Re-posted from May 2013
This is Part Two of Chapter 1
Growing up in the South
In the deep south, along the gulf coast of Mississippi, Gayle Marie was born, her mother and father’s only child, the treasure of their hearts. In true southern tradition, Gayle Marie was raised by her mother, but her many daily needs like feeding, diapers, and such were entrusted to the care of a “mammy”. In this case though, Molly was as much mommy as mammy for she loved this little blue-eyed treasure dearly and watched over her as protectively as a mother bear over a cub and George and Marie couldn’t have been happier about that. This little darling blossomed under the love and tutelage of her mother, and the care and watchful eye of her mammy, and was completely spoiled at every opportunity by by her doting father.
Unknown to all but George and Marie, Molly had graduated from a northern university with a degree in literature and home economics. Molly and George had been classmates in his senior year and when he found out that Molly couldn’t find any suitable work, he had offered her the job of managing the business of his household in order to free Marie to continue her volunteer work and to have more time to spend with their daughter. The job of mammy had been Molly’s idea from the start and both Marie and George were happy to accept her offer. Molly was eager that her little charge experience the world of books, stories, literature, and poetry, as well as proper care of a house and home. The upbringing of a proper southern young lady left to Marie. Thus, to this end, Molly immersed herself into the culture of a southern lifestyle. To the world outside of “the farm”, Molly was just seen as “hired help”, but behind this orchestrated facade, she was family.
Life moves slowly in the south. The baby in the cradle, smiling and cooing, was coddled and wrapped in a cocoon of love by all around her. All too soon though, she was crawling through the house. Then came the afternoon, while in her father’s study, she called to him, “Dada”! . and took her first steps alone across the office floor to her astounded and adoring father, who then called her mother and Molly to witness this minor miracle. Then came the “terrible two’s” which weren’t quite terrible, and gradually, under the tutelage of her mother, and the oversight of her mammy, she matured into the gentility of southern childhood, though sometimes with a bit of attitude.
Gayle, as a child, was cute, always a bit thin, but fearlessly adventurous. At the age of 5 she was riding horses, swimming, and starting to learn piano, which she loved and was an apt pupil. There were no close neighbor children near the farm so she was left to entertain herself, except when cousins came to visit. She never looked forward to that though because they would try to push her around and would call her derogatory names. No one took it seriously at first.
“Mammy, do I have to go to that dumb party at Cousin Jennie’s house”? She pouted and stared out the kitchen window at the horses running in the pasture near the stable. “Yes, darlin’ y’all have to go to that sioree. It be the proper social behavior for a young lady such as yourself, ‘sides, y’all know they’ll be ice cream and cake and a lot of games and fun. Y’all just run up to your room and change to that dress your momma put on y’alls bed now. Get on little one”! A bit later she was off and, in due time, delivered at the party. As Molly had told her, there was plenty of cake and ice cream but after the games had started, less than pleasant things began to happen. Some of the other children were less than sensitive and began calling her “skinny”, “scarecrow”, “y’all just mud ugly”, and she ran from the house, hurt, angry, and tearful. When her mother came out to find out what had happened, she refused to go back to the house or the party. She just wanted to go home. She sat quietly and stared out the side window on the way home, refusing to answer her mother’s questions about the other children. Unwanted and unbidden tears formed and rolled down her cheeks. Arriving back at the farm, she ran from the car up to her room, closely followed by her mother. “I’m not skinny! I’m not ugly!” she sobbed into her pillow. Marie embraced her and held her close for a few minutes until she became quiet. “Who dared call you ugly, or skinny”? Marie, usually calm and serene, seethed with anger. “Darlin’, you are not ugly, nor are you skinny! Now please tell me who said these mean, cruel things to you. I will not tolerate anyone treating you this way”! “It was Billy, and Jenny, and Lawrence and his sister, momma. They were awful and worldn’t stop. I never want to see them again. I will not go to any of their parties and I don’t want them to come to any of mine. They’re just very, very bad”! In spite of her anger, tears came to Marie’s eyes. She couldn’t bear to see the hurt in her daughter’s eyes. “Come with me, darlin’. I want to show you something and then we’ll talk”. They went downstairs and into the library where Marie took down a large album of family pictures. Finding what she wanted, she called her daughter to her side on the sofa. “Sweetheart, this is a picture of your gram when she was your age, and here is a picture of me when I was your age…, and here is your picture”. “Momma, we all look almost the same”! “Yes, darlin’, we do, and none of us are skinny, or ugly, and gram grew into a beautiful woman…” “…and you are too, momma”. “Well, my dear, looks like those mean children at the party really don’t know what they’re talking about, do they”? With a smile as big as the room, she looked up and hugged her mother, “I love you momma”. And as time passed, she only became more and more beautiful, but still lingering in the back of her mind lurked those jeers and names that thoughtless other children had called her.
