Monthly Archives: March 2018

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 13 – April, 1927: Henry

APRIL, 1927

 

HENRY

He folded and laid The Commercial Appeal on the corner of his desk. It had been delivered by the mail rider yesterday just like every other day except Sunday, but he was just now finishing it. Pale morning light filtered in through the windows, but he still needed the kerosene lamp. He gestured at the paper.

“Says here the levee broke near Greenville.”

“Yessir, that’s what we heard in Greenwood,” Grady answered.

Morris Bailey, sitting beside Grady nodded. He and Grady had gotten in late last night but he still had an unusual look on his face, like he had seen something so stunning, so unbelievable that he could not comprehend it.

“Were y’all able to get all the supplies we needed?”

“Yessir. The trains are still running. We got everything unloaded and stored in the Commissary last night,” Grady replied.

He nodded approval. “How about the tractor parts? Wade have what we needed?”

“Yessir, that too,” Morris Bailey said. “I’ll start on that today. Should have the Farmall running soon.”

He did not respond but stared out the window at the slough between their house and his parents’. Water surged over the footbridge he had built in 1919. He thought he knew everything a cotton farmer could face, knew that high water was not uncommon in the Delta, but nothing had prepared him for water like this. Nobody else for that matter.

The ground was sodden. It seemed like it had rained all winter. He had squeezed in as much planting as he could at the first opportunity. The ground had barely been dry enough. Then on Good Friday, the heavens and opened up and the rain had been heavier than any he had ever seen. Or even heard about.

“Don’t know that we’ll be able to use it much. Fields are just too wet as it is,” he said. He was still staring out the window at the gray sky and watery light.

“News in Greenwood was that with the way the River is pouring through that break at Mound Landing, practically the entire southern half of the Delta. Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Humphreys, Issaquena, and Yazoo Counties. Sharkey, are likely to be under water soon,” Grady said.

All three of them turned to look at the large map of Mississippi that hung on the wall of his office. Cities, towns, highways, and railroads were marked on it. And counties in faintly shaded colors. He stared at the counties Grady had ticked off one by one. Nearly half of the entire Delta. He did the math in his head and let out a low whistle.

“Why, if just those counties are covered, that’ll be close to 2 million acres, nearly 3,000 square miles under water.”

“Good God Almighty,” Grady said under his breath.

He nodded. “Yes, He is Almighty. Our efforts to control the River…,” He paused, “seem puny in comparison. The River made the Delta what it is, put all this deep topsoil here for use, and it seems to want to keep doing just that.”

He tried to imagine that much water, but his mind pushed back at the thought. It was simply too much. He turned back to look at his sons. “What were things like in Greenwood?” Henry asked.

“Well,” said Grady. “The riverbanks are piled with sandbags, but the water is coming over in places. I expect the north part of town between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo may flood, probably part of Downtown too. The water is right up to the bottom of that new bridge, the Keesler.”

Greenwood_27_Flood

Greenwood between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927

Keesler_27_Flood

Keesler Bridge, Greenwood, 1927

All three of them had read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They knew it was bad. It had been bad upriver, and it would be bad here, maybe the worst ever. Morris Bailey still had that strange look on his face.

“Father, the Yazoo is actually flowing backwards, upriver. And as bad as it is in the Delta, its worse in Louisiana. Arkansas is hard hit too. What will people do?” his son asked.

So like his mother, Henry thought, worried about the people.

“I don’t know, Son,” he sighed. “Lose their crops for sure and maybe all they own. Might lose their places too. Your Uncle George and his family barely got out in time. Every scrap of cotton they had planted washed away.”

“Think he’ll lose his place?” Grady asked.

“Doubt it. I imagine he’s prepared for one bad crop. We’ll help him if we can.” He tried not to sound as concerned as he was.

“What should we do?” Morris Bailey asked.

“Try to get our crop in. We’re not likely to see that kind of water here. At least I pray not.”

“I suppose with all the lost crops, cotton prices will be up,” Grady noted.

“Suppose so. One man’s loss, as the saying goes.”

He stared out the window again at the overcast sky. There was no threat of imminent rain. It was simply a uniform, featureless gray layer of clouds. He lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. It was tepid, but he didn’t care.

“Surely do wish this overcast would blow over. A little sunshine would be good. Lift our spirits and maybe start drying up this standing water,” he said.

“Guess we’re lucky being far enough away from Cassidy Bayou,” Grady said. “Water’s up to the bridge in Sumner and folks on the east side are flooded out.”

“All those people. Where will they stay? What will they eat?” Morris Bailey said.

“From what I hear and read, Herbert Hoover seems to be visiting all up and down the river. The government’s working to set up relief stations and such,” he said.

