To Live and Let Live
by Rowena A. Moitoret
THE SUMMER I was eight was not a good summer in many ways. My father had decided he couldn’t support his family on the rather drouthy little farm he’d bought near Lenorah, on the west Texas plains, so he rented it to someone else, and in turn rented another place not far away, near Stanton, for us to live. The Great Depression was in full swing, at its lowest point as far as cotton farmers were concerned – cotton was a mere five cents per pound.
I do remember some happy things that happened that summer – like the hot day when my father was hoeing cotton with us, and he suddenly threw down his hoe and said, “Who wants to go to town and get some ice cream?” We all piled joyfully into our creaky old Model T Ford and went, and my double ice cream cone was strawberry. I’ve never had a better one since.
Then I remember sitting out in a sandy part of the yard after dark, with the multitude of stars overhead, with the airport beacon lights from Big Spring and Midland flashing in their regular arcs across the sky, and my father telling wildly imaginative stories about people being shipwrecked on islands with spider-like creatures bigger than horses, and children being captured by Indians and escaping in ingenious ways.
But this was also the summer that a plague of grasshoppers came and almost destroyed our crops. They were enormous grasshoppers, “Jumbos” we called them, and they were yellow-brown and ugly. They ate the leaves of the young cotton stalks and almost any other living plant they encountered. When my older sister Viola and I were sent out to hoe weeds in the cotton patch we were also instructed to kill any grasshoppers we saw.
Perhaps in the beginning we didn’t mind chopping the ugly things with our hoes – I don’t know. I may have done it without thinking much about what we were doing, at least until the grave news came from my Aunt Flora’s family in Colorado City that my cousin Jane had appendicitis and had undergone an operation. That was a dreaded illness in those days, before antibiotics. If the inflamed appendix was removed soon enough, the patient had a chance of survival, but many died.
I went along hoeing and thinking of Jane, just a little younger than I, and one of my favorite cousins. I remembered the time she had broken a little doll of mine with a china head, and how I’d grumbled at her – I promised myself I’d never say another cross word to her, no matter how many dolls she broke, if only she’d get well. I wondered about death – why would God choose one person to die, and not another? Why should Jane be so dangerously ill? She’d never done any harm that I knew about. Even over the matter of the doll, she’d behaved far better than I had.
About this time, pondering and shuffling along through the hot sand of the cotton field, I came to a really big grasshopper, sitting jauntily at the top of a cotton stalk, chewing away. I knocked him to the ground with my hoe and started chopping at him. I pushed him into the sand, and one of his legs came off, but he still wiggled and kicked and spit out his greenish-brown “tobacco-juice,” still trying to escape. I hated him fiercely, but somehow I realized I just couldn’t kill him, no matter what.
I looked up to find Viola watching me.
“I can’t kill him,” I said sullenly. “I don’t want to kill him, and I’m not going to! I’m not going to kill any more grasshoppers!”
Viola looked astonished and interested. This was an abrupt reversal of our usual roles because she was the one who frequently disobeyed parental orders, and I was the one who always did what I was told.
“You know what Daddy said,” she reminded me. “Do you want these grasshoppers to eat up all the cotton? Do you want us to be so broke we can’t buy any food? Do you want us to have to go to school barefooted, and with old worn-out clothes, and not even have a nickel to buy a notebook or a pencil or anything?” She contemplated the dramatic possibilities of all this with a certain amount of satisfaction. “Do you want to starve?”
I shook my head stubbornly. “I don’t care – I’m not going to kill any more grasshoppers.”
We went on down the cotton rows, our faded dresses sticking to our backs, sweat dripping off our foreheads from beneath our slat bonnets. Across the prairie to the south a long freight train on the Southern Pacific Railroad gave a faint, mournful whistle as it snaked along westward toward El Paso. I wondered if Viola would tell our father about my drastic decision – I knew that if our positions were reversed, I would probably tell.
When the sun was high overhead, we left our hoes at the end of the rows and headed home for the noon meal, always “dinner” on our farm. As we neared the house we saw that Uncle Corley’s car was stopped there – the little coupe with the rumble seat that was the pride and joy of our bachelor uncle.
But we sensed something was wrong – Uncle Corley always came on a Sunday afternoon, bringing us all the magazines he’d finished reading and sacks of oranges and apples – not on a morning in the middle of the week. We didn’t even have to look at our mother’s tear-stained face to know – he had come to tell us that cousin Jane was dead.
We were a subdued family for some time after that. For us children it was the first experience of death’s taking away some young person we knew well and loved. Viola and I discussed it for days and days as we went to hoe in the cotton patch, and we wondered fearfully about some all-powerful and irritable God who might be hiding among the big puffy white thunderheads in the sky, getting ready to point his finger at one of us. As for me – well, I chopped as hard as I could at the careless weeds and goat-head vines and cockleburs for the rest of the summer, but I never did kill another grasshopper. And Viola never did tell anyone, either.
