Our Awful Friends Part 2

I had only been out of the bathtub about 10 minutes when this picture was made.  After that birthday party, this dress was never the same.  I never saw that little purse again.I first became aware of the Awfuls on the occasion of Jamey Awful’s fifth birthday.  I was probably about four and totally ignorant of what birthday parties entailed.  I only knew that Mother ruined a perfectly good day by calling me away from my sand pile to take a bath in the middle of the day, an unheard of event.  I was disturbed especially since she insisted on washing the sand out of my hair.  I’d just spent a good portion of the morning pouring sand on the top of my head, enjoying its powdery coolness showering down on my shoulders and the back of my sundress and saw no reason for her outraged reaction.  “I told you not to get dirty.  We have to go somewhere today.”

As far as I was concerned, sand was clean.  Mud was dirty.  Axle grease was dirty.  Chicken poop on my shoe was dirty.  Sand was white and dusted right off.  It was not dirty.  At any rate, Mother filled the tub with water and sprinkled in a bit of Tide Washing Powder and plunged me in.  That was what passed for bubble bath at our house.  I would have been content to spend the afternoon there, but she washed my hair and hurried me out, ruining another good time.  Then she brushed my stick straight hair and stuffed me in a fluffy petticoat, a white fluffy dress with red and blue polka-dots, white socks, and sandals.  Worse yet, I had to submit to a photo session.  Mother was a novice with a camera making me pose forever, staring into the sun.  She’d gone to a great deal of fuss making matching dresses for me and Phyllis for Easter and was extremely proud of the effect.  Too bad the confection was wasted on me.  When she’d said Easter outfit, I’d envisioned a cowboy getup.

Then she walked us over to the Awful’s house.  I doubt Mother knew Mrs. Awful, since we’d never been to her house for coffee, even though they only lived a couple of houses over.  I guess the poor woman was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find enough kids for a party, since I was a year younger and Phyllis was a couple of years older and neither had ever laid eyes on Jamey. 

Mrs. Awful met us at the back gate.  There were a dozen or so kids running round in the yard, so once Mother made Mrs. Awful’s acquaintance, she headed home, promising to be back for us in a couple of hours.  Mrs. Awful ushered us in the back gate and the fun began.  I was in Heaven!

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Our Awful Friends

Freedom at the Awful’s  Illustration by Kathleen Holdaway Swain

Mother was a cruel beast of a woman who rarely allowed us out of our own yard.  I felt so deprived when free-range children passed our house in pursuit of adventure.  Sometimes we were able to tempt them in with our tire swing, zip line, or huge barn, but invariably greener pastures called and we were left morosely watching them amble off to Donnie’s or Joey’s house.  Sadly, we’d pine as the motley crew and their retinue of dogs disappeared down the dusty road.  It wasn’t that we didn’t have wondrous opportunities on our own place;t we just hated being left behind.

Once we accepted our sad abandonment, we didn’t waste time whining to Mother that “We don’t have anything to do.”  I only made that mistake once and Mother set me to hanging out diapers, dusting, and washing woodwork.  In fact, she was mean enough to assign jobs to break up fights.  It’s terrible growing up with a mother who turns human nature against innocent children.

At any rate, a family neighboring us raised their fortunate children with a complete lack of supervision.  Those kids roamed long after dark, before daylight, dropped in for meals all over the neighborhood, drank out of from the neighbor’s faucets, rode the neighbor’s cows, and generally led a charmed life.  Though their name was Offut, I misunderstood it as Awful.  In her frequent dealings with these children Mother reached the conclusion Awful was an excellent name.  She was particularly offended when we came home from town and found them in the house making Kool-aid.  The Awful’s had little understanding of private property and had often had Kool-aid with us, so of course they felt free to help themselves, even if Mother had been careless enough not to leave it in the refrigerator.  Her attitude baffled our uninvited guests.  I think the syrupy floor and Jerry’s standing on the counter helping himself to a pack of Daddy’s cigarettes off the top shelf also ruffled her feathers, but she was the crabby type, after all.  The loss of cigarettes were of particular concern.  A carton cost two dollars and eighty cents, a significant portion of her fifteen dollar grocery budget.  At any rate, she took an unreasonable stance and forbade them to enter the house again when we were gone.  I don’t think they found it particularly disturbing since a couple more packs of cigarettes went missing before Daddy found a better hiding place for his stash.  

