Before I was old enough to read, Momma had me hooked on fairy tales. She bought a new one for me each month out of the small social-security check she received after my father's death. She rocked me to sleep reading my favorite ones each night. I loved The Glass Mountain, Cinderella, and Snow White. I was only four years old when my father died one cold Christmas Day in a charity hospital.
Four years earlier, I'd been born in a charity hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. We never had much, but I'd not yet realized that. To me, before Daddy died, we had everything.
We lived in a small town on South Third Street in a rambling white apartment house. We only rented, but I didn't realize what that meant at the time. To me, we were rich, for I was rich living in my make-believe world of fairy tales, rich in sunshine and fresh air, swinging in my board-and-rope swing underneath the giant pecan tree in our front yard.
I was a happy little girl who had everything she could possibly want. I had a doting daddy a loving momma, and a precious little sister, who was only four months old when our daddy died. Daddy rocked us and sung us to sleep, singing about our beautiful blue eyes, or Mother would read and rock us to sleep with fairy tales. My world was rich, happy, and content. I wanted for nothing. Little did I know then, that my life would be no fairy tale. Happy endings were all I knew.
We had a small front porch, and hummingbirds flew right up to the wild azalea bushes, pink honeysuckle, that grew alongside it. I'd try to catch those cute little birds, but Momma and Daddy told me to leave them alone, or they'd hurt me. I didn't see how anything so cute and tiny could hurt me, but I did as I was told, being the good little girl I was. Daddy said he was proud of his good little girl for leaving nature in peace.
I was an outdoors child who bounced up early to run outside into the sunshine and yell for Daddy to push me in the swing he'd made for me, underneath the old pecan. It didn't matter to me that it wasn't a store-bought one like my neighbor had. For, my daddy pushed me so high that my tiny feet nearly touched the low-hanging branches. I'd squeal with delight and scream. "Push me to the sky, Daddy!"
Daddy would laugh and say, "That's my girl. She already knows the sky is her limit."
My neighbor's shiny new gym set sat untouched and unused in her backyard. No loving father took the time to push her. She said her father was too busy making a living to buy her and her mother all the finer things in life. Her daddy was more important than mine because he was such a busy man with an important job. She'd tease me and brag about how she'd have so many nice things and all I'd ever have was what Daddy could put together for me with a board and some string. "Your daddy isn't important. He doesn't even hold a job, but my daddy works all the time," she'd brag. My swing is prettier than yours. Mine cost more. Yours is just an old cheap board-and-rope swing, homemade at that."
I'd run home crying to Momma and tell her all the mean things she'd said to me.
"Now, now, child, don't cry so." Momma patted my shoulder and hugged me. "You wear your heart on your sleeve. Don't let her have her way. That's what she wants, to see you cry. Tell her, Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you."
I dried my eyes, ran outside, and yelled the words across the street that Momma told me to say.
She responded. "If words don't hurt you, why do you run home crying to your momma, little girl?"
My friend was older than me and in school. She said she wanted to become a teacher when she grew up. Sometimes she'd practice on me. I liked her then, and I was curious to learn as much as I could from her. She taught me how to count and taught me my ABC's. Thanks to her and Momma's reading to me, when I started school at five, I could count, say my ABC's, and knew all the nursery rhymes and fairy tales by heart.
I practiced for Daddy, and he was so proud of me. He bought me a little red-plaid book sack to begin first grade. Today they're called book bags or backpacks, but it was not a backpack like the ones known to students of this age. It had a small handle and was carried like a briefcase. I'd fill it with my fairy tale books and pretend I was going to school. I still had a year to wait before I would actually start, and Daddy always told Momma that he wanted to make sure I had a book sack to start school with, just in case anything happened.
I had no idea what he meant. Momma thought he was giving me the book sack much too early, since I still had a year before I would begin school, but I was tickled over it and played school while I waited to begin the real thing. Little did I know then, school would play a very large part in my life.
I didn't understand why Daddy didn't work like other fathers. Momma told me he received a check each month because he was disabled, whatever that meant. But, Daddy didn't seem disabled to me. He was able to play with me, swing me, sing to me, and walk me to the store. He could do all kinds of things. In my eyes, Daddy was king. He walked on water. I was his little princess, and he had me spoiled rotten. If I decided I wanted watermelon at 12:00 o'clock at night, he'd let me have some. When Momma fussed at me for something, I'd run to Daddy crying. He'd pet me and make me feel better.
Daddy had a special chair. It was an old green overstuffed one, and I could curl up in it and get lost, which is exactly what I did when Daddy wasn't home and Momma fussed at me. After Daddy died, when Momma hassled me, I'd run to his chair. Somehow, I felt like I was still with Daddy when I curled up in his chair and cried my eyes out.
