Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Chapter 5: Heartbreak as a Rite of Passage

Willie Mae’s parents were having the most carefree time of their lives. Her dad sold the lots where the elevator had stood, and with the insurance money bought several rent houses. He was appointed to finish the term of a county commissioner who died in office, and was later elected for several more terms. He took Mama with him to county-wide events as well as political trips to the state capital in Austin. The drought that caused Dust bowl was just beginning. The Wall Street crash of the previous year made credit harder to get, but hadn’t yet significantly affected the local economy.

Glad she could make herself useful, Willie Mae cared for the house and garden while her parents traveled. She even did laundry for herself and Ina Rae. Most of her high school friends were at college or working on farms, so she often felt at loose ends during the week, but still went to parties and the movie theater on Saturday.

One day when she and Mama went into the Baker Hannah Hardware Store, they were both struck with the dark good looks of the man behind the counter.

Mama was never at a loss for words. “Are you new? I hope Mr. Baker is well. I‘m Mrs. Cummings. This is my daughter, Willie Mae.”

The young man acknowledged them with a nod of his head. “How do you do. I’m Fred Jenkins and yes, I’m new in Floydada. Mr. Baker, my mother’s cousin, hired me to manage the store. He’s well, but is ready to slow down a little. I just finished business school in Abilene and am grateful to have this job.”

“My brother, Clyde, went to business school in Abilene.” Willie Mae stopped, realizing she was almost shouting. It had been years since Clyde finished school and she felt foolish. Not many new people moved to Floydada. Fred Jenkins looked like a movie star in a gray business suit with a starched shirt and bow tie. A well-trimmed mustache decorated his upper lip.

He turned to her, flashing a brilliant smile. “Is that right? Where is he now, Willie Mae?”

She blushed and lowered her eyes, “Everyone calls me Bill.”

Her mother spoke up. “He works in the post office on Galveston Island. Welcome to Floydada, Mr Jenkins. Have you found a church home here?“

“I’m afraid I haven’t had time yet.” Fred Jenkins looked regretful.

“Well, then, you’re invited to the Church of Christ, where our family goes. It‘s just down Park St. two blocks.” She pointed. “If you can go Sunday, we’d like to have you join us for dinner after church.”

“Why, thank you, Mrs. Cummings. That’s very kind of you. Please call me Fred. I’ll meet you at church and then follow you home. People in Floydada are certainly friendly and hospitable, just as my mother said they’d be.” He was speaking to Susie, but smiling at Willie Mae.

That evening, Willie Mae went into her sister’s bedroom. “Oh, Shorty, there’s a new young man in town. He works in the hardware store, and Mama invited him for dinner on Sunday. Wait till you see him. He’s so handsome.”

“Let’s plan what you’re going to wear, Bill.” Ina Rae went into her sister’s bedroom and looked through her closet. She pulled out a blue crepe dress with white trim around the collar, cut slender with a flare at the hem, which also was trimmed with white. “You look great in this. Whoever this handsome dude is, he won’t be able to resist the way this color makes your eyes even bluer.”

Blushing, Willie Mae laughed. “When he sees you, he won’t look at me any more, although he did seem interested today.”

“I don’t care how handsome he is. I really like Jim Dougherty. We’re going with a bunch of other kids to the movie tomorrow night. Want to go?”

“No, thank you. Your friends are nice, but since I’m not in school, I don’t fit in any more.”

On Sunday, Fred Jenkins waited in front of the church when the family arrived. He introduced himself to Dad, shook hands with Mama, nodded to Ina Rae when she was introduced, then turned to Willie Mae, offering his arm. She placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and they followed her parents and sister into the church. There wasn’t room on the same pew for all of them, so Willie Mae led him into the one behind Mama and Dad. She felt like everyone was staring, but ignored the feeling, smiled into Fred’s handsome face and whispered small talk until the service began.

Fred was not the only guest at the Cummings’ home for dinner. Mr. and Mrs. Orman and their son Otto joined them.

