Monthly Archives: January 2018

INTO THE DELTA – Chapter 4

HENRY

Henry held up his right arm to alert his younger son, then pulled his team to a halt on the wide metal bridge. Behind him Morris Bailey called out, “Whoa, mules” and drew up his own team. The boy was doing a fine job, maybe better than he expected. Grady, responsible Grady, Sadie tagging along, had been up and out with Morris Bailey and him well before dawn as they checked on the condition of the teams and the wagons. He knew Minnie and the girls were in good hands with Grady.

Henry pulled out his fixings and rolled a cigarette. He snapped the head of a match with his thumbnail, cupped the warm, yellow flame, and lit his cigarette. He released a plume of blue smoke and simply stared around him. It was cold. Not as cold as yesterday morning, but cold.

The lightening of the sky to the east gave the promise of a clear day, and although the sun had yet to come up, its rays were painting the horizon with a thin, vivid streak of red, so unlike the hilly country they had left behind.  He looked forward to the sunshine; its warmth would be welcome.

The Yazoo River seethed below them. In the pale light, it was a wide, murky, brown ribbon stretching to the right and to the left before fading in the pre-dawn gloom. Although they had actually been in the Delta since rolling down that last, long hill west of Carrollton yesterday, the river felt like the true dividing line. It separated the hills from the Delta, the known from the unknown, their old life from their new one.

For nearly 15 years he had farmed leased land, sold and delivered trees for Stark Brothers Nurseries, and saved every penny that he could. Minnie had sold her extra eggs, butter, and milk too, both of them dreaming against the day when they could own their own place, a place large enough for their growing family. That’s what it was. Dreaming against the day.

Then Father’s old friend from the war, Henry Ferguson, who he had been named after, had passed away. Mother and Father had attended the funeral; he had come with them, brought them actually. He could vividly remember the first time he had seen the place at Friendship, acres and acres of cotton and hay thriving in the deep, rich black soil divided by irregular verges of tree and thicket and cut by lazy, meandering bayous. He had been drawn to it immediately and had been surprised to learn that none of the Ferguson heirs wanted to farm the land. They had decided to sell the entire place.

He had returned and met with the Fergusons about buying the place. Despite the difference in their ages, he and William had become friends. Soon they had negotiated the price and agreed to terms. In the bright comfort of McLemore’s law office, the enormity of it had begun to sink in when he had handed over the bank draft for his down payment. One piece of paper that represented all he and Minnie had worked for since they had married.

When he had signed that last of the paperwork and had become a landowner. No more leased land now. He was a landowner or would be when he paid it off. He had ten years, ten crops, ten good crops he prayed, to pay it off. He exhaled another stream of smoke and stared again at the river.

Once they crossed the river, they would be committed, he and his family. He had crossed this bridge, this river, several times in the last few months, usually on horseback, alone, although Grady had come with him once. But each time he had crossed the Yazoo, he had known he would be returning in a few days. This time? Well, he had no idea when he might return to Choctaw County, to practically everyone he knew, his own large family, his parents and his brothers who were still in the area, plus aunts, uncles, and cousins, and of course, Minnie’s father and sister and her family. Sometimes he thought he was kin to everybody in that part of Choctaw county, and through either marriage or blood he just about was: the Woods, the Lees, the Turners, the Porters, the Blackwoods. All kin.

And they were leaving all that behind. His excitement, his anticipation shouldered aside, at least for the time being, his sense of loss. A phrase popped into his mind, unbidden and unexpected: Crossing the Rubicon. He struggled to remember where he had heard that before. Some old saying? Something he had learned in school? It lurked there in the back of his mind, but try as he might, he could not tease it out.

He shrugged. It would come to him. Or not. He had smoked his cigarette to a nub. He broke up the remnants. In the still morning air they fluttered down to surface of the bridge. He raised his right arm and swept it forward., then clucked up his team, slapping their brown rumps with the flat of the reins. He heard Morris Bailey behind him call out, “Giddup, Mules.”

