Musings on My Father, on His Birthday (Part 1)

parents wedding pic

Bill and Kathleen Swain’s Wedding Picture, June 29,1945

family3   My father and some of his siblings.  He is the small boy with the wet pants holding his cap.

If my father had lived, he’d be ninety-one today.  I’ve been thinking about him all day.  He was born to share-croppers during the deepest of The Great Depression.  He was shaped by it, just like everyone else.  He was fourth of seven children.  His father died young, leaving a widow and three young girls still at home.  Bill was thirteen and never really lived at home again.  He worked and lived wherever he could for something to eat and maybe a little something to bring home to his mother and the three sisters left at home.  He said he worked a whole day chopping bushes in the winter rain one for a five-pound bag of meal.  He spent a lot of time at his Uncle Albert’s home.  Though Uncle Albert wasn’t always kind, he always provided him a home and something to eat when Daddy showed up.

He was over six feet tall at fifteen, and passing for seventeen, got his first job for the public, as a watchman at a drill rig.  It wasn’t far from his mother’s house, and sometimes he’d slip home to get something to eat.  His older brother got him on as a greaser in the oilfield soon afterward.

He joined the Navy at seventeen at the start of World War II, knowing he’d be drafted, choosing the Navy because he heard they got regular meals.  He never intended to be hungry again if he could help it.

Upon discharge from the Navy, he joined a construction crew running heavy equipment, and met and married my mother in East Texas.  They barely knew each other. Before long, they moved back to Northwest Louisiana, where he got on at International Paper Company and worked thirty-five years.

I knew my father as a driven, difficult man.  He was very loving to us when we were younger, but didn’t deal well with older children.  He made it clear he preferred having our “respect” than “love.”  I don’t think he understood he could have had both. I loved him dearly as a small child, but he wasn’t comfortable with girls and distanced himself from his girls as we grew older, thinking we were Mother’s responsibility then.

Daddy bought remote, unimproved acreage to build a cattle farm in my early teen years.  I thought that was wonderful till I learned the reality of what that entailed.  The place hadn’t been farmed in decades.  The house place under three huge oaks was overgrown in a locust thicket.   Locusts bushes are covered in long, sharp thorns, almost as hard as iron.  We had to help clear that thicket, pile it and burn it before the slab for the house could be poured.  Many times one of us stepped on a locust thorn and had it pierce our shoe and go into our foot,  sometimes more than an inch deep.  When you pulled it out, the tip was left to get infected and fester for days before it swelled and shot out in a purulent core.   The process was hurried along by soaking the pierced foot in hot salt water.  I don’t think any of us ever went to the doctor; it was such a common problem. We learned to dread those locust thorns.  For several years after we moved there, those locust thorns would turn up in our feet.   (to be continued)

Advertisements

My Dead Aunts Coat ( from Memoirs of The Great Depression)

imageNot long after Aunt Ellie’s funeral, Cousin Katie brought her faded, old plum-colored coat to Mama.  “Mr. Blizzard bought this for Aunt Ellie years ago.  The material is real good.  It won’t fit me. Do you want to make it over for one of your girls?

“I sure do.  The cuffs on Kathleen’s coat are over her wrists.  I ‘ve been trying to figure out how I could come up with some heavy material.  This should do good, if you’re sure you can’t use it.”

That caught my attention. I hated that camphor-smelling old coat.  I’d seen skinny, old Aunt Ellie wrapped up head to ankles in that faded old coat, puttering around in the yard or sitting wrapped in it next to the stove on cold days.  The front was spotted and the cuffs slick with age and wear.  I imagined myself creeping around in that worn-out coat, looking just like Aunt Ellie, my white hair wound in a wild bun, like Aunt Ellie’s. A string of mean kids would be following me, pointing and laughing at the poor, pitiful kid in the raggedy, old dead-lady coat.

“Mama, I don’t want Aunt Ellie’s old coat.  The kids at school will laugh at me for wearing an old dead-lady’s coat.”

“Now Kathleen, this material is too good to throw away, and you need a coat.  That’s all there is to it.  When I’m through making it over, nobody will ever know it’s not ordered from Sears and Roebuck.”    She immediately pulled out the catalog to have me choose a style so she could cut a pattern.  Glumly. I pointed a coat out, knowing I was defeated.

I pushed the coat from my mind, though periodically, I’d come through to find Mama cutting the fabric, brushing it with cleaning fluid.  Though I had no interest in the process, she later told me she cut the coat apart, turned it, cleaned and reblocked, before finally pinning on her custom fitted pattern.  Truly, the reverse side of the fabric was a rich rose.  Stitching it and the freshly cleaned lining together, Mama polished it off with a new collar.  New buttons completed her masterpiece.  It looked nothing like Aunt Ellies’s faded old coat.  No one would ever recognize it!

