1960s · Sisters

Winding Gravel Road

Winding Gravel Road -1962 by Ginger Keller Gannaway

When the car turned onto the gravel road after dark and approached our family’s ranch style brick home, I looked out the backseat window to search the ditch to my left or the grassy roadside to my right for critters.  I saw plenty of small brown and gray rabbits or the occasional opossum and a rare raccoon. The creatures would scurry alongside the car or make a Russian Roulette dash in front of the car.  Their nocturnal eyes fascinated and scared me.  Rabbits did the freeze-frame thing and acted like taxidermy projects. I never remembered the car hitting a rabbit on the short drive, about two football field lengths, and I admired the scared yet swift, soft yet wild things.  

My sisters and I loved almost all animals. We always had at least one dog and several cats running around outside for entertainment and companionship.  The kittens endured being dressed in doll clothes or becoming race kittens.  From our first dog Lady, a queenly collie, to Footsie, a mutt with only three working legs, we counted on the loyalty of our dogs.  Footsie kept one injured leg permanently bent up against his chest, like the way I tucked my left hand up and out of the way. He watched over us and endured our fickle behavior like a good dog does.

I tried rescuing less domesticated animal, like a featherless bird in a nest that had fallen from a backyard oak or a wounded mother opossum with six babies that lay in the grass next to the rice field a few yards from our garage.  At first the opossum did its acting trick until I poked it with a stick. When it opened its pink eyes, barred its tiny pointed teeth and hissed at me, I ran to the kitchen to report the situation to Momma.  She said, “Don’t you go near that animal!  It will bite!  Daddy will take care of it when he gets home.”  My sisters of course wanted to see it, but Momma raised such a fuss, we settled for paper dolls inside.  

We did look out the pink bathroom’s window, and I pointed to a spot too far away to make out what was there.  “I see it,” said Kelly, but Gayle said, “All we can see in a bump in the grass.”  Momma had even tied up Footsie in the side yard to keep him from risking a tangle with the critter.   

My pity for the mother opossum and her hairless grub-looking offspring bothered me about eight minutes until my sisters and I got wrapped up in a paper dolls afternoon.  By the time I remembered the sad rodent family again, Daddy had taken care of the problem.  All that remained was a small area of flattened grass near the carport and a couple of dark sticky spots on the shovel in the garage.  

Some people believe raccoons share a bunny’s cuteness, but I knew raccoons’ true nature – vicious and destructive. One winter a bandit rodent moved into our attic and its nocturnal movements overhead sounded like it wore army boots.  Momma first alerted Dad to its presence above their heads as it traveled from the long bedroom hallway and settled  atop Mom’s bathroom area. I could hear its night exploration as it scratched and marched the attic floorboards down the hall right outside my bedroom and rummaged through something clunky before it returned to my parents’  above-the-bathroom space.  After several nights of listening to the unwanted visitor, I heard my parents discussing what to do.  Dad had put “wolf urine” in the attic, yet the raccoon seemed unafraid. Mom talked about a “nest of babies,” and I felt a tinge of sadness. But before the family forced the raccoon to vacate their attic, it had torn up a large part of the attic and faced off with Footsie in the yard.  I could not believe the size of it- like five cats all balled into one mass of furious fur, and I knew Footsie would lose the fight if the animals had been allowed to get to each other. 

Once the raccoon left the attic and crouched by the backyard rope swing and glared with satanic eyes at Footsie who was tied to the wooden dog house, Dad shot his hunting rifle in the air and sent the raccoon running. I admired the intruder’s spunk but feared its hatred of humans. 

At night along the winding gravel road, I tensed when I saw a raccoon or opossum’s eyes.  From the side of the road these creatures’ blank stares turned sinister in the headlights’ strong white beams.  I thought of the 1964 movie Children of the Damned and the aliens’ eyes. The blond boys and girls whose white illuminated stares forced people to kill themselves or attack others. A raccoon’s frozen gaze made me pray for the car to get to the garage faster as I held my breath and counted the seconds it took to drive past the evil running around our property.  

