I finally remembered to buy Blackburn’s Syrup. Bud’s favorite was Johnny Fair, but I haven’t seen that in a long time. That evening, I smelled toast and heard Bud rummaging around in the kitchen and digging in the pantry. I didn’t offer to help, since he can usually manage a snack on his own.
In just a minute, he came bursting in to accuse me. “You ate all the peanut butter! You bought syrup when you ate all the peanut butter! That’s cruel! Just cruel! You know I love peanut butter and syrup on toast and you finally bought syrup and there’s no peanut butter. That’s just cruel!”
He abandoned his toast syrup and slumped forlorn in his chair as I tried not to laugh. I bought peanut butter today.
Over the years, Aunt Jewel made frequent mention of Eunice and Doxy. On Sunday, April 14th, Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel surprised us by showing up for Sunday dinner with Eunice, Doxy, and Baby Dewie in tow. Before the days of telephones, it wasn’t unusual for relatives to arrive unannounced. It was a bit of a surprise to have them bring Eunice and Doxy, people we were only vaguely acquainted with. Like the gracious host and niece-in-law she was, Mother put a couple more potatoes in the pot, opened another can of beans, watered down the gravy, and slid another pan of biscuits in the oven. Even though Mother was creative cutting up the chicken, it didn’t go too far. The big pieces didn’t make it past the company, while the kids dined on the neck, back, ribs, and wings. This was in the days before we knew chicken wings were a delicacy, so we weren’t that happy. We had been forewarned not to complain. In all fairness, Mother did reserve the coveted fried scrambles and put them on our plates to spare us the pain of seeing Uncle Albert gobble them all up.
Mother’s dishpan was at the ready as she cleaned up while she cooked. Aunt Jewel chain-smoked at the kitchen table and watched as Mother cooked. Eunice nursed her snotty-nosed baby. After a wet sneeze, the baby blew out an impressive snot bubble. Eunice grabbed Mother’s dishrag from the dishpan and wiped the baby’s nose, then matter-of-factly, tossed it back into the dishpan. This, on top of the smoking and breast-feeding was too much for Mother. She got Eunice a hanky and suggested the women move to the living room where it was more comfortable. The decibel of banging pots and pans increased as she put Phyllis and me to washing dishes and setting the table.
Fortunately for Mother, while she was struggling to stretch the noon meal, she had no idea Daddy had recently boasted that she’d just completed their return, bagging them a nice refund. Uncle Albert was impressed. Eunice and Doxy needed a nice refund. Uncle Albert assured Eunice and Doxy Mother would be glad to prepare their tax return, hence the reason for the impromptu visit, information he shared as he ground out his cigarette in his dinner plate. Though Mother made no overt objection, I didn’t miss her sigh and pursed lips. Daddy did have the grace to look a little worried. After clearing the table and putting us to doing the mountain of dishes. Aware of her mood, we knew better than to fight over our task. Mother told Eunice, they’d better get started. Naturally, Eunice wanted Mother to do the long form and calculate interest on their many debts. This was long before calculators.
As Mother labored over the form and calculations, Aunt Jewel perfumed the air with her cigarettes at the other end of the table, turning the air blue. The skinny baby squalled and snorted as Mother picked information from Eunice. Even though Eunice had never done a tax return, she argued with Mother over how it should be done, arguing that rent, groceries, and gasoline were exemptions. She felt little concern over receipts. “I got that at home somewhere. That doctor bill was about twenty-five dollars. I don’t need no receipt.” Just as Mother thought she had finished, Moxy strolled through and wanted to claim an exemption for the baby, even though it was born months after the cut-off date. He wouldn’t be convinced, so Mother hastily added the baby, knowing it wouldn’t fly. She did however, refuse to sign the form as preparer, having a healthy fear of being jailed by the IRS.
The little family eventually left, exhausted by the taxation process. I never heard if they ended up in jail. Fortunately, Uncle Albert never brought Mother any more tax preparation business. Daddy never got his hanky back.
Aunt Jewel had several nieces and nephews I saw from time to time. Her sister Lucille, of the hairy legs, who was married to Daddy’s Uncle Dunc, had three daughters, Alma, Eunice, and Gladys. I guessed Lucille wanted to keep to her family’s tradition of inflicting horrible names on kids including her boys, Hambone, Mookie, Teeter, and twins Fats and Snake. I can’t imagine how she settled on Fats for one of the twins. They both were skinny as snakes, though neither bit me.