This little girl and her mother were nearly inseparable. They walked together, rode the horses together, sat on the veranda, sipping iced tea and reading their books together, and one of their greatest joys, planted a beautiful garden of flowers together. They carefully tended it year by year and the garden grew as Gayle grew. It was a showpiece, admired by all who visited the farm. She was 12 and now in the 7th grade, becoming very pretty, and entering a time of her life when she had a lot of questions about sensations she was having…, such was the onset of puberty. Mother tried her best to explain what was happening and what her daughter should expect and what to do when it happened. She had Molly talk to her young charge too, about the changes that were happening and how to be prepared. Somehow, even with all of this, Gayle was less than confident about the situation. Lately mother had become ill and couldn’t tend the garden, leaving it to her daughter’s care.
As her mother’s illness progressed, Gayle spent more and more time with her, helping her with more difficult and tiring chores. She wasn’t completely aware of how seriously sick her mother really was but just knew that she seemed to be tired most of the time and spent a lot of time reading or drawing in the sunroom or on the veranda, never venturing to the garden they’d shared. Gayle kept maintaining it though because of memories of all the time she and her mother had shared there among the flowers talking, laughing, and sharing with each other.
Late one evening, after she had gone to bed, she was awakened by the sounds of hushed conversation in the hall and peeked out to see men carrying her mother on a stretcher down the stairway to an ambulance at the front door. She was frightened and ran to her father in tears. He explained that Mother was very ill and had to be taken to the hospital and to get dressed and they would follow. Her father had always been straightforward and open with her no matter how painful it might be and this was to be no exception. He told Gayle that her mother had a very serious disease, cancer, and that she might not come home from the hospital. A fearful, broken-hearted little girl buried her head into the cushioned car seat and cried.
It was morning; she had fallen asleep on a hospital sofa. Molly and her father came to sit next to her. They told her that her mama wanted to see her and talk to her. As they entered the room she became frightened at the sight of all of the wires and tubes attached to her mother. Mama beckoned to her, “Come here darlin’, and don’t be afraid. I need to talk to you and I want you to listen very carefully”. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she looked at her mother with tears in her eyes. ” Gayle Marie, you know that I love you more than anything in this world, darlin’. This is difficult for me to tell you but I must. The doctors told me this morning that a disease has spread all through all of my body and they can’t do anything to make it go away, dear. I want you to stay with me for as long as you can because…., I don’t know how to say this darlin’, except to tell you that I may not be with you and Daddy, and Molly much longer, dear. It hurts for me to tell you this because I know that you will hurt inside when I leave you and I don’t want that to happen, but I know it will. When I’m gone, Gayle, please share your love with your papa as you have with me, dear. He will be lonely too and will need you to help him. Can you do that for me”? A stunned, confused little girl looked at her mother with tears streaming down her face, “Mama, I don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I want you to get well and come home. I need you, Mama”, as she buried her face against her mother’s shoulder. “I know what you are feeling sweetheart, but I can’t change things and the doctors can’t do anything to help me. The disease is too bad to be treated and, darlin’ I don’t know how much time I have to be with you anymore. Please, Gayle, promise me that you will love and help your father…, I need to know this…, please. Gayle nodded and whispered, “Yes Mama, I promise”, and more tears flowed openly.
