In 1984 I discovered that my mother, Elien Isom, who is the archivist/editor in our family, had archived much of their personal correspondence and most, if not all, of my fathers writings, going back into the 30s. When I think of the number of times they moved I will be forever grateful that she so meticulously and faithfully made sure those boxes made the trip. After reading a substantial number of the early letters and sermons I wrote and asked a number of questions about their childhood and youth. AS I REMEMBER ME started out as an answer to that letter. That letter ended 439 pages later. What follows is the first half of the manuscript. Mary Beth Isom
AS I REMEMBER ME - THE EARLY YEARS
John B. Isom
October 19, 1984.
Dear Mary Beth,
Here is something about my life's journey from it's beginning. No attempt is made to organize the material in some logical order. I am putting things down as memory dictates. Who knows what memory will gouge up as I go along? You are welcome to whatever you find here that will help in your undertaking - unless I suggest otherwise. A little of it might be unfair to other people if it were blabbed out in public.
I looked up some words that I did not know how to spell. And my old typewriter makes mistakes too. It cannot spell some words that I know how to spell. Also, some of my grammar will, no doubt, need to be toughed up. I'm sure that I could say better what is written here, if I took the time to redo some of it.
AS I REMEMBER ME.
The north end of Lookout Mountain blocks the Tennessee River's southern journey, forcing it to take a southwest course at Chattanooga Tennessee. It enters Alabama at the northeast corner of the state. Flowing along the west side of Sand Mountain, it seems determined to empty itself into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Alabama, near the southwest corner of the state. However, at Gunthersville Alabama, about seventy five miles along its southwest course, the Sand Mountain and the Brintle Lee mountain lock arms, forcing the river to turn slowly northward, returning to Tennessee at the northwest corner of Alabama. It continues northward across western Tennessee, finally emptying itself into the Ohio River at Paducah Kentucky.
Twelve miles east of Guntersville and eight miles north northeast of Albertville Alabama on the 2nd day of the 12th month of 1909 I became a bundle of "joy" to my parents, Joe and Elizabeth Isom. It was on the day, or night of the day, that my Isom and Price grandparents and my new family killed hogs.
My Father's parents lived 500 yards east of us, and my mother's parents lived 500 yard further east. The Frazer family, with two boys, a bit younger than my brother and I, lived 400 yards to our west, and the Stone family lived 500 yards south. Mrs. Frazer was a daughter of the Stone family.
The two non-public roads that serviced these five families forked at our place and a small stream flowed west about fifty yards south. It ran through our pasture, and those of both sets of my grandparents. The stream was too small for fish, and during a real dry summer it would almost dry up completely, but it was an ideal breeding place for toad frogs. Tadpoles by the thousands were a common sight. (Tadpoles are baby frogs.)
My brother R L was 16 months older than I. He and I had a lot of fun playing in that small stream, even though our parents did not approve. They did not want us playing in water, or going swimming, without an adult who cared for us on hand. We would dam the creek up to make a wading pool. The dam would wash away every time it rained, but we would always rebuild it.
Our father was good about taking us swimming. Papa would usually take us swimming, on Sunday afternoons, to the swimming holes where the grownup men did their swimming, along with some of our uncles and cousins. Of course the swimming was done in the nude. I doubt if any of the grown ups had ever heard of a bathing suit. We usually went to one of three swimming holes. There was one on Scharum Creek, one on Whippoorwill Creek, and one on Forked Creek.
We also did most of our fishing on those creeks, which were within easy walking distance from our place. Many of my richest memories are of the many fishing trips with my father. We usually went after a rain, when it was too wet to work in the fields. The fish we caught were mostly small ones, such as sunfish of some sort, minnows, suckers and catfish.
There was a row of black walnut trees in our pastures. R L and I used to use a claw hammer to crack nuts on the big flat rocks that were under the walnut trees. One day R L and I were cracking walnuts on those rocks. For some reason we began banging the rocks with the claws of the hammer. It may have been that such banging would make sparks. Anyway, we broke one of the claws off the hammer. We put the hammer back in its' place, being careful not to be seen with it. Then we anxiously waited for the broken hammer to be discovered. As I remember, it took a good bit of prompting, from our father, before we could even recall when we had last seen the hammer, much less used it. That one-clawed hammer stayed in the family for years, a constant reminder of that experience.
