The Things They Owed Her
The day my son Andy come back to live with his sister and me was a blust’ry day in March. A norther had blowed in durin’ the night, and the air was chilly. Mary was helpin’ me cut the seed taters into pieces so that we could plant ‘em. We always tried to plant our taters around St. Patrick’s Day.
Mary and me was settin’ in the kitchen around the cook stove. The stove was still warm from the breakfast bakin’ when Andy walked in from the hall. I could tell that he must have rode Ole Dan all the way from Winterfield that mornin’ ‘cause his face was red from the cold wind. He must’ ve have left his house early, I thought.
Mary glanced up as Andy walked in, but she didn’t say nothin’—just turned to look at me with a question in her eyes.
“What brangs you here so early?” I asked Andy. I didn’t motion to’ards the empty chair beside the stove, and Andy didn’t move to’ards it.
“I come to see how and you and Mary was gittin’ along,” he said.
“As you can see fer yerself, we’re managin’ fine,” I said. I would’ve died before I complained to the son who married and moved away from his widowed mother and his sweet sister. “We’re goin’ to plant the taters later this mornin’.”
Andy cleared his throat as he had a habit of doin’ when he was nervous.
“Ma, I wanna come back to the homeplace and make a crop this year. Cotton prices is supposed to be up a little over last year’s price, and if we can afford to fertilize a little, I think we can make a bale to the acre in the big field. Maybe we won’t have a flood this spring like we had last year in June.”
"What about your wife? You know that she is not welcome on this place. An’ Mary and me is too busy to raise your young ‘un, if you brought it here,” I said.
Mary kept slicin’ the taters so fast I thought she would cut off the tip of one of her fingers.
“You make sure there’s an eye on ever’one of them pieces,” I reminded Mary.
“Yes, Ma,” she said.
“My wife and son is stayin’ where they are,” Andy said. “We done settled all that.”
“You’d best start breakin’ the ground in the big field before it rains again. They’s coffee left from breakfast if you wanna cup before you take care of Ole Dan. You don’t want him gittin’ a sore back ‘cause you left the saddle on him too long before he was rubbed down,” I said.
I must admit I was relieved when Andy come back home. It was hard to do the plowin’as I done that year when Andy was livin’ with his wife.
I can’t complain about Andy, though. After he sowed his wild oats and run off across the state line with that woman from Winterfield, I was madder than I have ever been at him. But then Andy come back where he always belonged—with his mother and his sister.
I never would have chosen to raise a boy without a daddy around. One of the things that attracted me to Andy was that he grew up without a daddy. I felt sorry for him and his sister. Andy was four or five years old and Mary a couple of years younger when their daddy died of appendicitis. I just can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without my mother and my daddy.
One morning in March when Andy, Jr., was hardly a year old, Andy said that he was going to stay over at his mother’s place. He said that he was going to grow a crop of cotton over there. I guess Andy knew that my daddy wouldn’t let Andy, Jr., and me sleep one night without a roof over our heads.
My cousin tried to warn me against marrying Andy. She said that both him and his sister were under their mother’s thumb and that the thumb was made of iron. My cousin could have said, “I told you so,” after Andy left, but she is not like that.
I thought once Andy made the break with his mother and especially after Andy, Jr., was born, that he would never go back to live at his mother’s house. I knew she didn’t want me and our baby there. Unlike his sister, Andy made an effort to strike out on his own, which his sister never did.
I couldn’t understand how any father could leave a year-old baby, especially with a disposition as sweet as Andy, Jr.’s was. My daddy would have fought a circle saw to keep from leaving either my brother or me. But then everybody is different.
Andy would occasionally send me money orders, especially after Andy, Jr., started school. He always sent money at Christmas. But he didn’t come around to see us, though Ma Looney’s farm was only about ten miles from Daddy’s.
I got a job as a cook in the school cafeteria, and after Andy, Jr. got older, I worked as a waitress at the café on the highway during the summer.
I’m settin’ here shellin’ Crowder peas so I can boil ‘em for dinner. Ma don’t like Crowder peas as well as she likes the purple-hulled ones or the black-eyed peas, but once in awhile she lets me cook the Crowders. Andy likes ‘em, too, so he always plants a row for him and me. The hulls turn a soft yellow when the peas get ripe, and when you shell ‘em, the dark red dots on the yellow-green peas make ‘em look like unstrung beads. If they was stones, what a pretty necklace them Crowder peas would make.
As I shell the peas, I’m thinkin’ how different Ma’s life and mine would have been if Andy had not come back. I guess Ma would have had to hire a hand, but no hand would’ve stayed more than a season. Ma has her way of doin’ things. Ever’body who ever lives with her finds that out.
