I was eight when Daddy bought the abandoned house in the Penwell oil field and moved it onto a corner lot on West Third Street in Odessa. Daddy’s excitement and enthusiasm were infectious. He hired a carpenter who replaced the flooring, repaired the windows, installed a new dark shingle roof and light gray asbestos siding and painted the trim kelly green I don’t recall a time when Daddy seemed as happy as when he came home to our little rental on the south side and reported daily progress on the house.
One day after work he took us with him to check on the front porch and sidewalk that were poured that day. The work was complete. We’d be moving in soon.
Going someplace with Daddy was a rare treat. When he was happy, all was right with my world. The mood changed quickly when we got to the house. The work on the sidewalks was fine, but the names of neighborhood children were gouged in the wet cement.
“I’ll be damned.” Daddy’s face turned almost purple as he read the most prominent name, running the entire length of the sidewalk, from the steps to the street. “I’d like to get my hands on Billie Yvonne Derrick.” His voice dripped with sarcasm as he pronounced Billie Wy-vonne Derrick. “I’d wring her neck.” .
I shrank back from Daddy’s anger but had to grin behind the hand I clapped over my mouth when the image of my grandmother wringing a chicken’s neck came to mind. I wondered if Daddy could really wring a child’s neck and whether she’d run and jump around without her head like chickens did. He’d never spanked me, and I was pretty sure he wouldn‘t wring Billie Yvonne Derrick’s neck. I decided then and there that I would never write my name in wet cement and that I would never make friends with Billie Yvonne Derrick. I never did, though she was only two years older than I and lived across the street for six years.
I held Mother’s hand as we walked up the steps and entered the living-dining room combination. The windows were covered with Venetian blinds. “I’ll make sheer curtains to go over the blinds.” Mother liked to share with me what she’d learned in home economics.
The floor-covering was linoleum with large pinkish flowers and dull green leaves. “This will look good with the dusty-rose couch and chair.” Mother turned to face Daddy. “I found a nice mahogany dining set at Wright’s today. It's only $15.” Her voice was excited. I’d been with her to the used furniture store and knew she longed for the table and chairs we saw there.
I breathed a sigh of relief when Daddy smiled and said, “Good. Sears called today. The furniture we ordered is in. They’ll deliver it next week.”
He went to a gas valve and turned it on. An awful smell hissed out. I held my nose. He turned it off quickly.
“Good.” Daddy looked satisfied. “They got the gas hooked up.” Our heater, a small one with a line of blue flames in front of clay panels, would go in that spot.
Mother and I went to the kitchen behind the dining area. Plain tan linoleum covered the floor and the counter that ran along one wall. Two windows and a door opened to the back yard. Mother put a finger on her chin, studying the small space. “Our kitchen table will go under the windows, but there won’t be room for all of us to sit around it.”
“That’s okay, Mother,” I piped up from the door. “We’ll have our new table in here.” I gestured toward the dining area.
We followed Daddy and the boys to the front bedroom, which was large enough for two double beds. Kyle and I would continue to sleep together in one. Daddy and Mother would share the other.
Mother looked in the small closet in the corner. “This is awfully small, Joe. We need to look for a wardrobe.”
Daddy sighed and took a step into a narrow hallway. Gesturing to a larger closet to his right, he said, “We have this one. It’ll be enough for now.” He entered the bathroom to his left. I followed him, pleased to see new fixtures and paint.
We heard Joe Mike yell from the small back bedroom. “Look, Jann and Kyle. My room has cowboys and bucking horses on the wall.”
Mother looked pleased. “Do you like it? Katherine Murphy helped me do it.” She had pulled off quite a coup, keeping her wallpapering project a secret.
“I knew about it cause I came with her,” Kyle laughed, “but Mama told me not to tell and I didn’t.” He looked at Mother for approval and she rewarded him with a hug.
* * *After we moved in, Mother bought a cherry wood Philco radio-phonograph console and records from the Sears Roebuck catalogue with babysitting money. I remember music albums by Bing Crosby and Arthur Godfry, and a Bugs Bunny story.
