Daddy got a government job at Red River Arsenal. For the first time in his life he had a viable career. Red River was an ammunitions storage facility with tank repair facilities. I have no idea what he actually did there, not what mother purported which was allegedly top-secret. We were assigned a house in the housing facility in Hooks which is not far from Texarkana. Hooks is what Texans call a red, white and blue city – red necks, white T-shirts and blue northerners. When the Polar Express collides with northeast Texas, it leaves a trail of icy devastation across the flatlands and valleys.

Memories from Hooks still bubble up for me. I remember Billy getting in trouble for playing football, shirtless. She was 12-years-old, but not yet developed. She felt compelled to look and act like one of the boys. She was always tall and lanky with limp, stringy hair. Mother always referred to her hair as “cat smellers.” She made guns from scraps of wood and a clothes pin attached as the firing pin. She cut rubber inner-tubes into strips. Next, across the wooden barrel, she would stretch the rubber strips which were locked on by the clothes pin. You can be positive, we were her favorite targets.

Margaret brought Vana, her first child, home for a visit. Holding Vana up so we could see her, Ron and I would gawk from the doorway because Margaret considered us germ magnets. I found Margaret’s tulle formal from high school and made a bridal gown for my doll. When I showed her my beautiful doll dress, she exploded. I couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of her fury. I figured if the dress had been so important, she wouldn’t have left it behind. I was a rather bottom line child which set me up for my ever-present “get over yourself” attitude. It has actually served me pretty well, so I should thank Margaret.

We drove to Texarkana to attend church. I think Mother had the hots for the preacher more than religion. After what seemed interminable sermons, I was always desperate to potty. After the service when the preacher came by, Mother would preen and sashay. I would stand on one foot wiggling and willing myself to not wet my panties. I had very little patience with my Southern belle mother’s need to constantly flirt.

For a church pageant, a couple who had been missionaries in China dressed me in a soft, yellow, silk kimono. It was my first real taste of luxury. I absolutely despised Vacation Bible school. Maybe because I was so petite, they treated me like a three-year-old. I hated marching around in little chain-gang groups. Daily, they served orange Kool-Aid with stale, dry cookies, both of which I abhorred.

I started grade school, and I recall getting new dresses, all of which needed to be hemmed. I also remember wearing the same dresses in the 4th grade with the hem obviously re-let out. Since we moved frequently, and I would go to a different school maybe no one would know the difference. I was so tiny, I could wear the same clothes for four years.

I had a defining moment in Hooks. I was in the 1st grade and there was a school pageant. Each class had a princess and a prince, and we lined up from 1st through the 6th grades. Much to my amazement, I was the 1st grade princess. In a long, ruffled, organdy dress on the arm of my escort, we led the royalty up to the stage. How that happened and how I got the dress is long gone. The highlight of the evening was a raffle, which I won. Unfortunately for me, the prize was a pair of rabbits. I had to cry to get Mother to let me take the rabbits home. The rabbits did not last long because whoever kidnaps rabbits from six-year-olds got to our house quickly. What my folks gave with one hand, they took away with the other. I remember the organdy dress. I remember the rabbit’s disappearance more.

Lee’s wife, Jean, was from Texarkana. She had two Pomeranian dogs which she was insane about. Lee was in his early 20s and cocky as all get out. He would take Ron and me to their apartment on Saturday. He made a big deal out of being a big brother. Actually, I am sure it was to irritate Jean. She didn’t care for kids and wouldn’t let us touch anything.

During this time, Lee bought a new, baby-blue Ford sedan. He drove over a gravel road with me standing in the back floorboard. Looking over his shoulder, I watched as the speedometer inched up until we were flying over a 100 miles an hour. When we got home, I was happy about being the fastest kid in the world. Mother was not happy.

I knew that President Truman had ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan when I was an infant. I vaguely knew the details of the actual event, and I was aware that thousands of people had perished. Conceivably, millions were suffering the aftermath of radiation sickness as it was referred to in 1950. I could not begin to put this troubling information in perspective. My innate curiosity couldn’t grapple with an event of such enormity.

Looking at a globe and running my finger around the top quadrant as I spun it, I would look for Japan. It was an island next to two of the world’s largest countries, China and Russia. How could such a tiny country cause so much havoc that our President would drop the “biggest bomb in the history of mankind” on it? Did the Japanese have any warning? If it was such a ferocious bomb, how did the plane carrying that amazing cargo manage to get away safely? If the bombs had leveled the cities, where were the hospitals for all these people? At-six-years-old being aware and understanding were contrary concepts.

My teacher announced that the federal government had mandated all schools were to conduct bomb drills. Being familiar with fire drills, I was anticipating getting to go outside to the playground. She explained that when the siren sounded, we would be required to sit underneath our desks. We were to pull our legs up, wrap our arms around our legs and put our heads down.

Disappointed that we wouldn’t be going out, I did as instructed when the siren’s blast began. I slid down the smooth seat and eased onto the floor. I wrapped my tiny arms around my bony knees and waited. Surprisingly calm, I heard another child weeping, and I began to look around at my classmates. Some had their eyes tightly shut, others had eyes that were wide-with-fear, and one little boy was sitting at attention with a stoic expression.

With extreme clarity, it occurred to me that if a bomb should fall on us like the one that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would be pointless to sit under a desk. Why would anyone bomb a Texas elementary school when Washington, D.C. would be a more likely target? Who in the government was under the impression that sitting underneath a desk was an effective deterrent to an atomic bomb? For certain, I had far more questions than I had fear. I may have been an old-six-year old.

In 1954, we moved to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas. I have many memories of playing outside until after dark, climbing trees, roaming in the woods and fine tuning my attitude. Ron was forced to play house with me for endless hours. We lived in post housing, adjacent to the arsenal, which was a closed to the public facility. The arsenal produced a wide array of munitions and chemical/biological defense systems. On the arsenal proper, there was the upper rank military houses, the officer’s club with a swimming pool, a golf course and a movie. The Army sent a bus to the housing area for movie pick-up, and we went to the movies for 25 cents. On the post there were massive, concrete, ammunitions dumps which were covered in tons of dirt with grass growing over them. During tornado alerts, we would stay in an empty one. The bunkers were dark, damp and dank, but everybody brought food and blankets to sit on. We played cards and visited with the other families. It didn’t take long for a “sing” to start.

