Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chapter 12 Grievous Loss

On a sunny Sunday in April, 1936, Bill invited her brother Ennis and his family to dinner. Ennis, Jewell, Doyle and Dorothy Sue arrived at 12:30, after attending church in Friona. Bill greeted them at the door.

“Come in. You have perfect timing. I’m just ready to put the food on the table.”

She hugged and kissed each one.

Joe came in behind them with Joe Mike. “This boy is getting the hang of his tricycle. He rode all the way to the corner and back.”

Joe Mike looked pleased with himself. Dorothy Sue picked him up for a hug and kiss, then passed him to her mother. Jewell gave him a big kiss. “Where is your baby brother?” He pointed toward the back of the house.

Bill spoke up. “He’s asleep in the bedroom. Go ahead and take a peek while I get our dinner on.”

Joe brought extra chairs while Bill put a bowl of steaming beans with ham hock and a basket of cornbread wrapped in a napkin on the table with the bowl of coleslaw she had placed there earlier.

Ennis came from the bedroom. “Bill, there’s something wrong with your baby.”

She hurried to the crib. Jewell and her children were standing there, staring at the baby. Jewell ushered Dorothy Sue and Doyle out of the room, then came back and stood with her arm around Bill, who was bending over the crib in panic. Little Pat’s head was jerking to the left and back to the center. His eyes were staring, unseeing. His left leg and arm were moving in rhythmic spasms.

At her sister-in-law’s touch, Bill straightened and yelled, “Joe, call Dr. Johnson.” She picked up the baby, rocking him in her arms, but when the convulsive movements didn’t stop, she put him back in the crib, not knowing what to do. She sat on her bed, next to the crib, patting his tummy and crying, “Oh, no. Oh, no. Oh, no.”

Joe came in, “Dr. Johnson is on his way.” He leaned over the crib, his face crumpling. “It’s like Homer Joe, Honey.”

Bill looked up. Joe’s nephew came to her mind with horror. He was afflicted with epilepsy. His seizures, which were mild, weren’t well controlled by the phenobarbitol he took. The medicine sedated him and he was behind in school. She looked back at her darling baby and his continuing spasms. “He has been so well, Joe.” She heard the puzzled denial in her own voice. This couldn’t be happening.

Dr. Johnson entered the room, carrying his black bag.

“Thank you for coming, Doctor.” Joe shook his hand.

Looking grave, the doctor put his hand on the baby’s forehead, then took out a thermometer, put it under the baby’s left arm, and held it.

While they waited for the temperature to register, Bill went out to talk to Ennis and Jewell, who sat in the living room playing “I spy” with the children. Dorothy Sue, with Joe Mike on her lap, whispered guesses to him and he tried to repeat them. Jewell had put the beans and cornbread back in the warm oven.

“Why don’t y’all go ahead and eat?” Bill took a white handkerchief embroidered with red roses from the pocket of her housedress and wiped her eyes.

Her brother and sister-in-law rose and embraced her. “All right, Honey, but you and Joe better eat, too.”

“I can’t. You go ahead.” Bill turned and walked back into the bedroom.

The doctor was reading the thermometer. “A slight fever. Ninety-nine point eight. There’s nothing I can do here. I want you to take him to the Santa Fe Hospital in Clovis.”

Joe rushed out the back door to start the car.

Bill changed the baby’s diaper and wrapped him, still convulsing, in a small, light blanket, grabbed a sweater for herself and her purse.
As she walked out, Jewell, holding Joe Mike, opened the door for her. “This little boy wants to go home with us, right Mike?”

The two-year-old looked confused, torn between being upset and excited. His mother was crying and his daddy was starting the car without even telling him goodbye. Still, he reveled in the loving attention of his Aunt Jewell and her family.

“Thank you, Jewell.” Bill bent to kiss Joe Mike in Jewell’s arms. “Be a good boy, Mike. Bye-bye.” She straightened to look at Ennis and Jewell. “We’ll call you when we know anything. Should I pack a bag for Joe Mike?”

“We can find what he’ll need. Don’t worry, Bill. You go on.” Ennis’s quiet, kind voice brought fresh tears to Bill’s eyes.

She hurried to the car. Joe had the passenger door open, and hardly gave her time to get in before pulling out from the curb, tires squealing.

Thankful that Clovis was only ten miles away, Bill and Joe were disappointed when the emergency room doctor examined the baby and shook his head. “You need to take him to Dr. Overton in Lubbock. He’s the best baby specialist in this part of the country. I frankly don‘t know what to do for your baby.”

By the time Bill had Pat bundled up again and walked out of the hospital, Joe had their new Hudson Terraplane waiting at the door. He floor-boarded the accelerator as soon as they got on the highway and kept it there all the way to Lubbock. It was seventy flat, straight miles. Joe fretted at the time they’d spent driving west to Clovis when they should’ve driven directly southeast to Lubbock.

“It can’t be helped, Honey.” Bill finally let the prayer she’d been repeating silently escape her lips. “Oh, God, please let our baby stop this and be all right.” Little Patrick, still convulsing, his unseeing eyes bulging, was pale and exhausted.

When they arrived on the outskirts of Lubbock, Joe handed Bill a piece of paper on which the doctor in Clovis had written the address of the West Texas Sanitarium, Dr. Overton’s hospital. “The doctor said he would call the hospital so Dr. Overton would be waiting for us.”

The rational grid of Lubbock’s streets made it easy to find the hospital. To their great relief, Dr. Overton was indeed waiting. A kind-looking man in his fifties, he took the baby from Bill and gently laid him on a table to examine him. When he realized the baby had been convulsing for more than two hours, he said, “The first thing we have to do is stop this seizure. I’m going to give him a shot that will do that.” He wrote something on a pad and gave it to a nurse. She left, presumably to prepare the medicine for the shot.

Bill stepped close to the examination table to pin the baby‘s diaper, but Dr. Overton stopped her. “Leave it off. The shot will go in his hip. I must warn you that what we’re giving him is derived from spider venom. It will stop the convulsions, but will cause an abscess. He’ll need to stay in the hospital for treatment for that.”

Bill couldn’t stand to leave the baby on the hard examination table. She picked him up and held him close, as she had for the last two hours, swaying from side to side.

Dr. Overton continued. “We have to figure out what caused the seizure. You said there is some epilepsy in the family, but this could be meningitis, which is contagious, so I’m going to quarantine your baby away from the rest of our patients until we find out. Can you stay with him?”

“Of course.” Bill wouldn’t think of leaving Patrick. “He’s still nursing.”

“I need to get back to my business, Doctor.” Joe looked regretful. “But I can come back anytime I’m needed.”

“The fewer people who come in contact with the baby the better until we can eliminate the possibility of contagion.” Dr. Overton turned to Bill. “We’ll move you and the baby into a room in the basement. No visitors until we get the test results from the lab.”

When the nurse came in with a large hypodermic syringe on an enamel tray, Dr. Overton said, “Mrs. Isbell will take care of the shot. I’ll go arrange for your room.” Bill didn’t realize how comforting his presence was until he left.

Bill started to put the baby down, but the nurse motioned her not to. “Just hold him on your shoulder, Dear.” She bared his little butt, wiped it with cotton soaked in alcohol and plunged the syringe into his left hip. It took awhile to inject the fluid. She withdrew the needle, wiped the area again. “Now you can pin his diaper and we’ll get you settled.”

When the baby was dressed again, Joe said, “Let me carry him, Honey. Sounds like I won’t get to see you and him for awhile.”

The couple followed the nurse to the end of the hallway and down the stairs to the basement. An orderly was putting a hand-lettered sign on the door: “NO VISITORS.” In the room was a cot made up for Bill, and crib for Patrick and a rocking chair. There was a lavatory in the corner, and a covered enamel pot.

The nurse looked apologetic. “I’m sorry there’s not a bathroom, but this will have to do until we find out whether the baby has something contagious.” She gave Bill a hospital gown to sleep in and some extra linens and blankets for the crib. “This telephone connects to the hospital switchboard. Call if you need anything.” She turned and walked out, her steps echoing down the long hallway.

Joe sat in the rocker with the baby in his arms. “I think the shot is working, Honey. The spasms are slowing down.”

Finally the convulsive movements stopped, the baby’s eyes closed and he slept. Bill continued to worry, wishing he’d wake up and nurse. She went to the lavatory and expressed some milk into the sink to relieve her engorged breasts.

There was a knock on the door at 5:00. When Bill opened the door, an orderly was standing in the middle of the hall. There was a cart with two dinner trays on it closer to the door. “When you’re through eating, just leave the trays on the cart.” The man took a step back as he spoke.

“Thank you. I didn’t realize I was hungry, but this looks good.”

The couple enjoyed the meal, ironically the same menu Bill had prepared at home that morning. It seemed like years ago.

Joe looked regretful when he decided to go home at 7:00 that evening. They’d been in Lubbock for four hours. “I’ll stop by Ennis’s house and let them know the situation, and check on Mike. I hate to leave you here, Honey, but I’ll come back tomorrow evening.”

“Don’t worry about me, Joe. I’m just so glad the convulsions have stopped. Be careful. Bring us some clean clothes when you come. Call Mama and Dad tomorrow and let them know we’re here.”

They stood by the crib, looking at their pale son, sleeping peacefully. Turning to Joe, Bill held him for a long embrace, unable to express her deep fear, even to herself. After Joe left, she lay on the cot, praying. “Please let my baby be all right,” over and over until she fell asleep.

When she awoke, she had no idea how long she’d slept. Her chest was soaked with milk. She took off her clothes, rinsed them out in the lavatory and put on the hospital gown. She hung her wet clothes on the metal ends of the cot, hoping they’d dry before anyone came in.

She picked up the baby. He didn’t awaken, but latched on to the nipple she offered him and nursed hungrily. Never had she felt so grateful. Surely he’d be all right. He looked perfectly healthy. After she changed his diaper and lay him back in the crib, she was able to sleep for the rest of the night.

The next morning, sunlight shone through the high basement window. Bill heard a noise from the crib and got up quickly to check on Patrick. He was cooing and smiled broadly when he caught sight of her. “Oh, there are two suns shining this morning, my darling boy.” She picked him up and danced around the room. “Oh, thank you Heavenly Father, for answering my prayer. This baby is obviously not sick.”

When Dr. Overton made his round, he agreed with her that the baby didn’t have an infectious disease.

“Can we go home when my husband comes?”

“No. I’m sorry, but you’ll be here for awhile because of the shot we gave the baby. We had to use it to save his life. Patrick is going to have a very bad sore on the site of the injection, and we’ll need to watch it for at least ten days. We’ll move you to a room upstairs today where you’ll be more comfortable, but this isn’t going to be an easy experience, Little Mother. Again, I’m sorry.”

* * *

Bill and Patrick were in Lubbock for ten days. The fifth day, Joe brought Joe Mike to see them and to go home with Mama and Dad, who were visiting every other day. Bill wondered what her two-and-a-half year old son must think. She was deliriously happy to see him, but he seemed almost indifferent to her, lowering his eyes and turning away as she rushed to kneel beside him.

“Oh, Mike, now you can come to see us with Grandmother and Granddaddy. We’ll go home soon, and you can play with baby Pat again.” As she picked him up and kissed him, he patted her cheek with a solemn smile. She bent to let him kiss Patrick, who sat on Grandmother’s lap.

“Baby Pat sick?” Joe put his hand on his brother’s face.