Mother still did our laundry at the Helpy Selfy. Every week she ironed a large washtub full of clothes, mostly Daddy’s work uniforms. She set up the ironing board near the radio and listened to Art Linkletter or “The Life of Helen Trent,” a soap opera. Sometimes she sang as she worked, either hymns from memory or with records.
This humble house became the essence of the word “home” for me.
One of my first memories of living there was finding an extra edition of The Odessa American on the front walk when I arrived home after school. The paper usually came in the morning, and I felt apprehensive as I unrolled it that afternoon. A band of black bordered the page, and the huge headline announced that President Roosevelt was dead. All my life, and all of Joe Mike’s life, Roosevelt was president. As World War II wound down, I heard many people say as it ended, “What a shame that Roosevelt didn’t live to see the end of the war.”
I was in third grade and Joe Mike was in sixth when we moved to our new house. We rode a bus to Northside Elementary School. How scary it would’ve been not to have a big brother with me. I followed him like an adoring puppy, trying to do everything he did.
* * *The following year, Joe Mike went into junior high. He went out for track and field. In the front part of the vacant lot next door, he and some neighbor boys set up a broad jump and high jump course in the sandy soil to practice.
I watched the boys jump for awhile before volunteering to help them place the crossbar between nails that marked the height on each side post. I decided I could probably clear the bar, on the lower levels, so finally got up my courage to ask, “Can I try?”
“Okay, but you’ll have to wait until we finish this round. You can have a turn when we start over with the low bar.” Joe Mike was the boss, since the whole thing was his idea. He used his own money to buy the materials to build it.
After all the boys jumped as high as they could, knocking the crossbar off on their last try, they moved on to the broad jump pit. I stayed behind and put the crossbar on the first peg and jumped it easily. I was moving it up to when Joe Mike called me to hold one end of the rope with which they marked the line for beginning the broad jump
“I’ll hold it, but you have to give me a turn, too. You said I could try the high jump and then you left.”
Joe Mike rolled his eyes, but agreed.
I was better at broad jump than high jump. We also tried pole vaulting, but I didn’t vault much higher than I could jump, intimidated by the long pole and the drop into the sand on the far side of the high bar. Still, I had fun practicing, planting the pole and lifting my weight off the ground with the momentum of a running start.
* * *I followed Joe Mike’s lead in teasing our little brother. One day after school, Kyle watched as I played jacks on the front porch. Joe Mike came out of the house eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“Kyle,” his voice was raised in alarm. “You have garments on your back.”
As Kyle squirmed, trying to see over his shoulder, feeling his back with his hands, Joe Mike grinned and winked at me.
“Where?” Kyle looked worried.
I didn’t see anything alarming on his back and didn’t know what garments were, but I decided to ally myself with power. When Joe Mike said, “They’re all over you,” I nodded.
Kyle jumped up and ran in the house, crying for Mother’s help. I followed.
Mother picked up the four-year-old and hugged him. “What’s the matter?”
“Joe Mike said I have garments on my back. Get them off.”
“Oh, Honey, garments are just clothes. We all have garments on our backs.”
I laughed, understanding Joe Mike’s joke, but not at all concerned about Kyle’s feelings.
Later, Joe Mike teased Kyle again about having garments on his back. Wanting to show my knowledge, I said, “So do you, Joe Mike.”
Kyle grinned and nodded. “Yeah, Joe Mike. So do you.”
“Yes, but you have ancestors, Kyle.” Grinning, laughing, pointing at the little boy.
“I do not,” Kyle’s voice trembled and his eyes welled with tears
Again not knowing the word but now understanding the game, I followed Joe Mike’s lead, teasing in a sing-song voice, “Kyle has ancestors. Kyle has ancestors.”
He ran to Mother again in distress. She comforted him and scolded Joe Mike and me as we laughed. Thus I improved my vocabulary but not my compassion.
One day Mother made lye soap. After boiling lye and lard together, she poured it into a flat enamel pan, which she put on a chair outside to cool. She cautioned us not to touch it. Joe Mike and I decided it looked like the caramel candy Mother made at Christmas time. Joe Mike took the wooden spoon Mother had left resting on top of the soap and pretended to take a bite, saying, “Yum. That is delicious.”
I followed suit.
Kyle actually put some of the soap in his mouth. Fortunately, the burning started immediately, and he spit it out without swallowing any.