Just Folks Gettin By Part 6

busThe next day, Lucille got a letter and read it to Jenny over lunch. “Oh listen to this.  It’s from Cousin Sally, Aunt Lucy’s daughter.  Remember I told you Aunt Lucy had her widowed daughter and grandchildren livin’ with her.  Well, this is the one.  I sure was crazy about her.  Me and Velma run around with her a lot while I stayed there.  Anyway, listen to this:

 

Dear Lucille,

I hope this finds you well.  I made you a copy of that dishtowel embroidery pattern of Mama’s you wanted.  Remember how she done it up in yellow and blue to match them dishes she got down at the Five and Dime with her birthday money that time?   I done some for a wedding gift for Maybelline’s  daughter, Jessie’s wedding shower.  She acted like she really liked them.  I done two pair, one in blue and green and one pair in yellow and orange.  They didn’t look as good as Mama’s but the girl seemed like she liked them.  She said that’s the first bit of needlework anybody give her yet.  Used to didn’t nobody have no money to buy nothing, so I never got the habit of buying gifts I could make.  Bless her heart, if I was the gossiping type, I’d say that that gal’s going to need a baby shower soon, but that ain’t Christian, so I won’t. 

My garden is doing real good.  I already put up two hundred jars of tomato vegetable soup and fifty quarts of peas.  That soup will be real good this winter when we ain’t had nothing fresh in a while.  I can add a little meat when I get tired of it plain, but I never got the habit of needing meat every meal.  I know you remember we had meat it was just on Sunday, and then it was probably just an old hen that had quit laying Mama didn’t want to feed no more.  Boy, I was scared to death of them chickens after Mama cut their head off.   Lots of times they’d run in circles till they just dropped over.  I never thought much of something it didn’t need a head, especially after that one run me up under the porch.  I had nightmares about that for years.  You and Velma laughed like that was the funniest thing you ever seen.  I hid every time Mama killed a chicken after that.

Mavis (“That’s her daughter, Jenny”) is expecting in the next couple of weeks.  I am supposed go stay a few weeks after the baby comes to help out.  Soon as she found out she was thataway she made me promise to come.  She sent me a ticket last week.  I’m all packed just waiting to hear the baby is here.  I made arrangements with Myrtis down bus stop to git the mailman to let me know.  He always runs by nine and that would give me time to get to the noon bus.  It’ll get me to Bonneville by four and they can have somebody pick me up.  I sure hope they have a girl this time.  Them four boys is cute but Mavis is sure wanting another girl after she lost that baby girl last year that was a blue baby.  She ain’t got over it yet.  She says she’s carrying this one high like she did Brenda.  I’m hoping she’ll be too busy to keep on mourning.  It sure was a blessing when she found out she was thataway about two weeks after Brenda died. They would have been about sixteen months apart.  I’m worried about her, but I believe she’ll be okay.  Don’t forget to keep praying for her.

I better close.  You can write back to me at Mavis’s house at the same address you used last time.  I’ll let you know how things go.  Keep in touch.

                                                                                                               Love,

                                                                                                                Sally

Well, ain’t that nice she’s gittin’ to go stay with Mavis.  She was real worried about her after she lost her baby.  She wouldn’t git out of the bed for about three weeks till her husband told her she had to.  Sally said she walked around like a ghost till she found out this new baby was coming.  Sally was real worried about her.  I thought I wanted to die after your daddy got in trouble and Jimmy died, but I knew I had to scrap around and figure out some way to take care of you.  After that, I was workin’ so hard I just felt numb.  I do believe Uncle Marsh helping me git that dishwashing job saved me.  When I wasn’t workin’ I was so tired I staggered to the bed and passed out, then got up and did it again.  My best days was Monday’s when the café was closed.  I just lived to go see you on Mondays.”  Lucille mused.  

Jenny broke in, “Oh Mama, you’ll never know how I looked forward to your visits.  I was about the only kid who ever had a regular visitor.  It made me feel so special.  Sometimes we’d all be in the to the classroom and a couple would come in.  We weren’t supposed to know, but they were looking for a child.  All the kids would be looking at each other, real excited, hoping to get a chance to shine.  Later they’d whisper, wondering if they’d be chosen.  Once in a while, a kid would be called to meet folks, and we’d be buzzing, wondering if they’d be adopted.  I felt so happy, knowing I had you.  It put me in a special class all to myself.  Once in a great while another kid would be lucky enough to have a visitor, but no one else had a mama who came every Monday. You always reminded me we’d be together again with Daddy.  I didn’t much remember him, but I always held onto the idea of going home.

