The first Christmas I remember, Joe Mike was eight and I was four. Mama and Daddy picked out toys for us from the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. On Christmas Eve, a man dressed in red, his face covered with a bandana, ran through the living room and left presents, running out before we got a good look. Mama handed me a box. The baby doll inside had blue eyes that closed when I lay her down, much to my delight. I wrapped her in the flannel blanket Mama made, sat on the floor, rocking the doll in my arms and sang “Rock-a-bye-Baby.”
Joe Mike jumped up and down, laughing when he opened his present. “Oh, boy, a Red Ryder BB gun.” He dug further into the package and found a little round box of bb’s. Daddy showed him how to load the gun and talked to him about taking care of it. Mama, Daddy and Pop went to the kitchen to mix eggnog. Looking around for a target, Joe Mike decided my tin Humpty Dumpty bank would be good. He put it on back of the couch and fired away. By the time Mama discovered he was shooting in the house and stopped him, my Humpty had several dents in his brightly painted egg face and body.
* * *
Daddy managed a service station downtown and worked long hours every day of the year except Christmas and the Fourth of July. We rarely went anywhere together, but once when I was almost five, Daddy came home early on a Saturday and told us we were going to visit the family of his friend, “Red” Redmond. I was so excited, I couldn’t keep still. Daddy smiled and picked me up.
“They have a girl about your age and a boy a little older than Mike.” He tickled me and I laughed with delight.
Joe Mike and I bounced on the back seat of our Chevrolet as we drove to the Redmonds’. I stretched my legs out into the space in front of me, trying to touch the front seat with my high-topped patent leather shoes. Daddy seemed happy. Mama sat straight, twisting a handkerchief. I wondered why she looked worried.
The Redmonds lived on the east side of Odessa in a modest house with artificial brick siding. Daddy introduced each of us to Mr. and Mrs. Redmond. They welcomed us.
Mrs. Redmond called out, “Jim Bob and Lulu, come and meet your new friends.” The children came in from a back room. It turned out that Joe Mike and Jim Bob already knew each other from school. Jim Bob put an arm around my brother’s shoulder. “Come on, Joe Mike. Let’s play outside.”
I smiled at Lulu, anxious to be her friend, but she scowled. She didn’t seem to want me for a friend.
I stood by Mama and watched as Mr. Redmond set up a card table. Mrs. Redmond put four chairs around it and brought out a set of dominoes. Mr. Redmond brought beer and glasses for all of the grown-ups. Mama’s face turned red and she told him she didn’t drink beer. Maybe that’s why she looked worried. Daddy laughed. “Don’t worry. I’ll drink hers.”
I liked the sound the dominoes made as they were shuffled on the cardboard table. Eventually I tired of watching the grownups’ game and went outside to see what the other kids were doing.
Lulu watched the boys play Mumblety Peg, seeing how close to their feet they could make a knife stick in the ground. She wore thick glasses, which was something special to me. I thought I’d like to wear glasses. I got the courage to ask, “Lulu, can I try on your glasses?”
“No. You might break them and then I couldn’t see good.” She seemed angry. I took a step back.
Joe Mike threw his pocket knife at his foot, but it failed to stick. “I win again,” Joe Bob crowed, folding his knife and putting it in his pocket. “Let’s play keep-away. I’ll get a pillow. Want to play, girls?”
Glad to be included in the game, I made a few tentative tries to get the pillow from the boys, then gave up and watched from the side. When Lulu went in the house without inviting me, I didn’t mind. She wasn’t any fun. The dangerous roughhousing of the big boys excited me. I could smell their sweaty bodies and feel the breeze they made as they ran past.
A June bug buzzed around me, making me forget the game as I tried to catch it. If I caught it, I’d ask Joe Mike to tie a thread to its leg, as I’d seen him do before. I imagined holding the end of the thread, watching the emerald insect fly around me in circles. I stopped to look at the Milky Way, so brilliant from the high prairie of West Texas, and realized too late that I’d wandered into Jim Bob’s path. Running with the pillow clutched in his arms, he looked over his shoulder at Joe Mike chasing him, laughing and yelling. I couldn’t move as the big boy suddenly loomed over me. Then everything went black.
When I came to, Daddy knelt beside me. I saw Mama’s worried face behind him. All the others were looking at me, very quiet. As soon as I opened my eyes, everyone seemed to breathe out at once. Then the parents all scolded Jim Bob and Joe Mike.
“It wasn’t our fault.” Jim Bob glared at me so did Joe Mike.
Daddy picked me up with a jerk, convincing me that I’d done something wrong. He said we’d better go. Our visit with his friends was suddenly over.
The car was full of disappointment in an evening that had begun with high hopes. Joe Mike didn’t stop glaring at me all the way home. As he stomped into the house ahead of me, I felt the disaster was my fault.
