STORY OF THE MONTH
by Bettye Hudson Galloway
"Nell, I betcha can't go all the way out on that big limb," taunted Julie. Julie's hair covered most of her face, its straggly strands unwashed and unbrushed. Her faded calico dress had no hem. A white line showed where one had been, but she had grown like a weed during her sixth year, and, had anyone had the inclination or desire to clothe her properly-or even noticed that she was in rags-there was no money to be wasted on a dress for Julie. She didn't go to school. She never went to town, never went to church. She seldom even went to the store at the crossroads. There was no reason for anybody to notice how she looked. Nobody ever saw her, and nobody really cared.
Julie Mathis was just another mouth to feed. She didn't mind. She knew that was all she was, but she didn't mind. She was used to the feeling. She had known for most of her years that the occasional glimpse of tenderness, of togetherness, that she felt when others were with their families and friends was missing from her life. She was mature in the ways of survival. She had to be. She had lived her six years on a day-to-day basis, and she had survived, but she was not of an age to have a conscious awareness of social and emotional problems. She simply lived, in the only way she knew how, for the moment.
Her brother, Murray, was almost grown. Her sister, Marie, was fourteen. Julie was the third of three unwanted children of a simple-minded mother and a shiftless, ignorant father. Murray and Marie had inherited a good quantity of both parents' genes. But under the layers of dirt and grime, under the covering of the straggly hair, despite the dullness that breeds dullness, there sometimes appeared a spot of intelligence in the eyes of Julie. Somehow the gods had seen fit to spare her. Or perhaps to curse her.
"Betcha can't climb up past that crook an' snake your way down to the end of that big ole limb!"
There was no immediate response from the child contemplating the dare. She looked up into the dark leafiness of the giant oak, gauging the distance, the difficulty, the possibility of making the climb. Two other towering oaks covered the mesa-like hill. The ground beneath them was a rusty brown, bare from years of trampling feet. The plane of the area was interrupted by protruding roots of trees pushed up by years of groping for food. A few lichens had attached themselves to the trunks and limbs, but no grass grew on the ground around them. The ground was bare from the scampering of children's games, but it was also bare from lack of nourishment in the soil. The iron-rich dirt, the soil that stained everything with which it came in contact, would produce no living thing. But it made an ideal glen for games. The three oaks sheltered all things from the sun and from the rain. And for generations-for as long as the house had stood nearby-the area had been referred to as the "oak trees."
The oak trees was the gathering place for the small children. Years of marbles, hopscotch, mumblety-peg, and swings scraping the ground had left an indelible mark. And the oak trees, too, had left their mark with scars on knees and elbows, broken bones, many memories, and few regrets.
"I can do it! You just watch me, Julie. I'll show you I can climb it. I can go all the way up!"
"Wait, Nellie, I was just teasin', you'll fall and hurt yourself!" said Julie. "I was just teasin', honest."
"Here, hold my sandals," said Nell. She sat in the red clay and started unbuckling her shoes.
The other children gathered around. Some had an older brother or sister who had been hurt climbing the trees. They had had enough scrapes just stumbling on the hard-packed clay to know that it would be bad to fall onto it, and they knew Nell was not a tomboy like Julie. She had not had enough experience to risk such a climb, and they, even in their tender years, knew it.
But Nell was stubborn. The children also knew that. They all knew how stubborn she was. She was like a mule that refused to do as it was told.
Nell handed Julie one shoe. "Hold this," she said. She hurriedly unbuckled the other and handed it to the staring child. "Hold these for me 'til I get down."
"Nellie, don't go up there. I was just joking-you'll fall down and get hurt!" Julie's concern was real.
"Move back so you can watch me," said Nell to the assembled onlookers. She walked confidently up to the massive tree, stepped on a gnarled root, reached up her arms, and locked small fingers into the rough bark. Gripping tightly, she lifted one foot so that the big toe fit into the knothole. Slowly she looked around to see that she still had an audience and that they appreciated her actions. Wide eyes watched her silently.
She turned to face the trunk. With fingers tightly clutching living bark, she boosted her small body with one foot still on the ground, lifting it in the same motion higher than the other. She found support on the small branch on the left side of the tree. Slowly she released the bark with one hand and began groping above her head for the lowest limb. Spider-like, she slowly brought her right leg upward, feeling with a rasping motion for enough protruding bark to rest her weight. She felt it--just enough roughness to place her foot! She tested the bark, decided it would hold. Then she lifted her left foot from the small branch, boosted her small body with her right foot, and swung deftly over the top of the low limb she had been holding. She was in the tree!
"See," she yelled down. "I told you I could do it!" She continued to position herself until she was standing on the limb. "It was not even hard, and I wasn't even scared!"
"Okay," said Johnny. 'You did it; now come on down before your momma looks out the window and sees you. If she sees you up there, we're all gonna get it!"
"You won't get in trouble," said Nell. "It was all Julie's idea."
"I was just jokin' 'cause I didn't think you would try to climb it," said Julie. "But Johnny's right, we'll all get in trouble, and your momma won't let us come back to play. Please come down!"