My mother's family name was Price. She had three sisters and two brothers. Uncle John was the oldest of the Price children. He became a country Baptist minister. I don't remember ever hearing Uncle John preach, but years later, when I was in college, I met a person who had heard him preach.. His report was that my Uncle John was a spellbinder. I was never around him much. I don't remember ever eating a meal or spending a night at his place. Of course, he had already married and moved away before I was old enough to remember - some two miles away. Uncle John wife's name was Ada. They had one daughter but I have forgotten what her name was.
Aunt Ada had the biggest mouth I ever saw. Yes, bigger than Martha Ray's. She dipped snuff, and there was always a ring of wet snuff around her mouth. I stayed out of reach of her, as much as possible, for she would always grab me and kiss me with those snuffy lips.
Uncle Jack was the baby of the Price family. He was in his early 20's when I was a child of five or six. He later became an alcoholic. He was always taking one of us kids to town with him. He would buy us anything we wanted and give us money to spend. On one of my trips to town with him he gave me fifty cents and told me to wait for him at the drug store, for he had some business to tend to. I drank soda pop, ate candy and waited and waited. Some time after dark he showed up with two women and another man in the buggy. I sat in the lap of one of the women who was sitting in the lap of somebody else. We ended up at somebody's house and stayed, it seemed to me, a very long time. They did in time give me something to eat. I figured it out some years later. They were having a little drinking party. Some people call it "the happy hour" today.
My name is John Branch, but all my kinfolk called me J.B. But Uncle Jack called me "Jab". On the way home that night he said, "Jab, don't tell your parents where we have been or what we've been doing". I don't remember if I told my parents all I knew about that trip or not. I do remember that my mother gave Uncle Jack a tongue thrashing. From then on she would never permit me to go with him without a solemn promise to get me home before dark.
One of mama's sisters, Aunt Pearl, married Plaze Oliver. He was a brother of Uncle John's wife. He had the biggest eyes I ever saw. It frightened me for him to look at me. They had a house full of children - Dee, Nora (who married Uncle Mack, one of papa's brothers, Ready, Grade, Lloyd, John (about my age), Orby Man, and two or three younger ones whose names I don't remember. They lived about one and one half miles from us, near the swimming hole on Forked Creek. John and I were good friends and visited each other at every opportunity. Aunt Jane, another sister of mother's, married Willis Brooks. They lived about five miles away. The Brooks family, and my family, usually paid each other a weekend visit once a year. They had four children, Mandy, Marvin, Magnolia, and one other. Aunt Jane was a lot of fun! The only thing that spoiled my visits to her home was the "pissy" odor of their beds. The boys must have been bed wetters.
Mama's youngest sister was papa's first wife. She was Maudie's mother, which made Maudie my cousin and half sister, all in one. Maudie's mother died fifteen months after they married. My mama was her sister's nursemaid during her last illness, and took care of Maudie. Some time after Maudie's Mother died papa married my mother.
Papa built a two-room house on sixty acres of land he and Mama bought from her parents. One of the rooms served as a kitchen and dinning room and the other served all other purposes. The house was situated, half way between two springs that ran through the property. There were porches on three sides of the house and it was heated by a fireplace. Later Papa built another room onto the house. I don't remember the room being built, but I do remember being told many times, by different ones, of how I wasted many nails by driving them into the yard while the room was being built. As the years passed I did find, now and then, old rusty nails sticking up in the yard.
The yard was bare. I must have been fifteen or older before I ever saw a yard with grass on it. A yard was considered well kept if it was free of grass and kept swept clean of all trash. It was somebody's weekly job to sweep the yard with a yard broom, which was made by tying the branches of a dogwood bush together tightly.
My Grandma Price was a hundred pounds of vim and vigor. She had a sharp tongue and knew how to use it. However, her bark was much worse than her bite, for it could not hide the warm and tender glow of her loving heart. I had no fear of her bark. I knew she loved me and that she was an easy touch. The more she barked the more she would give to atone for the barking. She died at 96. Her family name was Mann.
Grandpa Price wore a big mustache. He was a tall and handsome man. He never had much to say to me. He did not bother me and as far as I know I did not bother him. We seemed to be somewhat a mystery to each other. I certainly could not see through him as well as I could my grandma.