Then, just as unbidden it bubbled up. Of course, Julius Caesar leading his army across the Rubicon River and into Rome and starting a war. The Rubicon had been Caesar’s point of no return as the Roman army was forbidden to cross into the Roman province. Well, we’re not breaking the law or starting a civil wage war like old Julius Caesar, but I guess this is our point of no return, Henry thought.

He smiled to himself. No wonder it had taken so long to remember. He was 35 years old and those lessons had been what? Twenty something years ago? Maybe 25? Way back in his school days, back in Choctaw County.

Both mule teams leaned into their harnesses, and with a lurch, both wagons with all their earthly possessions rattled across the bridge and into the Delta.

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INTO THE DELTA Chapter 3

For those who may be following this blog, let me clarify a few things. This is not only a novelized account of my grandparents’ move to the Delta, but it is also fictionalized to some degree. In telling the story through the viewpoints of my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and later my father, I have tried to take the personalities of people I knew as adults and imagine them at various stages through their lives, a task both challenging and rewarding.

Many of the stories are ones that I heard hundreds of time growing up. Yes, I was that kid always anxious for another story at some family member’s knee. Through family stories and research, I know where they lived, when, how they got there, and why they moved. Some scenes are completely fabricated. For instance, I do not know how my grandfather arranged to buy the Ferguson place. I do not know the logistical details of their move to Friendship, or whether they rendezvoused in Greenwood. But Greenwood was a major cotton market in those days. It seems possible they likely spent the night there, and that vibrant little Delta city, where incidentally I was born, was a perfect backdrop to introduce this rather large and growing family in the middle of a life changing relocation from the Hill Country to the Delta.

Thank you to all who are reading and for all of your positive comments. Without further ado, here is Chapter 3.

MORRIS BAILEY  

                Morris Bailey settled his hat on his head, looked in the mirror and adjusted it to a more rakish angle over his thick, wavy hair. He turned to his brother who was stretched out on the bed they were sharing. Grady’s socked feet were crossed at the ankles, his right arm was folded and tucked under his head, and his eyes were closed. He looked entirely too comfortable to Morris Bailey.

“Let’s go see the town,” Morris Bailey said.

“I’m too tired,” Grady replied.

“Tired? All you did was laze around with kinfolks for two days, then drive a car one day. I’ve been handling a team of mules for three.”

Grady always seemed to be harnessing his strength for when he might need it next, and Morris Bailey could not help but goad him about it regularly. He was rewarded when Grady opened one eye to glare at him.

“Go away,” Grady said. “All you had to do was sit there and let your team follow Father’s. You probably slept most of the time. I had to pay attention to the road, tend to the car, and take care of Mother and our sisters.”

“Sure,” Morris Baily replied. “I’ll bet Mother took care of the girls, and all you had to do was avoid wagons and stop for gasoline and oil. Besides, you have all day tomorrow to see the town, but Father and I will be leaving with the wagons at first light. I only have tonight.”

Morris Bailey ran his hand into his pocket and fingered the few coins there. “My treat at the first soda fountain we come too,” he said.

Morris Bailey knew his brother well, knew his love of sweets as well as his tendency to hold on to a nickel. His enticement worked.

Grady swung his feet to the floor and began pulling on his boots.

“Go ask Father and Mother if they mind.”

He dashed out of the door before Grady had his first boot laced and tied.

He heard Father’s deep “Yes” in response to his knock.

“It’s Morris Bailey, Father” he said, and his voice came out like a croak. It had been doing that a lot lately, and he found it somewhat embarrassing.

“Come in,” Father answered.

He opened the door enough to stick his head in. Mother was sitting on the arm of Father’s chair, and Father had his arm around her waist.

“Excuse me,” he mumbled.

“What do you need, Son?” Father asked.

“May Grady and I go out for a bit? Just to see some of the sights?”

“You know you and I are leaving mighty early in the morning. We have a long day ahead of us.”

“Yessir. We won’t be out late,” he pleaded.

Father looked at him like he wasn’t sure, like he was having a hard time deciding. Father never seemed to make a decision quickly. He shifted from foot to foot. Mother gave him a slight smile.

“Henry,” Mother said softly, like a mild admonishment.

Father’s expression changed. His eyes suddenly had that mischievous gleam they had when Father was teasing him.

