It was hot and humid as it always is in East Texas during the months of June, July and August. The year was 1956 and I was 6 years old. It wouldn’t be long now according to my daddy before I would be joining my two brothers, going to school and learning how to read and write. My daddy gave me the only head start that I got before starting first grade because my little hometown did not have a Head Start or kindergarten program.
He taught me the ABCs, how to spell a few elementary words like cat, dog, run, and walk and how to spell and read my name. Daddy always told me how smart he thought I was and I wanted to make him and Mama really proud of me. I felt ready to learn. Most of all, I wanted to be smart and make my parents happy.
The anticipation of starting school was barely enough to get me through those hot summer days. I had to invent ways to stay focused. I decided that I would ask every question that popped into my head. For sure, I thought this would be the best way to get smart fast. I remember asking my grandmother Pearlie Mae a question that really surprised her.
“Ma Pearlie, how come the sun comes up over there and go down over yonder?”
I hadn’t learned east from west yet. My grandmother’s answer surprised me, when she said, “I don’t know, baby.”
It wasn’t too often that a grown up would admit to a kid that they didn’t know something.
“Ya don’t know?” I asked her.
“No baby, I don’t. The sun has always come up from the east and gone down in the west.”
Ma Pearlie pointed to the east and then west. Even though I thought, at the time, she was not very smart I really loved my grandmother. My minor disappointment over her answer was exchanged for happiness because I had just learned east and west.
Ma Pearlie was not only the matriarch in our family but also in the little community where I lived. She was a sturdy God-fearing woman who loved her children and grandchildren. I never heard her raise her voice to anyone or display anything that vaguely resembled a bad mood. She was half black and half Sicilian without the stereotypical mean temper or gift of being an exceptional cook.
I liked most of the old people in my family, with a few exceptions. Old people seemed pretty smart to me and you could learn lots of neat stuff from them. I remember that it was my great uncle, Augustino who taught me how to chase the cows out of the backyard. Uncle Craig taught me how to sweep the floor and his wife taught me how to gather eggs. Little did I know at the time, that my curiosity was an excuse for some of them to get extraordinary help from a kid who was just overly eager to learn.
I had heard from some of the other old folks in the family that a holiday was coming. Although I couldn’t quite remember what that meant, the excitement was so thick I could just feel that it was something special. One day when I was helping Ma Pearlie shuck corn, I asked her, “When’s the hollerday gonna get here?”
“It’ll be tomorrow,” She said.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was so excited!
The next morning I woke up before Mama, Daddy or anybody else in the house. I sat alone on the front porch waiting for the start of the holiday. After a while of just sitting there all by myself, I heard my dad in the kitchen making a pot of coffee. I can remember thinking that this was really a special day if Daddy was in the kitchen making a pot of coffee and Mama was still asleep. What a switch! Poor Mama, she was always tired. I thought maybe it was because she was getting too fat. She’d been having a lot of trouble lately just getting up and down the steps on the front porch. Just a few days ago she got so tired, standing over the ironing board, she almost fainted. I had to run across the road to get Ma Pearlie!
My excitement about the day really started to build after everybody started waking up. My two older brothers got up and dressed. My father asked them
“What ya’ll boys doing today?”
“Don’t we have to go to the fields today, daddy?” asked George, the oldest.
“No, it’s a hollerday, son,” daddy said.
My eyes went wide with disbelief! I was really starting to love this holiday. If George Edward and Harry Lee didn’t have to go to the field to pick or shuck anything that meant that Mama, Ma Pearlie and I wouldn’t have to can or preserve anything today, either.
I sat on the front porch for a while longer. Then, I heard my sister Wretha stumbling around in the bedroom we shared. Wretha was three years younger than me. Her favorite thing in the world was to snitch Kool Aid from the pitcher my parents kept on the front porch on Sundays after church. My brothers and I gave her the nickname “Koola” and to this day she hates us for it. She walked out onto the front porch with a comb and brush in her hand.
“Mama said comb my hair,” she said.
