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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 28

Artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her inspirational and entertaining life story.

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Cordelia hired Mama to run the newly constructed laundry and she hired P.G. to build a house on one of several properties she owned around Weed. In exchange for P.G.s work on this and other jobs, Cordelia allowed us to move into the house.

Our new home bordered the local cemetery, the inspiration of seemingly infinite ghost stories. My brothers delighted in terrifying me, and they warned me about wandering outside at night near the resting place of so many dead people. They never mentioned any one particular ghost but intimated there were many and not all were friendly.

The house was a great improvement over our previous living quarters, although the drywall in the bedrooms was never finished while we lived there. It lacked indoor plumbing but it did have electricity, linoleum floors, and more room than we had ever had. Not long after we moved in, we bought a couch, chair, and an end table—the first living room furniture we ever owned. We were very proud of it.

In the past, our living rooms always served a dual purpose as a bedroom with a bed in one corner and a few straight-backed chairs around a wood stove. This house by the graveyard was much better. Some memories of our life in this house are not pleasant but mostly I am reminded of the better times we had there.

People around Weed grew up knowing just about everybody. Because there was little to entertain us, we were forced to create our own amusement. Fortunately, the area was home to a number of talented self-taught musicians. Listening to them play was great fun, but dancing was even better.

We had what we called "home dances." One family or another would clear out their living room furniture, except for chairs around the wall, and roll up the rug, if they were fortunate enough to have one, so that people would have room to dance. Everyone danced, including the kids. I don't remember exactly when I learned to dance; it just seems that I always knew how. It was a natural thing to join the grownups and dance until we were exhausted. We looked forward to a break around midnight when cake and coffee would be served.

Those gatherings were carefree and joyous.
We used to laugh at the way Mable Burgess danced around the floor. Mable was a well-endowed woman whose enthusiasm for dancing infused every inch of her generous body. As she fast-stepped and circled around the floor she would flop her arms to the beat of the music. In fact she looked very much like an old hen flapping and stretching her wings.

Although she never knocked out a partner with her vigorous arm pumping, she came close. Not because she had a mean hook, but because she didn't like wearing deodorant. The resulting puffs of sweaty odor sidelined more than one hearty male dancer.

As the evenings wore on, some of the adults drifted out to their cars to sneak sips from the liquor bottles they had brought with them. I'm not sure what all the secrecy was about because it was perfectly obvious by their dance style (or lack of it) who had indulged. Sometimes Mable's partners appeared to have imbibed more than the others, possibly in an effort to deaden their senses.

From these home dances I learned how much fun dancing can be.
One of my classmates from Texas, Doris Phelps, whose father worked at the sawmill, had taken tap lessons before moving to Weed. I was fascinated by her dancing and told Mama, "I know I can learn to dance like Doris. All I need is some tap shoes."

"Bertie, we can hardly afford school shoes," she responded, "much less dance shoes."

"Well, I have that old pair of sandals, Mama, all you need to do is nail some taps on 'em."

I don't know where Mama got the taps, but she did, and after she nailed them on my shoes I asked Doris to teach me some basic tap dance steps. Every day at school recess she patiently taught me to tap dance. We only had a rocky hillside where our house sat, so I would walk over to the school yard with its cement sidewalks and endlessly practice. I tapped along the walks, around the cistern, up and down the steps, and back again; over and over. In addition to what Doris showed me, I tried from memory to imitate some of the steps I'd seen the cook in Albuquerque perform. At home, I liked to dance to the rhythm of "Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy". When I tapped to the scratchy record on our wind-up record player, the wooden floor vibrated causing the needle to skip. This meant I was out of step much of the time—but that did not stop me. My determination was unwavering.

When I finally learned to tap dance well enough to keep up with Doris, we performed in a school program. Both of us wore skirts made of white and red crepe paper. Doris was the star because she was the better dancer, but boy, I was proud to be in those hillbilly follies. The joy I felt made me understand why that colored cook, I had watched so long ago, seemed so happy while he danced. I felt if I worked hard enough I could do anything.

Mama worked very hard all her life, and running the laundry for Cordelia was no exception. She helped people operate the old wringer-type machines, and she also took in washing and ironing for the more affluent customers. She was always tired when she came home. One morning, in a hurry to get to work, Mama accidently let a red-hot skillet slip from the stove. Bacon grease scalded her foot. That was one of the few times she ever saw a doctor. P.G. drove her to Alamogordo for emergency treatment.

She came back home and tended to the burn herself. I remember her grimacing in pain, tears running down her face, each time she changed the bandages. Mama had to use crutches for several weeks but still managed to run the laundry because we needed the money. It's little wonder that she and P.G. sought refuge at Cordelia's bar on many a Saturday night.

Mama used printed flour sack material to make dresses for Phyllis and Reita on a treadle sewing machine. She salvaged enough of the same print to sew for my two sisters because they were small and didn't require much yardage. She sometimes also ordered material out of the Montgomery Ward catalog.

She was excellent at upholstering. Unfortunately she used these same techniques when sewing dresses for me. They felt comfortable only if I kept my arms at my side and didn't move my shoulders—much like a mannequin. This encouraged me to learn to sew my own clothes at a very early age.

I learned to sew on Mama's treadle Singer sewing machine when I was eleven. The first outfits I made were Halloween costumes. I cut up old curtains and sewed them for my sisters and me. That Halloween the whole family went to a home dance, dressed up and wearing masks. Willie and Murrel helped make the music that night and we had a terrific time.


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