Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mother's Story, Chapter 3

Willie Mae cherished her life in the Roseland Community. The neighbors were all friends. The men in the community helped each other with butchering hogs or building projects, scheduling their time for it. In times of illness, neighbors stepped in to help.

One Friday, Ina Rae waited for Willie Mae in the schoolyard when the older children emerged to join the lower grades for recess. When she caught sight of her sister, Ina Rae ran to her, crying.

“What’s the matter, Shorty?” Willie Mae pulled a hanky out of her pocket and wiped her sister’s eyes.

“Lolita got appendicitis and died.” The words burst out between sobs.

Willie Mae hugged her, trying to comprehend the reality. A beautiful, vivacious red-haired child, who had been at school two days earlier, was gone. Ina Rae wailed, “She was my best friend and I’ll never get to play with her again.”

Willie Mae cried with her as this news struck home.

Back in class, Miss Alta Lee told the children that Lolita’s funeral would be the next day. “Girls, if you have a white dress, please wear it to the service. Lolita’s mother, Mrs. Robertson wants you to be flower girls.”
This was the first time that death struck close to Willie Mae. She lay awake for a long time that night, considering the possibility of her own doom, her fingers stroking her right side where she’d been told the appendix lay. Before the school year was over, two more students in Roseland would die, another girl from appendicitis and a boy in Willie Mae’s grade from a lightning strike.

The whole community came out for Lolita’s funeral. Willie Mae and Ina Rae, in their white organdy dresses, carried baskets of blossoms down the aisle of the church and scattered them around the small white casket. The congregation sang “Asleep in Jesus.”

After the service, tablecloths were spread on the lawn where the women placed their favorite dishes. Pews were brought out of the church building and placed in a square for the congregation to sit while they shared a feast.

“Come on, Shorty,” Willie Mae said after she and Ina Rae filled their tin plates. “Let’s go sit in the buggy to eat.”

The younger girl looked at the delicious food on her plate: fried chicken, potato salad, fresh green beans cooked with a little bacon for flavor. “This is almost like a party for Lolita, only she’s not here.” Her voice wavered and she fought back tears.

“I know. The preacher said it’s a celebration of her life, that she was an innocent child and is in heaven now. Still, her mother cried so hard it made me cry too.” Willie Mae held both their plates while her sister climbed in the buggy, then handed them to Ina Rae while she got settled. “Come on, Shorty, don’t be sad. Lolita would want you to eat this good food. There’s all kinds of cakes and pies, too.”
* * *
Willie Mae loved the farm, cultivated on virgin prairie land. When they moved there, it had only the house, windmill and some barns. Sid and the boys built fences around the hog pasture, cow pasture, vegetable garden and the yards around the house. They dug a cellar not far from the back yard, constructed a chicken house and a smoke house for curing meat. Later, the family planted an orchard with peach, plum and apple trees.
A black walnut tree grew over the big concrete horse tank. The water often overflowed the tank, and the tree grew large and produced big crops. In the fall, Ina Rae and Willie Mae sat under the tree, placed hard-shelled nuts on a flat rock and cracked them with a hammer, then used a nail to extract the meat. All her life, whenever Willie Mae cracked a walnut, she thought of that tree, and how she and her little sister relished the wonderful snack.

The farm livestock were dear to the girl: horses, mules, hogs, cows, chickens, especially the cute baby animals. To her, the flat countryside around the farm was beautiful. Dad assigned her the job of walking down the lane between two fences to bring the cows to the barn for milking. She loved the walk, looking for treasures, such as pretty rocks and Killdeer nests. The mother birds sometimes startled her with their noisy cry. The mother would run away, dragging a wing. The first time Willie Mae saw this, she tried to catch the crippled bird, but it flew away, not crippled at all.

When she got back to the milk shed with the cows, she told Dad about this curious behavior. “I thought the bird was hurt. I was going to keep her in the house till she got well.”

Dad chuckled, a sound she loved. “You must have been close to her nest. That was an act to lure you away.”

Willie Mae was puzzled. “Why would a bird build a nest on the ground anyway?”

“Well, you have to admit there aren’t many trees around here.”

