Two Roads Part 14

img_1697Over the next few years, their brood grew to include seven.  The boys were tall and strong, a lot of help to Eddie, so he didn’t need Neeley’s help so much.  A stern taskmaster, he was apt to take his belt to the boys should they dally.  When Will, their third son was about eight, he was given the task of planting corn as his older brothers made up the rows on either side of him.  The rows seemed to stretch on forever and his back ached with bending and planting four kernels per hills ten to twelve inches apart. He fell further and further behind.  Desperate to catch up, he buried a big pile of seed in one hill and caught up to his brothers.  It rid him of so much of the accursed seed, he repeated the process up and down the rows, finishing up in time with the rest.  He thought no more about it, glad to be done with the onerous task of planting.  Several evenings later, Eddie went out one bright moonlit night to check to see if his corn had sprouted late that afternoon.  Indeed it had, but not all in rows like he expected.  Big clumps of corn sprouts stood in patches up and down the rows.  Infuriated, he knew immediately what Will had done.  He strode toward the house, determined to set the boy straight.  In their exhaustion, the three boys had gone to bed immediately after supper.  Eddie stomped into the room snatching the covers back from the sleeping boys and started beating them with his belt. Though Will got the worst of it, the other boys suffered welts, too.  Neeley heard the screams from the kitchen and burst in to stop Eddie.  In his fury, he didn’t seem to notice her.  Neeley ..  got the fireplace poker and got between him and the boys, beating him about the shoulders. Finally, she stood him off.  Threatening to crack him over the head, she assured him she’d kill him if she had to. In the face of her ferocity, he backed down, putting himself on one side of a wall and herself and the kids on another.  This was repeated several times over the next few years, made worse as the boys’ hormones kicked in and Eddie aged. Neeley wondered if his meanness was due to his head jury or his nature.  It could have been a combination since Eddie had learned violence at he hands of his own father, many years earlier.

Eddie didn’t deal a lot better with the girls.  As they entered  puberty, he suspected them of all manner of misbehavior.  Always on the lookout for trashiness, they couldn’t smile at a boy without inciting his anger.  In view of Eddie’s violent tendencies, Neeley  always lined up on the side of her children, creating anger on both sides.  As Neeley became more defensive, the boys became more undisciplined.  Neeley had the girls firmly under control, determined they not be led astray as she had been.  Though Eddie never voiced it, Neeley feared he’d make reference to her dalliance before their marriage. Like any mother, she wanted her children to hold her in high regard. It was an uncomfortable situation.  Not only that, fearing more pregnancies, Neeley refused to have sex except immediately before or after her “curse,” increasing the tension between them.

 

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Two Roads Part 11

img_1685Image pulled from the internet

Eddie made a good crop that year. Neeley canned and dried all her garden produced. The children cheeks filled out with the good food and all the milk they wanted. Once the crop was put by that fall, Neeley’s brothers Albert and Willie, and Eddie’s cousins came over to help with the well-digging. They’d dug down about twenty feet and were just starting to see water seep in, when Eddie broke his shovel handle and called out for a replacement. As one of the men was lowering it, he lost control and dropped it, hitting Eddie in the head. They dragged Eddie out of the well unconscious and hauled him ten miles to town in the back of a wagon.  He was transferred to Charity Hospital forty miles away by ambulance.  He awoke after a couple of days later, to their great relief, though he was never quite the same. He suffered from debilitating headaches and frequent seizures that left him confused. Worst of all, he raged and had little impulse control. He would have beaten the children if Neeley hadn’t gotten between him and them. Fortunately, she was larger than Eddie and able to control him.

Despite his problems, he was determined to take care of his family.  He’d work till a headache or seizure disabled him, then go to bed and get up and try again the next day.  Neeley’s brothers helped him get his crops in the next spring, hoping he’d rally with time.  Neeley and the children worked beside him, the baby toddling right along behind.  When it came time to pick the cotton, they all picked with the baby either riding along on their cotton sacks or playing between the rows.  Despite their best efforts, they barely made enough to pay the rent for the next year.  They’d be able to eat what Neeley canned or dried from the garden, but there was only enough money for shoes for the the oldest kids, the ones in school.  The others were resoled, reheeled, and passed down.  Neeley always bought brown lace-up oxfords, so they could be worn by boys and girls.  They had fattened six shoats to put in the smokehouse, but decided they’d best sell three for supplies and next spring’s seed.

It would be a hard winter, but they’d squeak by.  Neeley was exhausted from picking up Eddie’s extra load as well as keeping up her own work.  She was relieved to anticipate things easing up till she started throwing up in the mornings and realized she hadn’t had a visit from “her friend” in a couple of months.