Daddy was sent to trade schools by the Army. The summer he went to school in New York, Mother went with him. The highlight of the trip for her was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. She bought a demitasse cup set with saucers shaped like leaves, which I have. I doubt if they were ever used or brought out of the china cabinet. She purchased a silver-on-glass tea service which Ron has now. We were still afloat on a ship name Grand Illusions, because we were now accumulating materials things used by society. We were going to be prepared when our time to be rich and famous sailed by. I was fully aware that Aunt Sadie’s last salvo had sunk the original ship which never got to float, even if the rest of my family still aspired to the myth of our ship coming in.

Mother parlayed her musical ability into being the music teacher at the elementary school. Since she couldn’t read music, I am not sure how she pulled that off. Being into big productions with grade school children, she insisted I take tap dancing. I had two left feet. For one program, we picked hundreds of flowers and stapled them on the backdrop of the stage. By the time the program started, the roses were dismal, droopy and forlorn. She wrote a blues song, I’ve Got the Helicopter Blues. I am sorry that I don’t remember the words, I think having the blues for helicopters was a first.

I distinctly recall being in a Christmas program. My “get over yourself” personality surfaced during my solo. For all the musical ability in my family, I can not carry a tune. The humorist, Fred Allen, once said, “The first time I sang in the church choir; two hundred people changed their religion.”

I can see myself on the stage wearing an iridescent taffeta, navy jumper with an organza blouse which was a hand-me-down. Mother had chopped my hair off like an extra from Annie. Looking out into the audience and seeing Major Lane I thought, “I wonder if he knows I can not carry a goddamn tune?” That was my last musical performance. I remember the song. It was Winter Wonderland, and I still can’t sing it. From that minute on Mother quit pushing me to be the star, and that lot fell to Billy.

I wasn’t saddled with attending church during this period as Mother was now a music teacher. She didn’t have to rely on being in the choir. They bought a used piano, and now she could teach piano lessons. She required me to learn to play the piano, and I did learn the AGBDF (all good birds do fly) theory of music. I really don’t recall the lessons, I recall practicing. While she cooked, I practiced in the next room. When I made a mistake, she would fly into the living room ranting and raving about my inability to play as taught. I didn’t last long as a piano student, she dumped me. I did have a wonderful discovery, there was music other than hymns and country-western as it was called in those days. I discovered Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven. Classical music has been my preference since then.

Lee and Jean divorced. He left Texarkana and his first son, Michael behind. He brought his dog, Toni, home to us. She was a pedigreed, black Cocker Spaniel. Since she was Lee’s, we were allowed to have a dog in the house. She was beyond spoiled, and even Daddy would buy her a serving of ice cream in a Dixie cup. Toni got to be rather hefty. When we would pack for a trip, she would put her rump against the door hoping we couldn’t get out.

Toni came into heat. We were told not to let the dog out, but no one bothered to explain why to me. Unfortunately, on a Sunday morning, I was up, and the dog wanted to go outside. Naturally, I opened the door. In a short time, Mother drug me out to the back porch where I was required to watch the damage I had done. Toni’s suitor had wasted no time in mounting her.

On trips Daddy made sure we saw every historical attraction. He never passed a historical marker on any highway without stopping to see it. At every historical marker in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, we stopped to pay homage. We drove to Nashville to see Margaret, Van and Vana. The trip’s highlight for me was getting to go to the Parthenon replica in Nashville.

In the 1950s, most automobiles didn’t have air conditioners so the Ol’ Man always traveled at night. Early one morning in eastern Tennessee, we were traveling up a narrow, mountain highway. Everyone was asleep. Awake, I was looking over Daddy’s shoulder. Considering he had to be tired, I was worried. The rising, morning sun was shining directly into his eyes. The mountain jutted up through the haze covering the valley below. The haze clung to the highway. I looked out, and in a clearing I saw the drop from the mountain. There were no guard rails. I was terrified! When the family awakened, Daddy had parked at one of the panoramic vistas. We were surrounded by the glory of the Smoky Mountains. Looking through the telescopes, we swore we could see seven states from there.

We toured Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and crossed over into Indiana, one time just for the hell of it. The Ol’ Man had gypsy in his soul. Years later while living in Germany, I would see the gypsy caravans and automatically thought of him.

I loved traveling in the South in the spring. Mimosa trees grew heavily along the highways. There were massive wild azaleas and wild honeysuckle. Their sweet, heady aroma would waft into the car windows as we drove down the highway. When the dogwoods were in bloom, Mother would tell us the legend of the dogwood tree. Legend has it that at the time of the crucifixion, the dogwood was distressed to be the timber for the crucifixion cross. Since then the dogwood has been a small tree with petals showing a crown of thorns.

Growing across the South, there is a prolific, ivy-like plant called kudzu. The small white flowers have a subtle, sweet fragrance. The shapes created by kudzu vines growing over trees and bushes were delightful. We would drive by green, fantasy lands where the lush, sculptured intricacies of kudzu vine-covered abandoned barns, cars and fences were enchanting.

We often went to Mississippi for Mother to visit her family. Daddy, Ron and I would do all the tourist things at the beach. Never did he think to go visit with a relative or a former friend. It was almost as if he had never lived his first 38 years on the Gulf Coast. I have a black and white photograph of Ron and me standing on a boat in the Gulfport harbor with the wind plastering my dress to my body.

When we took trips to Mississippi, if at all possible Mother would dump us at Jackie’s house. Jackie was the only daughter of Aunt Lonnie who was an RN. Although Jackie and I were 1st cousins, she was seven or eight years younger than Mother. They lived in Pass Christian, a half block from the beach. Aunt Lonnie owned the house, but she lived upstairs in a small apartment,. She turned the remainder of the house over to Jackie and her husband, Emmet. Four of their six children had been born. The kids wrecked the house, tore the screens off the floor-to-ceiling windows and a continuous fight was always in progress.

When my parents would arrive, Jackie would make drip coffee. The chipped, enamel pot had a mahogany-stained, cloth bag which held the coffee grounds. It looked dirty, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting coffee at her house. Jackie was short, squat and homely. Her bulldog features were close-set, and she had a pinched expression. Jackie screamed and cursed incessantly. Instantly, she could go into a rage. She was the meanest woman I had ever met. Emmet would take all the kids down to the beach, build a campfire and boil seafood. He did his best to keep us out of her line of fire.

