Category Archives: Death

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 19, April, 1927: Dick

DICK

He squatted by the slough and dropped his leaf boat into the muddy water. It bobbed along down toward the road. He jumped up to run after it.

“Mistah Dick, don’t you go down to that road,” Uncle Ned called. “You stay in the yard like yo momma say.”

Uncle Ned sat on the ground in the shade by the slough, making a leaf boat for Little Jim. He might be the oldest person he knew, maybe even older than Granpaw. His dark skin was kind of ashy, and the hair on his head and chin was white, like just bloomed cotton. Little Jim was watching Uncle Ned work, holding onto the shoulder strap of the old man’s clean overalls to steady himself.

He felt that since he was five-years-old, he should be able to go down to the road but knew better than to argue.

“Yessir,” he answered and scooped up his little boat and ran back. He had gathered the magnolia and oak leaves with Jim tagging along. Now Uncle Ned was making boats for the two of them. He watched as Uncle Nate poked a hole in the middle of a shiny magnolia leaf with his pocketknife. Then he carefully stuck the stem of an oak leaf into the hole. It looked like a little sail.

He handed the leaf boat to Jim. Jim grinned and said, “Mine.”

“Thas right, Mistah Jim. That one’s yo’s.” Uncle Ned said and laughed. It sounded like one of Mother’s hens cackling.

“Can you make me another, Uncle Ned?” he asked.

“Sholy,” Uncle Nate said and picked up another magnolia leaf.

“Me too,” Jim said. And Uncle Nate laughed again.

Little Jim was not even two-years-old yet, but if he had two boats, Little Jim wanted two boats too.

He watched the old colored man work. His hands and fingers were brown and shiny and lined with creases, except on the insides which were almost pink. He liked the way Uncle Ned smelled, like woodsmoke and fatback and pepper, all mixed together. And he liked Uncle Ned. He could not remember ever not knowing Uncle Ned, could not remember a morning when Uncle Ned had not gotten him, and later Jim, up and dressed for the day. Made him wash his hands and face too.

“Uncle Ned?” he asked, “Have you lived here forever?”

The old man laughed again.

“Nawsuh, Mistah Dick, I come here back in sebenty, eighteen and sebenty, with Mistah Henry Ferg’son. I’s still a young man then.”

Uncle Ned smiled at him. The white part of the old man’s eyes was light yellow, like the color of butter. Then those eyes got a glassy look, like the marbles in Dick’s pocket. Uncle Ned turned a little and stared out toward the road and across the road and the cotton fields over there.

“Wadn’t no cotton fields then. No hay neither. No roads. No houses. Nothing but woods, big ole oak trees it take two, three men to reach around. More of ‘em than you can count. Swamps and sloughs and brakes filled with them ole shaggy cypress trees, snake doctors buzzing over that black water.”

Uncle Ned looked at him with shiny eyes. “Why, you could walk through them woods all day and never once see the sun, everywhere you go squirrels and birds be jabbering and chirping in the trees, like they was passing the word that Man was in the woods.”

Uncle Ned had finished his second boat and sat there with it resting in his dark hands.

Little Jim tugged on the old man’s overalls. “Unca Ned, Unca Ned. Make mine. Make mine.”

“Jim,” he barked. “Uncle Ned was telling a story.”

Little Jim pouted up, but Uncle Ned set Dick’s new boat carefully aside and tousled Jim’s hair and smiled. “I start on yo’s now,” he said, and picked up a magnolia leaf.

“You ever go with yo daddy or one of yo brothers down below Blue Lake, that big ole patch of woods in the crook at the bottom end?” Uncle Ned asked.

“Yessir,” he answered. “Once. With Morris Bailey.”

“That sorter what it was like. Woods over everywhere. And critters. Chile, you never seen the like. There was bear, panther, deer, coon, possum, squirrel, beaver, alligator, snakes, and rabbit. And birds. What you say. More birds than you can ‘magine. Blue jays and redbirds and all kinds of black and brown and yeller and all mixed up colors. And them big ole peckerwoods hammering away. And them doves.”

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

“Lawd, Mistah Dick, hard as it be to ‘magine, we cut all them trees down,” Uncle Ned sighed, and the old man stopped again like he was looking somewhere else. Jim didn’t notice because he was watching a junebug crawl through the grass. A squirrel chattered at them from the oak tree they were sitting under.

“We come here from Alabama with Mistah Henry Ferg’son, seemed like hunderds of us coloreds, more’n I could count anyways, and mules by the hunderds, too, and wagons loaded with axes and handsaws and tents and stoves and food, everything we need to live here where there wadn’t nothing but nothing. It remind me of that Yankee army when they came through an ‘mancipated us back in sixty-fo.”