The afternoon passed slowly and Marie weakened steadily, the cancer rapidly taking its toll on her. She had actually been ill far longer than anyone had known and by the time she was taken to the hospital it was in a very advanced state, untreatable and she was already in the final stages of the disease. George, looking worn and tired, and with a sad, long face came to the waiting area and collected Molly. Gayle was still with her mother. “Its time”. Gayle looked up as they entered the room. “She’s dying, isn’t she, Daddy”? He could only nod and whisper, “Yes, darlin’ girl, your Mama’s dying, and she wants us to be with her”. Gayle made no response except to take her father’s hand as they sat by the side of the bed. After a while, a gaunt faced Marie called to them and as they gathered at her side she said in a whisper voice, “It’s time to go now. Goodbye my loves. I’ll hold you in my heart forever”. With that said, her eyes closed and she was at peace. There was a somber silence in the room, broken only by a soft small voice, “Good bye, Mama. I love you”.
At home, after the funeral, Gayle looked across the lawn to the beautiful garden that she had helped her mother maintain. It only brought tears, memories, and more tears. She swore to never go out there again. Papa, she called him that now, or Pops, was in the study working. He seemed always to be tired and sad since Mama left them. She felt that sadness too, but, true to her promise to Mama, tried her best to comfort him and make him happy. Sometimes it worked, most times not…, and there was no comfort for her own loneliness.
School went on as usual and she became withdrawn from the popular social cliques, choosing not to be part of their scene. Some of the girls were already dating boys but she had no interest in them, though they pestered her frequently (to no avail). In the summer before high school Pops had taken her to a local beauty contest and she became interested and asked him if he thought she could do that. “Well, you’re certainly beautiful enough, darlin’, but you would have to learn some talent like singing, dancing, or playing an instrument or the like”. She thought about it for a bit…, she knew how to play the piano…, and she loved to sing (wondering if she could sing well enough). Through the summer she practiced both and by autumn felt that she might have a chance…, if Pops would let her compete in a contest.
Then came high school……
Growing Up Country
He was the third of three children, but never the “baby of the family”. His sister was daddy’s little girl, and his brother momma’s boy. He was their “other child”. His world: a farm north of a small midwestern town. It was small, as farms go, only 60 acres of “bottom land” near the river. The house was small too – four rooms, a kitchen, living room downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs. It was his world, but would never be his home. He was born with a spirit of wanderlust and dreams of places that lay beyond this small world, dreams of new horizons, of lives to live and stories to tell. But then what does a boy of 5 know of the world? For now he was content with make-believe adventures, playing with plastic figures of animals and little metal cars in the dirt under the back porch. Every morning was the same…, milk the cows, feed the pigs, get the eggs, water all of the livestock, then wander through another day. The real treat was when Gram came to visit. She always brought treats – cookies, candy, and sometimes some books to read. She was his mentor, teaching him his numbers, how to read, and how to draw.
As he grew older, the books became more of a treat than the candy. They let the mind of a boy wander through the world of knights and kings, of monsters and giants, always imagining himself as a hero, or at least the companion of a hero in the stories.
Sometimes, as years of youth passed, he visited his cousins in town they would play in the woods behind his uncle’s house, re-enacting their impressions of favorite civil war heroes and battles. His cousins always opted to be northern heroes like Grant and such (maybe because the North won the war), but he related more closely with the South, chosing the part of Lee, Stonewall Jackson, or even Mosely. In the end he was usually killed, except when portraying Lee, but then he had to surrender. It was ok, and in good fun, but through it, he developed a real feeling for the south and southern life. He started to read more of its history and its people and their problems. It would carry through in relationships in later years.
