I judge my life - Part 4- The unpainted house

I passed my first ten years in an unpainted house (photo 1) on a gravel road (photo 2). It stood a few hundred yards from where Peggy and I were building our new home.

I was often lonely because the only other children in the area were cousins who were a few years older than I and whose mother (my father’s sister) didn’t like my “city woman” mother, and who consequently didn’t like me. The fact that my Granny—with whom we lived—made no bones of the fact that she loved me more than she had ever loved anyone didn't help relations. Yet, I remember those years fondly because my father (photo 3) was saner than he would later become, and as far as I knew, my family was a happy family.

Until my sister was born in 1954, five years after myself, I was the center of the universe to my parents, my father’s parents, and an elderly dog named Mike (photo 4) whose fangs kept the rest of humanity at bay. I remember peeing on Mike as he lay in the dirt flopping his big tail against the ground. I considered this great fun.

Our other close neighbor was the Floyd King family on whose property was a gravel pit that was home to the water moccasin that killed their little boy. Like a lot of people, the Kings had a section of their yard that was swept. A swept yard is a child’s delight—cool, non-itchy, and smooth for toy cars and trucks.

Grandpa was opposed to indoor toilets for sanitary reasons, as he said, and even after we got electricity, it was prone to fail after every rain, so kerosene lamps lined the mantle. Our water came from a well that consisted of 8” concrete pipe that was sold in sections and descended a hundred feet or more into the earth. The long and slender well-bucket was raised and lowered by a hand crank, and had a float in the bottom that opened to allow water to enter, and closed when the bucket was full. I considered the well a mysterious and fascinating place that descended almost to the center of the earth and welcomed the toss of an occasional pebble followed sometime later by a muted splash.

We burned coal for heat—and perhaps for cooking for all I know. This now strikes me as odd since south Mississippi was hundreds of miles from the nearest coal mine. Yet, we had a little outbuilding that contained nothing but coal. Coal was an exceptional substance, unlike anything else I had seen or imagined, but I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t like the mess it made. We had other outbuildings as well, all of which were covered with unpainted planks that had grayed in the weather. One was for smoking meat, another for chickens, a third for hogs, a fourth for tools, and a fifth for a garage. The biggest one was for cattle, and it had a loft. Only horse nettles grew near it, probably because cattle wouldn’t eat them. I say this in retrospect; I don’t remember being curious about much of anything at the time.

A little way down the gravel road was a gristmill, and an occasional mule-driven wagon bearing a family of Negroes passed the house. Sometimes, they let me ride with them.

The Mississippi heat was pervasive for eight months out of the year, and even worse at night because my mother didn’t believe in fans or open windows after sunset. “Drafts” and “night air” carried disease, she said. She also worried about buzzards. The South surely leads the nation as the home of choice for vultures, and my mother was convinced that they dropped germs. She would look out from time to time when I was outside playing, and if she saw them circling high overhead in gentle glides on their great wings, she would call me in somewhat frantically.

Rattlers, cottonmouths, copperheads, red wasps, yellow jackets, and roosters were more realistic threats. The one I feared most was roosters because that was the one that plagued me most, but my worst encounter was with a speckled guinea hen. Unknown to me, it had its nest in a ditch, and it flew atop my head one day when I came too close to the eggs. I ran toward the house screaming as it clawed my scalp, but I nearly forgot my terror when the screen door flung open and my elderly Granny (photo 5) came charging across the yard with blood in her eye and a broom in her hands. It was surely the first time she had run in decades, and it was no doubt the last. One species’ maternal instincts had clashed with another’s, and I’m happy to say that mine won.

When I was almost five, Grandpa died. I have pictures of us together (photo 6), but I only have one memory of him, and that was because he did something unimagined; he scolded me. I was sitting among the chickens at the time (photo 7), and all of us were happily eating from the same trough. I didn’t even know he was around when he suddenly began yelling as if I had done something terrible. This man who had beaten his own sons had never even raised his voice to me, his favorite grandson.

Soon after his death, we got a bathroom, and it was also about this time that my father gave up his job in town and built a small grocery store in front of our house. He and my mother also farmed, but when the store burned one night, the money from farming wasn’t enough, so he eventually went back to maintaining the holdings of Gerald Kees, a rich man and the local Buick dealer. I still have the melted coins from the cash register. My father naturally suspected arson.

