This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 1, "Behind Closed Doors." Find more from that issue here.
I was born May 27, 1916. Now that seems like a long time ago, but sometimes I get to thinking back and it don’t seem long at all. I can remember when I started to school. We had to walk to school back then three miles and it would be so cold, but we didn’t mind for we didn’t know any better.
Mama would tie a string around my pencil and tie it around my neck so I would not lose so many for they was hard to get. We would take our lunch in a paper sack. Sometime it would start raining on us before we got to school. The sack would get wet and tear up and we would try to keep our lunch. Sometime we would put it in our pocket.
My brother Clifford, he was smaller than I was and he could not walk as fast as I could for you see I was just a tomboy. But I was real good in school, and I really liked to go for I was going to be a nurse when I finished school — that was always my dream. And I think I would have been if 1 could have went on to school. But the year I was 13 years old, my mother died. Oh, I can remember that day. You see she was in the hospital — it don’t seem like that she was there many days. I know me and Clifford went to see her but once. That is all I remember but she knew us that day and we were so glad, for we just knew that she was better and would soon be back home with us. But that didn’t happen. She died and left us. Clifford 10 and me 13.
Poor old Daddy. There he was left with two children and a big field of cotton to gather, and I know now that his poor old heart was so heavy and he felt so alone and didn’t know what to do. I had to start cooking, milking the cow, going to the field too when I had time. I had to wash our clothes and pray for the Lord to come and get me and carry me where Mama was. I didn’t know how to do anything and I needed her so bad.
I haven’t forgot yet that no one came in to help me and teach me how to do anything. But that poor old daddy of mine done his best and he was always kind. He did not make fun of nothing I tried to do. I don’t see how he ate the food I cooked and worked as hard as he did. I can see him now, sitting on his cotton sack, eating the slop I cooked. He didn’t stop long enough to come to the house and eat and rest a little while. He ate in the field and went right on picking cotton. I don’t guess he could send us to school anymore. I just know we didn’t go anymore, and I didn’t become that nurse I wanted so bad to be. We just worked hard from year to year — them three years until Daddy married again. We never had any more Christmas. We didn’t have anything but one another. We was a pitiful three.
In three years after Mama died, Daddy married again and he married a woman that didn’t suit our family. You see I had begun to eye the boys a little when Daddy was not looking. There was one that came along that I thought was it. He was 12 years older than I was. Daddy didn’t like him but I did. I think the reason I fell so hard for him was because all the girls around wanted to go with him but he liked me the best. I thought I was something else. I had a lot of life in me when I was growing up. I talked a lot and laughed a lot and I liked to sing. I was just a jolly girl.
This man, Fred Newby, wanted to marry me. Of course, I wanted to marry him too, but I had this friend, Luther Suggs. Me and him was real close. I had more fun with him than I did with anybody and he didn’t want me to marry this fellow and he set in to break us up. Me and Luther didn’t date but what was so funny we wouldn’t let each other date anybody else. If one of us started dating someone, the other wouldn’t stop till we broke them up and we could do it every time. We was just good buddies and that was all. He was a doll. I had more fun with that boy than I ever had with any boy and it was clean fun and that is the truth. You know, I bet me and him was really in love and didn’t have sense enough to know it. Some nights we would sit in the middle of the road till midnight and after and try to count the stars. And I would think he was the sweetest man on earth, but I never did think of him as a boyfriend and I know he felt the same way about me.
Then I met Fred and we begun to talk about marrying and the only reason we didn’t, that buddy of mine found out about it and that was it. He broke us up in one night’s time on Christmas Eve night. I didn’t really mean to let him do it but he did. It just broke my heart and I cried and cried but it didn’t do any good. I was 14 years old at that time.
After Daddy married that woman that he had taught me against all my life, I started staying with my sister and her husband. He was a hard-working man, and he believed in everybody working from daylight till dark and that is what we done.
I married when I was 17 years old. Right then all I wanted was a home. I was so tired of the way I was living. Work, work, that was all anybody wanted with me. I married in February before I was 17 in May. The first time I saw Lutie he was in bed sick. I remember I saw his eyes that night and I thought they was so pretty. His hair was a light red, not a ugly red and it was pretty and just lay in deep waves. I thought a lots about him the next few weeks.
As soon as he could walk, he came over to where we lived. I still thought he looked nice. Well, for some reason his family didn’t think too much of him. They always was saying some unpleasant things about him, and I felt sorry for him so I put in a lot of time with him. He was 20 years older than I was. And I was a big mouth — just full of life. But down inside of me I was a lonely girl. I was always searching for something that I couldn’t find.