Without the benefit of Kindergarten, he started into 1st grade and, thanks to the tutelage of his grandmother, he was at the level or even a little ahead of a lot of the others because he already knew how to read and write and could do simple arithmetic. Art and writing were his favorite things though. He loved to draw and would sometimes go to great length to make sure details in his drawings were just right, earning him much praise from his teacher.
Time marched on and he was soon ten years old, and one day his father brought home a pony for the children of the family to share. His sister had no interest in it. His brother was mean to it and the pony would always throw him off and run to the barn. The pony and the boy, however, became inseparable and shared years of adventures riding through the fields and pastures, and along the river near the farm. The idyllic adventures came to an abrupt end though with the start of school each year, (only to resume in the following summer).
The freedom to roam and explore while riding the pony, escaping the farm while in school, and the voyages of adventure in books lighted a spark that would feed his wandering spirit so that one day it would burst into an unquellable flame. Til then though, he had to be content with the pony, school, books, and his dreams. He began one of his usual explorations along the river, riding farther and farther north, past the old Davis farm, under the bridge, and along the old indian battleground, imagination conjuring up pictures of the Indians and soldiers fighting among the trees and along the riverbank. He’d been there before and decided to press on farther to see what new things there might be to discover. After about a mile along a neglected pathway he found himself in the ruins of the indian town, one that he’d heard his grandmother describe. It was an eerie setting with a couple of buildings that were mostly falling apart and the remains of rotted boards and other debris scattered across the open field. Strangely he felt as though he had been there before…, a long time ago. He thought about taking a souvenir of the place home but it didn’t feel right…, like he would be stealing something from a sacred place. With those thoughts in mind, he turned the pony and started back to the farm. He would ask Gram more about this place and see if she could get him any books about it.
Intervening years were filled with schoolwork, farm work, and really little else except for his adventures and excursions on the pony and the dreams evoked from the library books he would read. At school there were the usual social problems between city kids and farm kids. To the “townies” the farm kids were just a bunch of stupid “hicks”. To the farm kids, the “townies” were just stupid (and rude). Friends were few, but a relationship developed between him and one of the “townies” , Bill, who, because of his size, was one of the less than popular classmates. Some were abusive, calling him “Fat Matt”. The boy, as he grew older became more and more interested in sports. He was a reasonably fair baseball player, having played softball on the 4H teams and could hold his own in basketball too. The problem was that, to his father, the farmwork was always more important than the boy’s opportunity for sports. It trumped his chances every time. It was always his dream to be on a school team. That would have to wait for a while though.
Always there was the farm. Up early in the morning to milk the cows, feed and water all of the livestock, clean manure from the stalls and put down new straw. It seemed never-ending. After a pseudo rest through the winter, the work of spring planting abruptly ended any time for riding and adventuring. He would be on the tractor plowing, discing, and planting from daylight til dark for weeks until crops were in the ground. Then came time for the first cutting of hay which would be 2-3 days of slave labor in the hot sun, lifting and stacking bales of hay on a truck or wagon, only to be unloaded and stacked in the even hotter hayloft. After a short respite, came time to cultivate and weed the crops, followed by…, what else…, time to cut the hay again. Summer vacation??? He had no summer vacation, even the times his father and mother would go to fish and visit with his great-uncle in Minnesota, he was left at home to do the farmwork. There were cows to milk and livestock to feed and water. As he grew older, he felt more and more like a slave to the farm and it only served to make him more determined that he would never live on a farm when he finished school.