 

 

 

Andrew and Molly Part 16

James Andrew Wharton  made his appearance seven  months later, a hearty little fellow.  His parents and Will and Aggie Bartles purely doted on him.  Molly was amused that she’d ever thought James or Aggie stern, especially as they coddled and spoke nonsense to Jamie.  Molly and Aggie enjoyed their new status as free citizens and were active in church.

James Wharton lost some of his austere persona with the happiness of his marriage.  Molly’s relationship with him blossomed as she had leisure to spoil him, a luxury she and Andrew had never enjoyed.  She was surprised to find him a skilled and generous lover with none of the urgency she’d experienced with Andrew.  Before Jamie was a year old, she was pregnant again.  James was ecstatic to see his family increasing.  He engaged a young bondswoman woman to help Molly as soon as he could.  James had expanded his acreage and engaged another man soon after they married.

Molly gave birth to a girl she named for Addie then little Hannah the next year.  She teased James that he’d tricked saying he wouldn’t be a virile husband then landed her two babies in a year.  He added rooms as the family grew, including one for Josie, the bondswoman.  The children called Addie and Will grandparents.  The family truly thrived.

The four years Molly shared with James were precious, all the more because she knew she wouldn’t have him with her forever.  One evening after supper, he took her hand.  “Mollygirl, I am old.  When I work hard, it pains my chest.  I want you to know, you are the best part of my life.  I have my affairs in order.  I will engage another man to ease my labor, but I won’t be with you much longer.”

Molly wept softly in his arms.  “I will always love you, dearest.”

He began spending his days around the house with Molly as the bondsman worked the farm.  Two months later, Molly went to wake him for breakfast and found he’d left left.  She’d lost two husbands before she was twenty-five.

She grieved James as Will Bartles helped her learn to run the farm along with the two bondsman, though not a day passed that she didn’t think of his strength and kindness.  One morning as she hung clothes on the line, a man in buckskins came running from the woods.  She was gathering her little ones to run when she heard a familiar voice calling, “Molly!  Molly!”

 

Andrew and Molly Part 2

img_1702 img_1704After filling their starving bellies with greasy stew and quarts of ale, Andrew and Molly  signed away their next four years, too sated to consider the uncertainty of the life facing them.  In fact, they were signing away the certainty of poverty, degradation, and possible imprisonment had they remained.  In that time, people could not expect to rise above their station.  Having lost the position as farm servants to which they were born, it was unlikely they’d ever find anything more than seasonal farm employment, working mostly at planting or harvest when the workload was heavy.  Starvation would likely have been their eventual lot.  Should they stay in the city, it’s unlikely they’d find work.  Many in their situation drifted into prostitution and crime.  It is likely Molly would have dried of disease, drink, or victimization on the streets and Andrew would have ended up on the gallows or bound over as an involuntary indentured servant.   Their best chance for a better life lay with the choice they’d made.

Once they’d signed, the agent wasted no time escorting  them on board the Elizabeth Ann.  She looked imposing from without, but her charm faded as Mr. Peabody led them deep into the bowels of the ship.  Their quarters in the lowest level were dark, wet, and malodorous.  There was no provision for privacy.  They’d be relieving themselves in the communal slop jar, which would ostensibly be dumped periodically, unless it tipped over first.  Hammocks served for sleeping.  There were no other furnishings.  Restricted below deck until after sailing to avoid defection, they got a measure of beer and weevilly biscuits three times a day.  The smell was horrendous.  After their first exhausted sleep, they awoke to find themselves a part of a growing crowd of voluntary and involuntary holdmates ranging from bonded servants like themselves to young children scooped up off the street all the way prostitutes and hardened criminals who’d barely escaped the gallows.  The strong preyed on the weak.  Their miserable sleep was interrupted by lighting, moaning, and the occasional fight.  Periodically, the door above opened and another unfortunate joined their miserable lot.

In truth, indentured servants were enslaved for the period of their indenture, usually four to seven years, children till the age of twenty-one.  Their bondage could be sold without their consent.  Marriage required the master’s consent.  Should women become pregnant, their period of servitude could be extended due to decreased productivity during the pregnancy.  Children of unwed mothers were born free, but subject to being placed in the care of the church.  Unlike slaves, the indentured could appeal to the courts to contest mistreatment and did receive twenty-five to fifty acres of land, some tools, seed, and clothing upon completing their service.  Like slaves, they were most often ill-treated.  Having come to the colony in this way was no impediment to their future.  Many bonded servants prospered and got a good start to a free life.  It definitely could be a road to a better life.