My senses went into overload every time I had to stay behind in Pass Christian. Feeling sorry for me, Aunt Lonnie would take me upstairs to her apartment when she came home from her shift. In the late 1940s, Howard Hughes was a famous airplane designer and a prominent movie producer. For the movie The Outlaw with Jane Russell, Hughes invented a one-of-a-kind bra to up-lift the contour of the bosom. Aunt Lonnie was stout with rather large breasts which were uplifted high by her Hughes-like bra. In her uniform, she looked like a chalky-white ship’s prow. Her unfeminine, stern features belied the softness she always had for me. Thankful to leave the battle royal behind, I was thrilled she wouldn’t allow her grandchildren access to her living quarters.

Some summers, Mother would let me spend time with Aunt Clyde on their farm. Uncle Arthur was considerably older than Clyde, and they didn’t have any children. She weighed around 200 pounds, and Uncle Arthur was as skinny as a bed rail. They looked like Jack Sprat and his wife. Mother’s fastidious attention to her skin care always made me aware of my aunts’ complexion. Aunt Clyde had ruddy, coarse complexion with large pores. She wore frumpy, cotton dresses. Mother would say, “She looks like a toad sack tied in the middle.” True to the stereotype of fat people, Clyde was always jolly.

Clyde was a wonderful cook and made fresh lemon cake with real butter. Mother’s cakes always fell and in all likelihood she never bought real butter. The farm had huge, pecan trees that were so weighed down with nuts, I could hear the limbs cracking during the night. In the morning, she would send me to the hen-house to gather eggs. Every time I went to the farm, they would name a new-born calf after me. I would go with Arthur and his bachelor brother to milk the cows. I wouldn’t drink the fresh milk. They would have to go to town to buy milk for me. Aunt Clyde couldn’t drive and Uncle Arthur, who was almost blind, drove. When we would come up on a stop sign, she would shriek, “Stop sign.” He was all but deaf, too. One year, I wrote Aunt Clyde a letter begging her to let me live with them. I waited for an answer, and years later it occurred to me that Mother had never mailed my desperate letter.

Occasionally, Mother would let us go to Vancleave with her. We would visit with Aunt Clara and Sook. Sook was 19 years older than I, but she became my favorite cousin as an adult. Eventually, someone would suggest we go down to Toby’s house to drink coffee. Toby and Sook were siblings. They lived a mile apart, but it may as well have been an ocean.

Toby was a drunk. He and Nell had six children with the oldest about Ron’s age. Their house was literally a shack. There was a kitchen, living room and one bedroom for eight people. There was no need for doors, the kids climbed in and out of the windows like Jackie’s kids. Once, the adults were discussing a rape trial. A Black man had allegedly raped a white woman. I should have been outside playing with the other children. Hearing the men’s obvious prejudices, I asked Mother what would happen if a white man raped a Black woman. She bent over and whispered in my ear, “Hush, we don’t know who here is in the KKK.”

I adored Aunt Swint! She lived one block from the beach. and she was another wonderful cook. She would tell me to come help her to shell a mess of peas. She would cook the peas with bacon fat. Along with fresh squash and corn bread, we would feast. I once asked, “Aunt Swint, exactly how much is a mess?” Without thinking, she replied, “It is just enough for supper.”

Half of her little and ring fingers were missing. As a kid she had put her hand on a log while Uncle Joe was chopping wood. He told her to move it – she didn’t, and he caught it on the next swing of the axe. She had short-clipped, natural curly hair which she tousled dried with her fingers after shampooing. She was plain-spoken and dressed for comfort. When talking about a dress she would say, she was going to wear the “flower-dy or stripe-dy” one. Her wooden floors were invariably gritty, and I hated going barefoot at her house. Living that near the beach, everything is gritty.

She was matter-of-fact, but always spoke to me as if I were an equal. She never had children. As a young woman, she married a man who moved her to Chicago. When she found out she was pregnant, he forced her to have an abortion. In terrible shape from the botched abortion, she called home. Granddaddy and Aunt Lonnie went to Chicago to rescue her. Straight forward and always kind, Aunt Swint was a rock.

We toured Civil War battlefields and spent a lot of time learning about flanks, war strategies and the aftermath of war. Dad read every sign, brochure and monument. The Vicksburg Civil War Battlefield is located atop the high bluffs adjacent to the Mississippi River. The dense, wooded forests growing near the river supplied the materials needed for construction of fortifications along the siege lines. This major river was crucial for the shipment of war supplies and materials. At the Battle of Vicksburg, when the Confederate States Army fell, the North gained control of the Mississippi River.

During the 4th grade, I had a case of rheumatic fever. Mother and Daddy both worked. I went to school sporadically, but mainly my school work was brought home to me. I was home schooled, but I taught myself. I read everything in the house including Mother’s romance novels. Alone all day without television and responsible for myself, I probably did better than I realized. For a year we went to a neighbor’s house to watch I Love Lucy, until we finally got a set of our own.

I remember my 6th grade graduation. I was the class salutatorian and had to give a speech. Perhaps, my being self- taught wasn’t necessarily bad. I had never even heard the terms, valedictorian nor salutatorian. Having earned an honor came as an absolute shock, I was pretty much just doing my own self sufficient thing.

As I was frequently ill and stayed alone, I read a lot. Unnoticed by the family, I became part of the fixtures. My observation and self-reflection skills became greatly honed during this time. I began to question if there was more to life than what I was seeing. Perhaps they didn’t care what I overheard, but I really absorbed at this stage. I played with Ron, managed to avoid Billy and kept my own deliberations.

On a night trip to Mississippi, I developed an ear ache. I huddled under an old, dusty blanket in the back seat. When we arrived in Van-cleave, Mother went to bed. Aunt Clara, who was a nurse, got up from her bed to take care of me. My ear abscessed and painfully burst while we were on the road. Aunt Clara wrapped me in a homemade quilt, and Uncle Paul sat in front of the fireplace rocking me for hours.

