The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ozark Dreams and Mountain Memories - Part 12 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1988

Issue: April, 1988

Editor's Note: This is a serialized, true story of a poor Ozark family in the 1930's through the eyes of one of their children; experience their hardships and heart warming togetherness as they struggle through and celebrate life in the Ozark Mountains.

March and April of 1936 was a mighty busy time for us. Papa and Ben would be out working every morning by daybreak. And at mealtimes they discussed what should be done next and how it should be done. Ben was acting just as grown up as Papa. Lots of times he'd tell Papa what would be best to do and lots of times Papa would even ask him.

They had been working all winter gathering and fixing up all the plows and harnesses we had and all that the Shaughnessy's had left there. I heard Ben tell Earl one day that we'd have the biggest and best crop anywhere there in the hills that year, for we had two teams and old Maud to plow with; and we had more acres of level land on the Shaughnessy place to cultivate than we'd ever had before. Also Papa was going to cultivate our old fields on the Jenkins' place. Ben told Earl that if he'd keep all the vegetable gardens plowed with old Maud that he and Papa could keep both teams busy all the time in the more important fields.

Papa and the big boys were working very hard, but so were Mama and the big girls and Mama even kept Jonathon, Andy and me working almost all of the time; besides doing the laundry, cooking and mending, Mama and the big girls took over doing all the milking and helping Earl get all the gardens ready and planted. Us three little ones had to help in the gardens, carry in all the wood, feed the chickens, gather in eggs, feed the pigs, help take care of two baby colts, and every day, turn the hand grinder awhile to make up a big supply of chopped corn for the baby chicks to eat when they hatched.

Turning the hand grinder was a hard tedious job. At first we got blisters on our hands and then they turned into calluses. One day all three of us were fighting and Mama wanted to know what the trouble was. So each one of us said we were turning the grinder more than the others. But Jonathon added that he was turning it twice as much as Andy and I were. Mama just stood there. Andy and I had calluses twice as big as Jonathon did, so Mama gave each of us a gallon bucket and said for each one to grind a bucket full that way we'd all do the same amount of turning. Andy and I hurried and filled our buckets, then went out to the edge of the woods to the spring branch to check some long hairs from old Maud's mane we had put in the running water there. We had tied them to bailing wire and tied the wire to some bushes. Andy said one of his friends at church told him he did that once and after a few days of swishing around in the water, they came alive and could crawl around just like a snake. We always tiptoed up to look at them and sometimes they looked alive wiggling around in the water but after we got up enough nerve to raise the bailing wire up out of the water, they wouldn't even wiggle. That day was no different. They were still just long wet hairs from old Maud's mane.

When we went back to see how Jonathon was doing with his gallon of ground corn, he was nowhere to be seen but the gallon bucket was sitting under the grinder full to the top with ground corn. Then we noticed that one of the full sacks had been opened and just about a gallon's worth empty. I went in the kitchen to tell Mama; when I walked in she looked up from her mending and told me to scrub my hands and churn the butter for her. Then I wished I had stayed outside, for Jonathon was still out somewhere free as a bird playing. He might have even sneaked over to the Jenkins' to read Little Orphan Annie.

Churn, churn, swish, swish, buzz, buzz. I churned the dasher down and up; the milk swished and sloshed and a fly kept buzzing around over my head. Mama sat there sewing and low talk came from the next room from Jeannie and April as they sat quilting. It seemed like I just couldn't stand that fly buzzing around another minute. I got up and tried to shoo it outside but it only came right back buzzing and buzzing. So I sat there churning and thinking how I hated that fly. Then I said out loud, "Mean old fly, if you don't quit buzzing around, I'll throw butter milk on your wings and they'll get stuck down. Then you'll just be a dirty bug crawling on the ground." Mama looked shocked and said, "Winnie, hush that silly nonsense this minute and watch what you're doing."

Mama, Papa and Ben were talking one night at the supper table about how many acres of cotton, hay and corn we'd have that year; so they decided we should start raising some chickens and hogs to sell. They said with all the extra horses to feed we wouldn't have enough hay to feed any extra cattle besides our three milk cows. So they had a long talk about what kind of chickens would be best to sell as fryers and Mama said Rhode Island Reds would grow into fryers faster and bigger than any other chickens. The only person they knew who had chickens like that was Mr. Squires. A few days later Papa came in from town and said he had seen Mr. Squires and he said he'd sell us all the eggs we wanted.

That night it rained and Mama said it was too wet to plow so she would take old Maud and the buggy and get the eggs for already several of our hens were setting in the nests waiting for some eggs to hatch. She took Jonathon, Andy and me with her. Andy was to drive old Maud and he was feeling pretty big sitting there holding the reins saying getty-up and gee and haw. Jonathon and I started complaining about that to Mama but she just said if we didn't behave we'd have to stay home. So we simmered down.

It was a long way to Mr. Squires' house. We drove down several logging roads and finally came to his fields. Papa said he had about four hundred acres but it was mostly just hilly woods. His white house and barn looked pretty sitting up on a green hill. We stopped out by his front gate and just looked around a bit. Way down across the valley was a house with smoke coming from the chimney. Andy said it was Widow Blooms' house and that down there somewheres in the fields was the fence they had a trail over.

Mama had told us that Mr. Squires lived with his spinster sister Miss Bessie, his daughter and little grandson. But I'd heard the big children talk about them and they said that Miss Bessie was supposed to be able to tell fortunes and that Mr. Squires' daughter, Myrtle, was, folks said, touched in the head because of some awful bad things that had happened to her. So I didn't know what kind of people we'd see inside that house, but one thing for sure, I wasn't prepared for the way they appeared to me.

