What a Trip! What a Mother!

The trailer was loaded and hitched to the rear of a 1946 Plymouth sedan in preparation for our move to Arizona. No doubt Mother was hopeful that things were going to be better for us. Vernon was working steady as a security guard and had rented a house, so all that remained was for us to get to Arizona.

My mother, a lone woman with ten children in her car and a trailer in tow, pulled out mid-morning to begin the trek of our lives from Arkansas to Arizona. Carefully stowed in the trunk were fried chicken and biscuits that someone had prepared for our first meal on the road. As best I can document, it was February 1958. I do not recall how many days we were on the road, but it had to be two or three. Nevertheless, Mother drove relentlessly across the wide prairie of Texas.

The fried chicken was our last taste of home as we knew it. When it was time to feed her brood again, Mother simply found a grocery store where she would purchase bread, baloney (she could not afford bologna!) and milk. My youngest brother was still in diapers and not the disposable kind! I had just turned 12 years old, so that gives you a picture of how close in age we ten children were. Close in age and close in proximity in that car as we rolled off the miles. Mother finally reached her limit somewhere in New Mexico where she pulled into a rest area, a primitive oasis by comparison to today’s roadside facilities, and slept for a time. Piled on top of each other, we children slept out of sheer exhaustion.

Our guardian angels were already on overload when, in what must have been the very early morning hours, we crossed from New Mexico into Arizona and headed into the mountains. Up, up, up we climbed only to find ourselves going down, down, down and around monstrous curves. It was not long before the brakes were burning. Mother had never driven in terrain such as this, plus she had the trailer in tow. While there was risk that the brakes might fail, the specter of the gas needle nearing empty brought greater fear to Mother’s heart. A resourceful woman, she managed to coast where she could to get enough momentum to make it up the next climb. Daylight had not yet broken as we literally crawled into a gas station in Superior, Arizona. We slept while waiting for the station to open.

With both the car and our stomachs refueled, we pressed on and made it safely to Phoenix. Our new house was quite nice by comparison to what we had experienced. We began the process of settling in, enrolling in school and acclimating to our new surroundings.

As a twelve-year-old girl experiencing this trip, I did not grasp the magnitude of the situation nor did I recognize the protection and provision that came from God. I just knew I had a Mother that always came through, no matter what the challenge. Her strength and determination to do what she thought was best for her children always carried the day. She was an amazing woman, and she deserved far better than what was waiting for her in Arizona.

California, Here We Come!

The towering oak tree that was home to Daddy’s hoist chain had gnarled, protruding roots on which I often sat with my back to the house and my gaze firmly fixed towards the woods. On the other side of those woods was Little Rock – the big city. I day dreamed of a better life, of surely marrying a doctor or a lawyer or even a preacher! Although my reverie was often disrupted by quarreling brothers or a call to help in the house, the respite of those day dreams buoyed my spirits and kept me going.

Once the divorce was final, Mother married a man who had been her patient in the hospital. He had shown us a great deal of kindness by helping us move from the house of tragedy to start a new life. Dare I hope that my dreams of a happy life might come true?

Vernon had custody of his two children as a result of a difficult divorce, and the challenge of blending the two families became a stress point to which he did not react well. The house we moved to was not large enough for now seven boys and three girls. He and mother both worked while I, being the eldest, was responsible for babysitting when not in school. Time revealed that this man had a terrible temper. He seemed to treat my mother well; and while he was never physically abusive to us children, his anger was unleashed often. He also seemed to have trouble keeping a job, and I suspect his temper had something to do with that.

My stepfather seemed to think California was the promised land, so we moved to Bell, a suburb of Los Angeles. I was in the seventh grade at Bell High school. We lived in a rectangular pre-fab with only 3 rooms. There was a bedroom on one end that Mother and Vernon shared, a middle room that was everything else, and a bedroom on the other end of the house with a bathroom. All ten children slept in there on mattresses on the floor. There was no room for furniture. Vernon did not want Mother to work, and two or three of the youngest brothers were not yet in school. The situation became unsustainable for my Mother; so after nine months, we moved back to Arkansas. I think that move also coincided with Vernon’s losing another job.

We settled briefly near Vernon’s family. His parents were cotton farmers who hired us older children to pick cotton for them. We had to pick 100 pounds of cotton to be paid twenty cents! After school and on weekends, with a large bag draped over my shoulders, I went from plant to plant plucking boles of cotton from prickly casements. My hands were often scratched and bleeding by the end of the day.

Mother had been re-hired at the hospital in Little Rock. Leaving very early in the morning and getting home late, she drove about 120 miles round trip each day. That job helped preserve my mother’s sanity, but the extensive driving took its toll. Before we left our home place, I had joined a 4-H Club through school. One of the projects I undertook was to make some repairs on our house. Among other things, I nailed framing around screens that were loose and falling off windows. An instructor came out to the house to inspect the projects I had completed. It was several months before I was notified that my projects had won an award. I was to come to Little Rock on a Saturday to be recognized. It was her first Saturday off in weeks and Mother just could not bring herself to drive back to Little Rock. While that was understandable, for me it was a huge disappointment.

I was in my eighth-grade year at McRae High school when Vernon went to Arizona where he had a sister. With promise of work, he left Mother with all ten children. As stated at the outset of these reflections, there is so much I do not remember. Mother continued to work, but who looked after the boys after school? How did we manage? My sister and I did a lot of the cooking and laundry, and Mother never stopped except to sleep briefly.

We finally received word that Vernon was working steadily and had rented a house for us. I do not recall how long was the separation before we were able to join Vernon, but the trip to Arizona is forever etched in my memory.