Willie Mae and Ina Rae liked to play in the building Dad called the granary, with its partitioned sections holding cotton seed, wheat and maize. One day the girls lay in the wheat bin, enjoying the way the grain conformed to their bodies. They were surprised when their dad found them there and was angry. “Get out of there, Girls. This is not a place you should play. You’ll have the grain scattered everywhere.”
Sid didn’t scold them often, but when he did, they knew he meant it. One time, Willie Mae tried to help him get a calf into a pen. They nearly had him in when he suddenly turned and ran away from the gate.

Exasperated, Willie Mae said, “Oh, you darn calf.”

Dad frowned. “Willie Mae, don’t ever say that word again.”

One day after school, Ina Rae said, “Let’s go see Mrs. Bybee. She’s probably lonesome.” The Bybees’ farm was the next place west of the Cummings. The woman they wanted to visit was the mother of the owner. The girls liked her because she was like a grandmother, conversing with them and showing a real interest in their concerns.

“We’d better ask Mama.” Willie Mae started toward the house.

“No. It’s all right. We won’t be gone long. She won’t even know we’re gone.” Ina Rae started across the field.

Willie Mae followed. The girls walked the half mile, knocked on the door and were pleased that Mrs. Bybee seemed happy to see them. She told them she’d been cleaning house and explained to them how she did it, sweeping the walls first. The girls had never heard of that. Their mother swept the spider webs down, but not the whole wall. They had a drink of lemonade and some cookies and decided they’d better get home.
“Thank you, Mrs. Bybee.” They returned her hugs and pats on the back.

“You girls are welcome to come see me anytime,” the kind woman said with a chuckle. “Tell your mother I said hello.”

As they crossed the field, Mama met them and they soon realized she wasn’t in the mood for cheerful greetings. She had a switch off a peach tree and spanked them all the way home. “You had me worried to death.” After that painful end to their adventure, they always asked their mama when they wanted to visit Mrs. Bybee.
* * *
Every evening, the large family gathered in the dining room at a long table with a bench on one side. The table was laden with a big hot supper that Aileene helped prepare. The children had to be clean and quiet when they came to the table. If they got boisterous, their dad would clear his throat meaningfully and they would settle down.

After supper, it was Willie Mae’s job to take the butter and milk to the well house beside the windmill. Wonderfully cold water flowed from deep underground into a barrel, then into a trough where milk and butter were kept. In the winter, when it got dark early, Willie Mae would talk Ina Rae into going with her. They were both scared of the dark and stayed close together. One evening, their youngest brother jumped out from behind a bush and yelled, “Boo!” They screamed and Ina Rae dropped the butter.

Crying, Ina Rae felt on the ground for the cloth-wrapped bundle. “Look, Elma. You made me drop the butter.” Finding it and brushing it off, she caught her brother’s infectious laugh and her tears stopped. Still, the girls dreaded every trek out in the dark.

One day when Willie Mae and Ina Rae arrived home from school, Willie Mae ran to her mama’s huge garden. Her little sister stopped and waited. “What are you doing, Bill?”

“You’ll see.” Willie Mae bent and pulled up two young onions, brought them back and grinned as she pulled off the outer skins to get rid of the dirt. “I’m going to make us some onion sandwiches.”

Ina Rae looked skeptical, but followed her into the kitchen and watched as she took two breakfast biscuits out of the oven, broke the crusty tops from the bottoms, cut the onions and put the pieces between the crusts. She handed one to Ina Rae and bit into the other one. “Isn’t this delicious, Shorty?”

Her sister tasted, nodding with real appreciation. This came to be their favorite snack when they arrived home hungry after school.
* * *
The Church of Christ was an important part of the Cummings family life. In Floyd County, there were congregations in Cedar Hill, Lockney, Lone Star and Floydada. Sid and Susie took their children to meet and worship with each one at various times.

After church most weeks, friends would go home with one another for Sunday dinner. Willie Mae especially loved when her family went home with the Ormans, whose daughter Bessie was her age. Bessie’s brother Otto was in her brother Elma’s class.

One summer Sunday at the Ormans’ after church, the two families ate a delicious meal of roast beef with mashed potatoes, fresh garden greens, tomatoes and homemade rolls. Mrs. Orman said, “We bought some ice while we were in town for church. If you girls will mix up some cream and you boys will turn it, we’ll have ice cream with our chocolate cake. Miz Cummings and I will even wash the dishes while you do that.”