I was most impressed with Alma. Mother said she was a tramp because she wore her swimsuit and moved the grass when a road crew was working in front of their house. It made no sense to me. I thought she looked beautiful with her bright red lipstick, blonde ponytail tied with a scarf, teetering along in high heeled wedge sandals. The mower gave her a lot of trouble and a couple of the guys came to check on her. Her sister Eunice came out in her swimsuit, but she was not so popular, probably because she was extremely thin. Her suit bagged over her hips like a toddler’s training pants. Alma got a boyfriend that day. Eunice didn’t. No matter, Eunice had somehow snagged a boyfriend named Moxy. I think he followed her home from her carhop job. Mother also thought carhops were trashy, dashing my career hopes. I was impressed when Eunice got married at the age of sixteen and had a baby shortly thereafter. Eunice and Moxy were great favorites of Aunt Jewel’s, so I heard of them from time to time over the next few years.
Gladys was nearest me in age. Apparently still under the influence of her religious, fundamentalist mother, her clothes inspired no envy in me. Her hair was tightly braided. She wore a dark, long-sleeved dress and brown leather oxfords I did not envy. Her mother kept her busy, leaving her little time to play with me. I helped her wash dishes and mop the kitchen so we could escape outdoors. That afternoon, we waded in their pond in our clothes. Gladys said her mama didn’t allow her to wear a swimsuit. Afterward, I wore one of her Pentecostal dress and flour sack bloomers while my clothes dried on the barbed wire garden fence. I wanted to keep the flour sack bloomers, but mother insisted I give them back. I never wore anything more comfortable. We each got a quarter of watermelon from their garden that had been cooled in their well. Late in the day, the men fried fish while we chased fireflies in the dusk.
Uncle Dunc, became progressively rowdier as the evening drew on. Though I didn’t know it at the time, It was my first experience with a drunk. Uncle Dunc began playing wildly with us, chasing us as we jumped off the high porch fronting their house into the darkness. I enjoyed the day tremendously, though sadly, never got to visit again. I lay that deprivation directly at Mother’s feet based on a conversation I heard as we drove home late in the night. She took a dim view off drunks frying fish and chasing her children into the darkness. What a pity! I thought I was having fun.
I later got the impression he was named Dunc because it rhymed with drunk. Still makes sense to me.
Quite often, our family and friends would gather for a late evening meal. While the kids ran wild in the dusk and on into the darkness, the women prepared a filling meal of beef stew or chili and cornbread. It would be near bedtime by the time they called us in, hysterical with chasing each other in and out of the darkness. Of course we’d been warned against running in the dark, but staying in range of the lights was for sissies. I’d be in a delicious frenzy of terror till I stepped back into the light, where all horrors vanished. They would be so many kids we’d be settled on the floor with our supper in a pie or cake pan. This was before budgets stretched to include paper plates. It was an honor to sit on the floor with the big kids. Babies and toddlers sat at the tables where their mamas could keep a grip on them. Two or three dinners were always dumped on the floor and there was squalling a’plenty as mamas cleaned up the mess and resettled the messy kids. The kids finished in short order and tore back outdoors while the adults took their turn at the
After the meal, it wasn’t unusual for the men to load up their guns, flashlights, thermoses of coffee, and the dogs for a night of hunting, leaving the women and children to visit. Mamas gave their kids a cursory wipedown with a washcloth before bed, since it wouldn’t have been possible to bathe that many children and settled them on pallets on the floor, sometimes as many as six to the bed. Mamas rocked the knee babies and lap babies to sleep before putting them on a bed flanked by pillows once the settling down started, the women started their stories. I loved these nights, especially if Mawmaw was there. She believed in ghosts and could make our blood run cold. Mother worried about nightmares, but lacked the courage to shush her mother-in-law, for which I was grateful. I NEEDED those stories. Mawmaw thrilled us with tales of babies buried alive, girls who died of broken hearts when their dead sweethearts appeared to them, and big black ghost dog, and ball lightning rolling through the house. The kids didn’t dare move off the pallet, they were so terrified. Fatigued by their play, finally they drifted off to sleep, one by one.
As the women talked, they thought they heard an intruder trying to get in the front door. Someone else scurried to check the back door, unsure if it was locked. . Had there been an intruder, he’d have had a horrible shock breaking in on half a dozen terrified women and a gaggle of children. Meanwhile Mother hurried to the door. Thinking she’d scare him away with a bluff, she called out. “I’ve got a gun. I’m gonna shoot through the door!”
Aunt Jewel stood right behind her. Obviously terrified, she shouted out. “Well, don’t just stand there! Go git your gun. You ain’t got no gun!” Fortunately, there was no intruder, or he thought he’d better not break in, since nothing happened.