Two Roads Part 10

The day after Christmas, Neeley miscarried and was shamed at her relief.  She already had five children and faced an uncertain future.  Mama Cassie came to help out for a few days bringing her youngest daughter, Cynthia.  At nine, Cynthia was about the age Neeley was when Ma died.  Seeing the child playing with her children was bittersweet, remembering Mama had long abandoned her by that point in her life.

Mama Cassie was a sharp-spoken, bitter woman, not given to tenderness.  In the way of many neglected children, Neeley basked in any affection her mother showed and would have never antagonized her.  Cassie must have sensed her questions, since she brought the subject up one morning over coffee.  “I always felt bad I left you.  I wanted you with me an’ felt real bad when I found out Ma died an’ you was with Jep.  I was a’living with my husband Jeb Cox then in Smackover, Arkansas.  He was a mean one. He drank an’ beat me till I lost a baby right about that time.  I knowed if I brung you there he’d a’done you wrong.  I felt just awful about losing that baby, but that wasn’t a fit home to bring another youngun into.  Soon as I was able, I left Willie and Albert with their Grandma Cox an’ slipped off from him.  I just had to live however I could till I married Joe Miller.  I just want you to know I would’a raised you iffen I could.” A tear slid down her cheek.

Neeley understood how hard it was trying to do right by children.  Her heart melted.  “I’m glad you told me, Ma.  You ain’t had no easy life neither.”  Any resentment she’d still held melted away in light of her mother’s contrition.

Eddie made arrangements to rent a farm about six miles down in the low country, eighty acres with a creek.  The only problem was, there wasn’t a good well.  They would have to haul water about three hundred yards till Eddie could get a well dug.  Willie, Albert and a couple of cousins would help.  By March, they’d moved onto the place.  Neeley was sorry to leave her brothers’ place, especially since Eddie told her the house wasn’t as tight and they’d be hauling water for a while, but at least it would be their own place and it was reasonably close to family.  The school was only two miles away, so the kids could get there in good weather.  She was a little down in the mouth when she saw the house.  She could see daylight through cracks in the walls, but she got to work tacking cardboard, newspapers, catalog pages and anything else she could get her hands on over the cracks. Every house she’d ever lived in had paper tacked over cracks, so that wasn’t a problem. There was a good iron cook stove in the kitchen and a wood heater in the front room. That made up for a lot. The first time it rained, they had to set pots around to catch the drips, but Eddie split shingles and fixed the roof right away. The chimney had pulled away from the house, but they tipped it back and braced it before mixing red clay mortar and hay to daub up the seams and cracks. By the time they were through, it was a decent place for the family. Eddie never let her run out of water, hauling in a barrel from the creek
images pulled from internet
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Two Roads Part 8

img_1681They anticipated a bumper crop that August.  Eddie’s forty acres were white with the swelling cotton bolls.  An experienced farmer, he’d been at it long enough to know what his crop would bring.  Even though he’d only be paid for two-thirds of the yield, this should be one of his better years.  After settling up with Mr. Hathaway and the grocer, he ought to be able to put away enough to start renting the next fall.  He had his eye on a farm close to Neely’s mama.  The house wasn’t much better than this one, but at least he wouldn’t be sharecropping.

The whole family picked from daylight to dark for days, only breaking to eat buttered sugar biscuits and rest a few minutes at noon.  Their hands bled from the sharp points on the dried bolls.  Neeley had the oldest two girls trade out watching the baby while she picked. The weather held till they got the drop in.  Mr. Hathaway was there to weigh every bag they emptied before having it hauled to the gin.

After the last wagon load of cotton rolled out, they waited anxiously for Mr. Hathaway to get back to pay them their share.  They knew he was coming early that Saturday,  so they already had the wagon hitched up and the kids ready to go so they could settle their grocery bill and get the kids some shoes.  The little guys had gone barefoot all summer, but with school ready to start and winter coming, they’d need shoes.

Mr. Hathaway and his foreman got out of his truck and walked over to where they waited.  “I got bad news for you folks.  The price of cotton fell and seed cost way more than I thought it would.  Y’all didn’t clear but about fifty dollars on this crop.”

Eddie was stunned, taking long to speak.  “That don’t hardly seem right.  Cotton’s been selling for fourteen cents a pound.  We had a fine crop.  The way I figure it, we got just over three-hundred dollars clear.  You was s’posed to pay for the seed, not me.  We got to talk about this.”

“That’s all they is to it.  You just got a tough break on the seed.” Mr. Hathaway dismissed him and turned to go, encountering Neeley standing between him and his truck.  She had a bull whip in her hand. At six feet and near two-hundred pounds, the enraged woman was an imposing figure, especially to a small, wiry older man.  He and his foreman were trapped between the house and the wagon.

“No, that ain’t how it’s gonna go.”  She looked him in the eye.  “You owe us at least three-hundred twenty-seven dollars and that’s what you gonna pay us.  I’ll whip you if I have to, but you ain’t starvin’ my younguns.”