“Alright, go get some rubber bands.” I told her.
“Mama said use these ribbons cause today is a hollerday.”
“But these are my special ribbons for when I start school,” I said.
I knew that Wretha wouldn’t lie to me. We were best friends certainly we were each other’s only friend. But, I didn’t want to share my special ribbons with her before I started first grade. I can remember reasoning that since it was a special day maybe it was all right to share my special ribbons with my sister.
“Okay, but when the hollerday is over, you have to give them back.”
After I finished combing Wretha’s hair, I remember sitting there a while longer thinking it might be time for the holiday to start, but I couldn’t tell time yet. I stared at the old faded clock that Pickle Feed Store gave to Daddy a long time ago, hanging on the wall between the two windows on the back of the porch, as if I could tell time.
There was a thermometer on the left side of it, right above the words “Drink Coca Cola.” I didn’t know just how hot it was, but I can remember thinking that it had to be really hot, because the red stuff in the little piece of glass was almost all the way to the top of the red numbers. The actual clock was offset on the right side under the words “Ralston Purina.” I stood there looking at the words for a minute or so. I didn’t know what they meant but it seemed like a good time to ask another question.
“Daddy, how you know what time it is?” I looked at him with a big smile on my face.
“Well, dumplings, the time right now is 10:30 in the morning.”
Daddy sat me down on his lap and explained to me how to look at the clock and tell what time it was. I caught on pretty fast. When daddy gave me a quiz later, I passed.
“You’re gonna do good in school, dumplings. I just know it.” He was beaming with pride.
My brothers were patiently waiting for their turn to occupy Daddy’s attention. My brother George Edward, who was three and half years older than me, wanted to go down to the creek to go swimming. I don’t think Harry Lee really wanted to go swimming, but most of the time he went along with whatever George wanted. Sometimes George could be a bully about getting what he wanted, but not Harry. I think Harry would just choose the path of least resistance.
Even at 9 years old George would strut around the house talking about Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. He had decided that someday he would be an even bigger star than either one of them because he thought his singing was better. Sometimes he would use the broom as a substitute microphone and sing something by one of them. He’d stand there with his chest stuck out waiting for me to start clapping my hands. Most of the time, I just laughed at him and he would get mad and storm out of the room. I can’t remember what songs he would sing because I didn’t like either Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry. George and I were in tune with music that was vastly different, even though we would both play in the High School Band and Orchestra later on.
Harry was two years older than me. I was born on his birthday within two minutes of exactly two years. He never let me live that down when we were kids. It was always a bone of contention between us as children. It was very clear he did not want to share his special day with me and he held that against me for a long time. I never held anything against my brother Harry, not even the fact that he got so mad at me one time he pushed me on the wood-burning stove we used for heat in the winter. I was burned pretty badly. I was so afraid that Harry would get a spanking I told Daddy that I fell.
Well, as I had suspected, George got his way. Daddy announced that we were going to pack a picnic and head down to Sandy Creek to go swimming. Mama protested in vain saying she wanted to go over to her mama’s house for a visit.
“Bud, it’s been a month of Sundays since my mama saw her grandchillens.”
She always called Daddy Bud whenever she really wanted something from him.
“Your mama knows where we live. She’s welcome to come over here anytime she wants too.” He said with half a smile.
Mama and Daddy’s mama, Ma Pearlie, had a very special relationship. But Daddy and Mama’s mama always seemed at odds with each other. The fact that Ma Pearlie lived right in front of us across the dirt road known as Prospect Road made life a little easier for Mama when she needed a baby sitter. But I know she wanted to see her mama more often than daddy was willing to.
“C’mon now. Let’s take the kids down to Sandy. I promise we’ll visit Miz Zoret next Sunday.”
