My roots are buried in farm land, as are the characters’ in The Calling of Ella McFarland.
The character Betsy McFarland’s roots are buried in similar soil. Betsy, Ella’s mother, is a composite of strong, faith-filled family members and friends, farm women who left bits of themselves in my memory bank. If you check out THE CALLING OF ELLA MCFARLAND, I think you’ll see what I mean.
My mother, Goldie Banks Brooks, was a farm hand’s wife at the age of 16. When she walked into her “new” one-bedroom house with no electricity or running water on the edge of a field, she thought she had moved into a palace. She had just moved out of a barn.
Mother owned two dresses–one for day wear, the other for church. My father earned $5 per week in 1935 and from that paid back his employer the money he borrowed to buy their wedding clothes. Mother raised chickens, processed them, and sold them to a local grocer. In time and with good stewardship of the funds Daddy earned through his contribution to the war effort as a carpenter in the construction of the naval air station in Kingsville, Texas, they bought a farm of their own. And because Mother had dreamed of a brick home from the time she lived in the barn, Daddy managed to do so in 1951.
Some farm workers experienced tragic life events: births and deaths of newborns; accidental drowning of a toddler; death in car accident; and the severe burns sustained by a 12-year-old who had gone out to burn the trash. Mother was beside them at such times.
Mother’s hours at the sewing machine were incalculable, as were those she devoted to handwork and bending over the table cutting out dress patterns.
She sewed and altered so many pieces of my clothing she could look at the product and know if it fit. “I know how you’re made,” she said. Mother was certain about her faith, certain about her principles, and certain about what she taught her children.
Then there was “Mama”, my maternal grandmother, Ella Pyle Banks Knox, who married a one-armed farm worker. Every bit as strong as Mother but in a quiet way, she was soft-spoken and humble and possessed simple wisdom–like Start out Like you can holdout, which she advised Mother when she married.
Mama never bought a quilt. She made her own. She did not buy vegetables at the grocery store. She raised and canned her own. She did not pick out frocks at a dress store. She sewed her own. And she picked cotton with a child riding along on the cotton sack. She made a home out of a barn; she swept the dirt floor. Later on, she ran a laundry business in her home. Her daughter, my mother, gathered the customers’ dirty laundry before daybreak … and start of school.
My paternal grandmother, Ona Mae Hancock Brooks, took over as the woman of the house at age 11 when her mother was committed to long-term hospitalization. As the eldest child, she helped her father George rear her three younger siblings. She married George H. Brooks, a farmer on the High Plains of Texas, a man eighteen years her senior who never advanced beyond “dirt-poor.”
She knew her Bible like she knew the back of her hand, and she could sing alto like nobody’s business. She taught a children’s Bible class as long as I can remember, rolled out bread dough on a floured cup towel, lived without air conditioning and an indoor toilet years after the rest of us considered them necessities, never drove a car but walked to neighbors’ homes to invite them to church, and reused buttons. She saved saved them in jars and tins.
All three women washed clothes on rub boards in tin tubs with the “modern convenience” of a hand-powered wringer and hung them to dry in the sun or on screened-in porches. Neither grandmother owned a dryer. My mother purchased her first when her last child was born in the late ’50s, a welcome sight for me, the elder 11-year-old sister who hung diapers on the line. I, the daughter and granddaughter, learned to launder using an electric washing machine and to iron before the advent of modern steam irons by dipping clean shirts and pants into liquid starch, hanging them to dry, sprinkling and rolling up each piece, and setting them in a dark closet overnight. The next day the moisture had permeated the fabric, ideal for ironing.
Mother’s friends, mainly other farmers’ wives, shared many of her experiences: pacing the floors when rain pelted ready-to-pick cotton … or when boll weevils devoured the crop … the price of onions plummeted … or a violent storm left the latest crop hailed out. Minnie made the best fresh creamed corn you ever put in your mouth; Annie Mae, pecan pie that melted in your mouth; and Ruth, biscuits and gravy that made your mouth water just smelling them.
Betsy McFarland represents the best of the women who cling to my memory. She’s the sort of woman who anchors a family in solid faith and love and casts a vision of how ordinary lives become extraordinary through Jesus for women of later generations, women like me.