Grandma Price always seemed to be on a high horse about something that grandpa had done or not done. He would listen in silence sitting in his easy chair by the fireplace smoking his pipe. When he guessed it was time for a response he would take a big suck on his pipe and make a spewing sound as a cloud of smoke escaped through his lips. The response, of course, made matters worse and she would start her one-sided argument over at a much higher pitch. I know nothing about his parents or where he was born. He died a year or so after we moved to Holly Pond.
Papa had two sisters, Aunt Sally and Aunt Nancy. They had left home before I was old enough to remember them, and only remember them by my encounters with them when they came home to visit their parents. Nancy's first husband's name was Johnson. I never knew him and the marriage did not last long. They had one child whose name was Parker Johnson. He would visit us from time to time as we were growing up. After he was most grown up he went to Arab Alabama and lived with his father. He married Stump Sparks' daughter. Sparks was the keeper of the country store. Parker was killed a few years after he married by a stray bullet as he and a friend were walking along a country road.
Aunt Nancy's second husband was Steve Baldwin. Aunt Sally married Jimmy Duncan. They both had children. How many, and their names, I don't remember, if I ever knew. There was not much coming and going between their families and ours. They lived too far away for that.
Papa also had two brothers, Uncle Mack and Uncle Daniel. Uncle Mack married Nora, Aunt Pearl's oldest daughter. Uncle Daniel, when only 17 or 18 years old, married Minn. Both couples had a number of children. But we moved away to Holly Pond before any of their children were old enough to play any part in our lives. Most of them I never met.
Grandma Isom was Grandpa's second wife. I know nothing of her family, not even her family name, unless it be Branch, which is my middle name. I once asked my father how I came by that name. He answered: "It's a family name." He did not say what family and for some reason I did not ask.
Grandma Isom was too simple and complex for words to describe her personality. Her life was consumed, without complaint, in the day to day work of cooking, washing, ironing, and keeping her house, yard and garden clean. Her sense of beauty was revealed by the flowers she grew and the cheap reprints of paintings that hung on the walls of her house, along with the colorful pictures she cut from papers, catalogues and magazines, that by chance, came her way.
She kept a clean house and there was always something good to eat on her table. Emotionally she was on dead center most of the time; neither cold nor hot about anybody or anything. Her feelings, seemingly, never rose above, or fell below, a non-cold non-hot 68 degrees. She could carry on a one-sided conversation as long as anyone would listen, and even longer. Once she stopped and observed, "Son, you are not listening to me." My silent response affirmed her observation. But her talking was about nothing beyond the day-to-day activities of her limited world. I never saw her reading a book or paper, not even the Bible. If you were in the need of being cuddled by someone, who could tell you emotionally how she felt toward you, Grandma Isom was not the person to turn to.
For that Grandma Price was much better. Neither would you go to her for an answer to a question of a philosophical nature. However, if you felt the need to be with someone who was calm and collected, seemingly undisturbed and unafraid, Grandma Isom was the person you would look for. She was Mrs. Stability herself.
Grandpa Isom wore a mustache. He was a small man on the short side of average. His sense of humor made him delightful company, as well as a bit of soothing comfort when in pain. When I hurt my hand or foot in his presence and cried he would take a look and say, with a twinkle in his eye, "Shucks, that's too far form your head to kill you." He gave me more attention than Grandpa Price.
He had a way of saying no with a yes. For example: if he was busy and did not have time for me, and I approached and asked if I could help him, "Yes," he would answer, "just stay out of the way." The role his answer gave me to play was not as exciting as I expected. Yet, it was more acceptable than a blunt "No." It was a no with a positive suggestion.
When I was around seventeen years old he and Grandma came to live in a small house on our place, about two hundred yards from our house. For the next three years we spent many hours together. He no more thought of me as a child. Not once during those years did he speak to me as if I was a child. He talked to me in the same way he talked to any other grownup. And he expected grownup talk from me. He was not interested in talk that did little more than kill time. Conversations that had to do only with the common day-by-day events and necessities did not interest him. He liked to raise questions about the rare and unexpected events. He was interested in exploring things he had read or heard about which he did not know enough to understand, or events that made him wonder. His cup of tea was conversation with someone who was willing to wonder with him about the unfamiliar.