He grinned back at Father.

“I expect you to be dressed and ready when I knock on your door in the morning,” Father said.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nodded and began to close the door.

“And I don’t want to look back a see you sleeping rather than handling your team tomorrow,” Father added.

“Yessir,” Morris Bailey nearly shouted and quickly closed the door, only to re-open it again just as quickly.

“Thank you,” he added as he closed the door again. He could hear both Mother and Father laughing as he ran back to the room he and Grady shared.

 

The sidewalks were lined with street lamps that created regular pools of soft, electric light on the sidewalk. The two boys walked from pool to pool, staring through the windows, some brightly lit, some dim. Conversation and the soft clatter of dishes spilled from the open door of a restaurant, laughter and the click of billiard balls from another storefront.

Morris Bailey had never seen so much of everything: churches, law offices, cotton factors, hardware stores, general stores, doctors’ offices, and restaurants. Greenwood was a world removed form Ackerman. He already found it hard to believe that he had thought of Ackerman as a town. He felt particularly fine and grown up, out on the town with his older brother.

He tried not to let Grady know it, but he looked up to his brother. He was quiet, strong, and steady. Grady’s voice had changed too. It must be grand to be fourteen, he thought, and almost grown. Suddenly, Morris Bailey spied a drug store.

“There. Let’s go in there,” he pointed across the street.

The boys waited as a couple of automobiles, a Ford and then a Winton rolled by, then trotted across the street. There were only a few patrons and the boys took seats at the counter. They placed their orders, and Morris Bailey slid a precious dime across the counter to pay for their treats, a Barq’s root beer for himself and a vanilla cream for Grady.

Morris Bailey swiveled his seat around to take it all in, sipping his Barq’s slowly to make it last, while Grady silently worked on his vanilla cream.

“That was mighty good,” Grady said wiping his mouth after draining the last sip. “Especially the price.”

Morris Bailey grinned at his older brother. Grady might be quiet most of the time, but Morris Bailey knew him well enough to appreciate his rare flashes of humor. After all, they had shared a bed ever since he could remember. They rode the bus and went to school together although they were two grades apart. They shared the same chores.

Morris Bailey slid off his stool.

“Let’s walk down to the river,” he suggested.

“Alright,” Grady answered with feigned resignation.

The boys crossed over to Fulton Street and turned north. The steel bridge was only two blocks away. They buttoned their coats and hurried through the increasing cold. Automobile traffic was heavier here, this being the only bridge over the Yazoo River in town. Electric lights on the metal framework cast crazy shadows on the road and reflected off of the steady flowing river, a dark, hissing, moving mass twenty feet below.

“That’s the biggest river I’ve ever seen. Bigger than the Big Black, and I thought that was big,” Morris Bailey said.

“That’s a lot of water,” Grady nodded. “Makes you wonder what the Mississippi must be like.”

“Do you think we’ll get to see it? The Mississippi?” Morris Bailey asked.

Grady turned to face him.

“Sure, I do,” he said. “You know how Father likes to hunt, and I have always heard that along the River is some of the best duck hunting there is.”

“Do you think Father will take us if he goes?” Morris Bailey asked.

His older brother turned and leaned against the rail, then grabbed his hat that the wind tried to snatch away. Settling his hat firmly, Grady stuffed both hands deeper into his pockets and stared up at the night sky.

“Of course, he will. Me anyway. I’m his favorite,” he said.

“Grady!” Morris Bailey exclaimed as he swung at his brother who only shrugged, taking the mock blow on his shoulder.

“You’re too easy,” Grady grinned. “I’m sure he’ll take us both.”

“I hope so.”

Grady shoved him back towards town.

“Let’s head back,” he said. “I’m ready for bed.”

“Me, too. I guess.”

He did not really want to go back. He was too excited, but he knew tomorrow would be a long day as Father had promised, and he had to be up and dressed before Father knocked on the door.

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INTO THE DELTA, Chapter 2

MINNIE

Minnie hummed to herself as pulled her personal items from her valise. She paused for a moment. Had it really only been this morning that they had left Concord? It had been a long day, but Greenwood and the Delta were so different that she felt they had traveled for weeks rather than one day to get here.