The year I was four years old is the year I remember best about Daddy. I can't remember much before that year. It was such a good year in the beginning. Little did I know that before I turned five, Daddy would be forever lost to me. Daddy took me with him nearly everywhere he went that year. If I didn't get to go with him, I'd sit in the swing he made for me and watch the road and wait for his return.
My mother, Alice Myrtle, would tell everyone, "Magnolia is the apple of Edbert's eye." It was plain for the world to see that I was Daddy's little girl. Momma named me after the beautiful white flower because she and Daddy got married in Magnolia, Mississippi. I often asked her to tell me about how she met Daddy. Her eyes would take on a faraway look, and she described how she met him on a Greyhound bus. She was from the small town of Springfield, Louisiana, and he was from Brookhaven, Mississippi. Momma always told me it was fate that they met that day.
Momma was a strawberry farmer's daughter, and Daddy was the son of a cotton planter. Destiny brought them together. They had so much in common. They both loved pretty sunshiny days, the country, and watching flowers or plants grow.
Before Daddy became sick and disabled, he worked at a New Orleans shipyard. He stayed in the city during the week while he worked and came home on the weekends. This was when I was very young and we were living in Mississippi beside my Grandma Russell's, Daddy's mother. My father's brother, Uncle Ernie, took over the cotton farm in Mississippi.
When I was only four years old, we visited Uncle Ernie's farm before my Daddy died later that year. Uncle Ernie let me use a smaller sack than all the other pickers and told me that I could help pick the cotton. I was tickled and proud because I had a job and could earn my own spending money. I carefully filled my sack, and he paid me twenty-five cents for each one I filled. I didn't make very much money because I soon played out, and I didn't fill very many sacks. I think I ended up with a dollar.
Uncle Ernie liked to play with me like Daddy did, but he wouldn't spoil me like Daddy. He'd bounce me up and down on his knees and let me climb onto his back, so he could give me piggyback rides. However, if I tried throwing one of my temper tantrums that always worked so well on Daddy, Uncle Ernie would say, "Cry a little louder," and he just ignored me. At first, I'd scream and yell and cry just as loud as my little throat and lungs would allow, but I soon realized that it'd get me absolutely nowhere with Uncle Ernie. He just sat on the porch in his rocker, laughed, and said, "Come on. Cry a little louder. You can do better than that. We can't hear you."
At first, that made me that much madder, and I cried that much louder, but finally my throat ached, and I was out of breath and red in the face. The worst part was that it'd all been for nothing. I finally had to give up in the end because I never got my way with Uncle Ernie.
Now, Grandma Russell was a different story, and I missed her after we moved away. She spoiled me like Daddy did, and she let me play with whatever I wanted.
Momma told me I got into her kitchen cabinets and tore off all the labels from her canned goods. Grandma just laughed about it and said we'd have a surprise each time we ate. Momma fussed at me and threatened to whip me, but Grandma just said, "Oh Amelia, (used Amelia for mother's name) kids will be kids. She's done no real harm."
I was spared a whipping, but Momma said, "You should be ashamed of yourself, young lady. Now Grandma won't know what she's opening."
Another time I was at Grandma's house rocking in my little red rocking chair Daddy surprised me with on his last weekend trip home. I rocked away as hard as I could. The next thing I knew, the rocker turned over, and my head hit the floor.
Momma and Grandma both came running when they heard my cries. "You're okay," Momma said. "Lucky for you, you've got a hard head."
Funny, but I was to be called hardheaded many times after that, but I didn't yet know it. One day my own husband would tell me that I was one hardheaded woman.
The last thing I remember about my early Mississippi days was the way I loved to play outside in Grandma's front yard with the little doodlebugs that looked like little Volkswagen cars. I was fascinated by the way they rolled up their tiny bodies. Momma thought I should be ladylike and play with dolls and keep clean all of the time, but I loved the dirt and the mud. My favorite pastime was making mud pies. I can remember Momma running outside many a time and yelling, "Magnolia, you're certainly no flower blossom. Just look at how filthy you are, young lady. Get yourself inside and cleaned up this very minute. Why I named you Magnolia, I'll never know." Hands on her slim hips, her hazel eyes flashed in fury.
When I was a little older, I'd always reply, "Because you and Daddy were married in that pretty little Mississippi town." She'd laugh at me surprised that I remembered.
Momma would always say, "Why can't you be more like your sister, young lady?" Those hazel eyes of Mom's flashed green with anger. Her shoulder-length reddish brown hair glowed more red than brown with the sun, but she soon found a boxed solution to keep her hair what she termed brown. It looked black to me. Mom ranted. "She plays with dolls and keeps clean. You act like a tomboy, always playing outside in the dirt and wanting to play with boys' cars and trucks instead of your baby dolls."
