Father’s Day 2021: He Made Us Laugh

My father, Bill (Billie) Waller, May 1, 1915 – September 8, 1983

Billie Waller, ca. 1921

I remember, in no particular order–

He loved horses. When he was in the saddle, they knew who was in charge. He didn’t have to force them.

He loved driving—down backroads to see how much it had rained, or just for the pleasure of driving. He said my horse Scarlett “rode like a Cadillac,” his highest praise. He appreciated a smooth ride. Scarlett was the only Cadillac he owned.

When children started school at seven, he started at five. His mother had just died, and sending him to school with the two older brothers was easier than keeping him at home with the two younger. He had to repeat first grade.

He quit school before his senior year to farm full-time. His father didn’t think graduating was important. No one else could have convinced him to finish—except maybe one of his mother’s sisters, if she’d thought about trying.

One of his high school teachers told me, “Your daddy was just terrible. He said the funniest things. I was only couple of years older, and he was so funny, I never could get mad at him.” It was genetic. He got it from his mother’s family.

Early 1940s

He created ridiculous fictions my mother then repeated all over town. (“Bill Waller, I am never going to believe another thing you say.” She always believed it.) He learned the art from two his of his maternal uncles.

My parents, Crystal Barrow Waller & Billie Waller, October 1942.

He always gave me five-dollar bills to go to movies that cost fifty cents, including popcorn and Coke, and told me to keep the change. (I didn’t.)

He believed dogs and cats belonged outside but when the Siamese draped herself across his feet in bed at night, he let her lie. The Collie didn’t let him or his pickup out of her sight. He made sure she was in the truck before he left in it.

At home with Nicole, the Siamese, an uninvited but kindly tolerated guest, late 1960s; and with Crystal and Kathy, ca. 1974.

When I called home to say I’d locked the keys (and the spare keys) in the car, he rescued me, no matter what the time or how long the drive, without a word said. Every time.

He pointed out spelling errors on signage. The most memorable was tresspassing, on a sign commissioned by the local water company.

He said he spent half of his life waiting for me to find my shoes.

He told me to keep plenty of money in my purse and the gas tank full, but when I said shouldn’t we fill up before leaving Seguin, he said we’d wait till we got home. We ran out of gas on the country road two miles short of our destination, with only maize fields and a river between us and fuel. He walked; my dress shoes and I waited in the car.

He loved being outside and doing manual labor—cutting brush, stretching barbed wire, plowing and planting, watching the soil turn, working cattle. After a day of doing manual labor for a salary.

He made stunning chocolate and lemon meringue pies.

He liked sardines but said they should be eaten on the riverbank with a can of pork-and-beans.

In uniform, early 1940s
Pvt. Bill Waller, Scotland, ca. 1943-44 (U.S. Army, not British)

He sent me to college, including three years in a dorm, financing it by periodically selling one of Opal’s offspring. Opal was a White-faced Hereford a neighbor had given me when I was eleven after her mother rejected her at birth.

SWTSU graduation, August 1973. Bill, Kathy, Joe (“Bub”) Dauchy, Joe Waller,
Crystal, Mary Veazey Worden, Aunt Bettie Waller, Jim King.

When his brother called from up the street to say my grandfather, who lived next door, had set fire to a pile of brush in the small pasture next to his house, and it was getting dark and the wind was getting up, and somebody ought to do something, but he had to live next door to him . . . he drove two blocks, dragged a water hose through the yard, and said, “I’m putting out that fire before you burn up the whole town.” He was the only one of five sons who could do that and not get in trouble. He was the only one who would risk getting in trouble. (Trouble being a brief parental cold shoulder.)

He read the newspaper starting at the back. He read every word of local “county” papers, right down to the phone numbers in the want-ads. He read magazines. No books. Until he retired, when he picked up my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and plowed through it. So I started giving him books.

He came home from World War II deaf from bomb concussion. Because his hearing aid didn’t filter out ambient noise, and he was embarrassed to have to ask people to repeat what they’d said, he left church dinners, large family gatherings, and other social events, early, often just taking off and walking home by himself. He quit a job that depended on his using the telephone, because he thought he might get information communicated to him—serial numbers of airplane parts—wrong, and cause a tragedy. When he took off his hearing aid at night, he was gone.