* * *
The country had been at war for more than a year, which often figured into the games Joe Mike and I played. We chased and shot each other with imaginary weapons, calling one another “Nazi“ or “Jap,” and chanting “Mussolini, big fat weenie.” The family was caught up in contributing to the war effort. Mama strained bacon grease into coffee cans. Joe Mike made balls of rubber bands and gum wrapper foil. He tied newspapers into bundles. Daddy took these things to a collection center. He registered for the draft, though at age 36, he wasn’t worried about being called up.
Two weeks and a day after my fifth birthday, on June 26, 1942, my little brother Kyle was born. Mama was in the hospital for ten long days. I stayed with a woman from church during the day. Daddy took Joe Mike to work with him, then picked me up at night. Finally, on the tenth day, I stayed home with my grandfather, Pop.
“Your mother and new baby brother will come home from the hospital today.” Pop told me. “You can play outside this morning.”
Glad to be home, I ran out to play with Scrappy, our dog. After a while, an ambulance pulled up in front of the house. The driver and his assistant took Mama in on a high bed with wheels. As I watched, fascinated, the driver spoke to me. “Well, Sister, you’ll have a new doll to play with.”
I ran in, excitedly looking for the doll. Mama sat on the side of her bed, holding a tiny baby with a round red face.
I stood beside her, disappointed that I wasn’t really getting a new doll. “Can I hold him?“
“Not yet. He’s too little.”
When Mama saw my face, lower lip protruding and tears in my eyes, she said, “Oh, don’t be disappointed, Honey. When Baby Kyle is bigger, you can play with him. Come, give me a hug.” I climbed on the bed beside my mother. She pulled me close with one arm as she held the baby with the other. “Isn’t he beautiful? Give him a kiss.”
I patted the baby’s tummy and kissed his fat cheek.
Daddy came home from work early that day. The family gathered around a meal of sausage gravy with biscuits and fresh green beans that Pop cooked I felt happy that Mama was home. I wasn’t so sure about the baby.
* * *
Because tires and gasoline were strictly rationed, Mama took us on the bus to Floydada to visit Grandmother and Granddaddy. Every seat was taken. Padded boards on hinges folded down into the aisle so more people could sit down. Joe Mike and I sat on two of those while Mama held Kyle on her lap. The trip took longer and was more tiring than when we went in our car, but it was worth it to Mama to see her parents.
Aunt Shorty came from Lubbock to see us, especially Kyle, who was the Cummings’ 19th grandchild. Aunt Shorty and Uncle J.D. had celebrated their ninth anniversary, still childless. After dinner, I followed Mama and Aunt Shorty into the bedroom. They sat side by side on the bed, leaning against the tall headboard, while Mama nursed Kyle. I sat on the floor between the bed and the wall, stacking dominoes and listening to their conversation.
“Please, Bill. Did you get my letter? Won’t you and Joe consider letting J.D. and me take this baby to raise? You already have Joe Mike and Jann. You know we’d be good parents.”
“Oh, Shorty, I’m sorry, but no. Joe and I talked about it, but we lost one baby. We just can’t part with this one.” She hugged her sister. “Don’t give up hope. You’ll get pregnant yet.”
Aunt Shorty blew her nose and wiped her eyes. “There’s something else I want to tell you, though I don’t know if I should. J.D. and I were going into the Ace of Diamonds night club in Lubbock last spring. We saw Joe coming out with a beautiful girl on his arm. He pretended he didn’t see us. I think he was trying to be invisible. I found out the next day that he was at a Phillips convention.”
Mama hummed softly to the baby. She said, “It’s okay, Shorty. Joe is a good man. He loves the children too much to ever leave us.”
I felt jealous that Daddy had a beautiful girl on his arm. He said I was the prettiest girl in the world. I wondered who the girl in Lubbock was and if she was bigger or littler than me.
The next day, Grandmother told me that she wished Daddy could’ve come on the visit.
I said, “I do, too. My daddy’s funny. Especially when he’s drunk.”
Suddenly the room was very quiet, except for sharp intakes of adult breath.
I was shocked when Mama grabbed my arms and shook me, her face a mask of anger. “Why would you say such a thing?” Red-faced, she turned and hurried into the bedroom.
I collapsed into a puddle of tears on the floor. Grandmother picked me up and sat in the rocking chair. “Don’t cry, Jann. It’s all right. You didn’t know you weren’t supposed to say that.”
A spring thunderstorm struck that afternoon. Cooped up indoors, Joe Mike and I started a game of tag, running and yelling through the house. Grandmother said, “If you kids don’t get quiet, lightning’s going to strike this house.”
Unafraid, we kept chasing each other until a flash of fire shot down through the ceiling light in the dining room with a huge crash. All of us screamed. There was a strange smell in the air and wisps of smoke came from the attic, curling around the light fixtures. Mama and Grandmother ran through the house to make sure nothing was burning. Then they grabbed umbrellas and ran outside to look around.