After we moved from Mississippi, my aunt who hadn't seen me since I was four sent a huge box of toys for Christmas. My sister had all dolls, tea seats, and doll clothes. I had all boys' toys. Trucks and cars, not one doll. "Momma," I said, "my aunt thinks I'm a little boy. She don't even know that I'm a little girl." Tears ran down my cheeks because she knew what my sister was and had sent her all her favorite toys.
Momma tried to make me feel better. "Magnolia, perhaps your aunt remembered how much you liked to play with cars and trucks when we were in Mississippi. Don't worry. I'm sure your sister will let you play with some of her dolls and tea sets."
"I don't want no baby dolls. "I'm too old and big for a doll. I wanted skates for Christmas, and I didn't get any, so I'll just make skates out of those big stupid trucks."
Momma just looked at me and shook her head. "I hope you don't break the trucks or your legs. I didn't get you roller skates because I was afraid you'd break a leg and now you come up with your own."
I took a big yellow dump truck and a red fire truck and put one on one foot and the other on the other foot. Then, I skated across the living room with trucks on my feet.
Momma said, "I wish she'd sent you dolls like she did your sister. If you'd been more ladylike I'm sure she would've. She must remember how much of a tomboy you always were. Girls should be girls." Momma tossed her hair and with a swing of her hips, flounced to the kitchen.
When we grew older, we played school. Like my friend had once taught me, I practiced on my sister. "It's not fair," she'd cry. "You always have to be the teacher. Why can't I be the teacher sometimes?"
"Because I'm the oldest, and I know more than you." We played school underneath a huge shady tree in the pecan orchard. It branches served as the roof of the schoolhouse, and many times they served as the roof of our playhouses.
Momma always declared that she could tell the weather by my moods. Dreary weather depressed me, but sunshine seemed to mirror my very own spirit. I loved to awaken to a fresh, sunshiny day, with the sun streaming through my bedroom windows. I loved to look out the door and see the sun smile down and listen to the birds sing their happy morning tunes. Once, before we moved back to Momma's neck of the woods, Daddy bought a piece of land in Angie, Louisiana. We lived in a rent house while we were working to build our own home. I would bounce up early, ready for the fresh air and sunshine. "Momma, it's daylight. Let's get up!"
"It's just little daylight, Magnolia. Go back to sleep and wait for big daylight before you wake me up." That was Mom's way of getting to stay in bed a little longer. I'd have her up at the crack of dawn when the roosters crowed, if I could.
When we lived in Angie, Mom told me I got into her kitchen cabinets one night while she and Daddy were watching television. They didn't have many groceries, and I took all of her rice, sugar, and salt and dumped them into toy pots. I pretended to cook on my little green kitchen stove. She said she had a fit when she discovered me because I had her rice, sugar, and salt all over. It was scattered on the countertop and a trail ran from the kitchen to my bedroom. That's how she found me. She followed the mess from the kitchen and there I was stirring rice, sugar, and salt together to make a gumbo. She said that's what I told her I was cooking.
Momma declared that my face was like an open book. She could always tell if something was on my mind, or if I was upset about something. In later years, I recall how she said she could tell from the way I walked home from school each day if I'd had a good day or a bad one. If I came down the sidewalk with my shoulders sagging, my head hanging, and my eyes downcast, she knew that something bad had happened to me at school that day. If I had a good day, I'd come strutting down the sidewalk like a cocky old rooster strutting his stuff with my head held high. Words gushed from my mouth before I got inside the door. I just couldn't wait to tell Momma what I was excited about. Momma said she always hated to see me coming with my head down because she knew something bad had happened. She said I was like a flower, either blossoming or wilting. I'd say, "I should be. After all, you named me after a flower."
"Yes, and little did I know it at the time, but it was a perfect name for you. Sometimes you droop like a flower wilting or dying. Other times, you seem to sprout or spring open like a flower blossoming." She smiled. "Perhaps I should've named you blossom."
"I like Magnolia better. Besides, I think it's rather romantic to be named after the little town where you and Daddy were married. It's full of beautiful magnolia trees. Momma and Daddy had taken me on a Sunday drive once during the spring of the year to that pretty little Mississippi town. It seemed to me that Momma meeting Daddy was like a fairy tale, especially the way she told the story of them meeting on the Greyhound bus. But, like my own life was to be, Momma's was no fairy tale either. However, at that time, I was still living in my fairytale world of make believe, and I loved Momma's romantic stories.