When I was eleven, his hearing aid broke. He sat through the public school week evening program in the school auditorium and heard absolutely nothing.

After twenty years of deafness, he had surgery to restore conversational hearing and his original personality surfaced. He enjoyed mixing with people. He engaged in long telephone conversations with friends. He got a kick out of Archie Bunker.

He watched The Muppet Show every Saturday evening. Every time Kermit the Frog flung his arms around and said, “Ya-a-a-a-a-a-ay,” he shook with silent laughter.

He stood in the churchyard after services checking the dates on inspection stickers on windshields, just killing time. Occasionally he found one that had expired.

He was good to old ladies. He got their cats out of trees He charged Miss Blanche’s ancient car’s ancient battery every six months or so (because she drove only every six months or so). She called every Halloween and said, “Tell Bill to get up her and get some popcorn balls before the kids get them all.”

He worked best alone, I think because, although he could do a multitude of things, he figured out how to do them as we went along. He passed that gene along to me.

He was a gregarious loner.

He was solid and dependable.

He made us laugh.

He died suddenly and unexpectedly and too young.

Four brothers and a cousin: Joe Waller, Rob Waller, Graham Waller, Bill Waller, Donald Waller, ca. 1980.

Presents and Gifts

David and I opened presents Christmas afternoon.

I got lots of cats. Faux cats: cat calendars from an old and dear friend; cat socks and a “book throw” dotted with cats, from David. I also received Jeopardy socks and sloth socks and a backdrop.

Last year David gave me a tote bag with a sloth on it, the source of many compliments from oncology nurses. The sloth socks make me think there might be a subtext brewing, though; if there is, it’s justified.

The backdrop is designed to make Zoom friends think I live a more picturesque life. The apartment walls are pink, a pleasant pink, the same pink of the living room and dining room in the house I grew up in, but as background on Zoom they  look sick. My computer doesn’t have the oomph to support a “virtual background.” Dear husband has taken care of that. All we have to do now is stick the backdrop on the wall where the camera can find it.

William and Ernest received catnip mice. Ernest said his was okay but no big deal—he doesn’t do drugs—and headed for the litter box. William was delighted with his mouse, started batting it around, but was distracted by the sound of Ernest scrabbling around in the litter box and abandoned the mouse to listen. Returning, Ernest swatted the mouse once but by then William was in the litter box, and Ernest had to pay attention. They are social animals. So much for the mice.

About that first sentence: I never imagined writing it. In my youth, presents were a morning thing. The adults were so excited that they dragged us out of bed about four o’clock in the morning—no exaggeration—because Santa Claus had come and they couldn’t wait. No breakfast—we had to see what Santa had brought!

No one argued with them.

Back row: Lynn Worden, Mary Veazey Barrow, Wray Worden, Mary Whiting Worden, Mary Veazey Worden. Front row: Jim King, Steve King, Lee King, Kathy Waller

Correction: most of the adults. My father wasn’t quite so eager. He woke daily without an alarm before six a.m.—farm hours, even though he hadn’t farmed full-time since before World War II—but he didn’t wake up until he’d had two strips of bacon, fried; two eggs, basted; two pieces of buttered toast; and two cups of coffee, black with sugar. Then he achieved consciousness. Christmas morning for him was modified torment. He participated in the Santa part—I think Mother provided him with coffee—but waiting for breakfast was probably like being a kid and having to wait to open presents.

I was thinking the other day about Christmas presents I’ve received. Off the top of my head:

Doll beds with blue-and-white blankets my mother made. She backed them with white flannel.

A little stove with a real oven and tiny cake pans and a tiny box of cake mix.

A pogo stick.

Dolls. My mother loved dolls, so I got one every Christmas. The one when I was eight came wearing a white lace bride’s dress. She also owned a white blouse and some black velvet slacks.

But more than the presents are the memories that accompany them.

The doll blankets lasted for years after I’d put away the dolls. A lot of kittens and puppies were bundled up in them.

My cousin Lynn, about twelve when I got the oven, spent Christmas vacation with us and helped make that little bitty cake.