After the meal, the adults went to the parlor to visit. Ina Rae and Willie Mae washed and dried the dishes while Otto and Fred Jenkins watched from the wide arch between the dining room and kitchen. Otto spoke up. “I wish we could make ice cream like we used to.”

“I was just thinking the same thing,” Ina Rae laughed. “If you ask Mama, she’ll probably let us.”

The girls listened as the young men asked their mother.

Mama smiled, “That would be nice, but we don’t have extra ice and the ice house closes early on Sunday.”

“I can bring some from the store,” Fred offered. “We have an ice box in the back, and I can get enough to make a freezer of cream, if you’d like.”

Everyone looked to Mama for approval. “Very well,” she laughed. “Mrs. Orman and I will mix the cream while Mr. Jenkins gets the ice.”

The girls finished in the kitchen and walked out onto the porch, following Fred and Otto. Fred’s roadster was in front of the house. He turned to Willie Mae. “Would you like to go with me?” Looking at the others, he apologized. “Sorry, Otto and Shorty, there’s only room for one passenger.”

Willie Mae told her parents that Fred had invited her to go with him, expecting one or the other to object. Mama smiled broadly. “Go along. Enjoy yourself,” Dad looked doubtful.

Willie Mae didn’t wait for Dad to speak. She ran out and jumped into the passenger seat and the roadster sped away. Ina Rae rolled her eyes at Otto. “So Bill has an admirer.”

“He seems nice enough,” Otto said, watching the car drive away. “Great car.”

Willie Mae enjoyed the ride in the flashy Chrysler. They parked in the alley behind the hardware store. “Come in with me,” he insisted. The dark hallway seemed a little creepy until Fred opened the door to the office and turned on a light. In the hallway, right next to the door, was a large ice box. When Fred opened it, there were two blocks of ice, one large and one that had melted to half-size. As Willie Mae looked inside, he turned, held her face between his hands and tried to kiss her.

She pushed his hands away, turned and went out the door, saying, “I’ll wait in the car.”

Fred came out with the ice wrapped in brown paper, strapped it to the pull-down luggage rack on back of the car, and got in beside her. “Sorry, Bill. You’re so pretty, I just couldn’t resist.”

“You’re a little fast for me. I hardly know you.”

“Don’t worry. You will.”

* * *

For the next few months, Fred asked her out every weekend and visited her at home during the week.

“Still,” she complained to Ina Rae one night as her sister was helping her wave her hair, “I feel I hardly know him. He acts like a perfect gentleman in front of Mama, who thinks he hung the moon. When we’re alone all he really wants to do is pet, and you-know-what.”

Ina Rae arranged Willie Mae’s hair into deep waves held with curved metal clamps. “Do you think you might marry him, Bill? You make such a cute couple. You’re so fair and he’s so dark. All my friends have a crush on him.”

“I don’t know why, Shorty, but I don’t trust him.” She picked up a framed photo from her dresser and read the inscription: To Bill, With all my love, Fred Jenkins. “Who signs a love note with his last name? I admit he's exciting and I like being seen with him, but something about him isn’t right.”

A few days later, when the family sat down for dinner, Mama raised her eyebrows at Willie Mae. “Have you talked to Fred this week?”

“Not since we went to the movies Saturday night.”

“I’m sorry, Daughter, but I have bad news. When I asked after Fred in the hardware store, Mrs. Baker took me aside and whispered that her husband discovered that Fred embezzled money from the store.”

“Oh, no.” Willie Mae gasped. “Is he in jail?”

“No. The Bakers decided not to go to the law. But when they confronted him, he confessed to them that he’s supporting a woman and child in Abilene.. Imagine that! I thought he was such a fine young man.” Mama’s voice trembled.

Willie Mae flushed. “Well, I think you liked him better than I did, Mama. I feel furious.” She rose from her chair abruptly, making it fall to the floor behind her, and ran to her room.

When Ina Rae followed, she found Willie Mae with Fred’s picture in her hands, the frame on the floor. “This is what I think of all your love, Fred Jenkins.” She tore the picture into small pieces and dumped it into a trash can beside her dresser. “Oh, Shorty, I’m so embarrassed. How can I show my face in Floydada after going with such a skunk? What am I going to do?” She sat heavily on the bed, her face in her hands.