Margaret was home often. Only eight years older than Vana, I was expected to play with her. She fell off a step, chipped her tooth and I was chastised for not watching her. She was cherub cute. There was a television jingle about Ipana toothpaste. I would sing it to her, substituting Vana for Ipana. She sneaked a nickel-bottle of Coke, and she hid behind the door frame to drink it. Thinking she was hidden, I watched the Coke Cola bottle jutting out and slowly being drained. She said her first sentence. She was freshly bathed and shampooed when I asked her what she was doing. She told me, “Brushing me hair.”

Ron and I were almost the same size, and people still thought we were twins. Mother didn’t bother to have separate, birthday parties for us. Our birthdays are three weeks apart, and we had our birthdays together for several years. We had chicken pox, mumps and pink eye together, too.

One evening, Mother insisted that Daddy spank me because I had ignored her command to take a shower. As he removed his belt, he told me, “Go to the bedroom.” Shutting the door, he demanded, “Cry and cry loud.” I was screeching like a night owl. Calmly, he beat the foot board of my bed. Normally, Mother was pleased to knock the daylights out of one us of her own volition.

Billy bullied still, but she was often gone to the movies or in a ball game therefore I had some respite. She was tall, lean and lanky and was called “Tex” as we had moved to Pine Bluff from Texas. She was in the high school play, where the die was cast for her to dog fame. She played a role in which she carried a cooked, pork chop and played the bass fiddle. In the play, she used a bass fiddle which belonged to Daddy. Of course, she demolished it. He was on such a tear, I figured for sure this time he was going to wipe her out.

Daddy played the saw which can be a musical instrument. The saw is bent over the knee, and the straight side is lightly stroked with a violin bow. Depending on how much arc and tension is on the blade, different tones are created through vibration. Obviously, it never caught on. When you don’t have any talent, you need a gimmick. I have often thought that the Ol’ Man played the bass fiddle by virtue of only having to know a couple of chords. It could more or less be slapped in time with the music, and one could hide behind it. He never performed again after Billy demolished the bass fiddle. I often wondered if Billy’s quest for fame was more to show him than it was to be Mother’s surrogate.

Daddy was a huge fan of television westerns and of the broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow initially came to prominence with a series of radio newsbroadcasts during World War II which were followed by millions of listeners. His radio show was moved to television and named See It Now. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to know that communist had infiltrated the United States government at its highest levels. During the McCarthy hearings, Murrow was openly critical of McCarthy. I recall seeing McCarthy rant and rave on televised interviews. Daddy always called him a “son of a bitch” because to his way of thinking anyone who was against Edward R. Murrow had to be the communist. Dad’s frequent rants were my political initiation.

Billy graduated from high school and I graduated from the 6th grade in 1956. At that moment our lives, especially Daddy’s, changed for-ever. Daddy’s security clearance was revoked and after having an actual career for six years, he was out in the cold.


Two to Five-Years -Old

The first house we lived in on Olive Street was directly across the alley from the elementary school which Billy attended. Our next-door neighbors were teachers. They asked permission to enroll me in an experimental program for the school district — it was called kindergarten. It always amused me that I was part of an experiment.

When I entered school, Billy was in the 6th grade, Margaret was in high school and Lee was in college. The school grounds had the usual swings, see-saws and slides where we spent most of our summer days.

Unless it was bitterly cold, we played outside all day. The back of the house had an alley which bordered the school grounds. Billy always made sure to let us know when rag-pickers were in the alley. Billy spent hours telling us that they were coming for us little ones. Havoc and fear were her calling cards. Lee had a Heinz 57 mutt, mostly bull-dog, that latched on to my underwear whenever I was outside. I wore a path around the house dragging that dog through the dirt.

On the back porch was a wooden ice box and in the summer the ice man delivered ice for it. After World War II, families were able to purchase refrigerators. Previously, most families survived with an old fashion ice box. I remembering seeing the ice man use a huge pair of tongs to sling that bulky block of ice over his shoulder. Icy, dripping water formed a trail as he walked around to the back of the house. Before the 1970s, most families had milk and butter delivered daily.

We listened to the radio as it was the lifeline for news, music and entertainment, much like television today. There were soap operas, quiz shows, sports, mysteries, comedies and dramas galore. I can still hear the mystery show announcer’s voice say in his eerie voice, “The Shadow knows!”

The older kids would slid back the throw rugs and danced to the Big Band programs, they tuned in on a tinny radio. They also did the “Jitterbug.” It was the first dance in centuries that allowed individual expression. During World War II, GIs took the dance overseas, and they spread it world-wide. We played cards, and it didn’t take much to start a “sing.” The entire family sang wonderful harmony, no matter what had happened that day.

Aunt Sadie, the last surviving child of John and Missouri Graham, passed away. Mother and Daddy rushed to Mississippi for the funeral and the reading of the will. The Graham property had been left to sons and daughters only. When Steed died, his share went to the remaining siblings. I am not sure if Daddy knew this or just failed to believe it. Through the elimination of siblings, the property ended up with Aunt Sadie who had no children. She left the property in total to one niece, who was the mother of our cousin, Louise. There was a lawsuit by Daddy and the other cousins to no avail. The lifestyle, so long ago promised by his mother, was no longer possible. That ship never came in, which is probably one of the reasons I am so cynical today. Don’t waste time waiting for a pig in a poke.

When they went to the funeral, Margaret decided to cut my blond curls into a Buster Brown hair bob, which I absolutely despised. In the early 1900s, there was a comic book character named Buster Brown, who wore bangs with blond curls over his ears. He had a dog named Tige. In the 1940s, a shoe company bought the rights to the Buster Brown name and opened shoe stores all over America. The stores had a contraption which would x-ray the foot in order to properly fit growing feet. Standing me on the toilet, Margaret held my chin with one hand to prevent me from moving. With her scissors snipping, I got the idea that being beautiful was torture. I am sure she doesn’t remember it that way. When the folks came home, I had pneumonia. I always attributed having pneumonia to that horrid hair cut.

We moved to another commonplace house further up Olive Street. It was old-fashioned without hallways, and the doors lead to each room. Lee threw a wriggling mouse into the bath room. Even with two doors leading out, we were unable to escape. Margaret stood on the toilet, screaming, while I cowered in the sink, crying until we were rescued.

