Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Oak Creek Tales

Since I was very small, my mother entertained me with stories of her childhood in Lake Valley, Oklahoma. My mother's stories are famous with her side of the family and one of the things she was known for. At the time of her death almost two years ago, Alzheimer's had erased the stories that had been so loved by my whole family.  At her memorial service, I read one of her stories I had thankfully written down six months before her death. Since then, it has been my dream to write a book of short stories about her childhood. I've started that journey this summer. This is one of those stories. 

 In 1931 when I was five, we moved to The “Big Oak House” in the bend of Oak Creek a few miles outside of the community of Lake Valley, Oklahoma. The house had been given this name by people in the community not because it was big. In fact, it was like most of the small wood frame houses in the community. It had instead, earned its name because of the very large oak tree in the front yard. It was so large, that my daddy couldn’t even get his arms half way around it.

The size of this tree was such an anomaly that occasionally people passing through our community would stop just to look at it. For my older brother Otis, seven and myself, this tree was the perfect setting for our play.  It’s thick roots made the perfect seat and it’s deep grooves and crannies a shelf for the homemade toys my brother liked to make. In the warmer months, its leaves provided a canopy that shaded us from the harsh Oklahoma sun and wind.  
Not long after we moved to the Big Oak house, we met the Crows. The Crow family was our neighbor to the west. Their place was about a fourth a mile across Oak Creek. Though it was never said, I realized early on that they weren’t like us. They didn’t go to any church that we knew of and their house was not clean like ours. Momma was a very tidy woman. We were no better off than anyone else in our community but my momma always kept our little house neat.  As far as momma was concerned, being poor was no excuse for being dirty.

That was the first thing I think I noticed about the Crows. They were not neat and their furniture was old and raggedy looking. Our furniture was older as well, but had been lovingly cleaned and cared for by my mother over the years. Momma and Daddy had always taught us to care for our things. Not having much wouldn’t you care for and treasure what you did have?  I guess maybe no one had ever taught the Crow’s that.

The Crow’s house did not smell the same as our house either. Our home was filled with the gentle scents of mom’s cooking, daddy’s pipe smoke, the burning oil of our lamps, the wooden stove in the kitchen and momma’s lemon oil cleaner. These were all scents I had come to associate with home and were comforting in their familiarity.   The Crow’s house wasn’t that way.  At the age of five, I couldn’t put my finger on the underlying rank unpleasantness but I knew it wasn’t like our house and therefore, not right.

Though they were different from us, my mother, being a good Christian woman, always told us to be nice to them. Sometimes my brother Otis and I would go and visit Mrs. Crow. Momma didn’t mind if we walked across the creek and visited but she had strict instructions that we were never to eat anything Mrs. Crow offered us. We had, she said, food at home. We did not need to eat their food.

The Crows were fascinating to my older brother, Otis and me. They were a collection of odd characters unlike anyone we had met before. Though we found them somewhat repulsive, they still interested us. Mr. Crow was a tall man who was usually working out in the pasture whenever we went visiting. Though we didn’t often see him in person, we would often hear his booming voice echoing across the creek in the evening as he discussed the mundane happenings on the farm that day. We could never hear what Mrs. Crow was saying as she had a normal person’s voice but we knew it was her he was talking to as we could hear him say Daisy this or that. That was Mrs. Crow’s first name, Daisy. It suited her. I often wondered if Albert Crow’s booming voice ever bothered his tiny wife.   

Physically, Mrs. Crow was the opposite of her husband. I remember her as being a diminutive woman and she must have been because being only a five and not very big myself, she still seemed small. She always wore an apron over her plain, sack cloth dress. Her grizzled brown hair was intermingled with gray and held back in a bun. 

Her voice was what we called countrified. Funny, when you consider that we too were country folks. However, Mrs. Crow and the whole Crow family talked with a twang that my family did not. Uneducated, I would call it now.  Not that anyone in my family had more than a high school education and my daddy, being an orphan, had less than that. However, my parents read the bible and listened to the news each evening on the big radio in our living room. Perhaps they were not so much more educated than the Crows, but my parents knew more about the world. I had once heard my mother refer to folks like that as down in the mouth. That would describe the Crows. 

