December 26, 2017
Dear Mary Joyce,
You made the top of my list. This letter will be one of the easiest and most fun to write. My days with you as a pre-schooler while Mama taught and Dad tended chickens were just like being at my other home, with my other mom. Many of my earliest memories are from your little house off the red dirt road scraped between farms in Cass county.
There were childhood fascinations, like my first favorite song that I can remember, piped multiple times a day through the radio that sat on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen—John Anderson’s Just a Swingin’. And Patty’s room, where every surface seemed some shade of pink, with or without sparkles, and housed that big sloshy waterbed that I couldn’t play on.
I will never forget the scene of Larry, Curly, And Moe coughing up feathers in Three Hams on Rye. I don’t know what format that video was in, but I recall you putting what looked like a big vinyl record into the contraption beneath the TV, and my Stooges would appear. We watched The Price is Right religiously at 10am every day— I saw thousands of kisses planted on Bob Barker’s cheeks, Cliffhanger, Plinko, Hole-in-One, Punch-a-Bunch . . . how a kiddo could get so much pleasure from that marketing scheme is fascinating. The makers of that hour long commercial, interrupted only by more commercials, was a genius. There was also the seemingly endless General Hospital to sit through for the sake of He-Man or Transformers that followed. Maybe that helped teach me patience.
I remember sitting on your lap as you dug red clay out of my mouth with a towel wrapped around your finger after a tea party in the driveway crossed the line from make-believe to drinking dirt. The real food, though? Those delicious mayonnaise sandwiches. (Not everyone understands that Miracle Whip is mayonnaise in East Texas, just like a Dr. Pepper is a “coke.”) Nobody could make those sandwiches like you did. Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread with a big dollop of love. It may be one of the simplest recipes on God’s green Earth, but never as good when I made them myself.
I yanked the first fish I can remember catching out of the water with a bamboo pole beside the pond across the road from your house. The poor perch flopped around on the red clay embankment until it looked breaded and fried . . . while I tried to get away from those sharp bouncing fins and nearly rolled down the other side of the hill. Then there were the loads of catfish that Billy would bring home a couple of times a year. Watching them lose their heads in the front yard, and popping their air bladders was a favorite pastime.
There were the two-hundred-or-so non-aquatic cats that lived and bred in the area. The orange striped ones that I called “Tiger” and that big black one with the greenest eyes, named Booger. I loved him for his regal name. I can recall watching Billy making “cereal” for his pens of barking, leaping hounds— Kibble, Milk, and water, all mixed together, only the best for those “huntin’ dogs.” Now and then he put a burning rag on a pole and turned the silky nests spun by tent caterpillars in that front yard tree into mini-bonfires in the sky. It was as good as any fireworks show I’d seen up to that point.
I put up with Billy most of the time. He came home and laid back in his recliner with tall glass of buttermilk all chunked up with cornbread and saltines. He used his four biggest stinkyest toes to pinch my legs if I tried to get past him and into the kitchen where you were. Then he became the enemy. I’m sure he was doing you a big favor, but I needed to be near Mary Joyce.
I should be grateful to Billy too, though, as I’ve never forgotten the time that I plugged my windpipe with a butterscotch candy. He picked me up by the ankles and shook me like a can of spray paint until it shot out onto the floor along with everything else I’d eaten that day . . . and probably everything I’d learned in the past 6 months. I guess I might not be here if he hadn’t done that.
One day you pointed out the fact that my boots were on the wrong feet, and I actually pushed back, insisting they weren’t. That wasn’t my typical reaction, but Dad had put them on me that morning, and he was incapable of mistakes. You began curing me of my slothfulness by making me pull my own load— that is, carry my own diaper to the trashcan in the bathroom. That snapshot you took of my little sweet cheeks shimmying down the hallway with a rolled up diaper as big as my head in-tow is now a family heirloom. And while we’re on boots and trash . . . even the garbage collector at your little house was memorable. I would run out to meet Archie Wellborn as he heaved garbage bags into the back of his truck. He would reach into the pocket of his overalls and hand me those tiny wooden cowboy boots that he’d whittled out of sticks in his spare time.
I don’t remember how old I was, but when my parents told me that you were moving from the little house near the farm, my heart skipped a beat. It recovered quickly when they revealed that you were moving closer to us, not somewhere far away. I could walk to your new place! Even then, part of me found it bittersweet when you moved out of the little house where so many of my earliest memories are rooted. I don’t think it’s seen happier days since you moved out.
A kid cared for by you never grows up to forget it. Even after starting school, when I was no longer spending most of my waking weekday hours at your house, I went back to the nursery after the church service, where you were always doing what you do best— patiently loving the little ones— and steal a hug. Or walk across town to your house when home for a visit in college, praying you’d be inspired to make a few of your famous fruit pies or a batch of those no-bake cookies. Even in my 30s, I still do that when in town.
You might be living proof that love keeps people young. You haven’t aged a lick over the last quarter-century. You’ve scared me at a couple of points when I’ve been home for a visit and your health was taking a dip, but you only seemed a little weaker, never older. Thankfully you’ve bounced back every time. It’s not difficult to recognize that I’ve been blessed beyond measure to have a lasting place in one of the kindest, fullest, most generous hearts I’ve ever known— yours. Thank you for the memories, and thank God for you.
With Loads of Love,