Ina Rae sat and embraced her. “It’ll be okay, Bill. Our wise brother A.D. says the truth is always good news. They sat there for awhile trying to think of options for Willie Mae’s future. Finally, Ina Rae went to her own room to do homework and Willie Mae, feeling miserable, went to bed.

The next day, as if in answer to an unuttered prayer, a letter addressed to Willie Mae arrived. It was from her brother Ennis, who farmed with his wife Jewell in Friona, Texas.

Dear Bill,
Our friend, Orville Putnam, is looking for someone to accompany
his wife, Charlotte, to Hot Springs, New Mexico, to take mineral baths
in the hope it will strengthen her legs. A blood clot has rendered her hardly
able to walk. The doctor isn’t sure the baths will help, but don’t think they
will hurt. Orville will pay your passage, room and board plus a small salary.

Please let me know if you want to take this position and when you could
be here. Please give my regards to Mama, Dad and Shorty.

Below Ennis’s signature, Jewell had written, “Bill, when you get back from Hot Springs, you can stay with us as long as you like. We can use your help and would enjoy having you. Love, J.”

Two days later, Willie Mae hugged her Ina Rae and her parents goodbye and caught a bus going northwest.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mother's Story Chapter 4: Floydada High School

Chapter 4
Unhappy attending the large high school in Floydada, Willie Mae found it difficult to make friends. In Roseland, she knew everyone and was quite popular. She rarely had to form new relationships. She didn’t know how.

One golden fall day after school, Willie Mae took refuge in the room she shared with her sister. When Ina Rae came in, she found her crying.

“What’s the matter, Bill?” Ina Rae placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder.

“Oh, Shorty. I don’t think people here like me. I try to be friendly and funny, but everyone already has their pals. I just don’t fit in.” Lying on one of the narrow beds in their room, Willie Mae turned her face to the wall, crying even harder.

Ina Rae sat beside her on the edge of the bed and rubbed her back. “I’m sorry. I thought you were excited about being in the pep squad.”

“I was, but the other girls were going to Blanche Hilton’s house after school to practice yells, and they didn’t invite me.” She turned back to look at Ina Rae, her tear-filled blue eyes full of resentment.

“Well, I don’t think you need a special invitation. Come on. We’re going over to Blanche’s house right now.” Ina Rae’s eyes blazed with blue fire. “If you’re in the pep squad, then you have to assume that you’re invited. You need to learn those yells. Now wash your face and comb your hair. I want to learn the yells too.” Her pretty face settled into a coaxing smile.

Willie Mae, who adored her younger sister and was in awe of her spunk, obediently did as she was told. They walked the few blocks to the Hiltons’. As they approached the low brick house with broad lawns, they could hear girls voices in the back yard. Willie Mae started up the porch steps to knock on the front door, but Ina Rae motioned for her sister to follow her around the side of the house.

In the back, they found seven girls in a line, kicking and side stepping to the rhythm as they chanted,
“You’ve got it, now keep it.
Doggone it, don’t lose it.
Your pep! Your pep!”

Ina Rae marched up to Blanche and announced. “Bill’s sorry she’s late. She has to take care of me, her little sister, after school, so she couldn’t come till I got home. Mind if I join you?” She lined up with the other girls and motioned Willie Mae to do the same, which she did.

Blanche blinked, then shrugged as Ina Rae started the chant again and all the other girls fell back into step.
By the end of the practice session, Willie Mae laughed with the rest of the girls when she missed a step, purposely escalating the misstep into a fall on the grass, then rolling over and sitting up with a goofy look on her face. As she and Ina Rae left, Blanche walked between them to the front of the house, holding hands.
“Do you want to meet me at the corner in the morning? We could walk to school together.”

Secretly thrilled, Willie Mae nodded happily.

The next morning, she and Blanche practiced their yells and marched in rhythm all the way to school. This was a start, Willie Mae thought, thankful for her bold little sister.

