The strength of an amazing woman who smiled
February 7, 2019
Something snags in my memory seine to lodge and stay around until I deal with it. I rummaged around for the past few days to remember a happy time spent with childhood friends.
Then a bittersweet memory floated up.
The McDills ( name changed to allow dignity) lived in an old shack just over the hill and down the fence line from where we lived. Poor was just a suggestion, destitute was getting close to describe the family situation.
Mr. McDill was "off".
Mrs. McDill was a pillar of fortified steel. The kids that were still at home were worm yellowed, their noses drained thickened mucus, all were hungry most days. They knew how to be happy though.
Work hard, play harder.
We worked and played with them. Mrs. McDill was overseer for our chopping, picking of cotton and other field work that my Daddy had put her in charge of as he was busy working for the Escambia County Road Department during the daytime.
Mr. McDill went around the bend one rainy night, climbed on his bicycle and rode naked through the woods until the neighbors found him.
He took the cure in Tuscaloosa at the State Hospital.
Mrs. McDill managed six kids using her grit to keep the family fed. She owned several chickens for eggs. She planted a kitchen garden just out the back door to keep them in greens and potatoes.
Their big old mulberry tree was for us to climb in, eat mulberries from, stain our britches with and for the chickens to roost in.
Anything edible and growing wild was cooked by Mrs. McDill and eaten by all. Plums, black berries, poke salet, rabbits, coons, squirrels,quail...............boiled, roasted, fried, stewed, eaten.
Dogs and cats never got table scraps from that family. Any offerings of food or clothing from the community was accepted with true grace and a mile wide smile. Hugs to her ample bosum were often and laughed about.
Most of the birds and animals were trapped or snared. The shotgun was lodged over the front door for show and tell. Shells for firing cost money. Money was used for kerosene, flour and lard only.
One time when the winter was deep and the garden was spent, beans were needed. Mrs. McDill came to ask Mama if she could spare the loan of a cup of dried lima beans to cook for their supper. Mama gave her a package of China Dolls. Mrs. McDill told her she needed only a cupful because, "water is cheaper than beans". Mama insisted she take the whole bag. Our family ate lots of beans and with our large family we would eat a bag of beans easily at one sitting.
That statement, "water is cheaper than beans" has stayed in my memory until this day.
Mrs. McDill had to plan against hunger and she always made her food stretch.
I always felt proud that Daddy and Mama would share a sack of cornmeal and some course ground grits with the McDills. We shelled our own corn to take to Charlie Sowell's gristmill in Wallace for grinding into cornmeal for bread and grits for our family to eat.
Hog killing time was when we saw how not to waste trimmings. Mrs. McDill took everything but the bristle.
"Boil it down and make a meal".
She laughed to say the squeal would be served to the Preacher if he had the nerve to darken her door.
Mrs. McDill was one of the happiest persons I ever knew. She smiled through the worst of times that would have buckeled the knees of lesser folk. She kept the kids together and working. They all seemed happy.
One time she decided to insulate the house as the cracks in the walls of their old shack allowed the heat from the fireplace to seep through to the outside. She campaigned to collect all newspapers, grocery bags and multiwalled fertlizer bags from everyone in the community. She and those kids worked every evening and Sunday's to nail up the paper insulation. The girls got creative and kept pictures of flowers or things like Breck Girl shampoo to make the walls seem brighter. It was a bright spot in the lives of that family. They were warmer and they had something to look at and read while inside.
The oldest boy was a master at making things to play with. Junk from old farm impliments, old cars and trucks, some baling wire was made into a pull toy. He could whittle a toy log truck from tree limbs. He built the biggest straw houses in the neighborhood. One took all fall and winter to collect enough pine straw to build a house with rooms for all of us to claim. When a big old rattlesnake took posession we had a bonfire of biblical proporations. Daddy supervised the nighttime burn...................night fires were always enjoyed.
Time passed, Mr. McDill came home and the family drifted away.
I truly missed Mrs. McDill. She had nicknamed me "Puddle" because of a mishap on splattering my feet during a private moment of relieving myself in the cotton patch.
She always helped to encourage me to keep pace in the picking by hollering back to tell me to come on and catch up as she had something funny to tell me.
She knew how to get us all to be productive because Daddy had hired her to get the cotton picked.
Mrs. McDill didn't clip the clock on Daddy.
A finer lady I never knew. Being poor had no bareing on her character.
In the late 1980's I worked in Crestview at a florist. We had a delivery order for a funeral wreath for a McDill to be delivered to a home in Milligan. I read the name of the home owner, put two and two together and decided I needed to take that order out. I drove up to a small, neat brick house with several cars parked outside. I ask for the person whose name was listed as the home owner. A lady came to the door and with a look of suprised recognation on her face wrapped her arms around me as we both shed tears.
She told me that both her parents had passed years before and most of her siblings were also gone.
She asked about my parents and told me how much her Mama admired my folks for helping her during some really dark days of hunger and uncertainity.
We stood and had a moment of discomfort in not knowing what else to say.
Inside the living room sat a coffin draped in an American flag with her brother's remains dressed in a navy blue suit that had a pin of the American flag attached to the lapel.
***Thank you Johnnie McDill, U. S Army retired, for your service to our country and for the fond memories of straw houses, bonfires and pull toys made from scrap and your natural talents.