Kittie Howard

Monday, November 2, 2009

Child Care Issues on the Farm

Back Then, child care issues on the farm held a certain simplicity.

Babies ate, slept, cried, and pooped. Just like kittens. And kittens looked at their mama just like a baby did: with soft, shimmering eyes, these deep pools of love, so calm and trusting. Babies and kittens hadn't learned to hide from Life. So they looked up at their mothers with adoring eyes, suckled with deep contentment, and slept without fear. My young mind, though, had forgotten all about the Tom Cat.


My mother's Best Friend Forever lived about five miles from our farm. Both were in their mid-twenties, not from the area, struggled with difficult mothers-in-law, and coped with absentee husbands. During the week, my father lived in a modest apartment in Baton Rouge, not far from the LSU campus, along with other married men who commuted between Law School and home. Mona Rae's husband traveled for longer periods. I think he was a salesman. I thought this because men sometimes came to the farm with mops and brooms and encyclopedias to sell. After one such visit, my father said the salesman lived like Mona Rae's husband, always hustling a dollar. So, that's how I learned what a salesman did and why Mona Rae's husband came and went

My mother, tall and slim, had light blond hair that framed an oval face with fair, Nordic features and blue eyes. Her hair fell in natural waves, thick and healthy, to the base of her long neck. Mona Rae had dark brown hair, cut short to make her look taller, and a round face with huge brown eyes, full lips and a clear English complexion that reflected her heritage.

My mother loved to sew, had learned to copy the latest fashions without a pattern, and had developed a fashion sense around clean lines and understated accents. Think Jackie Kennedy.

Mona Rae couldn't sew, but as fast as her husband's salary came in, the money went out. Mona Rae adored expensive clothes, also with clean lines, but preferred dresses and skirts that hugged her full hips and showed her ample bosom. She matched bright red lipstick with everything. Think Jennifer Lopez.

The two women, both very pretty, loved to laugh and smoke, Mona Rae with her whiskey highball, my mother with her Community Roast coffee, and compare mother-in-law stories. Since Mona Rae's in-laws terrified me, I'd hang close to their conversations (until they'd shoo me out to play.) I'd just learned, from a playmate, that voodoo existed in the bayous south of us. I didn't really, really know what voodoo involved, but had a growing suspicion that Mona Rae's in-laws practiced voodoo.

Mona Rae's in-laws lived in The Big House, across the pasture from her cottage house, just like our multi-generational arrangement. However, outside of the few remaining plantation homes in the area, this Big House, more a McMansion, possessed two floors and multiple protruding wings, porches, and porticoes. Mona Rae's in-laws were rich, very rich.

The wood-sided house, with its many windows and drawn shades, projected a certain gloom that I associated with secrets, and, by extension to voodoo. I was wrong about the voodoo, but too-right about the secrets. Mona Rae's in-laws mourned the death of their eldest son in World War II. This was the son they had groomed to run the farm, manage the considerable oil income, and hoped would produce an heir to continue the legacy. Indeed, stories about the favorite son had turned into legend.

Their remaining son, Mona Rae's husband, appeared more non-descript, a soft-spoken man without a personality. Everyone knew he wasn't what the parents had in mind, now when it came to money and family legacy. And, to make sure Mona Rae and her husband understood the parents' displeasure, they had built a house with a tin roof for the young couple. There was no way in hell Mona Rae was getting her hands on all that loot.

Mona Rae, the vavoom gal with the open personality, lived across from in-laws who wore black and had long faces that grew wrinkles. Unlike Miss Kitty, whose eyes danced with happiness, their eyes were big and black and and deep, like a well where voices disappeared. Their eyes scared me. I knew that their son had died in the War. I knew they were sad. But others in our area had lost sons in the War and still laughed, didn't talk in whispers, didn't stare into the distance for long periods, didn't grab my shoulder with a bony hand and dig in with nails that hurt, like I could take away something I didn't exactly know existed.

However, I really liked it when my parents and Mona Rae took me with them to a lounge on Highway 90, the road to Baton Rouge. (My grandparents babysat Sarah.) I'd learned that my going with them meant there was a party for the adults. We kids would get to play in the open room adjacent to the party room. Or run and play among the adults until they shooed us out. For about a year, there had been a party about once a month. Mona Rae's husband went with us a couple of times, when he was home.

The adults put money in the jukebox and danced and danced and danced. Glenn Miller's In The Mood rocked the house down. The young husbands and fathers in this party group had survived World War II (and more bloody combat than wives and parents realized), knew Korea was heating up, that a lucky roll of the dice couldn't last forever, and they had to grab life Now. (Two decades later I'd work for the Department of Defense on Okinawa, a staging area, during the Vietnam war, and understand that Now menality; our theme song was We Gotta Get Outta This Place.)

Anyway, I loved to watch my parents jitterbug. Especially my mother. She knew more steps than my father and would quick-step her feet, faster than my father, until they both laughed and he whirled her out, and around, and into his arms, and then out again. Whenever I hear In The Mood I think of my parents, as they were, laughing and dancing, young and carefree, lost in the music's magic, and feel a sense of contentment that there were good times when they tasted Life together.

My parents also danced cheek-to-cheek to the slow music. So Mona Rae wouldn't feel left out, my father also danced with her, mostly cheek-to-cheek. Mona Rae didn't like to jitterbug. And, as my mother got more and more pregnant and preferred sitting to dancing, my father danced more with Mona Rae. Until she got too big.

That October my mother gave birth to a very healthy baby boy. Delighted to have an heir, my father entered the hospital room with two dozen yellow roses and a huge smile. They named by brother Dan.

A few weeks later, Mona Rae gave birth to a very healthy baby girl. She named the baby Danva. I haven't a clue what my father gave Mona Rae.

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