While living in this house, I twice had pneumonia and a bout of whooping-cough. Unable to play outside and feeling better, I would pedal my tricycle in the house. When Santa came, he forgot to leave a toy piano for me. I remember Mother rummaging through a closet looking for the “God-damned” piano.

I vividly recall sitting on the front porch, watching an elderly, next-door neighbor smoke. She cut unfiltered cigarettes in halves. She would mount a lit, half cigarette on a toothpick which she daintily held with two fingers. It was years, before I realized that she didn’t want to get nicotine on her fingers. In the alley, there was a tiny, worn-out house where a Black family lived with two children about my age. I played with them and got lice, much to Margaret’s long-haired dismay. Ah yes, I had an idyllic child-hood, but somehow being number four was still the best advantage.

We moved a third time, up Olive Street to a nice house which was all brick with a large yard. The deep-set, smooth, concrete porch was so cool in the summer time, I played there with my dolls. The owner lived next door, a memorable Greek gentleman, Mr. Panis. He had grown children and seemed to adore us little ones. He would let me plant lettuce in his garden, and we played under his huge, grape arbor. On Saturday mornings, he would make pancakes, soaked in melted butter, sprinkled with sugar and crumbled bacon and layered with another pancake, butter, sugar and bacon. I thought this was the most wonderful meal I had ever eaten, much less for breakfast.

Cooking was never Mother’s forte. The only thing she successfully cooked were pots of Lima beans. Apparently she never cooked enough of them, because Lee would offer to pay me a quarter for my share. For all the beans he out-talked me, he still owes me. Dad had a Packard automobile, probably a 1949 model. It had doors so heavy I could barely pull them open. It was a four-door sedan, and we could roll the back windows down for air to blow on us.

The only responsibility that I recall Billy ever having was to take us to the movies, on Saturday afternoons. Margaret would braid my hair, apparently the Buster Brown cut had grown out. I hated that hair style, too. I would sit in the dark movie and upbraid my hair. I would emerge from the afternoon picture show looking like a future 1960s hippie.

We were dropped off at the movies every Saturday afternoon. We sat through several short features, cartoons and then the feature movie. There was not a specific start time for movies, you stayed until the place where you came in restarted. We would go in to the theater in the middle of a show and not be concerned as we knew eventually, we would see the beginning. Not until Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho in 1960 did anyone think about going into a movie in the middle.

A normal memory of Billy is at this house. On Halloween, she would get a large, paper bag and go trick-or-treating. She would not come home until she had visited every possible house.

On a Saturday, Lee was the designated baby-sitter for me while Mother and Daddy went to a church function. He spent the day telling me, “We are going honky-tonking.” I did not know what honky-tonks were and positive, I didn’t want to find out. Honky-tonks were rough establishments, mostly in the Deep South, which served liquor to neighborhood and working class customers. In honky-tonks, people danced to low-down piano players or small bands. I recall our parents dropping us off, and Lee dragging me down the sidewalk, caterwauling. He took me to see Snow White. Sometime later, Margaret took me to see The Wizard of Oz.

There is a black and white photo of me astride a pony. I remember the photographer coming into the yard with his camera and a pony. Putting a cowboy hat on me, he plopped me up on the pony. He took my picture with dirt still on my face, and my hair was frizzy from playing outside. It would have never occurred to anyone to brush my hair for a photograph.

Aunt Swint married Uncle Smitty, and they moved to Texarkana. Smitty was a true drunk, and I doubt if I ever saw him sober. Always sweet and patient, Aunt Swint worked and supported him. He eventually left her for his former wife Mary, also an alcoholic. Uncle Smitty was a fun drunk. We would eat cold hot dogs for breakfast as the night before he had come home drunk with a dozen hot dogs. On Sunday nights, he would take us to colored churches to hear the gospel singing.

Daddy resurrected “Kay Graham and the Night Herders” with Dallas Lee as the featured singer. Lee was in show biz. Over the years, Lee had a favorite joke. A man’s job was to be the pooper-scooper following behind the circus elephants. A friend told him he needed to find a better job. The man replied, “What and give up show biz!”

The band had been booked for an all day gig playing at a new Sears and Roebuck store. The featured attraction for the grand opening was Dub Taylor, a character actor of the Gabby Hayes genre. He was also known as Cannonball Taylor. He was balding with a fringe of white, spiky hair. His grizzled appearance was softened by slightly rotund, red cheeks. Between his bits, this gentleman played with me. He sat me on his knee, told me stories and teased me. He had blue eyes which twinkled when he cackled with his raspy laugh. I was impressed by an adult, who showed so much kindness and patience to a child. I looked up his biography on line. An actor of the movie heyday, he made 222 movies in his lifetime.

Lee was going to junior college and brought his buddies home, who boarded with us. They delighted in sneaking up and scratching on the window screens at night, scaring me and Ron witless. Ed Upchurch, one of Lee’s pals, was in a play in the college drama department. Lee took me to the dress rehearsal. Ed was lying in a casket. I became hysterical when I saw him. I was beside myself when he sat up. They lived to play pranks, even on a five-year-old.

Margaret was dating. After cleaning the living room, she would shut the double pane glass doors. She promised us dire happenings if we entered the room before her date came to pick her up. In close succession, both Lee and Margaret married. I didn’t go to Lee’s wedding as I was sick. Margaret and Van married in Nashville where his parents lived. They both moved out, and now Ron and I were saddled with only Billy for a big sister. She was a tomboy with the Dad’s volatile, depressive gene and Mother’s vanity gene. Always surly and abusive, she made her younger siblings pay, regularly, for having invaded her space. She bullied me every day of my life until I was sixteen.

Wanted or Planned?

On December 1st, Mother turned 18 and on December 10, 1928, LaBaron Caraway Graham, Jr. (Lee) was born. Lee was the closest thing to nobility that had ever occurred to Price. She had a son who detested her and an egoistic daughter-in-law. Uncaring, she had no love for either of them. She quickly and easily replaced them once her noble grandson arrived. On April 2, 1933, Margaret Price was born. She was callously relegated to Cinderella chore maid to prevent Price’s grand plans for Lee from being interrupted. Being named after both her grandmothers held a slim-to-no advantage for my sister. Billy Ann was born on January 27, 1938. She was sent to the hinterland with Margaret.