That surprised him. “You were a slave?” he asked.

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell us about it?”

“Sho, but another day. Let’s finish this story first. When we come here, we free and we working fo’ wages. Slave days over,” Uncle Ned grinned.

“What did you do?”

“Well, we cut roads through them woods avoiding them swampy places and them brakes, and we pitched some tents to have a place to stay in. Them skeeters at night, Lawd, what you say! Then we commenced to clearing land, sawing and chopping down trees, oak and gum and who knows what all. Some we used to build houses and other buildings with the logs. Some we cut up for firewood for cooking and whatnot. Some that wadn’t good for nothing else, we saved for campfires. Most nights we went to bed early, but we’d have a fire to keep away skeeters in the summer and to keep warm in the winter.”

“Kinda like when Father and Grady and Morris Bailey go to hunting camp?” he asked.

“Sorta like that,” Uncle Ned grinned. “’Cept at our camp, there be a lot less whiskey and a lot more singing.”

“Like the songs we sing in church?” he asked.

“Kindly like that. Onliest most of ‘em made up and passed along. Not written down in a book like yo’ daddy have. Sometimes I think those songs rise straight up to heav’n like them sparks from the fire rise up to the stars in the sky. It was the best part of the day. Work done, belly full, smoking a pipe, relaxing ‘fore bedtime.”

“Father sings a lot. Grandma sings all the time. I like to hear her sing,” he said.

“She sholy do,” Uncle Ned agreed. He went on. “‘Ventually, Mistah Ferg’son hauled in a sawmill, and we commenced to sawing them logs we had piled up into boards.”

Uncle Ned nodded toward the house where Grandmaw and Grandpaw lived, then said, “We sawed the boards for that house right there. I he’ped build it too.”

The old colored man pulled a stick out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls and began to whittle on it, shaving off long strips of yellow wood. Then he stopped and stared out across the cow pasture and laughed. “And stumps. Good God a’mighty, we pulled stumps. Why, I could wear out two span of mules a day pulling stumps back then.”

Uncle Ned’s big hands rested on his knees. Little Jim was playing with his two boats in the slough. His brother’s feet were in the water, but he didn’t care.

“What did you eat?” he asked. It was close to dinnertime and he was beginning to get hungry.

“Oh, we brought flour and coffee and beans and such with us. Some bacon. The rest we hunted or fished for. Mostly venison, but turkey too. With all them woods being cleared out, game was ever’where. Ole Mistah Ferg’son he a good shot. His son, the Mistah Furg’son you know, he a good shot too. We fished the bayous and brakes too. Got us some fishes to eat.”

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

“He sho’ is,” Uncle Ned agreed. The old man brushed the shavings from his knees.

“I wisht you boys coulda seen it then. Hit was wild and scary and purty all at the same time. Them big ole trees. Why, it take three mens together to reach around one tree.”

Uncle Ned had already said that but maybe he didn’t remember.

“Cool and shady under ‘em too. Full of squirrels fussing at us as we work. And at nighttime them panthers be screaming and carrying on,” Uncle Ned said.

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

“Reckon not,” said Uncle Ned. “Not likely to now. Might be one or two in them woods I told you Mistah Furg’son left down below Blue Lake. That be the onliest place ‘round here.”

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

“When did you start planting cotton?” he asked.

Uncle Ned laughed. “Not for a while yet. First we had to drain them swampy places. That’s when we cut those sloughs and ditches to run the water offen into the them little runs or into the bayous. That water move slow but it move. It musta chopped the heads offen a five hunderd rattlesnakes and water moc’ssins down in the swamps. Had to be watchin’ all the time. Couple boys got bit. One of ‘em died. Wadn’t nothing nobody could do”

Uncle Ned shook his head and looked sad. “That was Philander, my brother. I talked him into coming with me and he fell in the water and got snakebit on the neck and died. I felt like it partly my fault.”

He sat down by the old man and put his hand on Uncle Ned’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

“Me, too,” Uncle Ned said and tried to smile.

“But one of them boys lived though. Go bit on the foot. Mitstah Furg’son cut that bite open with his knife, then snatched up a pullet – we was keepin’ some chickens by then, milkcows and hogs too – but he cut that pullet in two with an ax and slapped that raw meat on that bite. It pull that poison right out. Turn that pullet almost green, but saved that boy’s life. He was sick and fevery for a while. That foot swole up and got ugly too, but he lived even if he did limp the rest of his life. I ain’t never seen the like, ‘fore or since.”

“Dick. Jim. Time for dinner.” It was Lucille calling. Hungry as he was, he wanted to hear more.

Lucille called again. “Uncle Ned, Momma says to bring the boys on in for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Lucille,” Uncle Ned answered. “Let’s go, young mistahs.”