Well, he began to talk to me about marrying him. I didn’t want to, but I thought that his family and him too was living for God. Now listen, I am not trying to condemn them for God forbids that, but anyway I had been taught you was not supposed to marry anyone that had been married and had a living wife or husband. So I told him that, but he went on and showed me where it would be all right in the sight of God for me and him to get married. But I can’t remember him just really asking me to marry him and me saying I would.
But anyway he got the license and came after me and I ran away when I saw him coming. I went about three miles to Mrs. Suggs’ house, that was Luther’s mother. I stayed all the rest of the day, and I got a curl of Luther’s hair and tied a string around it and put it around my neck. I did not tell him what I was up against though. So it was about dark when I came back home. I thought Lutie would be gone. I knowed I would have. But I had to pass this house on the way home where this old man lived, and I liked that old man and I would listen to what he said. He was a good old thing. Lutie was there at his house so the old man come out in the road and stopped me and stood right there and talked me into going on and marrying Lutie. So we went the very next day and married. I stayed with him three weeks and I ran away and went back to my sister’s house. That was the only home I had.
Then he came and got me and carried me to his mother’s house. I couldn’t sing around him or his mother either for I sung love songs and all that kind of stuff and they would say that was what my mind was on. They didn’t like for me to sing out loud, so I sung to myself.
I just couldn’t stay there and Lutie wouldn’t get me out so I just got out myself. I went back to Sister and George [Sister’s husband]. Boy, you had to work there.
Well, Lutie he decided to come to Cherokee City and get him a job so he did and in about two weeks he come and wanted me to come up here with him and I did. I don’t remember just how long we stayed up here, but I do know we had just one room. We cooked, ate and slept all in the same little room, but it was fun. We was happy. Then a old man came along — Mr. Jack Jackson. He was old, but he made Lutie think that money growed on trees at Lee, Mississippi. But you see I had got pregnant with Mildred or I don’t believe I would have went. I thought I would never see Sister again, and I looked on her kindly like a mother I guess, so I went to stay a week with her before I left and that is when I met them two men — Walker and Jimmy — that has wrote books about us and of the South.
In them times me and George would go to the woods with a cross-cut saw, course Sister would go with us. I’d get on one end of that saw, he’d get on the other one. Great old big long tall pine trees and we’d saw them up for stovewood. I’d do anything he’d do. I didn’t know no better. People talked about what was going on. It was because they was always trying to find something to gossip about. That’s exactly the reason things was said about us. We asked for it.
The only thing that I do regret. I wish Jimmy hadn’t wrote just like he did because now all the children’s grown and can read and they’ll wonder. I tried to explain to them it wasn’t, but I don’t know whether they believed it or not.
Well, anyway, on Sunday Lutie and Mrs. Jackson come after me. I was so glad to see Lutie, but I didn’t want to go so far away, but I went. Me and Lutie never had anything much. I won’t try to write about how and the way we lived, but we were happy. I followed him around like a child would their daddy and he treated me like I was a child.
When Mildred was born, I tried hard to be a grown woman, but I didn’t know how. I still wanted Lutie to pet me just as much as he did Mildred and he did. We had a hard time but we was happy. For that first three years we was married, I only stayed with him for seven weeks, but after Mildred was born I never left him again.
I guess the only thing I done wrong, I mean about another man, was I day-dreamed for 33 years about Fred for I thought I was really in love with that man. But in the 33rd year I saw Fred Newby, and I would never have known him anymore. He looked awful. I still can’t believe he is the man I thought I loved so dearly.
Anyway, 17 months after Mildred, May was born. I worked in the field right up till she was borned. I put out soda with Mildred in my arms. May was born the 16th of July and I picked cotton that fall. Oh, it was hard, but I done it. In 13 months, Ruby was borned.
I give up everything when I went to having children. I just wrapped my life around them five kids. Now don’t misunderstand me. I growed very close to Lutie and we had a lot of good times together. With his tongue, he was real good to me, and I know he loved me and the children with all his heart, but the only thing was if he couldn’t find a job like he wanted, he just wouldn’t have one. if he couldn’t make good money, he just wouldn’t work. I worked for 50 cents a day and put bread in their mouths and he wouldn’t do it. He would work and play. He would make a waterwheel down in the ditch somewhere. Now honest to God, I worked for 50 cents a day and that wasn’t by the hour, that was from sun till sun. Fifty cents to put bread in those kids’ mouths. I’ve worked a lot of days and I’d go home toting a four-pound bucket of lard. That’s what I’d be paid for a day’s work.
