Times were hard enough that in the spring of 1935 my father finally had to break down and register for a WPA job. He was adamant that he would not take any Relief handouts but he did get a job on the road crew. He and Bill Simmons ran the rock crusher for a while then he got a job with the contractor that was building a new bridge over the Little Sac (pronounced “sock”) River between Bona and Fair Play. After that he helped build a smaller bridge over Maze Creek between Bona and Dadeville where there had been a shallow ford.
That spring it seemed almost like prosperity to us with some cash money coming in. Unfortunately, it sort of went to Dad’s head and resulted in one of the rare times that I saw my mother sit down and cry.
Dad got paid one week and went off to Greenfield or maybe Springfield with one of my uncles. He took Richard along with them. Prohibition had been repealed not long before and I suspect that Dad had a few beers and his wages were burning a hole in his pocket. We had not owned a car for two or three years.
Late in the afternoon I was fooling around in the yard with Rex and Mother was, as usual, in the kitchen. We heard a car coming and a 1927 Model T Ford touring car with Dad driving and Richard whooping in the seat beside him came wheeling into the barnlot.
“It’s ours!” Richard yelled as Dad wheeled the car around in a circle. “We got a car!”
Mother had come out onto the south back porch facing the barn and Rex and I had raced around to that side of the house. We boys were dancing in glee but then I caught sight of my mother’s face. She was not happy. Her face sort of crumpled and she sank down to sit on the edge of the porch. Then she dropped her face into her apron over work-roughened hands—freshly red from the scrub board in the galvanized wash tub—and quietly cried.
It was appalling. One thing I do not like to see is anyone cry, especially a grown woman and especially if it happened to my mother. I went to her and put my arm around her shaking shoulders. “What’s the matter, Mama? Ain’t you happy about the car?”
Even in her grief, she answered automatically, “Don’t say ain’t!” Then she sobbed, “Oh, Connie, there are so many things that we need. We don’t need a car! We need some decent clothes. I was even hoping that your father would get me one of those washing machines.”
There was a big lump in my throat. My instinct had been to run and see the car up close and Rex was already on the way to the barn lot, but the joy had gone out of it. I thought of all the long hours I had seen my mother bent over a scrub board and laundry tub every week, then wringing out the wet clothes by hand and hanging them on the line to dry. I also thought about all the long hours she spent in that kitchen every day without running water and with only the wood-burning stove to cook on.
Dad did not neglect Mother—he did everything he could for her. He had installed a sink in the kitchen counter with a drain pipe that went outside so she would not have to carry waste water and throw it out the door. He had built cupboards for her and a little clothes closet in the corner of the one bedroom. He had always worked his fingers to the bone for us.
At the age of 39, Dad’s hands were already rough and beginning to be gnarled from hard labor and shucking corn. He took great pride in an honest day’s work and got great satisfaction from what he accomplished whether there was money in it or not. He was just an honest old country boy that did not have much in the way of business sense—especially after he had a couple of beers.
I wanted desperately to comfort my mother but I was at a loss what to say or do. I just patted her shoulder clumsily and, I think, said something like “Don’t cry, Mama—please. Things will get better, you’ll see!”
She looked up at me gratefully, smiled through her tears and squeezed my hand. “I know, Con’rd,” she said softly. “He means well—really he does, and his heart is pure gold. He takes good care of us. I should not be selfish.”
She dried her eyes with her apron then quickly got up and went into the house while I trotted down to the barnlot to inspect the Model T. In a very few days both Richard and I had learned to drive that old car.
I do not know what conversation transpired between my mother and father but she accepted the car. I do know that after a couple more months of working on the bridge job, Dad came back from Springfield on day with a brand new Maytag gasoline-powered washing machine in the back seat for Mother. She used it until we left the Ozarks and her hands were not so red and chapped after that, nor did she complain of backaches. It would be a real museum antique today, but it was pure luxury for my mother.