He read the Bible a lot. But the subjects that preachers and church goers talked about seemed not to bother or interest him. Such subjects as hell, heaven, sin, salvation, and judgment never came up in our conversations. The things that caught his attention in the Bible were such reported events as the sun and moon standing still for a day at the demand of Joshua, and the destruction of the walls of Jericho by seven priests blowing as many ram's horns and the yelling of a small mob. He usually had a new question to ask me about such events every time we got off on biblical subjects. Another one of his favorite biblical events, he liked to pick my brains about, had to do with somebody pissing on a wall. He never could comprehend the purpose, or value, of such an act. (I regret that I do not have the reference books before me that would enable me to tell you where to find that recorded act in the Bible.)
He had the habit of rubbing the side of his nose with his forefinger when he was formulating an answer to a serious question. Once, while we were walking through the fields, I asked him at what age did a man lose interest in sex? He was then 70 or more years old at the time. Rubbing his nose, silently we walked on for a minute or so, then, as seriously as the question was asked, he answered: "Son, you will have to ask someone older than I" After a few moments for silent reflection the subject was changed to something that we were old enough to talk about.
I enjoyed the company of my Grandpa Isom.
I was eight years old when my mother died. Not remembering any significant conversations, I assume she was a person of few words.
Surely I would have remembered if she had been as high strung and verbose as her mother. I do not remember her being over or under emotionally involved in my life. She seemed to be always there when I needed her and served my needs without making a big to do about it. I always felt secure in her presence. I do remember two experiences with her that make me think she had a wonderful sense of humor
Once R L and I did something that must have raised her dander. What we did I dimly remember had something to do with peanuts (goobers). I have a hunch we were eating the nuts and throwing the hulls on the floor. Whatever it was, she made for the flyswatter (flyslap) and we made for the door just in time to escape. She found us high up in the cherry tree at the end of the house. Something about the situation struck her as funny. Unable to contain her laughter she turned and went back into the house. Neither party ever said anything about the episode.
Another time R L and I were in the field replanting corn. He had a hoe and I had a small bucket of corn. We went up and down the rows. When we came to a skip in the corn, he would dig a small hole, I would drop a grain of corn in, and he would cover and pat it down with the back of the hoe. We got into a fuss about something. What it was I have long forgotten. Catching me, turned in the right direction, he gave me a hard kick in the seat of my pants. His big toe must have hit me right at the end of my backbone. I let out a yell and accused him of hitting me with the hoe, "No," he said, "I only kicked you." To this day he swears that he only kicked me. And to this day I sometimes find it hard to believe him. I headed for the house, bawling all the way. (Bawling is loud and tearless crying.)
Hearing me, mama met me at the door wanting to know what the trouble was. Between loud, but dry-eyed sobs, I reported that R L hit me with the hoe. "Where did he hit you?" she asked. I pointed toward the seat of my pants. Judging from the quality of my crying she must have reached the conclusion that the damage was far less than I made it sound. She then, with difficulty, no doubt, keeping a straight face, said, "Pull down your pants and let me see where he hit you." I was not about to expose my backside, in broad daylight, for her examination. "No," I said, and turned and went back to the field. Nothing more was ever said about this event in my life. If she ever discussed it with my brother it remained a secret between them.
I admit feeling, at the time, a little let down by my mother. Yet there was that intangible part of me, that was always insisting on honesty and fairness, silently reminding me, saying, in effect, "yes, it hurt, but not as bad as you pretended. Your mama loves you. She knows you well enough to know that you were stretching the truth. She was trying to get you to admit, as much to yourself, without having to tell you with cold and blunt words, which would have been even more embarrassing to you."
Mama helped to give me a secure and happy childhood, that in turn enabled me to suffer my loss in her death without bitterness, or feeling that I was hopelessly handicapped by her death.
After I grew up and began to calculate the results of her death on my life I had to admit that her early death may not have been all for the worse, for me at least. First of all, I have to confess that the thought occurred to me, more than once during my early manhood, that I might have grown up a spoiled brat had it not been for the early death of my mother. Anyway, that thought helped me to accept and bear up under the loss of her presence. There were three events during my early manhood over which her absence cast a shadow of sadness. Times when I could not be unaware of the wish that she could be with me. They were when I received my high school diploma at Holly Pond High School, my B A degree from Howard College in Birmingham Alabama, and when I was awarded my Master's degree by the Baptist Seminary at Louisville Kentucky.
As small as those achievements were, having known my educational beginnings, and being made aware of the few bad breaks and the many good ones, by luck and accidents, that made such achievements possible for me, they would have been judged, by my mama, as great accomplishments. The joy they would have given her I wish she could have known.