Through music Willie Mae made more friends and felt good about herself. All her life she liked to sing and had a sweet soprano voice. The a cappella singing at church prepared her well to participate in the school choir. She was chosen for the girls’ sextet, a niche where she really felt at home. Her favorite song was “My Blue Heaven.”

Her mother sometimes worried about Willie Mae’s moodiness. “You’re either too happy or too sad,” she told her. This surprised her. She didn’t think she was ever really happy since leaving Roseland. Some days she had no interest in anything. Willie Mae learned that if she clowned around at least she didn’t feel so sad. She guessed that’s what Mama meant when she said she was too happy.

She did well in language arts and social studies. Her brother, A.D., was her teacher for tenth grade U.S. History, which she liked well enough. However, Roseland school had not prepared her well for math and science. “I’m pitiful with algebra,” she groaned to Ina Rae. “And chemistry might as well be Chinese for all I understand about it.”

“Who needs to know that stuff anyway?” Ina Rae paused. “Are you going to go to college?”

“If I ever finish Floydada High School, I never want to sit in a classroom again.” It was one of those down days when Willie Mae seemed to be in a dark tunnel with no light at the end.

* * *
Willie Mae learned to drive, and one night her dad let her drive his Model T Ford to take Ina Rae and two girlfriends to a baseball game in Lockney. She parked by the board fence outside the field. They met some boys inside and had a good time.

After the game, they found that one of the taillights on the car was broken. Dad was angry when she told him, and Willie Mae couldn’t convince him that she didn’t know how it happened. She never got over the horrible feeling that her dad didn’t trust her and thought she was lying. It changed their relationship, and she grieved for the days when they were so close.

* * *

One night A.D. came to the Cummings’ house in the middle of the night. A light sleeper, Willie Mae heard the car drive up and the front door open. She went out into the hallway to see her brother tapping on her parents’ bedroom door.

He spoke in a low, urgent tone. “Dad, wake up. The elevator is on fire.”

Sid opened the bedroom door. His hair stood on end. He’d put on trousers and was pulling on a shirt over his undershirt. Suspenders hung beside his legs. He patted A.D.’s arm as he walked past. “Thanks, Son. I’d better get down there.”

A.D. followed him. “I’ll drive you, Dad. My car’s out front.”

As the two men hurried out the front door, Ina Rae came out of her room in her white flannel nightgown, rubbing her eyes and frowning. “What’s the matter?”

“A.D. said the elevator is burning. Come on, let’s see if we can see it.” Willie Mae ran to the front window with Ina Rae following. Mama was already standing there, her hand over her mouth, looking at an orange glow, making a silhouette of the water tower that stood between their house and Dad‘s business.

The girls burst into tears. “Mama, what will Dad do?” Willie Mae had never felt the kind of fear that gripped her chest as she watched the brightness and the black smoke billowing into the sky that was beginning to lighten into dawn.

“I don’t know what we’ll do, Girls. Let’s just wait and see what your Dad says when he comes home.” She put an arm around each of them. “God will take care of us. He always has. There’s not much we can do here. Do you want to go back to bed for a bit, or do you want a cup of hot cocoa?”

“I couldn’t sleep now. I’ll make the cocoa, Mama. Do both of you want some?” Willie Mae walked ahead of them to the kitchen.

The three of them were mostly silent as they drank the sweet beverage and waited for Dad to come home.
Two hours later, he and A.D. came in as Mama was getting a pan of biscuits out of the oven. She poured each of them a cup of coffee. They washed their blackened hands and faces in the sink and sat down at the table. Mama put plates of scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and plum jam in front them. They both mumbled a grateful, “Thank you,” and started wolfing down the hot food.

Ina Rae and Willie Mae came in quietly and sat at the table. Unlike their dad and brother, they had little appetite. Finally Willie Mae got the courage to speak. “What happened, Dad? How did the fire start?”

A.D. spoke up. “Sometimes stored grain just starts burning by itself. It’s called spontaneous combustion. That’s probably how it started. We tried to get the account records out of the office, but they‘re all charred.”
Dad looked up. “Well, all the farmers know how much they owe me. I’m not worried about them paying. If I forget any bills I owe, I’m sure the businesses will let me know.” Seeing the girls’ somber faces. “Don’t worry, girls. Everything will be all right. I’m thankful no one was hurt.”