The girls squealed with delight. Bessie and Ina Rae nodded when Willie Mae said, “That’ll be two treats in one: we don’t have to do dishes and making ice cream is fun.”

Dad and Mr. Orman went to sit in the front porch rocking chairs. They smoked their pipes and discussed farm matters and politics. Mama and Mrs. Orman stacked the dishes and carried them to the kitchen to wash.

On the other side of the kitchen, the girls talked and laughed as they mixed Mrs. Ormans recipe for vanilla ice cream. They heated enough thick cream to dissolve the sugar, then stirred in more cream, a little salt and vanilla. “Otto, bring the freezer,” Bessie called out the back door. The boys had brought the freezer from the cellar, rinsed it off at the windmill. They’d stopped to wrestle on the grass, but came through the screen door eagerly when Bessie called.

“Step aside, girls. This is a man’s job.” Elma grinned. He carried the bowl of cream mixture to the back yard and poured it into a metal canister. Then he put in a slotted paddle whose central post extended through a hole in the lid. Otto carefully placed on the lid, which had raised gears around the central hole. Elma put the canister into a large wooden bucket. Otto fit a geared bar with a crank on the end over the lid, and clamped it down.

The girls had ice mixed with rock salt ready, and helped the boys place it in the bucket around the canister. Otto brought an enamel dishpan and placed the freezer in it to catch the salt water that ran out a hole in the side of the bucket as the ice melted. “Dad says the salt water will kill the grass.”

The girls sat on the lawn in the shade of a large cottonwood, watching the boys take turns on the crank. The canister rotated clockwise, the paddle inside went counter-clockwise. When the cream started to freeze and the crank became hard to turn, Elma said, I need someone to sit on top of the freezer so it won’t move when I try to turn the crank.”

“I want to.“ Ina Rae jumped up and ran to the kitchen for a towel to put over the freezer, and sat on it. “This is the best job on a hot day.”

When neither boy was able to turn the crank, Otto declared, “This ice cream is officially done. Call out the grownups, Bessie.”

Their parents joined them on the lawn to enjoy the smooth, delicious ice cream with rich chocolate cake.
Mrs. Orman looked serious. “Since the split, our group at church is so small. I’m sorry we couldn’t come to agreement with those who insisted having Bible classes at church on Sunday morning.”

“I’m sorry, too, but if they’d just read their Bibles, they’d see it doesn’t say anything in the New Testament about the church having classes.” Sid’s voice went up in volume. “Besides that, they have individual cups for communion. Matthew, Mark and Luke all state clearly, ‘He took the cup and blessed it.’”

Mr. Orman nodded. “Yes. Next they’ll be getting a piano or organ. If we’re going to restore New Testament Christianity, we have to speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent.”

The others looked shocked when Susie confessed, “I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with classes and individual communion cups. I just have more confidence in the families that stayed than the ones who split.” Susie was more interested in people than doctrine.

“It’s sad not to see them very often.” Mrs. Orman persisted.

Willie Mae agreed with Bessie’s mother. She missed her friends whose parents built the new church across town in Floydada. The two congregations were still called the Church of Christ, but they couldn’t agree on the details of what that meant.
* * *
One summer day in 1926, Willie Mae and Ina Rae felt excited as they dressed to go to a revival meeting.

“Elma said there’s a huge tent with no sides on it set up in the park.”

“They call that a tabernacle. We’re going to get to go every night for ten evenings in a row.” Willie Mae loved singing songs about heaven, hearing the dramatic sermons and seeing her friends at the meetings. “We’ll stay at A.D.’s house with Elma. The meetings start at 6:30.”

A.D., their older brother, had graduated from West Texas State Teachers College in Canyon. He returned to teach Ancient History at Floydada High School. When Elma started high school, he lived with A.D. in his rented house in town during the school week.

Each night of the revival, Brother Clark urged people to obey the gospel, after which the congregation would stand and sing an invitation song. On the third night, while the congregation sang “Why Not Tonight?”, Willie Mae watched her brother Elma walk up the aisle to the front of the tabernacle. A thrill seemed to pulse along the whole row of girls with whom she and Ina Rae sat. She looked from face to face and in the next moment, seven girls, including Willie Mae, also walked to the front.