Children of the Damned, 1964

The uncertain threats in the darkness contrasted with the familiar well-lit comforts inside our home.  I could look at the untamed animals in the night and let my heart beat faster because once home I knew Momma would offer us nourishment and unconditional love while Dad gave us protection and confidence.  In a way, scary movies and the wild rodents connected with real life dangers and made me believe in the safety and stability of home.

Our Backyard

1960s · Sisters

Christmas Cat

1964, Christmas Cat

A.J. my son’s cat that bares a striking resemblance to my Christmas kitten

My Christmas present was hiding under Kelly’s single bed. I lay flat on my tummy and peered into the dark place. Coloring books, socks, shorts, some Legos, and two rectangular boxes took up most of that space, but all the way back against the wall, I saw a pair of yellow eyes.

“Minny, minny, meeyew,” I called to my first all-for-me pet. Footsie (like all dogs we had) was a family pet, but the hiding kitty was all for me, a present from Aunt Dolores, who was married to a vet. As soon as my aunt had stepped inside the house to visit Momma, she announced that she had a special gift for me. Aunt Dolores placed a large striped box on the coffee table, and as soon as I lifted the top, a black blur of fur jumped out, jetted down the Terrazzo hall straight into the middle bedroom and under my sister’s bed.

When my cat calls did not convince the gift to emerge, Kelly handed me half a vanilla wafer. “Try this.”  I ignored the offering and ran to the kitchen for a small bowl of milk.  Momma, fixing fresh Community coffee for her sister, warned me, “Do not spill a DROP on the carpet.” Aunt Dolores smiled and added, “Bon chance, Ginger.”

I maintained a steady pace and looked straight ahead and not at the sloshing bowl just like Lee Ester had taught me to carry a tray of coffee cups, cream. and sugar to grown-ups. I did feel a drop or two on my bare toes so I moved slower.

Gayle and Kelly had stayed in the bedroom, and almost all of Kelly except her two feet was underneath the bed now. 

“Move outta there,” I said. 

“I’m petting him,” said Kelly from beneath the bed.  

“Just pull him out by his paws,” said Gayle. 

Coullion!” I said at first but on second thought told my middle sister, “You could pull Kelly out by her feet.” Gayle obeyed immediately so I stood out of their way as they shoved and fussed playfully.

“I know what my kitty wants,” I said and placed the milk on the floor. “Minnie, minnie, meeyew.” A weak “Meow” answered me, yet the cat did not move.  

Kelly jumped on the bed thinking to scare the cat out, so Gayle joined her. The two held hands as they jumped up and down.  

“Get off and get out!” I said. “Y’all are just scaring him to death.”  My sisters stopped jumping but stayed on the bed. 

“It’s our room,” said Gayle. 

“Yeah! And it’s my bed,” said Kelly.  

“Look, we gotta give him time to wanna come out,” I said. The two bed jumpers stared back at me.

“Y’all want Aunt Dolores’s peanut butter cookies?” Momma called from the kitchen and both younger girls jumped off the bed and ran to the kitchen.  

AJ in the wild

I let out a sigh and sat on the floor with a couple of stuffed bears. I had patience galore, and I leaned against a bookshelf. I caught the super soft zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the central heater kicking on.

You had to be patient. One does not make real change over night. I took a large leather bound book from the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall book case in the study and pushed my dark round glasses up a bit. A wild haired child sat on the floor rocking a rag doll. I sat next to the girl who jumped at my approach. “It’s ok, Helen. I have an idea,” I said  and sat on a foot stool beside the child. The girl was deaf and blind, and I put my right hand over her left one and used sign language letters to communicate. Helen touched my face and then mimicked my hand motions. I guided one of her hands to my face and nodded to let her know she’d spelled the word correctly. She moved her fingers to create the letters again. I smiled and squeezed her hand before moving it towards my face again so she could feel my smile. Helen rewarded me with her own smile. I leaned over to kiss the top of her unkempt head. Helen made a purring sound and leaned into me. 