“Why him, I wonder,” Grady said. “He’s in the Cabinet, right?”

“He is,’ Henry answered. “Commerce Secretary. Seems to know what he’s doing though. More than Coolidge, anyway. The big question, is who’s going to pay for it all.”

Grady snorted and stared out the window.

“A letter got through from Sadie while y’all were away. Greenville’s mostly under water, but she’s safe at the hospital. Even the student nurses are helping tend to folks. She said reports were that the River was as much as 60 miles wide down in Louisiana.”

Both of his sons’ eyes went wide.

“Hard to imagine isn’t it? That much water. It rains in Montana and floods in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” Grady finally said.

Greenville_27_Flood

Greenville, 1927

“I certainly is,” he replied. “I don’t suppose anybody’s ever had to face anything quite this bad. All that water just has to soak in, run off, or evaporate. Cain’t much more soak in or we’ll be back to swamp, and it’s a long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll take time.”

“Too much time for a lot of folks,” Grady added.

He nodded, resigned to what he could not change but determined to do what he could, take care of his own and whoever else he could help, get a crop in. Someway. Somehow. Still, part of him wanted to roar in rage at the injustice, rail at God Himself for this disaster, but he knew that was senseless. Besides, he might question God and His plans, but he could never blame God. Not the way his life had been blessed. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“Tell you what, Boys. I want one of you to take the truck and head down towards Onward. You’re bound to run into George and his family. Help then any way you can and bring them here.”

Morris Bailey chimed up first. “I’d like to do that, Father,” he said.

“Very well, Son,” he said not surprised at all. Having something special to do might be just the thing. “Fill up the truck and a couple of cans. Gasoline may be hard to come by. Leave this morning. Tractor repair can wait.”

“Guess we better get to it,” Grady said and swatted his brother on the shoulder as they both rose to leave.

He watched the two of them as they walked down the hallway, settling hats on their heads and talking, the easy give and take of brothers, Morris Bailey asking Grady to help him gas up the truck and Grady agreeing. It had been the same with him and his brothers, particularly Swint, that special comradery you had with flesh and blood, someone you had known your entire life. He winced at that thought of Swint. He had been dead now, what, 13 years? Had it really been that long.

He turned to stare out the window. The sky looked sullen, the rising sun a diffuse smear of light in the overcast, but he saw none of it. Instead his mind wandered over other fields in other days, days long gone, just like Swint was gone. Long gone. And now this new undreamed-of threat to all he and Minnie, and now the children, had built and accomplished. He did not hear Minnie enter the room behind him.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 12: September, 1925-Lucille

SEPTEMBER, 1925

 

LUCILLE

Lucille stared at the tiny, red, wrinkled face of her new brother. She had just turned five back in July and was feeling like a real big sister now that she had two younger brothers, Dick, only two, and now James. She tucked the soft blanket back under his chin and looked up at her mother.

Momma was stretched out on her bed. He long brown hair was loose on her pillow. She looked tired.

“Momma, what shall we call him?” she asked.

“I think with a name like James Ralph, we’ll call him Jim,” Momma said.

“Jim,” She said softly. “I like that.”

Maurice came into the room and leaned over the other side of the bed.

“He looks just like Dick did when he was born,” Maurice said.

Lucille could barely remember when Dick had been born. She had only been two, but now she was five.

“Momma?” she asked. “Can I help you take care of Baby Jim? Like Maurice helped with Dick?”

Mother smiled at her and reached out to touch her cheek. Momma’s fingertips felt warm.

“Of course, you may,” Momma said. “There will be plenty for both of you to help with. Would you like to hold him?

“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” she answered.

“Climb up here beside me,” Mother said.

She kicked off her shoes and climbed up, then leaned back against the headboard and smoothed her dress out across her lap. Mother gently laid the baby in her lap.

“Put your arms around him and don’t let his little head dangle,” Mother said.

She was excited and a little scared at the same time. Excited to hold her baby brother, but afraid she might do something wrong and hurt him. He smelled funny. It tickled her nose, but she liked the way he smelled.

“Do all babies look like this, Momma?” she asked.

Mother laughed. “Pretty much,” she answered.

She stared at Baby Jim. He opened his eyes just barely and she smiled at him. Then his mouth opened wide. He had no teeth, just a wet, red circle. Suddenly he let out a wail and his red face got even redder. Her eyes flew open and she looked at Mother, startled and unsure of what she had done. She had only smiled at him. She was afraid she would cry.

Mother patted her on the arm and smiled.

“it’s alright, Child,” she said. “You didn’t do a thing. He is only hungry. He hasn’t eaten yet.”

She sighed, glad that Mother would take care of things. She always took care of things.

