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Wild VioletsThe Years of Hope
By Alma Arthur
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Alma Arthur
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Great Flood and My Birth
The time was the waning years of the 1920's; in the distance could be heard the tolling of the bells—the death knell for the "roaring twenties" with its' opulence, excesses, loose morals and speakeasies. The signs of economic uncertainty had been rearing its' ugly head, but the population thought good times would last forever. The setting for this story is a quaint village in the pine forest of southeast Louisiana, part of the "Florida Parishes", famous for its' wonderful air and pure water. It wasn't even St. Swithin's Day which usually was a harbinger of 40 days more rain, but never the less, it had been raining for days, not unusual for June in Southeastern Louisiana. They were not gentle rains, but continual intermittent heavy rains with lighting piercing the sky, followed by ominous rumbles of thunder. John Peters was a tall, sturdily built man of about 40. His face appeared young. It didn't show the effects of countless years of being outdoors in the sun, working, hunting, fishing, gardening and playing. Perhaps the bright blue eyes and the shock of blond hair gave the false illusion that he was a younger man. Today, June 21st, 1929, he had a worried look about him as he gazed at the menacing black clouds. His wife, Mamie, was very near term with her second child, and he was studying his options in case the Abita River rose higher and more water poured into the surrounding woods and over the highway. John had been walking into town every day to check the river. This day, the current ran swiftly, carrying downed branches with it, whirling and banging into the bridge supports. He was worried. His wife, Mary Alma (Mamie), was expecting her child any day now, and, as he stood with his foot on the bottom rail of the bridge, he pulled his hat down and crossed his arms wondering how the midwife, Mrs. Bender, would be able to cross the bridge in her old beat up Model T if the rampaging river were to overflow its' banks. She wouldn't be able to negotiate the current and the high water. He though glumly, that the water would also block him from contacting her when the essential time came. He didn't have a phone. He would have to get her. Still perusing his options, he walked hurriedly to the post office, his fingers filing along the rows of combination boxes until he reached his box, # 205. He pulled out a single envelope and noted the return address—one of Mamie's sisters, Lillian. He stuffed it in his pocket, and lowered his face against the warm rain that had just begun again and hurried home, where the aromas coming from his kitchen reminded him that he was hungry. As he sat down, he handed Mamie the letter. "It's from your sister, Lil", he said. Mamie had four other sisters and one brother.
The river was higher the next morning when he surveyed the situation. The road was still passable, but the water had invaded the low lands near the river. For at least ¼ of a mile, the stands of yellow pines were inundated. Even though they were 2nd growth, they were at least 50 years old, and John thought they could withstand the onslaught. He saw a water moccasin slither by. The bridge was being bombarded with debris, and there was two inches of water in the roadway. Not a good sign. The rain had lessened by the time he reached home, but a fresh breeze had sprung up. He fed the livestock, the chickens, and talked to his beloved Llewellen setters. Mary (Mamie) read the newspaper to him. He had Jeanne, their toddler, sitting on his lap as she read. He loved the adventure serial that ran every day in the Times Picayune, but never seemed to end. Mamie was teaching him how to improve his reading skills since he had been taken out of school in the 3rd grade to work for another family for pay and lodging. His mother, Viola Long Peters, couldn't afford the textbooks, but mainly, he left school because his mother relied on him to help earn income to keep the farm going. Her husband, George Albert Peters had put on his hat one day, left and never came back, leaving her with 5 boys under the age of eleven. Dad was a quick learner and he attempted to read the funnies under her tutelage. Soon, he was reading like a pro.
The night of June 23rd, the wind howled and lightning lit up the sky, and loud claps of thunder came a few seconds later. The rain came in torrents. The sound on the tin roof almost drowned out their voices. They finally fell into an uneasy sleep around nine p.m. Labor pains awakened Mamie. It wasn't quite time for the baby to come; she had hoped for a few more days until the rains ceased. Mamie put some cord wood in the cast iron stove and lit a match on some kindling, and a nice fire started. She then went into the little bathroom off the back porch, and ran the whiskey still. Prohibition was the law of the land, but, a man was entitled to a little share of cheer after a hard day's work after all. When Mary finished running the still, she woke up John, "this is it-the baby is going to be born today". "How soon", he asked? "Two or three hours I expect", Mary said. John lost no time. Hurriedly, he flew into his clothes and headed for the garage. There was no way he could make it to Mrs. Bender's house in his little Ford Woody. There was already 2 feet of water around the house. The road was impassable with the howling wind and the rising water. John had an idea!