A Recognition of Value
by Rowena A. Moitoret
THE YEAR I was twelve I decided to be a writer. Two things helped bring on this decision: I won third prize, of five dollars, (a fabulous sum to me in those days) in an essay contest on “Why I Like to Ride To School on an International School Bus,” and the Cadells came to live on my Uncle Howard Roger’s farm, a sandy-land farm near the Colorado River, about a mile from our own farm. My Uncle Howard always rented out his farm, usually to a different tenant each year, but never that I could remember did he have such a fascinating family as the Cadells living there.
My sister Viola, her curiosity strong, went over to visit them one sandstormy day in February, soon after they moved in. She tried to persuade me to go with her that first time, but I was too shy – then I wished I had gone when she came home bursting with information.
“They are city people,” she marvelled. “Mr. Cadell was a business man in Fort Worth, but his business went to the bad, so he thought he’d like to try farm life for a change. They’ve got a girl my age, she’s Mary, and a boy your age, Eugene, and then a little girl, Colleen. Isn’t that a beautiful name, Colleen Cadell? I think it’s Irish. And the mother, oh, she’s so nice, and she sounds so intelligent! She writes books – real books!”
I was astounded and intrigued. Imagine my having a real writer living near enough for me to go to see her! I could hardly wait for the next week to pass so that I could go with Viola to see these interesting people. The children hadn’t started to school yet. Viola informed me that they might not start to school, either. “Their mother thinks she can teach them better than the teachers in Ira School can.”
Later they did start to school, though, riding the seven miles in the lumbering school bus along with us. We talked to them and tried to make them feel welcome because it was very evident that they felt out of place and ill at ease.
“What are all the tin pails with holes punched in the lids?” little Colleen wanted to know. I had to smile. Imagine someone not knowing a lunch bucket when she saw one!
I was especially interested in the boy, Eugene, although I was much too shy to say more than an occasional word to him. He had a thin, alert, sensitive face – patrician I might have thought, had I known the word. He didn’t say much to me either, but I felt him watching me sometimes.
As the spring passed, the three young Cadells exchanged several visits with us, and we initiated them into our favorite pastime of roaming the cedar-covered hills near the river, looking for Indian arrowheads and grinding stones. Our fathers had probably met, but I don’t think our mothers had gotten together until sometime in early summer when Mrs. Cadell took matters into her busy hands. “I’m inviting all of you for dinner next Sunday,” she told us. “I need to ask your mother how she makes cucumber pickles, and I’m quite sure that Mr. Cadell could use a little advice as to what he should do about that piece of the field where the sand blew and killed all the cotton. It isn’t as easy as he thought it would be, being a farmer.”
I anticipated the next Sunday with a mixture of nervousness and pleasure. Mainly I was terribly concerned that all the parents like each other. Would Mr. and Mrs. Cadell realize what a kind and wonderful person my mother was, even if she didn’t have much to say? Would they recognize that my father was really quite an intelligent man even if he was just a farmer? I wished I could tell them that he’d gone away to business school and had a good job working for an oil company once but gave it up because he liked the independence of farm life better. And I wished he didn’t eat with his fork in one hand and his knife in the other – it was a long time later that I learned that this is a perfectly acceptable custom in England and Europe, and he doubtless learned it from his German mother.
Then, could my parents hide their amusement over the mistakes of the “city-man” farmer and his wife, giving the requested advice in a tactful manner? How I hoped so.
At least Mrs. Cadell was a good cook, city woman or not, and all twelve of us, squeezed around her big kitchen table, enjoyed the roast chicken and fresh vegetables from her garden, which she was very proud of having grown herself. I found myself sitting next to Eugene, closer to him than I’d ever been, and although this was oddly pleasurable, in a way, it was the cause of a confusing and agonizing moment.
You see, things were squeezed together on the table, too, and I suppose I must have set down my glass of iced tea in the wrong place, at some point. Anyhow, when next I noticed it, Eugene had picked it up and wad drinking from it. I didn’t say a word, but I wondered desperately what to do. Should I pick up the glass in a little while and go on drinking from it, hoping he wouldn’t ever realize what he’d done? Or should I just leave it? Or should I manage to get his glass and start drinking from it?
Then I realized, seeing the blush start at Eugene’s ears and creep across his face, growing redder every second, that he already knew what he had done.
His father noticed the blush, too. “Why Eugene, what makes you blush like that? You must not be used to having a pretty girl sit by you at the dinner table!”
Eugene just blushed harder – his usually pale face a fiery red by now. I began blushing too – in sympathy for him, I suppose.
