- The Forever Friends -
The spring Ellen turned twelve, her Aunt Mona and Uncle Jim bought a house close to Henry and Nora. Grandma McGee sold her home and moved with them. Ellen was glad to have her grandma and her cousin, Thelma, close. Kelly had arrived at her Aunt's for the summer and making friends with Thelma was easy.
Thelma was full of fun and adventure, and being the oldest, she became the ringleader. Thelma loved to play pranks on people, and she often experimented on Jimmy. Every time Jimmy overheard the girls making plans to play a practical joke on someone he tried to talk them out of it. He was afraid they would get into trouble, so he usually threatened to tell on them. Thelma taunted Jimmy with, "Tattle Tail, Tattle Tail, hanging on a bull's tail,” Jimmy never told on the girls but he did talk them out of a few tricks they had planned.
Grandma babysat Carrie and Gennieve for Nora that summer and that left Ellen's days free to run and play. Thelma, Kelly, Ellen, and Jimmy, along with his friend, Tony, all became good friends. They swam together, fished together, and raced each other everywhere they went. The girls always included Jimmy and Tony in their plans except when they wanted to discuss their personal life.
Kelly had a crush on Jimmy and she didn't want him to know how bad her home life was. The girls swore each other to secrecy.
"I wish my mom had never married," Kelly spoke up at one of their private meetings. "This past winter was just awful. I feel like my step-dad is watching my every move."
"I have the same feeling," Ellen said, despondent over Henry's treatment of her. "It seems like one minute Henry can't be nice enough to me and the next minute he hates me."
"I know exactly what you mean, Ellen," Kelly blurted out. "I'm really afraid of my step-dad."
"I sure feel sorry for you two," Thelma quietly interjected. "I'm awful lucky to have a good daddy."
"You sure are," Ellen agreed. "I really do like Uncle Jim."
"Yeah," Kelly smiled at Thelma. "Too bad my mom couldn't have found someone like your dad."
"If I were you, Kelly," Thelma suggested. "I would run away."
"If it gets any worse, I will." Kelly firmly stated.
"Just don't forget about me." Ellen reached out for Kelly's hand.
"Why Ellen," Kelly scolded softly as she squeezed Ellen's hand. "You're my forever friend. I'll never forget you."
"Hey, you two. You're getting mushy." Thelma laughed and sprang to her feet. "Come on, let's find Jimmy and Tony, and go swimming."
"All right!" Ellen jumped up to follow Thelma.
"Race you!" Yelled Kelly as she dashed ahead of Ellen and Thelma.
They enjoyed swimming and fishing during the day, but when darkness fell, they gathered up neighborhood children to play a hide-and-seek type of game called Kick-The-Can. Drawing straws was the usual way they determined who would be "It"
After everyone hid, whoever was "It" tried to find him or her. The person found was jailed inside a circle, (where a tin can had been placed in the middle), until the end of the game. A free person could try to liberate the prisoners by running through the circle and kicking the can out. If the free person was seen by the one who was "It", he was jailed. Kick-The-Can could go on and on, because even though it was easy to capture someone, it was hard to keep him jailed. Needless to say everyone hated to be "It".
"Alright, Ellen," Thelma was, once again, being the
ringleader and assigning positions for the game.
"It's your turn to be It."
"Not me, Kid," Ellen retorted. "I was It time before last."
"No you weren't!" a neighbor child argued.
"Does your mother know you're out?" Ellen jeered. "You weren't even here for that game."
"Yes I was."
"He's right, Ellen," Kelly spoke up. "You haven't been It for a long time."
"I'll be It in your place," Jimmy offered.
"No you won't," Thelma pushed Jimmy aside. "You're always taking her place being It."
"Now listen, you welsher," Thelma glared at Ellen. "You're going to take your turn or else not play."
"You're all a bunch of potato-heads," Ellen stood defiant. "Then I'll be It and I'll catch every mother's son of you!"
"Ellen!" Jimmy scolded. “You’ll get a walloping for talking that way."
"Aw-w-w, go on," Ellen waved her hand at Jimmy. "I'm not scared of a whipping."
"Let's go!" Thelma started running to hide. "Count all the way to fifty before you hunt for us."
"I always do!" Ellen yelled back as she leaned against a tree to count.