Mr. Hathaway dropped his eyes in the face of the furious woman with the whip.  Reaching in his pocket, he dug out a thick roll of bills.  He counted out three-hundred fifty-three dollars and handed it to Eddie.  “I forgot you have your own mule and equipment. This will make us square.”  He and the foreman edged their way around Neeley and scurried to the truck.  He called back to Eddie once he was in the truck, “I want you and that woman off the place.  I got somebody else in mind.”

Eddie was still shocked at what his wife had done, so Neeley answered for him.  “Don’t you worry none about that.  We already got somethin’ lined up.”

 

 

 

 

Two Roads Part 7

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Image from photos of The Great Depression

Sharecropping was a big come-down after losing the farm.  Neeley felt it every time she saw family or bumped into a neighbor in the store.  They’d been extended credit again since the boss-man vouched for them, but it was humiliating when the owner’s wife, Mrs. Hathaway saw Neeley admiring fabric and snidely remarked, “Now don’t you go runnin’ up the bill with fancy stuff like that. You gonna have to be savin’ since we vouchin’ fer you.”

“I ain’t gonna cost you nothin’,”  Neeley assured her.  “I got enough sense to know what I owe, but it don’t cost nothin’ for me to look.”  With that, she asked the storekeeper for two yards of unbleached muslin, the cheap stuff women used for their monthly needs.  She turned to the storekeeper.  “Please take this out of my egg and butter money, an’ got each of the young’uns gits a peppermint stick.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” the storekeeper said.  He was amused at Neeley’s spunk, having seen plenty of Mrs. Hathaway’s hateful attitude toward her husband’s workers.  He cut Neeley an extra yard and grinned.

“I didn’t mean no harm.  I just didn’t want you running up no big bill for us to got stuck with. ” Mrs. Hathaway tried to turn the awkward situation around.

“You don’t never have to worry about me.”  Neeley looked her dead in the eye.  “Save your worry for somebody else.”

Eddie was loading feed as she came out of the store.  “Now don’t you go crossing Miz Hathaway.  We don’t need them throwin’ us out.”

“Huh, they need us worse than we need them.  You ain’t seen nobody lined up at their door looking for a place, have you?”   she queried.

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All spring Neeley worked alongside Eddie, helping him get the cotton crop in.  A few weeks later, she helped him chop the weeds out.  Because Eddie furnished his own mule and plow, Mr. Hathaway allowed him an acre for a vegetable garden and let Neeley’s cow graze in with his cows.  Eddie built Neeley a chicken house out of scrap lumber to shut her chickens up at night.  They ran free all day.  Once the cash crop was in, they got their own patch planted.  Many landowners didn’t allow their croppers room for a garden, so this was a boon.  The landowner was to get one-third of the cotton crop, Eddie two-thirds.

The crop was thriving.  They were hopeful they’d clear enough to get far enough ahead to rent a farm with their share.  Eddie still had his mule, equipment, and wagon.  By now, Cassie was back in Neeley’s life.  She and her third husband had settled a few miles away with their twin boys and little girl.  The two older boys were    out of the house and working.  It was a comfort to have Cassie nearby.  She had settled down some as she aged, though she and her husband still managed some pretty good fights.  It probably helped that men didn’t pay much attention to her as she “lost her looks.”  Neeley had even started calling her “Mama” after Ma died.

Things were going a lot better than Neeley expected until her milk dried up and she realized she was pregnant again.  Damn, Eddie!  Why couldn’t he leave her in peace. The baby was only eight months old!  She wouldn’t need that unbleached muslin for a while, anyway.  Counting Clara Bea, this would be her sixth child and she wasn’t even twenty-five.  She didn’t think she could stand it.

 

 

 

 

Two Roads Part 5

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Image pulled from internet

Though Neeley’s marriage to Eddie did not start with love, they were good people who needed each other.  Both considered themselves damaged goods.  Neeley got a home and a father for her child, Eddie, a wife and mother for his young daughter.  They both had healthy appetites for life and love which made for a solid marriage.  Neeley loved little Clara Bea from the start, knowing how abandonment felt.  Both got a better deal than they expected.  During those days, divorce was almost unheard of.  Eddie had despaired of finding a decent woman to marry after his wife abandoned him.  He’d never even thought of approaching a young woman since she’d left.  It was remarkable that Neeley was the child of a divorcee who married a divorced man at a time when most people had never even met a divorced person, much less have a close link to two.

Since there was no whisper of Neeley’s liason with Joey, it was assumed Neeley was a foolish young girl who’d fallen for an older fellow.  Though it made for interesting gossip, it was not a real scandal since he’d made an honest woman of her.  Then, as so often through life, society felt the woman fell short, not the man.

