and the north wind whistling round the house, Mama ran back and forth between the house where I tended the baby, by the big oak open-fire, and the outdoor kitchen. In all kinds of weather, rain and sleet — often with aching limbs but always without complaint. For Miss Celie the arrangement was none too easy for she was no longer young and spry. As for the result of the arrangement on Nancy, well, that belongs to another chapter.
14 ◀ Sissy and the Devil
In those early years following the turn of the century religion was a very vital thing in rural and small-town life — especially in Baptist and Methodist communities. It was a great day of tent revivals when emotions ran high. Traveling evangelists preached hell-fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation from the pulpits so effectively that poor lost sinners followed the sawdust trail to the mourners’ bench in droves, hoping to escape the wrath to come.
By some it was considered that twelve was the “age of responsibility.” From that time on, one was in danger of hell-fire until he repented and made an open confession of his sins.
Sissy had reached the “age of accountability.” So Sissy was keenly aware of her danger of hell-fire and the devil. She knew just how the devil looked too. Uncle Wesley, our Methodist preacher uncle, had left a book at our house, on one of his annual visits, entitled “Mr. World and Miss Church Member.”
Mr. World who was really the devil, dressed up in fine clothes and with fine manners, was constantly tempting Miss Church Member, a beautiful, innocent young woman, with such “vices” as card-playing, dancing, and the theater. When Mr. World was stripped of his fine clothes and fine manners he was a grinning, fiendish-looking monster with horns, tail, and a pitchfork.
Oh, yes! Sissy knew how the devil looked all right. And now he was a threat to her day and night. Especially at night he was lurking in every dark corner. The night and darkness were full of him.
One winter night during the Smokehouse Era Sissy was helping Miss Celie with the dishes after supper. Mama had gone on to the house to put Nora to bed and start her nightly chore of darning, mending and patching. Sissy was drying the last dish.
“Nancy, you can go on to the house and study your books,” said Miss Celie. “I'll put the dishes away and set the table ready for breakfast.”
Now Sissy would have been only too glad to leave the kitchen and go on to the house. But going through the winter darkness all alone to reach the house — that was something else.
“Miss Celie, I'll help you put the dishes away and set the table,” Sissy volunteered.
“No, your ma said for you to hurry on to the house and study your books soon as you dried the dishes. Seems like she said something
about you practicing your music, too. So g'long now — like your ma said.”
Sissy hung back a moment longer, then opened the door and looked out into the inky blackness of the winter night. She closed the door behind her but paused on the kitchen step. She was desperately afraid. It was an ominous night, pitch-dark, with the cold wind howling around the house in demoniac glee and moaning through the skeleton branches of the huge oaks and elms in the front yard. Just the kind of night for the devil to be abroad.
All of a sudden Sissy had a strong conviction that the devil was somewhere out there in the darkness waiting for her. The light from the large kerosene lamp on the big square study table in the Boys’ room on that side of the house gave some little comfort. Through the windows she could see them studiously bent over their history, civil government, or Latin. Inside the house meant security. But would they hear her if she screamed for help? Maybe the devil would gag her mouth so that she couldn't scream!
All sorts of horrible thoughts raced through her head. She had to round the corner of the house to get to the front porch before she could dash into the house and to Mama's and Papa's bedroom — and safety.
At last she decided to make a run for it. She lit out as fast as her two feet could carry her. Then she saw him! Right there at the corner of the house where she had known he would be — waiting for her. There stood the devil — horns, tail, and pitchfork complete. Yes, and that horrible satanic grin, just as she knew he would look!
No scream escaped her. At least she was not conscious of any. All sound froze on her lips. In that horrible moment she knew she was doomed. Her feet were like lead, her whole body seemed paralyzed. Yet somehow she kept running — though afterwards she wondered how — till she had rounded the corner and was up the front steps on the porch. Mercifully she found the doorknob. Then she was in the hall with the door shut behind her! She had known he was behind her, though she'd heard no sound. Now, blessed relief — safety at last! Her heart pounding wildly, she paused at the door before opening it.
She could hear Papa explaining an arithmetic problem to Buddy. Then a question from Katie — how to pronounce a word in her
reading lesson. Then a squeal of glee from Nora, sitting in her high chair at the table, grabbing and scattering papers and books. She could hear Mama moving around, turning down bed covers and getting things fixed for the night before she settled down by the fire to her mending.
Yes, she was safe now — back to all that meant security. But she would not go in quite yet — not till she could still that loud thudding of her heart and appear as usual. What she had just experienced she could tell nobody — for nobody would believe her.
“Just your imagination,” they would say. But she knew she had seen him regardless of what anybody could say. And this was a warning! Yes, she was in danger of hell-fire. She had actually seen the devil. So now she knew she was a lost sinner.
At last she opened the door. Katie looked up from her reading lesson.
“Mama, look at Sissy. She's white as a sheet — she looks like she's seen a ghost.”
Mama paused in her work and looked. She saw that Sissy was white and trembling.
“Why, honey, what's the matter?”
“Nothing, Mama.” And somehow Mama knew that whatever was wrong, Sissy would never tell and that she did not want to be questioned.
Absorbed in his reading, Papa too inquired:
“What's wrong, Babe? Are you sick? Maybe she's taken cold, Ida. Better heat some hog's foot oil to rub on her chest and give her a cold tablet.”
Papa was desperately afraid of chest colds and sore throat — especially since losing two babies from what the doctors diagnosed as “tonsilitis.” But Papa was not afraid of the devil — Sissy was sure of that. If he had come face to face with him, he would have felt equal to licking him any day in the week. He would have walked right up to him and asked his business and any back talk from the devil would have been settled right then and there. Now that she was safe by the fire with the family, Sissy could even smile at the thought of Papa lighting into the devil and licking him.
“Oh, I'm all right, Papa. I was just cold, I reckon.” And Papa, looking up in time to see the fleeting smile on her face, was somewhat reassured. Mama was still anxious, but seeing that Sissy had
stopped trembling and that the color had come back into her face, was at least greatly relieved.
Soon Papa laid aside his book. Something he had been reading reminded him of a funny incident of his boyhood. By the time he had finished telling it Sissy was laughing as big as the rest of the family and seemed her usual self. Papa and Mama exchanged satisfied glances. Papa asked her to play “Variations on the Old Oaken Bucket” on the organ. Sissy loved all the trills and arpeggios in the piece, and though the old cabinet organ had its limitations for anything so fancy, Sissy played it well and Papa and Mama were proud.
It was not until she was almost a grown young woman and home on vacation from college that Sissy told of her encounter with the devil. Through the years the nightmarish experience had been forgotten.
Recalling it all those years later, she could laugh about it and recognize it for what it was — the result of a child's overwrought imagination; a sensitive twelve-year-old's reaction to the religious fervor and emotionalism of a rural, small-town Baptist environment of the time.
Not long ago I asked her to retell the experience. It was still as clear in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.
After Sissy had finished her story, a friend who was present began a nostalgic reminiscence of those days — days when life was so much simpler and less complicated than it is now. She ended with:
“My! Weren't they the good old days, though!”
But Sissy, with that encounter with the devil fresh in her mind, said she didn't think those so-called “good old days” were quite all they were cracked up to be.15 ◀ All about Uncles
Mama's five brothers formed an important part of the background of my early life. All of them except Uncle Eustace, the oldest, had been to school to Papa after he and Mama were married and had been a part of that institution in our home known as “the Boys.” And all of them except Uncle Wesley, who was a Methodist
preacher, were frequent visitors in our home throughout my childhood. All of them were lean and tall and all of them, except Uncle John, were serious, reserved and dignified.
Uncle Eustace, whom Mama called “Buddy,” lived with Grandma and farmed the old homestead, about three and a half miles from us. Sometimes during the winter months he taught a four-month country school and sometimes he served as substitute teacher in Papa's school. Every Saturday afternoon, and always when he chanced to come to town on weekdays, he drove by our house for a visit with Mama, to bring news of Grandma and take back news of us.
In addition to his dignified solemnity, Uncle Eustace was dyspeptic and melancholy. The Dyspepsia, it seems, had been acquired from irregular eating habits when, as a young man, he had served as guard at the World's Fair in Chicago. In our green-plush family album there was a picture of him in his uniform, taken during that time, in which he looked very distinguished and impressive.
By nature, Uncle Eustace was a country gentleman, entirely unfitted for the life and labor of a small farmer, which circumstances had forced on him. He was refined and fastidious in his tastes and had great respect for all things cultural. The drudgery and circumscribed life on a farm seemed not to lessen these qualities one whit. Then, too, he was possessed of a certain dignity which commanded respect. This dignity he maintained at all times and under all circumstances, whether he was plowing old Mollie, the mule, chopping cotton or standing before a classroom of students. Every act was performed in a sort of depressed, dignified sort of manner. When he spoke, it was the same. Every syllable was pronounced distinctly and his speech had a ponderous, weighty quality that made the most trivial incident sound important.
Next in point of age came Uncle Wesley, the Methodist-preacher uncle, whom we saw only when he came on his annual summer vacation.
Uncle Wesley was a romantic figure to us in spite of his extreme dignity and seriousness. He had dark wavy hair and deep blue eyes and was quite handsome in those days. Indeed he must have been considered quite a catch by the young ladies and designing mamas of his parish when he first came to a community. Doubtless
his good looks and unencumbered state stirred false hopes in many a young maiden's heart; for he apparently remained impervious to all the wiles and charms of femininity.
Now this had not always been true. In fact, the chief reason for his seeming a romantic figure to Sissy and me was a blighted romance with a certain beautiful young lady who lived on an old Virginia plantation not far from Richmond. After the date for the wedding had been set, the young lady had jilted him in favor of a middle-aged suitor of means. It seems that her father had finally persuaded her that life as a rich old man's darling was preferable to that of a poor young man's slave— especially the itinerant life of a Methodist preacher's wife — however handsome and charming the object of her real affections happened to be.
Uncle Wesley told Mama all about it on one of his visits. There was a strong bond of affection between them and they had long, confidential talks, which I was supposed not to hear or to be too young to understand or be interested in. But little pitchers have big ears, and this little pitcher must have been blessed with over-sized ears; for I not only drank in every word but remember most of the details clearly to this very day. Later when Grandma came for a week's visit with us, she and Mama compared notes on the subject with sympathetic clucks and sighs and head shaking — and I took all of that in too. So, all in all, I was pretty well versed on the subject.
In spite of their inherent seriousness and solemnity, all of my uncles had a rare sense of humor which would burst forth at times in deep, booming, but dignified haw-haws — and then just as suddenly and unexpectedly they would become serious again. All of them had remarkable memories for places and events and liked to reminisce when they got together. At those times their conversation would start something like this:
“Fifteen years ago tonight —.” Then would follow a picture-clear recital of some event, with additional reminiscences from other uncles who had been present on the occasion — accompanied by one or two sudden, booming haw-haws of laughter.
After his blighted romance Uncle Wesley became more and more preoccupied and solemn. His unexpected flashes of humor burst forth less frequently and he devoted himself more ardently than ever to his calling. He took a course in voice culture and
expression at the Boston School of Expression, in order to be a more effective speaker.
When next he visited us he was using broad “A's” and talked in a still deeper, more resonant voice — which, he explained “must come from the diaphragm instead of the throat.” Sissy and I thought all of this was very elegant. He still kept up his deep breathing exercises, as he had been taught to do at the Boston School. On succeeding visits he complained of insomnia, took long walks for his health, usually accompanied by his umbrella, and became interested in his diet, especially at supper time when he ate light — “just a little bread and butter and preserves, Ida.”
Uncle Dolphus, who came next down the line, was the oddest of the five uncles. He had a pronounced Roman nose and an alien, arrogant look, with his erect bearing, gave him an air of distinction.
We were so used to his unusual mannerisms that we thought little of them, but to a stranger he must have been, to say the least, astonishing. When talking he would fling out his long arms in surprise gestures — which might take an up and down, forward or sidewise direction, or a combination of all three. Nancy recalls him sitting in the very back of Papa's big schoolroom studying history, making gestures as if delivering an oration.
Frequently he sang a meaningless, almost tuneless song: “I used to think I'd like to, love to live in Baltimore,” and ending with a peculiar sound, something like a yodel.
At meal time he would break into a conversation with an explosive:
“Just a tenth of a cup of coffee, Ida.” Then jerk his cup from under the coffeepot while Mama was still pouring, leaving a large, unsightly spot on the table cloth.
Most of his conversation consisted of disagreeing with the opinions of others or taking issue with some simple obvious statement. If things got too dull for him, sometimes he would make a controversial statement himself, just to start an argument.
Uncle Dolphus rarely laughed when others laughed but chuckled often to himself, apparently apropos of nothing that had been said or done. Frequently it was at a time when the occasion demanded solemnity.
Long after we were grown Uncle Eustace told us about Uncle
Dolphus’ haw-haws of laughter, from the open windows of his law office above, when he caught sight of Uncle Eustace driving into town on a hot Saturday afternoon. His office was over the Dickson Drug Store, its front window directly above the hitching post where Uncle Eustace fastened his mule. We could see Uncle Dolphus reared back in his chair, feet propped on his desk, watching and waiting. We could see Uncle Eustace, erect, dignified, melancholy, alighting from his top buggy, and in the same impressive, melancholy fashion, tethering old Mollie to the post.
“Eus-tace!” Uncle Eustace would hear from above, each syllable pronounced distinctly and with a gustatory relish. Then would come the great haw-haws of solitary laughter, as he waited for Uncle Eustace to climb the outside rickety stairs and appear in the doorway.
Uncle John, who was two years younger than Uncle Dolphus, was blond, curly-haired and full of fun and the joy of living. He spent a great many week ends with us, especially during the two winters he taught school at Dog Eye (later to be changed to the more dignified name of “Oak Grove”), about two miles from the Ivey Place where we were living.
When I visit the old homestead, where Nancy now lives, and look out across the field west of the house I travel back through the years and see Uncle John coming through the cotton patch from the railroad track, on a late Friday afternoon. He is bareheaded, his blond curly hair shining in the late afternoon sun, hat or cap in his hand, swinging his long arms from side to side and taking his long, awkward, loping strides.
He always came bringing his warmth and good humor and fun and filling the house with his infectious laughter and good will toward the world. At night Papa helped him with the “hard problems” in arithmetic he was to teach his more advanced scholars the following week. Before they slept, all of those “catchy” problems were solved and safely recorded in the composition book which Uncle John had brought along for the purpose. Saturday nights and Sundays he usually spent with Grandma but returned Sunday night for an early departure for school the next morning.
Uncle Horace, the youngest of the uncles, was, like Uncle Wesley, handsome and considered good matrimonial material. But though he was gallant and paid court to innumerable charming
young ladies during his long years of eligibility, nothing could induce him to exchange his bachelor freedom for their permanent companionship. With the years he has grown in reserve and become more aloof, more solemn and preoccupied and, unlike the other uncles, never relinquished his bachelor freedom.
As was to be expected, Uncle John proved to be the one genuine family man of the five brothers. His blue eyes are still keen and understanding and his hair though faded, is still blond and curly. He walks with the same restless, loping, quick stride. He still likes to ask questions and at times much of his old eagerness and sense of humor burst forth. His grandchildren adore him, just as we did long ago, for he is still a boy at heart and in spite of the years can never grow old.16 ◀ Sundays at Grandma's
About once every two or three months we would spend a Sunday at Grandma Westall's. Somewhere around half-past eight that morning Papa would hitch Prince to the surrey and wait rather impatiently while Mama did a number of last-minute chores. If he had to wait long, he would fuss and fume about how long it took women to get ready to go anywhere.
It was true that Papa was quicker in all of his movements than Mama. But whereas Papa had only to feed up, milk the cow, and get himself ready, Mama had to leave dinner cooked for the boarders, lay out clothes for the entire family, bathe Nora for me to dress and look after, and in the meantime settle arguments between Buddy and Sissy while they did the breakfast dishes, made the beds and churned the milk — reserving only a few minutes to dress herself and put the baby's “things” in the little black satchel. The little black satchel was the standard receptacle for such things as diapers, talcum powder, and tea cakes for an all-day visit.
Mama did not bother to remind Papa of all the things she had to do before leaving — realizing that manlike, he would not understand and that, anyway, fussing and fuming was sometimes only a man's way of letting off steam.
About nine o'clock we would start off down the lane leading from the house, into a short cut through the woods and on into
“Now what do you want me to buy you,” asked Uncle John,
“when I get rich?”
the main road. Papa and Mama, with Nora on her lap, would be on the front seat and Buddy and Sissy and I in the back. Being the littlest, I sat in the middle, to make sure I wouldn't fall out when we came to a bump in the road.
Now that we were at last on our way and Papa had let off sufficient steam, he would be in high good humor — glancing proudly at Mama and Nora from time to time, patiently answering all questions from the back seat and frequently turning round to inspect its occupants proudly too.
We always had a good time on these family trips. Papa was full of eager talk about things he'd been reading, local news and reminiscences of his boyhood and he was always pleased as Punch over any bright rejoinder from one of us children. He loved having his family with him. Since he had no speech to be concentrating on that day, Buddy and Sissy and I could chatter away all we wanted to. Mama would sit straight and proud, an other-world look on her lovely face. She would laugh gently at Papa's reminiscences and sometimes contribute some of her own. I know now that she savored every precious moment of the occasion.
We would turn off from the lane into a cool, shady stretch of woods, still dewy-fresh with morning and with somehow a Sabbath quiet and stillness over everything, broken only by the call of a woodthrush or robin to its mate and the far-off answer from a tree-top in the distance. Prince would amble along leisurely over the bumpy road, while we were scarcely conscious of being jostled about in our seats.
From there we would turn off into the old Brookfield road that led past Mr. Jake Rye's whiskey still, which had not been in operation since Prohibition, and past the Thomas place. I liked to pass the Thomas place because it reminded me of the good chess pie I'd eaten there one Sunday dinner when we all went home with them from church and spent the day. There was a little girl named Mona for me to play with, but the nicest memory was the chess pie. Mama had very little time for fancy cooking — nor could she afford the ingredients on the seven-dollars-a-month board money from the Boys.
Before long we came to John's Creek Primitive Baptist church where Grandpa Westall had been an elder and prominent layman in the church and where Grandma still attended once-a-month services. Grandma had never joined because she didn't “feel worthy” — though she was a veritable saint.
Near the church we turned off onto the Pleasant Hill road, that led to Grandma's and by Great-uncle Isham Westall's, about a quarter of a mile farther up the road from Grandma's.
As we neared Grandma's we could see two of our uncles on the front porch. We knew these would be Uncle Dolphus and Uncle Horace, taking their Sabbath ease. We could hear Uncle Dolphus’ argumentative voice and amused chuckle as we drove up in front and Uncle Horace's half-laughing, but half-irritated rejoinder. Uncle Dolphus was always starting an argument just for the fun of arguing.
Up the road a little piece we could see Uncle Eustace taking his Sunday-morning constitutional, to aid his digestion, in anticipation of a big chicken-stew dinner. Because of his dyspepsia, he had to masticate every bite of food thoroughly, and take long walks. He also chewed pepsin gum to aid his digestion and Sissy and I were always hopeful of getting a stick when we spent the day. Sometimes we succeeded. Uncle Eustace chewed gum and masticated his food as he did everything else, in a depressed, dignified sort of way, as though it were part of a necessary ritual to be gone through.
We could see Uncle John in the shady backyard, drawing water from the well, or rounding the corner of the house with a turn of stovewood he'd just cut. We could easily guess that early that morning, while the other uncles were sleeping, he had killed and picked the chicken for dinner, had gotten peaches for pies from the orchard, roasting ears from the field, and vegetables from the garden. We knew that he always did these things when he was at home. Also that when Grandma needed a bucket of water or turn of stovewood, Uncle John was usually the one who went for it.
As we piled out of the surrey — Buddy, Sissy, and I — and Papa helped Mama and Nora out, Grandma would come out on the porch, neat as a pin in a black and white sprigged calico dress and fresh, starched apron, her face flushed from the heat of the stove and shining with happiness.
Except in very hot weather Grandma always wore a little shoulder cape like her dress. She would stand at the top of the steps, her dear old face wreathed in smiles, waiting to welcome us. Her hug for us children was warm and gentle. Not the big bear hug and resounding smack on the mouth that Aunt Easter, Papa's sister, gave us when we visited her.
When Mama walked up with the baby in her arms, the look of
joy on both women's faces was something to behold. Nancy recalls that when we had lived farther away and they had not seen each other for a long time, they always cried a little at first. This puzzled Nancy no end, at the time.
Finally words began tumbling out:
“Duck, how are you? And the baby — here let me take her. Why, she's cut another tooth,” as Nora opened her mouth in a big yawn. “And little Katie — how she's grown!” Grandma's observant eyes noticed that I was hovering very near, looking neglected (I had been the baby for a long time). So she gave me another little reassuring hug.
“I'm fine, Ma,” Mama would say. “How are you? Yes, the baby is fine and the other children too. Yes, they're all growing — and they're real smart too, Ma.”
In the meantime Uncle Dolphus had unwound his long legs and gotten to his feet, as had Uncle Horace; and they seemed glad enough to see us children, in a detached sort of way. Uncle Dolphus, though, would always give an amused sort of chuckle along with his greeting, which I never understood, and being highly sensitive, took as some kind of personal affront. There was no mistaking their pleasure in seeing Mama — in spite of their reserve — for being the oldest, and only sister, she had always taken the role of a second mother to them.
Uncle Eustace would stop his constitutional to come up and welcome us in his depressed, dignified (though genuine) way and then help Papa “take out” the horse. They would then take Prince to the barn for corn and fodder and water, while they discussed the dry weather, crops and politics.
About this time Uncle John would come bounding out front from the kitchen, after replenishing the stove with wood and the kettle with water. He came lunging out in his great restless, awkward stride, his blond, curly hair, blue eyes, and a certain eagerness making him look and seem like the tall, gangly overgrown boy that he really was.
From the moment he saw us he began bombarding us children with questions. There never was anybody who could ask more questions than Uncle John could. Along with the questions, his boyish laugh would boom out and the air would be filled with his infectious good humor.
Grandma in the meantime had taken Mama and the baby into
the front bedroom, that had been the parlor before Mama married, for Mama to take off her hat and “dry” the baby. Uncle Wesley, the preacher uncle, always slept in this room when he made his annual visit each summer. The other uncles when at home, slept in a long, narrow adjoining room with two double beds. Under one of these, was a trundle bed, that was put into use when the occasion demanded it. Grandma called this “the boys’ room.”
Uncle John would stride back to the kitchen to see about dinner, followed by Buddy and Sissy and me. The kitchen was filled with the tantalizing smells of chicken-stew simmering in an iron pot, vegetables fresh from the garden, also cooking in iron pots, and peach pies or a sponge cake baking in the oven.