Uncle Albert was the only person I ever knew who never attended school at all. He couldn’t write or read a word. I remember seeing him bring documents for Mothr to read and interpret and pen his replies. He was the first person I ever saw make an X mark for his signature. Mother wrote his name afterward and witnessed it. I was filled with awe that a person had never attended school. Mother filled out his income tax returns for him every year.
Uncle Albert was very shrewd in his accounts, despite his lack of education. He handled his business affairs skillfully, requiring no assistance. He was a skilled trader. I remember hearing him tell Daddy how he left the house one morning with a goat to barter and after several trades, came home with a shotgun and box of shells. I never knew him to hold public employment. He farmed forty acres more than fifty years, providing a living for him and his wife. He paid cash, bartered, or did without. The whole time I knew him, he drove a nineteen forty-eight Ford pickup truck. He and Aunt Jewel smoked Prince Albert Tobacco and rolled their own cigarettes when money was tight, and bought Raleigh cigarettes when they were flush. Aunt Jewel saved Raleigh Cigarette coupons for prizes. From time to time, she’d show off a fancy vase or pair of pillowcases. . I never knew of them being without cigarettes of some sort.
Daddy was always honored when Uncle Albert and Aunt Jewel came to visit. One evening, Mother cooked our favorite, fried chicken. We never got enough of her fried chicken, particularly the crisp scrambles of flour that dropped off during the frying. Knowing this, Mother scraped up every crisp bit and put it on the platter with the chicken. After the chicken was devoured, she divided those scrambles among the kids. They were delicious, a highly anticipated treat. That evening, the chicken platter passed from on end of the table to the other several times. Uncle Albert liked Mother’s chicken, too. As he forked the last piece, the unthinkable happened. He tipped the platter up and poured all those beautiful scrambled bits onto his plate. Our eyes were huge with horror. Surely he hadn’t just scooped up all the best all for himself! He had! Mother shushed us with a look as he noisily crunched and chomped through the pile. A more heartbreaking sound was never heard. In just a few seconds, he finished off our stolen treat, then burped his appreciation, wiped his mouth, leaned back his chair and remarked, “That’s the best part of the chicken. I ain’t never got enough.”
we knew just how he felt.
Through a connection with his son, Uncle Albert somehow came up on a ninety-nine year lease on several acres on Dorcheat Bayou in Louisiana. Ready to retire from farming, he decided a fish camp would provide a modest retirement income. My father bought his farm and stock, but that’s a story for another day. Obviously, he was a multi-talented man, able to turn his hand to any task. His farm boasted two cabins. He moved into the second cabin, disassembled the log house he was living in loaded it piece by piece on his old truck, and moved it to his lease, where he went to work reassembling it just as it had originally been, except he added an additional bedroom, occasionally recruiting help from relatives with bigger jobs. Once the reassembled house was in the dry, he took apart the second cabin, using the timber to cover over the logs and seal the house tighter. One day, Daddy decided we’d go by and check on Uncle Albert’s progress. My older sister climbed on the unsecured log walls, tumbling them to the ground. I was so glad she got to them before I did. Neither Daddy nor Uncle Albert was pleased. Daddy spent the rest of that evening and Saturday helping Uncle Albert get it back together. None of us kids were invited along, for some reason. When Uncle Albert was satisfied with his house, he used the rest of the salvaged lumber for fishing boats, a pier, fences, a bait shop, and outbuildings. Soon he had a pretty good business going. By the next spring, he had a large garden underway.
Prior to construction of his house, Uncle Albert took care of necessities,; first, a toilet before summoning all his nephews for the digging of a well, uphill from the toilet, of course. They came, bringing all their wives and children, a festive day of barbecuing, fishing, children running wild, while the men took turns shoveling the hard red clay from the well site.. Only one man could be in the hole at a time. The others stayed above ground, pulling the heavy dirt from the hole. They all took their turns. By the end of the first day, thanks to the high water table, water was beginning to seep in at a depth of twenty feet. They dug a few feet more, set the curb so the well wouldn’t silt in, and came back the next day to build a protective well-housing. Uncle Albert was able to draw a bit of water by the evening of the second day.
