This piece is an oral history project I recorded and wrote while living in Nashville, Tennessee. The story is real and was given over the course of one month while visiting my neighborhood retirement community. An abridged version was presented at a community reading event and published online.
Come, read to me some poem,
Some simple and heartfelt lay,
That shall soothe this restless feeling,
And banish the thoughts of day.
As I closed my worn book holding a collection of cherished Longfellow poems, I could hear Ewell calling for me in our side yard.
“Jewel! Where are you? Come help me get in the firewood!”
This scene was a common occurrence between my big brother and I. The rule was that whoever heard Mama or Daddy calling for firewood first would have to go fetch it for them. I soon learned to get around this by hiding out in the privy and reading; however, it didn’t take much time before Ewell had figured out my little plan.
My name is Annie Jewel Daniels and this is a glimpse into my childhood. I was raised in the foothills of western Tennessee, the youngest of five children. My Daddy and Mama were good, honest people. They taught us how to be respectable, to love people, and most importantly, not to judge anyone. The years following my birth would prove to be some of the hardest our family would ever go through.
The most important thing I learned growing up is that you never miss what you don’t know you’re lacking. We never had what people consider necessities these days: electricity, an inside bathroom, or running water – but we had love for each other and that’s what we needed.
Since I was the baby, my older brothers and sisters always looked out for me. I remember when I first started going to school, John was about twelve years old and Ewell had just turned seven. They didn’t want me to have to walk in the cold, so they taught our little pet calf to pull a homemade cart! Mama was pleased with this idea until she found out the harness was made from strips of fabric she had been cutting for a new quilt. My brothers never understood why this material meant so much to our mother; even though we were living in the Depression, Mama and Daddy made sure we were well provided for.
Daddy built our log home before I was ever born; he covered the tongue-and-groove lumber to make it more livable for his family. This was just like my Daddy; he was always doing something to make us comfortable. It was very small but accommodated us as we needed it to. I remember my bedroom being part of a very large room that was also used as the living room and sleeping space for my two sisters and two brothers.
The kitchen was the only other separate room, and doubled as dining room for us and any visitors that might stop by. We had a long wooden table in the middle that Daddy made long before I was ever around. I will never forget, when it was just us eating, Mama had an old oil cloth she would keep on the table, but whenever we had guests she would put out her best tablecloths.
Even though we didn’t have the modern conveniences, Mama didn’t let that stop her. She was in the kitchen every day making delicious treats and meals. She had this huge wooden tray she used whenever she was baking. I can never forget how slick the top of it was! She would put a layer of flour before she started patting out whatever she was making – biscuits, cookies, dinner rolls, cakes or pies – anything wonderful you could possibly imagine. I always got excited when I saw her making multiple cakes for layering – I knew it meant we would have a five to six layer apple cinnamon crisp cake for dessert that night!
To this day I wonder how she was able to make so many fine meals on our fireplace. Whenever I tried, my creation would be half burnt and half raw, but Mama had the secret. Years later when I got my first job, I put electricity in our home and bought Mama a modern stove.
In the winters, Daddy would kill a hog and Mama faithfully made sausage for us. I remember watching her cook it in our old frying pan, then put it in a can and pour the hot grease over before sealing the top. Once it got cold, she would bring these out and make delicious gravy to go with our meals – there is nothing I know of that could compare to Mama’s cooking.
When she packed my lunch box each morning, Mama would put a few of her biscuits, a slab of whatever kind of meat we had at the time, and a cookie or tea cake – anything she had been baking that day. I never told her, but I would often trade these at school for graham crackers and marshmallows from one of my friends.
There was never a time we didn’t have a large garden growing up. I got out of working in it since I was so young, but sometimes I went along with Mama to help her get all our fresh food back to the house. In the fall, we had an endless amount of turnips and greens – the turnips were always so sweet and I could never stop myself from eating them! We had sweet potatoes as well. Daddy had a special section of land a little ways away from our farm – rich soil he said was especially good for growing potatoes. When it came time to harvest, he would fetch John and Ewell to help him dig them up; when they brought them in, the girls would put them on the stairs so they could dry. We ate Mama’s baked sweet potatoes all year long.
In the springtime, Daddy and the boys planted beans – they had to be tied to little poles so they wouldn’t crawl all over the ground. By the time they were ready to be picked, they had run all up the little sticks and had just taken over everything! I loved to hide under the bushes while they picked, so to scare them when they weren’t paying attention – this has always been one of my favorite memories of childhood. We also had peas, tomatoes and corn when they were in season. Mama canned these as well to have them around all year long.