After looking into all the pots to see if the water had boiled out, Uncle John would move about the room with his quick, restless strides — while he plied us with more questions.
When Grandma and Mama came back to the kitchen to take over, Uncle John followed us outside, always within hearing distance of Grandma, so he'd know when she needed more wood or water. Nora in the meantime had been settled on a “pallet” on the kitchen floor, where she was lustily beating a tin pan with a spoon and crowing delightedly over the resulting noise.
Along with his questioning Uncle John told us wonderful, fantastic tales which we believed implicitly. Sometimes they took the form of a fascinating game. When he “got rich,” he would say, he was going to buy us fine presents — just whatever we wanted. Then would come an earnest questioning of what each would like to have. Our imaginations would run riot, thinking up all the things we wanted. Sometimes they would be fantastic things, like the time Buddy asked for a monkey and Sissy a parrot. My wish was a bit more conservative — I decided to settle for a canary.
“All right,” Uncle John would say, half closing one eye and squinting up at the sun, a look of suppressed laughter on his face, “when I get rich, that's just what I'm going to buy for you.” Of course, we never doubted that Uncle John was going to be rich; so for days afterward we basked in a glow of anticipation and a pleasant feeling of prosperity.
Sunday dinners at Grandma's were an experience to look forward to. If you've never tasted old-fashioned chicken stew cooked in an iron pot, seasoned with black pepper and simmered down to just the right degree of goodness, then you've been cheated out
of a big slice of real living. Grandma always had a pot of chicken stew on Sundays. Besides, there were snap beans or black-eye peas, stewed “roas'n ears,” thickened with a little flour and seasoned generously with golden butter (roas'n ears were Uncle John's favorite dish besides chicken), plenty of buttermilk fresh from the churn, a big cake of golden-yellow butter in a fancy round butter-dish, thick slices of blood-red tomatoes, thin griddle corn bread and peach pies. Grandma always had a thin cake of griddle bread to eat with ham gravy at breakfast too. (Ever try it? Umm!)
If roas'n ears were not in season, there might be baked sweet potatoes or, in early summer, little new Irish potatoes stewed tender and also seasoned generously with butter. Uncle Dolphus once called me “choice” because during one of my puny spells as a child, I wouldn't eat Irish potatoes. I held this against Uncle Dolphus for years.
Of course, to be like dinner at Grandma's, you would have to cook the snap beans with a ham bone in an iron pot. For the chicken stew you must have a fat, young hen (and if half-filled with little yellow eggs, all the better) — though, of course these unlaid eggs always troubled Grandma's thrifty, housewifely soul). The buttermilk would have to be churned in an old-fashioned churn, with a dasher that went up and down, and the milk speckled with little blobs of butter that you failed to get up with the dasher. Then it would have to be cooled by letting a big jar or cooler of it down into the well with a rope a few hours before dinner. The peaches for the pie would have to be the little yellow “clear seed” variety, with dabs of that fresh butter seething in their juices under the golden brown upper crust. Yes, to be like dinners at Grandma's, things would have to be just that way.
Papa was always asked to sit at the head of the table and ask the blessing, as a matter of course. Also, as a matter of course, he led the conversation during the meal. He knew that it was expected of him and he always lived up to that expectation magnificently.
Yes, he would say, it seemed we would have a full house of Boys this fall after crops were laid by, but if Horace wanted to come and stay with us and go to school, we could make room for him. He hoped Eustace could help out as substitute teacher in the primary room after free school opened. How was John doing selling fruit trees this summer? And was he going to take the school at Dog Eye again this winter? It was fine that Dolphus was reading
law and getting ready for the bar examination in the fall. (Uncle Dolphus was helping Uncle Eustace on the farm and reading law at spare times.) There was a great need for more good lawyers, Papa said.
Then would come choice morsels of information he'd gathered here and there on his speech-making trips over the county, the latest bright saying of one of us children, an article he'd read in the current issue of the Literary Digest, politics, and happenings of national importance.
All of this was told as only Papa could tell it — making everything he said important. Not unreal and far away, but something happening then and there, right before our eyes. Children of today have the radio, movies, television and access to public libraries for information and entertainment. We had Papa!
The uncles had, of course, been listening with interest to all that Papa was saying, especially Uncle Eustace who was more interested in things cultural than any of them.
In the meantime Grandma was being the perfect hostess she always was, anticipating everybody's needs and quietly attending to them. Presently she noticed me trying to master a chicken neck.
“Honey, have a good piece of chicken,” she said, as she passed the stew, “a good piece of breast.”
“Why, Ma, Katie likes the neck — it's one of her favorite pieces,” Mama said.
I didn't especially like that part of a chicken's anatomy either. But somehow I'd acquired the reputation for liking it and felt a responsibility to live up to that reputation. So now I struggled womanfully on till I had finished it.
Nora was by now waxing impatient on Mama's lap because her food was not going in fast enough to suit her. Mama was trying to feed her a saucer of bread soaked in bean or chicken liquor, while she ate her own dinner. Nora didn't like this arrangement at all. She wanted all the food to be going into her mouth. Loudly and lustily she began demanding it, drowning out Papa's voice and making any and all conversation impossible. Then Grandma conceived the happy solution of giving her a drum stick, from which most of the meat had been cut, to gnaw on between spoonfuls. So the meal and conversation continued in peace and everything was fine until Sissy and I got the giggles.
Now if there was anything Papa could not, and would not, tolerate
it was giggling—especially at mealtime. Knowing this and realizing the seriousness of our offense, always only made us more hysterical. We suffered torture trying to choke it in. Some little incident — nothing in itself — would occur, then we would catch each other's eye and we were sunk. Unfortunately we had today been placed next to each other at the table. It was an agonizing experience. The harder we tried, the more hysterical we became. I tried to think of sad things, like death, but even the thought of my own funeral and everybody weeping, failed to help.
Finally Papa threatened to send us from the table but Grandma intervened, saying that children would be children. Uncle John enjoyed the situation immensely. He laughed — but there was understanding and sympathy in his laugh. Uncle Dolphus gave one of his amused chuckles and Uncle Horace a tolerant chuckle, while Uncle Eustace appeared not to notice.
After dinner Mama got Nora to sleep and put her to bed in the front bedroom with a mosquito netting over her to keep the flies from bothering her. Papa and the Uncles sat on the front porch talking and chewing plug tobacco. Prince Albert was a great favorite. Buddy, being at the age when the collecting instinct is strong, had a little cloth pipe-tobacco sack full of tobacco tags — little colored tin tags that came on plug tobacco — among which Prince Albert tags figured prominently.
Buddy and Sissy decided to go exploring around the place and I tagged along, afraid I'd miss something. Our chief exploring place was a small burial plot, enclosed by a rail fence. Here Grandpa Westall, who was only a legendary person to us, and an infant daughter Dora, were buried near a large cedar tree. Because of this memory, cedar trees were for many years associated in my mind with the dead.
Later in the afternoon Mama and Grandma would go to look at the garden and talk real woman-talk. So-and-So's wife in the neighborhood was “in the family way.” Aunt Meg Westall had company now — some of her Holder kin from Lynn. Aunt Spicey's girl, Autney, was real sick lately with a female trouble. She'd been taking Lydia Pinkham's remedy but one time she was so sick they'd had Dr. Parks come out from Dickson to see her. Uncle Tom had been helping Eustace and the boys with the cotton chopping and plowing. (Uncle Tom, a former slave, had belonged to Grandpa before the Civil War and he and Aunt Spicey and
their three daughters still lived near Grandma and helped out with the household and farm chores when they were needed.) Now I knew the nature of Mama's and Grandma's conversations on these trips to the garden because a few times I went along with them. They thought I was too young to understand the things of a private nature they talked about. Still, to be on the safe side, they spelled out some of the words. But I must have been smarter than they thought I was — for very few things escaped me.
One time, taking advantage of Mama's and Grandma's absence, Buddy and Sissy and I did some exploring in the kitchen and pantry. A big round cheese box in which Grandma kept brown sugar proved to be a special attraction. The sight of the tempting brown lumps made our mouths water almost unbearably. But somehow we never could bring ourselves to snitch anything from Grandma. With one accord we decided to wait until she returned, and ask for it.
Awhile before sundown we would pile into the surrey again and start back home. Our return trip was not so leisurely as the one going had been, for there was the feeding up to be done and the cow to be milked. Besides, supper had to be cooked for the boarders, and by now our India-rubber stomachs were ready for a refill.
Still we had good times going back home. Papa would not be so full of talk, but often we would sing. Papa would start it and when he'd gotten us all going, he would come in on the bass and Mama would take the alto. Usually the sun would be setting when we drove up the familiar lane leading to the house. As we pulled up in front and Papa helped her from the surrey, Mama would breathe a sigh of contentment and say the same thing she always said when she'd been away:
“It's good to be home again.”17 ◀ The Storm
It was a hot sultry Sunday in July and Uncle Eustace had brought Grandma to spend the day with us.
Soon after they arrived I learned that both Grandma and Uncle Eustace expected me to go back home with them for my annual week's visit. Sissy knew how homesick I had been during my stay
Their coat-tails sailing out behind them.
the summer before, so she promised to have some new clothes made for my doll when I got back. My doll was named Nellie for the Village belle.
Along in the early afternoon dark clouds began gathering in the sky. Uncle Eustace had been out walking in the fields with Papa to look over the crops. When they returned to the house he told Grandma we'd better start right away.
“Looks like a bad windstorm before long,” he said.
“And lightning too,” said Papa, looking excited and nervous. There were very few things in the world Papa was afraid of. But he was terribly, unreasonably, afraid of lightning.
It was well that we did start then for the clouds grew blacker and more threatening as we drove on, thunder began to rumble ominously and distant streaks of lightning to flash across the sky. Uncle Eustace kept applying the buggy whip to lazy old Mollie's rear and for once she proved capable of fast action. I guess she was afraid of the storm too.
We reached Grandma's just before the storm broke. The wind was getting stronger by the minute, the lightning closer and sharper and the loud claps of thunder more terrifying.
Uncle Dolphus, who had stayed at home by himself all day, was outside looking up at the display of the elements as we drove up.
“Looks like a cyclone,” he greeted us. “Yes, a cyclone.” Uncle Dolphus had a way of repeating the last word or two of what he said — even when he was excited.
He began helping Uncle Eustace unhitch Mollie while Grandma and I hurried inside and she began putting down windows as fast as she could. It had never occurred to Uncle Dolphus to close any of the windows. The water bucket was empty too, of course, when she went to the kitchen to investigate.
Soon Uncle Eustace and Uncle Dolphus rushed into the house, and just as suddenly disappeared. Grandma had by now taken off her black taffeta bonnet and white Hamburg-trimmed apron and changed to a calico apron. She sat down in a rocker and took me on her lap. And just then my two uncles rushed through the room in rubber mackintoshes, heading for the front door.
“Boys, what on earth?” Grandma called after them but the only answer was the door slamming shut after them. Grandma's only outward reaction was a mystified repetition of “What on earth?” and a puzzled, worried look on her usually serene face.
I jumped down from Grandma's lap and ran to the front window and Grandma followed. What we saw was Uncle Eustace running up the road and Uncle Dolphus running down the road, in opposite directions — their mackintoshes, which they had not taken time to fasten, sailing out in the wind behind them. Grandma just sank back down in her rocker with a “Well, I never!” and took me up on her lap again.
And now the storm really broke in earnest. The thunder made terrific crashing noises that made Grandma and me jump. The old house began to rock on its foundations from the force of the wind. The roaring of the wind was terrible but the moments of quiet, when there was an occasional lull, seemed by contrast, even more frightening. Rain descended in torrents and, though it was only around five o'clock, it had grown quite dark in the room except when a sharp flash of lightning made everything seem on fire. I knew Grandma was scared because she was so quiet. I felt like being quiet too, though I was not scared very much with Grandma holding me on her lap.
I had a vivid picture of the family at home, three and a half miles away — all of them close together in Mama's and Papa's room. Mama would be sitting in a low chair in the center of the room with Nora on her lap and Buddy and Sissy close by — Mama making sure that neither of them was too near a window or fireplace. Papa would be lying on one of the two feather beds in the room, where he had been all the time since the lightning got sharp and close by — making a scared sound after every crash of thunder and flash of lightning and trying to get the rest of the family to seek refuge on the feather beds too.
Grandma and I just sat there alone in the dark and gradually the fury of the storm spent itself. The rumble of thunder grew farther away, the wind quieted down, and the rain became just a slow drizzle, till it was all over.
And what about Uncle Eustace and Uncle Dolphus who had disappeared into the storm? The following letter written to Sissy next day will perhaps best describe that:
“Dear Sissy: —
“A big storm come yesterday whin we got to Grandma's. Uncle Dolphus and Uncle Eustace run out of the house like scared rabbits. Grandma ast them where they were goin but they dident anser. The door slammed and they were gone. I run to the window
and looked out and Grandma went and looked too. Uncle Eustace was runnin up the rode and Uncle Dolphus was runnin down the rode. Their coat tails was flying in the air. All Grandma said was ‘Well what on erth?’ She set back down and held me on her lap.
“The wind blew so hard I could feel the house rock, it got dark too, so I cudent see much but cept whin it litened and everything looked like it was on fire. The wind made a offal noise and the thunder near bout split the erth open. Grandma kept sorter jumpin. I new she was scared the way she was so quite. I just set on her lap and wasn't scared mutch. Then it got to rainin so hard Grandma said wonder if they was going to be a flud.
“After while the rain and wind and everything stoped and it was over. Uncle Dolphus and Uncle Eustace come back then — cold and wet and hungry. Grandma ast them where on erth theyd ben. Uncle Eustace said heed been in a big ditch about a half mile up the rode. He said heed herd a ditch was the best place to be if a syclone come. And Uncle Dolphus said heed kep runnin till he got to a old brick yard in the woods and it was rainin so hard he had to stop under the shelter. I reckon he cudent find anuther ditch big enuf wher he went.
“Uncle Eustace made a fire in the stove and Grandma cooked some biskits and she let me grind the coffee. Uncle Dolphus just stalked around and made funny hawkin noises in his throte and said Bad storm. Yes bad storm.
“Tell Mama Uncle Eustace says he may go to Dickson Wensdy. If he does I'll go home then. Ive not tole Grandma yet. I will stop now.
“Your lovein sister
“P.S. I miss you all mitey bad.”
Sissy said that when Papa read the letter he laughed so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks. He would stop awhile and then start up all over again.
I recall that Uncle Eustace looked sort of sheepish when he told Grandma about the ditch, and I guess he did feel pretty foolish when it was all over. I'm sure he really was embarrassed too, over running off and leaving Grandma and me alone to the mercy of the storm.
As for Uncle Dolphus, I doubt if he ever realized he had done anything queer or that there was anything unusual about the
situation. But then nobody ever could figure Uncle Dolphus out anyhow.18 ◀ Grandma Jane
“You're just as nigh like Jane,” mused Grandpa, “except your hair's not as kinky.”
Grandpa Dennis had come on one of his rare, brief visits. His keen blue eyes were looking at my sister Nancy in an appraising sort of way — at her brown curly hair, her plump, rosy cheeks and her well-rounded body, that was at twelve beginning to take on the curves of young womanhood.
We children had heard all about Grandma Jane from Papa and the two aunts; of the plump, jolly, easy-going little mother who had seemed afraid of nothing or nobody — not even the Yankees who were encamped in the woods around her home. But we had never heard about her from Grandpa before.
The gentle little man who had once been full of life and fire and abounding with energy, as Papa was now, tilted back his chair and continued to look at Nancy as though he were seeing her for the first time. For the time being he was not seeing Nancy at all, but the young wife he had left behind almost fifty years before when he went off with his regiment to fight the Yankees.
“Jane was a brave woman,” he went on presently. “When I had to go she was left all by herself with three little ones to look after, and to run the farm, too. Your aunt Mary was four, your pa was goin’ on two and your aunt Easter was just a few months old. That was in the fall of ’62 — yes, ’62 it was. She managed somehow — Lord only knows how — with the neighbors helpin’ her plant and house the crops. When General Sherman's army come through they didn't touch what little she had — I guess some of ’em did have a heart.
“Well, the war had been draggin’ on near ’bout four years and the Yankees had us whipped already — not because they were better fighters, mind you — no, sir, not by a long shot!” The fire of his youth burned in his eyes as he looked round at us to drive the last statement home.
“We'd of had ’em whipped long ago if we'd had enough men. But, Lord! They had us outnumbered three to one and now we
knew we were beat — that we were fightin’ a hopeless cause. We were ragged and hungry and worried sick about our families back home. Some of the men who'd been home on leave had found their families in pitiful circumstances. So a lot of our men began deserting and hiding out in caves or anywhere they could. They knew the war was bound to end soon and they didn't want to be killed and not get back home.
“One night Jane had fed the little ones their supper of corn pone and pot likker — yes, that's what it was — she told me so herself. She was just puttin’ ’em to bed when she heard a tappin’ on the door — not a knock — but just a light tappin’. She asked who was there and then a voice weak and pitiful said,
“ ‘Jane, it's me, Jasper — please let me in.’
“Well, Jane knew that voice. It was her cousin Jasper on her ma's side. He'd gone off ’long about the time I did — only he was not in my regiment. So she opened the door and he pretty nearly fell in — he was so weak, hadn't had anything to eat for three days — hidin’ out in the daytime and travelin’ at night. His uniform was in tatters and he was a miserable sight.
“Jane didn't ask him any questions. She just locked the door and fed him the corn pone and pot-likker that was left over from hers and the children's supper. Then she said:
“ ‘Jasper, you can't stay here. They'll find you sure — and you'll be shot or hung. They've been roundin’ up deserters in these parts. Two men were here last week askin’ me questions and searchin’ all through the house and crib and barn. Now I don't approve of your desertin’, mind you — but I'm not goin’ to let you starve, either.’
“Then she told him of a hollowed-out, cave-like place in the woods ’bout a quarter mile from the house. She'd hid corn in it when she'd heard Sherman's army was comin’ through. But like I said, they hadn't tried to touch a thing she had. So she told him to go and stay in that cave and she'd take him vittles and water every day. She give him plenty of old sacks and quilts to sleep on and off he went.
“Every day she carried him vittles and water just like she said she would. And then the Yankees begun comin’ — whole droves of ’em — it was just before the battle of Bentonville, you know — and they were camped all around our place. The woods was full of ’em.”
Buddy and Sissy and I had kept quiet up to this time, so absorbed were we in what Grandpa was telling. But now we burst forth with questions:
“Didn't the Yankees hurt Grandma? How did she take stuff to her Cousin Jasper then? Wasn't she afraid of ’em, Grandpa?”
Grandpa shook his head emphatically. “Not your Grandma! Like I said, she was a brave woman. Of course, she was scared stiff on the inside, I guess — but she didn't let on that she was scared a bit. Bein’ brave don't mean not bein’ scared. If you're not scared there's nothin’ to be brave about. It means goin’ on and doin’ what ought to be done spite o’ being scared to death on the inside.”
Grandpa reached deep down into his britches pocket and brought out a plug of apple tobacco, bit off a chew, then continued:
“Well, sir, your Grandma would pass right by them Yankee soldiers, with her head up, a-carryin’ a big tin bucket every day. She'd speak to ’em pleasant-like when she'd pass, just like they'd been some of her neighbors. Of course, they had a pretty good idea what she was doin’ — but not a one of ’em ever bothered her or followed her to see where she was goin’ — no, sire-ee! Sometimes one of ’em would tease her and ask where she was a-goin’ and she'd smile and say:
“ ‘Oh, to see a sick neighbor!’
“They'd say: ‘Well, I'm sick — I've got a hot fever.’ She'd just laugh in her jolly way and go on.
“One time one of ’em called out and said he was hungry and he wished she'd bring him some vittles. She laughed and tossed her brown curls and said maybe she would next time.
“Not long after that the war was over and I come home. Things were pretty tough for us, just like they were for everybody else in the South. But we had a good crop that year and we were thankful to have enough to keep the children from goin’ hungry.
“Then one day — it was about this time of the year, in October — me and your grandma were settin’ on the kitchen steps and your pa and your aunt Mary and aunt Easter were playin’ round the door. We were just settin’ there restin’ and watchin’ the children runnin’ and playin’. We were talkin’ about how lucky we were to have a good crop — sort of countin’ our blessings, you might say. Then all of a sudden a strange thing happened. A little baby rabbit come up from somewhere and begun playin’ round the door —
just as tame-like. Now you know how scared a wild rabbit is — but not this one. It just played around some, close to us, and then went away suddenlike — just like it had come.
“Well, it was strange, I'll admit, but I didn't think anything of it. The woods was close by, you know. But your grandma did. She got mighty quiet and after a little she said:
“ ‘William, I've got a strange feelin’. That little rabbit — the way it acted — it ain't natural for a wild creature to act that way. It's the sign of somethin’. I think it means I'm goin’ to die.’
“ ‘Nonsense, Jane,’ I said, ‘that's foolish for you to think such a thing — that's just bein’ superstitious.’
“ ‘No, William, I mean it,’ she said.
“ ‘Now, Jane, it's just your condition makes you have such feelings. You'll be all right after the baby's born.’
“Well, she tried to shake off her feelin’ and was soon laughin’ at somethin’ funny one of the children said or did. But she never was her same jolly self after that. I thought it was due to her condition and she'd be fine after the baby came.
“I'd forgot all about what had happened and didn't think of it again, till about a month later. One day your pa come runnin’ to the cotton patch where I was pickin’ and he was all out of breath.
“ ‘Pap,’ he says, ‘Ma says to come quick, she's bad off.’
“I went runnin’ to the house as fast as I could and found her lyin’ on the bed groanin’.
“ ‘William,’ she says, lookin’ straight at me, ‘I'm goin’ to die’ — just as calm as if she'd asked for a drink of water and like she knew what she was talkin’ about. I sent your pa runnin’ to fetch his grandma Barbour — she lived a half mile down the road — and told Mary to build a fire and get a kittle of hot water ready. Your great-grandma, Jane's mother, was a sort of mid-wife in those parts. She'd brought all three of our children into the world and Jane had got along fine.
“Well, I did all I could till her ma got there, but a man is pretty helpless at a time like that. Then her ma come, but Jane got worse. We decided she had to have a doctor. So I set out on horseback for the nearest one six miles away. He was at home and right away he set out on horseback, too, to go back with me. We rode as hard as we could — I was nearly crazy to get back to know how Jane was.
“We found her in a terrible way. When we got near the house her groans were pitiful to hear. Jane's ma had sent the children to
their aunt Sarah's — that was Jane's sister — to stay. So there was just me and Jane and her ma and the doctor there. They worked with her all that night. At first they tried to save both her life and the baby's — then when they saw they couldn't save both of ’em, they tried to save hers. Jane suffered more than it seemed any human could stand. Sometimes when it was worst I thought I'd go out of my mind.”
