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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 26

...As he glanced over his shoulder, his pale blue eyes darted slyly. That's when I saw the hand-rolled cigarette dangling foolishly from his lips, and the burning match in his hand.

The curtain, lifted by the breeze, billowed softly and just that quick caught fire from Jessie's match. Flames quickly shot up the wall. They singed Jessie's white hair and eyebrows, and he began to slap his head screaming, "Oh, my God, I'm on fire!"...

Bertie Stroup Marah continues her vivid and unforgettable account of growing up in tough times.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit

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At the sawmill Mama worked long hours alongside P.G., and I felt sorry for my beautiful mother. I was more than willing to help the family. The boys cut the wood, carried the water, and generally helped watch after our little sisters. I fed them leftovers for lunch and got supper started before Mama and P.G., exhausted and dirty, came dragging home from the mill.

One perfectly beautiful summer day, I was watching my little sisters while they played with stray kittens and baby chicks. We did not have many toys but the animals made fine substitutes for dolls and teddy bears—they were soft and cute, made noise and could run. Mama did not like cats and would not allow them in our house. They had to stay outside and tolerated only if they were good mousers. So my little sisters could only play with them inside the house when Mama was away at work.

We had a few baby pigs. But because of the mean disposition of the old sow, we seldom laid hands on her offspring. If we wanted to, someone had to distract her with a bucket of slop while Willie or Jessie, the fastest, and most surefooted, scrambled into the pigpen and grabbed a squealing little pig. No matter how you tried, though, the pink little devils squealed nonstop and the old sow became, more and more aggressive. The risk of life and limb for a squealing, wiggling mass of muscle and fat just wasn't worth it unless there were visiting kids to impress.

One summer day my brothers decided to go rabbit hunting. Before they left, Willie carried in a bucket of water, then asked Jessie to bring in a couple of baby chicks and a kitten for Phyllis and Reita to play with. Jessie quickly responded as he was always anxious to go hunting.

At lunch time I buttered some cold biscuits and put a dab of syrup on them. Then after dampening a wash rag, I turned to the girls. "Let's wash your face and hands before you eat."

Reita held up one of the chicks. "Here, Bertie, wash his face too." She laughed while I pretended to do just that and I lifted her up on the bench to eat lunch.

"My baby wants some milk, too," Phyllis said pointing to her kitten. I poured a little milk into a saucer and the kitten hungrily lapped it up. Phyllis giggled and munched on her biscuit.

The day continued peacefully including the girls' afternoon nap.
I was not a very good cook and had to start supper early. At nine years old, I was unable to shape biscuits, so I made what we called "bachelor bread." It was made from biscuit ingredients but with a thinner consistency and poured into a greased pan. When it was done we sliced it into squares. I peeled the potatoes as carefully as I could, keeping in mind that I mustn't waste any. The boys were back from their excursion on the hillside, and Willie had loaded the firebox of the stove with kindling. Once the fire was blazing, he added larger chunks of wood. He tended the flame, working the damper until it was enough for a cook fire.

"Okay, Bertie," he said, wiping sweat off his face. "I'm goin' back out to feed the sow and chop some more wood."

I mixed the bachelor bread, poured the dough into a greased bread pan and put it in the oven. I then placed a skillet on the stove with bacon fat. When it was good and hot I poured in the potatoes, now sliced and rinsed. They popped and sizzled as I stood by with my spatula. I added water to the pot of beans left over from the night before, stirred them and set them to warm on the stove behind the skillet of potatoes.

While I tended supper, Phyllis and Reita entertained themselves with their chicks and kittens. Jessie, the troublemaker, was standing at the open window. He had his back to me and something about his posture made me suspicious. I tried to get a closer look, but when I moved, he moved too, until his head grazed the flimsy curtain at the window. He was cupping something protectively in his hands. As he glanced over his shoulder, his pale blue eyes darted slyly. That's when I saw the hand-rolled cigarette dangling foolishly from his lips, and the burning match in his hand.