Also, had not my mama died while still a young woman we would not have pulled up stakes and moved, in late December 1919, to Cullman county, some forty miles west, and settled in the New Hope community, located fifteen miles east of the town of Cullman, and two miles north of the village of Holly Pond Alabama. In this new community I came to know, and was influenced by, people whose knowledge and experience made me aware of a larger world than the kinship world of my early years.
There were other people living in the community of my birth other than my kinfolk, but 99% of my significant contacts with other people were with my kin. They made up my human world until I was ten years old. They were good people. They had a sense of responsibility and rightness that made them dependable and kind. The quality of their ethical and moral attitudes were inferior to none, even if their scope and dimensions were less than that of Albert Schweitzer. However, the limitation of their knowledge of the world, their society and themselves was appalling.
My family and kin were not dumb people, but they were among the ignorant of the ignorant of the world. Their knowledge consisted of little more than what had been passed on by word of mouth from parents to children for generations. The community provided me with no influences that would have made me feel the need, or desire, to know more than what I picked up through association with my equally ignorant relatives. I'm sure it is correct to report that not one of my cousins with whom I associated, during the first ten years of my life, went as much as one day to high school. Had we continued to live in that community the odds are 10,000 to one my formal education would have consisted only of what I may have received in the one room school house of the community. Had not my mother died when she did the odds are equally as great I would have grown to manhood in the house where I was born.
The year after mama died Grandpa Isom's family moved away and a new unknown family, by the name of Cadle, moved in to take their place. A few months after they arrived Papa married the oldest daughter of that family. The next winter, 1919, Papa's father-in-law persuaded him to move with the Cadle family to the New Hope community in Cullman county.
My father was about five feet ten and a half inches tall, weighed between 160 and 170 pounds, coal black hair, gray-blue eyes, almost a perfect profile, young looking well into his fifties. He was a handsome man. Except in looks I am truly Joe Isom's son, as much so spiritually as biologically. The underlying virtues of his attitudes, feelings and thinking became the basic assumptions by which I have been compelled, from an inward necessity, to judge myself. Virtues that made their imprint on my mind and heart, not by the preachments of my father but through their manifestation in the life of my father. The life he lived before me, day by day for twenty years, played, by far, the largest role in the formation of the presumptions of my mind and heart.
My father knew the letters of the English language. He could count, but chances are he would not have known how to put on paper the figure 10,000. He could write his name. That was the extent of his formal education. He knew nothing about the rules of adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing. Yet, he could do all those things in his head, well enough to do most of the things he wanted to do.
With a hammer, hand saw, square, yard stick and level he could figure out, in his head, the length width and angles for all the pieces he needed to build the houses and barns he build for himself and his family. He could not read a first grade sentence. However, as we roamed through fields and woods together I learned from him the names, how to identify and the basic habits of all the trees, plants and grasses; all the birds, animals and many of the insects that lived in our community. His knowledge of his physical world that could be seen, heard and felt was comprehensive.
More profound and important were the intelligence and wisdom he found and made use of in an unverbalized philosophy of life of simple honesty and fairness, by which he judged himself, others and human institutions. His ability to see through sham and pretense was remarkable. He was not an easy sucker for the con man who exploited the psychology of greed, fear and hope, be the con man a spell binding preacher or some shyster trying to talk him into some sort of business deal that would leave him holding the empty bag.
My father was not a perfect man. He was a wise and good man who set me an example of human decency - a decency, with the advantages of all my education, I have yet to achieve for myself.
Whenever possible I told papa where I was going, the purpose of my going and where he could expect to find me at a given time. After I was 14 years old I don't remember him saying "No, you can't do this or that, or go here or there." If he did not think well of the idea he would say, "I rather you wouldn't." I confess I seldom ignored his "I rather you wouldn't", not because I feared the consequence, but rather out of respect for his feelings if not always his judgment.
I do not remember him ever saying: "Son, I trust you." yet, wherever I went the belief went with me that papa trusted me - believed I would act decently and do nothing that would bring shame on myself or my family. I'm sure that his unspoken trust in me has been the greatest outside moral influence on my life.
I could write a book without exhausting my memory of the experiences with papa that would justify all the assertions I have made here about him. A few will be related in the telling of my growing up in his shadow.
BROTHERS AND SISTERS.