When I was eight, my father gave me my first real gun, a .22/.410 over-and-under (two barrels, one atop the other). I went hunting alone that first day, and killed a bird that was singing in a pecan tree. Its shattered body didn’t give me the feeling of triumph I expected, and I sought to atone for my sin by having my Granny cook it for me. I used my gun mostly for shooting opossums that got in the hen house. I left their bodies for my father to remove.

I can’t say now why my father exposed me to death when I was so young. Every Sunday morning, he would have me kill a chicken for dinner. I was too young to kill it outright, so he would hold it while I sawed its head off with a butcher knife. Then, he would toss it from us, and we would watch it “dance” as the blood splattered. I didn’t know what death meant or that a chicken could suffer, so I laughed. One day, I saw my father kill a stray dog with a piece of pipe, and since my best friends were dogs, I began to understand death, and my laugher stopped. Maybe he thought he was making me tough so I could better face life, but it didn’t work.


Lisa said...

OK, well, being an active vegan and animal rights activist, I kind of skipped over the chicken part, but it sounds like you really need to write a book. This is like D.H. Lawrence all the way. Your pics are so beautiful. I love them. Especially the one with you and your dog.

Lots of bittersweet memories here.

Killing doesn't make anyone stronger. The more a human kills, the more a little part of themselves dies as well. You are enlightened now and can see this and for that be happy!

Love, Lisa

Lisa said...

Oh, and you were very cute, too!

Snowbrush said...

Lisa, I gave up hunting in my late teens, and I gave up eating meat in the early '80s. At the time, I was the only vegetarian I knew (this being in Mississippi). I did go back to eating fish one winter when I was sick a lot and craved it. I still eat it, though with a degree of guilt for the suffering I am causing.

Unknown said...

What a trip down memory lane! I can relate to the grandparent who refused to have an indoor toilet, great grandmother in my case, and only she knew the why.

I didn't live with my grandmother but spent almost every summer with her and my great grandmother and I watched my grandmother wring the necks of the chicken she wanted to cook for dinner. My grandmother's brother also taught me how to use a 22 and wanted me to shoot birds, but I couldn't do that. I did shoot a couple of snakes, much to their delight!

More, Snow, more!

Chrisy said...

I can relate to some of your memories...the headless chickens running around the yard...don't think it was to toughen us up but was just a way of life/survival then...food was food and there wasn't any emotion involved...also chuckled as I read through your earlier posts re insanity in you and Peggy's families and you arguing about whose was the 'sanest'...I have these discussions with my parents tho we all know that my Dad's family was/is definitely loonier! Your posts always trigger memories for me and I thank you for sharing them.

Snowbrush said...

Jane, after we moved into town, I would stay with toiletless friends in the country, and it seemed exotic in a way that living that way never did.

Chrisy "our posts always trigger memories for me and I thank you for sharing them."

Thank you. It is my pleasure especially now that I can't do much but write. I understand that death was a routine matter to country people, but subjecting a creature to unnecessary suffering as my father did by letting a small child kill chickens seems incomprehensible to me; as did giving me a gun when I was eight and sending me out on my own to kill songbirds. He failed utterly to teach me respect for life or even basic sportsmanship

Mim said...

wow. you are quite the writer with plenty to write about.
and yes, you were an adorable child.

Unknown said...


Back then it was just life...It was the way it was. It wasnt to toughen ya up. It was just the way of life and how to survive. You lived off the land. Conveniency was not an option back then. The option of vegan, vegetarian were not that easy. We didnt have a selection like now. Grocery chains were scarce....and stuff didnt get shipped in 24 hrs a day from all over the world. Life was seasonal...No strawberries in December....Different area could harvest certain things. You couldnt go to Lowes and buy seedlings of everything..let alone get seeds for anything ya wanted or read about. 60% of this nation would have died if they had to live then. Because they were taught simplicity not survival. I feel sorry for my children because they will never know how to just survive if need be.....So I dont think it was about shock value or making you tough as it was..that is how he was taught and that is was shown to you....

Sonia ;)

PS...I love old photos.

Snowbrush said...

Mim, some of what I've written about, most people my age didn't experience because indoor plumbing and electricity were common in towns and in many parts of the country. Mississippi was a poor state.