After the invitation song, the congregation sat down with an expectant hush. Brother Clark, the preacher, stood before Elma, the first person on the front row. Willie Mae’s heart raced as she waited for her turn. Brother Clark asked her brother to stand, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?”

Elma swallowed, squared his shoulders and answered, “I do.”

Willie Mae looked back and saw Mama wiping tears from her eyes, Dad’s arm around her shoulders. Dad was watching Elma, his eyebrows raised, looking very pleased.

The congregants moved en masse to Judge Duncan’s house on the edge of Floydada. The girls’ mothers went with them to one of the bedrooms where they changed from their church clothes to baptismal gowns, simple unbleached muslin shifts with weights sewn to the bottom to keep them from floating up in the water, possibly exposing the girls’ legs. Willie Mae knew Elma would wear a pajama-like garment made from the same fabric. She shivered with excitement and nervousness, glad she was third in line to be baptized. The congregation only had three gowns, so the last four girls would have to put on wet ones. They all gathered around Judge Duncan’s horse tank.

Willie Mae watched as Elma stepped in the water. His eyes got big and the water turned green as algae swirled around his legs. Brother Clark stood outside the waist-high tank with his right hand in the middle of Elma’s back, a clean handkerchief in his left hand. “Upon your confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, for the remission of your sins.” He put the handkerchief over Elma’s nose and held it while he lowered the boy under the murky water and brought him back to stand as before. Elma opened his eyes, smiling broadly. Willie Mae had to stop herself from clapping her hands in excitement.

When it was her turn, she was shocked by the feel of the slimy moss on the bottom of the tank. She wrinkled her nose at the musty smell. By this time, the long summer sunset had ended and the Milky Way shone overhead. One of the men held a kerosene lantern up, but she was glad it wasn’t bright enough to see how the water must look by now. Still, the simple ceremony filled her with awe. “I love Jesus and I’m glad that he loves me,” she thought as Brother Clark lay her down in the water and brought her back up again.

She and the other girls discussed what it would mean to be Christians as they all changed into dry clothes after the service. She said, “I’m going to try to live right and do what the Bible says.”

Vera Wilson looked disgusted. “Don’t think I’m not going to have any fun the rest of my life.”
* * *
When Willie Mae graduated from Roseland, Sid decided to move the family to town. He sold the farm and bought the Floydada Mill and Elevator, where they made wheat flour, corn meal and feed for livestock. For the first time ever, the Cummings family didn’t live on a farm.

Willie Mae was used to being “a big fish in a little pond”, and was overwhelmed by being in a large school. She and Ina Rae went to different schools for the first time. Though it was only a few miles away, they suffered terrible homesickness for Roseland.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Mother's Story, Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Willie Mae’s father, Sid, traded farms often. He moved the family to a new place in Memphis, Texas, in Hall county, in 1913. They stayed there only a year because Susie didn’t like the bad-tasting water. They called it gyp water.

He traded again for a half-section of land with a house on it, 10 miles south of Claude, in Armstrong County. Sid and Susie’s last child, Ina Rae, was born there on December 8, 1914. Their first child, Felicia, married Lee Rogers at home two weeks later.

This was the best house the family had lived in, up to then. There was no indoor bathroom or water supply. A coal stove heated the living room and coal range served in the kitchen. Kerosene lamps were used for light.

Willie Mae was only 17 months old when her little sister was born. Ina Rae was charismatic from the beginning, and Willie Mae sometimes found it difficult to get her share of attention.

Sid made good cotton crops on this farm, but in 1915, dirt and tickle grass got into the cotton. Prices were so low that he left the crop in the field and moved back to Floyd county after trading farms.
* * *
Susie Cummings was a remarkably energetic and hard-working wife and mother. Besides keeping the house and cooking, she raised a vegetable garden, raised laying hens and chickens for frying, helped with the milking and churned butter. On Mondays, she heated water in a big cast iron pot over a wood fire behind the farmhouse and did the laundry for the week. She made her daughters’ and her own clothes from patterns she created. She struggled with the harsh wind and weather of the Texas plains. Awaking one windy spring morning, Susie went to check on her newly hatched chicks and found several tiny fluffy yellow bodies stuck in the chicken wire, blown there by the night wind. She tried to raise flowers, but the wind often whipped them to pieces as soon as the blossoms emerged.