Andrew and Molly Part 1

img_1700Andrew Wharton was born to be a farm servant like his father and grandfather before him, the line extending back much further than anyone bothered to remember.  His work was not a choice; he was born to work Hampton Grange and expected to die there.  The only surprise was when pretty Molly Peace chose him.  Ecstatic in his luck, he couldn’t believe the rollicking dairy maid favored him above all the hopeful lads pursuing her when he’d done no more than sneak shy peeks at her in Chapel.  The confusion of love and glorious sensuality overwhelmed the young man who’d never contemplated the possibility that life could hold pleasure. Molly saw joy in everything, the sweet breath of the cows she milked, the warmth of the sun on her face, and the sweet sent of the hay she bundled, not seeming to notice the manure in the cow’s tail, the slogging rains, or the sneezing brought on by the hay.

Their life at Hampton Grange offered the couple little beyond a small hovel, milk and cheese from the dairy, a daily ration of bread and beer, the privilege of wood gathering, and scant wages. Once a year, they were due a measure of wool for their own use. Compared to the conditions many experienced, it was adequate under Old Squire John’s management. Left to his gambling heir, it was soon lost to bankruptcy, leaving them adrift.

Andrew and his new wife Molly found themselves standing in the freezing rain wearing all they owned before a pub in Liverpool. After three days’ starving, they were easily persuaded to join an agent for The Virginia Club for food and drink. With no prospects, they were Signed papers of indenture pledging the next four years of their lives in exchange for passage to the Jamestown colony in Virginia. For their volunteer bondage they would receive lodging, food, and clothing, the quality to be determined by their master. They were fortunate in being bound four years. Most were bound seven years. including involuntary prisoners or abductees. At the end of their service, they were entitled to tools, money, and land. Like so many other indentured servants, they could expect years of unrelenting labor and uncertain treatment. In truth, the next few years wouldn’t be greatly different to the life they were accustomed to if they were fortunate enough to be bound to a good master. At least they’d have a start at the end of their time.

Hard Time Marrying Part 6

Minolta DSC

Minolta DSC

snakeoil The boy stirred. Joe almost wretched as he worked the floppy, little body from under the covers, soiling himself up to the elbows in a soup of feces, urine, and sweat. This was worse than a calf with the scours. He spread a towel on the floor near the hearth and went to work, bathing and diapering the little fellow before he could even think of feeding him. The boy whimpered a bit, but by and large was unaware of his bath. Finally, clean, dry, and dressed in one of the gowns, Joe settled back in a chair to spoon him some milk doctored up with Dr. Marvel’s Wonder Tonic. Had Joe only realized it was mostly alcohol, he’d have dosed himself before starting the bath. The boy even roused enough to sip from a tin cup before lapsing back into sleep on the flannel-covered hay.

That job finished, Joe touched the woman’s shoulder. She sprang back screaming like he was a bear. She showed considerable spirit for a woman who’d so recently left the grave. Appalled at the bruises on her face and the cut over her eye, he dropped his eyes. Surely he hadn’t hit her with the shovel as he covered her grave. Stepping back, he gestured to the baby, holding his nose to show it needed bathing. He pointed to the boy lying asleep on the hay bed and to the bath supplies. The woman clearly was humiliated at being befouled, pulling the cover back over herself. Joe had laid her bundle of clothes on the foot of the bed, figuring she’d want it first thing. She shooed him out. He gave her a few minutes out of consideration for her dignity before letting himself back in, finding her struggling to dress, her right arm useless. How could he have been that rough getting her to the grave? Pained, he helped her into her dress, looking at her as little as possible. He helped her to the table, though it was clear she was repelled by his touch. Once she was seated, he poured her a cup of coffee, thick with cream and a healthy glug of Dr. Marvel. When he saw she was strong enough to manage, he turned his attention to the baby girl.

She was as warm and pink as her brother, crying out in protest at being stripped and bathed. Finally, warm, clean, and dry, he offered her to her mother to nurse. The woman looked at him as though he’d asked her to nurse a pig, gesturing the baby away. Realizing there was no choice, he poured some of the warm milk into the bottle and fed the baby himself. She wasn’t having any of it, pushing the nipple out of her mouth and howling. Looking to the mother for help, she shook her head as though it was no matter to her. The woman must be addled from the fever and the grave, he thought. He was finally able to get enough milk into the baby to satisfy her, between the bottle and the cup. She was asleep before he laid her on the makeshift bed next to her brother. When he turned back to the battered woman, she was dozing in the straight chair. She jumped then moaned when he touched her shoulder, but allowed him to help her into the hay with the children.