Mama stood up and walked around behind Dad and rubbed his shoulders.

“Thank goodness you got that fire insurance policy.” She bent over and kissed his cheek.

A.D. pushed his chair back. “We’d better get ready for school, right, girls?”

Willie Mae nodded, amazed that this day was going to be very much like any other school day, after such a strange night.
* * *

At last Willie Mae reached eleventh grade, which was the senior year in Texas schools in those days.
About this time her sister Felicia moved to a farm near Floydada with her husband, Lee Rogers, and their children, R.K., Sidney Lee and Joyce. With only their two youngest daughters left at home, Dad and Mama loved to drive their automobile out to visit their oldest daughter and her young family. Willie Mae and Ina Rae enjoyed going along to see their adored sister. They played with her slightly younger children and helped them with their homework. Joyce was a beautiful girl, and her two young aunts loved dressing her up and arranging her long dark hair into elaborate do’s.
Driving home from such a visit on a warm March Sunday, Mama turned to Dad. “I’m worried about Sis. She’s hasn’t felt well for several months.”
Dad frowned. “I noticed she looked poor. She didn’t eat much for dinner but she’s always been picky. She was sick all last summer.”
Mama nodded. “I asked her to let me take her to see Doctor Johnson. Thank goodness she agreed. I’ll get an appointment tomorrow.”

Later in the week, Willie Mae arrived home from school to find Felicia asleep in her bed. She went to the kitchen to look for her mother. “Mama, why is Sis here? Is she all right?”

Mama turned from stirring a pot of beans on the stove, with a very serious expression. “No, she’s not well. She’s going to stay with us for awhile. You won’t mind sharing a room with Ina Rae again, will you?” Seeing Willie Mae’s worried look, Mama hugged her, then stood back with a smile and ran her hands over her daughter’s carefully-waved short hairdo.

“I don’t mind at all, Mama. It’ll be fun, but what’s wrong with Sis? Who’s going to take care of her kids?”
“Their dad went with us to the doctor today. Lee said he could manage the children during the week while they’re in school. They can come here on the weekends to be with Sis.” Mama shook her head. “I just hope I can get her to eat more. The doctor thinks she has Pellagra.”

Willie Mae gasped, her hand over her mouth, remembering a letter several years earlier telling them that her mother’s aunt in Georgia had died of Pellagra. At the time, doctors thought the epidemic was caused by tainted corn.

Ina Rae walked in just in time to hear the last sentence. “Oh, no. I read about that in my nutrition book in Home Ec class. They’ve now discovered it’s a vitamin deficiency, niacin, I think. Why would Sis have that? Isn’t she eating?”

“She has no appetite and she’s too thin. Doctor Johnson said twice as many women as men have pellagra. He thinks something isn’t right with her female hormones that keeps her body from getting what it needs from her food.” Mama’s voice quavered as she turned back to the stove, wiping her eyes with the corner of her apron.

Felicia’s illness continued to worsen. Her hands and feet were covered with a red rash. She was sick with diarrhea and sometimes didn’t even recognize her family members. The family felt devastated when Sis died on May 2, 1930, at the age of 33.

Willie Mae was supposed to graduate later in the month, but didn’t have the credits she needed in algebra and chemistry. School didn’t seem important. She decided to “quituate”.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Cummings Move to Floyd County - Back Story for Mother's Story

For this material, I relied on stories my uncles, Clyde and Elma Cummings, had thankfully left for posterity. The genre of this writing is creative nonfiction. The descriptions and dialogues are from my imagination, based on my uncles' narrative accounts. I decided I should start the book with Mother's birthday, but still hope to include this material at some point.


On July 1, 1912, as Sid Cummings awaited the birth of his seventh child, his mind wandered back over his 39 years of life. He couldn’t remember a time when he didn’t know and love Susie Griffin. Their families had migrated together from Georgia to Cass County, Texas when he and Susie were small children, in the 1870’s.