Buddy, Sissy and I knew the rest of the story well. How they'd sent for the children next morning because Grandma Jane was dying. How they could hear her moaning long before they reached the house. A baby boy had been born dead, and now she was dying.
They buried them together, Grandma Jane with her baby in her arms, in a coffin some of the neighbors had made with their own hands. Papa had told us that he remembered sitting on the coffin as the wagon bore the sad little family over the bumpy country road to the graveyard. A couple of wagons followed close behind with relatives and neighbors.
Now we were hearing it from Grandpa himself. He said nothing of the hard, lonely life he lived the next two years — trying to be both mother and father to the three motherless children, while he eked out a bare living from the little farm. Nor of his next marriage to a woman in the community, to a woman who turned out to be a nagging wife and a cruel stepmother to his children. These things we had heard from Papa and the aunts.
No, Grandpa was not thinking now of those wretched, heart-breaking years that followed Grandma Jane's death. It was now as if these things had never been. He was thinking only of the woman who had borne his children, the woman he had loved, and of their brief life together. Of the jolly, rosy-cheeked little woman who had courage to face both life and death and never show that she was afraid.
After he had finished his story he sat for a few moments without speaking, a faraway look in his eyes. When he came back to reality, he looked at each of us briefly and repeated:
“Just like I said, children, your grandma was a brave woman. Yes, Jane was a brave woman.” The last was spoken almost inaudibly. His voice trailed off into silence — the silence of old age, that has so much locked in that can never be told.
19 ◀ Music Hath Charms
Papa had a deep love for music and much of his great gusto for living was expressed in singing. One of my earliest memories is the sound of his lusty baritone ringing out on the frosty stillness of an early winter's morning. His singing was to the accompaniment of a roaring fire in the immense rock fireplace of his and Mama's bedroom; to the roaring, singing flames and snapping twigs on the great oak or hickory logs. Snug and secure in the enveloping warmth and softness of a feather bed, we would gradually emerge from our delicious, drowsy night-world of dreams to this morning world of Papa's singing.
As the flames roared and sang up the great-throated chimney on those winter mornings, so would his voice grow mightier and merrier. His jubilant, booming voice was thus proclaiming that life was good, that it was wonderful to be alive, and for his little family to awaken and see for themselves that it was so. All of this was in his voice, in the eager gusto of his rollicking tunes, in the rich overtones of warmth and gaiety that sprang effortlessly and spontaneously from his sense of well-being and his joyous aliveness on this newborn day.
For a while we would linger in our drowsy enjoyment of featherbed softness and the all-enveloping sense of security and warmth that these songs and the sounds of the crackling fire gave us. Drifting in from the kitchen were the pungent odors of breakfast under way, the fragrance of steaming coffee, mingling with frying sausage and buttermilk biscuits baking in the oven.
His singing would continue unabated until the last one of us had run in, barefoot and shivering, to the warmth of his fire. Clad in britches and galluses pulled up over a winter-union suit; his black derby perched at a cocky angle on his head, he would throw another log on the fire and bite off a chew of Prince Albert tobacco from the plug on the mantel piece. Papa went about the business of making or rekindling a fire or biting off a chew of tobacco with the same vim and vigor which characterized everything else he did.
In the early evening after supper with his little family again assembled, he would gather up the two youngest, Nora and Vicky, one on each knee and entertain us for a full half hour with such old-timers as “Yankee Doodle,” “Old Dan Tucker,” “Little Jug o’ Gin,” or “Charlie Was a Handsome Man.” He had a full repertoire
Papa always bore down on the bass.
of such rollicking songs which he recalled word for word from his boyhood days. Equally versed in Negro spirituals, his repertoire included “The Old Ship o’ Zion,” “Letta Me in Dat Life Boat,” “De Ole-Time Religion,” and many others. As he finished each, he would go back and pick up the bass. Growing up on a farm, picking cotton and hoeing corn along with Negroes, he had heard these chants of joy and misery so many times that he could reproduce their tones of supplication or misery or joy almost perfectly.
Mama, too, loved music and before her health began to fail, she sang at her work and often played on the old cabinet organ she had brought to her home as a bride. When she sang alone, it was usually the good old “firm-foundation” hymns. It was with these that she sang her babies to sleep. Her right foot propelling the rocker at the foot of the cradle and her hands busied with patching or darning, she would raise her sweet contralto voice to the strains of “Rock of Ages” or “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Sometimes she was “marching on to Zion, the beautiful City of God.” Her face often wore an exalted, other-world look, as though she had caught a glimpse of that “Land that is fairer than day” and was envisioning the joyful meeting on its “beautiful shore” in the “sweet by-and-by.”
Then there was the blending of Mama's and Papa's voices to the accompaniment of Mama's organ on a late Sunday afternoon in summer or early evening in winter. Dressed in a pretty flowered lawn or worsted or cashmere with velvet front, according to season, Mama sat at her organ playing and singing the nostalgic songs of her girlhood. One of these was “Old Oaken Bucket” and another was “Swinging ’Neath the Old Apple Tree.” Papa stood just back of her, bearing down on the bass. When company chanced to drop in, as they usually did on Sunday afternoons, Mama let somebody else take the soprano and she sang alto. She had a good alto voice. Papa often asked Mama to play his favorite: “Daisies Won't Tell.” Some of those old songs and ballads were sad and mournful and they always made me feel alone and lost.
As the years went by, Mama had little time for playing her organ and singing. She still sang her babies to sleep as each came along, still sang the grand old hymns as she rocked the cradle with her foot and plied her needle in mending and darning. As her health failed, her tired eyes seemed to look more and more into that “Sweet By-and-By” land when she sang the old hymns.
Now it was Sissy who sat at the organ and played “Old Oaken
Bucket.” Not as Mama had played it, by chords and singing the words; but by note, and all dressed up in fancy frills and furbelows. “Variations” it was called. It was a day for fancy frills and furbelows in music, as it was a day for fancy dress and gingerbread architecture and for flowery orations in public speaking.
And so Sissy sat at the old organ and strained its capacity and endurance to the limit, with “Variations on the Old Oaken Bucket,” “Variations on Rock of Ages,” “Variations on Nearer My God to Thee.” The keyboard was inadequate for the long-running scales, trills, and arpeggios of these pieces; but Sissy played them well and made them sound grand, in spite of the limitations. The old organ balked at nothing. Even “The Burning of Rome,” with its crashing chords, brilliant scales, and crescendos were taken in stride. It is true that the pedals at times rebelled. But when either of them gave way under the strain and dropped down, Sissy got her needle and, with some strong thread, sewed the connecting piece of elastic, or whatever it was that held up the pedal, together, and Rome began burning all over again, where it had suddenly left off.
When Miss Neva Older, Sissy's music teacher, stopped teaching to get married, Papa bought the big old square piano she had kept in the practice room for the sum of thirty dollars. True, it was badly in need of tuning and some of the notes made discordant, tin-panny sounds. Three of the notes stuck (the ivory was missing from these too) and one of the pedals didn't work. But at least the keyboard was long enough for all of the running scales of the variations. And as for the discordant notes, they didn't matter the slightest in all the fury and confusion and crashing noises while Rome burned and Nero fiddled.
So the old piano served its purpose and was to continue to serve, until Sissy bought a piano of her own with her first teaching money.
Papa wanted all of his children to study music and, as a matter of course, all of us did. He was not to live long enough to know that one was to become a music teacher — that in the years ahead Nora would be putting as much zeal (and with equal success) into the teaching of Bach and Beethoven as she did into teaching Aunt Viney to read and write.
Nor could he know how important a part music was to play in all of our lives and in the lives of his grandchildren; or that in years to come Nancy's piano was to stand in the same spot where Mama's organ had stood; or that family song fests were to become
a tradition with us; or that each of his two grandsons playing the violin or flute or some wind instrument to Nora's accompaniment, would often stand in the same spot where he himself once stood, as he bore down on the bass. I can see the proud look on his and Mama's faces as they listened. When the notes of a flute, French horn or trumpet filled the air, I can see the twinkle in Papa's eye as he turned to Mama and said:
“Well, Ida, I knew all our children would come out at the big end of the horn, but I never dreamed we would hear our grandsons tooting their own.”20 ◀ Papa Takes a Fling at Politics
The Great Educational Governor was in office; and with his coming in, an educational revolution had begun in North Carolina. Up and down the state he went sounding his call for public education, for the right of every child to be given the chance “to burgeon out all that was within him.” Local tax schools were beginning to take the place of former high schools and academies.
Papa, who had spent his life since young manhood in the burgeoning-out process, both by precept and example, thrilled to the Leader's clarion call. He now went to bat for a graded school in Dickson. Cousin Willis, the county superintendent, drove down from Brookfield a few times and he and Papa talked at length. When the town voted a special tax and plans were complete for a new building, Papa surprised the community by announcing his intention to retire from school work and devote his time to farming. He remained adamant in his decision and the ringing of the bell on the opening day of school in the new building found him putting the same zeal and enthusiasm into harvesting his crop that he had for two decades put into the mental burgeoning-out in the classroom.
But whether in the classroom or out, Papa was still, always would be, a teacher. While tending and nourishing the soil to make corn, cotton and tobacco sprout and grow, he continued to tend and nourish the soil of young minds to make ambition and dreams take root and flourish.
Late at night while the rest of the world was sleeping, no
matter how weary his body from the day's work in the fields, he sat at the old square study table working till the wee hours of the morning. There were always letters from former students to be answered; calls for help on debate speeches or speeches for oratorical contests; letters seeking advice and encouragement; letters asking him to deliver commencement addresses at the close of their schools. Every letter was of vital importance to him, to be attended to promptly and completely — every call for help a challenge of the spirit, to be met at whatever cost of his time and strength.
His Boys from near and far visited him often. They came to seek his counsel, they came to warm themselves at the fires of his never-failing optimism and his eager zest for life, they came because of their deep devotion for him. They were to him always the Boys, as he was to them the Teacher. He could not, would not if he could, escape the destiny to which he had been born.
It was after a visit from some of his friends over the county the next summer that Papa decided to take a fling at politics, to run for the state legislature. And so November of that year found him living at the Blair Hotel in Raleigh with his old friend, Mr. Rom Towers, a representative from Wake County. Mr. Towers was a friend from Mount Moriah days.
Every week end Papa came home bearing gifts for his family — simple, inexpensive gifts, but magnificent in our eyes; filling the house with his great vitality and joy of living, bringing color, excitement and adventure into our lives.
First he must have a full account of the family from Mama. Had she been well? Yes, she said, straightening her aching back and smiling brightly to prove it. She was not well. Her body often ached and she was increasingly weary — but these things she kept hidden from Papa. She knew how he hated to be separated from his family and she must give him nothing to worry about.
And the children — had they been smart in school and at home, had they helped her and had they studied their lessons hard? Mama satisfied his mind on that score, told him how helpful they had been at home and emphasized the fine marks at school, conveniently forgetting any that were not so good.
“Um-hunh,” Papa beamed his approval around at us collectively and singly, his eyes twinkling and gay. Then proudly, his final seal of approval:
“Why, sure! They're the blue hen's chickens.”
He gave a recital of all the things he had seen, heard and done through the week; the sights and sounds of the busy streets and stores, the people he had met, friends he had made. It was all very exciting the way Papa told it, this news of the outside world. To us the capital city seemed remote, far away, another world, but Papa brought it to us, made it familiar. He described the beautiful Capitol and grounds and other state buildings, the hotels, especially the Yarborough, which was a sort of gathering place for the members of both house and senate.
He gave us a picture-clear view of the assembly room and what went on there; the bills introduced, the ones he voted for and against and why, prominent speakers who had addressed the house and senate. He told us of the committees he was serving on, the bills he had introduced and planned to introduce. One had to do with amending the Constitution, another to amending the school law. One had to do with establishing the Brookfield graded school, another with establishing a school district in the county. This talk of bills and committees had little meaning to us children but we knew enough to be quiet and look as though we were listening attentively. And we knew that he had plenty more to tell, juicy tidbits that we wanted to hear.
There was the time he walked for several blocks with a raised umbrella in the winter sunshine and the friend with him had to inform him that the rain had stopped soon after they started out. Mama's hearty laugh was followed by a tender, indulgent smile. How well she understood his doing such a thing when he was deeply absorbed in talk or thought!
There was the member who voted for a certain bill to keep a promise, made for policy's sake, after campaigning vigorously against it, for conscience's sake. In a burst of confidence he had told Papa all about it.
There were stories of talk-fests with friends in each other's rooms at the hotel after the evening sessions when they discussed important bills coming up. And the pranking of some of them after a serious discussion, when they let go and acted like schoolboys. There was the time one of them, aware of Papa's absent-mindedness, when intent on any subject of the moment, handed him a small individual chess pie in a paper plate during a midnight snack in a corner restaurant, then waited to see what would happen. Just as he expected, Papa bit through the plate and kept talking.
“Hey! What's the matter with this confounded thing? It won't go down!” he exclaimed after a lot of chewing and several attempts to swallow. When he finally looked down and saw the big plug bitten from the plate he enjoyed the joke as much as if he had fathered it himself.
He told of highfalutin places where he had eaten with friends; of the finger bowls and white-coated Negro waiters who bowed and scraped and hovered over you “like vultures,” breathing down your back, waiting for a tip. This he detested.
At first Mama was concerned about his diet away from home. He was prone to see and eat only the food immediately before him unless Mama kept an eye on his plate. And if too interested in conversation, he might almost forget to eat at all unless he was hungry. However, as weeks went by and he maintained his usually excellent health and actually gained in weight, she saw there was no need for concern. Her questions as to the kinds of food he ate brought little satisfaction.
“Well, let me see,” he tried to recall, “I don't remember exactly — only, would you believe it, Ida? — they hardly ever have any black-eye peas!” Mama was sure to have plenty of his favorite vegetable when he came home.
He took back pictures of his family, proudly showed them to the other members and talked about each and every one of us at length. Papa told Mama everything he did, even things he knew she disapproved of, like bragging about his family.
“Oh, Jimmy, you know you didn't say that!” she would remonstrate, embarrassed and yet proud of his pride in us. Papa would look like a naughty boy caught in mischief but Mama knew that he would say and do the same thing all over again.
Mama related to him the happenings in the village during his absence, as they sat by the fire at night after we were in bed and supposed to be asleep. There was the downfall of a highly respected young woman from one of the county's best families. Mama had been devoted to her and Papa had thought her a shining example of modesty and virtue for his own daughters to pattern their lives by. Both of them were deeply grieved.
There was one item of news that made him boil with indignation. Mr. Jim McReady had been turned out of the church for getting drunk. The first time they had him up pious Deacon Bascom had condescendingly moved that they give him another chance but
after the second offense he had self-righteously declared him unfit to remain in the church.
“The sanctimonious, white-washed hypocrite,” Papa said of the deacon, “after all his crooked business deals!”
Papa hated the “demon rum” but he had compassion for the weaker brother and a passionate contempt for hypocrisy in any form. Mama thought of Mrs. McReady and the children. I thought of my playmate, Annie, how she must feel about her Papa being turned out of the church. I recalled the time I had chased the kitten into the barroom. The kind voice: “Honey, this is no place for a little girl,” as he led me to the door. The kind, sad face when I looked up, surprised, and saw that it was Annie's papa.
We often heard Papa say that he himself had a thirst for liquor, just as we often heard him say that he was born with a hot temper, but that with God's help, he had always controlled that thirst. On rare occasions there was a little whiskey in the house in time of serious illness. That was the only acquaintance we had with anything alcoholic at home except apple cider in the summer and fall. Papa liked his apple cider.
Sometimes Papa spent part of the week ends at home working on a bill he was to introduce in the house the coming week. One Saturday he worked deeply absorbed all morning. This was the bill to amend the school law, and it was terribly important, he explained. Two days after he went back Mama received a jubilant letter from him, written at two o'clock in the morning. His bill had passed in both house and senate and now he was working on two others; one to establish a school district in our county and the adjoining county of Harnett, and the other to establish a graded school in Brookfield.
“We are on the way up,” he wrote. “Some day every boy and girl in the state will have an equal chance. Education will no longer be a luxury enjoyed by those able to pay for it. It will be free. All of our schools will be long-term graded schools supported by the state.”
The great educational governor, who had recently gone out of office, had addressed the assembly the day before.
“A truly great man — one of the greatest,” Papa wrote. “I wish you could have heard him, Ida. He looked and spoke as one inspired.
His soul is on fire for the cause of education. Surely he was born for such a time as this.”
One week end he came home bearing tragic news. One of the members had been called home early in the week because his eight-year-old son had disappeared. He had gone off to school as usual that morning and was never seen by the family again. The path to the school lay through a deeply wooded stretch and it was thought that he was kidnaped.
Papa brought home copies of the Observer giving detailed accounts, with pictures, of the tragedy, telling of blood-hound hunts and frantic searches in the deep-wooded swampy area, all of which had proved fruitless.
Mama was deeply moved. The poor little boy and the poor mother! I stayed awake late that night, haunted by thoughts of the little boy, just my age — somewhere, crying his heart out in the night for his mama and papa.
Mama and Papa thought of the short wooded stretch between our house and school. We must always come and go together after this, never alone, they said.
A puzzling thing happened during Papa's last week in Raleigh that winter. That was the disappearance of a photograph of himself, from his room in the hotel. It was an excellent likeness taken by the studio which had photographed all of the legislators. The fact that his necktie was slightly askew only made it look more like Papa. When he packed his valise for his home-coming one of the three photographs in his chest drawer was missing, an incident which forever remained a mystery.
“Now, who could have wanted a picture of me bad enough to steal it?” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Maybe,” he continued, twirling the ends of his mustache upward, clearing his throat, and assuming an important air for our amusement, “I'm not such a bad-looking fellow after all.”
Mama's look plainly said, “And why wouldn't they want a picture of my Jimmy?”
In her eyes he was a great man. Not just a little cog in the machinery of law-making up there at the capital. He was the cog that made the machinery go round so far as she was concerned.
“Why, your papa has introduced seven bills and been on six
committees!” she said proudly. It was all right, she thought, to brag here in the bosom of the family.
Papa's eyes were misty as he looked around on his little family. Yes, to them he was great. He was king. And this was his castle. What more could any man want?21 ◀ Of Change and Expectations
It had not seemed at all strange for Papa to go into politics except for being away from home. He had always been campaigning for or against something: for better schools, better churches, better laws and, of course, never-endingly, against open saloons and against lawlessness in any and every form. He was always preparing and delivering public speeches for this occasion or that; always serving on (often heading) committees on this thing and that. And whatever he was absorbed in at the time was the main topic of conversation at home. So, during his week ends at home that winter his talk about manufacture and labor, appropriations, privileges and elections and such, did not sound too alien to our ears.
But Papa could not have been content to follow any calling, except briefly, that kept him away from home most of the time. He was essentially a family man, his heart always turning to his own hearthside and to those he loved most.
Many changes had taken place in our home and family during the past two years. For the first time in my memory, except for Papa's student days at the university, the house was not teeming with Boys. But to say that they were no longer with us would be far from the truth. There were their frequent visits, their letters, and, on occasion of some particular reward or honor received, a telegram. A message of this kind filled him with such elation and pride that he could talk of nothing else. That was his Boy. He had gone out into the world and made good. His black eyes would shine with a luminous intensity, his buoyant step would be even more buoyant and a proud smile would play around his mouth when he talked.
He seemed never to weary of burning midnight oil to answer their needs — whether replying to a request or giving encouragement or counsel or telling them of his pride in them. And after one
of their visits he always seemed refreshed and even more abounding in radiant vigor.
“The Boys are still with us,” Mama would often say with a humorous smile. And it was so. Regardless of all changes which passing time might bring, there would always be the Boys.
However, after long last, Sissy could now have her cherished parlor. Not the red plush carpet and lounge of her dreams, to be sure. They would come later, Papa assured her. And she was content for the present to let them remain part of the enchanted dream of the future.
All of the beds and other pieces of furniture had been moved out of the big room which the Boys had occupied and the floor was carpeted with matting. Mama's organ was moved from her room into a corner near a window and the big square piano was moved in from a back bedroom to a place where the light would be good.
“Honey, you can have my egg money to buy some lace curtains,” Mama told Sissy.
Sissy bought enough pretty flower-sprigged stuff for chair tidies and cushions and a lambrequin for the mantlepiece. She looped the lambrequin up at two places with bows of solid-colored material to match the sprigs of flowers. Scraps of the material covered bricks for doorstops.
Mama thought of the old battered, unpainted chest where our winter underwear was stored away with the bed quilts. That was padded, more of the sprigged stuff bought for a cover which was finished off with a pleated skirt, tacked all the way around, and matching cushions. Sissy surveyed her sofa proudly.
Sissy's rayo lamp, a Christmas gift from a suitor she could not abide, was displayed on the center table, which also held two of Papa's choice books with attractive bindings, the family Bible and a large pink shell which we could hold up to our ears and hear the roar of the ocean. Buddy had brought it back when he went on an excursion to Morehead City with Uncle Horace.
Papa thought the green plush family album and the stereoscope with views belonged in the parlor.
“No, Papa, they've gone out of style,” Sissy informed him. Papa believed in independence of action and asked her why she didn't bring the style back.
A large picture, “The Storm,” was hung over the mantelpiece. This, too, was a gift of the suitor Sissy couldn't stand. She was afraid that seeing his gifts in her parlor would encourage him too much, but they did help out, so she let them stay, though the sight of them did sicken her a little at times.
Roscoe was fat and amiable and entirely unromantic but Papa insisted that Sissy be nice to him. Roscoe was good and “steady,” — Papa mistrusted any would-be suitor who looked dapper and romantic.
“Just a dude! I saw him puffing away at a cigarette the other day downtown. I'm not going to have any daughter of mine going around with a little old dude like that,” he told Mama, and she knew there was no use to argue with him.
Sissy was nice to Roscoe to the extent of letting him walk her home from church sometimes and to call on Sunday afternoons, when Letty and Geneva and their beaux would be there, and she would not have to be alone with him.
Saturday afternoons when Sissy had finished the week's ironing with flatirons heated in the fireplace, she could spend sprucing up her beloved parlor to her heart's content. After sweeping and dusting, she clayed the hearth and andirons, tried the two rag rugs at different angles, fluffed up cushions on the sofa and chairs and stood back to admire the results of her handiwork and to happily contemplate the next afternoon when the parlor would be filled with music and laughter.
Saturday afternoons there was no chopping or other farm work. So, after dinner Buddy would start out to town, followed by Mama's gentle admonition, “Be home early, son.” Buddy, her first-born, had her gentle disposition and ways.
Papa would be sitting under the huge old elm in the yard, composing a speech he was to make or jotting down points for a debate speech on which one of his Boys had written asking for his help. Or, more than likely, he would be leaving in the surrey soon after dinner to make a speech somewhere in the county, with Mama standing at the gate to see him off.