“I’ll take him,” Mother said, and she did. As soon as he started nursing, he quit crying.

There was a heavy crash from the back of the house that startled them all except Baby Jim.

“Maurice, run see what Dick has gotten into, please,” Mother said.

Maurice ran from the room, squeezing by Father as he came in. He leaned over and kissed Mother, then cupped Baby Jim’s head in his big hand. He turned to look at her.

“Are you helping your mother with the new baby?” he asked.

“Yessir,” she answered. “Momma let me hold him. But he cried.”

Father laughed. “Babies do that a lot when they’re little. You did too.”

Father eased himself into the rocker beside the bed and patted his knee. She knew what that meant and crawled into his lap. He had been in the fields all morning and smelled like sweat and tobacco smoke. She liked the smell and laid her head back on his chest as he wrapped his arm around her and held her close.

She tilted her head back to look up at Father and said, “I’m so glad we have a baby that I can help Momma with.”

“I am too,” said Father.

Maurice came back leading Dick by the hand. He clutched a piece of cornbread in his free hand. There were crumbs on his face and on his romper.

“Dick was trying to get to the cornbread Iola had put out for dinner,” Maurice said.

“Looks like he made it, too,” Father smiled. “Dick, are you being a good boy? he asked.

Her little brother started to nod ‘Yes’ but then shook his head ‘No’.

“No, I guess not,” Father said. “Come over hear and let me have a bite of that cornbread.”

It didn’t look like Dick wanted to share, but he obeyed Father. They all did.

Father took a little bite and said, “Mmmm, come on, young ‘un. Let’s go wash up for dinner.”

She hopped off Father’s lap. He kissed Mother again, then took Dick by the hand and led him off to the washbasin on the back porch. They looked funny walking side-by-side.

“Winnie Maurice,” he called, “If Iola has dinner ready, you can ring the bell.”

Maurice ran form the room, calling for Iola. It was just the three of them.

“I think he is just about finished,” Momma said. “Now I am going to show you something that you can help me with, maybe the next time. Now watch closely.”

She climbed back up on the bed. She was excited because it seemed like Momma was sharing a secret just between the two of them.

“Hand me that cloth, Dear.”

She handed Momma a clean, folded cloth from the stack beside the bed, and Momma draped it over her shoulder. Then Momma held Baby Jim up to her shoulder with one arm and stated patting him on the back with her other hand.

“Can you pat Baby Jim like this?” Momma asked.

She scooted closer and began to pat her baby brother’s back, just like Momma had been doing. He didn’t seem to mind at all. She looked up at Momma.

“Keep going,” Momma said. “Maybe just a little bit harder.”

Suddenly Baby Jim burped. It surprised her and made her laugh. She looked at Mother.

“Why did he do that?”

“Babies nurse so fast that they swallow air too. If you don’t burp them, it makes them feel bad and they cry,” Momma said. “The next time I will let you hold him and burp him. That will be a big help. Will you do that?”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am, I will.”

“Good. No run clean up for dinner. I hear Maurice ringing the bell.”

She skipped out of the room so excited to be helping with the baby that she even forgot her shoes.

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INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 11: August, 1922-Henry

AUGUST, 1922

 

HENRY

Henry rested his hands on the pommel and sat easily in the saddle. The mare stretched her neck and nibbled at the grass in this shady spot at the edge of the field. The day was hot and muggy, the air dense and heavy. He stared out across the field, orderly rows of laid-by cotton, tall, much taller than it grew back in Choctaw County, foliage so thick that weeds couldn’t get enough sun to grow.

A single tree stood sentinel in the middle of the field, a refuge of shade for both man and beast in the vast sun-drenched expanse. It was a Delta custom that Henry had come to appreciate, the fields here being immense compared to those back in Choctaw County. The rattle of trace chains, faint and distant, fell on his ears. Far across the field, two farmhands, their wagon and mule team dancing in the heat waves radiating off the dark green leaves, eased along a turnrow. He had lived here for over a year now and was still amazed at how far sound traveled across the flat land.

“Hee yupp,” he called. A second or so later the barely distinct sound of his own echoed voice drifted back across the fields from the distant wall of dense woods. The two hands looked up and reined in their team. I was A.J. and Roosevelt, out checking the cotton houses scattered across Friendship, cleaning them out, cutting back weeds, knocking down wasp and dirt dauber nests, replacing broken boards and missing sheets of roofing tin. The picked cotton stored in them needed to be kept dry until they could get it to the gin in Sumner.

He waved, clearly not beckoning, but only in greeting. Both men waved back, clucked up their team, and continued their plodding mules’ pace toward the next cotton house. Other hands in other fields were performing the same essential chore. He would check on them this afternoon. It was a lot of acreage to cover on horseback.