Ma must’ve had a real hard time when Pa died. Me and Andy was real young. Some women might’ve throwed up their hands and gone to bed, but Ma was determined that she was not goin’ to lose the farm her and Pa had worked so hard to buy. She didn’t come to Texas jus’ to fail and go back to the nothin’ she left behind in Alabama.
I felt a little guilty to be glad he was comin’ back, leavin’ his wife and baby. But I couldn’t keep from thinkin’ maybe I wouldn’t have to help Ma in the fields no more. I was afraid to help Ma hitch the mules to the wagon or to the cultivator. Ma had better luck teachin’ Andy how to handle the livestock than she had tryin’ to teach me. She said more than once that Andy was jus’ a natural farmer, a better man with a plow than his own daddy had been.
To tell the truth, I guess I envied Andy when he went to live with Rachel on the farm they rented. The closest I ever come to leavin’ wasn’t really very close. Henry Nolan and me went together a few times, but he never mentioned gittin’ married. Not long after Andy left, Henry took me to a pie supper at the Greenwood Church. It was a starry night, and there was the smell of wild honeysuckle in the air. We set outside on benches the principal brought outside jus’ for that night. The members had hung light bulbs above the front porch of the school, and they used the porch as a stage. Before the biddin’ was over, Henry slid his arm across my shoulder.
But Henry was nervous around Ma—I could tell. Ma always stood in the front hall and watched Henry and me drive away in his buggy. It wasn’t long after the pie supper that I heard that Henry and Susie Bannister was keepin’ company. The pastor married the couple a few months later. Someone told me they sat in Henry’s new buggy in the churchyard while the pastor performed the ceremony.
My life was easier after Andy come back. Ma was easier to git along with. I learned years ago how she likes things to be done around the place. I never changed my habits after Andy left, but it seemed like that year he was livin’ with Rachel in Winterfield, nothin’ pleased Ma.
The summer before I started the eighth grade, Uncle Troy and Aunt Lexie were living on the Jordan farm across the road from Ma Looney’s farm. My parents and I visited him often.
One August afternoon when we had gone to visit my aunt and uncle, I got bored sitting inside the house. I wandered into the backyard and chased the pesky hens away from the fig bush. near the chicken coop.
On that same day I saw a boy a few years older than me riding a spotted mare past Uncle Troy’s house. The stranger reined in at the Looney place and rode into the front yard. He was wearing a black hat and jeans and a khaki shirt. Though I didn’t get a good look at his face, I was almost sure that I had never seen the boy before.
“Did any of you see the man who just went into Looneys’ house?” I asked.
“No,” my mother said. “Prob’ly some boy from town they hired to do some work for ‘em.”
“Was he ridin’ a spotted mare?” Aunt Lexie asked.
“Yes’m,” I said. “The mare has large brown spots on her sides and on her back. She looks a lot like our mare.”
“That’s prob’ly Andy Looney’s son,” Aunt Lexie said.
This was the first I had heard that Andy Looney had a son. I didn’t even know until that day that he was married.
“Where does the son live?” I asked.
“At Winterfield, with his mamma,” my father said. “I didn’t know the boy ever come to see his daddy.”
“Jus’ in the last few months, I understand. Mary says that he’s a fine-lookin’ young man—and jus’ as nice as he can be to all of ‘em, ‘specially to Ma Looney,” Aunt Lexie said.
“The boy’s prob’ly smart enough to know that he’d better behave if he wants to be welcome over there. Ellen Looney’s no woman to be on the wrong side of,” my father said.
“She cusses jus’ like a man when she gits mad,” Aunt Lexie remarked. I wondered whether my aunt had heard Ma Looney swear or if she was depending on hearsay.
Since that day I have on occasion wondered what Ma Looney, her son, her daughter, and her grandson talked abut as they sat around the dinner table. Aunt Lexie said that Andy Looney’s son didn’t visit often, but he must have stayed for a meal when he did visit.
Did Mary Looney bake tea cakes or ginger cookies or did she fry sugar pies for her nephew? Did Ma Looney ever give her grandson a dollar or two from the bills Aunt Lexie said that Ma Looney kept inside a pillow case with one of her feather pillows. Did Andy Looney ever talk to his son about leaving him and Rachel Looney at Winterfield?
I’ll never know the answers to the questions. Maybe some people would say the answers are none of my business, but that won’t keep me from being curious.
Robert Cowser writes fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. One of his memoirs was recently published in Brevity: A Concise Oiterary Journal of Creative Nonfiction, and a poem was recently published in the St. Anthony Messenger. Cowser teaches literature and composition courses as an adjunct instructor at The University of Tennessee at Martin.