Birthday Memories – Part 5

In addition to our two motels, there was one drugstore that gave credit and dispensed viscous chocolate sundaes to waiting patrons. The great attraction of the drugstore was the proprietor’s daughter whose bosom was the lodestone for dozens of excessive testerone endowed McGehee male youth. There were two department stores: Wolchanskies and Martins.

Wolchanskies was run by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Dark, dreary, and always smelling different, like a scene from Casablanca, Wolchanskies had the latest fashions. Only stores in Greenville, Mississippi, could compete with Wolchanskies.

My mother grew up 10-12 blocks from Wolchanskies. Big Daddy’s house was only a little bit better than a shack. Born in a rambling clapboard house next to the city sewage, Mom always understood limitation and constraint. Her home sat on buckshot clay that cracked and buckled every summer. The smell of feces and mildew intensified every hot summer afternoon. Behind her house was a wood-lot too often the victim of unscrupulous foresters. Enchanted trails and moss covered paths that would pique the imagination of most children were compromised in my mothers forest by young locust trees unimpeded by shade and larger competition. Sunlight was everywhere abundant. Since there was no reason to grow up and clasp sunlight, the young trees grew out, and selfishly deprived all the pretty things in the forest of light and life.

The forest was hardly a forest at all–it was a tangle of bush size persimmon trees– and since it was warm and dry enough on the western edge, cane rattlers loved to slither in the shadows of the deadly Arkansas summer sun. On the eastern edge, joining the sewage reservoir, moccasins hissed warnings at mockingbirds, snapping turtles, and inquisitive little girls. My mother learned very early the advantages of limitation and constraint. She learned to measure each step carefully, always looking at what was in front of her. Controlling, as much as possible, where her next step would land.

Not all snakes were my mother’s enemies. One huge, black and red king snake affectionatly named Uncle Roy, lived under the old piano. In fact the piano didn’t carry a tune at all. Big Momma kept it around merely to house Uncle Roy. An edacious king snake brought all sorts of advantages to my mother’s family?for one thing mice were nnoticeably absent. And no mocassin would dare bare his fangs in Big Momma’s house!

Roy was no problem, really. Being extremely shy, he carefully avoided human contact. Big Momma, fond of the old reptile, often left meat table scraps under the piano bench for the old carnivore Roy to enjoy. Inevitably, the nocturnal gift disappeared before morning light.

By August 15, though, even the cavernous piano was too hot for Roy. On some rare evenings, seeking the only cool place in Big Momma’s house, occasionally Uncle Roy slept behind the family toilet during the inferno Arkansas summers. This very nearly was his undoing, however. Once, when Big Daddy was enjoying a respite and the latest McGehee Times, Uncle Roy affectionately, but unintentionally, licked Big Daddy’s right achilles’ tendon.

Such unfeigned, if unsolicited affection was too much for Big Daddy, Uncle Roy’s most fervent supporter. While his admiration for Uncle Roy’s rodent venery skills were second to none, Big Daddy could not tolerate this violation of his most private savoir faire. Saltating with no thought of modesty, Big Daddy, in all his sartorial splendor, quickly hopped out of the bathroom into the dining room where the whole family was gathered for supper. Then, with his pin-stripped railroad overalls around his legs, he ignobly fell to the ground with his uncovered derriere signaling his unconditional surrender to man and to reptile alike. Startled, Uncle Roy coyly retreated behind an old ceramic garbage can.

This was the first and only time my mother saw her father in such a vulnerable state.

With surprisingly little compunction, Big Daddy banned Uncle Roy not only from the bathroom but also from the house.

A king snake, however, was too valuable a thing to loose permanently so Big Momma skillfully won Uncle Roy’s forgiveness by depositing half-dead, acquired from mouse traps, mice behind the ice box. The old piano had been gifted to Aunt Edith May.

Eventually Uncle Roy sullenly returned to the back of the ice box–a true ice box–full of block ice from Mr. Badgett’s ice house and on top of little mice. From this newly acquired home Uncle Roy effectively protected his, and my mother’s domicile. He occasionally protruded his nose from under the ice box, but only on the rarest occasions, like when a large roach wandered by. The naturally reticent Uncle Roy could not resist this delicacy. The family hardly knew he was there?although when the neww family pet disappeared Uncle Roy allegedly was the miscreant who disposed of the feline. However, this was never proven and a king snake was more difficult to replace than a kitten.

Despite Big Momma’s reptile approbation, the downside of having Uncle Roy in the family was the growth of a pervasive herpephobia that appeared in all my mother’s clan.

My mother’s childhood home was an old army officer barrack house moved by huge six wheeled trucks from a World War I Greenville, Mississippi, airfield placed incautiously on eight concrete cinder blocks, it was a nature refuge for a menagerie of unwelcome visitors. Nonetheless, during the Depression years, this abode was more the rule than the exception.

Unceremoniously the movers deposited this old barrack hut on buckshot ground by Macon Bayou, which also was the city sewage. The house was mortally wounded and exhibited a quarter inch crack all the way across its middle portion. During the winter, when the ground swelled with moisture, the crack closed. In the summer, when the buckshot cracked so did the house. Over the years, the winters grew dryer and the summers hotter until there was a permanent crack behind Big Momma’s china cabinet.

A generous house for most families, the old army barracks was never quite big enough for my mother’s family. Three boys and five girls lived together in three-bedrooms. Big Momma and Big Daddy lived in one room, the boys in another, and the girls in a final room. Gender, not chronology, determined commorancy. Mercifully there were more girls than boys.

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