Cottonhouse

Delta cotton house

He looked again at the thick verdure before him. High cotton, indeed. The dense growth reached as high as the mare’s withers, 15 hands, five feet. The blossoms had fallen from the cotton plants, the bolls were heavy and bulging, the ones near the bottom beginning to split open, hints of the vast harvest to come. He smiled with contentment. Nothing to do now but wait. Picking would start soon enough, and the cotton houses would be ready.

Behind him to the west low, dark clouds approached, remorseless and inevitable, like a marching army. He sensed it would rain soon, maybe within the next hour or less. A little rain would be fine but not too much.

The mare cocked her ears around even before he heard the clopping of an approaching horse. He lay the reins to the side of her arched neck to pull her head around, and she nickered to her stablemate, Dixie, pulling Father’s buggy.

“Afternoon, Father,” he said.

“Henry,” his father replied with a nod.

His father pulled up the buggy beside him. He was beginning to look a little frail, something in the set of his shoulders, but then, he must be, what, 74 by now. Still had to get out and check on the crops though. At least he had given up riding horseback for the buggy.

“Looks like another fine crop, Son.”

Cotton_Field

Cotton field at Friendship, first blooms

Father was shielding his eyes and craning his neck to peer out across the fields alive with heat shimmer and dragon flies skimming over the dark green surface.

“This will make, what, three good crops in a row?”

Henry tilted back his hat and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Yessir, it will. If the weather holds and we can get it all out and to the gin. And then get a good price. Plenty still could go wrong.”

“You’re a wonder, Son,” the older man chortled. “You are a good farmer and you know it, one of the best I have ever known, and not just raising a crop. You’re managing a place, what? Ten times larger than anything you had managed before. That’s good work.”

Henry felt a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment. He was thirty-eight years old, married, the father of seven now that Dick had been born, another son after four daughters. He had been farming on his own for nearly twenty years, and still his father’s praise affected him in ways he could not quite articulate.

“This move to the Delta was a risk, a mighty big risk, but you’ve made it pay,” his father added. “This farmland is so rich. Your brother George down in Onward is doing well, but not nearly so well as you are, Son.”

“We’ve been blessed, Father, particularly that crop in ’19. Not only was it good but cotton prices, over 35 cents a pound!”

His father nodded. “Yes, but they fell the next year. Always happens.”

The mare shifted her footing under him and he shifted his seat. He gripped the cantle with his right hand and twisted his upper body one way and then the other, easing the stiffness in his lower back. Settling back in his seat, he pulled his fixings from his shirt pocket.

“They did, but they’re coming back. Besides I put every spare penny back. Just in case,” he said. Henry snapped the match with his thumbnail and lit the cigarette that he had been absent-mindedly rolling.

Father chuckled, leaned, and spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dusty turnrow. Then he pulled a handkerchief from this pants pocket and wiped his mustaches.

“I’m sure you did,” he said. “I’m sure you did. You did buy that Ford truck though.”

“Yessir, I did,” he nodded.

“But here you sit on horseback.”

“The truck is good for hauling supplies from town or around the place, but I still like the way land looks from horseback. Maybe it’s just habit, I don’t know, but the land looks flatter driving over it, but if you ride it, or walk it, you see the texture, subtle though it is.”

He blew a plume of smoke that hung suspended before a freshening breeze carried it a way. The wall of cloud, and no doubt rain, was getting closer.

“The sloughs and bayous are obvious enough,” he continued, “but there are other low spots and contours. Just like back in Choctaw County, you plow with the lay of the land. That’s how you taught me.”

Henry finished his smoke, broke up the last few shreds of tobacco and paper and let them fall to the ground. “Let’s head down toward Blue Lake and see how Grady and Morris Bailey are doing. I gave them 30 acres down there to work together.”

“Let’s,” Father said and clucked up his horse. “Suppose you’re glad to have another son to raise and teach to farm.”

“Yessir, I’ll admit I am.”

Henry knew he was grinning like a possum eating muscadines in the moonlight. Didn’t care.

“Yes, I am,” he continued. “I think Grady may take to farming, but it’s hard to say with Morris Bailey. He seems, he seems to have different interests.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Son.”

He leaned forward in the saddle to better see his father under the roof of the buggy. Father’s face bobbed into and out of sight as the mare clopped along.

Father stroked his white beard with his free hand and grinned up at him. “Everybody can’t be a farmer, else who’d make and sell buggies.”

“Reckon not,” he said, straightening up.

Father reined up the buggy and Henry pulled up his mare.

“How old is Morris Bailey now,” Father asked.

