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”.