When everyone calmed down, Grandmother looked at Joe Mike and me. “I told you to get quiet.” We sat quietly on straight chairs, hands folded in our laps. Convinced that she might have special powers, we didn’t say another word for the rest of the afternoon, as we listened to the rain on the roof and the thunder rumbling around the high plains.
* * *
In late-March, 1943, I awoke to a sound I’d never heard before. It was still dark as the sound split the night. Loud and high-pitched, it got lower, stopped while a breath was taken, then began again, repeating over and over. Frightened, I sat up, wide-eyed, listening intently, wondering what could make that sound. I felt for Joe Mike, who slept with me. He wasn’t there. Kyle, nine months old, awoke and started crying. Mama came in and picked the baby up from his crib. Seeing that I was awake, she came and sat on the bed beside me. Holding the baby to nurse with one arm, she pulled me close and cuddled me with the other.
“What’s that noise, Mama? Where’s Joe Mike?” I moved closer, feeling afraid.
Joe Mike walked in and heard me. “Pop died. Daddy’s crying.”
Mama started to say something but stopped, giving Joe Mike a worried look.
“Pop died?” I sat up straighter. “Daddy’s crying?” Suddenly curious, I hopped out of bed and went to stand near Joe Mike. He took my hand and led me to Pop’s bedside. The white-haired old man lay with his mouth wide open. We stood there in awe, watching our grandfather not breathe. Joe Mike told me that Mama had found Pop like that.
We heard a knock on the front door. Two men from the funeral home were there to take Pop away. Finally Daddy stopped wailing so he could talk to them, but his voice still broke and he wiped tears from his eyes and blew his nose often. The men had a hard time getting Pop’s tall body through the door of his bedroom. One of them had to lift his end of the gurney above his head to make the turn.
A few days later, the Lutheran church in Sagerton overflowed with people who came to pay their respects to Wiley Hale. He died just eleven days before his 80th birthday and was buried in the family cemetery beside his wife Susan, who’d rested there for 19 years. A long line of people filed past the casket to see Pop for the last time. Daddy wailed all through the service. The sound that was so strange a few days earlier was now familiar to me. I remember one song that was sung:
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever,
Flowing by the throne of God
We spent the night with Aunt Nit in Stamford after the funeral. The next day, She opened a trunk of Pop’s things and gave each of us a badge inscribed with Pop’s name, from the Texas Cowboys Reunion. These small mementoes, along with the memory of his quiet dignity, were our legacy from our grandfather Hale.
On the fourth of July, our family returned to Aunt Nit’s to attend the yearly rodeo sponsored by the Texas Cowboys Reunion. Pop had been a founding member of the association. The rodeo was open only to cowboys who worked on cattle ranches. This became an annual event for us. The only time I remember Daddy singing was on our way to the rodeo.
That was not the only wonder of our yearly rodeo trip. I’d never been in such a big crowd. As the audience filed into the stands, a blind man stood in the middle of the lane, playing an accordion and singing country and gospel songs, a tin cup at his feet. It filled with money as the crowd parted and flowed around him like a river around a large rock.
Farther along, we’ll know all about it.
Farther along, we’ll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it all, by and by.
At noon, we ate barbecue beef and beans at a chuck wagon brought in from a local cattle ranch. I especially admired the many older girls that rode fine horses in the parade and competed for the title of Rodeo Queen. They wore beautifully-tailored western suits with matching hats and custom-made boots. Some had silver-studded hand-tooled saddles.
My favorite part of the rodeo was the Grand Entry. It was led by riders bearing the U.S. stars and stripes, the lone star flag of Texas, and many banners emblazoned with ranch brands. They ran their horses at break-neck speed around the arena in opposite directions, then stationed themselves as posts for the hundreds of horse-men and women who followed, weaving their way back and forth around them until the entire space was filled with color: horses, riders and flags. The high school band played patriotic marches to accompany this spectacle. To me, the bronco and bull riding, calf roping and bulldogging events were anti-climactic. I was more interested in the people around me in the grandstand, though I did enjoy the ladies’ barrel racing, dreaming of being the girl on the horse, flying around the barrels without knocking one over. I loved riding Daddy’s shoulders out through the crowd at the end of the rodeo.
Childhood remembrances sometimes hurt if you hid in your big brother’s shadow and teased your little brother cruelly.
If you study dysfunctional family patterns, the writers of the books don’t know how funny Daddy was, drunk, or how important you felt playing hide-and-seek outside after dark with your brother’s friends.
Somehow it never gets across how good it felt, growing up tough and hard and having your mother buy you beautiful clothes with her baby-sitting money.
Even though you remember it well, your “normie” friends never understand the thrill of going to the Stamford rodeo, the family all together, happy, with Daddy drunk and driving a hundred miles an hour.
Since I’ve been working on healing childhood hurts all these years, I really hope I can remember the joy that bubbled up in the midst of our family circle, and feel grateful.