Going to Town with Daddy
It’s funny how memory works. Walking down an alley west of my home in West Seattle, I spied a colorful cardboard display box for something, such as candy bars or snack packs. It was quite elaborate with felt at the bottom and several compartments built into the box to show off the products to best advantage. This display box was next to the garbage cans in the alley, ready for the recycling truck to pick up.
Seeing this thrown away display box jogged my memory back in time over 60 years to the time when I went go to town with Daddy to buy groceries and get meat from the walk-in freezer that stored individual farmer’s beef and pork. This was about 1943 when I was four years old. At home, we had no refrigerator or deep freezer to keep our meat. Seeing the colorful display box in the alley reminded me instantly of the thrill I felt when I saw the display cases and boxes for the first time in the grocery store with Daddy. I don’t remember much about the candy or treats in the display boxes; I remember the boxes themselves. I imagined playing with them or perhaps, making them myself: the creativity of the boxes appealed to me. There was something about their unusual construction, design, and colorful logos and pictures on the surfaces that triggered my imagination. I fancied using such boxes for my playhouse. They seemed like small pieces of furniture to me.
Daddy would always buy me one treat of candy or gum from the displays, but that was not my major thrill. I simply loved these trips to town with Daddy for all the sights I got to see. Mama didn’t drive, so he went to town to buy the staples she need for the baking: white flour, corn meal, baking powder, and white and brown sugar. They bought very few canned vegetables or fruits because Mama had a garden and an orchard with peach trees and put these up in Mason jars for storage in the cellar. She raised chickens and turkeys, which were the mainstay meats on our menu; and of course, we had eggs, butter, and milk, from which she made buttermilk and cottage cheese. Daddy also slaughtered a cow and a pig each year and had the meat packaged and put in the walk-in deep freezer in Petersburg where we went to do our shopping.
While I loved going to the grocery store with Daddy, I was a bit frightened and definitely in awe of walking inside the freezer locker. Staying long enough (probably only five minutes at the most) for Daddy to select the cuts that Mama had written on the grocery list, seemed like an eternity to me. Her list usually read: one chuck roast, two pounds of bacon, and one pound of sausage. This walk-in freezer was a separate business from the grocery store, just down the street a few doors.
During these trips to town, Daddy filled up the car with gasoline and shot the breeze with the men working at the Texaco station. Sometimes, he had some business to take care of at the Farmers and Merchants Bank. Farmers had to keep on good terms with the bank’s loan officers. The feed stores in small rural towns in Texas were hubs of activity. Here, Daddy bought seeds for his crops, feed for Mama’s chickens, and other farm supplies. Although the chickens ran free, I remember him buying “mash “ for the baby chicks.
I loved seeing the baby chickens for sale in crates at the feed store. The ‘peep-peep’ chatter they made was loud and distinctive, but not shrill. Daddy bought these little ‘peeps’ and Mama fed them until they were big enough to scratch for themselves.
I remember Mama catching a chicken or two in the hen house, wringing their necks, around and around in the air until it died. This was the closest I came to seeing how our farm animals were ‘processed’ in order to become food for our table. I never saw the actual slaughter of a cow or pig. I remember Daddy and my brothers slaughtering and gutting a hog at a distance from the house out by the barn. Mama told me what they were doing. I could see them bending over a long wooden trough working very hard. But I never ran out to see for myself.
After Mama killed the chickens, she hung them up on the clothesline to let the blood drain out. She then had to pluck the feathers, wash the bird and cut it up into frying pieces. She made the best fried chicken in the world, I thought. We’d never heard of nor tasted KFC.
Daddy and I returned from town with the car loaded down with groceries and farm supplies. I was filled with new fodder to feed my imagination that would nourish and fill my hours of solitude playing alone during the week ahead. The excitement of going on a trip, which I still feel about traveling, fed my spirit and imagination as a young child. I began to realize that there were different ways of living than on a farm, interesting people doing unusual jobs. The trips to town with Daddy stimulated my daydreams as I lay on my back in the grass imagining faces of people and animals in the clouds and in my creative play in the back yard.
I wonder about Mama in those years. She stayed home and worked when Daddy and I went to town. Where did she get her creative stimulation? She only went out from the farm home on Sundays and Wednesday nights to church, which in my view, served to reinforce for her that there was no other world “out there,” no other possibilities for her life, than being a dutiful, housekeeper/servant for Daddy and her children.
Mamma and Daddy met when she came to Texas to visit her older sister, Lillie, who was already married. Minnie traveled from southwestern Oklahoma where she grew up with her parents, Isom and Etta Wilcoxson, married Ray Mickey in March 1924, and settled into the life of a farmer’s wife that lasted over 48 years. Daddy fondly remembered their brief courtship, saying to me, “Minnie and me sparked for a few months and then decided to git hitched for life.”