He trudged through the water until he reached the lowlands near the river. He swam through the trees, now and then being able to rest on a log. He was forced to swim across the swollen, debris filled river whose current kept carrying him off course. Finally, he was past the river in calm water. He was heading for Morgan's big resort on the other side of town, whose huge swimming pool he had helped to dig. Moran's resort rented rowboats. It was nearly five a.m. John negotiated with the proprietor for the use of one of the boats. "No charge", Morgan said when he had heard John's urgent mission. Water was swirling everywhere, branches, and benches and anything that could float was in the mêlée. He navigated his way to the midwife's house, tied the boat to a big bush and vaulted up the stairs yelling "wake up, wake up". Mrs. Bender had had many similar experiences and realizing the significance of John's tone of voice, she had quickly lit a candle and was dressed. She grabbed her midwife's bag and an umbrella, and she and John were rowing in the still water now, but as they neared the Abita River, the tremendous current started carrying the boat the wrong way into the river. John fought and rowed with all the strength he could muster. He rowed like a madman, and the clock said 5:30 A.M. when he arrived back home with the midwife. Mrs. Bender went right to work. The wood stove was already quite warm, and the midwife put a kettle of water on to boil and washed her hands. John went by Baby Jeanne's crib and noted happily that she was sound asleep. Mary's pains were coming with great frequency now. They were very forceful also. She was very courageous and after twenty minutes of hard labor contractions, John heard the unforgettable wail of the first cries of a newborn baby. It was 6 a.m. sharp. That's how I made my entrance into the world. I weighed 6 pounds on the kitchen scale. Mrs. Bender stayed with us two whole days and then Dad paid her and rowed her back to her home, thanked her, returned the rowboat to Morgan and swam home. They called me Alma Doris May Peters. So many names!
The very first time that I was cognizant of another human being comforting me is the dimmest recollection registered in my brain. I knew that I was cold, and very uncomfortable. A loving person with soft, tender hands plucked me from my crib and held me closely to her warm body. I heard soft sweet tones of comfort. She took off the soggy, offending clothes and placed me in warm, soapy water in the round galvanized tub in the kitchen, warmed by the huge cast iron wood stove. The warm water washed over me and the gentle motions of those soothing hands linger in my mind's eye to this day. She hummed in her sweet voice. The fragrant smelling, soft, dry clothing and the cuddling were to be repeated over and over again. To that dear smiling face with the tender eyes, I remain committed to this day. That was my beloved mother. Both she and my father, John, were in their second marriages, both had lost their spouses to disease some years before.
My first memory of Christmas was when I was two. My crib was in the living room. The room was darkened. All I can remember is a pine-scented tree, and Mama was placing little glass balls on the tree. My older sister, Jeanne, was in the other bedroom, probably asleep. My most vivid image was the little alligator clips that held tiny little candles. Dad lit them all for a minute, and they illuminated the room for a brief while, and then he blew them out; being satisfied that the decorating was done. I was in my crib in the living room, and the sudden glow of all the candles created a moment of luminescence I'd never forget. Then, all was dark. I fell asleep and don't remember anything else about Christmas for a few more years. Funny-the things you remember.
Chapter TwoThe Time and Place
Before I begin my story, I would like to make the reader aware that there were four of us sisters—Jeanne, Lee, and Shirley and me who grew up in exactly the same circumstances, but our perceptions of events differ widely from each other. It is as if the reality is a two way road—the input to and from the characters involved depend greatly on the psyche and personality of the players. My sisters may have as lightly different version of this story due to their own private recollections, but I will set down my remembrances as best I can. Many of the characters' names have been changed to protect their privacy. My birth in 1929 ushered in the "Great Depression" and ended the era of "the flappers". The piece of land where I grew up could hardly be called a farm, but it was two and a half acres of fruit and pecan trees, potatoes, tomatoes, melons, okra, corn, beets, greens, squash, butter beans, yams and all manner of fruits and vegetables. My mother planted flowers every spring, and reveled at the beauty of the narcissus that sprang up every spring after lying dormant in the cold ground all winter. The joy of my mother's life was the beautiful wisteria tree that perfumed the summer air with its fragrance and wafted its scent through the window where Mom always sat at her 1917 treadle sewing machine.
The town that Mom and Annie, hersister, choose to build a summer home was a paradise—clean air, sparkling cold artesian water, bountiful trees and green meadows, birds singing all day long, a gorgeous river, and a prosperous town with a dance pavilion, three stores, two meat markets, lots of open space and a huge swimming pool resort area, a town hall with huge playing field across from it, a baseball team, track meets, and a marching band. There was also a Lutheran church and a Catholic church and a brand new two story brick school plus a train station.
