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.