I tried out the pogo stick in the street in front of our house on Christmas Day but couldn’t make it work. I never played with it because it was so sturdy—my father was probably along on that shopping trip—that my six-year-old poundage wouldn’t make it budge; nor did my father’s forty-plus-year-old poundage. The pogo stick hung on the wall in the garage for years, waiting for someone heavy enough to make the spring depress. The whole truth: I was so acrophobic that I wouldn’t have been able to bounce on it anyway; the pedals were too far off the ground.

I made the doll a suit, a rather nice one, because my mother wasn’t into playing around with the sewing machine; if I was going to sew, I was going to do it right. I found the suit last year when we moved, unironed but intact. I guess the skirt got lost in the six-decade shuffle. Note that the cape is lined. I couldn’t make a lined anything today. Or unlined. My manual dexterity has departed.

One year it wasn’t the presents I remember but the living room floor covered wall to wall with discarded wrapping paper, so Sabre, the Cocker spaniel, couldn’t figure out how to get across the room to the front door.

So many other presents over the years, so many experiences, so many memories.

My mother told me once about a Christmas during the Depression when there were no presents at all, but the Christmas Eve sky was clear and bright with stars, and the family decided it must have looked like that on the very first Christmas.

I didn’t say, of course, but I thought that must have been terrible. No presents. How could they bear not having packages under the tree, and surprises, and new toys.

So I grew up and things fell into place and presents fell into perspective. I’m still pleased to receive them. But the truth of the cliché applies: It’s the thought that counts. And the people behind the thoughts.

And with perspective comes new definitions: Presents come in boxes wrapped with colored paper and tied with ribbon and bows.

The thoughts, the experiences, the memories, are gifts.

Lost and Found

I’m posting at Ink-Stained Wretches today, but for some reason, I’m unable to reblog the post. So here’s the beginning, with a link to the rest. Or you can just go to Lost and Found and read the whole thing in one place. By the way, it’s not about computers. It’s about something I found while looking for something I’d lost. What I found was better—memories.

 

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
– Eudora WeltyOne Writer’s Beginnings

In 2000, I wrote a story I titled, “Stop Signs.”

That was in the Dark Ages. Ancient desktop, probably Windows 3.1 and  WordPerfect. Hard drives. Floppy disks that didn’t flop.

I composed in cursive—sat on the bed with a pencil and a tablet, wrote a couple of pages, crossed the room to type the fragment into a document and make some edits, moved back to the bed to pencil two or three more pages, went back to the computer to transcribe and edit, moved back to the bed . . . And reaching “The End,” printed and penciled in more edits, then went back to the keyboard to type the changes, then printed and penciled more edits, then back to the keyboard . . .

It was my second foray into fiction. I rather liked the result, and as a naive newbie, I submitted it to a contest. A month later the North Texas Professional Writers Association notified me the story had placed first in its fiction division. They enclosed a check for $50 (real money!) and a copy of the chapbook in which winners’ work was published.

Later I became comfortable composing at the keyboard. I printed, marked the manuscript, revised and edited the document, went through that process several times, stored the file, ripped up the paper.

Down the road apiece, “hard copies” became unnecessary—just attach a file and email it off to contests or zines. Easy peasy.

And then came another desktop, and laptops, and new versions of Windows, one after the other, and CD-ROMS (writable!), and external backups, and online backup services, and cloud backups, and a whole raft of things I’ve never heard of.

The paperless society. Everything on record, available at the touch of a fingertip, no document or image ever lost.

Yeah, right.

Read the rest of the post on Ink-Stained Wretches, here.

Labor-Not-Intensive Day

 

A spontaneous Labor Day picnic, fried chicken and potato salad beside the pool, followed by carrot cake in air conditioned comfort.

We forgot to take the camera, so later David did a basic recreation and snapped some shots. I got a picture of the cake.

When I remember the elaborate family picnics of my childhood—chicken barbecued on the riverbank, baked beans, potato salad, creamed corn, fresh onions and tomatoes, iced tea, pecan pie, homemade peach ice cream, and on and on—I am ashamed that I let Walmart do the cooking.

When I think of all the labor that went into celebrating warm-weather holidays—most of it done by others while I was splashing around in the river—I’m okay with a scaled-down version.

 

 

You’re Sixty

Today would have been my mother’s ninety-eighth birthday. On last May 1, my father would have been one hundred.