“Yes, he was sick, but now he’s better. We’ll all go home together soon.”

* * *

The flesh on the baby’s hip turned red, blistered, then turned black, and sloughed off until the wound was a deep hole. The hospital staff taught Bill how to dress it to prevent infection, a horrific experience. She swabbed the site with merthiolate, which burned the raw tissue like fire. The baby screamed with pain and Bill cried. She gritted her teeth as she finished dressing the deep wound, then picked him up and wept with him as he quieted.

A few days after they came home from the hospital, Joe came from work in the middle of the morning, looking very dejected, a letter in his hand. “Honey, I hate to tell you this.” His hazel eyes filled with tears as Bill rushed to embrace him, feeling frightened.

“What’s the matter, Joe?” Even on the awful day they raced to the hospital with their sick baby, her husband hadn’t looked so somber. His strength had given her courage. Now he looked totally beaten.

“Phillips Petroleum has cut off my credit. I have to close the business.” Joe slumped into the nearest dining chair. Dropping the letter on the table, he put his face in his hands.

Bill stood by helplessly, trying to comprehend what this meant. She’d never handled money and had no experience with financial matters. She sat next to him and rubbed his back. “What will we do, Joe?”

Her husband let out a deep sigh, squared his shoulders and sat up straight. “There’s an oil boom in Odessa. Phillips says I can get a job with their wholesale dealer there, driving a truck. If we can’t sell the house, we’ll have to let it go. The car, too.”

Bill gasped. She picked up the letter, but couldn’t read the words through tears. “Odessa? The house? The car? Oh, Honey, you love the Terraplane so much.” Her voice seemed to come from someone else. It occurred to her that the car was a strange thing to focus on, considering the big picture.

Joe put his hand over hers on the table. “Well, I won’t give it up until after I go check on the job. I’ll go to Odessa and see what it’s like. and find us a place to live.” He laughed bitterly, “It’ll be nice to have oil field people to deal with instead of broke farmers.”

* * *

Within two weeks, Joe, Bill and their two boys vacated their beloved little house, left the Terraplane with the Hudson dealer in Clovis, and used the truck that Joe would be driving for the T. E. May Oil Co., to move to Odessa.

Joe’s new employer had been a fireman before starting his business, and was called Chief. He and his wife, Cora were kind, inviting Joe and Bill to stay with them for a few days until they could find a place of their own. The oil boom had caused a housing shortage, and they felt lucky to find a rental house with three rooms. Their furniture almost filled the rooms, leaving narrow aisles for moving about.

Bill and Cora May became friends. Chief and Cora were older than Joe and Bill, but had no children. They doted on Joe Mike and Patrick. Bill didn’t know what she would’ve done without Cora’s friendship. The sudden change in their prospects for the future, on top of the baby’s illness, had left her shaken to the core.

Cora watched the boys one Saturday night while Bill and Joe went to a night club with Jack and Judy Morris. Joe delivered gasoline to the Phillips 66 station that Jack managed. Joe, as usual, drank more and laughed more than anyone else at the table. Bill felt uneasy in the rowdy atmosphere of the nightclub. Pleading a headache, she asked Joe if they could go home at 9:30. He was having a great time, entertaining his new acquaintances with stories Bill had heard before. She put her head in her hands, hardly able to keep from crying.

Judy Morris noticed Bill’s discomfort. “Would you like me to take you home, Honey? These boys are just getting started, and you look like you feel bad.”

“Oh, thank you, Judy.” Bill felt profoundly grateful to her new friend. “If you don’t mind, could we pick up my boys from Cora May’s house.”

“That’s not a problem at all.” Judy exhaled a big cloud of smoke from her Chesterfield cigarette. She turned to her husband. “Jack, I’m taking Bill home. “I don’t want you to be stinkin’ drunk when I get back. We’ve only had one dance.”

Bill found that Judy, like many people in Odessa, was rougher than anyone she’d ever met, but would go out of her way to be helpful.

The next morning, Sunday, June 28, 1936, as Bill was getting Patrick dressed, he went into a seizure, more severe than before. Every muscle was in spasms. She screamed for Joe.

He came running, took one look and said, “I’ll take Joe Mike to Chief and Cora’s. Be ready to go to Lubbock when I get back. We’re not going to waste time with local doctors this time.”

Bill tied a change of clothing for Joe Mike into a bundle and gave it to Joe, then picked up the bewildered toddler, who was crying. “Oh, Mike. We have to leave you with Cora, but we’ll be back soon. You be a good boy.” She found she was crying too.

By the time Joe got back, Bill had packed clothes for her and the baby. She handed the suitcase to Joe, “Let’s go. It was a hot day, but the baby was clammy. She wrapped him in a light blanket and hurried to the three-year-old Ford Joe had bought to replace the Terraplane.

They headed toward Lubbock, 90 miles north of Odessa. When they were just past Seminole, with fifty miles to go, the baby’s spasms stopped. He was lying on Bill’s lap on his side. She put him in that position so she could wipe off the excess saliva that ran from his mouth and he wouldn’t choke on it. When he suddenly became still, she felt profound relief and put him on her shoulder, patting his back.

“Daddy, he’s better. Oh, sweet baby.” She lowered him into her arms then, and looked at his face. It was colorless. He was perfectly still. Bill gently shook him and patted his face, put her ear on his chest. Nothing.”

“O, Joe, Honey. I think he’s gone. He’s gone.”

Joe pulled the car over, turned off the engine. He took Patrick from her, listened for a heartbeat, heard nothing, buried his face in the little belly and howled like an animal.

As they held each other, sobbing, the baby’s still body between them, Bill noticed the smell of hot oil. She wondered if the car would have made it all the way to Lubbock with Joe floor boarding it.

“What shall we do now? There’s nothing we can do for our precious little boy. Where shall we go?” Joe looked totally bewildered.

“I want to go home, to Mama and Dad’s. They’ll know what to do. But first let’s go back and get Joe Mike.”

Bill held Patrick all the way. In Odessa, Cora came to the car and tried to get her to come in and eat something. She continued to hold him as they drove through Lubbock and on northeast to Floydada. Finally, 5 hours after his last breath, when her dad insisted on taking him from her, she gave up her baby’s lifeless body with an anguished wail.

Mama kept Joe Mike while Dad took Bill and Joe to the funeral home to make arrangements. Mama and Dad had cemetery lots for themselves beside their daughter Felicia’s. Felicia’s husband was remarried and no longer wished to be buried there. Dad arranged to use the extra plot for Patrick.

The funeral was at the Cummings’ home. Pop Hale and Joe’s sister, Nit and his niece, Eula Mae, came. Bill’s siblings, Ina Rae, Elma, Aileene and Ennis were there with their families.

Brother Morgan, from Mama and Dad’s church said the eulogy, reading from Ecclesiastes:

“Dust thou Art, and to dust thou shalt return.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

When she and Joe returned to Odessa, Bill knew that she was not the same person she‘d been. She held Joe Mike on her lap, sang songs to him and played pat-a-cake, but she did it with a seriousness she’d never before felt.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chapter 11 Another Son

In February a letter arrived from Mama and Dad inviting Bill, Joe and Joe Mike to go with them and Ina Rae to Galveston to visit Clyde‘s family.

“Oh, Joe, can we go? It’s such a cold, windy winter. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to go to the beach and see the Gulf of Mexico?” Her voice took on a desperate edge.

“I’d like to go, Honey, but I just can’t get away. I haven’t collected enough money to pay for my supplies this month. Farmers around here want gasoline, but don’t have money to pay for what they’ve already charged. I have to drive out to visit all of them. I just hope they can pay something before the first of the month.”

Bill was very disappointed. When Joe suggested, “You and the baby can go. I don’t mind batching for a while,” she decided to take him up on it. She immediately wrote to tell Mama and Dad that she and Joe Mike would go with them.

It was a memorable trip. She and Joe Mike went by bus to Floydada. Ina Rae met them at the station. “I’m so happy that you’re going with us, Bill. It’ll be like old times, Bill and Shorty on an adventure.” Holding her hands out to the baby, she added, “And you, Joe Mike. A handsome little man to go with us.”

Ina Rae held Joe Mike while Bill loaded their suitcase into Dad’s four-door Plymouth sedan. “It’s nice to have a big car to go in. Are we really going to drive all the way in one day?”

“Yes. Dad’s planning to get us up at 4:00 in the morning to get started. It’s almost 700 miles, but won’t it be fun?” Ina Rae lapsed into baby talk as she tried to get a laugh from Joe Mike. She put her face into the soft folds of his neck and blew. It worked. He giggled, lowering his chin in defense.

Bill sat in the front passenger seat of the sedan and took Joe Mike onto her lap. She sighed deeply. “It will be fun. Being home with you and Mama and Dad is wonderful. I feel like I’m shirking my responsibility as a wife.” Sighing again, she felt her wifely duties fall away as she sank into the comfort of the big car. “Feels wonderful.” The sisters laughed.

* * *

The sun came up as the Plymouth headed south, then east across the huge vistas of west Texas. Willie Mae and Ina Rae took turns driving when their dad got tired. Joe Mike seemed to enjoy being passed among the doting adults and napping on the wide back seat. They stopped for a picnic of ham sandwiches at a park in Weatherford.

When they passed through Ft. Worth, Dad said, “This is where east Texas begins. Wish we had time for me to see all our kin folks around Greenville, but since it‘s out of the way, that’ll have to wait until another time, .”

They turned south at Dallas. As the terrain became hillier and more wooded, Bill got the uneasy, closed-in feeling she’d noticed in the mountains of New Mexico.

* * *

“Houston is huge.” Mama could hardly believe how long they drove in the city. They stopped at a roadside diner for supper. Dad bought a newspaper to peruse as they waited for their food.

“Listen to this.” Dad cleared his throat. “Amelia Earhart flew from Honolulu, Hawaii, to San Francisco, California. in 17 hours, 11 minutes.” He took out his pocket watch and studied it. “That’s about how long it’s taking us to drive to Galveston, but I’m happy to stay on the ground, thank you very much.”

They drove the last 50 miles in exhausted silence. Bill was glad her dad was driving as they crossed the long causeway to the island. It seemed narrow, and the lights glinting off the vast stretch of water below made her shiver. She was relieved and happy to arrive at her brother Clyde’s house.

Clyde, a slimmer, darker version of his father, ushered them in, kissing each one as they entered. “Come into the kitchen for some hot chocolate.”

Mary Belle set cups on the table. “Welcome. We’re glad you made it. Just leave your baggage in the hallway for now. Mama and Dad Cummings and Bill will sleep in the single beds in the girls’ room. Shorty can sleep on the sofa bed with Katherine. Denise and Clydelle have pallets on the floor. Shall Joe Mike sleep with them, Bill?”

“He can sleep with me. If it’s all right, I’ll go ahead and put him down. He was asleep in the car and is very tired and cranky since we woke him.”

Clyde showed her the way to the girls‘ room with its three single beds. She took the baby’s coat and shoes off, pushed the bed close to the wall and lay beside him, patting him gently until he went back to sleep. Wishing she could stay with him, she joined the conversation in the kitchen.

The next day, they all went to the beach. Bill ventured into the surf with Joe Mike in her arms. When a wave hit her, she retreated, shaken. “I just wanted to wade,” she laughed, drying off her crying toddler. I don’t like moving water. I think I’ll just stay with Mama and Dad under the umbrella.”

“Watch the baby carefully.” Clyde wrinkled his nose. “There’s lots of disgusting garbage on the beach.”