The Miracle Worker, 1962

The shiny black cat had left his hiding place to lap up my milk offering. His fur felt like silk and his tail curled into a regal question mark. After his snack, he thanked me with a few sandpaper licks.  “Lookit you,” I said as I scratched my pet behind the ears.

AJ looking regal

“I’ll call you ‘Christmas’ because you’re the best Christmas gift I ever got.”  

I pampered my pet like royalty, and several months later I shortened her name to Chrissy when she gave birth to five mewing kittens.

My friend Nancy’s cat, Emmy, also reminds me of my Chrissy.

Sisters

And They’re Off

And They’re Off – 1964

“And stay outside until supper!”

Momma was on another cleaning spree and she “had had enough” of us and “all our tracas.” 

Since Chrissy’s five multi-colored kittens were now mobile and entertaining, my sisters and I began our outdoor time with her babies.  As the long black momma cat sprawled underneath the picnic table, her pink teats proclaimed their power to the trees, and I suggested we play Kitten Races.

Kelly and kitten, 1974

Gayle, Kelly, and I gathered the kittens to choose our racers. Chubby, the solid gray one, was the fattest; his round belly stretched out so much his fur had trouble covering it. I considered the grey tabby twins (Stripes and White Paw) – one’s solid white right paw being the only distinguishing feature between them. The fuzzy calico one (Cali) was my favorite, and I picked her up a second before Gayle reached for the same kitten. Finally, there was the runt (Lil Bit) – a smaller version of her midnight black mother. She had the same long, sleek body but looked as if someone had shrunk her.  Kelly always picked Lil Bit. Gayle settled on White Paw, and the racers were ready to compete. Chubby checked out a lizard nearby, deciding if it was edible, and Stripes followed us and our contestants to the starting line: an uneven indentation drawn in the dirt with a stick about nine yards from Momma Chrissy.  

“Let ‘em smell their mommy,” recommended Gayle, so we race cat owners took our squirming contestants to the closed-eyed Chrissy (dreaming of her former life of freedom) and let the racers understand where the finish line lay.  Back at the starting line, kitten claws kicked up anticipatory dirt as we each held a racer’s tail. All mewed and dreamed of mother’s milk. 

Kitten Cupid

I whispered, “OK, Cali, you got this,” right before Gayle announced, “Ready. Set. Go!”  And they were off! Cali grabbed an early lead and seemed sure of her victory. But White Paw was right behind and moving fast to the front. Lil Bit got distracted by a low-flying dragonfly and was back of the pack on the inside. We skipped on the sidelines as encouragement for our runners. And it was Cali barely in the lead at the top of the race until Lil Bit moved up on the outside. Soon the runt overtook Cali with White Paw right behind. With three yards to go it was Lil Bit and White Paw, and they were neck and neck. Then Cali put on steam and all three were bunched together and heading for home. 

“Come on, baby!’ said Kelly as Gayle jumped up and down to show support. 

I clapped my hands to the chant of “Go! Go! Go!”  

In the home stretch it was Lil Bit ahead by a nose with White Paw making a move up and Cali losing ground. It was Lil Bit and White Paw! Lil Bit and White Paw! Kelly squealed and Gayle closed her eyes. And the racers were even until from the left sidelines of the track Stripes decided to join the race! He pushed in next to his twin and ran to beat them all. Now the twins were keeping up with Lil Bit! And you won’t believe this, folks, at the finish line the latecomer Stripes pushed ahead and won it all by a whisker! 

Chrissy went, “Grrrmeow,” as all four racers reached the finish line. The crowd was in shock.

“What the hey!” said Gayle as Kelly clapped in surprise. (I felt relief that neither sister beat me). Even Chubby had found his way to his meal, and Chrissy had slitted eyes as her litter all tasted their kind of victory.

“I still won,” said Gayle.

“No, ya didn’t,” said Kelly.

“Stripes cheated,” said Gayle.