Most of the afternoon Mama was busy getting our clothes ready for Sunday school and making preparations for Sunday dinner, in anticipation of the company we were almost sure to have. I was fully occupied caring for baby Vicky, who had arrived six months previously, and trying to answer at least part of four-year-old Nora's
unanswerable questions. Since I was five years ner senior, she thought I ought to know everything.
“Why don't you know?” she would demand, impatient with my ignorance.
Vicky had been born in December, a frail, sickly baby, instead of the sturdy boy, “Jimmy, the Second,” Papa had his heart set on. It was doubtful now that his dreams of another son would be realized. Mama's health had been even more frail since Vicky's birth. As the months went by, however, and Vicky grew plump and rosy and full of life and bounce, Papa made the proud announcement:
“Little Vicky's getting to be one of the blue hen's chickens, Ida.” And with this seal of approval stamped on the offspring she had given him, Mama knew that he was satisfied.
That was the summer when Papa added an ell-room at one end of the front porch to balance the one at the other end, painted the house and well shelter (all by himself), planted arborvitae and other evergreen shrubbery and made a number of improvements in general. With the house set back in the grove of oaks and elms and Prince and the surrey waiting at the front, as I envision it now, it was a scene to delight the soul of today's artist. In winter, add a freshly fallen snow to ground and roof and weighting down the shrubs and mighty branches of the oaks and elms, and I see a perfect setting for a Currier and Ives Christmas card.
Mama had finally convinced Papa that Sissy was growing up and that she must have things more like her girl friends. So Papa had carpeted the hall with matting, bought hall curtains, and told Mama to buy Sissy some pretty clothes.
“I want a drop-shouldered dress like Lettie's — you know, the yoke drops down over the shoulders. They're mighty stylish now.” Lettie was Sissy's best friend. They were inseparable. So Sissy borrowed Lettie's dress pattern and the next Sunday found her arrayed in her new drop-shouldered dress, plus leghorn hat with roses and high-heeled black slippers. Papa and Mama watched proudly from the front porch as she stepped into the top buggy with Lettie and one of Sissy's admirers, approved by Papa as being steady, and drove off to the John's Creek Church Reunion. Papa and the rest of the family would follow later in the surrey.
The Primitive Baptist Church was an ancient landmark and the annual all-day reunion, with picnic dinner served on the grounds,
an important occasion that brought crowds in buggies, carriages and wagons for miles around. Some came from a distance by train the previous Friday to visit relatives or friends in the hospitable community, in order to be present for Saturday's services when the reunion began. But Sunday was the big day, with hand-shaking, mounds of fried chicken, barbecued shoat, boiled tomthumb, cucumber and green-tomato pickles, coconut, chess and egg-custard pies and an inconceivable array of mouth-watering, thick-frosted cakes and loaves of fragrant, freshly-baked loaf bread and buttermilk biscuits. There were cakes of all descriptions: chocolate, caramel, lemon, orange, banana, pineapple, Lady Baltimore, and on and on without number. The good housewives always outdid themselves for these occasions.
That spring Grandma Westall's house had burned to the ground and she had come to live with us. Uncle Eustace and his family had at first been given shelter by neighbors and were now living in an old, abandoned store building in the community until a new home could be built on the site of the old. It was a windy March day when the fire occurred, so practically everything had been destroyed — the home to which Grandma had been taken as a bride and where her children had been born and reared, together with all the priceless little mementoes of their childhood. The old house had known sickness and health, joy and sorrow, birth and death. In it her first-born, and only daughter, had stood as a bride and from it had gone out with her husband to make a home of her own. In the little fenced-in plot her husband, John, and their infant daughter, Dora, lay sleeping in the shade of the giant cedar tree. And so on that March day a big portion of herself had died and been buried in the ashes of the old home. It had been the point of return for her boys, all of whom except Uncle Eustace had long since gone out into the world and were on their own. It was the point of return for her daughter and son-in-law and her grandchildren, the gathering-place for friends and neighbors.
Uncle John came at dusk and he and Grandma talked on the front porch alone, except for me, who somehow usually chanced to be around at any and all private family conferences. Uncle John, the son to whom she felt closest, had come as soon as he had heard. Two years before he had settled down in the village in the mercantile business and now owned a store of his own. At
thirty-two he was still unmarried and had continued to spend most of his week ends at the old home.
“I can stand it if you can, John.”
“I can stand it if you can, Ma.”
Another silence, standing there together in the gathering dusk, and Uncle John walked back down hill to the village. Grandma looked comforted when she went back into the house.
After that Grandma went about the house, her dear old face wearing the look of patient resignation to the inevitable that one sees on the faces of those who have experienced death. She went about the house, arms crooked at the elbows, hands in front of her, as she always had, in readiness to do the next task at hand. She helped with the household chores, rocked Baby Vicky to sleep, singing in her sweet, quavery voice, and sometimes nodding, and kept a clean starched apron conveniently at hand to change to when company dropped in unexpectedly. She and Mama had long confidential talks in close companionship; Uncle John came often and the other uncles came. But it was not the same, could never be.
Uncle Dolphus had passed the state bar examination a few years previously and was practicing law in the village. The year that Grandma came to live with us he surprised the family and himself by marrying a spinster of means in Charleston, following a brief courtship conducted mostly by the spinster herself. He set up an office in Brookfield and for a short time seemed to be doing well. He brought his bride to visit his family and she proved to be quite charming and gracious. Grandma and Mama were pleased — Uncle Dolphus, the odd one, the unpredictable, maybe now at last he had found himself.
His family's pleasure in his well-being was short-lived, however — Uncle Dolphus was not constituted to be a family man, to assume responsibility. He was not geared to the restrictions of convention which home and family life imposed on him. Besides, the routine of a regular job galled him. He was by nature indolent and impractical. When his mother-in-law came for a prolonged visit and expressed her opinion of him openly on several occasions, he spent more and more nights away from home and finally failed to return at all. In a few weeks he arrived at our house, bag and baggage, “to
help Jimmy on the farm for a while.” But he spent most of his time sitting on a rail fence down in a slope in the fields and looking off into space. Papa could not abide indolence and lack of purpose; and very soon Uncle Dolphus realized that he would be welcome only if he worked. So his stay with us was of short duration. In a few weeks he departed for parts unknown to try his luck and did not return until years later. Mama and Grandma were sad for several days after he left and Grandma would often sit brooding over the uncertain destiny of her strange offspring.
Late on an afternoon in June a visitor pulled up his horse and buggy at the front gate, started up the arborvitae-bordered walk to the house, then stopped midway and stood watching and listening in amusement. Nora had all of her paper doll family lined up against an oak tree for an audience while she told them all about Chicken Little and the sky falling. She was going full-blast, half-intelligible words tumbling over each other in her enthusiasm. When at last she paused to get her breath, the visitor inquired:
“Is your papa at home, honey?”
But Nora had not heard — so absorbed was she in her role as entertainer. Catching her breath, she was immediately going lickety-split again relating the adventures of Chicken Little, Turkey Lurkey, Ducky Lucky, and Foxy Loxy, her voice racing along with them as they hurried from one to the other with the tale of the falling sky. The visitor stood quietly amused another minute, waiting for a chance to repeat his question. Just as he saw signs that Nora would have to stop to catch her breath again, he saw Papa coming up from the field.
“Willis, how are you?” As they shook hands warmly. There was mutual admiration between the two and a close, sort of David and Jonathan friendship had grown up between them during the years.
“All right, Jimmy. How are you and the family?”
But Papa sensed that the visitor was not all right. He looked far from well and his voice was husky and strained. They went on up to the porch and were soon deep in earnest conversation.
Sissy had come around the house to draw a bucket of water and had seen the horse and buggy at the gate. She hurried back as fast as the full bucket would allow, spilling it on her dress and feet as she went.
“Mama, we've got company. There's a horse and buggy at the gate and I heard somebody talking to Papa on the porch. It sounded like Cousin Willis from Brookfield, only he was mighty hoarse, like he had a cold.” Cousin Willis was a kinsman on Mama's side. His mother had been a Westall.
Mama went out to greet her kinsman and so did Grandma, after changing to a clean starched apron, and they invited him to stay for supper.
Cousin Willis at first demurred, afraid his unexpected arrival would put them to trouble. Assured that it would not, he consented, “If you'll excuse me for leaving soon after supper, Ida.”
Mama cut a hunk out of the best-frying part of the ham, saved back for special company, and told Sissy to beat up some eggs for an omelet. All the hams but one had been sold and the proceeds had gone into the college education fund.
“Katie, run and pick up some chips, honey, to make the fire burn better and then go to the barn and tell Buddy to come and cut a turn of stovewood. We've got to have supper ready early; your Cousin Willis can't stay long.”
“Looks like the butter's about come, duck — I'll take it up soon as it does.” Grandma stopped churning to raise the lid on which big blobs of butter had formed and peered down into the churn. She gathered the butter and took it up with the dasher, worked and salted it to taste and put it in the fancy glass company butter dish.
“Jimmy'll want some of the fresh buttermilk for supper, I guess. Just leave it in the churn, Ma.”
“Katie, pick up the baby's playthings and give them back to her.” Vicky had thrown them all out of her reach and was yelling lustily from her pallet nearby.
Buddy had been sent to the yellow clearseed tree back of the kitchen for a pan of soft peaches and Sissy was peeling and cutting them up to eat with cream and sponge cake left over from Sunday dinner.
Mama took a look at the biscuits browning in the oven to see if they were about done, put the squash and snap beans left from dinner into company dishes and opened up a jar of watermelon-rind preserves and cucumber pickles. Grandma put a white table cloth over the everyday oilcloth on the dining table and got out the white-fringed napkins to match.
“Katie, call Nora in and put a clean apron on her — and her face and hands will have to be washed. Put a clean bib on the baby, too.” Vicky's bib was wet with clabbered milk she'd belched up.
Nora had gathered up her paper doll family from the tree roots and put them in a shoe box where she kept them and was now sitting on the front steps playing jack rock. She didn't mind being called from her game, for supper smelled good and she was getting hungry. But she rebelled at the cleaning-up process.
“Does my face have to be washed ev'y time and ev'y time and e'vy time I come in?” she demanded.
“Now hold still, Nora. You've got to be washed. Mama, make her stay still. She's jumping about so I can't wash her.” But to tell Nora to be still was the same as to tell the earth to stop turning, for she was never still except when she was asleep. Finally I managed to get her presentable though and now that she was ready to eat, she wanted to go into action. Without waiting to be told, she ran to the front porch to announce:
“Tupper's weady, Papa.”
“All right, Babe. In a minute, tell Mama.”
Cousin Willis was talking very earnestly and Papa was listening intently as if the matter under discussion was of the utmost importance.
Nora raced back to the kitchen and began jumping up and down impatiently.
“I told Papa tupper was weady but he won't come. He said in a minute and it's alweady a minute.”
Though it was still broad daylight, Sissy's rayo lamp was brought in from the parlor and placed in the center of the table, because: “It looks more cheerful with a lamp lighted,” Mama said.
She and Grandma stood back and surveyed the table critically. Sissy did likewise. Sissy thought there ought to be flowers on the table.
“Ma, if I'd known Willis was coming, I'd have had fried chicken.”
“In batter, Mama?” I asked. Mama's egg batter was even better than the chicken, I thought. Mama could make even a small fryer go a long way with plenty of batter and she always made extra to fry into little cakes for us children.
“Now, duck, this is a nice supper — nice enough for anybody. I know Willis'll think so — livin’ in town and everything to buy.”
Cousin Willis did indeed think so and helped himself bountifully to the ham and omelet and vegetables, but he and Papa were soon so engrossed in resuming their talk that food became a matter of secondary importance.
“Ida, I'm having to give up my work as county superintendent because of my health,” he said in his husky strained voice that by now had become little more than a loud whisper. “I want Jimmy to take over. The county board wants him, too. When I told them he was the best qualified man in the county for the place, they agreed unanimously.”
Mama sat up straighter and her face looked proud, as it always did when Papa was praised.
“Oh, I'm sorry about your health, Willis. If you take a rest, maybe you'll soon be all right. I'm sure you will,” she added encouragingly.
“No, I have to give it up; the doctor says so,” he replied, smiling a little sadly. He had held the position for twenty-two years and the work was close to his heart.
“Yes, I do need a rest. Oh, I'll be all right,” he went on cheerfully. “The doctor says just be lazy for a while, lie around and drink milk and eat plenty of raw eggs to build up. But this is a tough job for one man, even for a well man. Especially with the big school building program in progress now in the county. Jimmy can handle it — but he's the only man who can.” Papa's eyes met Mama's; he knew how proud she felt.
The talk then turned to local tax as a necessary means of meeting expenses for the building program; the schools that had already voted on it; and the opposition to the tax, in some districts.
“When will Jimmy have to take over, Willis?”
“In September, Ida; that's when I go out of office. The board meets next month and now that I know Jimmy will accept, his election will be a mere formality. It's as good as done already. Of course, Jimmy will have to find a place in Brookfield for you all to live. I'll inquire around myself and try to help him.”
After this Papa and Cousin Willis relaxed and the talk turned to lighter, everyday things. Cousin Willis asked about the crops and Papa and Mama inquired about friends in Brookfield. Papa told a funny story he'd used in his campaign speeches last year and that reminded Cousin Willis of a joke he'd heard. Cousin Willis laughed and enjoyed the occasion as much as anybody, in his quiet, serious
way. Though his laugh, like his speech, was husky and strained. Grandma, helping Mama out as hostess, was smiling and gracious. Sissy kept the table supplied with hot biscuits and served dessert.
That night Mama said it seemed to her Cousin Willis was mighty cheerful to be a sick man.
“It's the nature of the disease to be optimistic,” Papa said. “People with lung trouble are usually that way. It's a strange thing.”
Papa and Mama were troubled over Cousin Willis’ condition. His brother, Luke, had died of consumption. It ran in his family, they said.
“They want me to take Terry's place as principal of the school in Brookfield, Jimmy. Terry has resigned, to teach pedagogy at the State Normal,” Cousin Willis told Papa in late summer. “And, by the way, Terry's house will be vacant. Of course, I don't know when he'll move. He'll have to find a place in Greensboro to live first.”
After two months’ rest Cousin Willis seemed a new person. His voice was strong again, he had put on weight and much of his old vigor had returned.
“Maybe it's not consumption after all,” Papa told Mama. “I guess Willis just needed a rest. He says that since this will be a nine-months job, instead of year round, he's sure he's able to do it. He thinks too much responsibility over too many years finally wore him down. Besides, being out in all kinds of weather visiting schools was against him.”
It turned out that Mr. Terry could not find a place in Greensboro to move his family when the Normal opened in September. So Papa arranged to board with a cousin in Brookfield until the house would be vacant, which was late November. The house was old and Mr. Terry would sell at a bargain, so Papa decided to buy instead of rent.
Late every Saturday afternoon he returned home for the week end, brimming over with enthusiasm for his new work. He rejoiced in the educational awakening in the county which evidenced itself in so many ways, particularly the desire of the people in rural districts for better schools. He felt that the work gave him a broader opportunity for service than he had ever known. Cousin Willis was being the greatest help in the world while he was learning the work. They saw each other every day.
Mama, with Sissy's help after school and on Saturdays, was packing, sorting, discarding, storing, preparatory to our moving. Papa had rented out the farm and the tenant was to move in as
soon as we moved out. We would take the piano but leave the organ stored in an outhouse. Other pieces of furniture were disposed of in like manner. Of course, we would eventually come back. This was home; would always be home. The home to which we would return when Papa's enchanted dreams of the future came true. The home where Papa and Mama would live and take things easier when they were older; though the idea of Papa growing old, or taking things easier, seemed fantastic in the extreme. It was the home where they would be waiting to welcome each of us when we returned for visits from wherever we might be, out in the world, making them proud of us. It would be the point of return for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Of course, then the old place would be quite different. A beautiful colonial house with great white columns and broad verandas would stand back in the grove then. There would be a spacious driveway instead of the lane leading up to it from the road. There would be fine furniture inside and knee-deep velvety carpets would be on the floor. There was no doubt in our minds that all of this would be true.
The day after Cousin Willis’ visit Grandma had said:
“Ida, I'll go back home and live with Eustace and his family. The house will soon be ready to move into.” Uncle Eustace was rebuilding where the old home had stood.
“Why, Ma, you mean you're not going to Brookfield with us? Why, I hadn't dreamed you wouldn't. You don't mean that, do you? You know how much we all want you to go with us.”
“No, duck, I'm too old to go live in a strange place — I couldn't ever be satisfied. I'll just go back home.”
They were sad over the thought of separation. All of us were sad when, a few days before we moved, Uncle Eustace drove Mollie up to the gate, strapped Grandma's old brown trunk, with the dome-shaped top, to the back of the buggy and drove off down the lane. Grandma had become a member of the family during the past months. It was well that neither she nor Mama could know that they would not see each other again.
It was well that none of us were aware of the disrupting changes and heartbreak we would know in the months to come, when we, too, drove off up the lane toward the Brookfield road a few days later. Mama turned for a last backward look at the empty house, lost and forlorn amid the bare, leafless oaks and elms, and surrounded
by the fields of brown stalk and stubble, that drear November day. She was tired, so tired. Would she ever feel rested again? But, of course. There had just been too much to do lately getting ready to move. She had felt tired so long, though. Still, things would be different now. She could take things easier, now that we were leaving the farm. She would get well and strong again. Papa was sure of it. And Papa was usually right. She must not let him know how tired she was. He was so eager, so wrapped up in his new work. His coal-black eyes were on fire with enthusiasm, as he talked about it all during the fifteen-mile ride. Her Jimmy was happy, the children were well. That was all that mattered.22 ◀ A Lovely Light Goes Out
The house we moved into was a two-storied white frame house directly across from the graded school where Cousin Willis was now principal. We arrived after dark. Papa and Buddy put up beds and cookstove and Mama and Nancy unpacked sheets and quilts and coffee pot and we went to bed. All but Papa. He still had a night's work to do on papers he'd brought from the office.
“Jimmy, can't the rest of the things be gotten off the front porch before you go back to work?” Mama asked at noon next day, when Papa came home for the midday meal. Henry had moved in all that he could manage alone, while Mama and Nancy unpacked and put things in order during the morning. A heavy battered wardrobe and shabby bureau, that were to go upstairs, were still on the porch in full view of the entire school when they lined up in front of the building to march in after every recess. These pieces which were remnants of the sturdy furniture that had stood in the Boys’ room through the years, would hardly seem fitting, in the eyes of the public, for the new superintendent's home.
“We'll move ’em tonight, Ida. I've got to be at the Booker Lodge School to meet with the committee at two o'clock. They've voted special tax and are putting up a new building. From there I'm going to the Old Field School to make a speech. There's some opposition in the community to local tax and the committee is not sure it will pass. They've called a meeting of the people to hear me speak. The old building is one of the worst in the county.”
Papa was gulping his second cup of coffee. He had barely tasted the food before him.
“Papa, please! Can't the things just be gotten off the front porch? The whole school stared at them at recess. They'll think that's the best furniture we've got.”
Nancy had been miserable when the school lined up by grades at the end of the morning recess. She had sensed the curious stares directed across the street. Soon now they would be lining up and staring again. She felt she couldn't endure the embarrassment a second time.
“Why, honey, there's nothing to be embarrassed over. Nobody's thinking about what we've got on the porch. I'll get it moved tonight, sure; got to run in a minute.”
He gulped a third cup of coffee. “Just something to stimulate me — don't have time for anything else” — and rushed out to hitch up.
Mama, exhausted after the morning's work, had been forced to lie down for a while. Coming into the dining room now, and seeing that Papa had scarcely eaten at all, she looked worried. She went out to him hitching up and begged him to come back in and eat. But in no time he was off, calling back to her not to break herself down, he'd be back before dark.
After school that afternoon Sallie Cates, a cousin near my age who lived out from Brookfield, came across from school to see me. Nancy, putting things to order in the adjoining room, overheard the conversation. Sallie was repeating a remark one of the girls had made at recess.
“Look at that old bureau and wardrobe! We wouldn't have anything like that in our house,” Sara Johns had said. Sallie said she thought it was mean of Sara to say it.
Nancy felt that we were disgraced. How could she bear to go to school after that? How could she hold up her head Monday morning when she faced her senior classmates, when even the younger girls were making fun of our possessions? She'd never live it down — never! She was marked in the beginning, before they even knew her.
Suddenly she knew a swift feeling of fierce pride and loyalty that embraced even the shabby old wardrobe and bureau.
“Those things don't mean a snap of your finger, Babe,” she
could hear Papa say, sitting on the back porch those summer twilights. She recalled just the way he snapped his fingers to emphasize the words. The whole picture came back to her. Nora and Vicky on his knees, Katie, the frail one, close by and drawn into his embrace. Buddy on the steps washing his feet in the basin or pinching off his nails down to the quick. Mama standing in the doorway to cool off a minute, her tired face lighting up at Papa's words.
“Your mama will dress in silks and satins — why she'll be a queen!”
She could see the pride in his eyes as he looked round on his little family.
“Your mama and I will be so proud of you. Just you wait and see! We'll come out at the big end of the horn. Then you can have all of these things and more.”
Big end of the horn, big end of the horn; these things don't mean a snap of your finger. The words beat a steady refrain in her consciousness. Well, maybe they wouldn't some day. But right now they mattered terribly. Papa just couldn't see it. But, well, anyway she had only the rest of the school year. Next year she'd be in college.
The sense of fierce pride and loyalty sustained her when she walked into the senior classroom on Monday morning. Everybody was nice to her. After all, she was the new superintendent's daughter, shabby furniture or not. Besides she was pretty; and she had an aloof, proud look and manner. They couldn't know how much of that was timidity.
Cousin Willis taught the senior class. She felt more at home with him sitting up there on the little rostrum. He was of the familiar things: his kind face; his hand cupped back of his right ear when somebody didn't speak clearly enough.
I had kept up with my class by studying at home when I was not well enough to be in school. It was a proud day for me when Miss Mattie Arnold, the teacher, read one of my compositions aloud, saying it was the best in the class.
Miss Mattie, in her mid-thirties, was pale and slender with black curly hair and very bright black eyes. She was a scion of the proud Arnold family; aloof, aristocratic, yet kind and understanding. All of us loved and respected her.
Her constant companion was a beautiful shepherd dog. It was a familiar sight to see them walking along the street, to and from
school. The dog waited patiently on the school ground, or in the hall in bad weather, till the bell for dismissal at noon, to accompany his mistress home for the midday meal and then back to school to wait till it was out.
Henry immediately got a job in the Watkins Drug Store. A career as college professor, Latin or other foreign language preferably, had been cut out for him by Papa at birth. But it was now evident that Papa's dream would not be realized.
“Papa, I think I want to be a doctor,” he had begun saying more and more.