When he was 19, Sid moved farther west to Collin County, to work for Mr. Shipman on a farm. He saved his money for three years, and in 1895, he returned to Cass County and married Susie Griffin. For a short while they lived with Sid’s brother, Jim.

Mr. Shipman helped Sid get some farm land in Collin County, so the couple returned to live there. Susie missed the piney woods of her childhood, but enjoyed the flowers she grew in the wonderful soil of their new home. It was a very small farm in the community of Climax, boasting a post office, grocery store and school. Their first children, Felicia, Ennis and Clyde were born and started school there. Their third son, A.D. was also born there, but before he started to school, a friend of Sid’s told him of a wonderful opportunity to get a larger farm on the plains.

“My brother got half a section for the price of a wagon and two horses. It’s virgin farming country.”

By train, Sid and his friend went to see for themselves. When Sid arrived home after ten days, Clyde, Ennis and A.D. rushed to grab his legs. The family act like I’ve been gone for ages, he thought. He had fun playing out a little drama, setting down his valise, opening it with a flourish, reaching in and bringing out a plum for each child. To Susie, he offered a large bunch of grapes.

“Look at the size of this head of Kaffir corn, this Milo maize and this sweet corn. I think we should move out there, Susie. I found a home we can buy in Lockney County.”

“I’ve heard it’s very cold in the winter and that there are no trees there. And it’s so far away from Mama. Maybe we should wait until this baby is born.” Suzie touched her swollen belly.

But Sid’s mind was made up, and Susie had little say in the matter. They started planning what to take and what to leave behind and making preparations for the move.

The move was difficult but exciting. They loaded all their belongings on an immigrant car, with livestock in one end, a few pieces of furniture, personal effects and farm implements in the other. Sid and Susie, Felicia, 8, Clyde, 6, Ennis, 4, and A.D., 2, rode in a passenger car toward the front of the train. A seventeen-year-old farmhand named Wes rode with the livestock.

Now Sid wondered whatever happened to Wes. He was like a part of our family in those days, he thought. I’d like to know where he is and what he’s doing.

On Clyde’s seventh birthday, September 3, 1905, the family arrived in Canyon City, Texas. Coming from the muggy east Texas late summer, everyone shivered in the high, dry air as they changed trains in Amarillo.
Sid remembered the shock when Mr. Hartman, whom Sid had hired to transport their goods to Lockney, arrived. They went to the railroad stock yard to get the Cummings’ cattle and found a lock on the gate with a seal stating it was a violation of the law to break. Sid shook his head, remembering how certain he’d been that all his charges had been paid in McKinney at the beginning of their journey. The bill of lading said that the money he’d paid was on the charges, and he’d have to pay the balance in Canyon City. Once that was cleared up, they loaded their goods on four wagons, covered with wagon sheets. The few cattle were herded along with them as they started for their new home, 75 miles to the south.

The next day, ominous clouds arose in the north. It rained so hard they had to stop in the Tulia wagon yard for two days until the rain stopped.

Sid was enchanted with the huge vistas. The grass moved like waves on a large body of water, and they glimpsed deer, antelope, badgers, coyotes and jackrabbits along the way. Susie was less enthusiastic. She was a people person and was missing the home she left behind, besides being close to delivering a baby.

After five days, they arrived at the farm Sid had bought to find that the Bonners, from whom he had purchased the place, had been unable to vacate the house because of the prolonged rain. After two weeks of staying in a boarding house in Lockney, they were finally able to move in. Susie arranged their belongings into four small rooms. There was a half-dugout room in the back used for storage. To their horror, the house was infested with bed bugs. Susie used coal oil to combat them, but it was a continual battle.

Aileene was born in October. Susie and Sid welcomed their second daughter, but the long cold winter that followed was very hard for Susie. She was lonely and cried often. Sid finally promised her that they would return to Collin County as soon as he could find a buyer for their farm.

By the time a buyer was found, Susie had made friends with church people in Lockney. They bought a nicer home on the edge of town, and decided to stay in Floyd County.