She smiled to herself. Grady had surprised her today when he asked if she would miss all the family they were leaving behind. It was something she might have expected from Morris Bailey, always the more sensitive of the two, not from the normally taciturn Grady, fourteen years old now and beginning to look more and more like a man. Actually, he looked just like Henry. In her innermost heart, she thought of Grady as Henry’s son and Morris Bailey as hers.

She had even expected Grady to accompany Henry in the second wagon while Morris Bailey drove her and the girls, but Henry had decided otherwise. Now she was glad he had, otherwise she would have missed that glimpse into her first-born’s heart.

She placed her last few items on the bureau and looked about at the finely furnished room.

“Henry, are you sure we can afford to stay here?” she asked as she admired the rich colors of the heavy damask drapes.

She rarely asked these sorts of questions. She handled their household expenses, and Henry handled everything else. When he said they could afford to buy the car, she had trusted him. When he had decided he wanted to purchase the Ferguson place at Friendship, she had trusted him. They had been married 15 years now. They had five children. He had worked hard for all of them. They both had.

The crops had been good. Henry’s father had practically turned over management of his farm to Henry and his brother George, the other brothers having pursued other interests. And Henry had done especially well as a representative of Stark Brothers Nursery.

“Still, it is so … opulent. It must be expensive,” she added, fingering the heavy fabric.

He looked up at her from the chair in the corner of their room, his long legs stretched out before him. He looked tired, his face ruddy from the long days in the cold with the wagons.

“Mother.” He had called her that since the day Grady had been born. It was what he called his own mother, but with a subtle, indefinable yet distinct difference. She knew that he loved, honored, and respected both her and his mother, but when he called her ‘Mother’ she also heard ‘You are dear and precious to me, the mother of our children, the anchor of our lives.’

“Mother, we can afford it. It is just this night for Morris Bailey and me and two nights for you, Grady and the girls,” he said with a weary smile.

“Still,” she said as she crossed to him and perched on the arm of the chair. He put his arm around her waist and squeezed.

“We had so much to do preparing for this move, and we have plenty of work ahead of us at the new place. It is an indulgence, I know, but we can afford it and I thought we all could use a treat, especially you,” he said. “Was it a hard day?”

“Mostly long, rattling, and cold. But the girls were reasonably well-behaved,” she answered. “You would have been proud of Grady. He took very good care of us. He even took us by Papa’s so that I could tell him and Lennie and her children good-bye.”

Henry hugged her a little closer.

“What’s it been now? Four years? Do you think Lennie will ever remarry?” he asked.

Minnie missed Lennie already. They were as close as sisters could be, often mistaken for twins. Their mother had died shortly after Minnie had been born. Minnie had never known her mother, and she carried that loss deep in a secret place in her heart. She never mentioned to anyone except Lennie, who had only been two when Mother had died and did not remember her either.

Grandma Bailey had moved in with Papa to help raise the girls. She was the only mother the girls had ever known, and she was gone now. Henry’s brother Swint too was gone, married to Lennie and the father of her children.  When he had died in 1914, Lennie had taken Jewel, Brice, Lucy, and little Mae, born just before her father died, and moved back in with Papa.

“Wool gathering?” Henry asked.

She nodded.

“Hard not to,” he said. “We are leaving a lot behind.”

He paused. “But the opportunity to buy the Ferguson Place. That was too good to pass up.”

She stared into his gray eyes set in his wind-chapped face and tried to smile. She knew he was right. Understood his burning desire not just to have his own place, as strong and consuming as that was, but also his desire to provide for her and their growing family. It truly was a wonderful opportunity. She had not even told him she suspected that she was carrying their sixth child. This baby would be born in the Delta, part of the new life they were creating in a new place.

Henry laid his large, calloused hand gently against her cheek.

“I love you, Minnie Bailey Catledge,” he said. His voice soft and laced with the love she knew he had for her.

She leaned down and kissed her husband who in turn put his other arm around her to hold her that much closer. He still smelled of cold and faintly of cigarette smoke.

“I love you, too, Henry Gray Catledge,’ she whispered in his ear.