“All right, son, if you're sure that's what you want. That's fine.”
Nora thought “Buddy's drugstore” was the most wonderful place in the world. When she saw the family was too occupied to notice her absence for a while she would often slip quietly out of the house, then run as fast as she could the four blocks to the store. She knew that when she left the store she would have a little bag of candy in her hand. If she had no penny, she had always “losted” it — especially if Buddy chanced not to be in at the time.
Mama's health began failing fast now. Instead of growing stronger after we moved, she had lost weight rapidly and her once clear lovely skin had lost its transparent glow and was now more like ivory. She had grown increasingly tired and easily exhausted. An expression of unutterable weariness and sadness, mingled with resignation, had taken the place of her radiant, uplifted look of earlier years. In late February she was forced to take to her bed for a while. There were spells of violent nausea.
“Just a bilious attack, like I have every year about this time,” she told Papa. “I'll be all right after a course of calomel.” She did seem better, after complete rest for two or three weeks, and could be up and around doing household chores again. Papa felt sure that now she would be all right. The troubled look he'd worn for sometime disappeared. Then unexpectedly one day in March it happened. There was a knock on my classroom door. It was Nancy.
“Miss Mattie, I'd like to get Katie, please. Mama's sick.”
We found Papa and the doctor and a next-door neighbor by Mama's bed. Mama was very sick indeed. The neighbor who had gone for us had chanced to come in and had found her in a state of complete collapse. Nora and Vicky were building a playhouse in the sunny backyard, unaware that anything unusual had happened. Buddy was soon there standing around looking troubled,
lonely and defenseless. There was a strong bond between Mama and her first-born.
“Complete rest in bed for several weeks,” the doctor said. “And I'm giving her a sedative for sleep and a tonic to build her up.”
Buddy hurried to the drugstore to get the prescriptions filled. Papa stayed home with Mama all morning. When he left for the office after dinner the look of troubled anxiety he had worn most of the winter had returned.
Mama rallied from the collapse to some extent, but a month passed and she was still too weak to leave her bed. She began suffering from excruciating pains in her lower abdomen.
Papa found a colored woman to stay during the day and I stopped school to care for Nora and Vicky and to be around when Mama needed anything. Papa went to the office as usual, Buddy to the drugstore, and Sissy to school. But a cloud of anxiety hovered over the home.
Nancy graduated in May, and June came and went. Mama could now stay up a little while each day. We began to take fresh hope that she would get well. Papa wrote to the State Normal for a catalogue and he and Mama made plans for Sissy to enter in the fall. Henry was to enter a college in Richmond to study pharmacy. The two-year course was basically the same as the first two years in medicine.
“If you have definitely decided you want to be a doctor by that time, you can change to medicine,” Papa said.
The summer was a strenuous one for Papa. A teacher's institute was held in Brookfield and two other nearby towns. The building program was in full swing and required frequent trips over the county to let out old buildings for sale, and meetings with local school committees to plan ways and means of meeting expenses for new buildings. His crusade for local tax, as the proper solution, was carried on through speeches over the county and through a weekly column in the Brookfield Herald. Examinations for teachers were held in his office and meetings with local committeemen to secure teachers for the coming year. Teachers who lived at a distance in the county sometimes spent the night with us during examinations and often there were several for dinner during institute week in Brookfield. Papa worked at the office every day till dark and brought home an arm load of work to be done at night.
Instead of Prince and the old open family surrey, it was now
Lizzie and a top buggy that took him over the county. The surrey had been traded in for a second-hand top buggy which Papa himself had painted a shining black when he started his campaign for the legislature. Papa had been proud of his paint job and said: “Now if that's not a bang-up good campaign buggy, I'll eat my hat.”
Mama had cried when Prince, too old for strenuous farm work, was traded for Lizzie. It was a sad time for all of us the morning Prince was driven away by his new master. Hard pressed for money, this had seemed the only solution to Papa.
When Papa came home from town one day a few weeks later saying that he had seen Prince and telling all about the joyful whinnying noises of recognition Prince had made at the sound of Papa's voice, he blew his nose hard a time or two and couldn't talk any more for a minute or two. We rarely spoke of Prince after that but we missed him dreadfully and wondered how he fared. Papa could never get adjusted to Lizzie or any other horse after Prince. There had been rare understanding and comradeship between man and beast.
At one time Lizzie developed a hoof disease that almost crippled her. Every morning, before leaving for the office, Papa cleaned and doctored her feet. He would come from the stable with a foul odor clinging to his shoes and clothes.
“Jimmy, you'll have to change your clothes and clean and polish your shoes before going to the office,” Mama would say. “The odor is terrible.”
“Don't have time, Ida. I'm late already. Take care of yourself. You girls take care of your mama,” he would say as he rushed out.
One day he came home with a new suit of clothes. Mama had been pleading with him to buy himself a suit for a long time. His one good suit had long since gotten to the shabby stage, so that now careful pressing could no longer make it look wholly presentable.
“Haven't had time to see about it today. I'll do it tomorrow,” he would say. Or, “This suit's all right — nothing the matter with it.”
He looked fine next morning when he donned his best white shirt with the pleated front, painstakingly ironed by Sissy, and the new black serge suit. Shortly before leaving for the office he made for the back door. Mama had a strong suspicion of what he was going to do.
“Jimmy, you're not going to the stable to doctor the horse in the
new suit, are you? Oh, no! You can't, Jimmy! Please!” Mama called after him.
“Now, Ida, just don't worry,” he called back. “It won't hurt this suit a bit, and I'm in a hurry.”
Mama's face took on the look it always did on such occasions — a mixture of helpless exasperation, maternal tenderness and resignation to the inevitable. Well, Nancy would press his old suit today for him to wear tomorrow, while she cleaned, aired and sunned the odor out of the new one, she thought. Maybe Lizzie would soon be well of that disease — she hoped so.
Anyway there were other more serious worries. Buddy was in bed with a mild case of typhoid fever and she was growing more discouraged about her own condition. For several days she had suffered from diarrhoea, accompanied at times by almost unbearable pain. Her one venture out-doors, in the shady backyard, two days ago, had caused a relapse, so that she had not been able to be out of bed since.
In early August came a letter from Uncle Eustace saying that Grandma Westall was very sick. Mama was much weaker now and rarely able to sit up, even in bed. The doctor had changed medicines several times but each change gave only temporary relief. That Papa was growing more and more alarmed over her condition was painfully evident. Papa's face always registered every shade of his emotions — whether of joy or sorrow. And Mama, though calm outwardly, often had a haunting fear in her eyes now.
“Jimmy, if you have bad news, don't tell me,” she said when Papa came home to dinner a few days later. Mama knew. It was written on his face. But she could not bear the spoken words, “Your ma is dead” — not today anyway. It would be less hard to read it in the Brookfield Herald when it came out Friday. Maybe she'd feel stronger and more able to bear it then — maybe.
But that pain in her lower abdomen was daily growing more severe. She tried to suppress the groans of suffering when it tore at her body. The doctor's medicine no longer did much to lessen the pain. She tried to be cheerful as she lay weak and spent all during the long hot summer days, looking upon those she loved, advising, comforting each and every one, as she always had.
Buddy was able to be back at the drugstore now. He came and went looking lost, lonely and troubled. Mama had always understood him — his timidity, his gentle, shy ways, his lack of clear-cut
direction and burning zeal that were so much a part of Papa. Mama understood him as nobody else did — ever could.
September came. Long ago Papa had stopped talking about either Buddy or Sissy entering college. Mama and Sissy had spoken less and less, as the summer wore on, of how many middy blouses, skirts and dresses Sissy would need; of princess slips and camisoles to be made; of bed linens needed for her dormitory room. Now those things were never spoken of at all. As the month wore on Mama grew steadily worse. Her head had to be lifted, pillow and all, for her nourishment of broth and eggnog. The wracking pains grew even more severe and harder to bear. Her face was drained of all color, her body a mere skeleton.
Yet, strangely enough, none of us were prepared, Papa least of all, for what happened the second week in October.
Mama had to get well. She simply had to. On days when she felt a little stronger and better, our hopes soared unreasonably. Soon she would take a turn for the better and in time would be well again. It had to be that way!
The day had started no different from any other. Papa left for the office and Buddy for the drugstore at the usual time that morning. Sissy was in the kitchen busy about the midday meal. Nora was next door playing with the Brooks children. I was alone with Mama when the doctor came, except for Vicky playing on the floor with her toys.
The doctor made his routine examination, started asking the usual questions: how she was feeling, if she had slept well, had she been able to take nourishment. Mama stopped his questioning with a steady, piercing look.
“Doctor, will I ever be any better?” The steady piercing look demanded the truth.
“Mrs. Dennis, I think it is doubtful you will ever be any better,” he answered gently.
Mama looked back at him steadily but said no more. After he left she lay with closed eyes, calm, composed, resigned, her lips slightly moving from time to time, as if in prayer. She had lain that way for five minutes or more when Papa came home. As he entered the room she looked up at him steadily and said just as steadily:
“Jimmy, I know the truth now. I shall never be any better. I wanted to know and the doctor told me.”
Without a word Papa fell to his knees by her bed and buried his face in the covers. Great wracking sobs shook his body. Papa, always so strong, so unafraid, always master of the situation, had suddenly become defenseless — a lost, lonely little boy. Mama lifted her white, skeleton hand and placed it on his head, gently stroking as if to soothe and comfort the hurt child kneeling there. Gradually the wracking sobs grew quieter.
Child though I was, I recognized something Holy in the room. And something told me the Holiness was Mama's and Papa's alone. So picking Vicky up from the floor, I tiptoed from the room.
I did not cry when I went to find Sissy. And neither did Sissy. A merciful numbness and unawareness sustained us. Buddy broke down when we told him. No merciful numbness sustained him.
The uncles were notified and came. Mama lay quiet, composed, a faraway look in her eyes, as if she were already partly in another world. She called the name of each of her brothers, as separately they entered the room. And always quietly, calmly, she spoke to any of us present, during the remainder of that day and the next.
Papa roamed the house lost, distracted, bereft, when he was not by her side. Sometimes when out of her sight and hearing, he would give way to the wracking sobs. I was always to remember her last words to me late the second night:
“Honey, you'd better go to bed.” I was not yet strong and she was concerned over my losing sleep.
Before lapsing into a coma in the early hours before dawn she called Papa, Henry and Nancy to her side to bless and comfort them and to commit Nora and Vicky and Katie to their care. She was only going on ahead, to be with the two babies, little John and Irene, and would be there waiting for us. The end came shortly before noon.
Uncle Wesley, who came from a distance, arrived early next morning. He gathered each of us children to him and sobbed openly. Uncle Wesley, whom we had always known, so reserved, dignified, aloof. This was a new Uncle Wesley; a stranger. He and Mama had been very close.
Aunt Easter came. The neighbors came and went, everybody wanting to help in some way.
Papa roamed the house with a lost, defenseless, stricken look in his eyes and around his mouth. He kept going back to the parlor where Mama lay in her coffin looking sweet and peaceful and at
rest. There was no evidence of the months of agonizing pain on her face. Instead, there was a look of strength, of fortitude; a triumph of spirit over the body.
Papa stroked the dark curly hair back from the smooth, unlined forehead and spoke, half to himself, of their years together:
“She could never go to sleep with any misunderstanding or hard feeling between us. Just before going to sleep she would slip her hand into mine, forgiving all.”
Sometimes he gathered Nora or Vicky up in his arms, holding them close for a few minutes. Then he would go back to the parlor to stand by Mama again.
Mama was laid to rest in the family plot, next to the two tiny graves, in the Dickson cemetery. The next day Papa said:
“These words are to be inscribed on the headstone: ‘She hath done what she could.’ For,” he said, “she gave her all.”
It is hard now to think of Mama in an earthly sense. She was too much of the spirit for that. Rather, she is to me, in memory, a steady, glowing light. A light that remained unfaltering and sure when her tortured body had all but wasted away. A light that could triumph over agony of body and soul; over death itself. A lovely light that has continued to shed its rays of healing and benediction on us through the long years since it has gone out.23 ◀ The Hearth-Fire Burns Low
Henry and Nancy entered college in November. Nancy wanted to stay at home. She knew that she was needed to keep house for the family and care for Nora and Vicky. She knew that I would be lost without her. She knew that Papa needed her.
“No, the children and I will get along all right,” Papa told her. “I'll get somebody to keep house for us. You and Henry must go on to college and prepare yourselves to make a living.” (Did he have a premonition that the time was short before they would need to do just that? After he was gone the younger ones would be in their care. Katie had always been frail. Yes, they must go on.) So Nancy's pleading to stay at home availed nothing.
Then began Papa's search for a housekeeper. Somebody must be found to care for Vicky through the day while I was at school (Nora had entered school that year too), and to cook and keep
the home fires burning. Surely if he kept looking he could find such a person. But the search for a satisfactory person seemed fruitless. After trying out several who proved to be wholly, or in part, inadequate for our needs he went to see Aunt Mary.
“Let me keep the baby this winter, Jimmy, till Nancy comes home in the spring.” Papa knew that Aunt Mary would give Vicky the mothering she needed. He would bring her next day, he said. Yes, he and Nora and I would make out, he assured Aunt Mary, so not to worry about us.
Sissy read Papa's letter with a leaden heart. Baby Vicky away from home, away from her family. She was so little, so dependent. That Aunt Mary would fill the mother-need better than anybody else could, she knew. Also, all of them — Uncle Rufe, especially, when he was not on a drunken spree — would lavish loving care on her. But the house was open and drafty. There was the continual opening and shutting of doors, letting in cold draughts of air. Little Vicky would be sick. If Papa had only let her stay at home this year! And how would Katie and Nora fare? Nora was little too, only six and needed mothering — in spite of her little independent ways and self-sufficiency. Katie knew almost nothing of cooking and housekeeping. Just Katie and Nora alone except at nighttime. And what would they do when Papa had to be away from home at night? They couldn't be left alone. Then there was Papa so bereft and lonely without Mama. Oh, if only Papa would let her go back home! But she knew it was needless to ask.
“What's the matter, honey?” Her roommate, Lila, was big and fat and jolly. “You look so worried. Was there bad news in your letter?”
Sissy poured the whole pitiful little story into Lila's sympathetic ears.
“Don't worry too much, honey. Things will work out. They always do. And remember — you've got that Latin test under Old Battle Axe tomorrow!”
That did it. Sissy's mind snapped back to the exigency of the moment — to the open textbook before her. Her first test. Everybody was scared to death of Miss Snoddy. Most of all, they stayed in dread of her withering sarcasm. Entering late (Miss Snoddy had made allowance for that), Sissy had not come in for much of that yet but she knew her time was coming. Lila was a big help —
drilling her on conjugations, declensions and translations she had missed because of entering late.
Back at home in Brookfield Katie had just finished washing the supper dishes and setting the table for breakfast. In Mama's room (it was still “Mama's Room”), Papa had Nora on his lap and was holding her spellbound with one of his fascinating witch stories. Katie could hear Nora's excited exclamations and questioning. She would join them in a minute and hear the rest of the story. Every night he told us a wonderful story, heard Nora read her next day's lesson and helped me with my homework, before settling down to his work brought from the office. Soon now he would hear Nora say her prayers and tuck her in bed for the night.
The next day there came a message from Aunt Mary. Vicky had pneumonia. Papa was to come at once. I threw a few clothes in Papa's valise while he was hitching up, and in a few minutes Lizzie was in a fast trot taking us to Vicky.
Little Vicky was in a critical condition when we arrived. Aunt Mary wore an agonized expression on her motherly face. Her eyes were red from weeping. Papa was almost beside himself with anxiety and remorse. If she had stayed at home, he thought, this would not have happened. Frantically I prayed for Vicky to live. I felt that I should add “If it be Thy will.” But I couldn't. I was afraid it might not be His will. And Vicky must live. I couldn't bear it if anything happened to little Vicky.
Buddy and Sissy were wired to come and the next three days Vicky's life hung in the balance. A pall of anxiety hung over everything and for once the house was quiet. There was no door-slamming. Uncle Rufe stayed sober and stopped yelling at Aunt Mary to wait upon him. The boys tried to keep the dogs from barking and tiptoed quietly through the house. All of them loved little Vicky.
Finally a voice straight from Heaven:
“Your baby will live, Jimmy.” It was the doctor's voice at five o'clock in the morning. The crisis had passed, he said. Her temperature was down and she was breathing freely. We began to live again. Papa's face lost its tortured look. Aunt Mary cried for joy and became her little jolly, bustling self again. Uncle Rufe blew his nose loud a time or two and let out a cuss word at the cat curled up by the fire, to hide his emotion.
We ate a big breakfast of sausage and eggs and crackling biscuits and black molasses. Uncle Rufe went back to yelling and cussing and demanded that Aunt Mary bring on the chitlin’ works, when he saw they were not on the table, and told her if she was goin’ to wait on the table, “For Gawd's sake, wait upon it.” The dogs went back to barking, the doors to slamming. Things were back to normal.
In a few days Sissy and Buddy went back to college. A day later Papa left to catch up on some pressing work in the office, saying he'd be back for the week end. Nora and I stayed on at Aunt Mary's till Vicky was well again. In the meantime Nora came down with mumps. Most of the swelling was centered below her chin, forming a triple chin, which gave her earnest little face a comical look. She was not sick much and now that Vicky was regaining her strength and happily singing her doll to sleep in a big patchwork cushioned rocking chair, we could all feel glad again.
“Next week end I'll come for you children,” Papa had said. “Katie, you can stay home from school and take care of Vicky till I find somebody.”
It was wonderful to have little Vicky back home well and strong. Now it seemed more like home again. Papa worried about my missing time from school and tried to find a satisfactory combination housekeeper and caretaker for Vicky; but with the same results as before. Finally, at dinner one day he said:
“Well, I have good news, children. I think I've found just the person I've been looking for. Somebody told me about her yesterday. This morning when I was in Princeton I went round to see her.”
One of those good old “befo’ de wah” darkies, the friend had said — “not many of them left.” Papa told us all about it. She lived with a son, Preston, and his family — all of them good, hardworking people. Everybody in town spoke well of them. The house and yard were clean and “neat as a pin,” Papa said.
“If you can just get her, your troubles will be over, Jimmy,” a friend in the community had said.
The very next afternoon Papa went back to Princeton. It was almost dusk when he returned. Nora and Vicky and I were in the kitchen. Vicky was in her little red Santa Claus rocking chair singing to her doll. I was putting biscuits in the pan to bake as I
made them out. Nora was standing beside me on tiptoe, coupling them off for companionship and combined duty.
“This one can talk to that one and they can work together,” she soliloquized, pointing to said biscuits. “And this one can talk to that one and they can work together.” She wanted none to be lonesome and none must be idle.
“A chip off the old block,” Papa often called her.
She was half-way through arranging their lives, before I put them in the oven, when we heard Papa's “Whoa!” to Lizzie, as he pulled up in the back yard. We heard him speak to someone, then his foot on the step. Vicky squealed with joy:
“Papa's tum!” Nora ran to unfasten the door. And then Aunt Viney walked into our lives.24 ◀ Aunt Viney
“Children, this is Aunt Viney,” announced Papa as he entered the kitchen with a small, quaint, wizened, very black, very bright-eyed creature who held herself straight and proud.
“Aunt Viney's going to keep house for us and take care of you children. These are my children, Aunt Viney — Katie and Nora, and the baby is Vicky,” he explained, gathering Vicky up in his arms. The “Wock-a-bye Baby” had come to an abrupt halt — the doll and red rocker forgotten at Papa's entrance. From the protecting safety of Papa's arms Vicky now stared wide-eyed at the stranger.
“Has Papa's baby been a good girl? Katie, show Aunt Viney to her room. I'll look after the biscuits and sausage. Nora, have you been smart and helped Katie?”
Nora was standing transfixed, fascinated by the black-as-aces face, and bright beady eyes, the odd-looking hat perched precariously atop the innumerable pigtails tightly bound together with white thread, so that they formed a close-fitting crown for the small head; at the battered valise and pasteboard box Aunt Viney was holding.
On entering, Aunt Viney's piercing eyes had darted here and there, taking in the disordered kitchen, the funny-shaped biscuits in the pan just ready for the oven, the dough still clinging to my hands (how did folks get rid of the sticky stuff, enough to shape
“Ain't nobody gonna hurt my chilluns dis night!”
the biscuits?), the dough-covered handle of the frying pan and long fork I had used in turning the sausage, while mixing the dough. In fact bits of dough clung to everything I had touched. I had tried to master the technique of biscuit making but without success. Sissy could make such pretty, smooth-looking biscuits and not get everything stuck up. How did she do it?
“Never mind, Babe,” Papa said. “You'll learn. You're doing fine.” At least I deserved “A” for effort, he said with an encouraging twinkle.
Before leaving the room Aunt Viney's beady, all-seeing eyes fastened on us. She looked at each of us long and speculatively, then slowly shook her head but said nothing.
“Motherless chilluns just don't look lak udder chilluns,” she commented later. “Dey has a different look in dey eyes.”
By the end of next day Aunt Viney had taken over completely. The house had been cleaned from A to izzard, the pots and pans scrubbed bright and shining, and a general air of orderliness prevailed. A good supper smell was in the air when Papa came up the front walk after a more than usually strenuous day in the office.
In the circle of the lamplight he could see the three of us plainly — Katie, with open textbook on the table before her, working diligently on her home assignment (I had gone back to school that day); Nora, standing by, plying her with questions that would not be denied long; Vicky in her little red rocker singing her doll to sleep. A cheerful fire on the hearth sent leaping shadows on the walls. He stopped midway the walk, drinking in the scene within. A flood of relief swept through him; a sense of home-coming, that eased the ache and loneliness. Did Ida know and share his feeling of relief? Somehow he felt that she did.
A sense of her nearness suddenly came over him. A feeling that she too was there within. An unseen presence in the circle of the lamplight waiting for him. That she had been there all the time, had never left. But that in his bereavement and sense of loss, he had built a wall that had divided them; that had shut his awareness of her out. That henceforth they would walk hand in hand. She would be with him always, sustaining, warming, comforting. The ache and loss would never be so great again. Together they would raise their children, make their dreams come true; the things they had labored together for all those years; the plans they had made; the dreams they had dreamed — they had not been dreamed in
vain. They would be realized. She was with him and would be to the end. He saw her as she was in those days when she sang at her work, when she joined in the laughter and gaiety around the great oak fire on winter nights, supplying alto for his rollicking songs, laughing with the children over his funny stories. Listening as eagerly as they did those summer twilights on the back porch while he transported them to a magic land woven of dreams for their future, when they would come out at the big end of the horn.
“Your mama will dress in silks and satins — why, your mama will be a queen!”
He could see her back straighten, her tired face relax and look proud; proud of her Jimmy. Proud because of her love for him and her belief in him. He knew now that such love as theirs could transcend even death itself. “O grave, where is thy victory?” Their love and faith were eternal.