The curtain, lifted by the breeze, billowed softly and just that quick caught fire from Jessie's match. Flames quickly shot up the wall. They singed Jessie's white hair and eyebrows, and he began to slap his head screaming, "Oh, my God, I'm on fire!"

When Jessie realized the curtain was burning, not his own skin, he lunged into action, grabbing the straw broom and beating the flames. But the fire had spread to the wallpaper. At this point, the door opened and Willie came in the kitchen carrying an armload of wood. When he saw Jessie and the blazing curtains, his eyes went wide. He dropped the wood and it scattered across the kitchen floor.

"Bertie," he yelled, "get the girls out of here!"

While I pushed Reita and Phyllis toward the other room, Willie grabbed the bucket of drinking water and tossed it on the flames.

We were very lucky because the bucket was almost full. Willie and Jessie then managed to put the fire out. They tore down what remained of the curtains. I huddled in the other room with Phyllis, who was holding a kitten tightly to her bare little chest, and Reita who was clutching a half-smothered chick in her dirty little hands.

Once we realized we were all unharmed, we remembered that Mama and P.G. would be home any minute. We tried frantically to clean up the mess. I grabbed the broom and swept the dirty water and scorched pieces of curtain out the back door. Willie barked out orders, "Put those chicks in the hen house, Jess, and Phyllis, you better put that kitten back outside."
Phyllis, still frightened, tossed her kitten over the porch rail. "Out you bits," she shouted, mimicking what she thought Mama had said when she tossed the old mother cat out the night before.

In the chaos of the fire and attempted cover-up, I burned the potatoes and bread and scorched the pot of beans I was warming for supper. Any hope Jessie had of getting away with smoking his homemade stogie went up in flames along with the curtain. His deed was evidenced by the scorched wall, bare window, and stench of smoke hanging heavily in the air and there was also his singed hair and eyebrows screaming for justice.
Mama grabbed Jessie who yelped and howled as she whopped his backside for sneaking around smoking and setting the house on fire.

Poor little Phyllis, anxious to help in the cover-up, didn't notice that her kitten had landed in the half-filled rain barrel. When its lifeless body was later discovered in the barrel, she was inconsolable. Mama scooped the kitten from the barrel and drained the water out. As it soaked into the dry dirt by the porch she sighed, "That is sure a waste of good rainwater."

I went to bed that night thankful that no one had been hurt, and that several lessons had been learned. Among those lessons were, of course: don't smoke next to flimsy curtains blowing in the breeze, and watch where you throw your cat."

We were still living on the Courtney's Place when P.G. and Mama quit the sawmill and began working for Cordelia Lewis, who owned the bar in Weed. She hired them to build a laundry. The downside to their working for Cordelia was that when they collected their pay at the end of the week, they were inclined to stay at the bar and drink. The hours of waiting for them to come home were excruciating.

One Saturday, P.G.'s brother Darrel, dropped by our house to visit. My sisters and I had waited eagerly all morning for our folks to come home so we could all be together. When Darrel showed up, they still had not come with their pay.

Darrel seemed irritated at our being left alone again. "Bertie, get Phyllis and Reita ready and I'll take you all to Weed." Darrel, like the rest of P.G's family, was fond of me and I was grateful to him for singling me out because I was feeling neglected and unappreciated. I did the best I could to make us presentable. I put Phyllis's hair in pigtails and used plenty of bobby pins to secure the front of her hair in pin curls. Reita's hair was too short for styling. I dressed them in the only clothes that were clean—jeans for Phyllis and a dress for Reita. Although Phyllis didn't have a blouse, I was proud of the fact that both girls wore shoes.

Darrel loaded us in his pickup and drove to Weed. Somebody at Cordelia's bar took a snapshot of us as we sat on the steps in front of a storage building next door. Years later, when Mama sent me the snapshot, the words she wrote deeply saddened me. "Bertie, here is that picture you asked for. You can keep it. I don't need to look at it anymore. I have all the bad memories from that time that I can stand."


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