When I take the time to really think about that, it’s mind-boggling. I can’t imagine them at those ages.

Mother used to tell a story about my great-aunt Lydia’s sixtieth birthday. Lydia, her mother, her two younger sisters, and two of her nieces–my mother and her youngest sister, who was generally referred to as “that cute little Betty,”*–went to dinner to celebrate.

Back home, my great-grandmother put on her nightgown and got into the big four-poster bed in Lydia’s downstairs bedroom. The other women sat around her and did what they always did when they got together–talked and laughed. No topic was off limits and everything was funny. A quiet child could learn a lot in those sessions.

That night, my great-grandmother, whom the younger ones called Grannygirl, sat propped against her pillows, old but still the quintessential sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued) Southern belle. While the others talked, she said nothing.

Finally, looking into the distance, such as it was, she uttered a single sentence: “Lydia, you’re sixty.” Her tone was contemplative, but it also carried an undertone of surprise.

In the silence that followed, Lydia said yes, she was.

A few minutes later, still gazing somewhere above her descendants’ heads, Grannygirl broke in again. “Lydia, you’re sixty.

Again, Lydia agreed she was.

Another few minutes passed and Grannygirl said it once more: “Lydia, you’re sixty.

Obviously having heard enough on that topic, Lydia responded, a bit sharply, “Well, Mother what does that make you?”

End of conversation.

I thought of that story because, like Grannygirl trying to get used to having a sixty-year-old daughter, I can’t quite get used to the idea of my parents at the century mark. At the same time, I believe, were they alive today, they would not have changed. I know, however, that to them, I would be radically different.

I wish they could have attended my wedding. I wish they could know my husband. I wish they could read this blog and my fiction. I wish they could read the pieces I’ve published. I wish they could know that, though I miss them terribly,  I’m secure and happy.

One thing I’m certain of: If my parents had been here to celebrate my birthday a few years ago, we would  have gone out to dinner, and then we would have come home and changed into more comfortable clothes. And then, while we sat in the living room talking about anything and everything, my mother would at some point have looked into the distance and said, “Kathy, you’re sixty.”

Crystal Barrow Waller and Billie Waller, 1942
Crystal Barrow Waller and Billie Waller, 1942

*

*Betty was short, had red hair and a sweet Irish face, and was drop-dead funny. She was everybody’s favorite, her nieces and nephews adored her, and she left us much too soon.

betty-and-kathy-19521
Betty and Kathy, 1952

ROW80 01.25.12 & Fentress Memories

I returned Sunday from four days in Higginsville, Missouri. I had accompanied my cousin Mary Veazey to see her brother, Wray, and his family. Wray has been in the hospital in Kansas City for the past couple of weeks. He’s doing much better now and will be released from captivity in another couple of weeks if he cooperates, says the physical therapist. He’s cooperating.

Before we left for the airport Sunday morning, Wray began reminiscing about the times he and Mary Veazey spent with my parents in Fentress, in the late 1940s, when the siblings were ten or eleven years old. Mary Veazey tossed in a few of her memories, too.

Note: Wray and Mary Veazey are my mother’s nephew and niece. They lived in Dallas. Fentress is my father’s hometown, and the aunts, uncles, and grandfather mentioned below are from his side of the family. Practically speaking, however, the two families sort of swamped together

Here’s an overview of the conversation:

Wray and Donnie mixed up some gunpowder and made firecrackers. There was a lot of gunpowder left over, so they poured it into a Coke bottle and made a fuse. It was a short fuse, and Wray almost didn’t make it to safety behind a tree when the bottle exploded. Donnie’s house was glass-studded ever after. (I suppose it still is.)

Mr. George Meadows wanted to show Wray what a possum looked like, so he caught a possum, hit it with a club, tied it up, and left it in the yard. Then Mr. George went into the house. Left alone, the possum stopped playing possum, chewed the string in two, and waddled back home, probably down in the pecan bottom on the river.

Wray was not allowed to go near the parrot that lived downstairs in Mrs. Bertie Smith’s house, where my parents had an apartment, because the parrot was mean. (Note: My mother went near the parrot and it caught the flesh between her thumb and index finger and clamped down and wouldn’t let go. Mother was pregnant at the time. She said she thought she would deliver before the bird finally released her.)