Henry thought for a moment. “He was born in ’07. He’s fifteen.”

“Did you know you would be a farmer when you were his age?” Father asked.

He paused again and finally said, “Honestly, I don’t suppose I ever really thought about it. It just happened.”

“True. You became a farmer. Just like I was. George, too, but what about Bob or Burton or Aubrey? They may have farmed a little, but they all went on to other things, barbering, selling, and such. Why’d you stick with farming?”

He sat and simply stared across the flat surface of green, flat like the ocean he imagined but had yet to see. Maybe just flat like a lake. Finally, he spoke. “Now that I think about it, the first time you gave me a few acres to make my own crop, must’ve been ’98. Just five acres. There was something about seeing that first crop, my first crop, sprout and grow and bloom.”

The mare shifted under him. She sometimes got restless, but she was a sensitive horse too. Maybe she sensed he was struggling to express himself.

“I had seen it all my life, crops come in, but it was different when it was my own. I felt … proud. It was hard work but satisfying, the planting, the chopping, the picking. When we ginned that cotton and I made my first money. Well, I guess that’s when I knew.”

He turned to look at his father. “And, Father, here, this land. It’s so fertile. So rich. And there is something about cotton. It’s not like wheat, corn, or grain that you can just about plant and forget, at least in the Delta. Cotton takes tending, fertilizing, chopping, and weeding and enough rain, but not too much, and lots and lots of sunshine and trying not to worry about things you can’t control.”

The words tumbled out in such a torrent that he almost felt embarrassed even if it was in front of his father. He took a deep breath.

“Maybe that’s it, Father, all that effort, day in and day out, that makes it so special, makes the reward so great, makes it taste so sweet.”

“Why, Henry, I believe you’ve developed a poetical streak,” Father said, and he did blush this time.

“That’s not a bad thing, Son, to feel strongly and dare express it. I have felt the same way. I feel that way about my roses even now. But not everyone feels that.”

“Yessir, I know. And Morris Bailey may not feel that way.”

“Morris Bailey’s a fine-looking boy with a good head on his shoulders. And he gets along with everyone. But you’re right, he may not be a farmer. It may not happen for him. Will you be disappointed?”

“I don’t think so, long as he does well.”

“By the way, I haven’t told you how much it meant to me, naming the baby after me. Richard Newton Catledge.” Father said the last slowly, then added. “Sounds mighty fine.”

“Hoped you would,” he replied and added, “Shall we head on down towards Blue Lake?”

“Let’s,” Father said and slapped his reins on his horse’s rump. “Giddup.”

They moved along easily down the turnrow side by side. Small birds, sparrows and finches mostly, the occasional red-winged blackbird, darted in and out of the verge on their right. He felt, then looked over his shoulder and saw the approaching line of clouds, thick, dark, and moving fast now, angled streaks of rain clearly visible between the cloud and horizon. He turned in the saddle and calculated. It would be on them quickly and probably move on through quickly too. Still.

He turned back around as the first fat drops plopped into the dust in the turnrow around them, kicking up dust but being absorbed so quickly as to leave no trace of moisture. That would change when the storm really hit. He looked down at his father.

“I think I’ll ride on. I’d as soon as not get wet,” he said.

“I’ll be along,” Father replied from under the buggy’s canvas roof.

Henry lifted both heels to the mare’s flanks, just a nudge, and she was off, all restless energy gone, converted directly into her love to run.

From a distance, Henry could see the Grady urging his team pulling the wagon toward the shed built onto the side of the cotton house. This part of the place was so far from the Lot that he had built extra sheds to protect equipment they might want to leave out in the fields. Two cotton wagons were already stored there.

Grady had seen them coming and pulled the wagon up under the outside edge leaving them the dryer place between his wagon and the two cotton wagons. He rode directly under the tin-roofed shed and into the cleared space just as the rain hit hard. Father was right behind him. It was crowded under the shed, but they were all four out of the weather, their animals too.

“Hello, Father, Grandfather,” Grady said from the buckboard seat, all business and responsibility.

“Hello, Daddy, Grandpaw,” Morris Bailey chimed in over the drumming of rain on the roof.

The wagonbed was filled with supplies, sheets of corrugated tin, lumber, a keg of nails, and the toolbox, that had been hastily piled in the bed of the wagon. The boy was sprawled comfortably among the gear, his wavy hair tousled and  a large grin splitting his face. Henry couldn’t help but smile back.

An occasional gust of wind drove spatters of rain under the roof and onto the four of them. The breeze was cooling, but the air was still hot and even muggier now. And it would be worse once the rain moved through and the sun came back out to bake the rain puddles right back into the air. At least some of it might soak in.

