Lessons of a Hard Life

Daddy was a pragmatist with a dim view of positive reinforcement. Throughout his life, he’d seen many of acquaintances make the expedient rather than the better choice. I don’t know whether he considered his choice of associates might have an effect on their decision-making but he did need a fix of low company from time to time, probably feeling they held a lofty view of him. He held himself apart from drinking and trashy behavior, but did appreciate hearing just enough to reinforce his self-view, also providing an opportunity for edification should these “friends in low places” need his help and guidance. They enjoyed his generosity far more than his immediate family. Taking care of one’s family is a thankless task, whereas news of “bread cast upon the waters” may be touted far and wide. Though not a minister, he frequently preached that a person trying to lift himself out of a “life of sin” is to be praised far above those never wallowed. I am sure, this was personal, since he took every opportunity to use his own early behavior and redemption as an example of all he’d overcome. For some reason, he never encouraged us to sample the delights of sin so we could ascend to sainthood as he had, just made sure we never enjoyed the opportunity to mess up.
It was heart-warming to hear of the improved behavior of Josey Johnson, who only two weeks earlier had abandoned a loving husband or wife and little children for the company of a hard-drinking friend. If Daddy could corner Josey and get in a little preaching and Josey came home, Daddy was ecstatic. Josey could count on all kinds of favors, till he or she took off again. Daddy wasn’t bad about letting us know when Josey backslid, but hastened to update us if Josie returned home for some rest and rehabilitation. It didn’t matter that Josey might have been kicked out of a den of iniquity and was roosting at home till something better came along.
Unfortunately, Daddy never understood that not all people seek the low life. Life is full of people who do the right thing, just because it is right. I still wish he’d learned that not everyone falls, given the opportunity. I know his difficult background shaped his attitude.

family3

This photo pictures my father and several of his siblings. He is the boy in the middle holding the cap. I feel sure my grandmother seized the opportunity to have their pictures made by someone who happened by with a camera. They were sharecroppers. It is unlikely she was able to make any preparations for this photo. Times got even harder for the family when her husband died at forty-two, leaving her with five children between three and eighteen. The eldest had already married and left home. The oldest boy, at eighteen was working at whatever he could find. The fifteen-year-old boy went into the Civilian Conservation Corps as soon as he could. My father was thirteen and did farm work and odd jobs to help out till he got on as a night watchman at an oil rig at fifteen. The rig wasn’t too far from the house so he often slipped home to get something to eat and warm up, since he was too poorly clothed to keep warm.

Miss Laura Mae’s House Part 1

houseMiss Laura Mae’s kids were long gone. I loved tagging along with Mother to visit her since she always took time to talk to me a little before offering me a buttered biscuit and glass of milk. I loved the biscuit, but refused the milk, repulsed by the thick layer of cream atop the fresh cow’s milk in the glass jar in her refrigerator. I thought the thick cream looked like snot as she carefully spooned it into her coffee. Most of Mother’s friends had a houseful of kids and shooed us out before pouring coffee. “The kids are out back.” Sometimes I got a hint of gossip, though Mother always shooed me out as soon as I got my biscuit. “Now, stay on the steps and don’t let that ol’ hound dog git your biscuit!” Miss Laura Mae always reminded me as I closed the screen door behind me. I knew from experience that if I didn’t stand on the top step and hold my biscuit out of his reach, Ol’ Boots would help himself.
jar of milk

From my vantage point, I listened in as Miss Laura Mae launched into her story. “Floyd was pretty good to me, but he never did hold a job long. I don’t know what we’d a done if we hadn’t lived in that old house on his Mama’s place. He always did plow and put a good garden in or we’d a’gone hungry. He’d work a little pretty good for a while, but then he’d go off on a toot and get fired. The only thing he was good at was knocking me up. I had six youngun’s in eight years. Seem’s like I got another one ever’ time he hung his pants on the bed post. Times was just gittin’ harder and harder, and Floyd got mad the last couple of times I told him I was that way. You’d a’thought them babies was all my doing, but Lord knows more babies was the last thing on my mind when I couldn’t hardly feed the ones I already had. We couldn’t even keep ‘em in shoe leather. I had Berry in 1941 just before World War II started and nursed her long as I could, hoping I wouldn’t get pregnant, but sure enough, when she was about eight months old, my milk dried up an’ I felt a baby kicking under my apron. I kept hopin’ it was just gas, but then I started blowin’ up and I knew it was another youngun’ on the way.
I dreaded tellin’ Floyd, knowin’ he was gonna git mad. Sure enough, soon as I told him, he lit out a drinkin’. That was on a Monday night. I waited till then on purpose. He got paid on Fridays and I didn’t want him to go off a’drinkin’ before I got my groceries on Saturday. Sure enough, he got mad, just like l was a’plottin against him and took straight off. I didn’t see him again till Wednesday evenin’ and was feelin’ purty low about the fix I was in, a man that didn’t work steady, six kids and another one on the way, stuck livin’ in a shack on his mama’s place. When he came draggin’ in, he looked kind’a hangdog and I figured he’d got fired again while he was layin’ out drunk.”

“Well, Laura Mae, I got something I got to tell you I know you ain’t gonna like,” he started, looking down at his raggedy boots.

“It don’t take no genius to see you got fired,” I told him.

“No, that ain’t it.” He went on. “I was a’ drinkin’ with some fellers and they was on their way to enlist in the army. I wasn’t thinkin’ straight and I went right along and enlisted with ‘em. I just got time to get my stuff.”

Miss Laura Mae paused a moment, saying more to herself than to Mother, “Turned out that was the best piece of luck I ever had. The army was the first steady pay Floyd ever made. He was put in the paratroopers. Right off I was gittin’ a regular check. Paratrooper was extra pay, and he got extra for the young’uns. The first month, I got shoes for all the kids. The next month, I paid down on a stove. The one in his mama’s house didn’t have but two burners. Inside of a year, I had saved enough to pay down on this house. This is the first place I ever had a’ my own. Floyd didn’t get home for four years. I mean to tell you, it was good not to be pregnant all the time. I must ‘a been going through the change, ‘cause I didn’t have but one more after he got home, and I was ready for another one by then. Things was better with Floyd workin’ more regular after that. Seems like having a home kind’a gave him a lift. You’d a’thought he done it all hisself.”

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