In a span of a few short years, the family dealt with the Great Depression, a hurricane, losing their homestead and the death of Steede and Price. My parents left Pensacola and moved to Moss Point. Daddy got a job at the ship yards. It was probably the first time he ever actually toiled in a structured environment. He had pretty much bounced around as long as he had his parents there to provide for him and his family. He fancied himself the next Hank Williams. He tried his hand at being an amateur performer with no experience and limited talent. He formed a country swing band named “Kay Graham and the Night Herders.” Mother with her natural, but mediocre talent encouraged his musical ambitions. He also indulged his needs: drinking, drugs, carousing and whoring. Daddy was wild, unrestrained and had a hostile bent.

In Moss Point, my parents were encumbered with the full responsibility of being parents for the time. I suspect that I was the first baby that Daddy ever wanted. Wanted is quite misleading, planned is a better word. I have a hunch the three older kids were the result of intercourse. I can’t envision Dad, immature and selfish, having any joy in fatherhood other than to show his virility. Returning to Mississippi without his parents to provide for them, he needed to keep Mother in line. The rule of the day was to keep wives barefoot and pregnant.

Mother said when she found out she was pregnant with me, and she announced it to Daddy, he told her, “I know already, and the baby is due on March 12th.” She called him a “son of a bitch.”

Dad had to consistently show up to a despised job, take orders from a supervisor and perform menial tasks. For sure, he had never worked before with his hands. Having burned every bridge, he had to start making his own opportunities as he no longer had a free ride. Moss Point was too small to be notoriously erratic. Mother, in all likelihood, fared better than he had at this point. After living in Florida for years, she was near her sizable family. She had all of her sisters to visit and Margaret to babysit for me.

Being the first child born in the post, Price Graham era, I have always been glad this was the period of time in which I was born, probably for the strangest of reasons. When I was born, Albert Einstein was still alive. I have always felt that he was the one human who had the greatest impact on mankind and the growth of the last century. Historically, I was around during his lifetime.

The 1940s were the heyday for movies which were the primary form of entertainment away from the home. During a gangster movie, a character actor uttered, “Oh, yeah, so’s your ol’ man.” Lee kept using this expression until it caught on with the kids. Collectively, we all referred to Daddy as the Ol’ Man when speaking of him. In person, we still called him Daddy.

During World War II, all manufacturing enterprises, however small, had their production geared towards supplying the war effort. The civilian population were expected to make do with prewar goods or make the best they could with what was available. People routinely took their watches, shoes and clothes to be repaired. After the war, the average cost of a wrist watch was relatively high compared to an average salary. When I was slightly over one-year-old, Daddy announced he had a job as a watch maker in Dallas, Texas. He had started tinkering with watch repair. Dad decided he could make a living as a watchmaker.

Establishing a beachhead, Daddy and Lee went ahead to Dallas. Mother, Margaret, Billy and I moved to Dallas by train. Mother went to work in a drug store and then discovered she was pregnant. On February 21, 1946, a wonderfully innocent baby, Ronald Bowman Graham arrived. I was 23-months-old, and I had a new baby doll which I chose not to ignore as I had been.

Margaret was 13-years-old, and she kept us little ones when Mother went to her part-time job in the afternoon. Billy roamed the streets and spent every possible moment in the movies. Lee was 17-years-old and extremely upset with his folks for still having babies. He joined the Navy.

As a two-and-half-year-old, I walked daily with Mother to take Billy to school. Late one morning, I announced to Mother, “I am going to school.” She abstractly replied, “All right.” Shortly, the cold realization hit her that I had actually left the house. Alone and unafraid, I crossed several streets as if I owned them. Spotting the family dog running along the wooded creek bank, the Dallas Fire Department found me. Playing in the creek bed, I was startled when a fireman picked me up. This was my first act of independence.

Shortly after Ron was born, we moved to Texarkana, Texas. Dad had finagled watch-making, in which he had no formal education, into a job as a trade school instructor. This may have been one of his rare circumstances in being at the right place at the right time. Daddy, Margaret, Ron and I rode a train to Texarkana, Texas.

We moved into a humble duplex with the other side occupied by the daughter of the owner. Our semi-invalid landlady was greatly doted on by her daughter, who called her Mother Dear. The house was a small, white clapboard, and we had to share the bathroom with the adjoining family. The rent probably wasn’t $75.00 dollars a month. Margaret set up housekeeping for Daddy, Ron and me. Mother remained in Dallas to work, until she and Bill moved six weeks later. I use to wonder why we always moved by train before I realized – we didn’t have a car.

While living in this modest duplex, I remember going with Billy to pick up Coke bottles. Pulling a rusty, red wagon filled with several stacks of comic books, she collected bottles. Going to a neighborhood store, she returned the Coke bottles for the two-cent deposit. Additionally, she had a going concern in buying and trading comic books. This is one of my few memories of her being normal.

My first recollection of Lee was in December 1947. I was still a three-year-old, and he had just turned nineteen. I was standing behind Mother’s gathered skirt on the front porch. Out of a taxi, popped a sailor with a duffel bag. Peeking around her legs, I saw Mother crying tears of joy. Lee was home from Guam, and his tour in the Navy. My next memory is of Lee taking Ron, Billy and me to the drug store at night. When we came home, Santa Claus had been to the house. It was Christmas Eve, 1947. I later realized, Lee had set us up. Maybe he had been too excited to wait. As I grew older, I knew it was because he didn’t want to get up at the crack of dawn with a three-year-old sister and a baby brother. Together again, our family settled into an almost, normal life.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 12:40 am  Comments (3)  
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Get Over Yourself — A Memoir

Growing up Southern

I slept late. When I arose, the house was already vacated. I was enjoying the cool morning breeze and luxuriating in the fact that I didn’t have to be “up and out.” The dusty screen door filtered the flickering sunlight falling across the doorway. Because of the glory of the day, I went outside. Balancing a steaming cup of tea, I eased down to the chipped, concrete steps. As I reflected on a day tinged with pleasure, a state of panic begin to surface. Catching me off guard, I steadily repeated a mantra, “You will be fine. All is well.” As the draining heat intensified from the high, white sun, the less I believed myself. Shaking it off, I decided to go inside. Reaching for the door knob, an overwhelming urge to cry bubbled up. I sat back down, shaken.