Clyde’s three girls doted on Joe Mike, competed to carry him and helped him make sand castles. They loved playing in the shallow surf, and took the baby with them, under their Aunt Shorty’s watchful eye. He came to love the water, chasing the retreating waves, running from the advancing ones. Bill loved watching his happy play.

The next day after church they drove to the Houston zoo, all six adults and four children crowded into the big car. When they passed a black family walking down the sidewalk, Joe Mike pointed and babbled. He’d never seen people with black skin.

Dad was scandalized. “That shouldn’t be allowed,” he raved, his face turning red. His voice shook with outrage. “N_____s should walk on the street, not on the sidewalk with white people.”

No one dared to argue with him. Bill was glad Clyde was driving as Dad gestured wildly, chopping the air with both hands. She felt shocked and couldn’t see why it was a problem. People walking on the busy street would be a bigger problem.

Clyde spoke up. “It’s a different world here, Dad. In the homes on our block, six languages are spoken.”

Dad kept grumbling. Mama finally said quietly, “That’s enough, Sid. The girls don’t need to hear their granddad having a fit.”

Dad took a deep breath and said no more.

Bill felt as if she’d traveled to a foreign land. The people in Galveston didn’t talk like Texans. They sounded like the New Yorkers she heard on the radio. She was very glad she’d come, but was ready when the day came to leave for home.
* * *

Joe was at the bus station to meet them when Bill and Joe Mike arrived in Farwell. He smiled broadly, hugged and kissed Bill, then lifted Joe Mike high over his head. “I missed you, Hossfly.” Joe Mike laughed and reached down to touch his daddy’s nose. When Joe lowered him to face level, the baby gave him a wet kiss.

“It’s good to be home, Honey. The best part of the trip.” Bill hugged her husband’s arm as they walked to the car.

In the spring of 1935, Bill realized that she was again pregnant. When she consulted Dr. Johnson, he said, “You really need to control your food intake. With the weight you’ve gained since Joe Mike was born, you shouldn’t gain any with this pregnancy.”

“I’ll try to cut down, Doctor. We have a lot of company and I love to cook.” She blushed. “And eat. Still, I’ll try.”

Six months later, on November 3, 1935, Bill rearranged the furniture in the bedroom to make space for the baby crib. As she finished, a fierce pain caused her to crumple on the bed. After it eased, she called Dr. Johnson. He and his wife arrived within a few minutes.

He examined Bill, then turned to his wife who was struggling to open his bag. “Oh, my. This is going quickly. Hurry, Margaret. Bring me my bag. Hurry!”

Within minutes and with just a few contractions, a nine pound boy was born. Mrs. Johnson cleaned him and brought him to Bill. “Isn’t he fine. Tall, and look at those broad shoulders. You did very well, my dear.”

Joe came in from the front room, carrying Joe Mike. “Look, Son. This is your little brother. His name is Patrick. Can you say Pat?”

Joe Mike, 25-months-old, looked at the baby with wide  eyes. ”Paa?”

“That’s right. Pat.” Joe knelt by the bed and kissed Bill’s forehead. “How are you doing, Mom?”

“Tired. Happy.” She tilted her face to return his kiss. “Two boys. Mike and Pat. Everyone’s going to tell Irish jokes, you know.”

“That’s all right.” Joe kissed the red-faced infant, sleeping peacefully on his mother’s breast. “These boys will be fine with Irish jokes.”

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chapter 10: Hard Times/Happy Times

Two months later, dark days literally overwhelmed the North American continent. Three years of drought had turned the top soil to dust all over the Great Plains. On May 9, 1934, high winds built into a giant storm. The wind caused static electricity between the earth and the dust, which rose 10,000 feet into the air and blotted out the sun from horizon to horizon. That night, twelve million pounds of soil landed on Chicago. Two days later, darkness enveloped New York, then covered New England before moving out to the Atlantic, where ships found a quarter-inch of soil on their decks the next morning.

People around Farwell, Texas, on the edge of the great storm, were used to dust storms and high winds, but when Joe arrived home the night it started, his voice trembled as he told of his difficult day trying to deliver gasoline.

“I couldn’t even see if I was on the road. I got out of the car to check for the turnoff into the Carpenter place, and almost lost my footing. It seemed like I might be blown away.” He sat at the dining table, wiping his red eyes with a wash cloth.

Bill brought eye wash, poured some into a small cup shaped to fit over the eye. She held it for Joe as he tilted his head back and blinked as the soothing liquid loosened the sand, first in one eye, then the other. She clucked sympathetically. “Were you able to make the delivery?”

“No.” He chuckled. “Mr. Carpenter is a skinny little man. He tied a rope around his waist and secured it to a post on his porch before he came out to talk to me. Neither of us wanted to be pumping fuel in that wind. So no sales today, Honey.”

Though they had very little money, Bill enjoyed her life as a housewife and mother. Joe Mike was such a sweet baby. She felt inspired to write “A Mother’s Poem.”

What do I really want him to be?
This beautiful baby God gave to me?
Will he be kind, good and pure
With a strong healthy body and mind secure?
Will he one day smile as he looks at me?
“Mom, I’m exactly as you taught me to be.
You’re my pattern. I’ve looked at you
And followed your example my whole life through.”

* * *
Pop Hale, Joe’s dad, sold the last of his horses. He grew bored and decided to visit his children in the Texas panhandle. After he spent a few days with Dee’s family in Levelland, he went to see Eula Mae, Tiny and their son Tim in Friona. Bill was happy when it was his turn to visit her family. She enjoyed conversing with him while Joe was at work.

One morning Pop sat at the dining table with Joe Mike on his lap, the newspaper spread on the table, reading interesting bits to Bill as she worked in the kitchen. “Can you believe that the Dionne quintuplets are six months old? Looks like they’re going to make it. They all weighed less than three pounds when they were born.” His awe-filled voice faltered.

Bill looked up, surprised to see his white moustache trembling and tears in his eyes. She thought of the day that she and Joe walked to the family cemetery on Pop’s farm. Four of the eight gravestones were tiny. Two were for unnamed infant daughters who died the day they were born, one in 1900 and one in 1904. One was for Ila, six days old and another for Jesse Hubert, three years old. They both died the same week, in November of 1902. In that context, the survival of the quintuplets indeed seemed like a miracle. Bill went and patted Pop awkwardly on the shoulder, her eyes welling with tears. She loved this tender-hearted man.

During his visit, Bill’s brother Clyde, his wife Mary Belle and their three daughters came from Lockney to visit Ennis and Jewell in Friona. Bill invited her two brothers and their families to come to Farwell on Saturday to have dinner with her and Joe and then go to a dance in town. “Pop is here. He can watch the kids while we‘re gone.”

On Saturday, they enjoyed Bill’s meatloaf with mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits and home-canned green beans. Dessert was chocolate cake. Bill, Jewell and Mary Belle hurried to clean the kitchen while the men talked in the living room and the children played outside.

The women went into the bedroom to get ready for the dance. Mary Belle laughed as she showed her sisters-in-law her new orange party dress with butterfly sleeves. Bill admired Mary Belle’s petite good looks. “I can’t wear orange or yellow, but it looks wonderful on you, with your dark hair. So cheerful.”

While Bill sat nursing Joe Mike, Jewell stood behind her, arranging Bill’s blonde hair into finger waves. “Thank you, Jewell. I’m so glad you all could come. Having family here makes me happy.” She stood and put Joe Mike in the crib and put on her dress of pink rayon with a darker rose sash. She complimented Jewell’s lavender outfit as they stood side-by-side at the mirror, putting on makeup. Ready for fun, they walked out to join their husbands.

Ennis was telling Joe and Clyde the result of the giant storm on his farm. “The dirt stacked up against my fence and the cow was able to walked right over it. Luckily, she took shelter against the wall of the house instead of going the other way.” He laughed. “Our roof sagged from the dirt piled on top of the house. Jewell and I swept it into buckets and weighed it on the cotton scales. It was almost a ton.”

Bill’s brother Clyde spoke up. “I have the chance to transfer to the post office on Galveston Island, and I’ve decided to take it. It will be nice to be away from the prairie wind.”

“Can we come to see you?” Bill felt truly excited at the prospect of going to a beach.

“Sure,” Mary Belle spoke up. We hope everyone will come.”

“Just not all at once.” Clyde said, in his serious way.

When it was time to leave for the dance, Jewell and Mary Belle urged their children to behave for Pop Hale and the three young couples drove to the lodge hall in Clyde’s new Chevrolet.

It wasn’t until many years later that Bill learned what happened that night from her nieces, Denise and Clydelle.

The children played outside until dark. Pop called them in, made them a snack of popcorn and told them to go to bed on the quilt pallets Bill left in the living room. Since they would return to Friona when their parents got home, they merely removed their shoes and lay down in the clothes they were wearing. Pop went to bed in the basement about 9:30.

When all was quiet, Katherine, who was eleven and the oldest of the children, whispered, “Denise, are you awake?”

“Yes. Are you, Doyle?”

“Yes. Why?”

“It’s not far to town. I have a quarter.” Katherine’s voice shook with excitement. “Let’s walk to town and get some candy.”

The five children jumped up, ready for action. They walked eastward, across the railroad tracks to downtown. They found a corner grocer open and lingered over the glass jars of penny candy. Each child chose a lollipop. Katherine generously bought lemon drops, licorice and peppermint in bags for their walk back home.

“Let’s walk around the block and go back on the next street.” Katherine led the adventurers until they came to the steps of the lodge hall where their parents danced. They sat there for awhile, listening to the strains of “Blue Moon,” which drifted out the open doors.

“We better get back,” Katherine decided. They made their way back to the street leading to Aunt Bill’s house. Denise, nine, and Dorothy Sue, seven, walked ahead of the other children. As they crossed the railroad tracks, a train whistle shrieked ominously nearby, startling them into a run. Denise yelled over her shoulder, “Hurry, Clydelle. There’s a train coming.”

Clydelle, only five, struggled to get across the rows of raised steel tracks, almost knee-high to her short legs. As she got to the last track, Denise grabbed her hands and pulled her across, terrified that their sister Katherine was still on the tracks. The ground shook under their feet as the train rumbled nearer. Katherine and Doyle, ten, were walking together. Katherine ran ahead to join the other girls, then turned to see Doyle standing on the tracks as the train approached, its whistle deafening.

“Run, Doyle!” The girls screamed in unison. He seemed mesmerized by the train’s bright light. Finally, at what seemed like the last possible moment, he ran toward them as the train whooshed by close to his heels, making a wind that added to his momentum. He almost fell, but regained his footing and joined the terrified girls. He tried to look nonchalant, but his face was white. The children were silent for the rest of the walk home, collapsing onto their pallets, exhausted. When their parents arrived, they were sleeping like angels.

The next day, as Clyde’s family drove home to Lockney, the daughters confessed the train story. Mary Belle turned pale and looked like she might faint. It was the last time she and her husband ever went to a dance.

* * *

Bill cried when Joe Mike’s first birthday came. “That year went so quickly,” she lamented to Joe at breakfast. She made a white layered birthday cake topped with a single candle on fluffy chocolate icing. As she put it on the table, Joe walked in with a big box. Joe Mike, who had taken a few steps on his own the week before, dropped from standing beside the couch and crawled swiftly across the floor to greet his daddy.