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

“I tell you more later. Time to clean up for dinner now.”

He set his boats at the base of the oak tree and started toward the house. He walked as slow as he could. Little Jim cried when Uncle Ned went to get him. He wanted to play in the slough some more. Uncle Ned picked Jim up and tickled him under the chin until the little boy laughed.

“You can take them boats with you, Mistah Jim, but we gots to clean yo’ hands and feet and face too before dinner. Like yo’ Momma say.”

Lucille had already run to the backyard and was ringing the dinner bell to call Father and Grady and Morris Bailey from the fields. they would be here soon. As he and Uncle Ned climbed the steps to the back porch, he smelled warm cornbread and his mouth watered. There would be peas and butterbeans and corn and pickled peaches, mostly put up last year because Mother’s garden was only just coming in. And she had baked a cobbler.

Uncle Ned scrubbed their faces, hands, and feet with cold water, soap, and a rag at the sink on the back porch. As he dried his hands, Father and his older brothers rode up on their horses.

Father climbed down. “Ned, will you take our horses to the stable, loosen their girths and give them a little feed and water?”

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

“Thank you, Ned,” Father said and stomped up the stairs.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and ran a big hand through his hair.

He grinned up at Father. Father was so big and tall, and strong, but then so were Grady and Morris Bailey who were washing up at the sink. He hoped he would be big and tall and strong just like them some day.

“What have you boys been doing today?” Father asked. He picked up Little Jim and gave his baby brother a kiss.

“We’ve been making boats with Uncle Ned and he’s been telling us stories about the old days when this was all woods with no cotton or hay fields.”

Father squatted down setting Jim on one knee. Father was no taller than he was now. “Well, Uncle Ned would know. Now, how about a hug?”

He hugged Father and kissed him too. Father rose and lifting him too, carried both of them into the house for dinner. Morris Bailey and Grady followed right behind.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Death, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, writing

Songs of Death and Life

On the second anniversary of my father’s death

 

Let us not delude ourselves with platitudes

The end of suffering

Heaven’s aching need for another angel

Burdens lifted from the living

Joyous reunion

 

No, let us not delude ourselves

Death is a brute, a thief

Who takes from us those we hold most precious

 

Time and distance may separate us

From the beating heart of a dear one

But that heart still beats

That love is still tangible

In the warmth of flesh

In touch and embrace

Needing only to be reunited

If only briefly

But death rips that away

Stills that beating heart

Chills that once vibrant flesh

Erases the gentle smile

On that familiar face

 

Death is an ogre

One whose features are not softened

By familiarity or frequency of visit

Remorseless, it intrudes

With shuddering suddenness

Or lingering expectancy

 

Memory, the cruel consoler

Delivers images of both joy and remorse

Days of burnished beauty

Words that could not be unspoken

 

The faith core within

Affirming that death is not the end

That ultimately even death will be conquered

Is still assailed, battered by the loss

The carnage of shattered souls

Longing

For one last word

One brief smile

One final embrace

 

Let us not delude ourselves

For us, the living

Dark days will alternate with bright

The vivid image of a loved face dims

Some memories fade

While others remain deeply etched

Roiling through the mind

And heart

Bringing an unexpected, fleeting smile

Or a wistful moment of melancholy

 

Let us not delude ourselves

There can be no loss lest first there be love

 

On All Saints Sunday

 

For each name intoned

A single votive is lit

A single bell is tolled

Resonant, the solemn peal diminishes as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

The long litany of names

Each another life

Severed from this world

In this last year

Leaving its wake

Of love and sorrow

Laughter and regret

Wistful smiles and soft sighs

The entire arcing panoply

Of human feeling

 

Congregants stand in serried ranks

Solemn array of bowed heads

The soft sheen of tears on cheeks

A quivering lip or shudder

A too firm grip on a pew as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

Fresh grief released or stifled as

Their lost one’s name is uttered

Old anguish renewed as

A loved name or face from last year’s list

Or the year before or the year before that

Rises unbidden but embraced as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

 

A fellow mourner’s comforting touch or

Firm arm around a shaking shoulder

The questioning face of

An uncomprehending child

Who somehow senses something amiss as

The last name is intoned

The last votive is lit

 

 

Then the other litany

The litany of faith and triumph

The surety of the resurrection of the body

And reunion

Why else conquer death or

Resurrect the body or

Preserve all the things

Body and mind and spirit that

Make each of us ourselves

Except we should praise

Each in our own distinct voice

Arrayed about the throne of the Almighty

Heaven and earth reconciled

See the Lord and each one gone before face to face

And rejoice

Leave a comment

Filed under Death, Life, Loss, Poetry, Uncategorized