He reached over his shoulder and lifted his clammy shirt from his back and listened to Morris Bailey, always quick to start a conversation, chatting away with his father and thought, Father is right, that boy may never be a farmer, but I wager, he’ll be good at something.

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INTO THE DELTA – Chapters 9 & 10: April, 1920-Minnie

MINNIE

The spring breeze wafted the rich smell of new growth in through the kitchen door and open windows. Minnie breathed deeply, aware again of lush aroma of the Delta, as she stared out the window. A pale sun was climbing towards noon in a flat, cloudless sky. Her milkcows, fawn-colored Jerseys and pied Guernseys, grazed on the new grass at the far southern end of the pasture. Soon they would turn and graze back northward.

Sadie and Willye Pauline were in school at Sumner. Maurice would not start school until the fall, and until then, Minnie let her play except for a few daily chores. Her dark-haired daughter and Philadelphia, A.J. and Flossie’s youngest, played in the backyard, chasing each other around the large cast iron wash pot. They squealed as they ran, their bare heels kicking up their dusty skirts.

She slid her large cast iron skillet onto the heat, pushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand, and took up her cornbread batter. The steady sound of her mother-in-law’s churning brought her back from the pasture and yard and into the kitchen.

“Mother,” she said over her shoulder without looking up.

Becky Catledge was not really her mother, but Minnie called her that, or sometimes Momma, because that is what Henry called her. It still feels strange to call someone that, she thought. Her own mother had died two months after her birth. She had never known her. She and her older sister Lennie had been raised by their father and his widowed mother, Grandmaw Bailey.

She secretly wondered if there was some missing, some empty place in her that a mother would have filled. Not that she had ever doubted her grandmother’s and father’s love for her. Still, neither she or Lennie would ever know what their mother looked like, other than from pictures, have no idea of the sound of her voice, the feel of her caress. She longed for those things, once she had been old enough to understand what she had never had, longed for them with an ache deeper than physical longing.

So many of her life’s dreams had been fulfilled: a good husband whose love she never doubted, five fine children and another on its way, a comfortable home, and security. Her life was rich, and she knew it. Maybe it was because this was one desire that could never be realized.

She looked up from the cornbread batter she was stirring and turned.

“Mother, how are Father and Lennie and the children doing?” she asked.

Her mother-in-law’s rhythmic churning never slowed, but a pensive look came over her face. So like Henry, she thought, even his features favored hers, the smooth slab of her checks, the set of her jaw. And like Henry, she often looked stern, although she really was not. Sometimes, not as often now, but sometimes, she wondered how her mother-in-law felt about her. She and Henry had married in April and Grady had been born prematurely in November. There had been talk as people had counted the months, but in hushed tones only. Still.

“They are all doing well,” the older woman smiled. “Saw them all at church Sunday last. I think its good for your father having them there. The children are growing right up. Brice is twelve now and a real help to John. Jewell, Lucille, and May, let me think, they must be 14, ten, and five. They are thriving.”

From down the road, she heard Flossie calling, “Philly. Philly, come on home, Chile.” Almost immediately, Maurice ran up the steps, across the porch, and into the kitchen.

“Is it time to se t the table, Mother?” her daughter asked.

“Yes, Dear,” she replied. “The plates and utensils are on the table.”

The little girl started toward the dining room.

“Winnie Maurice,” she said. “What did you forget.

Maurice spun on her hell and ran to the sink. She pumped water on her hands and lathered them up and rinsed them, then dried them, barely, before dashing to the dining room.

Her mother-in-law paused in her churning, pushed a random strand of gray hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughed.

Minnie laughed too, her daughter’s dark hair, smile, and exuberance did that to her often. She realized that the older woman was looking at her.

“It is still uncanny how much you and Lennie look alike, both so beautiful.”

She blushed and cracked the door to the oven to see to the creamed corn baking there, then checked on the simmering pots of black-eyed peas and turnip greens. The cast iron skillet was hot enough, so she dropped a dollop of lard in. Over the sizzle, she heard the rhythmic churning resume.

“But I must say, she looks older now. Losing Swint was hard. It aged her. And poor Baby May. She never even knew her father.”

She had forgotten about that.

“But then you never knew your mother either, did you?” her mother-in-law added.

“No, ma’am, I didn’t,” she answered. “But then Momma never really knew her father.”

“Oh?” the older woman said and gave her a questioning look that was somehow laced with sympathy.

“He never made it home from the surrender in Virginia. Grandmaw Nancy got a letter from his Morrison kin in North Carolina. He caught the pneumonia and stopped off with them to recuperate but died there,” she said. “At least he had been with kin.”