There was a family lived right down below us. It was when Ruby was a baby. And his wife died and he had five boys, and I’d work for him. I’d wash their clothes, I’d iron them, I’d patch them. And they all wore overalls. When they’d put the clothes in a sheet to tie them up, I couldn’t pick them up. I’d wash them on a rub-board and boil them in a pot. I’d rinse them and hang them up. I take them up to the spring above the house. I’d carry my washpot up there rather than toting water back and forth. I’d build a fire under the washpot and boil them clothes.
Then Lutie got on the rehabilitation. They called it bull farming, but he got a mule instead of a bull. When he got that mule and cow and some pigs and chickens, I was the happiest woman around. That rehab was a Roosevelt thing. He was the only President I ever knew that done anything. He was the only one that I knowed that I seen what he done.
That year I planted the cotton seed with my hands and Lutie covered them. Sonny was borned the 20th of April and believe it or not I chopped cotton. I could see the house and I would call to Mildred and tell her what to do. When Sonny got to crying hard, I would tell her how to pick him up and bring him on the porch and rock him. Then every once in a while I would run to the house and feed and dry him and then go back to work. It was hard, but I done it and got by. That fall we lost everything.
So the next thing, Lutie went to Mobile and went to work at the shipyard. He was a guard there. I won’t never forget — he sent me $30 one time. The rest of the time he always got robbed. He was always getting robbed. So then it was back to stay with his mother, Mrs. McCloud. We went, me and the children.
I worked in the field all I could. Then they transferred Lutie up here to the Northeastern Hospital, still as a guard. We moved to the old C. C. [Civilian Conservation Corps] camp at Cookstown. That year, the 23rd day of August, Sister [Patricia] came to us. A big 10-pound girl. Lutie was a guard at the gate of the hospital. He dressed like a million dollars, and my children went to school barefooted. He had all his shiny buttons, and when I had to go up town — I didn’t go unless I had to — I borrowed a dress to wear.
Then he lost his job and we farmed again. And if Lutie took a notion that he would not work, that he was going to the creekbank and fish, he went to the creekbank and fished. And me and the children, as they got big enough, went to the field and we worked and we would sweat.
When Ruby was nine years old she came sick. As it happened they had all had good health until then. But she taken sick with rheumatic fever, and it was at the bad stage when they found it. The first time she went to the doctor, he put her to bed for six months. After the end of that six months, he told her to stay there for another six months.
What hurt me so bad, and no one really knew but God, was that I would have to go to the field and leave her. Sometime she cried for me just to stay home with her, blit believe it or not I couldn’t. We all had to eat. I don’t mean to be bragging for it is nothing to brag about, but we farmed on the halves and I had to be the one that had to get a place, and I had to give my word, and they looked to me for them crops to be made, and I had to go. I have just left Ruby a lot of my times with my heart breaking and the tears running down my face with the sweat. I have shed enough tears to do a washing, and God seen me and I bet he felt sorry for me for I prayed as I worked so many, many times. But I can look back now, and I can see that I had a lot of faith.
I’ll tell you where I got my first break and the only break I got. I had the asthma. I got down with it so bad I couldn’t get up. I had it so bad they would just have to take me to the doctor to get a shot. Somebody from somewhere, I’ll never know where, sent to Rehabilitation. They got started to find out what caused the asthma and what could be done. They sent me to Birmingham. They give me all kinds of tests, but they never could figure it out.
Then — this man’s name was Mr. Johnson — he was with the Rehab. He come down one day and he asked me how would I like a job. I thought to myself: I couldn’t lift myself, I didn’t have no education, I never could see good. All my life I couldn’t see. I didn’t have no glasses. But Mr. Johnson — he done me more good than anybody — he wanted to get me a job at a nursing home. He put glasses on my eyes, he got me the job, he put uniforms on my back, and put shoes on my feet. And he set me up. And do you know I went to work there and it wasn’t long till I began to feel better. And it wasn’t long till I could just go up and down that hall and just do as much as anybody. And I was so happy. I enjoyed it the best in the world. And all the old people loved me, I loved all them. We all got along good — just like a big family. All workers and patients and everything.