Right away Jimmy let her catch him. Ellen and Jimmy's relationship was based upon Jimmy being an over-indulgent brother who always gave in to her. Although Ellen loved Jimmy with a fierce and loyal heart, she regularly took advantage of him. This occasion was no different and because Jimmy wouldn't let anyone run in to kick the can Ellen soon caught them all. Everyone liked Jimmy so they didn't argue about Ellen cheating. Thelma grumbled at Jimmy but she didn't demand a replay. However, the next time they got together to play, Thelma made sure Ellen had to be "It" again.
Ellen hated when summer ended because once again, Kelly had to return home. Since Thelma was older she found other friends and left Ellen out. Jimmy and Tony became a two-some and Ellen often felt an acute loneliness. She poured out her feelings in letters to Kelly. She told her about Henry's continuous drinking and threatening everyone. She also wrote about the many times her mother packed to leave and of how Henry always talked her out of it.
As far as Ellen was concerned the school year seemed to be stretching on forever. She spent the majority of her time wishing for summer to arrive.
On March 21st of that year, twenty-seven raging twisters ripped through Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee, killing three hundred twenty-one people. Ellen couldn't imagine that many people killed in one day. She hated tornadoes and had overheard Grandma say that they lived in Tornado Alley.
Grandma always went to her cellar when she saw an ominous-looking cloud approaching. Henry had said it was foolish to be that afraid of a storm, but after the record tornadoes, he changed his mind.
The very next month, at the end of a long school day in April, a line of black, rolling clouds loomed on the horizon. Nora and Henry were at work, so Grandma McGee sent Uncle Willie down the street to pick up the children. They had just reached their grandmother's when the tempest hit.
Uncle Willie held open the cellar door for everyone to enter. After everyone was in the underground room, Jimmy had to help Uncle Willie close the door. Grandma tied her kerosene lantern to the top of the cellar and its glimmering fire cast a shadowy glow over the cemented dugout. Ellen squinted her eyes at a far corner where she detected a movement.
"E-e-e-e-, it's a snake!" Ellen cried out.
"Where?" Grandma grabbed Ellen's hand.
"In the corner!" She yelled.
"All right, everyone stand still," Uncle Willie spoke calmly.
"Looks like a rattler to me. Do we have anything to kill it with?" Grandma asked.
"No, I’m afraid we don't," Uncle Willie frowned. "I guess we could try throwing your empty canning jars at him. He looks friendly enough; maybe he won't bother us."
"Humph, a friendly snake is still an unwelcome guest. What about one of these chairs?"
"Those spindly things? Not a chance. Look at how big that snake is," he stepped closer to examine it.
"Why, I bet he's at least four-foot long."
“Gosh, Uncle Willie," Jimmy's eyes were bulging. "You sure are brave. I'm scared to death of that snake."
Well," Grandma reasoned, "it's easier to be brave when you don't have much choice. He's not shaking his rattlers so let’s not aggravate him into it. If he moves toward us we’ll have to get out and kill him later. You kids keep away from his side of the room.”
Ellen was sure her grandma's warning wasn't necessary. Everyone's attention was riveted toward the snake that was curled up as if to strike. Forgotten was the danger from the blustering squall outside. Not until they heard a knock on the cellar door did they think of anything else. The storm was over and Uncle George had come over to make sure everyone was all right. The snake was killed and everyone had a big laugh over their predicament. Many times afterward Ellen would often think to herself, "When you don't have many choices, it’s easier to be brave."
Ellen turned thirteen in the spring of 1932 and by then the Great Depression had fully encompassed her small world. Although she understood her family was going through hard times, she rarely thought about the financial storm. Perhaps if Ellen had been well off, and then came down to the meager way of living she was used to, she would have complained. Like her friends, she always had food to eat and usually had three or four school-dresses to wear. She was taught to be careful of her school clothes - she always hung them up to wear once more before washing. She also had a few play-clothes, and Ellen never dreamed life would ever be any different.
Jimmy had a paper route and often saved his money to buy his sisters, what Henry called frivolous nonsense such as hairpins, cologne, and dress-pins. Their hard-to-come-by niceties were never taken for granted. Therefore, sharing seemed to come natural to the girls, and they learned to appreciate each other's right to their own ornaments. Being poor, yet sharing what she had, gave Ellen a generous heart that stayed with her throughout her life.