Willie Mae loved the time after dinner, when the family sat in the parlor. Susie told stories and sang in her sweet, high voice. Willie Mae loved to sing and learned many songs from her mother, her brothers and at church. Sometimes she went to bed feeling quite sad about the tragedies of the children in her mother’s melodramatic songs, such as this one:
Mother, oh why did you leave me alone,

* * *
When the first Monday in September, 1918, arrived, Willie Mae was awake early, excited about her first day at school. Aileene, now 13 years old, helped her dress. “Be still, Bill, so I can brush your hair.” Perhaps with so many older brothers and sisters, it was inevitable that Willie Mae would be called Bill.
Giggling, she jumped up and down. “I can’t be still. I’m too excited. Finally, I get to go in the buggy with you and Elma and A.D. to school.” She stopped and her face turned somber. “I wish Ennis and Clyde still went to Roseland.”

Aileene smiled at her little sister. “Silly. You know they’re too old. Roseland School only goes to ninth grade.”

After graduating from Roseland, children in the district went to Sunset for another year. Clyde had graduated from Sunset, and then to Draghan’s Business College in Abilene.
“Isn’t it exciting that Clyde has a job in a bank in Abilene? I can hardly imagine living that far away from the family.” Aileene sighed.

Willie Mae stuck out her lower lip. “I miss him. And why are Mama and Dad mad at Ennis?”

“They wanted him to finish school, but he just wants to marry Jewell Newman and start farming. Hold still so I can tie your sash. Ennis says he’s going way out west of here to farmstead in Parmer County. Dad says he’s too young, but he’s saving money from his farmhand job to buy a car and go. I think it’s very romantic.” Aileene sighed, then lowered her voice to a whisper, looking around to make sure they were alone. “Last night after church, I heard him singing to Jewell around the side of the building.” She sang:
With someone like you, a pal good and true,
I’d like to leave it all behind and go and find
A place that’s known to God alone,
Just a spot to call our own.
We’ll find perfect peace where joys never cease
Somewhere beneath the starry sky.
We’ll build a sweet little nest somewhere in the west
And let the rest of the world go by.”

Willie Mae sighed with appreciation for the romance and Aileen’s sweet soprano voice, laughing clapping with delight. A second later, a frown formed on her chubby face. “I hated it when Dad yelled at Ennis and kicked him in the seat of the pants.”
“I did too, Honey. Dad was mad because Ennis quit school. It’ll be okay. They’ll both get over being mad at each other. Now, let’s go eat breakfast. Mama made biscuits and gravy for us. I’ll have to hurry to fix our lunches and then help the boys hitch the buggy.” Giving Willie Mae a hug, she said, “You’re starting to school today, in Miss Alta Lee’s class!”
* * *
In the buggy on the way to school, Elma tried to scare Willie Mae by telling her there were German soldiers behind the hedge planted beside the road as a windbreak. “They have long knives on their guns and they kill everyone in their path.”
Willie Mae’s eyes grew large and she moved closer to Aileene, who spoke sharply. “Stop that, Elma. You know the war is all the way across the ocean.”
“But I had a bad dream about it last night. Maybe they will come here.” Elma didn’t give up easily.
“Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you should scare your little sister. Don’t worry, Bill. They wouldn’t come here.”
* * *
On November first, Clyde gave up his job in Abilene. He’d received orders to report to the U.S. Army on November 15, so he returned home to see the family before leaving. The Armistice was signed on November 11, so he was released from his orders. He got a job with the Farmers Exchange Grocery Store in Floydada.
* * *
In 1920, when Willie Mae was eight, there was a guest at school from Plainview, Texas, a larger town in the adjoining county. The young man landed a small plane in a field near the school. The whole school went out to watch the plane take off, fly around the vicinity and land. It was the first time most of the children had seen a plane.

