Though my mother was born after the Civil War, this war had affected her life and the lives of all those around her. Mother was a great one for keeping alive memories of her childhood. At the age of 7 she was left an orphan, both parents dying of pneumonia, a very common occurrence then. The eldest of five children, she was sent to live with her mother's parents, who owned a large plantation in Kentucky. Thirty years after the war now, Grandfather was getting old, older than his years would warrant, but his life and livelihood had been shattered by the Great War.
Though he had not fought in the Great War, he, nevertheless, had felt the full force of its destruction. He still had his land, but no workers to help him plant the many acres. His livestock had been requisitioned by the military, and all he had left was one old mule, Jake. He had managed to get a cow and some chickens; these along with his garden, supplied them with food.
Grandfather had always grown tobacco and this is a work-intensive crop. He had put in a few acres by himself with only the help of his three teenage daughters and now his granddaughter. They all had to work in the fields, hoeing, picking off tobacco worms, cutting the crop when it was ready and carting it to the barn for drying. Even at this time of shortage of men to do the field work, it was considered "common" for a woman to work in the fields.
To hide the fact that they did work outside, the four girls wore long-sleeved, long dresses and big bonnets on their heads. If anyone was heard coming down their road, the girls would make a beeline for the barn and stay hidden until the visitors would leave. After a day's work in the fields, the girls would wash up at the hand pump outside and then apply buttermilk to their skin to bleach out any suntan or freckles. A smooth white skin was a prerequisite for a lady. Working this way, the family somehow eked out an existence, though it was far from the one they had known in years past.
My mother married young, had a large family and for many years lived in the South. At one point my two oldest brothers bought a newspaper to run "up North," not far from Chicago. So, we all moved north. For the first time in our lives we attended integrated schools and churches. Strangely enough an elderly Negro man, known as Daddy James, also lived in this community. The moment he heard we were in town, he came to visit. Almost unbelievably, he had been a small boy on my grandfather's farm and still remembered him well. When he saw my mother he cried, he was so happy to see her.
Daddy James told us many stories about how much he had loved my grandfather and how good Grandfather had been to him. After that he came to us often, bringing his fiddle and playing music for us and reminiscing with my mother and father about the "olden days."
Daddy James had lived up north for many years, but he still kept his courtly Southern ways. One day when he was leaving our house, I decided I would like to walk to town with him. (I was only 7 at the time) and I really thought a lot of Daddy James.
But he gently shook his head and told me I could not walk with him. "But why, Daddy James?" I asked. "Because, child, it just wouldn't be seemly," he replied.
I remember standing there on the sidewalk, puzzled at his answer. I didn't understand him, but I respected him.
The Civil War has not been forgotten, you know, but the links between people who lived during that time, or knew people who experienced that war, are now very few. How grateful I am to have been able to be one of those links.
Helen Ward O'Key
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