Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mother's Story, Chapter 13

Bill and Joe struggled with emotional chaos after losing baby Patrick. The recent move to Odessa, far from their community of friends and family in the Texas panhandle, made this a lonely endeavor.

One night after Bill put Joe Mike to bed, she slipped into bed next to Joe. He lay on his side, his back to her. As she turned in the other direction, a wave of grief overcame her. She cried softly. When Joe turned over and put his arms around her, she realized he hadn’t been asleep. A whimper escaped his throat, and she knew he also wept.

She turned and clung to him as to a life preserver in the middle of the ocean, burrowing her face into the cozy spot at the base of his neck. Profoundly grateful for the comfort of his warm embrace, she let her tears flow freely. “Do you hate it here, Joe? I feel homesick and I miss the baby.”

“I know, honey. I do, too.” Joe rubbed his eyes with the knuckles of one hand and sniffled. “I’m grateful for the job here, but I feel like I’m buried in the Phillips’ debt. When I get that paid off, we’ll find a bigger house. We’ll be able to have parties again and make more friends.”

She didn’t say it, but that was the last thing she wanted to do. Remembering the parties of the previous four years made her feel nauseous. As her sobs quieted, she wondered how to tell him she didn’t plan to party anymore. “I’m going to take Joe Mike to church Sunday.”

“Sure, Honey, if that’s what you want.”

He kissed her tenderly, then more urgently. She responded to his arousal with a sudden aching desire, for him and for life.

“Can we have another baby, Joe? I want a baby.”

“That’s what I want, too, Honey. Another sweet baby.”

* * *

The following Sunday, Bill chose her clothes carefully and got ready for church. She dressed Joe Mike in a white sailor suit with short pants and oversized buttons on the jacket. She parted and combed his blond hair carefully. He looked adorable.

His blue eyes wide, he asked, “Where are we going?”

“To church.”

“Church? What’s church?”

“You’ll see, my darling.” Bill felt ashamed that she’d never taken her son to worship.

Joe worked as many hours as possible to pay off their debts. He left early that warm Sunday morning in July to deliver gasoline to an oil drilling rig in Notrees, 24 miles west of Odessa. Bill took him to work so she could keep their car.

The Church of Christ was only six blocks from their house, but it would be too hot to walk home by the time the service was over, so she drove. Bill went early to go to the Bible class before worship, knowing her parents wouldn’t approve of a church practice not mentioned in the New Testament.

As Bill and Joe Mike entered the church and sat near the back, an older couple sitting in front of them turned around.

“Good morning.” The husband and wife said in unison, then laughed.

“Welcome,” continued the man. “I’m Wesley Smith, and this is my wife Agnes.”

Bill shook their hands. “I’m Willie Mae Hale. Everyone calls me Bill. This is my son, Joe Mike.”

When Wesley held out his hand for the toddler, he responded with his own hand, smiling. More people came to meet and welcome them. Joe Mike smiled and shook each hand, delighted with the attention.

Bill hoped there’d be a class for her son, but the youngest level was for five-year-olds. After the children left for their classes, an older boy came back to give Joe Mike a card with a picture of Jesus, standing at a rose-covered garden gate.

Bill whispered, “This is Jesus. He loves you, Mike.”

“She loves me?” Joe Mike had never seen a man with long hair.

He loves you, darling. See, he has whiskers like Daddy. I’ll read you the words when we get home. Now we have to be still and quiet during church.”

When Joe Mike got restless, Bill sat him on her lap, took an embroidered cotton handkerchief from her purse and folded it to make a tiny soldier’s hat, put it on her fist, then unfolded it and made a different pattern. Joe Mike took the handkerchief and experimented with it, trying to make designs of his own.

When the sermon ended, the congregation sang an “invitation song” to encourage anyone to come forward who wanted to be baptized, to make a confession of sin or to place membership with the congregation.

“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou biddest me come to Thee,
Oh, Lamb of God, I come. I come.”

Bill picked up Joe Mike and walked to the front. The preacher shook her hand, gave her a card and motioned for her to sit on the front pew and fill it out. She marked the lines indicating her needs: to confess that she had sinned and that she wanted to be a member of this church.

An elder of the church offered an humble and earnest prayer on her behalf, asking that she and everyone assembled would be forgiven the sins they’d committed. Tears flowed from Bill’s eyes.