Hearing his wails, Mother grabbed him and gave him a sip of vinegar.
“Rinse like this.” She swished some in her mouth. “Spit that out. I want you to take a little more and swallow it.” She followed the vinegar with an egg white. Kyle lost a layer of skin off his tongue. Horrified when I understood that our sweet little brother could have died, I lay awake for a long time that night. Our teasing stopped after that.
* * *The summer after I finished fourth grade, Joe Mike, Kyle and I all had our tonsils removed on the same day. Dr. Wood, the one who delivered me, recommended the surgery because we had frequent sore throats. The three of us checked into the same room in the hospital. When Mother went with Kyle to the operating room, Joe Mike and I jumped on our beds, laughing. They brought Kyle back, pale and asleep. I was next. Mother walked beside my gurney to the operating room. An ether mask was put over my face and the next thing I knew, I woke up, back in our room. Mother was sitting on the bed with Kyle, patting him and singing.
I tried to say something and couldn’t because of a terrible pain under my tongue. I expected to have a sore throat, but I hardly noticed that because I couldn’t move my tongue without hurting myself.
“Mothuh, theh’s a knot unduh my tongue.”
She came quickly to my bedside. “I know, Honey. The doctor couldn’t get your tongue out of your mouth, so he clipped it. When you were a baby, he said you were tongue tied , but it never was a problem.”
“Bud I could talk bettah befoah.” I cried.
“It’ll get well , Honey. Don’t worry.”
She was right. After the doctor took the stitches out, my speech was back to normal.
When Joe Mike woke up, he looked at Mother accusingly. “You went with Kyle and Jann to the operating room, but I had to go by myself.”
At that moment, I think Mother wished she’d scheduled the operations on different days.
* * *I began to be more interested in school. Our principal, Mr. Turner, came to our fifth grade class one day and asked if anyone would like to work in the cafeteria every day to earn their lunch. I eagerly raised my hand and he chose me. The job required that I get a blood test. It was the first time I remember going to a doctor’s office. The ladies who cooked our food on site every day were very nice to the kids who worked there. I felt quite important, serving plates to all the other fifth graders as they came through the line.
* * *On Mothers’ Day that year, 1948, nervous and elated, I walked up the aisle of the Southside Church of Christ as the congregation sang, “Just As I Am.”
“Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!”
I whispered to Eddie Myers, the minister, that I wanted to be baptized and took a seat on the front pew. When the song was over, he motioned for me to stand, and asked, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only begotten son of God?”
Shivering with nervousness and excitement, I answered, “Yes.”
The small church had a baptistery behind the pulpit. There were curtains that were usually open to show a painting of the River Jordan. A small dressing room was on each side of the baptistery. Eddy Myers motioned for Joe Mike to follow him to the room on the left. Mother came from the congregation and led me to the room on the right.
Mother and I were both nervous as I took off my yellow Easter dress and put on a white chenille bathrobe that had weights sewn around the hem. Mother held my hand as I climbed the steps. Joe Mike stood on the other side of the baptistery, grinning and holding the cord to the curtains, now closed. Brother Myers was already down in the baptistery. He guided me down the steps to stand in front of him facing Joe Mike as Brother Myers faced the congregation.
He placed a white handkerchief in my hand as Joe Mike opened the curtains. Brother Myers raised his right hand, saying, “Upon your confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
He took my hand with the handkerchief, put it over my nose and mouth, put his other hand behind my head, and lowered me under the water. Mother and Joe Mike watched from above, she behind me and he in front. When I came up, Joe Mike closed the curtains. I could hear the congregation singing the last verse of “Just As I Am.”
“Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O, Lamb of God, I come! I come!”
The dripping chenille was very heavy as Brother Myers helped me climb to where Mother waited. Wearing waders with his dress shirt, tie and jacket, he turned and took Joe Mike’s hand as he went out the opposite way.
I shed the robe and Mother wrapped me in a towel. As she helped me get dressed, I felt ecstatic. Sixty-four years later, I read in Mother’s journal her memory of that day: “Jann said, ‘Oh, Mother, Jesus is so sweet.’”