This was my high school graduation day. Overcome, I could only think that I had not learned enough. Why hadn’t I studied harder?  The moment I crossed the stage in my cap and gown my opportunities to learn were going to be gone. Devastated, I felt unprepared to face the future. I was unable to find the joy in my graduation day. How does one unconsciously arrive at this stage of life effectively unprepared and undefined? The realization I was no longer a child heightened my advancing sense of failure and discomfort. This new revelation reduced me to a sodden, crumpled heap.

Years later a quote by Chuck Palahniuk caught my attention. He said, “Your birth is a mistake you’ll spend your whole life trying to correct.” The beauty of satire is that it is devastatingly dead-on. At the time, it made me smile because I recognized a kindred soul.

In searching for my questionable and faltering foundation, I have to start with the history that had such a lasting impact on my family. I was born in the Jackson County Hospital on the Mississippi coast. The dogwood trees were already budding. Wisteria vines scaled high in the lofty pine trees with curling, pale-green leaves twining in anticipation of lilac-hued blooms. Despite the fact the calendar still reflected winter, spring had already arrived. On March 13, 1944, I arrived, too.

The Jackson County Hospital served Pascagoula, Ocean Springs and Moss Point, small towns scattered along the coastal region. I was the first of the children born in a hospital not at home. My three older siblings were born at home in Pensacola, Florida. Having three, fiercely insistent aunts in Mississippi who were working nurses, I was born in the hospital.

We lived in a small, frame house in Moss Point, which is barely north of Pascagoula, about 15 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a rent house owned by Mother’s second grade teacher, Nancy, whom I was named after. Margaret and I went to see the house when I was in my early 50s. It wasn’t much of a house, but after 50 years, it was well cared for and had aged well. It looked like a good place to get a start. I frequently wonder how happy, boring or exhausting my life would have been had we never moved from that little house.

Always insistent I was born in Pascagoula, Mother felt it was more important than Moss Point. Pascagoula, the county seat, was larger and bustling as it had the shipyards. It was more prestigious than the sleepy, sultry village of Moss Point. It was pride on her part to keep me from being born on the wrong side of the tracks. The name of the town should not make any difference, but it did to me as an elementary student. Moving often, I attended several schools. Mother insisted that I fill out the enrollment forms. As a nine-year-old, it was daunting having to remember how to spell Pascagoula. Being a perpetual, new child in school, it was an issue with me.

The fourth of the five children, I was born into an endearing, sometimes volatile, Southern family. I have always considered being the fourth child – the luckiest of all the positions in this cast of characters. Lee had just turned 15, Margaret was two weeks shy of 11-years-old and Billy was 6-years-old. In 1944, my family was busy with the business of surviving and right behind me, Ron was born in 1946. Having lived through the Depression and World War II, survival was probably the linchpin of our existence.

The dynamics of being born “Southern” probably was the mainstay of my growth. Certain social behaviors, manners and traditions were taught and expected. This probably gave me a greater sense of security than anything else in our chaotic, home life. Survival is based on an adrenalin rush, and tradition is the antidote to that stress. I was able to carve out calm and needed space. Once my basic needs were addressed, I was ignored by the family. Being the fourth child, I had the advantage of being left alone. This was the best thing that could have happened to me. I was born old, one can assume self-sufficient, observant and ferociously independent.

According to family lore, Mother was a noticeably beautiful child and young woman. She banked on her beauty to get her off the farm. I don’t recall any of her siblings being considered beautiful, but they all seemed to dote on her and encouraged her vanity. In spite of Mother’s accepted beauty, we children inherited a strong, Graham gene from my father’s side.

Mother’s father was Walter W. Groves. According to his tombstone, he was born on Feb 18, 1868 and died on April 13, 1947. I was barely three-years-old, and he was the only grandparent alive when I was born. As a child, I felt I had been short-changed in not having doting grandparents.

Walter’s origins were never documented. The myth was that Walter was most likely an Italian, who immigrated through Galveston, Texas as a young man, perhaps a teenager. Living in Alabama, he worked as an overseer on a share cropping, cotton farm. Family  lore  relates that he brutally beat a Negro field hand to death over a small infraction of disrespect. His act of cruelty was condoned. Left to his unsupervised vices, he repeated this heinous act. He callously killed another man, one who toiled by muscle and sweat and was unfortunate to be a Black man. This time, the local sheriff demanded he depart the region or face prosecution.

Changing his last name, Walter surfaced not far from the Alabama border in a small, farming community – Vancleave, Mississippi. Mother’s impression of him was vague. He was quite along in years with an excessively long beard. He sat on the front porch while reading his worn Bible. By the time of my grandfather’s death, he converted to being a Mormon. Possibly a need for religion to override his crimes in Alabama surfaced. He had a strong, muscular build, but was short in stature – maybe 5′ 6”. Whereas, my grandmother was rather tall, maybe 5′ 10” – a big-boned Irish woman. Mother said her father would not allow colored folks, nor suitors to come up to the porch to talk to her.

Mother thought he lived to be 92-years-old. According to his tombstone, he was 79-years-old when he passed away. Margaret insists he lived to be 92, but in 1947 any man at 79 probably looked 92-years-old. I can’t imagine Aunt Swint, who was his last caretaker, not having asked him this information. If nothing else, but for the sake of his tombstone. It is feasible he didn’t know what year he was born, and they selected the same year as my grandmother’s birth. This would give credence to the 92-years-old hearsay.

He married Margaret Asaline Roberts – known as Dolly. She was a Roberts. When mother spoke of being a Roberts, it was always said with such reverence. As a child, I surmised one of the Roberts had walked on water and was holy. After the Civil War, the South was decimated of eligible, young men. In Jackson County, Mississippi the three primary, remaining families were the Roberts, Wares and Carters. For over a 150 years, these three families have intermarried. It is impossible for me to keep up with the lineage of an armada of cousins.

Dolly was born on October 31, 1868 and died on July 4, 1934 from gangrene after stepping on a rusty nail. Mother left almost no impression of her mother with me, nor did she ever mention that her Mother had been born and died on holidays. In 1868, October 31st was not the present day holiday, Halloween.

