- Grandma McGee's -
Ellen's grandma, Mary Ellen McGee, lived in a two-story,
1880's house that was only four blocks from a school in Fort Worth, Texas.
Ellen was fascinated by her grandma's spacious, eight-room house.
She could make a complete circle going from one room to the other.
Ellen decided it was an ideal Hide-and-seek place and chasing one another around the circle proved to be great fun. Jimmy was constantly after the girls to behave and play quietly. It was as though he felt responsible for their behavior. Grandma McGee often got upset at all the noise her grandchildren made, but in spite of the aggravation and clamor, she let them run and play.
Granddad, George McGee (Senior), had died before Ellen was born, but Ellen loved for her grandma to tell stories about him. Her grandma said Granddad McGee came to America from Ireland with his older brother, who was a Catholic priest, and an old-maid sister, who became their housekeeper.
After a whirlwind courtship they were married. Granddad and Grandma then settled down to raising a family of five. Ellen's mother, Nora, was the youngest.
When Granddad McGee went to work as a brakeman for a railroad company, another Irishman was working there with the same last name as his. Granddad McGee didn't think anything about it until the day their checks were mixed up.
"I've got a new home," Granddad McGee had calmly said. "So, I may as well have a new name."
Granddad McGee then went to a judge and had his name shortened from McGehee to McGee, and that was the name Ellen’s mother was born with.
Granddad McGee's brother always said that Granddad McGee was "a bit of a black sheep" because he had "sinful, earthly ways". Grandma McGee said she often heard her brother-in-law sternly admonish her husband about being materialistic and worldly.
"A McGehee ‘tis a McGehee," Grandma McGee would repeat what the old priest often said. "’Tis a God-given name and ye'll live to regret yer' changing it over tha' worry of a bit o' money. Just ye' wait and see."
"Did Granddad ever regret changing his name, Grandma?" Ellen would ask.
"If he did regret it he never let me know," Grandma McGee always answered with a twinkle in her eye. "He once told his brother that since it did me no harm when I changed my last name to his, he couldn't see it would bother himself. He was a stubborn man, your granddad, but he was a good man. He quietly listened to his brother's stern admonishing until the day he died".
At night, months after Oscar's death, Ellen could still hear her mother's pillow-muffled crying. She often lay awake reliving the shooting that took her daddy's life. Ellen never wanted to forget the truth. The hurting inside seemed to go on forever and she felt old, as old as her grandma did.
Jimmy became quiet and withdrawn. It was a long time before anyone heard him laugh again. He was with Ellen constantly and they were a comfort to each other. Soon, Jimmy's love began to fill the void in Ellen's heart.
Nora went to work for King's Candy Company. She stood all day dipping candy pieces into hot chocolate and placing them on a belt that rolled by. About once a month she brought home a box of candy and gave everyone two pieces each. Ellen always tried to eat just one piece and save the other. But before the day would be over, both pieces of candy would be gone. Just a thought of the delicious feeling of chocolate slowly melting in her mouth weakened her resolution to save any.
When the long summer was finally over, and school started, Ellen was no longer eager to begin. The first day of school Nora couldn’t go with her and Grandma McGee had to watch Carrie and Gennieve; so Ellen had to walk with Jimmy to school. He did walk her to her classroom, but Ellen had a hard knot in the pit of her stomach.
"Mrs. Jason," Jimmy spoke softly to the teacher, "this is my sister, Ellen."
"Thank you, Jimmy," Mrs. Jason answered sweetly.
"Class, this is Ellen. She is new to our neighborhood and I you to make her feel welcome."
Ellen was embarrassed at being the object of attention. Her face felt hot and she knew it was beet-red. One boy snickered as Ellen walked by his desk, and she thought she would die from shame. During recess Ellen stayed away from her classmates and everyone acted as if she weren't there. Jimmy ate lunch with Ellen and when school was out he met her at her classroom door.
"I don't like school," Ellen remarked, as she and Jimmy walked off the school grounds.
"You'll get used to it," Jimmy reassured her.