In the box was a simple rocking horse, a board mounted on a curved base close to the ground with a perky painted horse’s head mounted on one end and a tail on the other. Joe Mike squealed with delight when his daddy put him on it.

“Look, he already knows how to ride.” Joe laughed.

Bill couldn’t have been happier, looking at her laughing son and his proud dad.

* * *

Christmas, 1934, was as grand as a celebration could be in such hard times. On their way home from the Cummings’ Thanksgiving gathering, Bill and Joe stopped at The Breaks, where the edge of the cap rock descended, and cut a small cedar tree for the holidays. Bill used part of the Christmas money she received from her parents to buy a tinsel star for the top of the tree and tinsel icicles to hang on the branches. She popped and strung popcorn to complete the decorations. She and Joe had a wonderful time at Woolworth’s buying a teddy bear, a wind-up car and wooden alphabet blocks for Joe Mike. Joe gave her “Evening in Paris” cologne and talcum powder in a fancy box. She gave him “Old Spice” after-shave lotion and a jacket.

Life was good. The little family was content.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Chapter 9 - Firstborn Son

In March, a few days before Franklin Roosevelt became president, Joe came home waving a letter from Phillips Oil Company headquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. “They want me to be their wholesale agent in Farwell, Texas. Finally, a real job, Honey!” Patting Bill’s abdomen, he added, “Now we can afford to have this little fellow.”
Blushing, Bill put her hand over his and patted along with him.

With a loan from Pop they moved to Farwell, on the New Mexico border. They rented an apartment in an older couple’s house and scraped together enough furniture for a start there.

Joe’s business consisted mostly of selling gasoline and oil to farmers. He made deliveries by pulling a trailer loaded with barrels behind his car.

On the Fourth of July weekend, Joe closed the business early. He and Bill drove into the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico for a brief delayed honeymoon. Near Taos, they found a tourist court consisting of eight small log cabins. Seven were for rent and the manager lived in the eighth, which doubled as his office. Theirs was at the back of the U-shaped layout, away from the highway. Behind them was wilderness.

“Oh, Joe, it’s beautiful.” Bill delighted in having Joe all to herself in an exotic place. The tall pines surrounding the cabin whispered constantly in the breeze. “The air smells delicious. This is the perfect time for a honeymoon, now that we’re used to each other and I’m not so nervous about pleasing you in bed.”

“What do you mean? You’ve always pleased me.” Joe held her close, caressing her smooth hair. “I’m just glad I have a job and don’t have to worry about supporting you and the baby.”

The couple had four lovely days to themselves. One afternoon they drove east ten miles and hiked to the edge of the Rio Grande gorge. After their picnic, they stood awestruck on the rim at sunset. Holding each other tightly in the pink light of the alpenglow, they giggled at their vertigo.

“I have to admit, Joe, I feel a little uneasy here with mountains surrounding us so closely. Being from the plains, I get the feeling the hills and trees are closing in on me.”

Joe laughed, peering into the deep canyon. “Not to mention the earth dropping out from under you. It’s great to visit, but I don’t think I could live here.”

* * *

Joe felt especially happy to get back to the friends with whom they partied the previous summer. Bill went with him to more parties, but with less enjoyment than before. As her pregnancy advanced, her energy waned.

One evening in August, Bill chatted with C.F. Brownlee. They sat at a table in the elegant Hotel Clovis ballroom. “You know, C.F., with your new moustache, you look like Clark Gable.”

C.F. laughed. “If I weren’t so darn short, maybe I could be a movie star.“

Looking out at the dance floor, where Joe danced with C.F.’s date, Margaret, Bill said, “Maybe it’s because Joe and I just saw the movie No Man of her Own, but Margaret reminds me of a brunette Carole Lombard. She’s beautiful.”

C.F. frowned. “Thank goodness she doesn’t have such a bawdy sense of humor. She’s a really sweet girl.”

When the last strains of “Mood Indigo” faded, Joe, Margaret and two other couples returned to the table. Joe kissed Bill’s cheek and sat beside her. “Can we go home, Joe? I’m tired and need to go to bed.” She had wanted to ask him for awhile and could wait no longer to make this appeal. “I don’t think I can hold my head up until midnight.”

“I’m not ready to go, Honey. Why don’t you take the car and go on home? I’ll ride with someone else.”

C.F. took his cue. “Sure. We’ll give Joe a ride, Bill.”

Relieved, Bill slipped her swollen feet into her shoes under the table, stood and gathered her purse as Joe handed her the keys to the coupe. She felt grateful their home was only five miles away.

Margaret’s eyes flashed but she kept her voice light. “Nice way to take care of your wife, Joe. The least you can do is walk her to the car.”

Bill was glad when Joe just laughed. It was good he didn’t have the short fuse she had observed in some other men had when they were drinking. She could walk to the car by herself. She said a quick goodbye to the table at large and made a relieved exit.

* * *

Bill sewed new Phillips 66 shields on the uniforms Joe still had from working for Tiny Magness. Once a week he dropped her off with their dirty clothes and linens at the Helpy Selfy Laundry. It was a shed-like building with a long row of washing machines with wringers. Each washer had laundry tubs on three sides for rinse water. Hot and cold water pipes with faucets fitted with black hoses filled them. A drain trough, covered with wood between the wash stations, ran the length of the building under the washers. After Bill finished their wash, Joe picked her up on his way home for the noon meal. He loaded baskets of wet laundry in the car, unloaded them at home and placed them in the back yard for Bill to hang on the clothesline after lunch. On wash days, she usually served leftovers. Today lunch consisted of  pinto beans with cornbread and greens.

On July, 1, 1933, Joe presented Bill with a new Singer treadle sewing machine for her twenty-first birthday. She enjoyed making baby clothes and reading magazine articles on infant care. She could hardly believe she was going to be a mother.

Dr. V. Scott Johnson lived just three blocks from Bill and Joe. His wife was also his nurse. Thinking how convenient that would be when the baby came, Bill became his patient. “You’re quite healthy, young lady, but you’re gaining too much weight.”

She knew it was true, but her appetite was huge. She despaired of controlling her food intake.

Their first son was born at home on September 17, 1933, weighing more than ten pounds. “Isn’t he beautiful, Joe? Look at his precious little toes.” She rubbed his downy blond hair, overwhelmed with love.

Joe, too, was awestruck. “Isn’t he fine? I can’t believe I’m a dad.” Focusing on his wife, he kissed her forehead. “How are you, Bill? Are you all right?”

“I’m very tired and a little sore. Dr. and Mrs. Johnson said I did very well for a first-time mother with a large baby. Guess I’m like Mama. She says she just shelled her babies out like peas from a pod.”

They agreed on the name Joe Michael and called their son Joe Mike. He was a happy and healthy baby.

One day, Joe arrived for their noon meal as Bill set a platter of fried chicken and bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. He patted her bottom as he went by on his way to wash his hands. Joe Mike was lying on a folded quilt on the living room floor, playing with his feet. Joe picked up the baby, held him overhead, their foreheads together. Joe Mike rewarded him with a laugh. “Don’t laugh at me, Hossfly.” Joe smiled and rubbed his nose against the little tummy he held between his large hands. “You smell so good, like a clean baby should.”

Joe Mike laughed harder, hitting at his daddy’s face awkwardly.

Joe carried him to the table and sat at an angle, holding the baby on his left leg as he dished food onto his plate.

Bill placed glasses of water beside their plates and sat across from Joe. His voice held excitement. “Honey, I saw a house with a for sale sign on it this morning. I talked to the real estate agent and he gave me the key. Want to go look at it after we eat?”

Thrilled at the thought of owning a home, Bill clapped her hands. “Of course. Do you know how much it will cost?” Bill had no experience handling money.

“The agent said the owner is asking $2500, but might take less.”

As soon as the meal was finished and the food put away, Bill put a sweater on, wrapped Joe Mike in a blanket and climbed into the passenger seat with the baby in her arms. Joe drove west and after a few blocks, crossed railroad tracks that marked the line between Farwell, Texas and Texico, New Mexico.

The small, neat, light brown stucco house had a small porch with pillars in front trimmed in white.

Stepping inside, Bill remarked, “Oh, I like the hardwood floors.”

They entered the combined living and dining room. A door at the back of the dining section on the left led to the kitchen. Another in the middle of the back wall led to a hallway.

“ Good.” Joe went into the kitchen and examined the G.E. refrigerator. It had an electric motor on top. “The realtor said the refrigerator and stove go with the place. They seem to be fairly new. How do you like the kitchen, Honey?”

Bill followed him into the room, then twirled with delight. “I love it. The stove is really nice.” She opened the oven of the ivory-colored gas range, trimmed in green. It was on slim legs, with four burners to the left, the oven beside the burners on the right. “There’s plenty of cabinet space. I was hoping there’d be room for a breakfast table, but it’s not really a problem to eat in the dining room. I’m glad there‘s a window over the sink with a tree outside.” She realized she was a little giddy at the prospect of owning a house.

She followed Joe into the hallway. Doors opened into bedrooms on each side. The one behind the living room was larger. Behind it was the bathroom, also opening onto the hall. The bedroom behind the kitchen, was small. Standing there, Bill’s voice trembled with excitement. “This will be perfect for Joe Mike’s room. I love it, Honey. Can we really afford to buy a house?”

“I think the bank will loan us money since I’m making almost $30 a week.”

At the end of the hallway, a door led to a small back porch . Stairs beside the porch led to a full basement. Bill and Joe explored it all, visualizing what it would be like to live there.

Upon learning that the bank owned the house, they both felt slightly deflated and apprehensive Another young couple had loved the house but couldn’t keep up the mortgage payments when the man lost his job. Yet within weeks, the house was theirs and their enthusiasm returned as they settled in.

One day when Joe came home to eat dinner, he held a letter from his brother Dee.
He read it to Bill. “My boy Jack has finished high school and is looking for work. There’s none to be had here in Levelland. Do you think he might find something around Farwell?”

As he folded the single page and put it back in the envelope, Joe looked thoughtful. “I think my business is doing well enough to use an extra hand. What do you think, Honey? Jack could live in our basement. We could count room and board as part of his pay.”

Bill thought of the extra cooking, cleaning and laundry this would involve, but smiled. “It’s such a hard time to find a job. How can we say no if you can use him?”

Joe hugged her. “Tiny and Eula Mae helped me out in the same way. It will feel good to help my nephew.”

The following week, a man and boy were with Joe when he came home for dinner. “Bill, this is my brother Dee and his son, Jack.”

Bill smiled and held out her hand. “Dee, I’m so glad to finally meet Joe’s brother. You look a lot like Pop.”

Dee indeed had Pop’s square face, frown lines between his hazel eyes and even a similar, though darker, moustache. He took her hand briefly, dropped his eyes and nodded an acknowledgement. “I wish I’d got Pop’s height. It’s hard being shorter than my 17-year-old son.”

They all laughed.

Turning to Jack, Bill again extended her hand, “You look like a younger, slimmer version of your Uncle Joe.”

He looked pleased, his grin splitting his face in half. Joe put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “After we eat, you can go back to work with me and get started on your new job. If you want the job.”

The boy’s smile got even wider as he nodded enthusiastically. “Thanks, Uncle Joe. I do want the job.”

Jack took a duffle bag filled with his possessions down to the basement. Joe followed with a stack of quilts. “You can start off sleeping on a pallet on the floor. We’ll find you a bed directly.”

When Joe and Jack left for work, Dee hugged his son, shook Joe’s hand, tipped his hat to Bill and climbed in his black Ford to drive the fifty miles to Levelland.