The younger children were kept back from the landing field. The older students were being treated to a short flight above Roseland. Willie Mae was transfixed in horror as she watched her adored sister Aileen putting on ear muffs, goggles, a leather jacket. A man was helping her into the plane. Willie Mae started crying loudly.
Her teacher hurried over. “What’s the matter, child?”
“My sister is going in the plane. I may never see her again. What if it falls?” she wailed.
“No, it’s not going to fall. You’ve seen it take off and land several times. Don’t worry, Willie Mae. Your sister will be all right.”
For the full 25 minutes of Aileene’s flight, Willie Mae was a nervous wreck. When the plane landed and the ecstatic Aileene emerged, her little sister felt weak with relief.
* * *
After A.D. graduated from Roseland, Elma, the youngest boy, liked to ride his horse to school. Aileene, Willie Mae and Ina Rae went and returned in the buggy, which was drawn by Old Nellie, their mare. One day, they were happily riding toward home at the end of the school day. They passed a number of students who lived nearby, walking home. One boy yelled at them, waving a shiny syrup-bucket-turned-lunch pail in the bright sunshine. The movement and flash scared Old Nellie. The mare neighed in alarm, shied away from the boy and started running as fast as she could.
Aileene was handling the reins of the harness. “Whoa, Nellie, it’s all right.” As she talked, trying to calm the horse, she pulled hard on the reins to slow her. The right rein snapped in two, which caused the horse to turn left. They sped down the fence row, the wheels of the buggy hitting every post and demolishing the two left wheels. When the buggy turned over, Old Nellie broke out of the shafts and ran home. Aileene and Ina Rae jumped up, suffering only minor wounds. Willie Mae was unconscious on the ground.
When Willie Mae regained consciousness, she was at home in bed. She said, “What happened?” She looked around, surprised to see her teacher, Miss Anna Sims, sitting by the bed holding her hand. Mama was standing behind Miss Sims looking worried and holding Ina Rae, who was crying. When Willie Mae noticed a bandage on Ina Rae’s arm, she also started to cry. “Are you all right, little sister?”
Miss Sims patted her hand. “Oh, Willie Mae, I’m so glad you’re awake. I found you and your sisters by the wrecked buggy as I was driving home from school in my car. Aileene and Ina Rae got some scratches and cuts, but were mostly scared and worried about you. You fell across the wheel and bumped your head, I think.”
Ina Rae bent over and held out her arms toward the bed. Mama put her beside Willie Mae, and the two girls cuddled and comforted each other, each using the other’s nickname.
“Are you all right, Bill?” Ina Rae patted Willie Mae’s cheek, inhaling raggedly.
Willie Mae fingered the compress on her forehead gingerly. “My head hurts, and it hurts when I breathe in, but I think I’m all right. Are you hurt, Shorty?”
Ina Rae nodded and showed all her scrapes and lifted the corner of the bandage to show a deep abrasion on her upper arm. Seeing it, she started whimpering again.
Willie Mae made sympathetic sounds and kissed Ina Rae’s cheek. Then looking around, she asked, “Where is Aileene? Is she hurt?”
“She hardly had a scratch.” Mama sat on the side of the bed, touched by the girls’ sympathy for each other and relieved that Willie Mae was awake and talking. “The Smitherman boy, Jack, caught Old Nellie and got her settled down and brought her home. After we put merthiolate on Aileene’s scratches, she went out to the barn, to talk to Jack and Dad about how to get the buggy home. I think she is quite taken with Jack.”
She turned to the teacher. “Thank you so much for your help.”
“Not at all. I’m so glad no one was seriously hurt.” Miss Sims smiled, then her expression turned serious. “I have to talk to the children who walk about being careful not to startle the horses on the road.”
* * *
Sid and Susie taught their children to behave well at all times, especially to obey teachers or others in positions of authority. The school’s rules of conduct for the students extended to their journey to and from classes. One rule was there must be no fighting.
One morning, Elma got into a fight with a neighbor boy on their way to school. When it was reported to the teacher, she ordered the boys to come to the front of the class to receive their punishment. She got out a paddle to give them a few licks on the seat of their pants. The other boy went first, and started crying loudly after the first blow. The teacher stopped hitting him immediately.
Elma walked forward for his turn. “Well, I’m not going to cry.” he muttered. The teacher started whipping him.
Willie Mae put her head on her desk, not wanting to watch. She lifted it to look through tears, wincing as each blow landed, whispering, “Cry, Elma. Cry.” She watched in horror as the hard licks kept coming. When the teacher’s count reached 12, Elma’s head dropped and tears shone in his eyes. The teacher stopped immediately, tears shining in her eyes as well.
Willie Mae was afraid Elma would get another whipping when he got home, but the teacher’s note must have said he’d been punished enough. After Susie and Sid read the note, Sid scolded Elma for fighting, but Willie Mae breathed a sigh of relief when that ended the matter.
* * *