Maudie, my oldest sister - half sister and cousin in one - is eight years older than I. By the time I was old enough to remember she was grown up enough for me to think of her as an adult in the family. She did not play a big role in my remembered childhood activities. When eighteen she married my step-mother's brother. Under terrible conditions she managed to rear a wonderful family of three boys and two girls. She had a very hard row to hoe most of her adult life. She hoed it far more successfully, with grace and dignity, than I would have been able to do.
My full sister, Frances, is three years younger than I. She was too young to be involved in most of her brothers' childhood activities. We thought of her and treated her as a baby, perhaps longer than we should have. Hindsight suggests to me that the death of our mother made her growing up years more difficult than it did for her brothers. In 1929 she married Brinton Clark. They were eighteen. Economically, they had a very hard time of it during the depression years. I was away in school and saw little of them during their hard years and could help them even less. In the late thirties or early forties they moved to Birmingham Alabama, where Brinton got a good job. They reared a boy and two girls who are today an honor to themselves and to their parents.
Alfie and Anne Belle, brother and sister by my step-mother, were too young to play an important role in my growing up. Their mother died of pneumonia in the winter of 1928, ten years after she married my father. She was just in the prime of her early womanhood.
In 1929 Papa married his childhood sweetheart, with whom his half-brother, Uncle John, beat his time, married her and reared a family. Uncle John was Grandpa Isom's son by his first wife. I know nothing of her family. I barely remember when Uncle John died. His wife remained a widow until she married Papa in 1929.
Papa took Alfie and Anne Belle to live with him and his fourth wife on Lookout Mountain, 75 miles east of Cullman. He soon thought better of it. He brought the children back, Alfie to live with Maudie and Anne Belle to live with Frances. For both of them their growing up years were difficult. Anne Belle came to stay a short time with Elien and I in late 1942, about the time I went into the Army. She was by then a young woman. She married a childhood schoolmate, Ray Garrison. They reared two boys and a girl of whom they are proud and should be.
Alfie served in the Army during World War II. He returned from the army an alcoholic. I saw him briefly in 1953. Shortly after my visit he had a stroke that left him with a useless arm and a crippled leg, and other handicaps. He died in 1983. He had a very hard life, much harder than that of any of the rest of us.
My brother R L was 16 months older than I. We were as close to each other as two crowder peas in a pod. We ate together, slept together, played together, worked together and fought together. Until we were in our mid-teens we were together ninety percent of the time. We had our disputes and arguments, but I have to go back before the age of ten to remember a dispute between us that Papa had to arbitrate.
I am sure, had it been our luck to do so, we could have gone into some business together and worked with one another in complete confidence and trust until death parted us; reared our families next door to each other, and our adult years together would have been as peaceful and happy as the years of our childhood and youth. We had a wonderful life together. R L married Audie, his childhood sweetheart, reared a girl and a boy, who, along with their children, are devoted to their father and grandfather.
By 1929 the members of my family had all gone their separate ways. The way I took carried me far from home, never letting me return except for very brief and rare visits. I have had little opportunity to associate with any of my relatives during the last fifty-five years. For my sake, if not for theirs, I wish it might have been otherwise. The memories of our life together during our growing up years has been, and continues to be, a constant source of joy and strength.
THE RELIGION OF MY PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS.
I remember my mother going with her father, two or three times, to an off brand hard shell Baptist church at Flatrock, some five mile away. I have no memory of any of my other grandparents ever going to any church. I have a very faint memory that Grandpa Price said grace at the table. That could be a false memory. Neither do I recall going to church with my mother. She and my grandparents were not church goers. My father was the only one of them who was a member of a church, as far as I know. He did not make a big thing about going to church, as though it was a vital part of his religion. He, perhaps, went to the church during the week to help dig graves for the dead more than he went to the services on Sunday.
Among my earlier memories are those of going to church with Papa. We sat in the Amen Corner. He took a quilt along. If I got sleepy he made me a pallet on the bench beside him. In the Amen Corner there was, usually, plenty of room for that. I agree with Albert Schweitzer that children can benefit from attending adult church services even if they don't understand much that is said or done. Indeed, I did not understand much that was said, or the meaning of some woman, now and then, standing up waving her arms and shouting. I was impressed and made to wonder as I watched a group of adults sharing in a serious exercise of their minds and hearts. I don't remember ever being bored. I was always ready to go the next time. Of course, I admit, I enjoyed going with my father regardless of where he was going.
