Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Why do I feel I can almost remember the day I was born?

Because my mother and my grandmother told me the story of that day. 

Myrtle Lillian Rogers Paul was thirty six years old and already the mother of four children. On that sunny day in May the two oldest, ten year old Glenn, and eight-year-old Nellie had walked up to the square brick school house on the hill. The two little boys, five year old Clayton, and three year old David, played in the backyard while she sat listlessly on the concrete step of the well top and watched them.

            That’s where her mother, Mattie Rogers, found her.  “I brought you some  material”, she said, “There’s not much, but maybe you can make something for one of the boys.”  Myrtie brightened up a little when she saw the fabric, but her mother still didn’t like the way she looked.

            “When are you going to have that baby?”

            “I don’t know,” Myrtie sighed, “It was supposed to have been here two or three weeks ago.”

            As soon as her mother left, Myrtie called the little boys into the house and began measuring the fabric against their narrow shoulders. There was enough for each of them to have a new shirt, if she cut carefully.

            She had the two shirts cut out and was ready to sit down at the treadle sewing machine when Mattie came back with Dr. Nichols. The two of them had already decided it was essential to Myrties health to get the baby out as quickly as possible. When Dr. Nichols gave her the injection to start her labor, Myrtie asked if she could go ahead and sew up the two little shirts while they were waiting for the shot to take effect. But the Doctor said, “No, there won’t be any waiting. You just go ahead and get to bed.”

            He was right. By the time Glenn and Nellie got home from school, she had a five pound baby girl in the bed beside her. Eight-year-old Nellie was shocked, she hadn’t known a baby was expected. Myrtie wanted to name the baby “Joy” because this was the first baby she had delivered outside of wartime or depression. Myrties younger sister, Mildred, came by after she got off work at the shoe factory. She suggested another name, “Carolyn” to go with “Joy.”

            Carolyn Joy Paul was the fifth and last child of James Gillham Paul and Myrtle Lillian Rogers. The family lived in a four room white clapboard covered house on the corner of River Street and in Mokane, Missouri.

            There was no “wrong side of the tracks” as a social dividing line in Mokane. The dividing line was “the hill”. Those who could afford it lived on the hill. Poor people lived in the river bottom at the mercy of the Missouri River.

            Although it was known as a “river town” and the low-lying streets on the south end of town flooded regularly, the river could not actually be seen from the town. The MKT railroad passed through the southern tip of the town. State Highway 94 ran parallel with the railroad, a ribbon of asphalt closely following the curve of the rails. On the other side of the two lane blacktop a wide stretch of cropland hid the river from view. Usually.

             Sometimes a wet spring or fall, or even a series of mid-summer storms, would crowd the Big Muddy out of it’s banks. Backwater would push up the little creeks and tributaries that feed into the rivers causing each tiny rivilut to become a river out of control and overflowing it’s banks.

            It was a wet year. By the time Carolyn Joy was one week old, water had begun to creep up River Street. At first it was just a glimmer on the west end of the street. Myrtie sat on her front porch with the new baby in her arms and watched the water advance until the street was a wide canal, and the porches on either side were like docks overlooking the deepening water.

 Myrtie put on borrowed hip boots to carry the baby out of the flood.  

Why are memories of early childhood the clearest and easiest to recall?

My clearest childhood memories are of Mokane, Missouri. I’ve always considered Mokane to be my home town. After all, I was born there. But the fact is the Mokane that exists today isn’t the same Mokane of my memories. That Mokane is gone, if it ever existed at all. Childhood memories are sharp, bright, clear, and totally unreliable. I know that. But I still like to cling to the picture of River Street and Smoky Road that comes back so easily when I close my eyes.

We left Mokane when I was ten years old. How that came about is a whole other story that I must write down sometime. I lived there for ten years and for some of those years I was too young to be accumulating any memories at all. But still there are many memories.

I was born in a house on the corner of River Street. I think they named it that because when the Missouri River flooded, it came into Mokane by flowing right up River Street. We lived in a wood frame house with white clapboard siding just like almost every other house in the neighborhood. There was a front porch and a front room that you stepped right into from the porch. It was called the “front room” – not the living room. There was a couch and a chair for company, but Mama and Daddy’s bed was there, too. It was an iron frame bedstead with bare springs and a cotton mattress. The bed was always carefully made up with a bedspread or a nice quilt on it.

The kids bedroom opened off the front room and then the kitchen opened off of it. There was a front porch with a swing. The tiny back porch had a well with a pitcher pump just a few steps from the back door.

 That house seems small for a family with five children when I think of it now. But when I was little I didn’t feel crowded at all.