Along with all my cousins, I was desperate to be lowered by pulley and bucket as the fortunate diggers were, into the depths of that well. Sadly, all the mothers and aunts were just as anxious to keep wayward kids out of the well, warning us away every time we came near. However, were able to indulge in one other life-threatening activity as they focused on that well. A gravel road ran down the steep hill along one side of Uncle Albert’s property where it intersected with another dirt road fronting his house alongside the steep-banked bayou. The occasional oil-truck, fisherman, or hunter who travelled that way would have had no expectation of kids running wild, since until only recently, it was nothing but woods. Someone of my cousins had thoughtfully brought along their red wagon to Uncle Albert’s that day. Naturally, we pulled that wagon to the top of the red-dirt hill, piled in as many cousins as would fit, and prepared for a thrilling coast down the steep graveled road. There were no engineers among us. Confident as only a cluster of kids can be, we set off for a bone-rattling ride. That wagon clattered and bounced, held down only by the weight of kids. A couple of the smaller ones were pitched out, left squalling in our dusty tracks. The clattering, crying, and dust cloud caught the attention of the well-diggers and mothers who were laying out the picnic lunch, secure in the knowledge we weren’t falling in the well. As they looked on at the screaming wagonload of kids hurtling down the hill, an oil truck approached the crossing at the bottom. It slammed on its brakes, swerving enough to allow us to pass, though our unlikely survival was concealed by the massive dust cloud. The wagon flew on toward the high bank of the bayou, where we were saved by a brush thicket just short of the water.
In the manner of parents at that time, once the loving parents found their children weren’t dead, they gratefully expressed their joy with beatings for all. I had one fine ride down that hill, but I never got another crack at it.
Mother gets pretty hot about a few things. One of these is problems with mail delivery. One day, she got to her mailbox to find her mail tattered,torn, and lying on the ground. Worst of all, a government check had been ripped. Somebody was going to pay for this crime! Rabid with rage, she cornered a couple of kids who gladly gave up the perpetrator to save their own sorry hides. They’d seen a little blonde-haired girl with pig-tails standing on her pink tricycle rifling through Mother’s box. Mother gave the little snitches a five dollar reward after they located the child’s tricycle parked in front of a house two streets over.
Armed with this information, Mother called the Sheriff’s Department to report the heinous crime. Regaling him every shocking detail, the criminal’s description, description of the getaway vehicle, and last known address. The deputy laughed, asking if she’d had the check back.
“Yes, but that’s not the point. I want this stopped! Tampering with the mail is a Federal Crime!”
“Lady, what do you want me to do, put out an APB on a little three-year-old girl on a pink tricycle?”
Image courtesy of Pixabay
I’ve got to end this series, since it is the basis of my next book and I don’t want to give it away but there are so many stories I want to share. One is about a suicide and a mean Christian.
Mrs Rivers was as old as the hills. I believe she was born that way. Widowed more than forty years, no one ever spoke of her husband. It was impossible for me to imagine anyone could have ever wanted to marry her, as unpleasant as she appeared. Still living in the house where she raised her children, her son had built a house on her lot. My mother often remarked she’d be a trial as a mother-in-law as we drove by and saw her dressed in a dark, long-sleeved dress and sun bonnet working her garden with a push plow. I’m sure she refused her son’s offer to plow her garden, because no one would have expected someone that old to plow.
Old Lady Rivers, as she was known, was a practicing Pentecostal, though she attended the Baptist Church just across the road from her house and interfered with its runnings as much as she was able. While she didn’t have a vote, she did have opinions and battered the faithful with them as often as possible. She was the first at services, wakes, and funerals, eager to share “how they took it” and why. Never losing track of when a marriage was made, she was the first to predict should a baby appear to be coming “too soon.”
She was a skilled craftsman of gossip, eager to bear bad news or scandal. In the days before telephones were common in our rural community, it could be a challenge to get messages to people in a timely manner. One sad day, a poor old gentlemen shot himself in the head out by his mailbox. His panicked wife called her son from next door for help. The son covered his father with a sheet, but left the body lying awaiting the sheriff. A neighbor hurried to a local store to call the school principal to intercept his daughter, Alice Fay, a school bus driver, before she left school with a bus load of children. Sadly, they missed her by about fifteen minutes. The principal summoned the coach and together, they hurried to catch up, hoping to spare her happening up on the grisly scene at her parent’s home, not realizing a couple of her stops had been eliminated. He was behind her at every stop.
Old Lady Rivers heard the news before the bus was due. She waited on the porch and puffed her way out to flag Alice Faye’s bus down. The principal skidded to a stop behind the bus just as Alice Fay opened the bus door to see what the excited old lady wanted, Mrs. Rivers propped herself on her cane and announced, “Alice Faye, yore daddy done shot hisself in the head! God help him, he’s going to Hell for shore!”
Alice Faye reacted, as you might expect, erupting into hysterical tears as the principal and coach rushed up to comfort her and restore order to the traumatized children, three of whom were Alice Faye’s. It was a horrendous situation. The principal drove Alice Faye and her children home, and the coach finished the bus route on that awful day. It was a shocking announcement of tragedy Alice Faye and her children could have been spared.