Joe Mike, still holding the handkerchief, wiped her face tenderly. “No cry, Mama.”

Bill smiled through her tears and kissed her son. The prayer lifted an enormous burden from her heart. She took communion, grateful to be with people of simple faith, who welcomed her, no questions asked. She put a quarter in the offering, wishing she had more to give.

After the service, people crowded around to welcome her. One woman, Katherine Murphy, was also there with an infant boy and without her husband. On impulse, Bill invited her to have lunch with her. “It won’t be fancy, but there’s plenty if you don’t mind warmed leftover salmon patties. I’ll make some cornbread and cook some fresh green beans my neighbor gave me from her garden.”

Delighted, and a little surprised, when she said yes, Bill suggested Katherine follow her home. Bill had forgotten that the wreath of flowers she’d hung on the front door to denote a death in the family was still there, more than a week after the funeral.

“Have you had a bereavement, Bill?“ Katherine’s sympathetic manner gave Bill an opening to tell about Patrick.

“He would’ve been eight months old a week ago, on the third.”

Katherine held her baby boy closer. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Bill. I can’t imagine losing Tommy.” She hugged her baby and shivered in the July heat.

* * *

By December, Bill knew she was pregnant. She consulted Dr. Wood, who had a small hospital in Odessa.

After taking her health history, Dr. Wood asked more questions about Patrick’s birth.

Remembering how quickly it happened, Bill told him, “Dr. Johnson thought the rapid birth might have resulted in the baby’s epilepsy.”

“You seem very healthy, Mrs. Hale. You’ll be here in the hospital this time, and I assure you, this baby will not be born too fast.”

Although her elation at being pregnant was evident, Dr. Wood also seemed to sense the apprehension she felt that the baby might not be well. He gave her a pamphlet from the Illinois Health Department on prenatal care, a term she’d never heard.

She left the appointment feeling reassured, anxious to tell Joe about it. He was also excited at the prospect of a new baby.

On June 10, 1937, Joe arrived home from work to find Bill waiting for him to take her to the hospital. He hastily ate the supper she’d prepared, told Joe Mike to mind Pop, who was staying with them at the time. He held Bill’s arm as she walked awkwardly to the car. At 15 minutes past midnight, their baby girl was born.

I was that baby. My mother has told me many times of when she first saw me. She loves to tell it. “You were just beautiful, with olive skin, dark auburn hair and dark eyelashes and eyebrows. Your big blue eyes looked at me as if you were the wisest person who ever lived. You seemed to know everything. You studied my face, and I imagined you thinking, “Are you my mother?”
The nurse came in the following morning to fill out the form for the birth certificate. “What will the baby’s name be?”

“Jann,” Bill answered.

“Janet or Janis?” the nurse stopped writing with her pen poised above the clipboard.

“Just Jann, with two n’s.” Bill said, a little defensively.

“Oh, that’s cute. I’ve never seen that name before.”

Joe Mike went to work with Joe that day. All day, the little boy bounced on the truck seat beside his daddy as they delivered gasoline. After work, they went to the hospital to see the new baby.

“Look, Mike. That one in the pink blanket is your baby sister.” Joe held him up to the window of the nursery.

Joe Mike studied the tiny face for a minute before turning away to hide his face in Joe’s shoulder. “Where’s Mama?”

“Okay, Hoss. You’ve had a hard day. Let’s go see Mama and then I bet Pop has a nice supper fixed for us.”

* * *

Bill continued going to church every Sunday. After church one morning, Joe Mike was climbing on the porch rail to slide down the short banister. When Jann, who was now three years old, tried it, she fell, hit her head and lost consciousness. A crowd surrounded her, clucking with concern. When she opened her eyes and looked around, the large man who held her returned her to her embarrassed mother’s arms. Shaking his finger in Jann’s face, he said, “Never do that again.” She never did.

In 1940, Homer Johnson established the Phillips 66 wholesale dealership in Levelland, Texas. He asked Joe to move to Levelland for a few months, to set up the accounting system for the company and teach Homer how to keep books. Though Joe had only a ninth grade education, he’d learned bookkeeping from Tiny and Eula Mae Magness. By this time, he’d paid off his debt to Phillips and had a good reputation with the company.