Willie Mae liked Mr. J.B. Allen, the Principal of her school, but she was nervous around him. One day when the teacher was absent, he taught the younger grades. He seemed to take special interest in Willie Mae. He had her come and stand beside him while he read poetry to the class. She obeyed, very uneasy. He was such a good reader, making the poetry come to life. Willie Mae especially loved one poem. It was about a spelling bee. A boy misspelled a word and the girl next to him spelled it correctly, passing ahead of him. Willie Mae remembered some of the lines for more than 90 years:
I’m sorry that I spelled the word.
I hate to go above you
Because (her brown eyes lower fell)
Because, you see, I love you.
Still in memory to this gray-haired man,
That sweet girl’s face is showing.
Dear Girl, the grasses on her grave
Have forty years been growing.
He has lived and learned in life’s hard school,
How few who pass above him
Lament their triumph and his loss
Like her, because they love him.

Willie Mae memorized words easily. She took declamation lessons and remembered the pieces she recited always. Some were serious, but she loved the silly ones:

I never saw a purple cow.
I never hope to see one.
But I can tell you anyhow,
I'd rather see than be one.


Once upon a time, upon the deep, dark, stormy shores
of Africa, there sat a band of robbers around a campfire. One
of the robbers arose and said, “Captain, tell us a story.”
The old captain arose and said, “Once upon a time,
upon the deep, dark, stormy shores of Africa, there sat a band
of robbers around a campfire. One of the robbers arose and
said, “Captain, tell us a story.”
The old captain arose and said,

etc., etc., ad infinitum.
 Willie Mae and Ina Rae would keep this story going for a long time, giggling at the humor every time.
Eventually, Willie Mae won the speech contest at the county fair, for reciting “The Ship of State” by H. W.Longfellow. She went on to Lubbock to compete again, but only got a 3rd place there.

After all the older siblings graduated from Roseland, Willie Mae rode her horse to school, with Ina Rae behind her in the saddle, her arms around Willie Mae’s waist. Willie Mae loved to run her pony, winning races with other children by jumping ditches and taking shortcuts. Ina Rae was terrified, hanging on for dear life and screaming for her sister to slow down. After her little sister fell off one time, Willie Mae would let Ina Rae get down before she raced, then come back and get her.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mother's Story

This is the first draft of the first chapter of my new project, writing about my mother's life. She'll be 99 this summer, and I hope to have the story finished by the time she turns 100. Then we'll start a new chapter.

I'm hoping my brothers and cousins will give me some feedback on this fictionalized history. Actually, I'd love to have feedback from anyone at all. This is a game. Play with me!   