"No, I won't," she was unrelenting and they walked home in silence.
Nora tried to cheer Ellen up, but nothing seemed to help. Their lives had changed, and because Ellen had a hard time making friends, she decided school wasn't as exciting as Jimmy had made it out to be. However, after several, painful weeks in school, Ellen became acquainted with black-eyed Kelly Sanders. Kelly lived two houses down from Ellen and they began walking home together.
Kelly's mother often met her at their door with a hug and happy questions about school. Ellen wished her mother didn't have to work away from home and could meet her at their door. Although, when she thought about it, Ellen knew that because her mother worked, her family didn't have to take charity. Ellen wasn't real sure what taking charity meant. She thought perhaps it was going from door-to-door begging for food and clothing. But she had overheard her Grandma McGee say one was better off starving rather than take handouts. Besides all that, Ellen's grandma was always there when she came home from school. But the best part of all was that Grandma McGee seemed to be continually baking something. Ellen could smell the wonderful aroma before she entered the house.
Grandma McGee's house was built on the side of a hill with a hotch-porch of flowers, shrubs, and trees surrounding it. On weekends Ellen and Kelly often played below the house.
They built dams along a bubbly, little stream that meandered through what Grandma McGee called the Glen.
During the warmer months that fall, Ellen and Kelly would try to catch crayfish out of the creek.
They didn't mind taking Gennieve with them, but Ellen hated to take her youngest sister. Carrie always wandered off from them and Ellen had to go looking for her. Grandma McGee usually kept both girls at home, unless she had work to do. Then Ellen had to take them with her.
"Sister," Grandma McGee told Ellen one day, "you and Kelly take the girls outside to play. If you go to the creek, be sure to watch Carrie so she won't fall in. There's not enough water there to drown her, but she will get muddy."
"Sure, we'll take them,” Kelly smiled at Carrie. “I’ll even help Carrie catch a crawdad.”
“oh, goody!” exclaimed Carrie.
“Good,” Grandma McGee answered. “Off with you then. Gennieve, you be careful also.”
“I will, Grandma,” Gennieve assured her.
Ellen asked for three pieces of string and some scrap meat, or bread, to use as bait. Grandma McGee found her old sewing box and broke off the requested amount of thread. Then she found a stale bacon-rind for everyone to divide up. Ellen grabbed up the bounty and away they all ran down the crooked, little trail that wound its way to the creek. There were stepping stones along the path and the girls had a grand time trying to step on every other one without missing. When they got to the creek, each one started looking for a shallow pool. They knew it could be an ideal crayfish hole.
"Here's a good place," Kelly yelled from farther down the creek. "I saw three crawdads dart away from here."
Kelly pointed to the spot she was talking about and each girl sat down to fix her own bait. Everyone threw their tied-up bait into the water and waited patiently. Soon, a crayfish crawled up to Ellen's bait and grabbed hold with his two front pinchers. When Ellen was sure the crayfish had a firm hold on her bait, she slowly pulled him to the edge of the water. She tried to make her movements slow enough so the crayfish wouldn't let go. When she finally had the crayfish pulled to the edge of the water she tried to reach out and grab him. But when the crayfish saw her hand, he darted backward as fast as lighting.
"Gee-whiz," Ellen complained, "I missed him."
"I've got one!" Kelly yelled as she brought a crayfish out of the water. "Quick, Ellen! Get our can."
As Ellen scrambled for the can that was sitting on the other side of Carrie, she stumbled and knocked her into the water. Just as Grandma McGee had said, it wasn't very deep, but now Carrie was muddy. Ellen knew her grandma was going to be angry. Carrie sat up and started crying.
"I tell Grandma you won't let me fall in. Now you push me in," she wailed.
Kelly and Gennieve thought it was rather funny and that made Carrie cry harder.
"Stop crying, Carrie!" Ellen commanded as she helped her out of the water.
“I’ve got an idea”, Ellen started giving orders. "Gennieve, you run to the house and get Carrie a change of clothes. And don't tell Grandma or let her see you! Carrie, you take your clothes off and I'll wash you up."