A sound of laughter from within brought him back to the present. Nora and Vicky were gazing at Katie spellbound while she, her work abandoned for the moment, told them the story of the “Crooked Mouth Family.”
How Ida had loved to see them as they were now! Suddenly he felt her Presence beside him; felt her hand in his, as it was that October day almost six months ago when he had knelt by her bed, knowing she could not get well. The dear hand he had sought and found as it rested on his bowed head trying to give him strength and comfort. Only now it was not a feeble, skeleton hand from which the flesh had wasted away — but strong and firm and warm as it had been when she was well. He squared his shoulders purposefully, a sense of renewed strength in his body and in his step. And with hand-in-hand assurance, he entered the house.
“Aunt Viney, I have to be away from home tonight,” Papa said the next morning at breakfast. He explained that he would often have to be away all night, occasionally two nights at the time, visiting schools over the county — both white and colored — but adding that he knew we would be all right while he was gone.
Aunt Viney's beady eyes snapped to attention.
“Now don't you worry none ’bout dat, Fessor. Dese chilluns'll be took keer of same's ef you was heah. Yassuh, dey'll be as snug as a bug in a rug,” she finished with a chuckle.
Hearing, I thought: How wonderful — no more phoning to tell Miss Martha across the street that we would be alone — though
Miss Martha had said always to let her know and she'd come if she could. No more refusing the old-maid Lane sisters’ invitation for us to go over and spend the night with them next door. They couldn't sleep in any bed but their own, they explained, but would be glad for us to spend the night there. Miss Martha tried to make me feel comfortable about her coming. But a fierce pride and a shrinking from a “beholden” feeling, sometimes kept me silent when Papa had to be away before Vicky was brought home. No, I would not be beholden to anybody for favors. Nora and I would spend the night alone. I would say nothing to anybody. I would lock up before night and pray hard all night, and maybe nothing would hurt us.
The agony of fear experienced those long winter nights would haunt the child, Katie, for a long time to come. There would be nights of remembering, when I lay in bed on winter nights, listening to the ghost-wind howling outside, moaning through the branches of the trees. Nora sleeping peacefully by my side was blissfully unaware of my fears. (Thank Heaven I had been able to keep it from Nora, how afraid I was!) Afraid to go to sleep. I must stay awake and keep praying. But merciful sleep finally overpowered my child-body, bringing blessed oblivion. Waking in the cold dawn, to breathe a prayer of Thanksgiving that the sinister night was over. I must not let Papa know — I must not let Sissy know. Sissy could not sleep those nights if she knew we were alone.
I came home from school that afternoon to find Aunt Viney sitting in the chimney corner with Mama's darning basket beside her, busily plying her needle. She had looked in all the bureau drawers, to see what needed mending. On a chair beside her were a stack of Papa's socks, Nora's and Vicky's stockings and drawer-bodies, my underskirts and a shirt of Papa's with the collar needing to be turned. Nora was on the hearth popping corn over a bed of red-hot coals, Vicky's plump little body was squatting beside her, her doll clasped protectingly in her arms. A good smell was in the room.
Aunt Viney's body was swaying rhythmically to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” especially to the “Swing Low” part. Her voice falling almost to a whisper, then swelling out loud and clear at the “Comin’ fo’ to carry me home.” She stopped from time to time to admonish Nora and Vicky:
“Move back a little, chilluns, so yo’ clothes won't ketch fire.
Heah, Nora, shake dat air popper, so's the cawn won't burn — an’ so's it all get popped.”
“Katie,” she said at the end of her song, “you go to de kitchen an’ git de salt an’ butter. Dey's some warm taters in de stove ef yo's hongry. Nora an’ Vicky's already et tell I's ’fraid dey'd bus wide open. Don’ see how dey can hol’ no pop cawn. But Nora's boun’ I'd larn her how to pop it.”
The kitchen was fragrant with the mingled odors of baked sweet potato and back bone still simmering in the pot. I was starved. Seemed I could never be filled since I'd gotten over that stomach trouble when I couldn't eat for so long. Papa said I was having to make up for lost time, he guessed.
Nora finished popping the corn and tried to teach Vicky how to play jack rocks but Vicky soon lost interest and returned to her little red rocker. I buttered and salted the dish of popcorn under Aunt Viney's supervision. Nora and Vicky and I usually ate it just so, but the butter and salt made it taste so much better. I was beginning to find out that Aunt Viney knew how to make everything taste better.
Aunt Viney had gone back to her singing. Reminding her Maker that though she was sometimes up an’ sometimes down, still her soul was Heavenly boun’, she finished the stanza to the chorus before she answered my question.
“Yes, yore pa left ’bout one o'clock, honey. Leastwise, it was right after he et his dinner. You an’ Nora ain't no mo'n went back to school ’fore he bounded in an’ said he had to leave right away. He ain't take sca'cely no time to eat fo’ he bounded out de do’ to hitch up. An’ den he tuk off.” She shook her head thoughtfully.
“Tain't right fo’ folks not to take no time to eat dere vittles. Vittles keeps us goin’,” she ended, reaching down into her pocket for her snuff box.
“Nora, you an’ Vicky don't eat no’ mo’ o’ dat pop cawn. You'll bus’ wide open. ’Sides you'll spile your supper. I'se gon'er cook tater biscuits fo’ supper and yo’ got to leave a little speck a room in yo’ stummick fo’ dem, ain't you?” Um-m-hot sweet potato biscuit and butter! And there was the backbone — and no telling what else for supper!
How different from those afternoons when I had come home from school to a cold house. Papa was afraid to leave a fire burning, afraid the house would burn down. He had always, when he was
not too tied up at the office, come home and had a fire in the kitchen stove when Nora and I came home to dinner. When he was away I had asked Miss Mattie to let me come home a half hour before dinner. I must have things warm for Nora. A cheerless, sketchy, warmed-over meal; then the rush back to school at the sound of the lining-up bell.
After school I would hurry home and build a fire in the fireplace and have the room warm before I called Nora home from next door where she played with the Brooks children. Mrs. Brooks insisted that Nora go over there every day after school and stay till I got out a half-hour later.
Nora and I would eat our cold sweet potatoes before the fire. The beds were to make, the floor to be swept; there hadn't been time before school that morning. Nora would get on the other side of the bed and help me beat up the feather-bed and straighten the covers on her side. But Nora was too little to sweep the floor clean. Soon a fire must be built in the kitchen stove, the dirty dishes washed and supper cooked. That night things would be all right again. Papa would hold Nora on his lap and tell stories and sing his rollicking songs just as he used to do. He always wanted to hear Nora read before he helped her with her prayer and tucked her in bed. He would then help me with my arithmetic and spelling and geography before he read the newspaper or did any of his work. Papa trying so hard to take Mama's place — to make things seem as they were before Mama went away. Too young to understand, I nevertheless sensed something of his loneliness and pathetic attempt to fill the role of both mother and father when he was at home. I knew that he missed little Vicky too, just as Nora and I did. That he worried about her in Aunt Mary's drafty house, afraid she would take cold. He often worried aloud. Then the day we knew little Vicky had pneumonia. The agonizing days that followed.
All that was over now. No more the lonely, bleak winter afternoons and Saturdays — just Nora and I till Papa got home at dark. No more the mournful noise the pigeons made in the parlor chimney. Papa said they evidently had a nest. So he'd built a fire in the fireplace and smoked them out. We never had a fire in the parlor now with Sissy away. Sissy — the thought of Sissy being home again brought a feeling of all-rightness. It was late February now and in three months Sissy and Buddy would be home. Buddy
would work in Mr. Watkins drugstore all summer — How wonderful it would be — Summer, and Buddy and Sissy at home!
I was roused from my reverie by strange sounds. My! it was getting dark. I must have fallen asleep and been dreaming. I discovered what the strange sounds were when Aunt Viney came hurrying and began shutting and fastening the window blinds, Nora and Vicky following close at her heels.
“I'se already shet de udders; Katie, you go an’ lock de front do’. De back hall do's already locked. Reckon dat's all ’cept de kitchen do’.” In a few moments we were to learn why she saved the kitchen door till the last.
“How come you're shutting up everything so tight before dark, Aunt Viney? Are you afraid?” Nora asked.
“’Cause yo’ pa ain't comin’ home, chile, dat's how come,” Aunt Vine said. “Cose I ain't feared. Aunt Viney skeered? Law, chile, what put dat into yo’ head?”
“What you doin’ all this for then?” Nora persisted. Nora was always bound to get to the bottom of things.
“’Cause I don't want you chilluns to be feared,” she explained. “’Sides, I ain't takin’ no chances. Naw, suh, honey! Aunt Viney ain't takin’ no chances!”
“Katie, you an’ Nora can set de table — supper's ready.” Nora, Vicky, and I followed her into the kitchen. She started putting supper on the table, stopped in the midst of it and dashed out the kitchen door.
“What's the matter, Aunt Viney?” I called, running to the door. Peering into the twilight, I saw that she was making for the woodpile.
In a twinkling she appeared in the door with the axe in her hands. Nora and Vicky and I were wide-eyed in wonder. What on earth?
“Aunt Viney ain't takin’ no chances — dat's why,” she repeated, in response to our unspoken questions. Even Nora was speechless!
The kitchen door bolted, she brandished her weapon of defense in the air and proclaimed belligerently:
“Nobody ain't gonna hurt my chilluns dis night. Naw, suh! — ain't nobody gonna hurt my chilluns dis night!”
We were always to expect this ritual of fastening blinds, bolting doors — and always last, as her crowning act of protection, bringing in the axe from the woodpile, whenever Papa was away overnight.
We looked forward to it with excitement. Especially to the dramatic finale, when she brandished the axe in the air and made her belligerent proclamation. Besides, it gave me a sense of security against the memory of those nights of loneliness and fear.
Looking back, I strongly suspect that Aunt Viney was secretly disappointed that no occasion ever arose for her to protect us on those nights. Of this I am certain, had the specter of danger shown itself in any shape, form or fashion, she would have been equal to the occasion. She was strong as an ox, in spite of her sixty-odd years, and entirely fearless except for certain deep-rooted superstitions. But more of that later.
With Aunt Viney to keep the home fires burning brightly, Papa could devote himself more completely to the multitudinous tasks his new office involved. Freed from worry about home, knowing that we were being cared for properly, he threw himself into his work with almost fanatical zeal.
“Jimmy,” said Cousin Willis, “you can't keep up the pace you are going. Remember Rome was not built in a day. You can't keep burning the candle at both ends and not pay for it with your health.”
Cousin Willis had dropped in for a few minutes after supper as he often did these warm spring evenings. Deep concern was written on his face in the lamplight.
“I know, Willis. I'll slow down as soon as I get some of these things out of the way. Cousin Willis knew what he meant by “these things.” The term included all the things he had set himself to accomplish that year.
But he did not slow down. After a strenuous day in the office or visiting schools, he continued to work far into the night and usually until the early morning hours, obsessed with a zeal that often would not let him sleep after he went to bed. There was little time for sleep. In addition to all the tasks he had set himself to do, he still kept in close contact with his former students. No call must be refused; he could not let them down. Letters must be answered, advice and encouragement given where needed; congratulations extended by letter or wire for honors won in college or work accomplished after they went out in the world; “points” on debate speeches, orations, essays; speeches made at school commencement. They were still the Boys — his Boys. He could not let them down.
But however absorbed in his work, whatever problems there were to be met, always there was time for his children. The hour
after supper he gave to us when he was at home. With Nora and Vicky settled — one on each of his knees — he fed our imagination with his magic tales and delighted us with his rollicking songs. Then he must hear Nora read from her second grade reader. After he had helped them with their prayers and tucked them in bed for the night he gave me whatever help I needed with home work and listened to my little personal problems, comforting, advising. Always trying to be both father and mother and make us feel secure once more; trying to heal the scars he feared had been left by those insecure months that were now, thank God, in the past.
“Honey,” Aunt Viney said one day when Nora and I came home for dinner, “yore pa ain't lookin’ so good lately. No, suh, he ain't lookin’ so good. An’ he ain't eatin’ lak he oughta.”
“It's time for Papa to be home for dinner now,” I observed.
“Lan sakes, chile, yore pa's already been,” she said, giving Vicky a second helping of turnip greens.
“You eat plenty o’ dese, baby, dey's good fer yo’. Dis yere turnip sallet an’ spare rib an’ co'n bread ’ll make a ’oman outta Aunt Viney's chile.”
Nora started to leave the table with a big piece of potato custard, leaving most of her dinner untouched. She was in a hurry to get back to school and play.
“Now you jes’ set right back down in yore cheer and eat dis’ ’ere sallet, Nora. You's jes’ lak yore pa, runnin’ all de time. You jes’ ain't goin’ back to school till you'se et some vittles to run on.”
“Say, Papa's already been home, Aunt Viney?” I asked as soon as I could get her attention. “You mean he's already come to dinner and gone back?”
“Yeah, he's been awright, an’ he's gone too, but he ain't et nothin’ — dat is, nothin’ sca'cely. He jes’ swallered a piece o’ pie and three cups o’ coffee on de run. Say he jew some place er udder. I disremember now — at one er clock — an’ he ain't got time to eat. An’ wid dat he went out de back do’ lak dey wuz a fiah. Den soon's he hitched up de hoss he lit out. I tells you yore pa's gon'er be sick sho's de worl’. He ain't eatin’ his vittles an’ he ain't sleepin’ needer. Dis mawnin’ I wuz up at ’bout two er clock to rub some Sloan's Liniment on my rheumatiz whut's been a bodderin’ me lately an’ yore pa's light wuz still on. I seed it a shinin’ true de window. An’ dat ain't de fus’ time I'se seed it atter midnight needer. Dey's been plenty o’ times yore pa ain't restin’ none and he ain't
eatin’ no vittles ter speak uv. It jes’ ain't nachel. Yo’ cain’ go ’gainst natur widout gittin’ sick.”
That night I thought he looked thinner.
Papa couldn't get sick! Our whole world would end if Papa got sick. Why, Papa had never been sick, so far as I could remember; except the time the doctor said he had rheumatism of the heart and that was long ago.
“Papa,” I said, “Aunt Viney says you didn't eat but a bite at dinner today and that you're not sleeping lately. She says you're going to be sick.”
“Why, honey, I'm fine. I'm fit as a fiddle. You tell Aunt Viney to stop worryin’ you about me.”
Well, maybe I'd just imagined he looked thinner. But he'd had an attack of diarrhoea lately. If only Mama were here to look after him! His eyes were as piercing as ever, though; his step as purposeful and quick. I'd do like Papa said — I'd stop worrying. Just the same, before I went to bed I wrote Sissy what Aunt Viney had said. And with the letter sealed and stamped and ready to go on its way to Sissy, I went to bed comforted.25 ◀ Aunt Viney Gits Edication
When Aunt Viney came to live with us she could neither read nor write. Nora had to get to the bottom of that as she did everything else.
“How come you can't read and write, Aunt Viney? How come your papa didn't make you go to school and learn how?”
“Law, chile, you jes’ don’ know nuthing ’bout how times wuz back den. My pappy an’ mammy wuz slaves and ain't nobody cept rich white folks’ chilluns could go to school. Lawsy, dey was times, chile!” From her seat in the chimney corner, as she plied her knitting needles or darned our stockings, she watched fascinated while we studied our lessons for school next day. She listened intently when Papa explained a difficult arithmetic problem to me or helped Nora with the new words in her reader. The process of “edication” was a fascinating one to her. When I read aloud my English compositions for Papa's criticism she was filled with wonder.
“You mean ain't none a dat so?” She would ask incredulously.
The teacher was patient but exacting.
“Dat it all come outta yo’ haid? All o’ dem folks an’ whut dey says an’ does — jest lak it is in books?”
“Yes, Aunt Viney, that was all my imagination,” I explained.
“Um-m!” she would exclaim, shaking her head wonderingly. “Ain't dat ’mgination sumpin’?”
“I'm going to be an author some day,” I confided to Aunt Viney when we were alone. “I mean I want to write books.”
“You can sho’ do dat, chile. Wid all dat ’mgination o’ yorn, you sho’ can — no doubt ’bout dat.” Aunt Viney's faith in my ability strengthened my purpose. That very night after finishing my homework, I started my first book. It had to do with a little orphan girl, ragged and cold and homeless, standing outside the window of a fine mansion on a snowy Christmas Eve; gazing with awe at the lighted Christmas tree and the gay party going on within. How she was found half-frozen on the doorstep at midnight by one of the servants who had heard her moaning when he went to lock the door before retiring. The servant had picked her up and taken her in to his kind mistress who ordered him to wrap her in warm blankets and bring food and hot milk.
“The poor little thing looks starved,” the fine lady exclaimed. “She's skin and bones. But what lovely, golden curls she has! Why, she's a little beauty!” They learned the little girl's name was Rosemary Harris.
I finished my first chapter before going to bed and lay awake planning the second chapter. The fine lady's husband was kind too. Or should I make him cruel and let him throw her out into the cold again? My pillow was soon wet with tears over the contemplation of the little girl being thrown out into the snowy night, and the kind lady's protest and pathetic pleading:
“No, no, Henry! You can't be so cruel!”
No, that was too sad. I couldn't let the little orphan be thrown out again. Her husband must welcome the little girl. The couple would be childless, so they would decide that night to adopt her. After questioning her they would discover that she was the daughter of the fine lady's sister who had married a gambler against her father's wishes and been disowned by him. The gambler had been killed in a fight before the child's birth and the mother had died in the charity ward of a hospital when she was born. The kind lady had searched everywhere in vain for the sister — not knowing she had died, leaving a child. The child had been placed in an
orphanage where her treatment had been so cruel that she had run away, and finally, too tired and cold to go any farther, had collapsed on the mansion doorstep that night.
I knew I couldn't sleep if I left the little girl out in the snowy night. This was much better. After a luxurious warm bath given by a kind Negro mammy, little Rose was dressed in a soft warm gown. The fine lady who was really her aunt, but now was to be her foster mother, had helped her with her prayers and tucked her snugly in bed for the night. And so with little Rose safely taken care of in a big comfortable four-poster bed with canopy, I began feeling drowsy and knew nothing more till I was awakened next morning by Aunt Viney, gently shaking me and saying,
“Get up, chile. Is yo’ daid? I been callin’ you fo’ ten minutes.”
Suddenly I was wide awake. I saw the sun was shining in at the window.
“What time is it, Aunt Viney? I'm late for school.” I was already out of bed and jumping into my clothes.
“Naw — yo’ ain't late. Dis is Saddy. Dat's how come I let you sleep. But I'se got to go git de groceries now an’ Nora's next do’ playin’ an’ I don't wanter to leave Vicky by she-self. Dey's pancakes on de stove fo’ you. Ise jes’ cooked ’em for you. But you better git in dere in a hurry or de'll be stone cold.”
“Pancakes, Aunt Viney?” With a bound I was in the kitchen, finishing pulling on my clothes as I went.
Vicky was sitting on the floor busy with her doll, dressing her in her best dress and warning her not to get it dirty.
As I ate, my thoughts went back to little Rose. She should have pancakes every morning for breakfast. Or were pancakes too plebeian for a mansion? I decided they were not if the Negro mammy could make them as good as Aunt Viney's.
We soon discovered that with “so much edicating goin’ on” around her, Aunt Viney had gotten ambitious herself. She had always listened absorbed while Nora read aloud her lesson from her second-grade reader. Now after hearing a story she would point to a word and ask:
“What do dat say, honey?” Over and over she would point and question. Finally one night: “How ’bout teachin’ yo’ ole Aunt Viney to read an’ write, honey?”
Nora took her new responsibility seriously. She was patient but
exacting. She imitated the mannerisms and tactics of her teacher at school.
Papa would look up from his work, a twinkle in his eyes, but keeping a straight face.
“No, Aunt Viney — that's not right. Sound the word first.” Oh, yes, she was giving her pupil a thorough course in phonics. For the time being she was Miss Ellen, the teacher, giving no help on a word that the pupil could figure out for herself.
Night after night the gray head bent painstakingly over her task of deciphering words and sentences and trying to form the letters of the alphabet. After working persistently for some time she would hold up a sheet of paper with carefully formed letters on it for our commendation:
“Now ain't dat sumpin? Aunt Viney gittin’ edicated! Lan’ sakes — ain't dat sumpin, do’!”
Her real triumph came the day she wrote her first letter to her son, Preston. No artist could have felt greater pride in a finished masterpiece than did Aunt Viney in the painstakingly scrawled pages of that letter.
“Now ain't dat pretty!” she exclaimed, as we praised it.
“Press ’ll be so sprised, he'll be bug-eyed when he gits dis letter.”
The teacher-pupil relationship existed, however, only during lesson-time. The rest of the time Aunt Viney was a veritable autocrat, and we knew to toe the mark. But we didn't mind. We knew that she loved us.
“I'se got to bring up my chilluns right,” she would explain when she had been especially bossy. And Papa, observing day by day and seeing that we were happy and secure once more, was satisfied that Aunt Viney did indeed “fill the bill,” as the friend had predicted.
In some ways Aunt Viney was a puzzle. One time Nora exclaimed between tasty bites of peach dumpling: “Umm — this dumpling is good!” Immediately Aunt Viney's defenses were up.
“How come you say dis dumplin’ is good? Ain't my dumplin's always good?” she demanded. The way she stood there, arms akimbo, hands on hips, eyes snapping, looking belligerent and challenging, took my mind back to the little blue hen of my early childhood. I had a vision of ruffled-out bluish feathers as the little blue hen prepared to defend her rights. Well, one of the blue hen's chickens had surely made a mistake this time! Always thereafter,
we showed our appreciation of her cooking by deed and not by word of mouth. Seeing us consume quantities of it was the only praise she wanted.
Aunt Viney was steeped in all the superstitions of her race and time. No work was started on Friday that could not be completed that same day. No clothes were washed on New Year's Day for “ole folks allus said you'd be washin’ de cawpse's clothes next New Yeah's Day,” meaning the possessor of the clothes would be a corpse then. She insisted on having peas and hog jowl that day for dinner, to bring good luck for the new year.
One warm spring evening at twilight a new moon had risen early. Aunt Viney was bringing in a turn of stovewood from the woodpile. Nora and Vicky and I were sitting on the kitchen steps, counting the stars. Halfway to the house Aunt Viney threw down the turn of wood. Then without a word began picking it up again.
“Aunt Viney, what's the matter? What made you throw down the wood?” we wanted to know.
“Cause I seed dat new moon trew de limbs o’ dat tree wid dat wood in my arms — dat's why. Ole folks uster say dat bring bad luck — lessen you trow de wood down and pick it up again,” she enlightened us.