Then my own father spoke up. “Hey, Eugene, how about showing me all those arrowheads you kids have been finding – I hear you’ve found some real beauties.”
Eugene, throwing my father a swift and grateful glance, ducked his head and left the table. He didn’t return with the shoebox of arrowheads until he had his blushes under control.
Finishing up my retrieved glass of iced tea, listening to my mother tell Mrs. Cadell how to make cucumber pickles and watermelon-rind pickles and chow-chow relish, and my father telling Mr. Cadell how he’d once helped with some of the excavation work of Mesa Verde National Park, I wondered how I could ever have been so worried about my parents “fitting in.” Perhaps there was just a little bit more to my parents than I’d ever noticed before!
by Rowena A. Moitoret
FROM THE TIME I was seven years old until I left the farm, every one of my summers, from June until mid-August, was occupied with hoeing. There were no chemical weedkillers or elaborate machinery, except a cultivator, to kill the weeds, so if they were going to be eliminated, it had to be done by hand. My father paid my sisters and me for picking cotton in the fall (and with our earnings we had to buy all of our clothing, shoes, school supplies, and anything else we might want before cotton-picking time the next fall), but in the summer we worked for nothing except the promise of a trip to New Mexico after we’d finished the hoeing.
Of course west Texas summers were very hot. We wore long-sleeved shirts and slat sunbonnets, old pants, and our old worn-out school shoes since the sand was usually too hot for bare feet. Our shoes would soon fill up with sand, and we’d have to stop to empty them. Our other legitimate stop was at the end of the cotton rows where we had the water jug (a large canning jar) hanging on the fence. The water was kept slightly cool by means of a dampened cloth sewed around the jar – the moisture seemed to attract ants, though, and sometimes they’d manage to find their way into the water. We were usually so thirsty we’d strain them out by pouring the water through someone’s shirt tail into the jar lid and drink the water anyhow.
This hoeing may sound like rather soul-deadening work, and I guess it could have been if we hadn’t liked talking to each other so well. We were all very interested in people, and our Mondays were always taken up with discussing all the neighbors we’d seen at Sunday School, what they wore, what they said, why they said it, what was going to become of them in the future – no professional psychologist ever had more thorough and personal interest in his subjects than we did in ours. We didn’t gossip maliciously, but if we heard any malicious remarks, we were apt to give the gossiper a very careful scrutiny. “Now just why would she say that? There must be some hidden reason.”
Mondays and sometimes Tuesdays were given over to discussing the Sunday School attenders, but by Wednesday we were casting around rather desperately for someone else to talk about so it must have been on a Wednesday that Beatrice Birthday was invented. She probably came from my older sister Viola’s fertile imagination, but both younger sisters Katherine and Frances and I, myself, may have helped fill in some details.
This Beatrice (for some reason we pronounced Beatrice with the accent on the a) was very ugly, with a long beak of a nose, stringy black hair, skinny arms and legs, long curved fingernails, and pimples all over her face. She looked like pictures we’d seen of witches. Her mother was dead, her father was weak and doting – he was very rich, and gave her everything she demanded so she was horribly spoiled. He spent much time in trying to soothe her tantrums and cater to her whims. I think she lived mostly on chocolate candy. Nearly every adventure she had required her to do something we would never have been allowed to do. In short, she seems to have been the complete opposite of everything we were taught to be – a psychologist would have had a busy time analyzing us as we worked along, inventing exciting predicaments for Beatrice to get into and out of.
Viola and I would get so interested in our stories that we’d hoe on ahead of Katherine and Frances and then turn around and cut weeds on their rows so that they could catch up and listen.
It was many years later, but I finally saw Beatrice Birthday. She was standing out in front of the Hotel de Paris, an elaborate, old-fashioned, elegant hotel in Monte-Carlo, raising an imperious, heavily-ringed hand for a taxi. Her father was nowhere to be seen – he was always the one who hailed the taxis – but I suppose he was dead by then. Beatrice was much older, yet I recognized that beaked nose, the tiny mean eyes, the downward curve of her thin lips, the haughty life of her chin. She got into the taxi with her dark ruffled chiffon shawl swirling about her and never saw me at all.
Well, that was all right. I was gazing out toward the sea, but I wasn’t seeing it or the ornamental Casino, the rustling palms, the inevitable tourists, or the departing taxi. Instead I was seeing green rows of cotton on flat, red Texas earth, and four young girls with sweaty faces hoeing along, letting their imaginations take them anywhere they chose to be.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Deepdene Bold, initials are Fornier. Text stock is Warren’s Olde Style; ink is Van Son 40904. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed, without apology, some 470 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. (Carol Kent wrote that I should stop apologizing for my printing, so I have.) The cover was printed on a 10×15 C&P.
The Boxwood Press
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