Sonja, you might want to see my response to Chrisy. It wasn't just the fact of being exposed to death it was the way I was exposed and the attitude of my father. There was no reverence for life, no compassion for suffering, and no appreciation for the animals we killed. On the other hand are the people you write about who are so far removed from the reality of the slaughterhouse that they can pretend it doesn't exist. Instead of seeing headless, disemboweled animals hanging upside down, kids today see Ronald McDonald. Neither is right, especially when most of the animals we eat aren't good for us and waste resources. Of course, as you pointed out, it's easier today because we have access to an enormous number of food options. Even so, vegetarians have long existed.

Joe Todd said...

When you and I were kids "times" were sure different from today. Once we survived childhood we had the 60"s and all that went with it
Love your pictures

Renee said...

I love to hear about your life. It is so different from mine.

This is my favourite piece:

'One day, I saw my father kill a stray dog with a piece of pipe, and since my best friends were dogs, I began to understand death, and my laugher stopped. Maybe he thought he was making me tough so I could better face life, but it didn’t work.'

This is the best paragraph I have read in many years and I love it and it makes me feel something.

I am so sorry about the pain. A pain clinic may be a good thing to go do but it is hard all the same to know that this may be as good as it gets in the fixing up department. But I have high hopes that the pain can get relieved.

Love Renee xoxox

Anonymous said...

I can still remember that oppressive Mississippi heat. Reading your writing is like listening to my father who was born and raised there. The times we visited were heaven and hell. Snakes, big spiders, mean dogs and culture shock for Indian-Americans from north of the M-D line. Lovely passages.

Michelle said...

Yes, you were adorable. And I agree with Renee, that was a powerful paragraph.


rhymeswithplague said...

Man, oh man, do I ever identify with this post. My spot was rural North Central Texas, but the unpainted house, the narrow well, the trips to the outhouse, you betcha. I think I was the only kid in my class who didn't have indoor plumbing.

I never became a convert to hunting, either.

Keep up the good work.

Renee said...

Yes the boy and his dog.....

Love Renee xoxo

Renee said...

I love what you said about the fragility and the great power. Magical....


Putz said...

it didn't work huh??...didn't make you tough to see a dog killed, just sad i bet....i feel the same way about foreign wars...doesn't make our boys tough, just sick and us being there doesn't make the land free...it never will...oh i answered your question about the alien poking another alien in the eye on my putz blog....might keep in touch...how old are you?????

Snowbrush said...

Joe, I'll be getting to the '60s. If you were in Ohio then, your experience of it was no doubt different.

Renee "This is the best paragraph I have read in many years"

Why, Renee, what a wonderful compliment. Thank you so much.

Ananji "The times we visited were heaven and hell."

That's a good way to put it!

Michelle "Yes, you were adorable."

Uh, is that a compliment? I guess I can just assume you worry about making Peggy mad if you rave too much about how I look now.

Billy Ray "My spot was rural North Central Texas"

Anywhere near where Robert E. Howard lived? I read a really good biography of him recently that described the area well.

Putz, I'm a mere child compared to you. I'm only 60. That still puts me in the first half of the 20th century, but not in the middle of WWII like yourself.

rhymeswithplague said...

Snow, sad to say I wasn't familiar with Robert E. Howard until I looked him up and found out he created Conan the Barbarian. Cannot find his birthplace -- Peaster, Texas -- in an atlas.

I suppose I identify more (but not completely) with Larry McMurtry.

John Howard Griffin who wrote Black Like Me was my close neighbor and family friend.

Snowbrush said...

Billy Ray, Robert E. Howard is more closely identified with Cross Plains where he spent most of his life from the time he was 13 until he killed himself at age 30 due to the imminent death of his mother. I haven't read Conan--except for a few pages at one point; it wasn't for me. His Western tales (that often include supernatural elements) are another matter, and I highly recommend them.

Carolyn said...

I just jumped over from Rue's Blog. I wanted to say Hi and nice blog.

I love those old pics


Lisa said...

Crazy as it sounds, the past 2 nights the drive hasn't been bad at all!!! It has been a total cruise on 476 South, what we call here "the Blue Route". Your blog is so popular! Well, you are an excellent writer and you write from the heart. You write so honestly, I wouldn't write what was really held deeply in my heart anywhere except my own journal. Oh well.

You know, I keep telling you that we have MUCH in common and I am not going to put too fine a point on it but somebody hurt your Dad, too.