Jack had a pleasant disposition. He liked playing with the baby and Joe Mike’s face lit up when Joe and Jack arrived home from work. Squealing, he held up his little hands, signaling his desire to be lifted high in strong, playful arms.

These were happy days for Bill. She worked hard preparing, serving and cleaning up after, meals, caring for the baby, cleaning house and doing laundry. All this and more her mother did for a much larger family, so that’s what Bill expected of life.

When Joe Mike was six months old, Bill took him on the bus to Floydada to visit Mama and Dad. Ina Rae was back home, engaged to a J.D. Cates, whose family farm was near the Cummings’ place.

“I knew J.D. when we were in high school. He went to Lockney High School and I wasn’t at all interested. But wait until you see how he blossomed, Bill.” Ina Rae glowed with happiness.

“Have you set a date for the wedding?” Bill was thrilled to see her sister so happy.

“It‘s not really set, but I hope it’ll be in June. J.D. is working in Lubbock at the A & P Grocery Store. He thinks he can save enough by then to rent an apartment.”

When J.D. came to visit, Bill saw that her sister was right. He was handsome and charming, with a deep, resonant laugh.

Bill enjoyed being at Mama and Dad’s, having time to visit old friends and show off her beautiful Joe Mike. One sunny day, she helped her mother prepare a garden plot for planting when danger of frost passed. She planned to stay a week, but on the fifth day, Mama said, “Now Willie Mae, you need to get home and take care of your husband.”

Bill arrived in Farwell late Saturday afternoon. She tried calling Joe from a pay phone at the bus station, but no one answered. She called Norma, a girl friend who lived nearby.

“Hi, Bill. I can pick you up. Joe is at the Hotel Clovis with my husband Herbert. They rode over with C. F. The gang is throwing a party tonight. I’m going in a little while. You can go with me.”

Bill looked at what she was wearing and her tired baby. “Thanks, Norma, but Joe Mike is tired and I don’t have anything to wear. I’d better just go home.”

Norma wouldn’t have that. “You can wear one of my dresses. The girl next door is coming to watch my kids. Joe Mike can stay here. My Buddy is old enough to sleep on a regular bed, so Joe Mike can use his crib until we get home.”

Bill wore Norma’s dress of silk crepe printed in watery shades of blue and green. Gazing at her reflection, she thought she looked pretty good. She was getting used to the weight she‘d gained. Now I’m glad Mama made me come home early, she thought. I can hardly wait to see Joe.

When Bill and Norma entered the party, Joe looked startled to see his wife. She laughed at the expression on his face, but felt hurt that he didn’t look happy to see her at first. She even wondered if he was disappointed. She quickly put the thought out of her mind as he smiled and whirled her into a dance to “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin’.”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chapter 8

Home with Mama and Dad, Willie Mae kept busy preparing for her marriage while waiting for Joe. She hemstitched and embroidered white flour sacks for dish towels, and made aprons from printed feed sacks. She helped Mama and the ladies at church finish a quilt that Mama had pieced for her. She enjoyed sitting with the ladies at the end of the quilt frame, taking tiny stitches in her portion of the blue, yellow and white Dutch Girl squares.

Willie Mae’s parents again lived on a farm, near the tiny community of Sand Hill, Texas, seven miles from Floydada. Mama took Willie Mae shopping in Plainview for some new lingerie and a dress to be married in. She chose a black tailored silk faille dress with white braid trim and white mother-of-pearl buttons down the front. Her brother A.D. and his wife Rose visited that evening. When Willie Mae showed them her dress, A.D. said, “You’re going to have a dark life with only a little brightness, getting married in that dress.”

Willie Mae laughed. “I love this dress. It’s practical, and since we’re not having a formal wedding, I can wear what I like.”

Joe came to claim his bride on Tuesday, December 20, 1932. Mama fixed a dinner of roast pork, potatoes, onions and green beans from last summer’s garden. A.D. and Rose joined them. Joe was less talkative than usual, but still quite sociable and charming. Willie Mae’s heart swelled with joy as she sat at the table with her family and the handsome man who’d won her heart.

The next morning, Joe loaded Willie Mae’s suitcase into his black Ford Coupe. She hugged her parents happily. “We’ll stop back by day-after-tomorrow.”

Mama smiled through teary eyes. “Be happy, Willie Mae.”

“Bye, Daughter. Be a good wife.” Dad’s voice was gruff as he hugged her.

She cuddled close to Joe as the 150 flat miles to Clovis flew by. He’d chosen to go there to marry because New Mexico didn’t require a blood test and waiting period to get a marriage license. He needed to get back to Sagerton for work. She liked the romance of going back to the place they went on their first date.

They were married in the home of the Justice of the Peace with his wife as witness. The wife kindly served coffee and cake after the brief exchange of vows.

“ I love it that we’re spending our wedding night at the hotel where we danced the night we first met.” Willie Mae sighed over dinner in the elegant hotel dining room, decorated in a Southwestern Indian theme.

Joe leaned close and whispered in her ear. “I like the idea that it’s the shortest day and the lo-o-ongest night of the year.”

She blushed, shivering in anticipation. They hadn’t had much privacy during their courtship and didn’t linger over dinner. Their room was on the top floor. Neither one of them had ridden an elevator so high before and felt a little nervous as it ascended nine stories.

The elevator operator noticed. “The Hotel Clovis is the tallest building between Albuquerque and Dallas,” he bragged. “Don’t worry. The elevator is safe. The hotel is less than a year old and sound as a dollar. Architect Robert Merrill designed it, you know.”

Willie Mae and Joe giggled. They’d never heard of Robert Merrill and hardly knew what an architect was. Willie Mae breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped into the corridor, glad the floor felt solid under her feet. She followed Joe as he found their room, unlocked the door and stepped back to allow her to enter ahead of him. She stopped inside the door, looking at the mission-style oak furniture and the turquoise, brown and sand-colored Navajo designs in the carpet and bedspread. “Oh, what a nice room, Joe.”

He put their bags down, closed the door and stepped close behind her, leaning to kiss and nuzzle the side of her neck. His large hands lingered on her breasts, then encircled her waist and turned her to face him, kissing her lips tenderly. Holding her close and gazing into her upturned face, he walked her backward until she fell across the bed. He sat beside her and unbuttoned her dress. “Is it a nice room? I hadn’t noticed. Can’t take my eyes off of you.”

She let him finish with the buttons that went from the collar to the hem of her dress, then laughed and rolled to the foot of the bed, escaping his grasp. She grabbed her suitcase and gave him a light kiss as she fled to the bathroom. “Wait till you see my beautiful new nightgown.”

Joe groaned. He rose, removed his suit and hung his clothes in the closet. He waited near the bathroom door in his underwear - blue cotton shorts and a sleeveless knit undershirt.

Willie Mae came out wearing the peach-colored lace-trimmed silk satin gown her mother had given her as a wedding present. As Joe reached for her, she twirled away. “Isn’t it pretty?” She giggled as he grabbed her.

After a long, tender kiss, Joe answered. “It’s very pretty. How do you like what I’m wearing?” As he said it, he stepped back and unsnapped his shorts, dropping them to the floor.

“Oh, my.” Willie Mae laughed and blushed as he picked her up and carried her to the bed. Her romantic dreams of finding a husband who would be a tender lover were fulfilled. She sighed happily as she went to sleep, spooned in his embrace.

They left Clovis early the next morning and stopped by Eula Mae’s house in Friona. Eula Mae called Tiny, who joined them for coffee. The Magnesses presented them with a small set of aluminum cookware. “Pop and Joe don’t have a very well-appointed kitchen.” She smiled.

“Oh, thank you. The ladies at Mama’s church gave me a shower, and I got kitchen utensils, but no cookware. I‘ll enjoy using these.”

Joe spoke up. “Yes, thanks. I hope we won’t be staying with Pop for long. As soon as I can find a steady job, we’ll move into our own place.” He seemed embarrassed to be taking his bride to his father’s, not their own home.

They stopped by to see Ennis and Jewell, who insisted they join them for dinner, as the noon meal was called.

The children were on vacation for Christmas. Dorothy Sue climbed in Willie Mae’s lap and put her small hand on her cheek. “Did you get married, Aunt Bill?”

Inclining her head toward the girl’s small hand, she held out her left hand, smiling. “Yes. See my ring?”

Dorothy Sue admired the white gold band carved with chevrons. “Oh, it’s pretty. When I grow up, I want to marry someone just like Joe.”

Everyone laughed. Joe blushed. “Now you can call me Uncle Joe.”

They left soon after the meal and drove back to the Cummings farm near Floydada, where they loaded the belongings Willie Mae brought with her to her new life.

“You might as well stay for supper and spend the night with us. The days are so short now. It’ll be dark soon,” Mama fretted as she carried the Dutch Girl quilt, folded and tied with a wide blue ribbon, to the car.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cummings, but I have a job tomorrow cutting and delivering firewood with my brother-in-law. I’m much obliged for the invitation and for all the nice presents you’ve provided.” He held a wooden box of silver-plated tableware Mama had acquired over several years with coupons from flour and sugar packages. She had waited to tell Willie Mae about it until now, presenting it as a Christmas gift.

“Don’t worry, Mama. I packed some leftover biscuits and some ham from the ice box. We won’t starve. We’ll really enjoy the Christmas apples and oranges, too.” Willie Mae happily hugged and kissed her parents, wishing them a merry Christmas, then cuddled beside Joe for the ride to her new home.

Feeling nervous at the prospect of meeting her father-in-law, Willie Mae questioned Joe. “Tell me about your dad. What’s he like?”

“As a young man, Pop worked as a cowboy and always liked horses. He’s a charter member of the Texas Cowboys Reunion Association. They have a rodeo in Stamford every Fourth of July. Pop used to compete every year but can’t do that now that he’s 69. I’ll take you to the rodeo next summer. Maybe we can borrow horses and ride with Pop in the grand entry.

“That’ll be fun, Joe. I’ve never been to a rodeo. How do you think Pop feels about you bringing me to live in his house?”

“He’s excited. I told him you were a good cook and not afraid to help with farm chores.”

“Does he have livestock, other than horses?” Willie Mae wondered what kind of chores she’d be expected to do, other than cooking and cleaning house.

“He’s down to just his own saddle horse. With the drought, he can’t feed more, and he had to sell the rest off cheap. We don’t use enough milk to need a cow. We buy it from a neighbor. There’s a hog that we’ll be butchering in January and a few laying hens. Don’t worry. You won’t have any outdoor chores this time of year. I think you and Pop will enjoy each other’s company.”

Wiley Hale, tall and slender, had white hair, a white moustache and two deep wrinkles between his blue eyes that gave him a fierce but very distinguished look. He reminded Willie Mae of an eagle.

He took her cold hands between his warm ones when she and Joe arrived at his house. “Welcome. Joe has told me all about you. Do you want me to call you Bill?”

Blushing, Willie Mae answered. “It’s what my friends call me. So yes, call me Bill.”

As Joe showed her around Pop’s nice little house she realized that only her parents still called her Willie Mae. From now on, I’m just Bill. … Bill Hale. I like it - short and simple.

The house had two bedrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and bath. Its neatness impressed Bill. The bed in their room had freshly ironed sheets and a note on top of the chenille bedspread. “Welcome, Joe and Bill. Please come to our house for supper tomorrow night. Pop, too.” It was signed “Nit.”