Her chest suddenly felt constricted, clenched like a fist. She was dimly aware of the clatter of plates and utensils from the dining room, knew she should put the cornbread in the oven and send Maurice out to ring the dinner bell, give Henry and the boys time to get in from the fields and wash up. But she paused, suspended, her mind far away.

“Grandmaw Nancy was left with seven children to care for. I … I looked it up once in the family Bible. My mother was three-years-old when her father had left and five when he died, hundreds of miles from home.”

She stared out of the window through limbs just beginning to get their leaves, tried to look all the way to North Carolina, wanted to see what it was like where her grandfather was buried. Was it hilly like back home or flat like here in the Delta? Did someone care for his grave like she and Lennie had cared for their mother’s back home, she still thought of it as home, in the little cemetery at Concord Baptist Church?

She turned her face away and blinked back tears, thought, What has my family done to deserve that? Three generations in a row, children with no memory of at least one of their parents.

The dasher slid though her mother-in-law’s calloused hand and settled with a soft thump to the bottom of the churn, but Minnie didn’t hear it. Did not even realize that her mother-in-law had risen and was standing beside her until the wooden spoon was taken from her hand and the sizzling skillet removed from the heat and her mother-in-law took both of her hands in her own. She had known Rebecca Catledge all her life, had married the fifth of the woman’s eight sons fifteen years ago, but in some ways thought that she had never really know her. Until now.

Minnie looked into the dark, almost black eyes, saw the sorrow there, the sorrow that the other woman had borne, realized her family had no corner on loss. Swint, this woman’s son own son, Henry’s brother, was dead, another voice stilled, another smile and touch available only in memory.

“It must have been hard,” she whispered, hesitantly, “burying a son.”

“It was … harder than you can imagine.”

“I would not wish it on anyone,” she said and releasing her mother-in-law’s hands, embraced her. The older woman hugged her back, clutched her as if seeking rescue, then leaned back and looked at her with a soft gaze.

“I imagine it was hard on Henry too. He and Swint were particularly close, like you and Lennie, less than two years apart.”

“It was, Momma,” she said. “He said very little, but I knew. A wife knows.”

Momma smiled and held her close again.

“They do, don’t they?” she said, then added, “When do you expect that child?”

Minnie leaned back and looked down at her belly. She was starting to show. She smiled and realized the tightness in her chest had eased, replaced by what? Comfort maybe? Peace? She was not sure what to call it, but she was thankful.

“Late June or early July,” she said.

“I’ll bet Henry would like another boy after three girls in a row.”

“I’m sure he would,” she laughed. It felt good to laugh. “But I fear he may be disappointed. For some reason I feel like it will be another girl.”

 

JULY, 1920

And it was. Another girl. Born on July the 4th. They named her Lucille.

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INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 8, April, 1920-Lige

April, 1920

LIGE

“What do you think, Grandpaw?” Grady asked.

Lige had to admit that it looked good. The land they had driven through was obviously rich. Every building on the farm that they had passed was in good repair. Vast expanses of open fields were dotted with farmhands, both colored and white, handling plows behind teams of mules. They looked tiny, antlike in the flat distance so different from the hill country in Choctaw County.

Catledge

Becky & Lige (far right) with four of their eight sons & one daughter-in-law, Choctaw County, Mississippi

They bounced up to the house that would be their new home, right across the small, slow slough from the house Henry had built for his growing family. The warm, afternoon sun filtered down through the branches of oak trees just beginning to drop their tassels revealing the promise of thick foliage to provide shade come the heat of summer.

“Mighty fine,” he nodded.

He turned to look into the backseat. “What do you think, Becky?”

“It certainly is flat,” his wife, almost as old as he, replied. “But I like it. Looks like a good house.”

He stroked the long, white whiskers on his chin. He would be 72 this year and he was feeling his age. Or maybe it was just the long trip on the rough road, but he felt stiff.

As they pulled to a stop in front of Henry and Minnie’s house, Minnie came out of the front door and waved. She didn’t look very pregnant yet, but he knew she was from her letters. She is carrying the first Catledge that would be born in the Delta, he mused.

As they climbed from the car, the girls spilled out on the porch behind their mother: Sadie, Willye, and Maurice. They must be what? Ten, eight, and five, he thought. They were growing so fast. Grady and Morris Bailey too.

He and Becky brushed themselves off and climbed the stairs to the porch. There were warm embraces and kisses all around. Sadie was all grins and hugs, Willye, too. Maurice’s shyness amused him.

“Maurice,” Minnie admonished, “Have you forgotten your grandparents already? And your manners?”

His granddaughter’s wary embrace warmed when he fished a stick of peppermint from his pocket and held it out to her. She cast her dark eyes up at Minnie who nodded. She took it eagerly and popped it into her mouth, uttering a barely audible ‘Thank you’ around the red-and-white-striped stick.