Gennieve followed orders and Ellen started washing the mud off of Carrie. Kelly took Carrie's clothes and tried to rinse the mud out. Both girls were busy and didn't look up until they heard Grandma McGee clear her throat. They were caught! Carrie started crying and Ellen tried to explain. Grandma McGee stood still a moment then slowly shook her head.
"If I had a camera I would take a picture. The telling of this won't be half the fun of seeing it." Grandma McGee turned and walked away leaving them in stunned silence.
"Sister," Carrie looked at Ellen and inquired, "Grandma's not mad so can I play in the water?”
“Shut up, Carrie,” Ellen said through clenched teeth. “And, no, you can’t play in the water."
"Grandma caught me," Gennieve mumbled, as she came out of hiding. "Boy, I thought you were going to be in awful trouble."
Kelly and Ellen dressed Carrie. Then everyone trudged up the hill toward home. Kelly took Carrie's dirty clothes to the bathroom and Ellen went into the kitchen to face her grandma.
"Don't ever try to hide wrongdoing, Sister, it's the same as telling a lie. Tell the truth and shame the devil," Grandma McGee admonished her.
In bed that night, Ellen lay awake a long time thinking about what her grandma had said. She wondered why her mother had been unwilling to tell the truth about her daddy's murder. She felt as if her mother had betrayed her daddy, and yet, she knew her mother had a fierce loyalty. She finally decided that one day soon she was going to talk with Grandma McGee about her daddy's violent death. She was bewildered, thinking of where her daddy was now, and she wanted to know what really happened to a person when he died. She had a lot of questions to ask, but she didn't want to upset anyone by asking. She went to sleep rehearsing, once again, the shooting.
Grandma McGee had a chicken house out back of her house. She raised chickens in it for fryers, eggs and hatching chicks. And Ellen loved to be at her grandmas during spring, when the baby chicks began to hatch.
The following spring after school was out, Ellen and Kelly kept up a watchful guard for newly hatched chicks. One of Grandma’s hens had begun sneaking off to lay eggs somewhere along the creek. One afternoon while Kelly was visiting, everyone heard a distant squawking. Thinking something had hold of one of the barnyard fowl, Nora, Ellen, and Kelly ran as fast as they could toward the sound. As the girls rounded a bend in the crooked pathway an old hen flew out of some tall grass. With Ellen and Kelly following, Nora warily led the way toward the area where the chicken came from. The three of them hadn't walked far, when they came upon the hen's nest, and lying right in the middle was a large snake. The two round curves in the snake's belly were obviously eggs he had just swallowed. Nora told Ellen to run and get a hoe to kill the snake with. Ellen ran to the house as fast as she could, almost knocking Jimmy down as he made his way along the trail.
"What is it?" Jimmy asked.
"A snake," Ellen yelled without stopping.
She found the hoe, but was sure the snake was going to be gone when she returned.
"Here it is," Ellen said and handed her mother the hoe. But while Ellen was gone, Jimmy had found Nora a large rock and she had smashed the snake's head with it. By then Grandma McGee was there and she did something Ellen and Kelly never forgot. She chopped the snake in two, and then squeezed the two eggs out of his belly. Everyone helped Grandma McGee gather up the rest of the eggs and take them to the hen house.
"Grandma," Ellen asked, "what are you going to do with those two eggs?"
"Why, Sister, after I wash them off real good, I'm going to mark them. You'll see that not only will they hatch, but also these two chicks will be the best of the lot."
"How long before they hatch?" Kelly asked.
"Not long, Kelly." Grandma McGee smiled at Nora.
Almost every day Ellen and Kelly were in and out of the hen house checking on the old hen and her eggs.
The two eggs had become a mystery to the girls.
"Why would the chicks be any better just because a snake swallowed the eggs?" Kelly asked.
"Just wait and see," Grandma McGee's eyes twinkled, "just wait and see."