I'd grow up loving romance novels, perhaps because there never seemed to be enough romance in real life, at least not for me. Danielle Steel was one of my favorite romance authors. Many others were destined to follow. I went from fairy tales to romance novels like a runaway roller coaster and got what little romance I could out of life from the characters in my books. In years to come, a country music singer would come up with a song about a Louisiana woman and a Mississippi man. I'd tell Momma that each time I heard that song I'd think of them, since she was a Louisiana woman and Daddy was a Mississippi man.
Daddy never got to hear the song, but Momma loved listening to Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn sing it. She was a country music lover and reared me on it. I like other types of music, too, but country is my favorite because it tells stories about life, and I listened to it from childhood to adulthood.
I loved to listen to Momma's stories about Daddy. Her stories were all I had left after his death. She had a way of making him come back to life for me, with her hazel eyes sparkling as she told me stories about their happy times and life together.
She told me how Daddy always showed up loaded down with surprises for both of us. He'd come laughing inside, glad to be home with us once again and say, "How's my two favorite girls?" He'd grab Momma and hug her until she thought he'd surely break her small bones in two. He'd pick me up from the crib or playpen and head to the rocker. "Got to make up for lost time and sing to my baby girl."
Eventually, Daddy sold the house in Angie and the one in Mississippi. He sold the one in Angie before he completed it. He moved Momma back to her home state so she wouldn't have to be away from her family. She could be closer to all of her relatives in Springfield, Louisiana, her hometown. I often wonder if Daddy moved us back because he knew he wasn't going to be around much longer, and Momma would need her people.
When we first moved back, he had a job at a New Orleans shipyard, where he worked until he became disabled. At first, we lived in a tiny house in Springfield. I remember Daddy taking me fishing with him when we lived there. I watched the ducks swim on the water, and the chickens followed us to the river. Daddy showed me how to bait my cane pole with a real live worm. He took me fishing and taught me how to bait my own pole when I was only four years old.
From there, we moved to a rambling white apartment house on South Third Street. I lived there until I lost my Daddy at four years old on Christmas Day.
The last week Daddy stayed in the city, Momma and I went to New Orleans to surprise him. I was too little to remember the trip, but I was all ears when Momma told me about it after Daddy passed. She was reminiscing about happier times.
"When we got to your daddy's room in that boarding house, I knocked on the door, but he didn't answer at first. I pounded and pounded and finally I heard him coming to open the door. He'd been sleeping with the gas heater on in that room without a crack in the window. It's a good thing we went to visit your Daddy when we did, or we could've lost him sooner. I had to crack the window and let the fumes air out of that room. He was so surprised and glad to see us. There, by the side of his bed, was a big walking doll he'd bought for you. He had his gifts for us and thought he'd be bringing them home and surprising us as usual. This time, we surprised him though, because we didn't wait for him. We caught a Greyhound bus and went to him.
I loved listening to Momma's reminiscing about the olden days, what she called the good old days, when she was a little girl growing up on my grandfather's strawberry farm in Springfield, Louisiana. I loved those strawberry tales about how hard my Grandpa and Grandma Threeton worked on their strawberry farm. Years later, I found out they really weren't tales at all, but truth. Most of all though, I loved listening to her tales about Daddy and how good he was to us, how happy we'd been, once upon a time. Just like a fairy tale, there was a once upon a time, but unlike a fairy tale, we had no happy ending. All we had were our happy memories.
The little girl Momma had reared on fairy tales would one day grow up and discover just what a cold, cruel adult world the real world could be. She'd soon find out how cruel life could really be and that real life was, indeed, no fairy tale. Though she dreamt of Prince Charming who'd ride up and rescue her on his white horse just like the fairy tales described, she was not destined to meet her own Prince Charming, at least not for years. Then, just when she finally thought that she had, their lives were interrupted. Later, she'd often wonder where had all the fairy tales gone?
Sadly, one day it'd be her who'd tell her own child that life was not fair and that he may as well face it. She'd grow up saying life was not fair and having someone tell her over and over that no one ever said that it was. The words, "Life is not fair, Kid," would often ring in her ears.
But until the time she was four years old, life was fair and good. Everything came up roses. She was the princess of sunshine, and her daddy always told her, "Your sweet smile is like a ray of sunshine; don't ever lose it."Little did she know at the time, as she beamed that smile at her daddy's loving eyes, that one day in the near future, there'd be no more sunshine for her. Her world was getting ready to cloud over, and the blue skies would turn gray. She had many storms to batter, but for the time being, her life was storm free, and she could happily smile for all the world to see.
B. J. Robinson writes Southern fiction from Florida where she lives with her husband and pets, a golden cocker spaniel, Sunflower, a golden retriever, Honi, and a shelter cat named Frankie. She's an avid reader and passionate writer. When she's not writing, she's reading and reviewing books.
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