Our home was white with plantation green shutters, four rooms and baths, a front and back porch, "shotgun configuration", topped with a tin roof. It was set back about 60 yards from a lightly traveled blacktopped road. The living room was quite spacious and doubled as a bedroom. It was decorated with the furniture from my mother's first marriage. In the large second bedroom were two double beds, a wood burning heater, Mom's 1917 treadle Singer sewing machine, a square table, adorned with a starched and ironed fabric with Mexican drawn work, 4 chairs and a huge closet. On the wall, there was a beautifully framed picture of a benevolent Jesus with hands held out as if he was giving a blessing. Mom's beloved 4 feet tall, wind up Victrola (record player) with all its' records occupied a prominent place due to its importance. Generous sized windows with neat lacy curtains on the east and west sides of the room completed the picture. The massive kitchen / dining room held a huge wooden table made by my father, and seemed to be a focal point where most activities took place. It was rustic, but warmly comfortable. A huge wood burning cast iron stove was used for cooking and heating. There was no running water—the water had to be hand pumped and carried in to the sink from the outdoors. My father had made a large pantry with shelves, as well as, a medicine cabinet out of reach of children. There was a small bathroom off the kitchen and a spacious covered back porch. There was also a large, round cistern for collecting rainwater. The icebox was out on the large enclosed rear porch. There was a claw-footed bathtub in the bathroom was used only in the summer (the house was built as a summer cottage). Just off the back porch was the hand cranked pump that supplied drinking and irrigation water. The detached garage held the 1925 Ford Woody, tools, stove wood piled floor to ceiling, nesting boxes for the chickens to lay their eggs or brood their young. The chicken house was used to milk the cows, or for the suckling calves to nurse. A fenced in enclosure kept any animal from escaping to the garden area or to the pasturelands and pine forests beyond. The reason it was called the chicken house was because the chickens wandered in toward twilight and climbed up onto the "roost" where they slept at night. Attached to the garage was a smoke house. Behind the garage was the "outhouse" with the old issues of Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs stored on a shelf for toilet paper. The building to the east and back of the house held a multitude of wondrous items—the large 30 gallon crocks with sauerkraut and fruitcakes wrapped in cheese cloth and dampened with brandy monthly, a corn grinding mill for chicken feed, shelves lined with canned jars of figs, pears, tomatoes, blackberries for winter pies, pickled hard boiled eggs in jars, relishes, jellies, jams and pickles. There were barrels of feed for the cattle and chickens, boxes of wonderful "Stuart" pecans and other produce harvested throughout the year. Years later, I would be present at a most magical time for me. It was when Mama opened her grandmother's steamer trunk from 1834. The top was domed with hammered metal straps and decorated around the lock and fasteners, but when she lifted the domed top, there were sweet little angels flying around in a cerulean blue sky with fleecy clouds of white, rimmed with gold. Mama handled each object she touched tenderly and looked at some old pictures. Sometimes she would wipe a tear from her eyes. It would be years later before I learned about the devastating losses she had suffered. She did not share her tragedies with her children; she didn't want her unhappiness to rub off on us. But a few years later, I heard a song that seemed to sum it up. It was called "Among My Souvenirs" and the lyrics went: "There's nothing left for me of days that used to be, I live in memories among my souvenirs. Some letters tied with blue, a photograph or two, I see a rose from you among my souvenirs. As the teardrops start, I find a broken heart among my souvenirs".
Mama, as well as, her four sisters and one brother were born in the 1890's to 1904, the "Gay Nineties". They came of age in the early 1900's. Their children were born between 1916 and 1919, and grew up in the prosperous era from the end of WWI to 1929. Most of my aunt's and uncles were in the grocery, restaurant and bar business. Business was booming!! But they worked very hard. In 1925, Annie and Mamie decided to build a vacation house in the healthy "piney woods" near Abita Springs, just north of Lake Ponchartrain. My father, John, turned out to be the builder they contacted to build a small vacation residence alongside a big stand of virgin pine trees. To the rear of the property were grasslands for about 3 miles and to the north second growth timber. Just a half-mile away was the little town of Abita Springs. Between the town and the new property were two regionally famous hotels with French chefs, a beautiful river with many moods, more second growth yellow and long leafed pines (now about 50 years old) mingled with hickory, live oaks, sweet gums, hawthorns, and elms; a mixed hardwood forest with many varieties of flowers, and vines, honeysuckle, Casino berry trees, May Haws, huckleberries, and black berries. This was how Mary (Mamie) met John, fell in love, was married in 1926, and started a family. They lived in the new house, planted fruit and nuts trees, vegetables and flowers. In the summer, Mamie's relatives from New Orleans came quite often for swimming and hiking and strolls in the forest. It began as an idyllic life, but that was soon to change. It was the end of a time of radical social change, loose morals and carefree living. It was the onset of the "Great Depression". Depression or not, it would prove to be a paradise in which we four sisters grew up, oblivious to the famine and suffering in many parts of the country until we were older.
Excerpted from Wild Violets by Alma Arthur Copyright © 2012 by Alma Arthur. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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