Ellen and Kelly thought time would never pass. But, one morning as Ellen raised up the old hen, she thought she saw a ball of yellow fuzz. The hen fussed as Ellen lifted her higher, and sure enough, a few of the eggs were beginning to hatch.
"Grandma! Grandma!" Ellen yelled as she ran to the house. "The chicks are hatching. I've got to go get Kelly. I'll be back in a minute."
"All right, Sister, let me get some twine to mark those two snake-chicks.
"Ellen ran to get Kelly as Grandma McGee gathered up twine for marking the two special chicks. When Ellen and Kelly reached the chicken house, Grandma McGee had taken the old hen off her nest and put her into a cage. Both girls stood over the nest and watched in awe as each baby chicken, inside its own, marked eggshell, pecked its way out.
As the newly-hatched babies cast-off their shelled prisons, Grandma McGee tied twine around one leg of each chick. She then gave one chick to Ellen, and the other to Kelly. Both girls tried all day to think of perfect names for their cheeping, yellow-balls of fuzz. Finally, after deliberating another full day, both girls settled on names.
Ellen called hers Lulu, and Kelly named hers Sam. Kelly said her chicken was a baby rooster, but Grandma McGee said it was much too early to tell. Grandma McGee said their baby chicks could be housed in Ellen’s room.
Both girls lined the bottom of a box with an old newspaper, put their precious babies in the box, and slid it under Ellen's bed. Ellen and Kelly loved to open the box just to hear the cheeping of their baby chickens.
Kelly was at Ellen's house every morning to check on her prized possession. Mrs. Sanders complained to Kelly about her being at Ellen's all that summer, but she didn't stop her from going.
After their chickens outgrew the box, Ellen reluctantly agreed to put them in the chicken house. Lulu and Sam followed Ellen and Kelly all over Grandma McGee's land and the girls taught them tricks. One day Grandma McGee called Ellen and Kelly to her side.
"Those two chicks are really something, aren't they?
"Her inquiry set off a volley of competition between Ellen and Kelly. Each girl tried to prove whose chicken was the best. Finally, Grandma McGee told them to let their chickens be and listen to her. They put their pets down, and stood still, to hear what she had to say.
"Remember when I marked those eggs and told you that those two chicks would be the best of the lot?"
"Yes, Grandma," Ellen answered.
"Well," Grandma McGee smiled, "do you think they are the best?"
"They sure are," Kelly stated.
"Then tell me, what do you think makes those two chickens any better?" Grandma McGee's eyes were twinkling.
"They can do tricks," Ellen quickly spoke up.
"And, they follow us everywhere," Kelly added.
"You could have taught any one of the other chickens the same tricks. And your feeding them all the time makes them follow you." Grandma McGee reasoned.
"Well," Ellen thought a moment then asked, "is it because they're ours?"
"Partly, Sister, but the real reason is because you love them. When you love someone or something, your love makes that person or thing better than anyone or anything else. Love is the key. Do you understand?"
The girls nodded in affirmation, but later, Ellen asked Kelly if she really did understand.
"Well, sort of," Kelly answered slowly. "It's like this, your grandma thinks you're better than anyone else is. She thinks you're special because she loves you. Now, do you understand?"
"I guess so," Ellen answered.
She really couldn't see that it was anything to ponder over, and she put the incident away. Years later, with children of her own, Ellen thought back and finally understood.
Summer ended quickly for the girls and both were soon back into a school routine. Ellen knew that if it hadn't been for Kelly becoming her friend, school would have been absolutely dreadful. Kelly helped Ellen with homework and encouraged her to join in games played at school. From the beginning of their friendship, and through the next four years, Kelly never asked Ellen to spend the night and Ellen accepted the situation without question. It was on Kelly's eleventh birthday that Ellen first learned about narrow-minded prejudice. After school, that day, the girls walked to Kelly's house and Kelly invited Ellen in.
"Mom, I'm home," Kelly yelled as she and Ellen entered the living room.
"All right," Kelly's mother acknowledged. "But don't come into the kitchen. I'm just finishing your birthday cake."