That being done, he turned to the mess awaiting him. Building a fire under a tub outdoors, he set water to boiling. He’d never faced a pile of washing like this, only doing his a few times a year. He stripped of his dirty shirt, shaved some of the soap into the water, and got to work. Shaking out the worst of the soil, he plunged as many of the diapers and clothes into the tub as would fit and stirred them around with a stick until the mess was indistinguishable from the wash water. When he was satisfied he’d done all he could, he fished the laundry out of the malodorous soup and hung it on the fence, not bothering to rinse.  The bedding, done with fresh water and soap looked little better, but the entire  lot eventually achieved a universal stiffness as it dried, the soil having been mixed with soap and universally distributed.

Hard Time Marrying Part 5

baby-bottle

Though he considered himself unfit for human company, Jack and the barn cats didn’t concur and worked their way in next to Joe, slipping into the snug cocoon of the hay-covered saddle blanket and his heavy barn jacket.  The breathing and occasional stamping of the milk cow and the horses in their stalls eased him. This bit of his life was unmarred.  Comforted by the company of the beasts, he slipped into exhausted sleep.  Upon awakening to Ol’ Sal and her kittens purring, his spirits rose and he felt better about himself.  He lay in his nest enjoying their company till he turned to settle back in for a few more minutes.  Reaching up to feel slime in his hair, he found Ol’ Sal had rewarded him with the gift of a dead rat.  He sprang up, flinging the nasty rat, startling Jack and set the kittens to every way, his reverie ended. 

He dawdled as long as possible over the milking, spraying milk into the mouths of the dancing cats.  Rosie’s waiting calf lunged at her when he released them in to the feedlot. When the little heifer had gorged on her mother’s milk, Joe separated them, letting the cow out to graze.  Rosie ambled off without a care, leaving Baby Blossom bawling behind her. She’d be back lowing to be milked before sundown.  Joe chuckled thinking he must have looked a fool getting rid of that rat.  Tossing a clean towel over the milk, he passed out some hay and grain to the horses and opened the barn door to the corral, making sure the water troughs were full.  After tossing a few ears of corn and watering the hogs, he could no longer delay going back into the cabin.  If the kids had lived through the night, they’d need feeding, too.  If the sick woman couldn’t nurse the baby, he’d have to feed her using the bottle and some of that canned milk the town had provided before booting them all out of town.  The light was just breaking in the East on a cold, clear, windy West Texas day when he headed toward the house.

The fire was no more than embers. The small cabin reeked of urine, excrement, and fever.   He dreaded looking, but saw the boy lying to one side of the woman who’d turned to face the wall.  The child’s rapid breathing was shallow, snot crusted around his nostrils, his cheeks flaming pink.  There was no doubt about the scarlet fever.  He’d come uncovered and must have been near frozen in his sodden clothes.  Joe hastily covered him and turned to make up the fire before investigating further.  He’d have to get some food into the child and get him into a clean, warm bed to have any hope of saving the him.  He took care not to disturb the others as he heated water and looked for something to serve as clean bedding and clothes should the woman and girl be alive. Living alone, he’d never bothered with the niceties of bed-linens, settling for a simple straw-filled tick and a couple of quilts.  From the fetid smell, it was clear this one would have to be boiled and re-stuffed.  While the water heated, he brought a load of hay from the barn, along with his old barn coat and a couple of the cleaner burlap bags.  He pulled a couple of ancient quilts from a shelf, not even wondering what hand might have made them.  He’d often thought of tossing the ragged bedding, but was glad now his housekeeping had been lax.

In readiness for the tasks ahead of him, he opened the parcels, finding a baby bottle, four flannel gowns, a few cans of peaches, some crackers, two bars of soap, in addition to several cans of peaches, canned milk, a bottle of Dr. Marvel’s Wonder Tonic, two rough towels, and the bolt of flannel.  In a moment of tenderness, someone had added a couple of peppermint sticks.  He warmed a pain of milk, poured some water into a wash pan, and laid out the towels and soap.  He tore off a few strips of flannel to use for diapers.  For now, that would have to do.

milk-label