When the school year began drawing to an end, Ellen started getting anxious to have the summer days again. But mostly, she could hardly wait to see Kelly and she hoped Thelma would, once again, be their friend. Finally, in June, Kelly arrived for her usual summer visit, and Thelma came over to renew their friendship. They easily fell into their old routine of fishing and swimming.
This summer seemed to be a duplicate of the summer before, with Gennieve and Carrie always at their friend’s houses and Jimmy spending most of his time at Tony's.
Ellen, Kelly, and Thelma learned to make airplanes out of June bugs. One evening, Jimmy decided to join the girls in capturing June bugs on the front porch of their apartment building. The porch light drew bugs to it like a magnet.
"Hey! Look at the size of that one," yelled Jimmy. "Someone bring me a string."
Ellen and Kelly ran to Kelly's bedroom and gathered up enough string for Jimmy and themselves.
"Here you are, Jimmy," Ellen said as she handed him a long string. "Can you catch him?"
"Sure," Jimmy answered as he looked for something to stand on. Thelma found an old paint can beside the porch and handed it to Jimmy.
"Got him!" Jimmy exclaimed as he grabbed the June bug off the side of the house.
"Boy! He's a big one," Thelma said with a touch of envy in her voice.
"Do you want him?" Jimmy offered with pride. "I can get another one just as big.”
“Naw, you go ahead and keep him. I’ll find my own,” Thelma answered unselfishly.
“Kelly, would you like to have him?” Jimmy held the bug our to her.
“Oh, that’s nice of you, Jimmy.” Kelly smiled sweetly. “But I’ll catch one in just a minute. You keep him because he’ll make a great airplane.”
"What about me?" Ellen spoke up.
"Do you want him, Sister?" Jimmy looked up at Ellen and smiled.
"Sure do," Ellen said with no guilt about taking advantage of Jimmy.
Jimmy gave Ellen his June bug and soon found himself another one. By that time Thelma and Kelly had also found beetles they were satisfied with. They tied twine around each insect's leg, threw it into the air, and watched it fly in circles. Thelma started yelling at Ellen not to fly her June bug so close to hers. But her warning came too late and the two strings were quickly in a tangle.
To keep the girls from getting into a fuss Jimmy helped Ellen unsnarl the twisted threads. Ellen soon had her beetle in the air again, but this time she was careful to keep a fair distance from Thelma. For Ellen, having a June bug on a string was more fun than flying a kite. They were having so much fun that when a voice called from out of the darkness it startled everyone.
"Hey, can's I joins ya'?" The voice asked in a high-pitched, southern drawl.
"Sure," Jimmy answered. "Come inside the light so we can see who you are."
A young boy, with a face as black as the night, stepped up to the porch. Ellen had never seen a black person up close before and her first thought was how beautiful his big, brown eyes were. The astonishment of seeing him must have registered on her face because the black boy turned to her and spoke.
"Muh Ma un Pa, tha's over to tha church yunder." The black boy pointed toward the darkness he had just emerged from. "I's just uh won'en ta play."
"How old are you, Jig-a boo?" Thelma asked without malice.
"I's foe but I's gonna be five soons," he answered, unaffected by her choice of words.
"Here, you can have my June bug," Jimmy offered.
"What are your parents doing at the church?" Ellen asked, still amazed that a little, black boy was standing before her in the flesh.
"They's talkin to tha preacher," he answered nonchalantly as he took the June bug from Jimmy. "Muh Pa's uh preacher too, and he's jes talkin's to tha other preacher, 'bout's preachin."
"Oh," Ellen remarked softly. She looked at Thelma and Kelly, and when they saw the look of wonder on her face they started laughing. The young black boy joined in their laughter, and that started Ellen and Jimmy laughing. They were laughing so hard they didn't hear Henry come down the stairs from their apartment.
"What's going on here?" Henry asked with a scowl. He opened the screen door and stared at the small stranger. Everyone stopped laughing and Jimmy spoke up for the black child.
"His daddy is visiting the preacher down the block and he just wanted to come over here and play with us."
"Well, you get back down there to your people, Nigger, and don't be coming around here bothering white folks." Henry sounded angry.
"Yes, Suh," the small, black child said faintly as he handed the June bug back to Jimmy. His big, brown eyes filled with tears and he slowly backed away into the darkness.
"You kids let those bugs go and get upstairs," Henry ordered.
As Henry turned to go back inside the building Ellen heard him mumble something about kids not having the sense God gave a goose. Kelly quickly untied her string and whispered a sad goodnight to Ellen.