Early one night not long after that, Nora and I were busy with our lessons as usual. We were sitting by the fire Aunt Viney had built against the chilly April night. Aunt Viney got Vicky ready for bed, and since Papa was away, she performed the ritual of helping her say her prayers and tucking her in bed. She had just settled down to her new reading assignment when suddenly the stillness of the room was broken by the sound of a rooster crowing somewhere in the neighborhood. The room was unusually quiet and somehow the crowing had an eerie sound. Aunt Viney stopped stock-still in her work.
“Heah dat rooster crowin’?” she asked, a look of foreboding in her eyes. “Ole folks uster say rooster crowin’ ’fore midnight sign o’ hasty news or change in de wedder,” she announced darkly. It was evident that she expected the hasty news to be bad news.
“De wedder's clare as a whistle — so ’tain't likely to change dis night — so must be hasty news.”
“Aunt Viney,” I scoffed, “that's just an old superstition.”
“Naw, suh, honey! Nebber knowed it to fail. Jes’ you wait an’ see!” The last was in a tone of ominous prophecy.
Before long the rooster proclaimed its ill-omened message again and at frequent intervals thereafter. Aunt Viney sat still and quiet, brooding darkly. The open book on her lap was forgotten. In the face of impending bad news, the process of education was unimportant.
The expected “bad news” came about ten o'clock. Nora and Vicky were sleeping peacefully. I had just finished my homework and was getting ready for bed. Aunt Viney was still sitting up by the fire waiting for the bad news. She usually went to her room and retired early.
“Naw, suh — ain't no use goin’ to bed ’fore it happens,” she answered when I asked why she was staying up.
“Before what happens, Aunt Viney?”
The rooster had stopped crowing sometime ago and, absorbed in my homework, I had forgotten all about it.
“Lan’ sakes, chile — de bad news — dat's what. You don't b'lieb it. But you jes’ wait an’ see!”
I was just ready to blow out the light and crawl in bed when there was an insistent pounding on the front door. My heart stood still in dread. What if Aunt Viney was right! I heard Aunt Viney run to the door.
“Who's dere?” she asked before unlocking it. I couldn't understand what the person on the outside answered but I knew Aunt Viney had opened the door. As I came out into the hall I heard a man's voice speak from out of the darkness:
“Professor Dennis’ horse ran away with him and he's hurt — we don't know how bad. Have a bed ready, Auntie.”
Aunt Viney ran to get Papa's bed right ready and the stranger hurried down the steps. In a minute Papa was being helped into the house and to bed by two friends who had happened along at the scene of the accident just as Papa was thrown from the buggy by the runaway horse.
It was terrible seeing Papa brought in this way and not knowing how bad he was hurt. It was like some horrible nightmare. Maybe I'd wake up in a minute and know it was not true. But it was true. Somebody's voice was bringing me back from stunned unreality — telling me to call the doctor. In no time at all the doctor was there examining Papa. What if Papa was hurt bad! What if he was going to die! The suspense was terrible until I heard the doctor's voice calm, reassuring:
“Just a broken arm and badly bruised body, Professor. I think that's all. And of course you've had a bad shock. But now I've got to set this arm.”
I stood by while the doctor set Papa's arm and bound it. I knew it hurt like the mischief, for Papa gritted his teeth hard to bear the pain.
When it was all over and the doctor was gone, he turned to us and with the old familiar twinkle in his eye.
“Well, Babe, you and Aunt Viney can stop worring about me,” he said. “I'm already in bed and it's not yet midnight. I'll be here for several days, the doctor says. So, Aunt Viney, I'll have plenty of time to eat a stack of pancakes in the morning.” With that I was reassured. Papa was going to be all right.
The next morning Aunt Viney turned on me a look of triumph. (I knew it was coming.)
“Now I guess you'll b'lieve whut I tells yo’! Now, I don’ ’spec yo'll be makin’ light o’ what ole Aunt Viney tells you. Naw, suh. I don’ ’spec yo’ will!” She clicked her mouth shut with satisfaction as she finished.
Just before Sissy came home in June, Aunt Viney went back to her son Preston's to spend the summer. Before she left she had been promoted with flying colors to the second grade. Nora carefully made a report card from stiff white cardboard. VINEY PEACOCK was printed with red crayon on the front and on the inside:
26 ◀ Katie Goes In for Beauty Culture
Papa was in bed for a week. I stayed home from school to look after him. It was strange indeed for Papa to lie in bed all day. The doctor had ordered complete rest and quiet for the first few days and the day after the accident Papa was surprisingly co-operative. The doctor came and made further examination.
“You'll be all right, Professor, if you'll just stay in bed, and take
care of yourself. If you don't — well, you've had a bad shock. And your body's taken a pretty bad beating. You keep your papa in bed and see that he behaves, Katie.”
Papa lay still through necessity. Every time he moved any part of his body, he winced with pain. But his active mind would not rest. On the second day he said:
“Katie, I've got to get my column ready for Friday's Herald. Get your pencil and paper and write what I dictate.”
“Papa, the doctor said for you to rest.” Tired of lying in one position, he turned on his side and winced with pain.
“I'm resting — guess I can't do much else but rest now,” he said wryly. “Get a pencil and some paper, Babe.”
His weekly columns were at the time devoted to the special tax campaign being waged in the county.
I did as I was told and sat down by his bed to await dictation. There was something on my mind — something I must say to him but now was not the time. After the column was finished — then I'd broach the subject. Would he give me the money? I had never asked him for that much before in my life. Well, maybe —
I wrote as he dictated, the words and sentences meaningless to me at the time. What did a thirteen-year-old understand or care about local tax, longer terms, better teachers? My mind was on the advertisement I had found in a magazine the day before. I had thought of little else all morning.
“Hey, Babe! Wake up. You look like you're dreaming.” My mind snapped back to the present.
Read the last paragraph back to me. I read the paragraph written in my round vertical hand:
“Local tax is the only means of providing adequate funds for longer terms and better teachers. The farmer's children are thus prepared for college or for life with little time lost from the farm.”
Aunt Viney came to the door with a bowl of steaming hot chicken soup but not daring interrupt, took it back to the kitchen. Disapproval was plainly written on her face when she saw that Papa was not obeying doctor's orders. But she would have considered it “out of place” to express her views to the “Fessor.” That would come out later, out of Papa's hearing.
Papa's brows were knit in concentration framing the next sentences.
Biting the right corner of his mustache between times, he continued his dictation:
“While our county has made much progress in building and in voting nineteen local tax schools, these funds amounting annually to above $10,000, still the fact remains that seven out of ten children in the county still have to depend upon four months of schooling. It must be admitted that at least there should be in every township one or more long term schools in which the higher branches can be taught.”
Time seemed endless as the dictation continued. Fortunately, my subconscious mind functioned automatically even while my conscious mind was planning how best to broach the important subject to Papa. I would begin: “Papa, I saw an ad in a magazine” — no not that. “Papa, you know that new dress you said I could have. Well, I've decided I'd rather have — ” Yes, that would be better, and I'd have the ad with the picture right there to show him.
Papa would listen thoughtfully and patiently as he always did. He was always interested in my little personal problems. I could always talk to him, sure of his interest and understanding—as I used to go to Mama. No matter how busy, he always somehow found time to listen, since Mama was not there to listen. I knew he would listen to this. But would he believe in it? Would he say: “Babe, that's just a scheme to get money. Such a thing is impossible.” Or, “Well, there might be something to it,” pulling on the right corner of his mustache — no, it would be the left corner now, since his right arm was bound to his body and he could not use his right hand.
Now he was saying: “Read the whole thing to me, honey. Let's see how it sounds.”
“That's fine,” he said when I had finished, “fine for a thirteen-year-old,” he said proudly. “Let me see it.”
“Yes, every word spelled correctly. And your punctuation is good, too. Just one or two corrections. Use a semicolon instead of a comma here” (explaining why — he always explained the why of things) “and a colon here. Now rest awhile and copy it in ink. After dinner you can take it to the Herald office.”
I went back to the kitchen to tell Aunt Viney she could take in the soup now.
“What's you lettin’ yo’ pa wuk fo’ when de doctah say he mus’ res’?”
“Aunt Viney, I did my best — but he told me he was resting — and not to worry but just get my pencil and paper.”
“Humph! ’Tain't no res’ when he wukin’ his haid all de time. ’Pears to me yo’ pa's min’ need res’ mo’ dan he body do.”
“I know it, Aunt Viney — but it won't do any good to say anything. If you think it will, you just don't know Papa.”
The old Negro had no answer for that except to shake her head and mutter:
“Jes’ ain't natchel fo’ nobody to neber res’ none. Cain't go ’gin’ natur ’dout payin’ fo’ it.”
At least she had the satisfaction of knowing Papa was eating his “vittles” now. She kept nourishing, tasty soups for him to eat between times and noted with satisfaction that he ate three good meals a day.
Just before I left for the Herald office after dinner, I broached the subject to Papa. All of my carefully planned speeches were discarded when the time came. The direct approach was better. Papa didn't like dilly-dallying or shilly-shallying about things.
“Papa,” I said, handing him the magazine with it open at the right page, “look at this.”
There it was — the answer to my prayers. I wanted to be tall and slim and beautiful. Not the little roly-poly, dumpy woman Aunt Mary was and that I gave promise of being. Years of bad health had stunted my growth and now that I was recovering and could eat, I was always starved. It seemed I could never be filled. I stuffed to my utmost capacity at every meal but before next meal I was famished again.
In less than a year, I had been transformed from a pale, pathetic little skeleton, mostly eyes and a brooding solemnity, to a fat, rosy-cheeked thing who wanted to laugh all the time. It was as if I had to make up lost time in laughing too. For a long time nothing had been funny. I could recall the first time I laughed when I began getting better. Physical pain — real, not imagined — had been the result. For a while everything was funny. But for some time now there had been a serious drawback to my happiness. For the first time in my life, my looks began to matter terribly. I was shorter and fatter than any girl in my class. Most of my classmates were two or three inches taller. They had nice slim figures, with curves at the right places. They were popular with the boys. The boys chose them for partners at pairing-off games at parties. I was so conscious of my wide-as-long figure, that my popularity was doomed at the start. I had become
sensitive and suffered from imagined slights on the part of my friends. I took my little problems — real and imaginary to Papa.
He listened and consoled: “Never you mind, Babe. You just keep on studying hard and one of these days you'll come out on top. You'll look back on these things and laugh to think how unimportant they were. Why, you may be a writer — who knows?”
“But, Papa, I'll still be short and fat!”
“No, one of these days you'll take a growing start. You're just getting a late start, that's all. You'll make up for lost time then — see if you don't!”
“But, Papa, what if I don't!”
Anyway I had discovered a way to help nature along in getting that growing start. The answer was right here on that page Papa was looking at — and yes, looking in an interested way too! He was not treating it as a joke. Maybe he would believe in it as I did. Maybe since it could be paid on the installment plan (the company had said three monthly installments), maybe Papa wouldn't say he couldn't afford the $15.00. I closed my eyes and prayed hard. My whole future depended on what he was about to say.
“Well, honey, this is interesting. And you know there might be something to it.”
Suddenly all the bells of Heaven were ringing for me. I was no longer a little broad-as-long, self-conscious girl; but a tall willowy poised creature, with lots of beaux to pick and choose from, the life of every party and the envy of the other girls in my grade at school.
There were pictures of before-and-after using and others showing just how it was used. Where each of the bones of the body were joined together, the ad explained, there was a layer of elastic substance called cartilege, which by the aid of proper exercise, could be stretched — thereby increasing the height of a person (still in the growing stage, of course) from three to four inches. It was a boon to young people whose growth had been stunted by illness or whose forebears had been short in stature. By faithfully using the machine daily for six months, many had increased their height from two to three inches. There were letters of testimonial from delighted customers.
Before the day was over a mail-order form was filled out to the Cartilege Company, Rochester, New York, and the initial payment of five dollars enclosed.
“Well, Babe, you deserve a reward for being such a good nurse and ‘secretary.’ So if this is what you want, why, all right.”
“Oh, it is, Papa, it is!” I assured him. I ran most of the way to the postoffice to waste no time in getting my letter started on its way to heaven. Already I had more self-confidence.
The days of waiting seemed endless; but in due time the apparatus arrived. Papa was now back at work, his broken arm in a sling. He had secured the part-time services of a stenographer in one of the law offices in the courthouse to do most of his writing, for the time being, and the remainder he could do with his left hand after persistent practice.
When Papa came home to supper one night bearing a small insignificant-looking parcel under his left arm, my soaring hopes took a sudden drop. I had expected an enormous, important-looking package to arrive by express. Surely there must be a mistake. But no, there it was as plain as day: To Miss Katie Dennis, Brookfield, N. C., and up in the left-hand corner the name and address of the sender: The Cartilege Company, Rochester, New York.
Papa sensed my terrible disappointment and said by way of comfort: “Just wait till we open it up, Babe, and let's see.”
The apparatus turned out to be two flat circles of strong rope (plus staples, to fasten them to the floor) with rubber cushions over the top, to protect the feet; a hook and pulley to be fastened to a low ceiling; and a noose-like arrangement of the same strong rope, to be suspended from the pulley. Clear instructions with pictures as to installment and use were enclosed. Since my closet ceiling was low, that was decided on as the proper place for installation. The proper procedure was to slip my feet through the cushioned circles of rope fastened to the floor, a required number of inches apart; adjust the noose around under my arms; and by holding on to the suspended rope, pull myself up as tall as possible, “feet firmly planted on the floor.” Twenty-five times each morning and night.
I was to start out with only ten stretches night and morning, and gradually increase the number of times till I got up to twenty-five. I was advised to take a cold bath immediately upon arising — why I didn't know. But determined to leave nothing undone, I followed instructions and got up a half hour earlier every morning in order to have plenty of time. Stretch, down; stretch, down. I could feel myself getting taller with each stretch.
The apparatus really was quite impressive when installed. If something resembling a hangman's noose could be called impressive.
Aunt Viney disapproved of the whole procedure. She considered it a contraption of the devil.
“Folks ain't got no bizness tamperin’ wid de Lawd's doin's,” she said. “Ef de Lawd tends fo’ yo’ to be tall, yo’ will be — an’ ef yo's sho't, dat's way he ’tended yo’ to be. Dis way some fo'ks try to change de Lawd's doin's am a sin. Ain't no good gon'er come out uv it.”
The stretching machine was only one phase of my program of beautification, however. Along with this regime, I was also doing reducing exercises daily. “Run around the room on tiptoe fifteen times,” the magazine article said, “then roll up in a blanket on the floor and remain there for fifteen more minutes.” The idea was to sweat off the surplus fat. After this a cold bath. Another cold bath. This made two a day. Still no sacrifice was too great to become beautiful. Morning and night the stretching exercises; after school the reducing exercises, plus the cold baths. Everything carried out to the letter.
To have privacy from Aunt Viney, I used an upstairs room over the parlor for my reducing exercises. Nora and Vicky always accompanied me. To them it was a fascinating game.
Round and round the three of us ran — Nora close on my heels and Vicky, who couldn't run so fast, bringing up the rear. When I lay on the floor, rolled in a blanket, they continued the game. Aunt Viney, hearing us running and Vicky's squeals of delight, thought we were playing games — as I intended she should. So she was spared the worry of “still furder wu'ks of the debbil goin’ on in dis house”; and I was spared the annoyance of hearing her.
Magazine and newspaper advertisements had a great allure for me those days. I read them avidly, always hoping to find additional helps in my beautifying program. Free samples of cold cream, night cream and freckle cream were sent for and applied diligently on retiring. A sample jar of wrinkle cream was added to my collection. The ad said to start caring for the skin early, in order to ward off the tell-tale lines of age in maturity. After all, I was thirteen. One couldn't start too early. I washed my already flawless skin in buttermilk when I could snitch a cupful without Aunt Viney finding out. I had no freckles; still the buttermilk was supposed to whiten my skin. Even my light auburn, naturally curly hair did not escape
my experiments in beauty culture. Different blond, brunette, and auburn rinses were tried. A remark at school one day put a stop to that.
“Katie, what's the matter with your hair? It looks like it's on fire,” one of the girls said.
One day I came upon another ad that especially intrigued me. Two pictures, the first of a sad-faced, flat-breasted young woman represented the before-using; while beside her was the same woman, now a beaming, self-confident creature with well-developed breasts. Most too well-developed, it seemed to me. Still the woman looked happy about it. The transformation in the woman had been brought about by a cream with which the breasts were to be massaged daily.
I had not been conscious of my flat breasts before. But now I began watching my schoolmates. I had not noticed how some of them were filling out in that region. Resolved to assist nature on that score too, I sent for the sample jar and applied it nightly after I finished with the face creams. The ad had read: “Have desirable curves and be popular with the opposite sex. Our cream will bring results in a few months.” The cream was expensive. I couldn't ask Papa for that amount of money without explaining what it was for. So I was up against it. Finally I decided to order samples in everybody's name in the house; except Papa's, of course.
Fearing the company would be suspicious of so many Dennis women from the same town, claiming to need more curves, I changed the spelling of Nora's surname to Denneys and Vicky's to Deniss; also I changed my handwriting each time. When I sent for Aunt Viney's I carefully printed VINEY PEACOCK. I had learned the approximate date on which each would arrive after ordering. On those days I hurried to the post office after school to be there as soon as the mail from the afternoon train was put up. After I had used all the sample jars, I could figure no way to get any more of the magic-producing stuff. Anyway, what with practicing the class play after school and studying for final examinations, I was too sleepy at bedtime to do anything but fall in bed.
The stretching and reducing exercises, however, continued as zealously as ever. There was too much at stake to let down on them. When I was tempted to stay in bed after my alarm clock went off in the morning and omit the stretching exercises; or to neglect the reducing exercises after school, I would recall Papa's
proud words to Mama which I had overheard that night long ago — after the toothpulling episode, when they thought I was asleep:
“That little thing's got plenty of will power.” And Mama's proud: “Yes, she certainly has.”
Then, too, I would recall Aunt Mary's little dumpling figure and see my future self. Immediately I would jump out of bed and get to work.
Whether the stretching exercises aided natural processes of growth during months to come or whether Papa's prediction that one of these days I'd take a growing start, had come true, I can't say. Likewise whether the reducing exercises really helped, I am not sure. Be that as it may, I did increase in length and decrease in breadth amazingly during the year. I was not tall and willowy (fortunately I did not know that I never would be) but I was taller. All my dresses had to be lengthened and new ones bought. That was proof, if I had needed proof. I had lost several pounds in weight, so that all my dresses had to be taken up in the seams. My mirror told me that I had little to worry about now, so far as fat was concerned. Of course, I would never be as pretty as Sissy. But I didn't mind that. Nobody was as pretty as Sissy, I thought proudly.
Anyway I felt that dogged persistence and determination in my “beauty culture” experiment had paid off in amazing results; and I was satisfied.
Aunt Viney has long ago gone “whar de good darkies go”; where “all God's chilluns got wings.” Just before dark closes in on a long winter's night, it is easy to fancy her hurrying to lock the Pearly Gates; then gathering a brood of little motherless angels under her wings, proclaiming with satisfaction: “Ain't nobody gonna hurt my chilluns dis night!”
27 ◀ So Little Time
At first I couldn't quite put my finger on the glad feeling that was in me when I awoke that morning in early June. It was all mixed up with my dreams. Not until, out of the haze, Papa's voice emerged clearly:
“Better get up and start breakfast, honey. I've already built a fire in the stove and put water in the kettle. It's just a half hour till train time. I'm going to hitch up now and go to the depot to meet Nancy.”
Now I knew the cause of my glad feeling. Sissy was coming home! Only a little while and she would be here.
All day yesterday, as I swept and scrubbed; dusted and polished, upstairs and down to make ready, my heart kept up the glad refrain: “Sissy is coming! Sissy is coming!” I had even baked a cake as a surprise. True, it had “fallen” when I took it out of the oven to see if it was done; but when it was all iced over, I thought it looked fine, even if it did sink down in the middle. I fervently hoped it would not turn out to have a raw streak, like the other one I baked. Anyway, Sissy would be proud of me and say it was good, just as Papa always did when my cooking turned out bad.
In a flash I was out of bed and pulling on my clothes. Nora, too, had waked when Papa called and was all excited and telling Vicky to get up and dress so she could button her up.
Nora had taken on herself the task of dressing and caring for Vicky when she was six and Vicky three. Of holding her on her lap and singing her to sleep in Vicky's little red rocking chair. Of bathing, dressing and combing her for Sunday school, and other dress-up occasions, before getting ready herself. One day she had said:
“Vicky, I'll keep on dressing you till you are four years old. When you're four, you'll have to dress yourself.” Vicky knew that when Nora said a thing, she meant it. There was no maybe-ing about it. So now Vicky, at four, was dressing herself. But Nora still had to button her up in the back.
“Get up, Trixie,” she was saying now. “Hurry and get dressed and we can ride with Papa to meet Sis Nancy.”
“All wight, Sug, jus’ a minute,” Vicky's voice emerged sleepily from the pillow. The occasional “Trixie” and “Sug” for each other were of their own coinage.
The sound of Papa's “whoaing” and clucking to Lizzie, just outside her window, while hitching up, brought Vicky to her feet. By the time Papa was ready, both she and Nora were fully clothed in drawers and fresh percale dresses. Nora had washed both their faces; combed and parted Vicky's hair in the middle; combed her own and tied a bow of red-and-white checked ribbon on the side. Now they stood on the kitchen steps all set to go. Nora's bare feet were jumping up and down, impatient to get going, when Papa pulled up at the steps.
“All right, Babes, hop in. It's almost train time.”
I put more wood in the stove and ground the coffee; next sliced the ham and sifted the flour. I did hope I'd have the biscuits all ready for the oven and all the stickiness washed off my hands before Papa drove up with Sissy. Making up biscuits was a messy business. If only Aunt Viney hadn't been called home last week. If only Preston's wife had waited a little longer to have her baby — at least till Sissy got home — things could have been nicer now for Sissy's home-coming.
Besides, I wanted to have time to go in and primp myself up, so that Sissy could see how I'd changed since Christmas. I had kept my beauty-culture program a secret from Sissy. Now I could hardly wait for her surprised exclamation:
“Why, honey, what on earth — how pretty you are!”
Fortunately for my plans, the train was thirty minutes late. So by the time Papa drove up, I had washed the stickiness from my hands, set the table, put out the butter and preserves, changed to my becoming new yellow-striped dress, that made me look slimmer and taller, combed out my curls and bound them with a yellow ribbon to match my dress. Then, before going back to the kitchen I had surveyed the results admiringly in front of the bureau looking glass.
Now, as the buggy turned in at the back, the ham was in the pan frying, the coffee made and ready to set off, the eggs broken in a bowl for last-minute scrambling and I, myself, was standing in the kitchen door waiting.
Sissy's wide-eyed astonishment was all that I could have wished for.
“Why, Katie, honey! Why, what's happened! You don't look like yourself. You've grown so — and so much slimmer! And,” she added admiringly, “prettier, too.”