Well, now, my husband, he didn’t like this much. He’d grumble about it, and I was making $35 a week. I was taking care of all the expenses. I even paid the rent, and I never got to buy me anything new. Here’s where the trouble started. We had two buildings. One of them we called the women’s hall, one of them we called the men’s hall. There was men over there. You know in wheel chairs and all. The people I worked for was Mr. and Mrs. J. R. Clinton. Well, now they liked me and I could tell they did and they trusted me. They believed in me. And I’d do everything I could. There wasn’t nobody working on the men’s hall but one colored man. So Mr. Clinton come down one day and got us all in the little old nurses’ station. He said, “Now we got so many in here we just run over one another. What about one of you going over to the men’s hall and helping John?”
Nobody said anything. I didn’t say a word, but he kept talking, wanting someone to volunteer to help. Directly he looked over there at me. He said, “Emma, what about you?” and he knowed I’d do anything to help him.
I said, “Now, Mr. Clinton, I don’t know whether I’d like that or not. If I don’t like it, what’re you going to do about it?”
He said, “I’ll put you right back there where you were.”
I said, “All right. That’s a deal.” So I went over to the men’s hall, and we cleaned that men’s hall up. Me and this colored man did. And after we got it cleaned up, why, I was the queen over there. Old John wouldn’t let me do much of anything, and all them old men just loved me. After lunch I would go in a room and go to bed and one of them old men would sit outside the door and watch to see if anybody was coming over there, if he seen someone, he would call me. I had it so easy all the other aides got jealous as well as Lutie. Then some of them wanted to change places with me, but Mr. Clinton said no, for they all refused to go when he asked them.
Oh, I had a good time. I even planted flowers in our yard, and them old men would help me. That is the ones that was able. We had Sunday School, and I joined the men’s class. Even the preacher seemed to like me. I was almost happy.
Then my husband he got to throwing all those old men up to me. Wanting me to quit my job. I wouldn’t of quit for nothing. He’d say, “With this asthma, you quit and get this disability. Go to the doctor and get on disability.”
I had sense enough to know that I couldn’t get on no disability as long as I was able to work, and I was able then. He ordered me to quit, but I wouldn’t quit my job. I come in one day and he was gone. He went to Brockton — that’s where his oldest daughter by his first wife was. He got down there and he began to write me bad letters. May and Ruby got to where they would tear them up before I got home, so for a long time I thought he wasn’t writing anymore.
But one day “Bang!” When I got home, I always went up to May’s. So when I went that day she had to tell me that the police had been there with a letter from Lutie saying he was coming to Cherokee City and that he was going to kill me. They wouldn’t turn my letter over to me, but several of them got after me to put in for a divorce. I knowed I couldn’t pay for it, but I thought if I do that, maybe he’ll settle down and stop this mess. So I did.
I seen a lawyer, and he put in for the divorce just to stop his mouth. I didn’t really want a divorce. I didn’t care about one, but one day the lawyer called and told me it was ready for me to pick up, but I didn’t have the money to get it. Someways or other some money come in my hands and I went and paid for it. We was divorced.
But now all my children was grown and married. After that Lutie come back home. Me and him was friends after that. We didn’t live together no more, but we was friends until he died. When he died I was standing by his bed, holding his hand.
I worked at the nursing home for about six years. They closed it down. It was just a . . . they called it the poorhouse. It was kept by what people drawed from their social security. They condemned the building and put that one out of commission. Then they put the new ones up over at Northpark, and they have gone up just like hot potatoes.
After the nursing home closed down, it wasn’t long till a Mr. and Mrs. Frank French got in touch with me, so I went to work there. He was claimed to be one of the richest men in Cherokee City. His wife was down. Well, she wasn’t down at that time, but she was senile. I stayed with the Frenches almost six years, and she died in November. I thought when she died my job was over. They had gone up. They was paying me $65 a week. They had two of us. One stayed in the daytime and one stayed at night. When she died, I thought that would be all of it, but they wanted us to stay on just like we was going with him. So we did.
Then after he died I knowed my job was done, but do you know I went on backwards and forwards to that house for two or three months after that. And there wasn’t a soul over there, but they wouldn’t tell me to quit, wouldn’t tell me to stay home. I just kept going back. They kept paying me the $65 a week right on. Now they didn’t the other ones, but they did me. I stayed there till they got to dividing the things. They put them down in the floor and everywhere and I couldn’t walk and get around. I just quit. I quit because I couldn’t walk around in the house.
