Shelia Arnold: Memoir: Jan 2022

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I’ve lived in West Tennessee all of my life, and though I believe myself to be the most polished of my siblings, I still have quite a bit of residue on me. My six brothers and I were the proof that things are not boring in rural Tennessee. Our parents worked hard, played hard and loved us intensely. Dad was a tenant farmer and Mama took care of all of us and our home. When you have six brothers, there’s a good chance that you won’t adore them all. This story is not about one of those brothers.

Riding High

I couldn’t have been older than two. I know that because he joined the Army when I was just two and he never lived in the same house with me again. I remember him putting me high upon his shoulders as we went to the cotton field on cool, crisp fall days. I remember the scared, yet excited feeling of being six feet in the air, the safe feeling of him holding onto my ankles to keep me perched safely. He always made me feel safe. He would have me go ahead of him and pick some cotton, making a pile in the middle that he would add to his cotton sack, and he would brag about how much I picked and how clean I had picked it. I was the very best cotton picker according to him. As the day wore on, the sunshine would make me drowsy and when he could sense that I was becoming tired, he would have me ride his cotton sack up and down the field until I fell asleep. 

Our sharecropper house was drafty and cold. I think I could sketch out the floorplan of that old unpainted house even now, all these years later. The front porch went the entire width of the house and was high enough off of the ground that our dog, King slept under it. There were wooden steps that led to the packed dirt yard. When you walked through the front door into the living room, there was one bedroom off to the left. It had two beds, one on either side of the door. Each of the beds was topped with a feather mattress and quilts that either my mother or my grandmother had made. I don’t remember any other furnishings in the room. My four older brothers all shared that room sleeping two to a bed. From the living room, straight back was the kitchen and off of the kitchen was a second bedroom that I shared with my parents. I had a small day bed on the left against the wall, and I remember the orange and white chenille bedspread that covered my parents’ bed that was off to the right. The orange color was faded from its frequent washings and drying outside on the clothesline. Sometimes when I napped on that bed, I would wake up with the pattern of the chenille on my right cheek. Across the back of the house was a long porch. I remember that the porch held our wringer washing machine, a wash tub in which we bathed and the bucket and dipper from which we all drank. The well pump was in the back yard. I can remember he would always take me with him when he went to the pump to refill the water pail and how he would let me “help” him carry the bucket back to the house. 

None of the doors in the house had regular door knobs. Instead, a piece of wood, probably about 3 inches by 6 inches was nailed to the door loosely enough that it could pivot to latch the door shut. I remember stretching on my toes, straining to reach high enough to turn that latch. There was a shed of some type that was down toward the road in front of the house where Daddy kept his plows and discs and other equipment. That’s where the mules were stabled. It seemed to me to be really far from the house. I was afraid of the mules, but I would walk with him to the shed to do chores or errands. I wasn’t afraid if I was with him. 

There are lots of things I don’t remember, though. I don’t remember when he made the decision to join the Army. I don’t remember when he left for boot camp. I do remember being really sad and lonely when he wasn’t there; not because I was alone, because I still had 3 older brothers at home. When he came home from boot camp, he bought his first car from Daddy. It was, he tells me, a 1941 Ford Deluxe. It had a cracked head so it wasn’t drivable. He fixed that cracked head by using a torch and solder, patiently and slowly filling that crack. I don’t remember him repairing the car, but I do remember when he took me for a ride. I stood in the front seat with his right shoulder helping me stay secure. He always made sure I was safe.

His absence became my new normal. We moved to a different house and I worried that he wouldn’t know where we were. Somehow, I came into possession of a small New Testament. The Gideons had probably given it to one of my brothers at school. I kept that New Testament and his picture on the end table in the living room and would say prayers over him before I went to bed at night. I felt safe knowing God was taking care of him. He wrote me letters before I could read them myself. When the letters would come, Mama would read them to me and I would save them in a pretty box that Daddy had given to Mama filled with candy. I wish I had those letters now. When he was sent to Germany, I made one of my other brothers show me where Germany was in his geography book and I cried because there was a whole ocean between us. I didn’t feel so safe with him so far away. 

Time went on. He got married and had children. I started school and began to feel secure on my own. He was in Germany, Texas, Georgia. We sometimes went as long as two years without seeing each other. I graduated high school. I started college, and by then he was out of the Army and living nearby. He picked out my first car and negotiated the deal so that I could afford it. I actually bought the car without seeing it first because I trusted his judgment. 

When our dad died suddenly, Mama needed his help and he was there. I finished my degree and got a job. I got married and he walked me down the aisle in place of our dad. He made sure the car seat was installed properly when I had my first child. He made sure she was safe, too.

Today, I spent the day with him. We had a whole afternoon, just the two of us as his sweet wife and daughter took care of errands. He can’t drive now. He needs help to dress himself, to walk, to go to the bathroom. He doesn’t need to be left alone. He remembers everything. Far more than I can remember. We talked and laughed and he made me feel safe. 

I felt again like I was high up on his shoulders.