All of the farmwork had its more pleasant interruptions when, one warm summer day, Uncle Clarence stopped by the house. After a cup of coffee and talk about the family, he started toward the door. He’d been on his way to go fishing on the river. “Elsie, mind if I take this here young-un with me…, that is if you don’t need him for something else”? “Well…, I guess it’d be alright…, if he’s back before Roy gets home and he gets his chores started”. With that, new adventures were about to begin. He handed the boy a fishing pole and a tin can. “Where’s our bait”? “Waitin’ for us down by the river”. It was a quiet, long walk. Uncle Clarence wasn’t much of a talker, speaking only when he felt he had something important to say. When they reached the river, Clarence took out a long knife and poked in the dirt along the riverbank, dislodging earthworms for the boy to gather. He was quiet too, figuring that Uncle Clarence would say something when he was ready. After a while conversation started slowly, mostly about the bait, how to fish, what kind of fish they’d catch, sandbars, gravel bars, and fresh-water mussels. Fishing led to quiet conversations about other things. He learned that Clarence and his father had played on a minor league baseball team for several years. Clarence played 1st base and his father was a pitcher. That explained a lot of things, such as how his father could throw a baseball so fast he could hardly see it. Both of them had been good enough to be asked to the Major Leagues by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Clarence went (for a year), but his father refused to leave, citing family responsibilities. The boy and his uncle shared other interests, hunting, target shooting, and just long walks through the countryside enjoying nature.
The boy’s life began to change when he became 12. Still a very serious student, his mind began to wander in a really different direction – girls! For such a long time they had been repugnant creatures, barely tolerable. Now they had miraculously become somewhat attractive, to the extent that he would even talk to them and walk with them to the drugstore for a soda during school lunchtime. A lot of changes began about this time in his life, like a change to a somewhat noticeable baritone/base voice, broader shoulders, more muscular arms and legs, and the girls seemed to notice and approve, which didn’t hurt his feelings at all.
8th grade rolled around and Barbara became the focus of his attention. She was short, petite, and very cute. She was a cheerleader and one of the most popular girls in the class. He walked her to the drugstore at lunchtime, bought sodas for her, walked her home after school, and she, for her part was very sweet and nice, but, at the same time, very proper. No holding hands! No kissing! No nothing. After a time of being rebuffed at any and every advance, he grew frustrated and dropped the effort, thinking that maybe girls weren’t so great after all.
Later in the year though, he kept getting assigned to class projects with one girl in particular – another farm kid. Many of the projects often took them to the city library for research and on one trip, as they walked and talked, he felt her hand slip into his. They looked at each other, smiled, and continued walking. Needless to say, they went to the library a lot after that. Walking, talking, holding hands, in due process had to be followed by an inevitable first kiss and it would be the first for both. The library was quiet and the lone librarian was busy behind the desk and didn’t notice a boy and girl slip behind the many rows of bookshelves near the windows. It was a tenderly awkward moment but both were equally eager for what was in the offing. Facing each other, she put her arms around his neck and he encircled her waist and their lips met very shyly at first, and followed by a more lingering kiss. Both took a step back and looked into each others eyes, smiled, and kissed again. Not knowing what else to say, he asked, “Did you like it? Was it alright”? Her response was a smile, and another kiss. Ah, young love. First girlfriend. First boyfriend. They agreed to carefully disguise their feelings in school but little did they know that his best friend had been outside the library, witnessing their romantic encounter through the window. They swore him to secrecy under threat of death. They were attending an old-fashioned Catholic school and boy-girl relationships were very much frowned upon by both the nuns and priests (and parents). Bill knew that if he said a word that they would surely find some way to make his a life of pain and misery, so he wisely kept their secret.
Graduation brought some sense of maturity and accomplishment. Next year came high school. Along with the hoopla of graduation came a sad realization. The young sweethearts would be parted – each going to different schools, miles apart. There was a school party and a dance held in the gymnasium, under the careful supervision of the nuns and priests, but rock ‘n’ roll music blasted into every corner of the place. It was a fun time for all, until the party ended. In a fashion typical of their library trysts, they eluded the watchful eyes of the chaperones and met behind the stage curtain for a last kiss, and tearful goodbye. They would see each other in church on most Sundays afterward, but it would never be the same for them. Still, even years later, there was always a knowing look and a smile between them that no one else understood (except Bill).
(Next Chapter: High School Years…)
You have to experience life, embrace it, …and Live it in order to be really alive.
Are you alive ???