One of my rare heirlooms is a very delicate, bone China, covered-serving dish which belonged to my grandmother. After researching the marks on the china, I discovered that it was made in France by the Haviland-Limoges factory between 1881 and 1891. The story of how Dolly came by this elegant dish intrigues me. Was it a wedding gift, part of a set, how much did it cost and how did it get to Vancleave, Mississippi?

She was the mother of eleven, living children with the last being my mother who was born on December 1, 1910. That would have made Dolly 42-years-old. Possibly she was aiming for another strapping son to work on the hardscrabble, dusty farm as she had only three boys of the eleven children. Joe, Swint’s twin, died of pneumonia at the age of nineteen. They were left with eight girls to marry off and the two remaining sons to work the home place. Mother’s parents are buried in the cemetery of a small, Methodist church in Vancleave. Several of my aunts, uncles and cousins currently reside in that cemetery.

Near swamps and backwater, Vancleave is scarcely inland from the Mississippi coast. In the late 1800s, the surrounding area and the forests flourished with abundant  timber, primarily pine. Mother seldom spoke of the farm where she was born. She never talked about what they grew, the amount of acreage, if they milled turpentine or exactly where the farm was located. Growing up on a farm, and being the baby of eleven children probably made her class conscious. In all fairness, her class consciousness more than likely was developed by her future mother-in-law.

According to Mother, she was able to play the piano by ear from the time she was three or four. Being musical was her only other personal interest as far as I can remember She read a lot, but I am sure that was her escape; it wasn’t for knowledge. I still have her original copy of Gone With the Wind. Mother devoted full-time to being a Southern belle for 84 years.

The Groves children were Gaston, Pearl, Lena, Alice, Lonnie, Clara, Choyce (Swint), her twin, Morris (Joe), Claude, Clyde (female) and my mother, Ernestine. She was always called Sophie by her family. My aunts, Lonnie, Swint and Clara were nurses. Gaston died when I was about nine-years-old. I only recall seeing Pearl and Lena once and of being extremely uncomfortable in their homes which in my young mind were dirty.

Daddy was born on August 2, 1906 in Long Beach, Mississippi. He was the only child of Steede Graham and Price Townley Bowman. Snobbish, Price felt she had a strong connection to English aristocracy through the Townley lineage. When I researched the family genealogy, the Roberts were descended from Scottish royalty. Much to my surprise, I found I was the 26th great granddaughter of Robert Bruce, the first King of Scotland and born into the legitimate side.  Robert Bruce had many children with a concubine which he later married to legitimate those children.  Dad was born in a boarding house on Railroad Street in Long Beach, Mississippi. The house was still standing the last time I was in Mississippi, but I don’t know if it rode out Hurricane Katrina. Update: I recently went to Google Earth and found nothing but green grass on that side of the railroad.

Steede was the son of John McDonald Graham of Scottish decent and Missouri Roberts Graham. Missouri Graham, Daddy’s grandmother was the aunt of Dolly Roberts, Mother’s mother.  Mother and Daddy were second  cousins on the Roberts side. John Graham amassed 2600 acres of virgin timber land. Both John and Missouri are buried in a private family cemetery on the Graham property. Lee and I went to Vancleave to visit our cousin, Louise who lives on the remaining Graham property. She asked if I would like to “go down” to the cemetery.

We walked toward the river down a roughly cut path through the cool, high-reaching pine trees for about ten minutes and came to a small, fenced clearing. We walked around looking at the few tombstones while Louise explained to me who each person had been. In the center of the plot was a small, collapsing shed with a rusty, tin roof. It was less than two feet high, and I realized it was too shallow for even a lawn mower to be stored. I couldn’t image what it was used for. I questioned the purpose of this peculiar structure. Louise explained that the shed covered the graves of John and Missouri Graham. Not wanting to be rained on, he left instructions that the graves be covered. He was too Scottish to spring for a mausoleum. I took a photo of the resting place of my great-grandparents, no one would ever believe that for decades this strange request had been honored. In 2005, we took Lee’s ashes to bury at the Graham family cemetery. Louise had replaced the disintegrating shed with a set of matching tombstones. The odds of future generations maintaining this odd request is nil.

Having a grandfather who was a man of means probably set my father on a path of self-destruction which was greatly fueled by his mother, Price. Pride, greed and avarice are usually the prime motivators in any story no matter where it started. I know it certainly colored my childhood, but it didn’t impact me in the way it did the others in my family.

Price Graham named my father LaBaron Caraway Graham. As a child I believed this was her way of keeping her “English aristocracy” touch and used his name to mean the Baron of Caraway. As an adult, he always used his initials, L.C. He was actually named after the two doctors who delivered him after Price had a hard delivery, Drs. LaBaron and Caraway. Price was petite and much was made of her small feet and hands.  She actually had a difficult delivery with Daddy and two Drs. Caraway and LaBaron were called in to save her and the baby. She name him after the doctors to show her appreciation. After all was said and done, when researching our genealogy I found that the royal bloodline she was so snobbish about was actually from the Roberts side of the family. Dad’s grandmother was Missouri Robert Graham.

She was considered cruel and malicious by everyone I ever heard speak of her. Lee would say that when told she had died, in his ten-year-old way, he stated, “Good, I hate that old bitch.”

Lee, Margaret and even Mother thought Steede was the finest man who ever existed. Granddaddy worked for the railroad, and they lived in Pensacola, Florida. Price anticipated and assumed they would benefit from being an heir to John Graham. Having the correct background, a la Townley, and the potential of wealth, Daddy was raised by Price to be a ne’er-do-well. He was most likely extremely spoiled, petulant and unbearably like his mother.

On the Graham property, there was a fishing camp on the Pascagoula River which the family frequented when they could get over from Pensacola. On one of these trips, Daddy saw Mother and after a brief courtship, if any, they were married on July 27, 1927. Mother was 16 ½-years-old and Daddy was six days shy of 20-years-old. Price took it upon herself to mold her naive and vain, country daughter-in-law into something adequate for her aristocratic, only son. She began to tutor Mother on proper manners, carriage and the niceties of life. I suspect Mother found it fit in with her ambition to be a Southern belle. Initially, it met both their needs. Living with his parents, school was in session at all times.