Ten children were born in the two-bedroom house over the years, with indoor plumbing installed only after the youngest became a teenager. They were all born and grew up in that tiny place their father built. Talmadge, Iris, Talbot, Ernie, Loretta, Pearl, James, Frank, Myrna, and little Minnie.
Mother kept house as well as she could, in between having babies, and tried to put meals on the table with the meager means her sporadically-employed husband provided. Ernest, a sullen man, began to bald early. His worries of finding work as an uneducated laborer and supporting his growing brood aged the man sooner than his time. Mother birthed children for so long she looked like a grandmother by the last baby’s arrival.
Their ages spanned so many years that Iris, much an adult herself by then, was left to name Minnie, choosing the moniker from Disney’s famous character of the time. Their parents’ preferences ran dry by then. Some cried themselves to sleep at night without enough to eat.
Iris resented her father for making Mother have so many children. “You’d think she was a dog with that many puppies in a lifetime litter,” she said. “Worked like one, too, caring for us all.” She remembered the want all too well.
She told, “Aunt Mertie sent us a few staples. Things we could use. We’d pull our wagon up to her house a couple blocks away when the water got shut off. Musta had the utilities come due and couldn’t pay ‘em. Had to fill lard cans with water and haul it on home to cook and wash with it.”
That’s what families did, helped during the hard times. No amount of ridicule from neighbor kids riled them much. Iris recounted, “We was just kids. Didn’t know any different.”
She relayed stories of siblings dropping out of school, some of the boys joining the military, other brothers following their father into menial labor. Only little Minnie ever graduated from high school. “With no money, us girls had to go to work right away or else get married. Couldn’t stay with Mother and Daddy in that ol’ house with all those kids piled on toppa each other. Too many mouths to feed.”
Iris grew wistful and looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought. Finally, she said, “Talmadge disappeared after a spell. Nobody saw him for ages, so we were left to believe he either went to jail or got killed. Broke my mother’s heart to not know what happened to her boy.” His name couldn’t be repeated at home, either because of the grief of his absence or their father’s anger at him leaving them all guessing.
“My mother cried when telling me how James left for the rails, though,” said Iris. Her hands twisted around upon each other, and she picked at her cuticles in nervousness. “I already married by that time but still loved my little brother,” she explained. “He weren’t worthless like Ernie, who couldn’t put his mind to hard work and ended up in a den of thieves. Not an ambitious bone in his body.”
Iris sniffed back a sob, pulled a tissue from its box, and continued. “I miss that James the most. He wanted to see the world and figured jumpin’ freight cars to be the easiest way to go about it. We got a telegram from a hospital in Pennsylvania to let us know he’d died. Nurse found a note in his pocket to notify us of his whereabouts. We all mourned.” The woman’s weary face resembled her mother’s in later years, eyes still wearing their mutual sorrow. It’s hard to tell truth from what’s imagined.
The staff refer to her demeanor late in the day as “Sundowner Syndrome.” Iris gets agitated at the remembering, and her mind wanders when she re-tells family stories. Details hint at actuality, but the dementia often brings out more fanciful tales.
“Yes, little Minnie.” She shook her head slowly back and forth. “Minnie didn’t know James like I did, was too young when he left. The girl only knew from what we told her. Just like I’m telling you now.” Iris fidgeted in her faded blue glider, the seat’s padding molded where her backside rested most of the day.
She’d once been quite a looker, fully coiffed at the beauty parlor every week, nails freshly painted – the epitome of a kempt woman. Brushing her short-cropped gray hair back from her face, she turned toward the dining hall. “About suppertime, ain’t it? I can tell you more later if you still wanna listen.”
Upon returning to her room, she wouldn’t remember where she left off.
Studio 30+ writing prompt – ridicule Image: US National Archives