He produced two more sticks, one for Sadie and Willye each and received a ‘Thank you’ and warm hug again from each.

“Mother, may I ring the bell for Father?” Sadie asked, then turned and smiled up at him. “He wanted to know the moment you arrived.”

“Yes, Dear, you may. One ring only,” Minnie replied.

The young girl dashed around the house to the bell tower in the backyard, her dress aswirl, her candy clenched tightly in her fist lest she lose it.

“Come in, come in,” Minnie said. “There’s coffee on the stove.”

He took Becky’s arm and they mounted the steps. As they crossed the deep porch, he turned at the sound of the truck to see Morris Bailey pulling up to the other house with their belongings. A single peal of the bell rolled across the flat fields and echoed ever so faintly off the dense wall of the distant forest like an answer from far away.

Minnie stood in the door. “The boys will start unloading. Come in and rest for a moment, then you can tell them where you want everything.”

“Go on in, Dear. I’ll be there in a minute,” he said and released her arm. He turned at the edge of the porch and looked across the far fields. He breathed deeply. Even the air was different here. You could feel it as well as smell it. It was rich, moist, fecund. He had seen many springs, many renewals, witnessed the eruption of new life time and time again, but this place was different.

“I swear,” he said under his breathe. “I never thought I’d see the like.”

Single_Tree

Delta cotton field ready to plant

He turned and entered the house. He liked it immediately. He walked down the central gallery flanked by the parlor and dining room, office and bedroom. A flight of stairs led to the children’s rooms upstairs. The kitchen was in the back and radiated warmth from the large stove.

Minnie and Becky were seated at the kitchen table with steaming cups before them and the coffee pot on a trivet in the middle of the table, a table just large enough to seat the family. He took a seat before an empty cup which Minnie immediately filled from the pot.

“Thank you, Dear,” he said and added a bit of cream and ladled sugar into his coffee and stirred. Blowing across the raised cup, he took a sip and felt warmth seep into his body. It felt good in the kitchen. The hot, sweet, creamy coffee, the gentle patter of conversation, and the heat from the stove proved too much, and his chin dropped to his chest.

He was roused from his reverie by a familiar tread on the back porch and the thumping of Henry stomping his boots off. The kitchen door swung open, cool air blew in, and there stood his son, face ruddy from the cold and wind, a smile on his face. Another, older man stood behind him, William Ferguson.

“Hello, Mother,” Henry said and took Becky’s hands to help her to her feet, then embraced and kissed her.

He placed his hands and the table to lever himself up. No sooner was he standing than Henry wrapped his arms around him and gave him a kiss too.

“Father,” Henry said, “It is so good to have y’all here.”

Henry turned to his guest. “Mother, Father, you remember William Ferguson,” he said.

William nodded and shook each of their hands. “Mrs. Catledge, Mrs. Catledge, it is so good to see you again. And under more pleasant circumstances. Welcome to Friendship.”

Of course, Lige thought, the last time we saw him was at his father’s funeral. What? Three years ago now? He looks so much like my old friend.

“Let me get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Ferguson,” Minnie offered.

“No thank you, Minnie. I can’t stay. Besides,” Ferguson smiled, “I’m sure it’s been a long trip and y’all have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll be back later for a proper visit. I’ll bring Cora, too.”

Ferguson opened the kitchen door to leave and in burst Morris Bailey.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ferguson,” the boy said. “Grandmaw, Grandpaw, we got everything unloaded but don’t know where to put it all.”

“I’ll be right there, Child,” Becky said and went to get her wrap.

He settled back into his chair. Henry filled a cup and joined him. Minnie went on with preparations for supper. The familiar smell of baking cornbread filled the room. His granddaughters bounced in and out of the kitchen, helping with chores, laughing as they went.

“Well, Father, what do you think?” Henry asked.

He took another sip of his coffee.

“It looks like quite a place, Son. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it.”

“Of course, plenty of time for that. It was late December before we got all the cotton out of the fields. As you no doubt saw, we’re plowing now, running middle-busters, getting ready to plant. We’ll ride over it tomorrow.”

“Heard you had a good crop.”

Henry sat and simply stirred his coffee. His son’s gaze was faraway, like he was looking right through the walls and seeing the fields beyond them.

“Yessir, we did. Very good. And cotton prices were sky-high. I’ve never seen the like.”

It won’t last, he thought but did not say. Henry knew that. Needed no reminding from him.

Henry’s gaze shifted to him and focused.

“Wont last, though,” Henry said. “Good time to put all we can away.”

Lige smiled to himself and nodded.

“Good plan,” he added.

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