"Well, aren't we in a good mood?"
Thelma's sarcastic remark was followed with rebellious face making. She stuck out her tongue, put her thumbs in her ears, and waved her hands back and forth. If Ellen hadn't been so distraught she would have laughed. She almost wished Henry could see Thelma's face. She knew he wouldn't dare touch Thelma, because of Uncle Jim, but he could forbid her spending the night.
Jimmy soon had the June bugs freed and the children trudged upstairs. Henry was absorbed in a radio program and paid no attention as they came into the apartment. Jimmy brightened up the minute he heard what was on the radio.
"Golly! I forgot. This is Tuesday night boxing," Jimmy exclaimed as he sat down close to the radio. "Who's winning, Henry? Is it Jack Sharkey?"
"Pipe down will you! I can't hear," Henry complained.
"Well, what round is it?" Jimmy lowered his voice.
"It's the tenth round," Henry waved his hand to hush Jimmy. "And you can be sure Max Schmeling will be the winner. Believe me, June
21st, 1932, will go down in history as the day a German won the World-Heavyweight-Boxing Championship"
Ellen and Thelma listened to the boxing game for a minute then went to the girl’s bedroom. Carrie and Gennieve were on the bed playing with their dolls so Ellen and Thelma sat down by the window.
"He sure was a cute little pickaninny, wasn't he?" Thelma looked out the window into the darkness.
"Yeah, he sure was," Ellen agreed.
"I swear, grown-ups are so narrow-minded. What was wrong with him playing with us? Uncle Henry is a mean, goose-stepping Jerry!" Thelma was getting angry again.
"I'm not going to be so stupid when I grow up," Ellen stated with conviction.
They talked a long while before Nora told them to go to bed. Jimmy stuck his head in the door and told Ellen that he had been right, Jack Sharkey did win in the fifteenth round. Ellen was glad that Jimmy had been right, but she knew Henry would be in a bad mood all the next day.
Ellen didn’t go to sleep right away. She started thinking about the little black boy wanting to play with them. He probably had never before been exposed to the prejudice Henry demonstrated. She knew Thelma didn't mean anything by her choice of names, and the small child sensed it, but for an adult to use the same words made them vulgar and cruel.
“Adults make the world ugly and heartless,” Ellen rationalized. She remembered when Kelly’s mom had called her a heathen. That’s when she determined that innocent name-calling was the beginning of prejudice. She finally went to sleep wishing she had stood up for the little boy.
Summer passed quickly and soon Kelly had to leave. Ellen and Thelma continued their friendship and often spent the night with each other. Gennieve and Carrie were always together - they made friends easily and they loved school. Jimmy did well in school also, but Ellen didn’t care if she made good grades or not. She skipped school as often as she could.
Somehow, Christmas finally arrived, but the scanty holiday was cheerless for her. When she didn’t receive a Christmas card from Kelly, or a letter in answer to hers, Ellen went to Mrs. Sneed’s to ask what had happened.
“Well, Ellen, Dear…,” Mrs. Sneed paused to take a handkerchief out to dab at her eyes. “Kelly ran away from home. She got into trouble and had to be put into a home for girls.”
“Oh, no, not Kelly!”
“Yes, Ellen, it’s true. But I never dreamed my sweet Kelly would ever do such a thing.”
Ellen’s throat became tight and she couldn’t speak. She mumbled a thank you to Mrs. Sneed and slowly walked home. She sat down on the porch steps, put her head in her hands, and started crying. Jimmy heard her and hurried to comfort her. When Ellen finally gained control she told Jimmy about Kelly. He tried to console Ellen but when he saw how distraught she was, he decided to get Thelma. Ellen was still sitting with her head in her hands when Jimmy came back with Thelma by his side. Thelma sat down with Ellen and tried to sooth her fears.
Thelma said she wasn’t really surprised about Kelly running away, but she found it hard to believe Kelly was in a reform school. Finally, though, the three of them found solace in believing that because Kelly was a strong girl she would be all right.
The next day Ellen asked Mrs. Sneed for Kelly’s new address. She wrote a short note of reassurance and appealed for her to reply, but Kelly never answered. Ellen waited all winter for Kelly to write. And for the first time in her young life she was glad to be in school. Schoolwork helped take her mind off worrying about Kelly. Never the less, Ellen thought the winter would never end.