Needle and Thread
Mama’s hands were always busy, idleness not in her mental vocabulary, nor in the sinews of her hands. When not busy cooking, canning, gardening, cleaning, laundry, or ironing, Mama was crocheting, knitting, tatting, mending, sewing, or quilting. She thought of these needle and thread crafts as practical and necessary to outfit her home and family properly.
I observed her Mama’s fingers at work skillfully knitting and purling and rarely losing a stitch. I wondered how this was done, but Mama never took the time to show me how. All I actually learned to do with needle and thread was through my high school home economics sewing classes, and years ago, Ila, my older sister, had learned little more from Mama about the needle arts than I had.
Quilting seemed to “run in the family” to hear Mama go on about her mother, Grandma Wilcoxson, and Aunt Renee quilting when they lived in Indian Territory up near Hollis. When Mama got married in 1923, she carried on this tradition, often quilting with women from the church. She was proud of the friendship quilt that she and the church ladies made in the winter of 1932-33, during the height of the Great Depression. Each square had a woman’s full name embroidered in the middle. The square, decorated with different creative embroidery stitches and symbols, represented the quilter’s interests. They stitched the squares together, then, the painstaking quilting process began. The tinier the stitches, the better the quilt. Mama prided herself on her ultra-tiny stitches. Hers would put to shame the so-called quilting with quarter inch stitches on the artsy-fartsy quilts shown in craft fairs around the country in the 1980s and 90s.
Mama quilted for the family using up every scrap of cloth left over from sewing new clothes and scraps from old clothes too. Her scrap bags were a dazzle of beautiful colors to my young eyes. That these scraps became beautiful warm covers to snuggle under in the bone-chilling cold when a West Texas “blue norther” hit was truly magical.
When all of the children got married, Mama gave each of us a quilt. Then, she began to make quilts for the grandchildren. Two of her favorite patterns were the Wedding Ring and Grandma’s Flower Garden, but she also made many with Lincoln Log Cabin patterns too.
When I grew up, I knew how to mend, sew clothing, and embroider and also how to appreciate quilting and other fine needle arts. Later, I did my Masters thesis on creative stitchery as an art form and held a one-woman art show of my original fabric and stitchery wall hangings. Yet, a bittersweet feeling always floods over me when thinking about Mama’s handiwork, which was both beautiful and useful. Doing these fiber arts, probably saved Mama’s sanity; however, this activity also distanced her from me. Mama’s fingers were so busy her tongue was stilled in the presence of me, her youngest child.
Teen Years—Breaking Some Rules
When I was a pre-teen and teenager, I worked in the fields chopping cotton (actually it was chopping the weeds out of the cotton) in the summer and pulling cotton in the fall. But I couldn’t wear pants, jeans or overalls doing this hard work! Wearing a dress really was not more modest given the blowing Texas wind and the constant bending and twisting we did while working. While I resented my parents’ rule about clothing, one thing I am glad Mama required was that I wear a bonnet to cover my face while working in the fields. She made these bonnets too. The headpiece was constructed with plackets that held strips of stiff cardboard she had cut from shirt boxes. These strips kept the bonnet firmly extended beyond the face for protection, while enabling me to see. There was a long fabric flap on each side and back of the bonnet. My bonnet, off-white with a little blue flower design was made of a coarse fabric, which may have been a flour-sack. Flour and feed sacks were used to make useful things like bonnets, aprons, pillowcases, and dish towels. When I became a teenager, I broke their rule about not wearing makeup by putting on lipstick. In fact, I went overboard with it. I remember licking my lips so that the tip of my tongue would always be bright red. I had forgotten I did that until at a class reunion years recently, someone said–when we were recalling how we looked and acted as teenagers in the 1950s–“Theresa, I remember your tongue was always tipped with red lipstick.” We laughed and laughed at our teenaged tricks trying to be sexy and beautiful.
I always had two pairs of shoes: a pair of nice ones saved only for Church and then a pair for school. Specifically, I remember having saddle oxfords even in elementary school. They were white leather lace ups with a band of black leather across the middle. Appliquéd felt poodle skirts ranked high on our “must have” list of clothes in high school. I have photos of my friends and me wearing saddle oxfords with big circular felt skirts with prancing poodles on the sides. We wore matching short- or long-sleeved pastel colored cashmere sweaters with these full skirts, which came to mid-calf, a very modest length. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had broken the family rule about “no pants.” A photo caught me with boys and girls in Palo Duro Canyon on our end-of-year picnic in 1956. I’m in borrowed jeans and a sleeveless white shirt, wearing my long brown hair in a ponytail and smiling.