“And she won!” said Kelly.

Gayle pushed her baby sister to make her understand. “You too stupid to know race rules.”

Kelly stomped on Gayle’s foot. “You more stupid ‘cause your cat came in second.”

Gayle kicked Kelly’s knee right where her scab from yesterday’s bike fall was still moist.  So Kelly got a fistful of hair and they were off!

Five oaks in side yard of home

“Awwww, quit it,” I said right before walking away.  Our dog Footsie came over from the garage where he took late afternoon naps and followed me to the side of the house and the climbing tree. Our home had seven giant live oak trees surrounding three of its sides, and the tree next to the garage had the best low branches. Dad had nailed three wooden planks to the trunk to help short kids. I did not feel like climbing. I used the starting line stick to poke around the gravel road that ended near the tree. I gave Footsie a few pets, so he felt hanging with me held promise. I drew spirals in the loose gravel and sang snatches of “The Sweetheart Tree” song.   A crop duster plane whined in the distance, working in the rice fields that bordered our property.  As it moved closer its engine made steady zydeco…zydeco…zydeco sounds.

I looked up to see a hot air balloon floating by. A man all in white hung upside down from a cord. He struggled to get free from a straight jacket. I repositioned my pink driving goggles for a better look when the beep! beep! from a jalopy grabbed my attention as two clowns drove my way down the gravel road. I smoothed my pink frock and ran to my 1908 Model T parked under an oak tree. “That crazy female is no match for Professor Fate!” yelled the jalopy driver who sported a handlebar mustache and a cartoonish top hat. With my dog as my passenger, I tore down the gravel road through rice and soy bean fields.  “Boink! Boink!” came the sound of the pursuing car’s horn.  I shifted my gear to “Fast! Fast!” and was half a mile ahead now. The wind whipped at my tall hat and fantastically long pink scarf that trailed behind me. I smiled and wrinkled my pert nose as I imagined my victory over those boorish chauvinists. I was a woman of the future!  I had a brilliant writing career and more gumption than my smoldering brown eyes and stunning beauty would suggest. Literally the man all in white dropped from out of the sky and landed in the seat next to my dog. He wriggled out of the straight jacket and smirked while he lit a cigarette. 

“Well, well, glad to see you have not lost our lead, Miss Dubois,” he said. 

“OUR lead? Did all that blood rushing to your head make you insane?”   

“Let me set you straight, my dear. You are driving MY car, so technically I am about to win this race.”  

“You are unbelievable!” I said and reached to slap his insolent cheek. But he grabbed a cream pie from under his seat and gave me the old pie-in-the-face treatment. I swerved to avoid hitting a tree and someone grabbed my shoulder.

“Help me! I gotta hide from Gayle before she hits me with a switch!” said a frantic Kelly. I looked at my little sister’s tangled hair and stretched out t-shirt and decided to help. 

“Let’s get up on the roof,” I said. “She won’t think of there.”  

So Kelly followed me to the pump house on the side of the garage and helped me set up the ladder leaning against the house. My youngest sister could reach the top of the pump house and then scramble onto our roof while I distracted Gayle who was running through the garage with a long bendable branch.

Sisters

Playing School

Emile, Ginger, Gayle, Kelly ready for school, 1965

When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.

On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!  

Suzy Smart with her chalkboard and desk

Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board. 

“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!”  Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s. 

“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.

I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said.  Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.” 

Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’  Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”  

Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s. 

“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”  

“No A’s in my name.” 

“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”

“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.

“How many letters?” asked Kelly.

Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”

The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…”  Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.

I knew I was losing control of my class.  “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.”  The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end.  “Sit down, class, sit down.”  Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.

“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.

“Just let me borrow it.”

“You suppose to ask.”

“Can I use your pencil?”

“Please.”

“Pleeeease.”

“Say pretty please.”

“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”

“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”

Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.

“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly. 

I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.

“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them.  Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”

“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.

Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.

I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.

I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?”  Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls!  George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.

Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars.  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor.  I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.

I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.