From there I went to a Mrs. Wall’s and I worked over there for about two years. While I was working there now the Frenches never did turn me aloose. They kept calling me up. They would call and want to talk to me. I’d talk. One of the boys called me and told me he wanted to see me. When could I get away and come over, away from Mrs. Wall’s that was where I worked. I told him anytime after dinnertime. He come over and got me. I didn’t know where I was agoing. So he carried me to the courthouse. He carried me up there, and he gave me a S2,000 bond. He had it recorded. So I kept that bond a long time before I cashed it. I finally cashed it. Anyway that’s when my break come. When I felt like I was somebody. Could get out. . . . Well, you know how it is when you can get out and make a payday.
I was taking care of an old lady and she fell and got hurt two weeks before Lutie died so they was on the same floor at the hospital so I got to be around him them two weeks. I would go and feed him. The day before he died, he laughed and said, “We should go back together. We can’t live without each other.” So we laughed and I made him sit up in bed and I rubbed his back.
The next day every chance I got I would go and see about him. I remember it was about four o’clock. I went in and they had brought him a milkshake so I told him he had to eat it so I picked it up and fed it to him. He ate it all. Then I had to run back to Mrs. Wall. In a little while, I went back to look in on Lutie. I knew he was going away. I called his name and he looked at me. I ran after a nurse. She said, “Mr. McCloud will pull out.”
I said, “Not this time.”
So we went back to his room together. She told me to call the kids that was here in town, and she would call the doctor. So we did. I called Sister and she called the rest. I hurried back to him and took his hand in mine. He looked at me. I just prayed that the children would get there. Sister just made it, and I think May was a few minutes late, and the others came as soon as they got the word.
But you see how things can work. I fed him last and I held his hand until he was gone. After all I was with him at the end. We had lots of ups and downs.
Today is Sunday, January 11, 1976. This is the way I talk to myself when I get so lonesome, and it has got to where I stay so lonely. Ruby and [her husband] Will is in bed so I just talk on the phone and write. And I read the Bible a lot too. I’ve got to where I enjoy it.
It sure is raining this morning. It is so dark, and when you spend as much time as I do just by yourself, it ain’t too good, if I don’t write or read, I just go crazy with my thoughts.
You remember I just lost the only boy I had September 20, 1975, and it has almost run me crazy. [Sonny worked as an engineer on riverboats pushing barges on the Mississippi and Ohio. He was below deck when a boiler exploded.] We can’t understand why these things has to happen so quick. He was so big and healthy we thought, and he went away like a candle blowed out or at least that is what we was told, but as for knowing, we don’t. I ask myself, “What did he think about last? What was he thinking about when it happened? Was he hungry for he was just getting off from work?”
Then he lay on the floor of that old boat, burnt up, and me here sleeping in my bed of ease. I won’t never get over that. He had to die all by his self, and the way he had to go is killing me. He was so afraid of fire. He never liked for me to even burn trash in the yard. He was a sweet old boy to his mama and he knew that. I miss him so bad sometime I just can’t hardly stand it, but I have to keep going a while longer now. No one knows how long.
I hope he is better off than I am tonight. There is one thing I would believe though — he don’t have a worried mind and a broken heart tonight. I believe he is sound asleep. He ain’t worried about how things are going on here, but I hope to meet him in the morning when we rise up. I want to be right close to him and put my arms around him and say, “Hi, Sonny.”
He will pat me on the back and say, “Hi, Emma.”
Of course, I want all the rest to be there too, and I want us all to set down and have just a happy reunion. Oh, won’t it be wonderful there? And there will be Lutie and Bobby [Emma’s grandson who was run over by a car] and Mama and Daddy, too. When I get to thinking about it, I can hardly wait. This life has been kindly rugged here. I have never seen too much happiness. My road has been pretty bumpy. The happiest part was when I was trying to bring my children up and I thought I done the best I could. I don’t know but Mama tried.
Now I feel kindly alone for a long time. I looked for something real good to happen to me like a little home, a pretty yard of flowers, and a garden, even some chickens. And a good someone to be with, to laugh and talk with. When things was good and when there was trouble and heartaches come about, someone to understand me and help me throw them off and let me be the same way to that someone. But I have give up my dream. That is what I have always done is dream, dream.
So this is just about my life. Not so bad, do you think?
Bradford L. Jenkins
Brad Jenkins teaches sociology and history at Guilford Technical Institute. (1979)