Love, Lisa

Lille Diane said...

Good mornin', Snow,

I've never been to Mississippi, maybe one day I will journey down that way. As I read this story I realized you are taking me there--to the south.

As I mentioned in my response to you in one of my posts, I'm sad you have had such a year or longer of intense pain. Out of that pain I see the writing of a man who can express his raw and real self, his humanity, his compassion for living creatures great and small, and why-how he became the man we call Snow.

I'm not happy you have had to deal with so much pain, my dear friend...but I am forever grateful you are letting it flow out of you in such a powerful way. I cannot wait to read more. The pics are a gumdrop on the visual cupcakes you feed us each day here in your blog.

Well done.

Jason said...

Amazing pictures and writing. A different world.

Snowbrush said...

Carolyn, I'm glad you visited.

Lille Diane. Never been to Mississippi? Well, you might want to visit in the spring or fall, the fall being a little drier. I am always happy when I see that you've dropped by. Knowing that you will read it, makes writing more rewarding.

Jason, indeed it was a different world, and in so many ways too. Thanks for dropping by.

www.retiredandcrazy.com said...

Living all these miles away in England, your story is sheer magic to read. I guess life was tough then, but at the same time very, very sweet.

Daryl said...

What an amazing series of posts .. thanks for visiting mine!

A Brit in Tennessee said...

I was glued to your post...and I'm supposed to be doing other things right now :)
What an interesting and varied life you have led my friend. These stories remind me of the "raising" my husband has had...country people, doing the best they could, to feed eleven children.
The grandparents were a huge part of their days (thank goodness), and despite being closer to the earth than city slickers, their lives were somewhat cruel, and raw.
You were a handsome young man, I must say ;)
Off to

Winifred said...

That was a great posting. Very interesting and some wonderful memories there. Love the photos too.

Strange how some things are similar even on another continent. We had no indoor toilet or bathroom either and we used coal for ourfires and cooking. No electricity just gas and cold water! My grand dad worked at the pit just down the street.

Our climate was different though no heatwaves and we kept the windows shut for warmth even most of the summer. We didn't have any nasties though, no snakes or other things to bite. Just as well as until I was nine, I spent most of my spare time and holidays playing down in the woods with about six other children. We only surfaced occasionally for food. Happy days!

Snowbrush said...

Crazy "Living all these miles away in England, your story is sheer magic to read."

Thank you. It seems exotic even to me after all the years and miles.

Daryl "What an amazing series of posts."

Thank you, Daryl.

Brit "I was glued to your post...and I'm supposed to be doing other things..."

I love that compliment. Thank you.

Brit "You were a handsome young man..."

What is it with my women readers?! They always say that I USED to be handsome. Oh, well, I guess they're just afraid of annoying Peggy if they talk about how good looking I am now.

Winidred "Strange how some things are similar even on another continent."

Which makes me think that maybe similarities can be greater across oceans than in the same area but across time spans.

I get bummed here in Oregon because the days ares so much shorter in winter than they are in Mississippi. Well, Oregon is just under the 45th parallel. I looked at England to see how far north is is, and darn near the whole island is even farther north than Oregon. That would mean really short winter days and really long summer ones.

Lisa said...

"You were a handsome young man..."

I am SURE you are handsome but I cannot see you in your profile pic, but I DO see a very handsome lad post here with burly brown hair!

And no matter, I read your posts. Your words are beautiful and I can tell you have a beautiful heart.


Pease Porridge said...

I loved reading this post! Many similarities in my mother's child hood. They loved watching the chickens 'dance' when they were little and always that fear of catching disease. My mother's baby brother had died of a contagious disease and my grandmother swore that a woman in town had put a curse on the popcorn he had eaten. I love the story of not being able to open the windows at night that stemmed from such fear of keeping safe.
very interesting, Jennifer

tara said...

such incredible images! love them all...hope to be blogging again soon. we are in the process of moving to arizona... keep the old photos and stories coming.

Snowbrush said...

Lisa "I am SURE you are handsome..."

Why, thank you. FINALLY, someone says it!

Pease, the old popcorn curse routine, eh? I don't recall quite that level of superstition, although my mother sent me to an old man in our area one day to cure my wart simply by looking at it.

Tara, Arizona will be quite a change from both New York and Mississippi--wow! I hope it all goes well for you, my former neighbor from McComb.