Bill felt confused. “Sorry, but I can’t remember who Nit is.”

Joe smiled and nuzzled her neck. “You have a lot of people to meet. Nit is my sister. Her name is Juanita, but everyone calls her Nit. Her husband, Lon, and their three little boys: Billy, James and Homer Joe will be there. Mmm, you smell sweet. Let‘s try out this bed.”

The next morning, the newlyweds awoke to the delicious aroma of bacon and coffee. Bill put a pink cotton housecoat over her nightgown, ran a comb through her hair and splashed water on her face. She hurried into the kitchen.

Pop bent to put a pan of biscuits into the oven of the wood-burning stove. He turned rather stiffly as she entered the kitchen. “How do you like your eggs, Bill?”

“Sunny side up. Sorry we slept this late. I meant to cook breakfast for you and Joe. How can I help? Shall I set the table?”

“Can’t have you cooking on your first morning. Yes, you can set the table. The plates are on the shelf to the right of the sink, silverware in the drawer below that. Hand me the plates. I’ll load them when the eggs are done. How many can you eat?” Pop broke three eggs into the hot bacon grease in the skillet and waited for her response.

“Two, please.” Bill placed forks, knives and spoons, cups and saucers on the enamel-topped table against the wall opposite the stove. Salt and pepper shakers, a butter dish and a jar of sorghum molasses were already on the table. “ I didn’t realize I was so hungry. Everything smells delicious.”

Joe came in from the bathroom freshly shaven and dressed for work in the green uniform he’d worn when he worked in Friona. Bill noticed he’d removed the Phillips 66 shield that had been over the left breast pocket. The fabric was a little darker in that spot. His hazel eyes looked pure green in that uniform. His good looks took her breath away.

After breakfast, Joe kissed her. “I’ll be back about dark, and we’ll go to Nit’s for supper.” Turning to go, he added, “Thanks, Pop. Take care of my girl. Don’t work her too hard today.”

“Don’t worry about us. We’ll be just fine.” Pop looked serious, but gave her a wink. She already liked him very much.

Bill insisted on washing the dishes. Pop dried. Afterwards, she bathed and put on a green and navy blue plaid housedress with a new blue apron. Pop gave her a smile when she came out to the living room. He put his newspaper aside. “Put on a coat and I’ll show you around outside.”

The Brazos River ran only thirty yards from the house. “Does it ever flood?” she asked. The river barely trickled after three years of drought.

Pop chuckled at how far from flooding the trickle was. “It gets higher in the summer, but never has overflowed the bank here. I’d sure be happy to see it flowing full. This drought is killing us.”

Bill walked down the bank a few steps to get a better view of a bridge she glimpsed downstream around a bend in the river bed.

“Don’t go any farther down. There’s quicksand.” Pop turned back toward the house. Bill followed.

Pop fed the chickens a little grain, put the bucket of table scraps he’d brought from the kitchen into the pig’s trough and gave the horse a small block of hay. Bill gathered a few eggs, folding her apron around them.

“If we have all the ingredients, I could make a cake to take to Nit’s.” Bill didn’t know what else to do to fill her time till Joe came home from work.

Pop nodded. “That sounds like a fine idea. I used most of the flour for the biscuits this morning. We‘ll drive into Sagerton in my old truck. I need a few more provisions anyway.”

The town, three miles east of the Hale farm, consisted of a main street lined with red brick buildings, surrounded by a grid of streets with neat white houses. Native post oaks and cedars had been left in the yards where garden space allowed.

Pop drove Bill around town pointing out the school and post office and a small, beautiful white stucco Lutheran church with a tall steeple. “Sagerton was settled by Germans, like most of this part of Texas. Did you know that Old Glory, the next town over, changed its name from Frankfurt during the war to prove their loyalty? The Germans are very good and hard-working people.”

Pop and Bill entered a small store which had groceries as well as dry goods. Pop introduced her. “Ada, this is Bill, my new daughter-in-law.”

The friendly-looking blonde behind the counter looked stereotypically German. Her canvas apron covered an ample chest. “So you’re the girl who snagged Joe Hale. Congratulations, and glad to meet you. Who’d think Joe would marry someone named Bill.” She laughed heartily at her joke.

Bill laughed with her, acknowledged the introduction and searched out the ingredients she needed for the cake. She was used to others’ surprise at her name. She still liked it, maybe for that very reason.

* * *

When Bill heard Joe’s car turn off the road, she ran out to meet him. Tired and dirty, he sat on the porch and unlaced his high work boots. Bill knelt behind him and rubbed his shoulders. “You were right, Honey”

“About what?” He picked up his boots, stood and turned toward the door. “Can’t wait to get cleaned up.”

“About Pop and me. We do enjoy each other’s company.”

“I knew it.” He smiled and bent to kiss her lightly on the lips as he went in.

That night Nit and Lon Darden welcomed Bill to their modest home in Stamford. The three boys ran to Joe, clamoring for his attention. He managed to pick up all three of them and introduce them to their new Aunt Bill. Sitting around an oak table, they enjoyed Nit’s chicken and dumplings with green beans and carrots she said she’d canned from her garden the previous summer. Joe seemed proud of Bill’s contribution to the meal, a yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting.

The Dardens competed with one another in telling funny stories. The continual bursts of laughter around the table impressed Bill. She could see where Joe honed his storytelling skills and the ability to see humor in difficult situations. This family seemed more light-hearted than the Cummings, she reflected, even though they were not as well-off financially.

“I’m glad you brought a cake, Bill. I was going to make a cedar berry pie in your honor, but just didn’t have time.” Nit passed around slices of Bill’s cake.

Bill laughed. “Sorry, Nit. You’re not playing that joke on me. Joe told me about your cedar berry pies.” She patted Joe’s leg under the table, grateful that she wouldn’t be laughed at for taking a bite of delicious-looking but very bitter pie. It was a practical joke that Nit loved to pull on unsuspecting newcomers.

Nit laughed. “Oh, shoot. Well, that’ll save me the work of making the pie.”

The next evening, Saturday, they were invited to Oscar and Annie Gibson’s for a party. Oscar was Eula Mae’s father. The party turned out to be a wedding shower in Joe and Bill’s honor. Bill could hardly believe how many people came. The gifts were modest but useful. Everyone she met had good things to say about Joe and his family.

During the three months they lived with Pop in Sagerton, Joe and Bill went to a party every week. Everyone in Joe’s circle of friends loved to dance and they all had records and wind-up record players to provide the music. One Saturday night a month, the Sagerton Lutheran Church held a dance for the community.

Ina Rae came for a visit between semesters at Canyon and went to one of the church dances. When they returned home that night, Bill helped Ina Rae make a bed on the sofa in the living room. “What a fun group of friends, Bill. I can’t believe they have dances at church.”

“That’s what I told Joe and Pop. We couldn’t even go to dances and stay in the good graces of our church, right?”

Joe, leaning on the door jamb watching them, joined the conversation. “Yeah. I’m not a religious person, but if I were going to join a church, I’d choose the Lutherans. They know how to have fun. They‘re very good people.”

Ina Rae sat on the made-up sofa, eased off her shoes and rubbed her feet. “The fruit punch was good, but boys kept offering to take me out to their cars for a drink of liquor. Some of them were pretty tight by the end of the dance.”

Bill noticed an unusual brightness in her sister’s eyes and gave a little snort. “Last week everyone came to our house to dance without even asking me if it was okay. Luckily I had some cookies and made cocoa to drink. Someone nearly always brings some liquor. You wouldn’t know prohibition was still the law.”

“I don’t think it will be for long. My history teacher says it was a mistake.”

“He’s got that right. Making something unlawful just makes people want it more.” Joe’s speech was slightly slurred.

Ina Rae changed the subject. “Anyway, Joe and Bill, thanks for having me for this visit. I‘ve had a really good time.”

“It was our pleasure, Shorty. Hope you’ll come again soon. Now I’m ready to take my wife away.” Joe put his arm around Bill’s shoulders and pulled her toward the door, but she shook him off to give Ina Rae a hug and a Cummings kiss.

“Good night, Shorty. Thanks for coming. I’ve loved having you here. Now that we know there’s a good train connection to Amarillo, you’ll have to come often.” She hurried to catch Joe at their bedroom door.

* * *

Joe scoured the area for work. He unloaded freight cars, helped farmers shoe horses and did odd jobs when he could find them. When he found nothing else, he searched his dad and Oscar’s farms for dead cedars and scrub oaks, which he cut to sell for firewood. It was a frugal but happy beginning to Bill and Joe’s married life.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mother's Story, Chapter 7

Riding back to Friona, Texas from Hot Springs, New Mexico, in the back seat of Orville and Charlotte Putnam’s Model T, Willie Mae once more faced an uncertain future. She longed to see her parents, but didn’t want to move back home after tasting independence.
When they arrived at Ennis‘s, she felt delighted to see her parents’ car in front of the house. Orville carried her suitcase in while she told Charlotte goodbye. “I’m so glad the baths helped. You keep walking every day, and if I can help you while I’m here, please let me know.” Willie Mae opened the car door so she could give the older woman a hug.

“Thank you, Bill. I plan to go for a walk after breakfast and after supper every day. Join me any time you can.” Charlotte patted Willie Mae’s back.

Orville climbed back in the car. Willie Mae leaned across Charlotte and extended her hand. “Thank you, Orville. I’ll never forget this month with Charlotte.”

He shook her hand, tipped his hat and put the car in gear. “You’re welcome, Willie Mae - uh - Bill. Thanks for taking care of my dear wife. She is definitely stronger.”

As they drove off, Willie Mae turned and hurried to the house where everyone waited to exchange warm Cummings kisses. “I’m so glad to see you, Mama. You, too, Dad. What a wonderful surprise.”

Dad hugged her, then held her by the shoulders at arms length. “You’re looking fit, Daughter.”

Mama measured Willie Mae‘s upper arms with her fingers. “How much weight did you gain? You remind me of that Chesterfield radio ad: ‘so round, so firm, so fully packed.”

Willie Mae blushed and laughed. “Bathing in the hot springs with Charlotte every day gave me a big appetite. And the hotel provided a lot of food to satisfy it.”

Mama and Dad expected her to go home with them the next day, but she decided to accept Ennis and Jewell’s invitation to stay and help out on the farm. Mama teared up when she kissed Willie Mae goodbye. “All my little chicks are leaving home.”

Willie Mae felt a twinge of sadness, but smiled. “I’ll be home in a few weeks. You’re not rid of me yet.” Dad’s hug seemed a little fiercer and longer than usual. She buried her face in his neck, inhaling the familiar aroma of shaving soap and Prince Albert pipe tobacco. Tears welled up as she realized Mama was right. Willie Mae was determined to find her own way now. I’ll be home, but just for visits in the future.

* * *

She and Jewell harvested and canned green beans, sweet corn and tomatoes. The rows of green, yellow and red vegetables in glass jars on shelves in the cellar looked beautiful. The two women dug up potatoes and stored them in burlap bags.

Mornings, after Ennis milked their cow, Willie Mae helped him separate the cream from the milk. She used the cream to churn butter, packed the butter into a rectangular wooden form that made one-pound cubes. Wrapped in waxed paper, the butter and quart bottles of buttermilk were stored in the well house. Jewell’s neighbors came to the house to buy them, along with eggs. After Ennis milked in the evening, he brought the bucket of warm milk into the kitchen, where Willie Mae or Jewell strained it through cheesecloth, poured it into bottles and stored it in the ice box for the family.