In their dusty front room, the Crows had a large upright piano. It looked old and like everything else in the Crow house, it was slightly dilapidated. Mrs. Crow could play the piano and after having heard her play the first time we visited, we would often ask her to play whenever we came over.  She would laugh and in her little scratchy voice say, “Mabel and Otis! Why do you like to hear me play so much?”
At that point, she would obligingly scurry over to the piano stool.  The stool was the adjustable type that you made taller by rotating the top.  Being so small, she would have to wind it up quite a bit. She must have been stronger than she looked because her arms looked like a whirlwind winding that stool.  When she'd wound it up to the height she needed, she would give a little hop onto the stool and begin energetically playing, while singing loudly, "Boil Them Cabbage Down!” It was the only song she ever played for us. When I think of her to this day, I think of her little body on that stool, fingers banging out that tune and happily singing that song.

Whenever my mother knew we were going to visit the Crows, she wouldn’t just warn us to not eat the food or be nice. She would warn us about Mary. Mary was the grown daughter of the Crows. Mary had something wrong with her. I don’t know what, but she was very obese with black stringy shoulder-length hair. She had an odor that I couldn’t quite identify as a child but later realized was the odor of unwashed body and urine.  Being so large, she couldn’t get around on her own and so she would sit in a chair in the kitchen all day while her mother worked.

For some reason, without warning, Mary’s head and upper body would slowly begin to fall forward and onto her lap. She wasn’t asleep and she didn’t seem to have any control over it. The family didn’t notice or care and would go about as if unaware that this very large woman was slumped over. My mother would always warn us to be nice to Mary and if we ever saw her beginning to fall forward, we were to push her head back up. We would and Mary would smile and thank us. We would smile back. “You’re welcome, Mary!”

Mary’s existence was a miserable one and it would worry me; especially at night.  The Crows would put Mary to bed and they would leave her there until morning.  I would sometimes awake in the night to hear her cries of “Pleeeease! Help me. Pleeeease!” echoing across the creek. Though I knew it was Mary crying to get out of bed to go to the bathroom, her voice bouncing off the creek, had a eerie quality and it scared me.

I once saw Mary’s room.  She slept in a small room at the back of the house on an old, stained mattress. Even as young as I was, I knew it wasn’t okay the way the Crow’s treated Mary. They weren’t mean to her. They just neglected her, almost like they didn’t know any better. I remember thinking that if I ever had a sister or child who was like Mary, I would love her and take care of her.

Though Mary was what we called,” slow” back then, she did have one talent. Mary had an amazing memory for numbers. Mr. and Mrs. Crow didn’t need to keep record books about the farm. They had Mary. Whenever they needed to remember something numerical, they would tell her. I can remember Mrs. Crow telling my mother this during our initial visit to their home. To illustrate this extraordinary feat, she yelled towards the kitchen, “Mary! How many bales of cotton did we have in ‘28?” Mary raised her head and rattled off the number.  As expected, my mother smiled in polite appreciation of this remarkable skill. It gave me comfort to think that Mary had a talent. Something she was good at that her family could appreciate and value.

Mary’s older brother Buck was as different from Mary and the rest of the family as could be. He fancied himself a modern day cowboy. He rode a horse wherever he went and dressed in a style similar to what Otis and I imagined a cowboy would wear. He seemed to take some pride in his horse and western style clothing.

One day Otis and I were playing under our giant oak tree. The tree was next to the dirt road that led over the creek to the Crow’s house. We looked up to see Buck Crow riding his horse toward us on his way to town. Buck was a friendly sort and greeted us. My brother Otis, after saying hello, asked him, “Buck are you a real cowboy?” Buck just smiled down at us and said proudly, “What do you think, Otis?” We nodded our heads. We could tell Buck liked our admiration because his face beamed. We watched as he rode off.

A few months later I heard some friends of my daddy’s make an unkind remark about what a fool Buck Crow was. I don’t know if it was the words I had overheard, but later when I would see Buck around, I noticed his western clothes were rather worn and threadbare looking.  I didn’t think real cowboys let themselves go like that but I remembered my mother’s words to be nice so I always smiled and greeted him just the same.