Because there was no running water in our little home, we made frequent trips to the spring on our property. I can’t even explain to you how cold the water was – it was just delicious! Whenever Mama made butter for us, we stored it at the spring to keep it cold. It was usually Ewell who was sent to fetch the water. I remember one particular morning, the creek had rose from all the rain the night before. Mama sent him on his way to fetch a pail, but when he came back, he was drenched! He fell off the foot log on the way and was just saturated in water. Mama figured he was just being a careless boy so she went to do the job herself – a few minutes later she came back and had fallen in too! Ewell and I laughed about this for so many years afterwards.
I wish I could say that all of our lives growing up were full of memories as cherished as these. However, it just wasn’t meant to be. Tragedy shattered our home in the spring of 1929. My big sister Gladys, who was nineteen years older than me, married a young man named John when I was four. Soon after they married, John got a job offer to work in the automobile industry in Detroit; they would be moving in a few weeks. I can still remember when she broke the news to Mama and Daddy. Mama started crying, but Gladys was quick to reassure her.
“Don’t worry Mama,” she said as the tears strolled down. “I’ll be back for a visit before you know it!”
This is true. She was back in Hurricane Mills in a short amount of time, but it was in a coffin.
She and John were expecting their first child when the complications began. All throughout her pregnancy, she had stomach problems and was unable to keep food down. I really believe malnutrition is what got her in the end; the doctors were never really able to explain anything. When they brought her back for the funeral, I remember singing “Tarry With Me, O My Savior.” To this day I can’t listen to this song without getting teary-eyed.
Tarry with me, O my Savior,
Tarry with me through the night;
I am lonely, Lord, without Thee,
Tarry with me through the night.
This alone would be enough to change a family forever, but more pain would soon follow. In the fall of 1930, my dear sister Pearl came down with an inexplicable illness. She got really sick really fast. We took her to the old doctor in Hurricane Mills so many times and every time he would prescribe some new, different remedy; nothing ever helped her to get better though. I don’t think he ever checked her for what we later found out was the root of her disease, diabetes.
Her condition worsened quickly. One day, it took a turn for the worst. I remember it well; it was in the afternoon and I had just returned from school. My room had been quarantined for the last few days as Pearl lay motionless in a coma. I didn’t really understand what was happening, I only knew my best friend was hurting and I desperately wanted to help her. Pearl had always been my buddy; even though she was six years older than me, we were inseparable – right down to sharing the same bed.
Pearl was such a beautiful little girl. She had long, wavy black hair and an unforgettably sweet smile. She remained in a coma for three days before slipping away from us forever. The details remain as vivid in my mind as if I were still hiding behind the chair on that fateful day. Mama and Daddy didn’t know I was in the room; I really shouldn’t have been there. She looked so peaceful, so small. I wanted to reach out and hold her in my arms; I wanted to wake her up so we could go play in the garden.
She passed away in the afternoon. I can still see her little frame lying static in our bed. Mama put copper nickels over her eyelids to keep them closed. When it came time for her funeral, I didn’t own any socks that didn’t have holes in them; Mama had to borrow a pair for me from our neighbor, Marie Rice.
Even though our home in Hurricane Mills was only a little over 70 miles from Nashville hospitals, it was unheard of in those days to take your child there to see a physician. I’ve thought so many times about how easily it could be avoided in today’s world and wondered if there was anything we could have done for her. I know it was hard for John and Ewell to lose their little sister, but it was different for me; Pearl was everything I wanted to be. She embodied everything I thought a kind, loving little girl should be.
Now the shadows slowly lengthen,
Soon the evening time will come;
With Thy grace, O Savior, strengthen,
By Thy help I would go home.
Looking back on this time in my family’s history, I have no idea how my parents managed as well as they did. I think they just kept themselves busy taking care of my brothers and me so they didn’t have to think about it. I remember watching Mama cooking in the kitchen one day; she was stirring a pot of beans and I could see the tears falling off her nose and into the kettle.
She also busied herself with sewing. After Gladys passed away, her husband sent home a trunk with some of her clothes. Mama found a particularly pretty dress – tan crepe with scalloped velvet – and cut it down to fit me. I wore it to church on Sunday mornings with pride.
There is a Reaper, whose name is Death
And, with his sickle keen, he reaps the bearded grain at a breath
And the flowers that grow between.
“My Lord has need of these flowerets gay,”
The Reaper said and smiled; “Dear tokens of the earth are they,
Where he was once a child
”They shall bloom in fields of light, transplanted by my care,
And the saints, upon their garments white,
These sacred blossoms wear.”
O, not in cruelty, not in wrath, the Reaper came that day;
T’was an angel visited the green earth,
And took the flowers away.
Two days ago I celebrated my 82nd birthday; I found myself thinking back on all the adventures of our childhood. Even though my life has been filled with 62 years of marriage, three beautiful children, and countless other memories, I often absent-mindedly start reflecting on the moments I spent with my sisters, questioning why they had to leave us so soon. I wonder how our existence would have been different had theirs not been cut so short. I wonder what it would have been like to share life with my dear Gladys and lovely Pearl.