I don't remember discussing with either of my parents or grandparents any of the religious subjects that country preachers talked about in church, such as heaven, hell, sin, salvation, baptism, etc. My hindsight suggests that such matters were far less important than other religious matters to my parents and grandparents. They expressed no concern about being saved or their children being saved. Whatever their thoughts and hopes of heaven, they expressed no fear of not going there. Seen from my present peep hole I have to believe the real voice of authority of their religion was not up in heaven, or what the preachers claimed the Bible said, but rather within that part of their invisible selves that insisted they be honest and kind in their dealings with other people. I have a hunch they believed if such inward source of authority gave them a passing grade they had reason to believe they would share in the best that the future had to offer.
OUR ECONOMIC STATUS.
My Price Grandparents owned the land they and my Isom Grandparents cultivated. Papa and Mama owned, or were in the process of paying for the land we cultivated. All of us and all my other know relatives, in comparison to everybody else, would have been classified among the poor. The parents of my Grandparents would have, not doubt, been called 'poor white trash." by some more fortunate than they. I have no knowledge to suggest that any of my great or great-great grandparents owned as many as one slave. I am sure that I descended from the "poor white trash." dirt farmers of the South. Nevertheless, during the first ten years of my life I was unaware of being poor. There was always within my reach plenty of everything to meet my childhood needs. The thought or fear of not having any, or plenty, to eat must have been beyond my childhood imagination.
One reason for my sense of economic security was, no doubt, due to the fact I had three places where I felt free to go to get whatever I needed: the homes of my Isom and Price grandparents, and the home of Papa and Mama. It never occurred to me that I would not find all I needed to meet my needs at either place - food if I was hungry, a fire to warm me if I was cold, a place to sleep if I was sleepy, salve for a cut finger or skinned (skint) toe, someone to be delighted in any happy experience I had to report, or to listen with sympathy to any tale of woe.
Had I only had the home of my parents to turn to I doubt if I would have felt any less secure. The only food my parents needed to buy was flour, salt, black pepper, baking powder, coffee and sugar. The rest of our food supply was grown on our farm. At least two big hogs were butchered every year: transformed into lard, sausage and cured hams, shoulders, fatback and striped-back (streaked-back). The cows provided plenty of butter, sweet milk and buttermilk. There were chickens, guinea fowl and ducks, which we ate "before they were born and after they were dead". The ducks were robbed of their feathers for pillows and feather beds. Most of the time a mess of fish could be had for the catching in the small creeks nearby. For the hunting a mess of squirrel, rabbit or quail could be found. Opossum also, but Grandma Isom was the only one who would cook opossum. Likewise she was the only one who would clean and cook hog chittlings. I did not like to smell them cooking, and their taste was worse. She also got all the hog livers. My guess is that I avoided eating at her table during the first few weeks after hog killing. The only meat Papa ever bought was a mess or two of beef when a neighbor, now and then, butchered an old cow or a yearling. Maybe once a year he would buy a bucket of herring.
There was an orchard on our place where we grew an assortment of fruit trees. The fruit they bore, if not eaten when fresh, were canned, jellied, dried or fed to the hogs. There were peaches, apples, cherries, plums and grapes. In our garden all vegetables "fittin" to eat were grown - strawberries, onions, turnip greens, collards, cabbage, okra, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, peas, lima beans (butter beans) green beans and a bunch of sage.
Somewhere, not far from the house, there was a patch of sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, peanuts (goobers) and a cane patch. The juice of the cane was turned into a golden colored syrup. Always there were patches of watermelons, cantaloupes and musk-melons. In late summer Papa would plant hills of such melons here and there in the cotton fields. These would make for a good snack any time of day we came upon one while picking cotton in the fall. When the corn was laid by and plowed for the last time a row of eatable peas were planted in the middle which were harvested dry and stored for winter. Also, in a corn patch near the house late pole-beans were planted. Those that escaped being eaten green were likewise picked dry and stored. Dry butter-beans were saved also.
In and around the woods there were blackberries, gooseberries, huckleberries and persimmons to be had for the picking. There were walnuts, chestnuts, chinguepins wild grapes and muscadines for those who cared to gather them. At my parents' place there was plenty of food and a wide variety. Had not my grandparents lived nearby the only difference for me would have been the distance I might have had to walk, at times, to get what I wanted.