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INTO THE DELTA

 

Chapter One of INTO THE DELTA, a novelized account of my family’s move from the Mississippi Hill Country to the Delta. 

JANUARY, 1919

GRADY

They had been driving nearly all day. Grady glanced over at his mother in the passenger’s seat. Stray strands of her auburn hair had slipped from under her hat and whipped in the wind. Her cheeks were ruddy with the cold. He assumed his were too as well as those of his three sisters huddled in the back seat. Not that is was particularly cold today, not for January anyway, but unlike some of the newer models, their Model T had no glass in the windows on each side, only a windshield.

The first part of their trip, winding through the wooded hills of Choctaw County on gravel or dirt roads, had been dusty. But most of the roads in Montgomery County and now in Carroll County had been paved, thankfully. Still, they had stopped often at places like French Camp, Kilmichael, Winona, and Carrollton, for gasoline sometimes, but mostly to stretch their legs and step into a local store to get warm.

Here, the road was as straight as an arrow, due west through alternating stretches of fallow, brown fields and thick stands of forest, black tree trunks and limbs bare of leaves. A pale-yellow sun hung low in the sky ahead of them. Grady estimated it would be dark in two hours. They chugged up the next hill, slowing as they neared the top. Grady reluctantly downshifted. They topped the hill and started down the far side just like they had been doing for the last three hours.

Grady’s father and his brother Morris Bailey were somewhere ahead of them in the two wagons loaded with all the family owned. They had left three days earlier. Grady and his mother and sisters had stayed with Granpaw Lige and Granmaw Becky on their place outside of Concord, giving the wagons a head start. Grady expected to overtake Father and Morris Bailey by the time they reached Greenwood.

The Model T crested yet another hill, and Grady quickly braked to a halt right there in the middle of the road. They were atop the last hill. From here the road went down, down, down to a flat expanse of farmland, clad in winter’s ochres and grays, broken only by thin verges of brown forest and the serpentine courses of rivers and bayous, some fringed with evergreen cypress. Sadie Belle, Willie, and Maurice craned their necks to see. Sadie hung her head out of the window.

Grady stared straight ahead, his eyes drinking in the view, as he spoke, as much to himself as to his mother.

“I’d heard about the Delta, how flat it was. Father described it often, but I was not prepared for that first time I saw it last month with Father. Seeing it is another thing altogether, isn’t it?”

He turned to look at his mother who was staring straight ahead at the flat expanse before them.

“What do you think, Mother?” he asked.

“I think this place will be good for us, for all of us. Your father is a good farmer,” she said.

He turned back to stare across the Delta. He stretched out his left arm and turned his closed fingers perpendicular to his palm, then measured the distance from the sun to the horizon, just like father had taught him, an hour per hand-width, fifteen minutes per finger. Yes, they would reach Greenwood before dark.

“I imagine that it will not be long before more of the family heads this way. Your father’s parents are already considering the move,” Mother added.

Sadie punched Grady in the shoulder.

“When will we get to Greenwood?” she asked. “I want to see a real city.”

“Me, too,” the other girls chorused.

“And I’m cold,” Maurice, he youngest, added.

“Not long at all,” Grady answered. “Should be a good road, and flat.”

He imagined that he could see Greenwood from the hilltop although he knew he could not.

“Carrollton was our last stop. We’ll be there soon.”

Grady had memorized the map, knew every town and distance between Ackerman and Greenwood and on up to Friendship just west of Sumner. He pressed the pedal to engage low gear, pulled down on the throttle, and they started down the last, long hill into the Delta.

To his mother he added, “Still, it is hard leaving all of our people back at Concord. Harder than I expected. Won’t you miss Grandpaw Bailey and Great-grandmaw? I know I will. Father’s folks too.”

For the first time in his life, Grady felt somewhat lost. He had grown up surrounded by kin, mostly Catledges, Granpaw Lige’s two brothers and their families, five of Father’s six surviving brother’s and their families, but also Mother’s father and grandmother, the Baileys and Porters, and Mother’s sister and her family, not to mention all of Granmaw Becky’s Blackwood kin. They were leaving all of that behind, along the hills and creeks he knew so well, for a flat, near featureless land filled with strangers.