Mama and I got out of the buggy. She told the boys to stay there and watch old Maud. I was busy looking out across the pasture at some little calves and pigs. There were three fat mama sows with lots of baby pigs running around them; so I didn't even see the door open and when Miss Bessie said, "Howdy Miz Duncan and Winnie," it startled me to hear our names. But who I saw standing in that open door startled me more. Just standing there saying "Howdy," to us, Miss Bessie scared me more than Widow Pollard did when she prayed for fire and brimstone to fall.

She was just sort of medium sized with her coal black hair knotted in a smooth round ball upon the top of her head. It wasn't that she was just plain ugly for she didn't have a long crocked nose or gappy teeth but she just looked scary. Her eyes looked deep and black and sharp behind her eyeglasses. And she looked so unhappy and sad. Not like sad, crying people at a funeral, but just sort of miserable sad. She was saying, "Do come in and sit a spell and I'll just let my work go for I do like to talk to company."

We all sat down in the parlor in some shiny old fashioned looking chairs. Miss Bessie sat in a chair right in front of Mama and me. She smoothed her black and gray stripped skirts down and gave us a piercing look and said, "Well, well Miz Duncan, how are all eight of your young'uns?" Mama said, "Just fine and growing like weeds." Miss Bessie said, "Last time I saw them they was all mighty fine looking children and Winnie here is just as purty as a tree full of peach blossoms."

The way she looked when she said that made it seem like that was real bad. Then she said, "My poor niece used to be pretty before she was afflicted. Seems like God might have done that because she was so high spirited or because of her poor mother's willful ways, God rest her soul in her grave." Then she sort of brightened up and almost smiled and continued, "But I've been blessed by having a fine healthy little boy in this house to cheer me and my poor brother."

Then she said, "Miz Duncan, when was the last time you saw little Joel?" Mama said, "I guess about three summers ago when we drove over to the revival at your Methodist church." Miss Bessie said, "Ah yes, I remember. You and Mr. Duncan and all eight of your young'uns was there." She continued on and said, "I've seen your Alice and Ben in Mr. Reed's drugstore in town lots of times." Miss Bessie then said, "Joel and Myrtle are taking their naps but I want you to see what a fine lad our little Joel is before you go on home."

Then she got up and opened up a big wooden trunk and showed Mama lots of things she said belonged to her and Mr. Squires' Mama and Papa. There was a wide gold wedding band and a watch on a long chain and a gold looking box she said was for snuff and that it was over a hundred and fifty years old. There were lots of other things in there including some quilt tops almost like Mama's. Then I noticed the difference. They were made from all black, gray and brown colors; Mama's were pieced from blue, green and red and other pretty colors.

Just then a white fluffy kitten ran across the floor and right behind it was a small, tousle headed, blue-eyed, laughing and rosy faced boy. Miss Bessie said, "Here's my little Joel. Joel come here and say howdy to Miz Duncan and Winnie." Joel looked at us with twinkling eyes and said, "Howdy." Then he said to me, "Do you want to hold my kitty?" and he put the kitten in my lap and ran out to the back porch.

Miss Bessie said, "Little Joel looks just like my brother did when he was a little boy." Just then a funny, heavy voice slowly said, "Little Joel looks just like my Mama did before she went to Heaven." At the sound of that voice my hair just stood right up on the top of my head, but I turned around and saw Myrtle.

She was sort of pale and shapeless in a too big dark grey dress. Her face was young but so old looking. Her eyes were sort of half open and moist looking. Miss Bessie said, "Myrtle, this is Miz Duncan and her girl Winnie." Myrtle said very slowly, "Howdy Miz Duncan, I remember you from church but Winnie here has growed so much I didn't even know it was her." Then she said, "Aunt Bessie, I'm hungry." Miss Bessie said, "Go set at the kitchen table and eat your cookies there." She disappeared into the kitchen and little Joel came running in again with another kitten. Mama said little Joel was just about the finest looking little feller she had ever seen. Miss Bessie almost smiled then. Mama got up and said we had come to get the eggs and go home.

Andy and Jonathon brought the washtub out to the chicken house. We were out there placing the eggs between layers of soft clothes to protect them on the ride home. Little Joel called to me to come help him find one of his kittens. I was helping him look under the porch when I saw it inside the kitchen so I ran to get it. Myrtle was sitting in there with a plate of cookies eating as though she was starving and as she chewed, most of them seemed to be falling out of the corners of her mouth. With opened eyed surprise I just stood there looking at her for a moment and she said slowly, "Winnie, when I was a little girl I was pretty like you and little Joel then I got growed up and afflicted and touched." Finally, I said, "That's real bad Myrtle." Then I added, "I found little Joel's kitten." She said, "Go outside and give it to him now." It was just like she didn't want me looking at her; so I ran outside calling to Joel that I'd found his kitten.

Soon it was the spring of 1937 and as usual in the spring there was almost more work than we could get done and as usual there was talk about how much money we might make in the fall.

After all the cotton was sold the winter before Papa, Mama and Ben were so disappointed, because after paying out bills and sending Mr. Shaughnessy his rent money, we didn't have any more money than we had the year before. But we did have lots more corn and some sows raising a lot of pigs. We also had a flock of Rhode Island Red hens. And that spring we were going to hatch off another flock of baby chicks to raise for fryers to sell. Mama sold off all the roosters for fryers from the eggs we got at Mr. Squires and Miss Bessie's house, but it took all that money to buy new pick sacks and shoes for picking our cotton the fall before.

Lots of times when I helped feed the red hens, I wondered about Myrtle and Little Joel and I'd wonder where his Papa was and why he didn't live with them. Once I asked Mama and she just told me to be quiet and she looked sort of mad like it was bad to talk about them.