Joe rented an old farm house on the edge of Levelland for very little because it didn’t have electricity. Bill’s heart sank when she saw it. “The leak in the roof in Odessa already ruined my nice cedar chest, Joe. Do I have to give up my electric refrigerator?”

“Don’t worry, Honey,” Joe reassured her. “The house has a kerosene stove and we’ll get a Servel refrigerator. It can be converted to gas when we move back to Odessa.”

The house had a long driveway with enough of a slope for Joe Mike, who was six, to roll down in a barrel . “You want to try it, Jann?” He helped her climb in and gave the barrel a shove. Bill came looking for them just as the barrel rolled down the hill with more momentum than usual.

“What are you doing, Joe Mike? She could get hurt.” Bill ran to catch the barrel and get the three-year-old out. Jann looked pale and shaken when she emerged, but was unhurt.

The barn’s loft was a great place for the children to play, with a hay stack to jump into. One day Joe Mike couldn’t resist putting on his mother’s class ring from Floydada High School. As he jumped from the loft into the haystack, the ring came off. He confessed to Bill what had happened.

Angry and upset, she spanked Joe Mike. “I told you and told you not to play with my ring. You can’t seem to mind. Get out to the barn and find my ring. You can’t come in the house until you find it.”

Jann went with Joe Mike to the barn to look for the ring, but it was never found.

Joe Mike started to school in Levelland, a farm town in the Texas panhandle. There was no kindergarten, and children had to be six years old by September 1 to start first grade. Since Joe Mike’s birthday was September 17, he was almost seven when he started school. He did well and was popular with his peers and teacher, showing early signs of charisma and leadership. Like all the boys, he wore striped overalls to school.

When the family moved back to Odessa from Levelland, Joe became bookkeeper for the Phillips 66 Wholesale Agency. The move came in the middle of that school year. Joe Mike came home looking sad at the end of his first day in his new school. “Mama, something’s wrong with my clothes. The kids laughed at me and called me a farm boy.” His voice trembled.

When Joe heard this, he gave Bill money to buy two pairs of khaki pants and a belt, which she did the next day. After that, Joe Mike seemed to fit in just fine with the oil field kids of Southside Elementary School in Odessa.

The family rented a house on the Crane Highway on the outskirts of town. Joe’s father, Pop Hale, lived with them much of the time. When he arrived in Odessa from visiting Aunt Nit in Stamford, he walked from the bus station with his thick leather valise in one hand and a gallon can of sorghum molasses in the other.

“Oh, boy,” Bill’s smile spread wide when she saw him. “I’ll make biscuits so we can have sorghum on them for supper.” She’d enjoyed Pop’s company since her early married days when she and Joe lived with him in Sagerton for a few months.

Acreage behind the house allowed for chickens and pigs. For the most part, Pop took care of the animals. On the first cold morning in the fall, Joe and Pop butchered a hog. Pop prepared the hams and gave Bill a recipe for making sausage. Cutting the meat, mixing and grinding the sausage was a hard day’s work. Bill made long tubes of cotton muslin for stuffing the sausage.

Can I do that?” Jann asked. Stuffing the fat, spicy sausage into the bags must have looked like fun to a four-year-old.

“Let’s wash your hands.” Bill took Jann to the sink, lifted her up to get her grubby hands wet under the faucet. Holding out a bar of Ivory soap, she ordered, “Scratch the soap.” Taking an ice pick from a nearby drawer, she carefully cleaned Jann’s fingernails, scrubbed and rinsed her hands, examining as she dried them.

Jann hardly began to stuff the sausage when Pop took the sack away from her. It was the last one, and he was impatient to be done with the task. “You’re not stuffing it tight enough.” That was her dismissal. He was from the “children should be seen and not heard” generation.

On days when there was no school, Joe Mike and Jann sometimes walked to the playground at his school. She sat on the thick wooden seat of a swing. He stood above her, his feet on either side of her legs, and pumped the swing to get it started.

When they were going high enough for Jann to see over the top of the pipe from which the swing hung, Joe would yell, “We’re going to go over the top. Hang on tight.”

She giggled, excited and terrified. At the apogee of their arc, the thick steel chain would slacken, then jerk back tight as they started down. The feeling of weightlessness was thrilling. They were never able to go over the top, though.