In the Deep South of that time, a great majority of people still made their living as farmers.  Large landowners with sharecroppers or tenants were on the top of the heap. Small farm owners came next. About the least a man could support his family on was forty acres.  He had to have a mule and equipment. The rental farm included a house.  He most likely had to borrow money for planting and had debt at the grocery store most of the time and just scraped by.  Should they fall on hard times and not be able to maintain their credit, their only option might be to become a sharecropper.  Sharecroppers were set up by landowners and split the crop with owner.  It was often unfair and kept farmers in debt.  Many had to sneak off in the night when debt got too high.  Sharecropping kept farmers bound to place.

Eddie owned a small farm and had very little money long before The Great Depression.  They raised most of what they needed.  Along with their garden, they had a cow, hogs, and a flock of chickens and cultivated a few acres of cotton for cash.  The occasional sale of a hog and Neeley’s butter and egg money helped out.  All they really had to buy was coal oil for their lamps, coffee, sugar, flour, baking soda, a few clothes for Eddie, and shoes.  Women’s and girl’s clothes came from feed sacks.  Flour sacks were reincarnated as underwear.  Their’s was a subsistence life, not by choice.  It was the life Neeley was raised to expect.

 

 

 

Two Roads Part 3

It is questionable whether Aunt Lottie was really mean or just a harried woman with a houseful near to bursting when she had to take responsibility for Neeley.  It couldn’t have been an easy time for her, Uncle Jep or the grieving child.  Having Uncle Jep take Neeley’s side against her, hardened Aunt Lottie further.  She often hissed at her, “I’ll tend to you later!”

Neeley’s attempts to avoid Aunt Lottie were hopeless since she had to work along side her while enduring jabs about “yore sorry mama.”  While living with Ma,she never gave Cassie a lot of thought, but now the oppressive shadow of Aunt Lottie’s contempt for her mother was a heavy burden for a young child.  It was very confusing to mourn Ma knowing she had a mother “out there somewhere.”  Why didn’t she live with her mother?  Uncle Jep changed the subject when she asked him.

Cassie took Neeley for a few weeks or months when she had a stable home.  She’d remarried and had two boys, so Neeley did get to spend some time with her mother and two young brothers.  These times meant the world to Neeley since her attention-hungry little brothers adored her.  On her arrival, her mother showered her with love and affection before eventually succumbing to a mood swing and becoming neglectful of herself and the children.  Eventually, there would be a violent fight with her husband and the children would be dispatched to various relatives with a domestic split.  Neeley always landed back at Uncle Jep’s, the odd child out once again.

Neeley was becoming a young Amazon, over six feet tall and powerfully built.  With the hard life she faced, she’d need her strength to be able to hold her own.  Neeley never spent enough time in school to be a good student. At the age of sixteen, she realized she was pregnant.  No knight in shining armor showed up to marry her.  Soon after her baby was born, she married Eddie Malone, a twenty-six-year-old divorced man who was a friend of Uncle Jep.  Love was never mentioned, but there was the promise of a home.  She hadn’t had a home since she was nine.

 

 

Two Roads Part 2

On the last day of her old life, Ma sent nine-year-old Neeley to the store with some butter and eggs to trade for baking soda and needles. As she left the store with her penny candy and Ma’s things, she saw smoke hanging over the trees.  To her horror, when she topped the ridge, flames were leaping in the field between their house and Uncle Jep’s.  She fairly flew the last few hundred yards, calling for Ma at the top of her lungs.  Tearing into the front room, she found Ma slumped in the rocker, her arm hanging limp at her side with spittle running out the corner of her mouth.  She shook Ma, then pulled her arm with no response.  Desperate to rouse Ma for escape, she dashed her with a dipper full of water.   Ma didn’t wake up!

Threatened by the approaching fire, she realized she had to get Uncle Jep.  Racing barefoot toward his house, she skirted the actively burning areas, arriving to find him and Aunt Lottie gone.  Desperately, she headed toward the nearest neighbor’s place, only to meet neighbors rushing to help put out the fire.  Crying, she told them of Ma’s troubles.  Most went on to fight the fire, but Mr. Jones and Mr. Bilieu went to check on Ma.  Mr. Bilieu took Neeley to his house for his wife to tend her burned feet.  They got Dr Crisp out to see Ma.  He came later to check on Neeley bringing sad news.  Ma was dead.

Uncle Jep came for her. She had to deal with the agony of her burned feet along with the greater pain of losing Ma and her home.  Uncle Jep loved and welcomed her, but Aunt Lottie had the burden of her care.  The overworked mother of four was quick with the switch and criticism.  It was not an easy transition for the grieving girl going from darling grandchild to “another mouth to feed.”  The farm wife already had more work and worry than she could handle before Neeley was foisted on her.  It was not a good situation for any of them.