This marked my entry into the young people’s group at the church. We attended Bible classes twice on Sunday, usually had outings between those services and parties on Saturday night. Church activities comprised a large part of my education. That summer I went to church camp near Iraan, on the Pecos River, about 100 miles south of Odessa. I made friends from all over the state, including counselors who were students at Abilene Christian College. Going to college there became my ambition.
Devoted and idealistic, I took Mother as my role model and more or less rejected Daddy as such. My parents’ values offered my brothers and me a stark contrast. I had complete faith in Church of Christ doctrine, growing up with a very black-and-white way of thinking.
* * *When I started the sixth grade that fall, there was a teacher shortage in Odessa. Our principal, Mr. Turner, taught our class for the first few weeks. It was as if someone turned a light on in my head. For the first time, I understood why I was in school, and I loved it. Having a man teacher as I approached puberty probably contributed to the change. He was kind but serious about learning. I felt inspired.
When our new teacher, Mr. Weinert, arrived, no one in the class could understand a word he said for the first several days. He was from Wisconsin, and we just couldn’t get his name. In west Texas, we didn’t say a word like Weinert with a long I sound. We’d say Wa-a-a-nert. After a time, our ears and his speech adjusted.
I was aware of presidential politics for the first time. The day after the 1948 election is clearly etched in my memory. A rare snow covered the school playground when Mr. Weinert came out to get the class at the end of recess. He’d been listening to the news on the radio. His face and voice registered shock, punctuated by vapor clouds made by his breath in the cold air, as he announced that Harry S. Truman won the election.
He wasn’t the only one who was surprised. Arriving home that afternoon, I looked for the Odessa American. The front page featured a photograph of the grinning president holding up the New York Times with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”
Mother and Daddy talked about it at supper. “I don’t particularly like Truman, but at least he’s not as much a damn yankee as Dewey.” Daddy laughed.
I didn’t know “yankee” was a word by itself.
* * *In sixth grade, all my friends and I had boyfriends. Mine was Gary Hinds. He had a shy smile that I liked. He and I were both quite tall for our age. His nickname was Biggy because of his huge hands. He could grasp and pick up a basketball in each hand. Sometimes on Saturday, we would meet in front of the movie theater and sit together, too shy to touch, even in the dark theater. I liked his shyness. He made me feel small and he liked me.
* * *In April, I walked home from school in a wind storm, sometimes turning around and walking backwards to protect my face from the stinging, blinding sand. Arriving home, I collapsed onto my bed, out of breath and exhausted. Mother called from the kitchen, asking me to set the table for supper. I dragged into the kitchen and she looked up, registering alarm.
“What’s the matter, Hon? You look like you don’t feel well.” She put her hand on my forehead.
“My ankles hurt. Feel my neck, Mom.”
Mother’s worried look intensified as she probed two large lumps, a couple of inches behind each ear, near the hairline.
“Ouch. That hurts.” My voice faltered as I opened the silverware drawer.
“I’ll set the table, Honey. You go back and rest. Tomorrow I’m taking you to the doctor.”
The diagnosis was rheumatic fever. The treatment was six weeks of complete bed rest. I was shocked. Six weeks seemed like an eternity to me, and I wondered what missing so much school would mean. Mother visited the school to talk to Mr. Weinert, who assured her I could finish sixth grade by doing the weekly assignments he would bring to the house.
I didn’t feel ill and those weeks were among the most pleasant of my childhood. Mother, who’d wanted to be a nurse, indulged me with impeccable care. She communicated love in the ways she tended my needs: daily baths, fresh line-dried sheets, meals brought to my bed on a tray. I appreciated her friendliness to the classmates who visited regularly.
Lying beside the open window, sheer curtains moving with the mild May breeze, I read notes from my classmates that Mr. Weinert delivered with my weekly assignments in math, history and language arts. I knew my friends’ notes were writing assignments, but most seemed sincere and some were even entertaining. Sometimes he assigned crayon drawings for my encouragement. Every day the mailman brought a bright get-well card from Aunt Jewell.
I enjoyed the time so much, it’s a wonder I didn’t become a hypochondriac. At the end of six weeks, I was happy to leave the bed behind and return to my favorite summer activity, roller skating in the neighborhood.