“How do you manage all this work without help?” Willie Mae strained and bottled milk while Jewell cooked supper. Willie Mae remembered thinking that Jewell was gruff when they first met because her manner was so serious. She seldom smiled. Now Willie Mae knew Jewell had a heart of gold.

“I just work later at night,” Jewell shrugged. “I’m so glad you stayed to help. Tomorrow is Saturday. Let’s go to town. I made enough money this week to pay you a little. You can buy some material to make a new dress for fall.”

“Why, thank you, Jewell.” Willie Mae bent her knees, lowering herself to her sister-in-law’s height, put her arms around her and squeezed, pressing Jewell’s large bosom into her smaller one.

The next day, after shopping at the dry goods store, they took the children to the drug store for an ice cream soda at the fountain. While they waited for their drinks, they sat on wire chairs with wooden seats and admired the dark blue light-weight wool yardage and white braid trim Willie Mae had chosen.

Behind her, Willie Mae heard a woman’s voice, “Is that you, Bill Cummings? What are you doing here?”

Turning, Willie Mae recognized a stylishly dressed young woman with dark waves and a wide lip-sticked smile. “Hi, Ruby. Can you join us? Have you ordered? Oh, this is my sister-in-law Jewell, and her children Dorothy Sue and Doyle.”

As Ruby acknowledged the introductions, Willie Mae stood to pull over an extra chair from a nearby table, then explained to Jewell. “Ruby and Elma taught together two years ago.” Jewell nodded and looked pleased that Willie Mae had a friend near her age in town.

After they all had their sodas, Ruby turned to Willie Mae. “Why don’t you stay in town with me tonight? I have a date, and I can call him to bring someone to go with you. We’re going to dance at the hotel over in Clovis.”

Raising her eyebrows, Willie Mae looked at Jewell hopefully.

“It’s fine with me and I’m sure Ennis won’t mind.” Turning to Ruby, Jewell asked, “Can you bring her to the Church of Christ for services tomorrow?”

Ruby clapped her hands. “Sure. It’s the church I grew up in, and I’ve been thinking I should start going there. Now I won’t have to walk in alone the first time.”

Willie Mae looked down at her clothes. “Is this all right to wear to the Clovis Hotel? It’s a long way out to the farm to change.”

“Don’t worry.” Ruby waved in a dismissive gesture. “We’re close to the same size. You can wear one of my dresses. Your shoes are perfect.”

Glad for the diversion, Willie Mae suspected Ennis and Jewell would be happy to have just their family in their tiny house for a change.

She and Ruby went to Ruby’s duplex apartment. Ruby called C.F. Brownlee, her date for the evening. “Hi, Honey. I ran into a girlfriend who’s visiting Friona. Can you bring a friend for her tonight?” After a pause, she added , “She’s beautiful, blonde and a lot of fun. He‘d better be handsome and well-mannered.” Willie Mae blushed, as Ruby laughed and hung up the phone.

The young women spent the afternoon exchanging facials and manicures. As they finished, another friend of Ruby’s, Nona, arrived. She came through the front door without knocking. Before Ruby had a chance to introduce her, she blurted, “I finally got a date for the dance in Clovis tonight.”

“Have a seat so I can introduce you to Bill Cummings.” Ruby indicated a burgundy velvet easy chair. “C.F.’s getting her a date for tonight as well.

“ I’ve never met a girl named Bill before.” She went on before Willie Mae could reply. “I don’t really care for my date.” She picked up a nail file and smoothed the edges of her fingernails. “There’s only one boy in this town I want to go with.”

Ruby looked quizzical. “Who’s that?”

Nona rolled her eyes dreamily and sighed, “Joe Hale.” She dropped the nail file back on the table and rose. “Nice to meet you, Bill. See you both later in Clovis.” She disappeared out the door as quickly as she’d appeared.

When Ruby’s date arrived, Ruby introduced him. He, in turn, introduced the good-looking man at his side as Joe Hale.

“Oh, la-de-da,” thought Willie Mae. “I guess I’ve hit the jackpot.”

Riding beside Joe in the back seat of C.F.’s Chevrolet, Willie Mae and Joe talked non-stop for the 30 miles from Friona, Texas, to Clovis, New Mexico. She had to explain one more time how she came to be called Bill. He in turn told her that he worked for his niece’s husband, the wholesale agent for Phillips Petroleum Company.

The life of the party that night, Joe told stories that kept the others laughing. “I was much younger than my sisters and brother. One time when I was three, I crawled into my mama’s quilt box and pretended to be a chicken. My mama and older sisters looked everywhere for me, calling frantically. They finally decided I that fell in the river and washed away. They were crying hysterically when I cackled from the quilt box. My sister Minnie grabbed me and shook me. ‘Why didn’t you answer us when we called you?‘ I said ‘Couldn’t. I was a chicken and I couldn’t cackle until I laid an egg.’”

On the dance floor, he made Willie Mae feel like she was a wonderful dancer and was meant to be his partner. By the time he walked her to Ruby’s door, Willie Mae was smitten. She dreamed that night of his face: laughing hazel eyes, high cheekbones, prominent nose, dark complexion contrasting with light brown hair. She’d indeed hit the jackpot with this blind date.

* * *

The rest of the summer was a whirlwind of work on the farm, including helping to hoe Ennis’s maize crop and to haul water to the plants. The small harvest was better than many Dust Bowl farms managed that year. One night a windstorm covered the fence to the cow’s pen with sand. Molly the cow walked over the fence and the family had to go looking for her in the neighboring fields the next morning.

One evening the week after their blind date, Joe visited Willie Mae. They sat on a bench under a cottonwood tree in the yard. Sharing stories of their families and growing up on Texas farms, they found similarities and differences in their lives.

“I grew up on a farm on the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, where my dad raised horses. Since this drought started, there’s no grass and he can’t afford to buy hay, even if you could find any. He’s practically giving away horses to whoever can afford to feed them.” Joe laughed. “Luckily, my niece’s husband could give me a job this summer, but looks like that might not last long. Farmers can’t pay for their gasoline until their crops come in, and the crops don’t look good. I’m warning you, Bill, I’m going to be poor for a few years.”

Willie Mae snuggled as close to his broad shoulder as she could get. “Don’t worry, Joe. I think you’re going to do just fine.” It was true. Something about being with him made her feel secure. “Tell me about your niece and her family. What‘s her name?”

“Eula Mae. Her mother, my oldest sister, died when she was four. She’s just six months younger than me. My mother took her to raise until Mama died when we were 16. Eula Mae’s father had the neighboring farm, so she was back and forth between the two places. Since I’m a lot younger than my brother and sisters, she’s the one I grew up with.”

“I like her middle name,” Willie Mae joked. “How about her husband? Is he good to work for?”

Joe smiled “Yeah, he is. Last week, Eula Mae got mad at me and said I was fired. She has quite a hot temper. I said something she didn’t like when I was home for lunch. I didn’t go back to work, and her husband, Tiny Magness, came to find out why. I said, ‘Your wife fired me.’ He said, ‘I do the hiring and firing for my business. Now get back to work.’” Joe laughed.

* * *

Ruby told Willie Mae that Joe had gone with Tiny’s sister Marie for a time. “C.F. thinks she broke up with him because he wouldn’t go to the Baptist church with her.” Ruby paused. “He is a little wild, isn’t he?”

“I guess he is, but I really like him. He seems honest and I’ve never had so much fun in my life. He actually told me about Marie, after I met her. He took me to Eula Mae and Tiny’s house for supper last week, and Marie was there. She’s awfully pretty.”

“Well, Joe seems crazy about you, now. You two look great on the dance floor.”

They’d returned to the Clovis Hotel to dance several more Saturday evenings. One night, Jewell and Ennis left the children with neighbors and went along. That was the night that Joe drank enough to slur his words when he talked. When Ennis and Jewell left the dance, Jewell stood next to Joe’s chair, shook her finger close to his face and said, “Joe Hale, you’d better take care of this girl,” indicating Willie Mae. Joe laughed, but later said, “Your sister-in-law doesn’t think I’m good enough for you.”

Willie Mae denied it, but had an uneasy feeling it might be true.

Nevertheless, she was in love with Joe and believed, based on his attentiveness toward her, that he returned her love.

* * *

When Doyle started to school and the harvest was in, Willie Mae knew it was time for her to leave. They hadn’t said anything, but Ennis and Jewell didn’t need another mouth to feed in such hard times. She made the decision early in September and let them know she‘d need a ride to the bus on Saturday.

That night, Joe looked gloomy as he got out of the car. Willie Mae dreaded telling him she was leaving, and when she saw his face, her dread deepened. Was he going to break up with her?

She went to meet him.

“Hi, Bill.” He bent to kiss her lightly on the lips. “Tiny finally had to lay me off. There‘s just not enough money coming in for him to pay me.”

“Oh, no.” Willie Mae cupped his face in her hands. “I hate for you to look so sad. What will you do?”

“I’ll go live with Pop in Sagerton. I’ll write you, and come to get you as soon as I can so we can get married.”

Willie Mae’s heart leapt to her throat. “I’m going home, too. I’ll write you every day, Joe.” She kissed him tenderly. “I’ll be waiting. Impatiently.” She laughed.

“You know we’re going to be poor, don’t you? I just hope I can find some kind of job by Christmas. I want us to be married by then.”

Never had Willie Mae felt so happy and sad at the same moment. She finally knew what Shakespeare meant by “sweet sorrow.”

* * *

Back in Floydada, Willie Mae spent time every day writing letters to Joe. He answered with interesting letters telling her the news of his dad, Wiley Hale, whom the family called Pop, and his sister Juanita, called Nit, who lived near them.

In November, he wrote, “I still can only find odd jobs, but we‘re getting by. This week I’m unloading coal from the train. I want to come get you on December 20th. We’ll drive to New Mexico and get married. We can live with Pop until I find something more. I hope you’ll say yes, Bill. I miss you so much.”

Willie Mae replied by return mail, filling two sheets of paper with the word “yes”.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mother's Story, Chapter 6

In June of 1932, a few days before her 20th birthday, Willie Mae’s north-bound bus stopped in Hart, Texas Her sister Aileene farmed near there with her husband, Jack Smitherman. Four months earlier, Willie Mae stayed for two weeks to help Aileene when her baby girl, Patsy, was born. She took care of Patsy’s two-year-old sister, Polly. She’d love to see the babies today and always enjoyed visiting her adored older sister. Nevertheless, she decided to go directly to Friona to start her new job assisting Charlotte Putnam.

Hurt by her involvement with Fred Jenkins, this was the first time since then that Willie Mae anticipated her future. Excited and nervous, Willie Mae doubted she’d ever live with her parents again. After watching six siblings leave home and make their way in the world as adults, her time had come.

Elma, the fun-loving brother nearest her age, was just 19 when Dad signed papers allowing him to marry Vivian Sterling, who was not yet 18. Elma finished an accounting course and now lived in Canyon with Vivian and their two-year-old daughter, Elma Lynn.

Willie Mae’s brother A.D., who taught her world history in high school, was now superintendent of schools in Floydada. He and his wife, Rose Stewart, expected their first child soon. They were in Illinois, where A.D. was finishing a Masters Degree in education.

Willie Mae put the depression of her high school years and the heartbreak of Fred Jenkins behind her. She was at last on her own path.