Mother nodded and turned away from him.

“Yes, it is hard,” she whispered, the wind from the open window whipping her words away.

They sped down the flat, paved, straight road and soon reached the outskirts of the city. In the distance, water towers and tall buildings rose above the housetops. They rolled into town on the Carrollton Highway and crossed the railroad tracks just above the station. An engine sat huffing steam and smoke as passengers came and went while freight was loaded and unloaded. Warehouses lined the rails to their left. the streets were paved with brick.

“Grady, do you remember how to get to the hotel?” his mother asked.

“Yes, Ma’am. We take a right up ahead on Howard Street. The hotel just up from there on the left, the Hotel Irving.”

By now all three of his sisters were staring out the windows, pointing out this or that to each other. They did not sound cold or tired now. The passed by storefronts filled with merchandise, occasionally pulling around a horse- or mule-drawn wagon. But mostly the streets were filled with cars and trucks.

At Howard Street, they turned right and there a block away on the left was the Hotel Irving, four stories high, all brick, practically brand new, the finest hotel in Greenwood, maybe the whole Delta. Grady pulled up and parked on the curb in front of the hotel. He quickly got out and was about to open the door for his mother when he heard a clatter and a swish of spraying water. He leapt to the running board just as a black truck with a large black tank rattled by spraying water. On the tank it read “Commercial Division-Greenwood, Miss.-Street Cleaning Dept.”  Grady stepped down to the freshly-cleaned bricks, opened the door for his mother, and helped her out. His sister tumbled out right behind her.

Holding the heavy door for all four of them, Grady entered the lobby of the hotel. He strode across the slick marble floor and up to the immense wooden front desk like he had been doing this sort of thing all his life, or at least he thought he did.

An elderly, bespectacled man behind the desk smiled.

“May I help you, young man?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir,” Grady replied. “We are the Catledge family. My father, Henry Catledge, and my brother should have already arrived and made arrangements for all of us.”

Grady nodded in the direction of his mother and sisters.

The clerk placed his forefinger at the bridge of his eyeglasses and pulled them down his nose to peer over the lenses at Grady.

“They have indeed,” he said. “And if I may say so, I see the family resemblance.”

Grady blushed slightly, embarrassment and pride comingled. He worshipped his father and secretly relished the comparison.

The clerk continued, “I believe your father and brother are in the dining room off the lobby. Do you have luggage?”

“Yes, Sir, we do.”

“If that is your car out front, I will have a bellboy take your luggage up to the rooms your father reserved. The ladies will be able to freshen up very shortly.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Grady replied. “I think we will step into the dining room.”

“Very good.”

Grady turned. His tall, slender mother and his three sisters, stair-steps at nine, seven, and four years of age, all clad in dark colors dusty from the drive, waited with various degrees of patience near an array of potted plants. He smiled to himself as he crossed to them.

“Father and Morris Bailey are in the dining room. Shall we join them?” Grady asked, humor lacing his tone, a rare thing.

“What about our luggage?” Mother asked.

“It will be taken to our rooms. You will be able to freshen up soon. Let’s go see Father and Morris Bailey first.”

Grady extended his left elbow and his mother slid her right arm through his. Sadie took Willie and Maurice by the hand, and Grady led them all into the adjacent dining room.

The dining room was elegant, chandeliered and wood-paneled room, like nothing Grady had ever seen before. He heard a collective intake of breath from his sisters behind him, and Sadie whispered, “Golly.”

Soft light filtered through the tall windows and fell on the few, scattered patrons. China cups and saucers clinked above the low hum of conversation.  Grady spied his father and brother immediately. They were seated at a table drinking coffee deep in discussion.

A young man approached and offered to seat them. Grady was about to answer when his father looked up and spied them. As his father rose a smile split the familiar angular features. Morris Bailey turned and his face too broke out in a grin.

The two groups converged and met in the middle of the dining room. Abandoning all decorum, they all embraced and kissed as if it had been two years, not two days, since they had seen each other. Grady did not mind at all. This was the first big adventure in his young life.

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