Mrs. Bertie’s house was right on the river. When my parents moved to a house down the street, Wray and Mary Veazey took a shortcut to the river by walking through the front door of Mr. George and Miss Minnie Meadows’ house and then out the back door. Mary Veazey said they were polite and always said Hello when they passed through. But they never bothered to knock.

They played among the cotton bales on the gin yard and, unbeknownst to anyone else, borrowed cotton from some of the bales to use in various other pursuits.

They found a mangy dog at the river bridge and coaxed it to come with them, then told my mother it had followed them home. The dog was foaming at the mouth. Moments later, it had some kind of fit. Mother hustled Wray and Mary Veazey into the house and called for my father, who ambled around from wherever he’d been and paused to size up the situation. The pause went on too long for Mother, who said, “Don’t just stand there with your teeth in your mouth. Do something.” (Note: Those encouraging words are still alive and well among certain members of the family.)

My grandfather took Wray trotline fishing once and they caught 149 pounds of catfish. A fish fry ensued. Wray described for his daughter how a catfish is prepared for the skillet. I won’t describe the process here, but I’ll add that I, too, used to help my grandfather skin catfish. (I was a cold-blooded little thing.) Wray could clean a fish in under a minute. I took a lot longer.

My Uncle Donald taught Wray to drive his 1947 Chevy pickup. When Donald was taking Aunt Ethel’s 1951 Buick roadster to Martindale, about seven miles north on Highway 80, for inspection, he told Wray to follow in the pickup. Because of a miscommunication, they were separated, and Wray had no one to follow. On the way, he discovered the pickup would go 80 miles per hour over the washboard road. By the time he arrived in Martindale, so many things had fallen off the pickup that it didn’t pass inspection. (Note: I later learned to drive in the same pickup, but if you think Donald let me out of his sight when I was behind the wheel, you have another think coming.)

One memory which wasn’t mentioned Sunday, but which I remember from before, took place several years later, after I had finally made an appearance: Mother looked out the kitchen window and saw Wray drag racing down the street with me in my stroller. She hollered at him to stop that before he killed me. He said I was having fun. I’m sure I was.

I always had fun when my cousins visited. They were considerably older than I and so were extremely interesting, and they were nice enough to pay attention to me and to behave as if they didn’t mind the fourteen-year age difference. They’re still nice to me. I appreciate that more than I can say.

I also appreciate their sharing memories of a time when Fentress was a child’s paradise. Not many remember those days, and it’s important we talk—and write—about them to keep them alive as long as possible.

***

Another note: Lest it be thought I have Fentress memories similar to those detailed above, I’ll clarify: I don’t. I never made gun powder, blew up Coke bottles, dismantled cotton bales, urged mad dogs to follow me home, invaded unsuspecting neighbors’ houses, or went roaring up Highway 80 in any make or model of pickup. And no one ever caught a possum for me. I was an obedient, unimaginative child, and I led a quiet, dull life of no adventure whatsoever.

And Veazey is my grandmother’s maiden name. In case anyone is wondering. Most people do.

***

ROW80 report: My reports for the past few weeks disappeared into a cloud of juniper pollen, but there wasn’t much to report anyway. While I was in MO, however, I began a story board, made notes, worked on organization. The next step: Take my list of scenes, pick one, and write it.


Day 33: Thinking

Last August I wrote about one of my muses in My Cousin Ruth’s Statuesque Leg.

Yesterday afternoon, Ruth slipped into a coma. While we’re waiting for her to wake up, I think about bunk beds and horses and camping; and sledding down an icy hill one Christmas in Independence, Missouri, and running into a parked car; and discovering burritos at Taco Bell in Huntington Beach, California; and sitting outside on her deck one night in Bollingbrook, Illinois, and singing so loudly a neighbor came to see what was wrong; and laughing hysterically at Garrison Keillor’s rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” while her adult children looked on in dismay; and singing the first two lines of “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott” so she would be stuck on it the rest of the day; and handing her a note that said, “Fourscore…,” just before we marched down the aisle at my wedding because I knew she would remember Paul Ford in “The Music Man” and therefore would laugh through the ceremony; and watching a video of “Chicken Run” together and knowing exactly which lines would make her laugh.