Mama fried some chicken and my brother George decided he wanted some fresh fruit for the picnic. So he jumped over the fence to Uncle Ken’s orchard and took what he wanted. It’s a good thing that Uncle Ken was not home. He’d been known to reload buckshot casings with salt pellets and shoot at intruders. His aim was to discourage white kids and strangers from stealing his fruit. His eyes were so bad his chances of ever actually hitting an intruder were pretty slim. If my brother George had gone over and asked for fruit, Uncle Ken or Aunt Susie would give it to him. But not George, no sir, the fun for him was snatching what he wanted and not getting caught.
My parents piled us kids in the back of Daddy’s old Ford pickup truck and we headed down to Sandy Creek. Daddy’s hound dog ran along side the truck barking as if to say he wanted to come along too. Daddy stopped the truck and opened the door on the passenger side.
He told mama, “Slide over closer to me,” then he snapped his finger and gave a little whistle.
That damn dog jumped into the cab of the truck with him and Mama as if he were too good to ride in the back with us kids. I hated that dog! Sometimes he got more attention from my daddy than I did.
When we got to Sandy Creek, I could vaguely remember having been there before. I asked Mama,
“How far away from this creek is it to our church?”
“Bethlehem is over yonder on the other side of them trees,” she said.
I looked up at some of the biggest trees I had ever seen. These trees were huge, I remember thinking, they looked like they were going to bump into the clouds. Luckily, their shadows cast the shade we needed for our picnic.
“What kind of trees is these Mama?” I asked.
“These is East Texas Pine trees baby,” Mama replied.
“Ain’t this where I got baptized?”
“Yes it is. I’m surprised you remember, you were just four years old.”
“I ain’t never gonna forget that. I thought Reverend Spikes was trying to drown me.” Mama laughed and threw back her head.
I remember thinking that she had the most beautiful teeth I had ever seen.
The sound of daddy’s voice calling to me interrupted the special moment I was sharing with Mama.
“C’mon in the water, dumplings.” He stood there holding out his arms for me.
I was just about ready to walk into the creek when I looked up and to the left of where Daddy was standing waiting for me. I saw my brothers standing on the bank trying to determine who could piss further into the muddy water of Sandy Creek. To this day, whenever I hear the term “pissing contest” I always think about my two oldest brothers, God rest their souls.
“I ain’t coming in there!” I said.
“Why not, dumplings?” daddy asked.
“Cause George Edward and Harry Lee is peeing in the water.”
“That’s okay. It won’t hurt you.”
“I ain’t coming in there. It’s nasty!”
Daddy tried for at least a minute to coax me into the water, but he failed.
I remember walking back to the shade of those big pine trees where Mama was sitting with my sister Wretha. It was so hot! It seemed to me with the day being a hollerday and all that it was time for somebody to start hollering. I had been waiting all day for the hollering to start. So I decided to get the hollering started on my own. I stood up, looked up at those big tall East Texas Pine trees and started hollering at them as loud as I could holler. Mama struggled to stand up to come over to me as quickly as she could. But daddy was out of the creek and running toward me before she could get to me. Daddy grabbed me up into his arms and said “It’s okay dumplings, I ain’t gonna make you get into the water.”
“I know that Daddy”
“Then why you crying?” He looked so puzzled.
“I ain’t crying Daddy, I’m hollering,” I said with a big smile on my face.
“Why on earth would you be hollering?”
“Because it’s a hollerday Daddy. I been waiting all day for people to start hollering.”
I had never, up to this point in my life, seen my daddy with tears in his eyes. He was laughing so hard his nose started running. I remember feeling just about as dumb as a sack of hair right then. After everybody was done laughing at me, once again it was daddy who sat down with me and explained the meaning of a holiday. Unfortunately all that laughing caused my mama to get so sick, Daddy had to rush her to the hospital. The first set of twins in the family was born July 4, 1956.
About 35 years later, I came to regret having thought of Ma Pearlie as being not so smart when she said she didn’t know why the sun rose in the east and set in the west. One day one of my nieces, who liked to ask a lot of questions, asked me, “Auntie what was God doing before he created us?”
“I don’t know, baby.”
“You don’t know?” She asked with just a touch of indignation.
“No, baby, I don’t know. But, keep asking your questions. The answers are out there somewhere.”?