Had she noticed that I was beginning to have some curves in the
right places? Well, anyway, she wouldn't mention that in front of Papa, I thought.
What a festive meal it was! Even if the biscuits were funny-shaped, they were light and fluffy and had a good taste. Everybody ate with relish, even Papa, who of late had so little appetite and more and more often when he came home to dinner, scarcely ate at all.
“Nothing but coffee, Katie — just something to clear my head,” he would say.
“When's Buddy coming?” Nora asked during the meal. Nora adored Buddy and suddenly felt something missing from the festivity.
“Next week, Babe. His school is out on Tuesday and he'll come next day,” Papa answered. “Mr. Watkins told me last week that he'd written him he wants him to work in his drugstore again this summer.”
“Oh, goody! Buddy'll be home all summer,” exulted Nora, envisioning the trips she'd be making to “Buddy's store” in the weeks ahead.
After Papa had left for the office and Nora and Vicky had gone out to play, Sissy said:
“Katie, is Papa sick? I was shocked when I first saw him. He looks so much older than he did at Christmas. His hair is so much grayer and he's thinner.” Then she ended, troubled, “He just doesn't look like himself.”
It was a shadow that had hung over me all during the late winter and spring. Papa was not well. That much was clear. He spoke of dizziness when I questioned him. Often he closed his eyes and shook his head vigorously as though trying to clear his brain of an engulfing fog.
“What is it, Papa?” I would ask.
“My head, Babe. Just trying to clear it.”
More and more this happened. Frequently after two cups of coffee — nothing more — at dinner he lay down for a brief rest before going back to work.
“Don't let me lie but a half hour, Katie. If I go to sleep, wake me up,” he would say. For Papa to lie down to rest during the day, even for a half hour, was a strange thing.
He still walked briskly, purposefully; but the old, joyous swing was lacking. He was still cheerful outwardly. Still told wonderful
after-supper stories; and tried to appear as always, not wanting us to feel any lack. But something was missing. The old fire still burned in his coal-black eyes. But there was a tinge of sadness he could not entirely conceal.
An incident back in April had disturbed me and made me wonder. One week end he had taken Nora and Vicky and me with him for an overnight visit to the country, with Uncle Eustace and Aunt Nellie.
Aunt Nellie was a pretty young widow whom Uncle Eustace had courted and married, just as he was getting to be known as a confirmed bachelor. She was a marvelous cook and always kept passing things at the table and insisting on our having more. So we always looked forward to a feast on these visits. She was sweet and motherly and still pretty, in spite of the hard times she had known since everything they possessed had gone up in flames that windy day in March five years ago.
There were three little blond cousins for Nora and Vicky to play with. So the next morning when I rode off with Papa to attend Sunday school in Dickson, Nora and Vicky stayed to play with the cousins.
After Sunday school, Papa drove by the old homestead for a brief visit with the tenant and then to the village cemetery.
“Honey,” he said after we reached the family plot, “I'll lie right here beside your mama.”
“Yes, Papa,” I answered, looking up at him inquiringly. But his eyes were on the green turf next to Mama's grave. I had not noticed before how frail he looked.
Of course, husband and wife were buried side by side, I told myself. They belonged that way. But why had Papa spoken of it? And why did he keep standing there quiet and sad by Mama's grave? The look on his face was to come back to me clearly time and again in the months ahead.
“We must go, Babe,” he said at last. “Your aunt Nellie will have dinner ready and they'll wonder what's kept us.”
We walked back to the buggy where Lizzie stood patiently waiting hitched to the cemetery paling. Soon she was going at a fast trot up the Brookfield road toward Uncle Eustace's. Papa talked of other things and seemed his usual self during the three-mile ride and temporarily I put the incident out of my mind. There
was Aunt Nellie's good dinner to look forward to and the festive “at home” feeling she always gave our visits.
Maybe Papa didn't mean anything in particular, I argued with myself when the incident kept recurring to me after we got back home. No, he couldn't have! Papa was not well, that much was plain. But that was because he worked too hard and didn't eat enough. He would get all right. Of course he would! Papa die? It was as easy to think of God dying. Why, if anything happened to Papa — why, the world couldn't go on without Papa — the sun couldn't shine. Not our world and our sun, anyway.
I told Sissy of the incident now as we sat at the table talking that morning after breakfast. I told her of the trouble with his head; his lying down in he middle of the day. I told her all I knew of his not being well. Had he been seeing a doctor? she wanted to know. Yes, he'd been going next door to see Dr. Brooks pretty often. Dr. Brooks had given him a lot of medicine. But the main thing he needed was complete rest, the doctor had said.
“And you know Papa, when it comes to rest,” I ended. “That's the one thing he won't do!”
Sissy's face had grown more troubled as she listened.
“Yes, I know the week end you all spent at Uncle Eustace's,” she said. “Papa wrote me right after that. He wrote what a good time you and Nora and Vicky had; what good things Aunt Nellie had to eat. He said you and he went to Sunday school in Dickson. And, yes, I remember he ended by saying, ‘We are all well.’ He's not said a thing in any of his letters about anything being the matter with him. Why haven't you let me know, Katie?”
“Papa didn't want me to, Sissy. He knew you'd worry. Besides,” I added, “he kept telling me there was nothing to worry about; he'd soon be all right.”
We got up and started clearing the table and the talk turned to other things.
“I was so proud of the poem you wrote, Katie. Several of the girls read it and they thought it was cute as could be. I'm going to keep it and some day when you're a great writer, I'll still have it and I'll say, ‘Look, here's the first thing she wrote!’ ”
A few weeks before, Nora and I had been talking about Buddy and Sissy coming home soon and she and Vicky and I got all excited over it. So much so that I had been inspired to write three
stanzas of verse about their home-coming. I recall only part of each stanza:
- When Bud and Sis come home from college,
- Their heads stuffed full of useful knowledge,
- When the summer moon shines at night
- And all the stars are twinkling bright,
The second stanza told about the “Christmastide” which “brings them again to the home fireside.” Then recalling,
- But, alas, too soon the parting;
- For Shoofly's coming and they are starting.
- No time for nothing but hustle and scat,
The last stanza sounded the glad note:
- But hark! They'll soon again be coming.
- For don't you hear the bees a-humming?
- So let us not with sad hearts pine
- While the grass doth grow and the sun doth shine.
I remember how Papa's eyes twinkled when he read the stanzas and the smile that played round his mouth. I knew that he was proud of my effort.
After we washed the dishes Sissy unpacked and brought out the “poem” from her trunk. It had been written on a sheet of Papa's office stationery. On the back was Papa's note, written hurriedly from the office. “I have to go this A.M. seventeen miles to let out a new house and sell an old one,” he wrote. It was a note of encouragement and optimism, telling her to keep in good heart. It included suggestions for an important English theme she was to write; a statement that he was enclosing a check and to let him know if she needed more. He mentioned the visit to Uncle Eustace's. “Little ones had a feast,” he wrote and ended with “all are well.” The date at the top of the page showed that it was written only two days after he had said,
“I'll lie here beside your mama, honey.”
When Buddy came a week later there was another glad reunion. Buddy, like Sissy, was shocked at the change in Papa. And over
our joy in being together, there hovered a shadow of uneasiness and fear.
Soon it was evident that he was failing fast. He still drove himself night and day as always, except for the thirty minutes’ rest after the midday meal. Still drove over the county preaching his gospel of education; equal opportunity for all. The best means of realizing that dream, he declared, was through the establishment of graded schools supported by local tax.
Local tax schools were now taking the place of former private high schools and academies. “These,” Papa said in his weekly column in the Herald, “have served a great purpose for preparing boys and girls for college and for training teachers. But many parents are not able to pay tuition and their children cannot attend school. Besides,” he continued, “the principals of these schools often lose financially and thus the permanency of the school is uncertain.”
The general school fund at the time was only slightly more than enough for a four-month school.
“To stop with the minimum length of school term of four months provided in the Constitution would shut off hope of progress,” he reminded his hearers, in his speeches over the county. “The door of hope for education should be open to the children in every rural district.” Local tax aid, he declared, was the best solution, for providing adequate funds for better schools and longer terms.
Only 73 per cent of the total white population was actually enrolled in school, he informed his listeners; the average attendance was only 41 per cent. It was noted, he said, that wherever new buildings went up, the attendance increased. Besides, he reminded his listeners, “Good schools make country life more attractive.”
He quoted the words of Aycock, McIver, and Curry in his campaign:
“The taxation that goes for the upbuilding of the public schools is the very freedom of the people,” said Aycock.
“Liberal taxation, fairly levied and properly applied, is the chief mark of a civilized people,” said McIver. “The savage pays no tax.”
“The education of children is the most legitimate object of taxation,” said Curry.
In addition to everything else, he had, during this year, gotten out an annual report of the public schools in the county. “Everything else” included his campaign for local tax, through speeches
and his weekly column; letting out new school buildings and selling old ones; visiting schools by horse and buggy; holding examinations; securing teachers; meeting with local committees; all of the correspondence and record work of the office, besides the remaining manifold duties that went with the office of county superintendent of schools.
This report, the first of its kind published, gave a condensed report of the progress of public education in the county (under Cousin Willis) since the beginning of the century; and a summary of the work accomplished during his own three years in office. Facts and figures (with pictures of buildings — old and new) showed present conditions and needs. At the end were his recommendations for carrying on the crusade.
The latter half of the book had been accomplished when he realized that his health was failing. Night after night, when his day's work was over, he sat working; often till the early morning. He was fighting against time.
And now we lived in a nightmare of unreality. An incurable disease fastened itself with intensity upon his body — the body that had been driven relentlessly through the years. He sought advice from the best medical authorities in the state. He went for a rest to a health resort. But only for a week. He must get back to work.
Cousin Willis came often and they talked and planned. A county association of teachers had been formed the year before with Cousin Willis as chairman. A special program on agriculture was carried out to arouse more interest in the teaching of agriculture and a noted authority on the subject was secured to address the teachers.
“Jimmy, how are you feeling?” Cousin Willis would ask on leaving.
“About the same, Willis. I'll soon be all right,” Papa would answer. But always Cousin Willis left looking sad.
As July came and went the flesh on his body seemed to melt away before our eyes. His step became unsteady. He, of sure step and joyous stride, of complete harmony of soul and body, now walked unbalanced, unsure.
This couldn't be happening to Papa, we told ourselves. Presently we would wake up and find it had all been a terrible dream. He would come swinging along at his purposeful stride, full of zest for life; instead of the unsure, unsteady step as he approached the
house, coming from his office. Instead of the determined attempt at cheerfulness, he would be his old, radiant self, talking about coming out at the Big End of the Horn. No, it couldn't be real, what we were witnessing. It was happening to somebody else. Not to Papa!
“Papa, please don't go to the office today,” we would plead. “Please stay at home and rest, like the doctor said.”
“No, children, I must go. There's so much work there waiting,” he always answered. “Nancy, you can drive me there this morning and come for me at noon,” he was now forced to say.
“Jimmy, don't you see that you must stop and rest? Don't you realize what you are doing to yourself?” Cousin Willis finally said one night when he came over.
“Oh, I'll come out of the kinks all right,” Papa answered, with a pathetic attempt at humor. This was for our benefit. But to Cousin Willis, out of our hearing, he said:
“There's so little time, Willis!”28 ◀ The Candle Burns In Two
Earlier in the evening Cousin Willis had said:
“This is a fine piece of work, Jimmy.” He was leafing through a copy of the “Annual Report” as he spoke. “It is clear-cut and concise. The new man will have a sound basis to work from.”
The “new man” referred to the new superintendent who was to be elected at the next meeting of the county board. Papa had recently resigned, the resignation to become effective in August.
“The information he'll need is right here in the covers of this book,” Cousin Willis continued, tapping the cover of the book with his forefinger. He turned to a page showing a cut of an old building. On the page opposite was a cut of a new building constructed according to state plans.
“And,” he went on, “these cuts will show the public, better than any words, what can be accomplished through local tax.”
Below the cut of the old building was the information:
“This old house in Seagram's township fairly represents about 40 one-room buildings still in use in the rural districts of the county. It is 16 feet wide, 32 feet long and 8 feet from floor to ceiling; and it is poorly lighted.” The new building on the opposite page had the “required dimensions, proper ventilation, light, grade
of building material, etc.,” approved by the state superintendent. The board of education, it was explained, paid from its reserve fund one-half the cost of rural buildings and the districts the other half.
“With the general school fund only slightly more than enough for a four months’ school,” the reader was reminded, “the wonder is how so much building could have been done.” (Forty-two school-houses had been erected on the state plan since the beginning of the building program six years before, twenty-two of these, mostly rural, during Papa's brief tenure of office.) The building movement had started in the towns and then spread through the rural districts.
“Some day,” said Cousin Willis now, “the state will be pouring millions of dollars into the counties and cities to supplement local funds for school buildings.”
“Yes,” said Papa, “some day equal opportunity for all; for the rural areas as well as the cities and towns, will be more than a dream. It will be a reality.”
On both their faces was an exalted look, as they envisioned that future Utopia of equal educational opportunity for all.
Talk then turned to the subject of rural libraries. During this first decade of the century the number of school libraries in the county had jumped from 500 to 3,000. For the first time rural children knew what it meant to have books to read. The overwhelming majority of rural schools, however, still had no library. In his “Recommendations” Papa had listed:
“That at the next meeting of the general assembly a special library law be enacted for Johnston County, by which any district raising $10, the county board of education shall appropriate $10 and establish $20 libraries, without limit as to numbers.”
They had talked with enthusiasm of the boys’ corn-growing contest. In the early part of the year the state agricultural department had offered $100 to be given out in premiums of $50, $30 and $20 to the three boys raising the highest number bushels of corn on one acre; “said boys being within age limits of 12 to 17 years and complying with the regulations of the department.” In response to this offer by the state, many public spirited citizens of the county offered premiums. As a result, seventeen boys were enrolled in the contest. Both Cousin Willis and Papa felt that this movement would bring great results in the years to come.
It was at the close of the talk that evening that Papa had revealed to Cousin Willis his knowledge that the “some day” and “years to
come” were not to be his; that he would not be here to witness the fruition of his labors and dreams. He had walked with Cousin Willis to the door and it was then that he had said: “There's so little time, Willis.”
His skin had long ago lost its healthy, ruddy glow and now his body was becoming ravaged, emaciated. Soon Nancy was not only driving him to and from work, but staying throughout the day to help him “put his house in order” against the day when he would no longer be able to go at all.
Only one thing remained the same: the burning intensity of his coal-black eyes. It was as though his mortal self had already all but departed and that his great immortal self was centered in those torches burning in their deep sockets.
Soon after midsummer his powerful mind began to disintegrate. At first slowly, with rare intervals of confused thinking, when it was hard for him to focus clearly on the subject at hand. Gradually these periods of clouded thinking became more and more frequent and of longer duration. By August there were spells of hallucinations. After a sedative and deep sleep, these would disappear, only to return later. Still he insisted on going to work. Cousin Willis had conducted the teachers’ institute for him in July and now was helping him in the office.
To witness the strong body wasting away to a shell of its former self; the radiant optimism now reduced to a pathetic, determined effort at cheerfulness; the crumbling of the great mind; the futile efforts to find a cure — to check the onslaught of the disease; the indomitable will to keep going, to accomplish the task he had set for himself, would have been a heartbreak too great to be borne, had it not been for our youth. That and the spirit of fortitude to carry on, which had been instilled into us from the cradle. It was like witnessing the crumbling of a great fortress; or the decay and fall of a mighty benevolent empire.
Before his mind began to crumble he had set his own house in order. Sissy would teach in Dickson. Buddy had finished his two-year pharmacy course in June. They would make a home in Dickson for all of us. The “college fund,” for which he and Mama had sacrificed through the years, and been so determined about, had made sure the realization of their dream: A college education for all five of us. Nora and Vicky and I would each go when the time came. There was the home in Brookfield and, more important, the
old homestead of our childhood, near Dickson. Everything was planned and provided for.
After more weeks of wasting away, of torture of mind and body, death came — not as the grim reaper — but as a kind friend, opening the door to peace and rest. It was at the close of a day in October. The same bright crispness had been in the air as on that day, three years before, when Mama's gentle spirit had started on its winged journey.
There were letters, wires from over the state; from other states. From teachers, from former pupils; from his Boys who had gone out in the world and “made good.” Messages of sympathy, messages of gratitude.
A movement was soon under way to raise funds for a monument — started by Cousin Willis, it was taken up by the teachers and pupils. “Every schoolchild in the county must have a chance to contribute,” said Cousin Willis. “The farmers’ children who have poor opportunities to attend school were those for whom he spent many sleepless nights.” Day by day in the weeks to come penny offerings poured in from those who had been nearest his heart — the underprivileged, those with the poorest chance for an education. Day by day they poured in from all the schools. Contributions from teachers poured in. Money of larger denominations poured in. And so the monument materialized and a date for the unveiling was set.
Nancy and I recalled a day in midsummer when Cousin Willis was conducting the teachers’ institute. Driven by an impelling urge, Papa had made his unsure way to the school building across the street and into the assembly room. Both men and women wept, unashamed, as we led him from the room. Outside the door, we heard Cousin Willis’ broken voice as he paid tribute to his lifelong friend. “A martyr to the cause of education,” we heard him say.
Cousin Willis was not able to attend the unveiling of the simple stone six months later. On the day Papa was buried he had lingered by the grave, after most of the crowd had gone. His kind face was stricken, bereft. When he spoke, it was in a husky, strained voice; almost a whisper. His old trouble had returned; the doctor had advised a sanatorium. We did not know as he walked away, that we were seeing him for the last time.
29 ◀ A Legacy for Us
The day after the funeral we found out that Aunt Easter had plans for us. Nora and Vicky and I would make our home with her, and Buddy and Sissy would be free to go on about their business. She had it all figured out, clear and simple. And that was that! When she approached Buddy and Sissy on the matter, though, she discovered she had figured wrong. That was not that. The idea of being separated had not entered our minds. If she had suggested our living on different sides of the globe, Buddy and Sissy could hardly have been more surprised or shocked.
“We appreciate your offer, Aunt Easter, but, no, we can't be separated. We'll stay together,” they told her.
“But,” argued Aunt Easter, “you won't really be separated. It will be home for all of you. You and Henry will spend your vacations with us. Nancy, just how can you manage — with you teaching and Henry off somewhere else in a drugstore?”
Buddy had graduated in pharmacy that June. The doctor idea was out — at least for the present. Sissy was giving up college to teach in Dickson. Papa had planned for this hour; counseled and advised during those months when he knew that he must leave us alone. It was clear that he expected us to stay together.
“No, Aunt Easter, we'll stick together, no matter what comes or goes,” Buddy and Sissy told her. And Aunt Easter saw that Brother Jimmy's children would manage their own lives.
One morning, a week later, our household goods were all packed into the three two-horse wagons, ready to be moved to Dickson. Sissy was to begin teaching in the village school a week later. Buddy would, for the present, work for Uncle John in his general mercantile store. And now Buddy was giving last-minute instructions to the Negro drivers. Sissy and I were making a final check-up of every room upstairs and down, to be certain that nothing was left behind. Nora and Vicky were in the front yard, playing a farewell game of hopscotch with some of the neighborhood children.
At last everything was attended to. The wagons had gone on ahead and Lizzie and the buggy were waiting at the front, ready to take off. Buddy told us to go on and get in the buggy while he locked up. Then we were off — all five of us squeezed somehow into the one-seated top-buggy — and Lizzie was going at a fast trot down the road toward Dickson.
We had little or no feeling of regret in leaving the two-storied
white house that had been home for four years, or for that matter in leaving Brookfield itself. Everybody had been kind, wanting to do what they could to help, during those weeks and months before Papa died, just as they had during Mama's long months of sickness and death. Many had come to say good-by and express regret at our departure. But our four years there had been crowded with suffering, grief and loss. The house was filled with memories we wanted to forget. It was a vast relief to be getting farther and farther away from it. And so, riding along the old familiar road toward Dickson we had a sense of leaving behind the clouded past, and of heading toward the sunlight.
The feeling grew as we neared Dickson and pulled up in front of the six-room house with the green shutters and broad veranda extending around the front and sides, which was to be our temporary home. In a few months we moved into a home of our own. Henry and Nancy, as guardians of the estate, sold the home in Brookfield and bought a place in Dickson, just across the street from our temporary abode.
The home town opened its welcoming arms and enfolded us in its warm embrace. Thus it paid homage to the memory of its most beloved, most revered son and daughter. We were Jimmy's and Ida's children, given back into the home town's keeping. And basking in the warmth of our welcome and looking upon the dear familiar faces we had known through the years, we had a deep feeling of security and home once more.
There was a sense of closing a chapter in our lives and beginning a new one. There was no feeling of doubt or uncertainty in starting this new chapter. All of those years with Papa had prepared us for this hour. His confident faith, his absolute sureness of the future, had made us sure. For it was not the pathetic, emaciated being of unsure step, broken in body and mind — but grimly determined to carry on to the end — that remained with us. That had been a stranger; not Papa. And it was the stranger who had been put away in the earth that October day.
With the putting away of the stranger, Papa had returned. The “little man” of purposeful step, of joyful stride, full of the zest for living. Bringing the joy and color of the great outdoors with his coming, filling the house with his immense vitality and love of life. The “little man” with the endless supply of bedtime stories and
rollicking songs; with his love of roaring fires on a winter's morning. The “little man” of dreams, of vision . . . who gave himself freely and completely — beyond all human endurance . . . who inspired hope and optimism and faith in the integrity and eternal goodness of mankind. . . .
All of this had been Papa. All of this he had left behind . . . his legacy for us — himself.
(Continued from front flap)
is a beautifully rounded story, filled with awareness of the vital American scene in which it is set. It can be read as biography, as Americana, as a study of the growth of education in the author's own state--but most of all for sheer enjoyment.
It is easy to understand why Bernice Kelly Harris, author of Purslaneand other novels, said, after reading the manuscript: This is a beautiful and moving story of the near past, important in its sincerity and truth. It has a quality like that of some valuable period piece, authentic and chaste.
BIG END OF THE HORN is not a book for a season. It is a real contribution to the literature of North Carolina and of our country.
About the Author
Feature stories by Julia Canaday have appeared in North Carolina newspapers—the Smithfield Herald, the Raleigh News and Observer, the Durham Herald, and the Greensboro Daily News.
Born in the little town of Benson, Miss Canaday attended her father's school, Benson Academy, and Smithfield High School. Graduating from Woman's College of the University of North Carolina with a major in Education, she followed the family profession—teaching—in the public schools of her home state, including twelve years in Asheville. During the summer months she has done graduate work in Education at Columbia and Duke Universities and Wake Forest and Atlantic Christian Colleges. She is a member of the Johnston County Historical Society in Smithfield, where she makes her home.
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