We moved back to Senath, Missouri, midway down the western edge of the Bootheel sometime in 1952. Both sets of grandparents lived there and aunts, uncles and cousins; too many to shake a stick at, as the saying goes.
My mom’s parents, Emma and Francis Dale, were known as Ma and Pa to all the grandkids, probably because of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies. They lived in a farmhouse about four miles out of town. We stayed with them for a month or three after moving back from California.
Ma was a tiny, dark-haired lady of German and English ancestry, distantly related to Robert E. Lee by family legend. In recent years, I found out that this was indeed true, just as it was true that my father was related to the James Boys. You have to go back almost to when the first boat landed in Ma’s case and nearly to the American Revolution in Dad’s but the connections were there. Odd how such things survive orally when the documentation to prove it is rather difficult to dig out.
Pa was a tall man who looked a bit like a bald Stan Laurel dressed as Jed Clampett. Stan was a particular hero of Pa’s and he would often do his impression of the famous comic. To me as a child, it was just something funny Pa did and it wasn’t until twenty years later I recognized it for what it was when my brother did the goofy smile and hand over his forehead from behind and I couldn’t tell if he was doing Stan or Pa.
They lived in a wide wooden house on the edge of some property they leased for farming. There were only four rooms, each very large. The toilet was an outhouse out beyond the chicken coop, water came from a pump on the back porch and baths were taken in galvanized steel tubs with water heated on a wood burning stove.
Mom and Dad used the back bedroom and I slept either with them or with Ma and Pa in the front bedroom, or lying on a pallet in the living room, “parlor” if cousins were also staying. Uncle Ross and Aunt Ava lived down the road about a half a mile and their three youngest often stayed with Ma and Pa, too, either all in a group or one at a time.
Kay was two or three years older than me and very smart. She had started first grade at age five by simply running away from home to follow her older brother Robert to school and refusing to be sent back. She had flaming red hair, bright blue eyes and one enormous freckle that covered her entirely with tiny patches of bright pink skin showing through. She made a good role model for a little girl when she wasn’t being too bossy.
Roger, called Bud, was her middle brother, two weeks older than me, exactly. Roger didn’t talk much, his three siblings and both parents being all chatterboxes, he probably couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He stood half a head taller than me, a sturdy physical sort who took it upon himself to show me how to hide in the corn rows, or under the house, or in the grain bin or the root cellar. Hiding was fun with Bud but sometimes we got into trouble. Not too much trouble, we were only three and a half.
Roland was the youngest of this batch of cousins. At less than two years old, he had only just started walking. He talked, though. He talked a lot and most of it was funny. For a toddler, Bill, as he was called, had a sly streak and a clever way with words. Still in diapers, he had an accident in Ma and Pa’s bedroom. Not wanting to find an adult to change him, Bill cleaned his own diaper out and left the detritus on a crocheted cloth rug beside the bed while he went on with his playing.
Pa confronted him when the evidence was discovered. “Bill,” he asked, “how did this pile of turds get on the rug?”
Bill stood up in the middle of the floor and started out of the room. “Pa,” he said as he left quickly on his chubby little legs, “I ‘spect some cat done crept in, crapped and crept out.” He made his escape while Pa laughed and laughed and laughed.
It was great having the cousins stay over but my favorite mornings during this time were ones when I’d wake up alone in whichever bed I had climbed into the night before. My father, if he had carpenter work, would leave before daylight and get back after dark, this was in the winter. My mom would go to the fields with Pa, digging and clearing for the spring crops to be put in, if Daddy was gone. Or she would milk the cows, a task she enjoyed and was good at. Ma would stay around the house, cleaning, baking, tending a winter garden, pumping water, mending clothes and feeding the chickens.
The garden was on the southern side of the house, near the pump and the backsteps onto the porch and into the kitchen. Ma knew she would hear me when I got up but for kids on a farm, it’s never too young to show a little self-reliance.
I would get up, use the thundermug if I needed to and wash up in the basin of warm water next to the stove. Then I’d go into the kitchen and open the lower cupboard next to the long dark oak buffet. Inside this door I knew I would find a homemade biscuit, all fluffy and crumbly, and a slice of ham, bacon or fatback on a small green glass plate sitting on top of a tiny green glass bowl of oatmeal with a pat of butter melting in it.
The plate and bowl both came from inside boxes of Quaker Oats at the time, as did the green glass of milk I knew I would find in the icebox. It was a real ice box with ice brought by an iceman two or three times a week. Ma and Pa had a refrigerator, too, but fresh milk from your own cows tastes better if it is kept in the icebox; refrigerators are too cold.
I would get my own spoon from the lower drawer of the buffet and I would climb up and stand on one of the sturdy oak chairs to eat my breakfast on the table. I felt very proud. I even put the sugar from the sugar bowl on the oatmeal myself. The biscuit and cereal were warm, the milk cold, the meat salty and sweet. I don’t think any meal in my life ever satisfied as well and I ate like that three or four times a week whenever I stayed over.
Ma always came in from outside before I finished and she always asked, “Did you get enough to eat?” She’d fuss with me, straightening my clothes, moving me to a different chair that would hold the booster seat Daddy had made, or kissing me extravagantly on the ears until I giggled. Then she’d have a task for me like sorting buttons while she sewed or feeding the chickens while she worked in the garden.
It was a great time and place to be a little kid.