The flat fields she watched from her bus window seemed alarmingly dry and dusty. She couldn’t remember when it had last rained. She picked up the newspaper Dad handed her as she got on the bus. Skipping the news of the presidential campaign, Willie Mae read about seventeen-thousand unemployed ex-servicemen who were living in tents near the White House. They had bonus certificates from World War I, and were trying to get a law passed forcing the government to cash them. More interesting to Willie Mae was the story of Amelia Earhart’s solo flight across the Atlantic. Most electrifying was that Jackie Mitchell, a 17-year-old girl, signed as a pitcher for the Memphis Lookouts, a minor league men‘s team. Jackie struck out the great Babe Ruth in four pitches and Lou Gehrig in three, in an exhibition game. Willie Mae felt optimistic. Women could do things they’d never been able to do before.

She folded the paper, thinking of her future. She’d asked Dad and Mama to send her to nursing school last year, but Mama said no, explaining, “I can’t stand to think of my daughter giving men baths.” Her new job helping Mrs. Putnam would be a little like nursing. Maybe it would lead to other opportunities.

* * *

“Give me a Cummings Kiss,” her brother Ennis held his arms out as Willie Mae stepped down from the bus. Behind him, his wife Jewell held Dorothy Sue, who was almost 4, in her arms. Doyle, 8, waited beside his mother. Willie Mae stooped to hug her sister-in-law, who was much shorter but able to extend an infinitely warm embrace. Her arms enfolded Willie Mae along with the little girl she carried on her left hip.

“Hi, Dorothy Sue. Look how you’ve grown!” Willie Mae kissed the soft cheek the child offered. Turning to Doyle, Willie Mae hugged him and they exchanged kisses on both cheeks. Warm happy greetings were a Cummings tradition.

They all drove the ten miles to Ennis and Jewell’s farm over a bumpy caliche road, leaving a trail of white dust hanging in the air behind the car. Willie Mae was again struck by the dryness of the fields surrounding them.

“When do Mr. and Mrs. Putnam want to leave for New Mexico?” Willie Mae was anxious to know more about the couple she’d be working for.

“I’m not sure. After supper, we’ll go over to their house and find out their plans.” Ennis turned into a lane bordered by small juniper trees Jewell had planted. Willie Mae was impressed at how hard her sister-in-law must’ve worked for that bit of beauty in the flat landscape. The long lane led to a tiny house the couple had built on this homesteaded land.

The house had just two large rooms. Half of the front room held the kitchen stove, ice box, pie safe, a small section of cabinets, a counter top with a sink and a homemade table with six chairs. The front door led to the “parlor” quarter of the room. Two easy chairs flanked a wind-up record player. Farther back were two beds and a chest of drawers. Both beds were cot-sized with cotton mattresses folded in half over flat metal springs. When more sleeping space was needed, the springs could be extended and the mattresses unfolded to make double beds. One of them had been folded out and fitted with fresh, ironed white sheets. Ennis and Jewell’s bedroom was in back.

“Bill, you’ll share Dorothy Sue’s bed.” Ennis put her suitcase on top of the dresser that stood between the two beds.

“Oh, good. I get to sleep with the prettiest girl in the world,” Willie Mae gave the child a hug.

Dorothy Sue blushed and smiled. “Will you sing to me?” The nephews and nieces seemed to love hearing Willie Mae’s large repertoire of songs and dramatic readings.

“I sure will. Here’s a chair where we can sing together.” Willie Mae touched a rocker near the children’s beds.

The delicious aroma of beans with ham hock simmering on the coal stove greeted them. Willie Mae set the table while Jewell made cornbread and opened a jar of chow-chow, a green tomato relish. They cooked corn-on-the-cob and sliced luscious ripe tomatoes from Jewell’s garden. After supper, everyone piled back into the car and drove about a mile south to the Putnams’ home. Jewell introduced Willie Mae. “This is Ennis’s sister, Bill.”

Orville extended his hand. “How did a pretty girl like you get the name Bill?”

His good-natured smile put her at ease. “My name is really Willie Mae. I had a lot of older brothers. I’m not sure which of them first called me Bill, but I seem to be stuck with it. I’m happy to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Putnam.”

“Please, call us Orville and Charlotte.” Orville gave her hand a hearty shake and turned to his wife, sitting in a rattan chair with wheels. Her legs were wrapped in a quilt despite the warm weather.

Willie Mae shook Charlotte’s extended hand and returned her smile. “I hope I can be helpful to you.”

Charlotte squeezed Willie Mae’s hand, then lowered her brown eyes. Her skin was pale in contrast to her dark hair, but Willie Mae thought she was pretty.

Orville spoke up. “I’m sure you’ll be helpful. The doctor said that a few weeks of mineral baths at Hot Springs might dissolve the blood clot that is keeping Charlotte from walking. We thought it was certainly worth a try. I need to stay here to keep up the farm work. If you’re ready, I’ll take you over there tomorrow and then come on back. If I don’t haul water for my cotton crop every other day, it’s not going to make it.” Turning to Ennis, he asked, “How’s your maize?”

“Same thing. Thank goodness there’s still water for the windmill to pump. Did you read about the terrible dust storms in Nebraska? They say their topsoil is turning to dust and blowing away.”

Dread was palpable in the room. Willie Mae knew that banks hadn’t granted loans to farmers since the 1929 stock market crash. It was a hard time to be a farmer on the plains.

* * *

The Putnams and Willie Mae left early the next morning. By that evening, Willie Mae and Charlotte were settled in The James, one of 40 hotel spas in Hot Springs, New Mexico. Orville made arrangements for their food and lodging, gave Willie Mae the doctor’s recommended schedule for Charlotte’s bathing sessions, and by mid-afternoon he’d started home.

The hotel dining room was set with large tables where guests sat together. Willie Mae was excited to see that there were quite a few other people her age. A beautiful blonde girl sat across the table from her. Willie Mae couldn’t take her eyes off of her. She caught Willie Mae’s eye, smiled and said, “Hi. My name is Dorothy. What’s yours?”

“I’m Bill. This is my employer, Mrs. Putnam. Are you here for treatment?”

“No. I’m a singer at the La Paloma Hotel. Can’t afford to stay there myself.” She seemed to enjoy the macaroni and cheese, green salad and biscuits she was eating. “You’re welcome to go with me tonight. The dancing starts at seven-thirty.”

Willie Mae was elated to get this invitation. The room where she and Charlotte were staying was adequate, with twin beds, a hot plate for making tea or coffee and an adjoining bathroom, but it would be nice to go out and give her employer a little privacy. She looked at Charlotte.

“Feel free to go, if you want to, Bill.” Perhaps Charlotte was having the same thought about their room. “Once you help me get settled for the night, I’ll be dead to the world. I’m very tired.”

“How much does it cost? I don’t have very much money.” Willie Mae blushed. “Don’t worry.” Dorothy made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “The friend who is picking me up is staying there with his employer. He can sign for your cover charge and drinks.”

“Are you sure? What will he think? Won’t he mind me tagging along?”

“Don’t worry,” Dorothy repeated. “Walter is a sweetheart from Muskogee, Oklahoma. He works for a Cherokee Indian who struck oil on his land. Walter drives him around wherever he wants to go in his Cadillac. We’re not a serious couple but we have a lot of fun together. Walter will be happy to have someone to talk to and dance with while I sing.” Dorothy laughed.

Willie Mae felt doubtful, not sure she’d feel comfortable dancing in a strange place with someone she’d never seen before. She was glad that she’d practiced the latest dance steps with Ina Rae and their girl friends. That comprised most of her dancing experience.

Charlotte spoke up. “You should go, Bill. I don’t want you to be stuck with me all the time. It’ll be nice for you to meet some other young people.”

“All right then.” Willie Mae felt elated once the decision was made.

As soon as she helped Charlotte into bed, Willie Mae ran a comb through her permed blonde waves. She quickly changed into the party dress she’d made earlier in the spring, grateful that she’d packed it. It was an ankle-length mauve taffeta with a boat neckline and large puffed sleeves of a deeper hue. She knew it made her blue eyes even bluer. She put on lipstick and a little rouge and hurried back downstairs. Dorothy arrived in the lobby at the same moment.

“You look nice.” Dorothy smiled.

“Thank you.” Willie Mae thought her homemade dress looked pathetic next to Dorothy’s elegant ivory-colored satin halter dress. Willie Mae took a deep breath and put that thought out of her mind. She looked all right. She wasn’t going to be on a stage.

Dorothy’s friend, Walter Brown, arrived shortly. After a quick introduction, they hurried to the big car waiting at the curb. Walter took a paper bag from under his seat, pulled a cork out of a bottle inside and asked the women if they’d like a drink of whiskey. “My boss has a good bootlegger. This is smooth stuff.”

“No, thank you.” Willie Mae had tasted whiskey once and knew she didn’t like it. “I already feel a little tipsy, from just smelling the cork,” she laughed.

Dorothy also declined. Walter took a swig from the bottle and returned it to its hiding place. Willie Mae felt relieved that he drove conservatively. When Dorothy started singing “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” Willie Mae joined her. “Hey, you’ve got a good voice, Bill. Let’s practice this. You carry the melody. I’ll harmonize.” By the time they arrived at the large hotel on the main town square, the duet was close to perfect and Willie Mae was elated.

The La Paloma was a Spanish-style adobe building with a tiled roof, arched colonnades across the front and elegantly carved woodwork in the lobby and ballroom.

The three young people sat at a table near the bandstand. The seven-piece orchestra played “Mood Indigo“ and “April in Paris.” The piano player rose, placed a microphone in the curve of the grand piano spoke into it. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome our beautiful songbird, Dorothy Jones.“ Dorothy slowly ascended the three steps to the platform as the musicians started playing “Night and Day.“

Willie Mae was entranced. It seemed she had landed in a dream. Dorothy had the crowd in the palm of her hand. When she said, “I’d like to ask my new girlfriend to sing with me,” Willie Mae couldn’t believe her ears. “Her name is Bill Cummings. Yes, I said girlfriend, and her name is Bill. We can accept that, right? Come on up, Bill. Let’s sing ‘Sentimental Journey’.” The crowd applauded as Willie Mae ascended the step. It didn’t sound bad. She was elated.

Walter asked her to dance the next number, “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” She was glad it wasn’t a slow one, and Walter led her in the Charleston, allowing her to keep her distance and still have a good time. Several other young men asked her to dance. By the time Walter and Dorothy dropped her at her hotel, she was exhausted but happy.

For the next four weeks, after Willie Mae helped Charlotte get dressed, they went to the pool for Charlotte’s bath appointments, Willie Mae helped her with a routine set of exercises to help Charlotte increase her stamina. A therapist taught them this routine the first day and came on the following Mondays to evaluate Charlotte’s condition and progress. The two women had lunch in the hotel dining room. Charlotte rested in the early afternoon while Willie Mae played dominoes with other guests or read. After another exercise session in the pool, dinner and helping Charlotte into bed, Willie Mae went out with Dorothy and her group of friends. Charlotte assured her she didn’t mind. She was an avid reader and enjoyed her solitude, though she loved hearing reports of Willie Mae‘s evening exploits.

She had a grand time. Dorothy invited her to sing with her more than once. Sometimes Willie Mae couldn’t believe that she was the same girl who’d been so depressed all through high school, the same one who felt broken hearted just a month before.

This was a dream job for Willie Mae at the time, but in later years she would say, “I wasn’t worth a flip as an employee.” Still, it launched her into adulthood.