I picked up the notion, from some source, that a family was really poor if they had to eat cornbread for breakfast, regardless of what else they might have to eat. Also a family was too poor if they had to sleep on a bed made of shucks. Our ducks saved us from falling into such a state of poverty.
There were a few mornings in late 1917, or early 1918, when we had to eat cornbread for breakfast. In the fall, when Papa sold his cotton, he bought enough flour to last until the next fall. He brought it home in 50 lb. sacks. He emptied one bag in the flour barrel and stored the rest near by. Toward the end of World War I the government reported there was a shortage of flour for the Army. The practice of buying a yearly supply of flour must have been common in our community. The government sent out an order, directive, or request that every family was to return all but one sack of flour. You would be refunded for the flour returned and given a ration card, permitting you to buy so much flour each month. Papa loaded all his flour, save one sack, and took it back. The result was that the allotment of flour did not always last the duration between allotments.
During the depression of the early twenties there were a few mornings that we had to eat cornbread. It was the summer after the fall we had to sell our cotton for five cents a pound. I assume Papa did not have the money to buy his full supply of flour nor the money to buy more when the flour ran out. That summer papa got a job clearing some land for a neighbor about two miles away.
One of those flourless days my step-mother scraped everything she could get out of the flour tray and all she could find at the bottom and around the edges of the flour barrel, finding enough flour to make a pan of biscuits. In a basket she put fried chicken and enough of those biscuits for mine and Papa's dinner, and sent me off with the basket to where Papa was working. I still remember his surprise when he discovered the biscuits; also, how good they tasted as we ate them, sitting on a log, his shirt wet with sweat - sweat that earned him the money to buy more flour.
OUR EATING HABITS.
Our standard breakfast consisted of hot biscuits, syrup, butter and coffee for the adults. Whatever else we might have on occasions those standard items were on the table every morning. At hog killing time we would have our fill of fresh sausage for a morning or two. Due to so much other fresh meat that had to be eaten before it spoiled - such as backbones, ribs and souse meat most of the sausage was cured, packed in small containers made of the inner layers of corn shucks, and hung in the smokehouse to be smoked along with the hams, shoulders and sides of the hogs. On Sundays, and special days, eggs with sausage, or fried cured ham, and red-eye gravy would be added to the breakfast menu.
The standard menu for dinner and supper were mostly the same. Enough was cooked in the morning for both meals. The standard dishes were cornbread, some cut of pork boiled with vegetables, either from the garden or home canned or dried ones, butter and milk. Such items as cabbage, collards and turnip greens could be picked from the garden most of the year. Not being able to preserve beef it was a substitute for pork only when some one in the community butchered an old cow or a yearling. It was not too unusual for a bowl of canned apples or pickled peaches to appear on the table at the evening meal.
Fresh fruits were available only in season. They were not a table dish at any meal. Each person picked his own and ate them when and where it suited him. Neither were peanuts a table dish. They were parched in a large pan and placed on the lip of the stove and eaten in the same fashion as fresh fruit, walnuts, hickory nuts and chestnuts.
Dessert was not a standard dish at any meal. In season a blackberry or huckle-berry pie (cobbler) would show up at a few meals. On occasions, throughout the year, there would be pies made of fresh or dried or canned apples and peaches. Egg custard was another dessert that was not uncommon.
Golden fried chicken with "whitehorse" gravy and biscuits ( not cornbread) was the favorite meat dish for Sunday and special days. Fried chicken with gravy was served mostly during spring and summer when there were plenty of roosters growing up. Chicken and dumplings were served during the winter. At times a guinea hen or duck would be substituted for the chicken. During spring and summer fresh fish caught from nearby creeks always made a welcome meat dish. In winter a dish of squirrel, rabbit or quail was equally as good.
From the time I can remember until I was ten the pieces of fried chicken were divided among us in this order: Frances ate the drum sticks. I ate the thigh pieces. R L ate the wings. Maudie ate the forked piece, breast, liver and head with neck. Papa and Mama ate the rest. By what democratic or otherwise process this division was made I do not know. I do not remember anyone ever being dissatisfied with it. It appears to me now that R L got the least part of the chicken. I don't remember the event, but I remember the story that evolved from it. Our family was visiting relatives. Maudie failed to get the forked piece, got mad , and refused to eat.
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