Chapter 1
July 1, 1912
Albert Sidney Cummings, six feet tall, large-boned and handsome, waited confidently on the porch of the farmhouse. He had reason to be confident in his wife Susie’s strength and resilience in childbirth. They had six strong and healthy children, two daughters and four sons. Even Harrell, the boy who died as an infant, was healthy and strong at birth.
Sid thought of the day their first baby was born.
“Let’s name her Mary, after our mothers,” he’d suggested.
Susie shook her head, smiling at Sid with contentment. “I like Felicia. It’s beautiful and it means happy. That’s my wish for her.”
Felicia, 16 years old now, provided competent help for this latest birth.
That morning, Susie woke Sid early. “The baby will come today. Tell Aileene to get Elma dressed. You can take them to Mrs. Barton’s on your way to fetch the doctor. She said they could stay with her for a few days.”
Sid jumped out of bed and pulled on a chambray shirt and dungarees. He went to the room where Aileene, seven years old, was sleeping with Elma, three. “You have to wake up now, Daughter. The new baby is coming today.”
Aileene rubbed her eyes looked around. “Where is Sis?”
The second bed in the room was neatly made. Sid smiled. Susie got her way with Felicia’s name, but the family always called her Sis. “She’s fixing our breakfast.”
“ Get up now. You and your little brother will stay at the Bartons while Mother is lying in.”
Aileene didn’t move. Her eyes widened. “How long will that be?”
Sid picked Elma up from beside her and rocked him in his arms. “It depends on what the doctor and Mother decide. With this boy, it was only ten days.” Sid rubbed his stubbly chin against the top of Elma’s head, further tousling the blond hair.
“That’s a long time, Daddy.” Aileene stuck out her lower lip as tears welled in her eyes.
Sid sat on the bed, shifted Elma to his lap and pulled Aileene close to his side, hugging her shoulders. “You probably won’t be there the whole time. Don’t cry. If Sis can manage everything, you can come home sooner.”
Aileen wiped her eyes, brightening. “Oh, Sis can do everything, Daddy.”
“I think you’re right. We’ll see. Now, put your clothes on and dress Elma. Gather what you’ll need for tonight. I’ll come get you tomorrow to see the new baby. Then we’ll decide how long you’ll stay at the Bartons. Help out there, mind your manners and take care of your little brother.” Sid put the boy down on the bed and stood.
Entering the next room, Sid found that Clyde, 14, was already getting dressed, his narrow bed made. Ennis, 12, and A.D., 10, were stirring in the double bed across the room.
Sid paused a moment, thinking, Guess we’ll need to get another double bed for this room and move Elma in with these boys. If the new baby is a girl, we’ll have a girls’ room and a boys’ room.
“Get up, boys. The new baby is coming today. I’m going to fetch the doctor. You boys will do the milking and tend to the stock this morning. Bring the team and hitch the wagon, Clyde. Sis’ll have breakfast ready soon.” Sid left the room to check on his wife as soon as the younger boys groaned, stretched and got out of bed.
* * *
That afternoon, waiting on the porch as the doctor and Felicia attended Susie, he looked south across the fields toward Lockney, the nearest town. To the west clouds rose behind a grain elevator. He sniffed the air and thought he could smell rain. He walked to the end of the porch and looked north. Sure enough, low dark clouds streamed rain onto his neighbors’ cotton and maize crops. White billows plumed out above. His heart lifted, again taking in the delicious smell of wet earth. This was another thing to celebrate, as soon as he was sure Susie and the new baby were safe and well.
Focusing on his own pasture, he saw a herd of antelope grazing with the cows. Beautiful, he thought. He’d come to love this west Texas farm country. The small amount of rain they got fell in the summer, when it was most needed. The wind blew almost constantly, so he could count on the windmill to supply sweet groundwater all year.
Sid’s thoughts were interrupted by the lusty cry of a newborn. He went to the window. “Sis, tell me.”
Felicia came to the open window with a red, wrinkled, furious-looking baby wrapped in flannel. “I have to clean her up, Dad. It’s a girl. Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yes, she is. Like all our babies.” Raising his voice a bit, he called, “Are you all right, Mother?”
When she didn’t answer, he felt alarmed. “Is she all right?”
Felicia answered, “She’s just tired. I think she fell asleep. You can talk to her in a little while.”
Sid went into the parlor adjoining the bedroom. He sat in his oak-framed rocking chair to wait for the doctor.
When Dr. Pennington emerged, he shook Sid’s hand. “Congratulations, Mr. Cummings. Your wife is remarkably strong, and the baby is a big healthy girl.”
“Thank you, Doctor. Everything tolerable?”
“Yes, yes. No problems. I just need to fill out the information for the birth certificate and I’ll be on my way.” The doctor sat at a small desk near the bedroom door, smoothed his long black beard close to his chest and took a heavy paper from his inside coat pocket. He unfolded it and wrote with the pen that stood in an inkwell on the desk.
“Monday, July the first, 1912,” the doctor said aloud as he wrote.
Sid walked past him into the bedroom, bent and gently kissed his wife’s forehead. She opened her eyes and mumbled, “Another girl.” She lifted the light quilt to show Sid their new daughter, who was lustily nursing.
“Oh, Susie. She’s beautiful.” Brushing the short, downy hair back from the baby’s face, he smiled. “Hello, Daughter.”
From the door, the doctor asked, “What will you name the baby?”
“I defer to my wife on that. What do you want to name her, Mother?”
“Willah Mae,” Susie answered in her soft Georgia accent.
The doctor wrote, “Willie Mae Cummings.”
Thus began my mother’s life.