I hated it!  Mama made me put it on and model it for her and Daddy.  I knew better than to complain.  On the first cold day, Mama made sure I wore my new, old coat.  Ashamed, I rushed to hang it in the cloak room as soon as I got to school.  At recess, I hung behind to put my coat on, hoping no one would remark on it.  I hid around the corner, hoping to avoid humiliation.  At lunch, Berenice and Christine admired my coat in passing, before moving on to a more interesting subject.  I was pleased but almost disappointed after I’d thought it so ugly.  In truth, it was a very nice coat, cut in a stylish pattern, but you’d never have convinced me.  The whole time I wore that hateful coat, I kept waiting for my shameful secret to be discovered.

Are You Hungry?

gravyThat was the first question Daddy asked every person who entered his house, should they be a friend, relative, or Kirby Vacuum Cleaner Salesman who happened to be hopelessly lost on the back roads of rural Bossier Parish.  Raised during The Great Depression, always hungry, he frequently did a day’s work for no more than food.  He swore if he ever got grown, no one would ever leave his house hungry.  “Are you hungry?  Kathleen will fix you something to eat!”   The burden of his good intentions Continue reading

Turned Out In The Cold

imageUncle Joe sent word he needed the boys to cut firewood one November day in 1934.  He’d be ready about ten the next morning.  They walked barefoot three miles through the woods, kicking at the fallen leaves, since it was a still a warm day as November often is in Nortwest Louisiana.  Shoes had to be saved for school, but the opportunity to get a day’s work took precedence over school.  They needed whatever Uncle Joe paid, whether it be a little money or food.  Maybe they’d get a meal or some cast off clothes, too. Continue reading

People Ought Not to Have to Live That Way

imageAfter his father died , Daddy told of his family moving in a battered old shack sitting in a open field occupied by a bull and herd of cows.  It was really not much better than a barn, just unpainted planks with unfinished walls inside, tin roof visible above the open rafters. The  cows offered little threat, but the Jersey bull raged when the cows were in heat.  Mettie and the kids had to always had to keep a look out for him when they stepped outdoors to do laundry or fetch water from the well.  Mettie kept the little girls close by in case they had to make a run for the house.  She and the older boys made sure he was nowhere around before starting across the open field to the road. Continue reading

My Dad’s Early History

family3Back row Unknown 2nd Geneva, Edward, 1st Bill, Bessie Swain.

Bill Swain, my dad was born in 1924, fourth of seven children born to Eddie and Mettie Swain.  Eddie’s father, Thomas Swain owned a blacksmith and farm and was fairly prosperous.  His business was lost during the depression.  As he lay on his deathbed, in his delirium, he kept telling  his family he had hidden money under his bed.  None was ever found.  Poverty-stricken like so many others, Eddie made his way as a sharecropper,  moving farm to farm, hoping for greater opportunity.

Sadly for the family, Eddie died after four years of suffering with a brain tumor, leaving Mettie with five children under sixteen.  Much of the last couple of years, Eddie was either hospitalized at the Confederate Memorial Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, or in his mother’s care at her home.  His mother was willing to care for Eddie when he needed her, but did nothing for Mettie or the children.  The only help Mettie could count on was from her brother.  Brother Albert provided her a house and garden place on his farm when she wanted it.  Mettie was restless, sometimes moving away.   Bill was thirteen when his father died, Edward, sixteen.  Both boys had already taken to working away from home, more for something to eat than money.  They knew they needed to “get their feet out from under Mama’s table.”  If they didn’t havea place to live and work, they’d take a day’s work at a time, for what they were fed the day, or if they were lucky, a bag of meal, a half-bushel of beans, or some corn to bring home.  Bill lived most of the time with his Uncle Albert, taking work on other farms as well when he could get it.

Bill snagged his first paying job at fifteen as night-watchman on a drilling rig.  He was big for his age, able to pass for eighteen.  The site wasn’t too far from home.  He get hungry and slip home nights for something to eat.  From there, he went on to construction and operating heavy equipment, which he did till he went in the Navy during World War II.  He enlisted in the Navy, because he never wanted to be hungry again.

to be continued

I Ain’t Havin’ It!

Pointing finterJust this morning Mother told me this fascinating story.  Before she started school, she’d tagged along behind her father to the local blacksmith shop to have a bit of work done.   The blacksmith, Dud Baker, was fairly new to the community and newly-married.  His young wife was a widow.  She’d brought the men a cup of coffee.  As they were drinking and visiting over Continue reading

Trunk Full of Treasure

homestead (2)

(Excerpt from my mother’s memoirs which I will be publishing soon.  This is from my mother’s childhood, during The Great Depression)  The woman in the picture is my Great Grandmother Elvira Perkins Holdaway.  She is picture in her wedding dress, photographed just a few days before her death in 1903.  She had given birth to 12 children and was survived by only 4 Continue reading

Hard Times With Mettie Knight Swain

family3

Five of Maw Maw’s seven children.  My father, Bill Swain is the little boy with wet pants holding the cap.  One more child was born after this picture was made.  It is likely someone just happened by with a camera and snapped this shot. Continue reading