"Okay," Kelly replied then haltingly asked, "Mom..., since it's my birthday..., may Ellen spend the night? Please."
"Oh, Kelly," her mother answered back unaware that Ellen was there, "why do I have to keep after you to find another girl to be friends with? That girl's family is heathens. Why, even her father was killed over money he owed."
Ellen and Kelly froze. Kelly's face turned red and Ellen's turned white. They stared at each other in stunned silence until Mrs. Sanders stepped into the room.
"God says for us not to be unequally yoked, and…," Mrs. Sanders saw Ellen and paused.
"Why, dear me..., Ellen," Mrs. Sanders stuttered, "I..., I didn't know. That is..., Kelly didn't say. I mean...," her words trailed off as Ellen turned sharply and ran out the door.
As she ran home the name, “Heathen” echoed in Ellen's mind. She didn't know what the label meant, but she knew it must be something awful. Ellen saw Jimmy at the corner of the house but she ran past him. Crying all the way she ran until she reached the creek bank where she fell to the ground.
"Sister!" Jimmy cried and fell down beside her. "What's wrong?"
"What does Heathen mean?" Ellen's tear-filled eyes searched Jimmy's face to see how he reacted to such a word.
"Why, it means a person who doesn't believe in God," Jimmy answered with no apparent look of shock.
"Is that all?"
"Yes, that's what it means," he answered, bewildered.
"Well, I believe in God," Ellen mumbled under her breath.
"What did you say?" Jimmy leaned closer to her.
"Jimmy," she asked him softly, "do you and Mother and Grandma believe in God?"
"Of course!" He retorted, "all of our family believes in God.”
“Oh,” Ellen’s voice was faint and her eyes held a puzzled look. She stood up and started to walk away.
“Sister, will you please tell me what is going on?”
"I'll be right back, Jimmy. I'm going over to Kelly's." Ellen started running. "I'll explain when I get back," she called over her shoulder.
"If it has anything to do with that hypocrite, Mrs. Sanders, you don't have to explain," Jimmy yelled at her.
Ellen had never known Jimmy to be disrespectful to anyone. She began to feel sorry for Kelly having a mom who was dreadful enough for Jimmy to call a name. Ellen ran all the way to Kelly's house. If thinking her family didn't believe in God was all that was bothering Mrs. Sanders, then Ellen could hardly wait to tell her that it wasn't true. Ellen hesitated a moment before knocking on the door. She remembered something Mrs. Sanders had said about her daddy's murder. But, when she couldn't remember exactly what it was, she knocked.
"Oh, Ellen," Kelly cried and threw her arms around Ellen.
"I'm so sorry. Please, forgive me."
"It's all right, Kelly," Ellen smiled through tears. "But I want to tell your mom that we aren't heathens because we do believe in God."
"I'm sorry I hurt your feelings, Ellen," Mrs. Sanders smiled weakly as she entered the room. "And, I'm glad you believe in God. But what I meant was that your family never goes to church."
"Oh," Ellen grimaced. She wasn't prepared for the censure.
"Mother!" Kelly scolded.
"Well, I'm not going to break up your friendship.” Mrs. Sanders offered lamely as she left the room. "You may still visit each other."
"Ellen," Kelly implored her, "please say you'll still want me as your friend."
"Sure," Ellen responded halfheartedly, "if you still want me as your friend."
"Ellen," Kelly started crying, "you're the best friend I could ever have. I want you to be my friend forever."
Although a bit of sorrow remained, the girls were able mend their relationship. Unfortunately, just a few short months after Ellen found out how Mrs. Sanders felt about her family, Kelly moved away. Ellen and Kelly wrote each other for over a year, but they never mentioned the hurtful incident in their letters. Kelly's saddest letter was about the death of her father. He had suffered a fatal heart attack and Kelly poured out her grief in letters to Ellen. She always signed her letters as Ellen's forever friend.
The spring Ellen turned eleven Nora brought home a man to introduce to the family. Kelly and Ellen stopped writing each other and Ellen's life took another turn.