This story is by Page Craw and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Had the Clarion-Ledger from Jackson, Mississippi posted an announcement, it would have registered Mr. and Mrs. B. R. Grantham of Natchez’s announcement of the engagement of their daughter Mildred May Hargrave Grantham to Raymond L. Adams of Fayette – the wedding date scheduled for June 16, in the family’s private chapel on the grounds of Summerdale Plantation. Instead, disowned by her family, a teen aged Milly eloped with Ray, her twenty-year-old sweetheart. She brought her agreeableness of disposition, voluptuous blond beauty, highbrow background, and a bequeathed parcel of land with a hunting cabin in Church Hill to the partnership.
In three years, Ray built the chicken coop, the livestock corral, and a vegetable garden accessed by an arbor, surrounded by crepe myrtles and live oaks. Coming in from the pasture, Ray wiped his bandanna across his brow, his dark hair plastered against his forehead. “I’m enlisting,” he said.
“I didn’t know when, but I knew you would.”
They made another baby before he left in August of 1943. At the McComb depot, his burly arms wrapped around her still tiny waist, Ray groaned in her ear. “It’s the separation from your sweetness, not the war, that’s going to kill me.”
“You’ve got the three of us to come home to, don’t be forgetting. Little Howie and Doody need their Poppy. And I’ll be pining away while I wait for you.” Milly bit her lower lip to stave off the tears.
The soldiers began boarding the train. Ray hugged his little boy, Howard, kissed the baby, Donald, and embraced his beautiful wife for the last time, kissing her with a fierce passion. “God willing, I won’t have anything stop my returning!” In the crowded compartment, amid the troops, Ray had never felt so alone.
This happened; Momma and Poppy told me.
In April, Momma’s theme persisted, the infant named Ingrid. We boys called her Gee. All our given names ended in a “d.” “It’s the way something ends, that matters,” was Momma’s definitive statement.
Momma said we were as poor as Job’s turkey, but we didn’t lack except for the want of Poppy. We had chores assigned appropriate for our age, though you couldn’t trust Gee for much. She squealed with laughter when the carrot bunch sprung from the ground after a decent tug. Though too rough on the lettuce, she could help with the beans. No way could she handle the egg basket because the eggs were precious, sold at the Farmers’ Co-op.
We learned to swim young, and Doc Bates taught us to fish at his pond. We’d come home with three or four catfish and once in a while some perch. We had a lot of help in those early years. There wasn’t much meat, some donations of deer meat from the hunters, but we had vegetables all year long from the canning Momma did in the summer. Our milk cow provided plenty.
In the summer of 1945, in the aftermath of the European Campaign, Poppy returned. The same spark for Momma blazed into an unquenchable flame, from the moment he got off the train. “My darling, Milly,” he said over and over.
Momma’s tears coursed to the corners of her mouth, upturned in a smile. I’d never seen anyone cry at the same time as being happy. “You’ve brought life back to me, and it’s the beginning of a new world for the children.”
We all whooped and hollered. It was the best day we could remember. They made another baby as a welcome home gift – another April delivery of a boy named David. When he was older, he referred to himself as King. We called him Davey.
Richard was born in October of 1948. He was going to be rich, he told us often.
Finally, a Christmas present arrived of Rosalind or Rosie in 1951. Momma said the babies stopped when Poppy’s six-shooter was empty. Poppy scoffed every time he heard this. “Not hardly,” he’d say, and then chuckle.
There were both advantages and drawbacks to being the oldest of six kids. I can’t say we didn’t have fun, but a lot was going on. Momma would preface a task with the expression, “Many hands make light work.” We would all grimace and grumble before we’d get to it. Poppy had us trained to expect some pain for a reward. Our job every Saturday was to wash and wax his car, a 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88, white hardtop and hood, with a baby blue bottom. It had four doors and genuine leather seating. Loads of chrome, with a V-8 engine, it was a real beauty. Poppy loved that car.
We would drive down Main and back up Franklin to see heads turn. The pharmacist waved to us outside Wilson’s Drugs every time we went by.
Poppy was a bit loose with the law. When he got behind the wheel, he lit out. It wasn’t such a problem on the back roads until he got caught. He came close to having his license revoked more than once.
“Are you forgetting Raymond that you are the sole breadwinner? That car is to get you to work, not to race the back roads like you were NASCAR’s, Lee Petty!” It was a rare tongue lashing from Momma.
Poppy shuffled his feet, looking at the ground. “Milly, you know I do my work – but once, in a while, I want to have some fun.”
“Think about what these speeding tickets have cost us. How many nights at the drive-in could we have had? You tell me. That’s fun we can’t get back.”
“You’re right. I’ll try to ease up on the pedal.”
Good thing he hadn’t bought the Rocket, the faster model offered that year.
In the summer of 1958, I was past the halfway mark to becoming seventeen. One more year of school, and I’d go to work at Guedon Farms in the footsteps of Poppy, who was the foreman. Summer vacation was drawing to a close, and the double feature this night at the Starlight Drive-In, sure to please the teenage crowd, was The Blob in color, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space in black and white. Between the tickets and the snacks, these evenings were costly for a family of eight.
Poppy agreed to take us, even though Momma thought it was trash and wouldn’t let Rosie go, who wailed in dismay.
Gee couldn’t stop talking about Steve McQueen. “I saw him in the movie’s preview, and he is so cute!”
“It’s not like you’re going to meet him, you know,” Doody said.
“Maybe I will buy a film studio one day and make movies,” Richie said.
The Olds was shining and ready to go. I had to remind Poppy to park it in the shade. One time his money-saving scheme almost backfired, when the trunk became an oven.
We’d eat heartily, frying fish in the kettle, corn in the pot, and tomatoes and cottage cheese on the table. A big dinner before movie night meant fewer snacks. Ten cents for each Coke and bag of popcorn added up, and this on top of a sixty cents admission ticket.
Momma wiped her hands on her apron. “Poppy, come watch the fish. I’m going outside with Rosie.”
“Check this out. People look at Momma go!” I said. She was hula hooping madly, as Rosie laughed her head off.
Dinner finished, Poppy pulled out five straws. “Time to pick, kids.”
“I’ll go first. Droit de seigneur” Davey said.
“What?” we asked in unison.
Momma smiled at her third son.
“It’s French. The right of the master.”
“Not exactly the correct context, Davey,” Momma said.
Richie waved his hand in the air. “Me next!”
Another long straw.
I volunteered, surprising everyone. “Give me a short straw, I don’t mind – it’s been a long time. I hope it’s not Doody who gets the other one – we’ll be pretty cramped.”
King placed his long straw on the table, making some kind of noble gesture as he relinquished it. “Noblesse oblige. It’s only fitting to be gracious to our fair Ingrid. You, Doody, will owe me.”
Gee was in the front seat with Poppy, who revved the engine for show. Doody and Richie sat in the backseat. King and I were cramped in the hot trunk, awaiting to exit as soon as Poppy had parked way back at the outer rim.
The movies were scary and great.
Momma greeted us as we rushed in, breathlessly describing the movie scenes.
I went outside, walking alone past the barn, a dark space away from the house lights. Millions of stars in their brilliance were against the inky backdrop of space. When too many meteors to count blazed across the sky as shooting stars, I stared, mesmerized in a trance until the Perseid meteor shower was over. God had revealed His glory to me, giving me a path to pursue. Nine years later, I was working for NASA.