My parents are getting older. They are fiercely independent, but once in a while they call and need or want something, and since I’m the older son those calls often come to me. A couple of weeks ago that call came from my father: “Your great aunt has passed, and we were hoping you could drive us to the funeral”. What’s a son to say?
The day started at 8 AM. I drove to their house and we all loaded in Dad’s car, then headed over to pick up my uncle before starting the 3 hour drive to Yellville. It’s one of those towns that has to be a destination for you, because you aren’t going to just happen upon it on the way to somewhere else: it’s as close to the end of the road as it gets. The drive is scenic and typical of the northern Arkansas countryside, and even though we’ve had little rain all summer it was still a pretty drive, though very dry. The funeral was well attended, and since my great aunt had dementia for a period of years the funeral was not as sad as some are. It’s also pretty rare that I see my uncle these days, so I decided to take advantage of the situation and ask him and my father everything I could think of about their childhood together and growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1930’s.
I heard stories about animals, picking cotton, and what I’m sure were some terrible, lean times in the Great Depression. They lived in a time when most people there still did not have electricity and indoor plumbing, when no one had any money, but most folks at least had a garden and the ability to feed themselves. One of my dad’s more revealing memories was about the hobos, tramps, and homeless folk that sometimes showed up at their house near the railroad outside of Little Rock. Every morning his mother would fix the family breakfast, usually consisting of homemade biscuits and gravy and eggs. The family would eat and head on their way, and leftovers would be set aside to eat later. Sometimes the hobos would come knock on the door at the porch and ask if there was any food to be spared. My dad said that my grandmother would do her best to sound stern, but most times a plate of that mornings leftovers would get handed through the screen door to a hungry man who would eat out in the yard while my dad and aunt would watch. I remember my Grandmommie and this sounds typical of her: she could sound tough when she wanted but would help if she could.
My uncle had a good story or two as well. “Daddy and our family lived for a while at a dairy. Daddy ran the dairy, and in return he got free rent and a plot of ground to garden, plus $5-10 a week. Back then nobody had a tractor for plowing. You had to have either a mule or a horse to pull a plow. Daddy needed a mule, so one Saturday he went to town to the livestock sale barn to bid on something. He brought home a good mule, and it was a fine looking animal. It was young and strong, and broke to the plow. I think it probably cost $40 or more, and that was a lot of money back then.”
“He got home late that Saturday and didn’t have time to plow, so on Sunday morning he got up to get his plowing done. Everyone else was getting ready for church, and Momma saw what he was doing and started to get on him about it. She said ‘Floyd! What are you doing? It’s time to go to church!’, but Daddy kept on getting ready to plow. Momma was always faithful to make it to church, and expected everyone else to go, too. So Daddy put on his overhauls and work boots, hitched up the mule to the plow, pointed it down the row, snapped the reins at the mule, and they started plowing. They made it about 50 feet down the row, then the mule stopped. Next thing I knew, it fell over, twitched, and died!” (He later said it probably had the distemper). “My momma went straight up to Daddy and got up close to him and yelled at him ‘Floyd! I told you not to plow on Sunday!’ After that she always told everybody that the mule died because Daddy plowed on Sunday!”
Together my dad and uncle talked about other times when they were growing up, about the animals, living out in the country, and what life was like. There were hard times and they had no money, but with their farming ability they were almost always able to grow what they needed and take care of their own. I am amazed to hear about these times; it makes me realize how easy we have things now. And it was good to imagine my father as a boy and a young man, trying to figure out how to make it in the world. The stories from the road to Yellville were good ones, and turned the day into a treasured memory.