"Not yet," said Nell. "I said I was going out to the end of the limb."
"Oh, no!" pleaded Julie. "The limb might break!"
"That ole limb is as big as I am," announced Nell as she turned from the tree and slowly lay down the length of the limb. "I'm gonna go out to the end." Confident that she had their full attention, she began inching her way outward from the tree. In a motion as fluid as a swimmer's crawl, the child reached forward with arms and knees as she continued moving toward the outward end of the limb.
Julie felt sick, an emptiness at the pit of her stomach, a hammering at her throat. She looked again at her friend, high in the air atop the limb of the monstrous oak, and wheeled quickly, running toward the house.
"Miss Ella, Miss Ella, come quick! Miss Ella, please come out-Nellie's in the tree and won't come down! Please make her come down! She's gonna fall! Miss Ella.."
The screen door banged open, and Ella New stood at the top step. "What's going on out there?"
"Miss Ella, Nellie's in the tree and won't come down..!"
"What do you mean, she's in the tree?"
"She climbed up and.."
"Who put her up there? I should have known something like this would happen sooner or later-you had a hand in this I'll bet..!"
"But, Miss Ella, you've got to get her down-she's gonna get hurt real bad!"
"I'll get her down, young lady, and then I'll tend to you.." Ella started toward the oak tree.
Nell, halfway down the limb, heard the shouting, looked out through the foliage, and saw her mother bearing down on the group. Uh, oh, she thought, this is not turning out like I thought it would. The survival instinct in her told her it would be much to her advantage if she met her mother on the ground instead of having to decamp the tree with her mother waiting below.
She moved swiftly down the length of the limb, the rough bark causing her legs and stomach to smart as it grazed her tender skin. But she was unaware of the pain. She had only one thought-to get to the end of the limb so that it would bend with her weight until it was low enough for her to jump. She had to be out of the tree before her momma got there. She was filled with bravado in front of the other kids, but her momma was something else. She had been punished enough before to know what was going to happen if she didn't get down in time.
She could hear them now, Julie protesting, Momma mad. She was reaching for a new handhold to pull herself further out as she parted the foliage to see how much time she had left. Her hand closed around a patch of leaves. She pulled. The leaves came off in her hand, and she lost her balance. She grabbed for a new handhold and, finding none, slipped sloth-like to the underside of the limb before falling into space.
Ella New stepped into the shade of the tree and looked upward to search out her daughter. Just as she raised her head, the child came crashing through the greenness and landed with a thud at her feet.
"Oh, my God!" she gasped. The figure lay still. "Don't just stand there, get me a wet rag!" screamed Ella at a terrified Julie. "Go wet a towel and bring it here!"
Julie stood frozen.
The other children scooted, heading in a dozen different directions, the shortest routes to their own homes. They didn't know what was going on, exactly, but they didn't want to be at the News' when Miss Ella got mad. And they knew she was mad now.
"Don't just stand there, you shiftless, no good...!"
Julie turned and scampered down the hill toward the run-down house she shared with her family.
"Those sorry Mathises.." Ella vented her rage at the back of the fleeing child. She turned to stare at her daughter lying at her feet. Wonder if she's alive, she thought. If she is, I can't just leave her out here--people will wonder why I didn't do something. She lifted the frail body in her arms and walked heavily toward the house. "Probably give me a hernia," she muttered as she walked.
Shadows flitted across the waxen face as the mother entered the screen door of the kitchen. She walked to another room to place the child on a bed. That's all I need, she thought, something else to worry about. As if I don't have enough trouble already. She went back to the kitchen, wet a towel in the basin, and returned to place it on the brow of the small child. She then picked up the magazine she had been reading when she was interrupted by Julie's summons and immediately was engrossed in the escapades of Captain Horatio Hornblower. The child was the last thing on her mind as she slowly turned the pages.
I was born during the last days of the Great Depression in the red-hill country of North Mississippi. As were all families in those days, we were poor, very poor, but we were lucky enough not to realize it. My mother had very definite ideas about our upbringing. She thought we should be educated in town but thought we should enjoy the carefree life of the country; consequently, each spring as soon as school was out we moved, bag and baggage, to our little house in the country, pulled off our shoes, and waded the creeks all summer. In the fall, we put on our shoes, moved back to town, and started to school. Looking back, we were happy gypsies--we had our country friends and our city friends—the best of both worlds!
This varied lifestyle served me in good stead in my adult work life, most of which was spent at the University of Mississippi, where I encountered people from all walks of life and was able to interact with students, staff, and faculty alike. After a 30-year tenure in state service, I assisted in the founding of a drug-testing laboratory, and served as its executive vice president for over 20 years.
Most rewarding, however, was my time with the Exchange Club, a business, social, and charitable organization whose focus is child abuse prevention. I served as president of the local club, in positions at the district level, and was elected the first female district president and was elected spokesperson for the national class of district presidents. I was also elected as the very first National Exchangite of the Year. These honors, though they were awarded to me, came about as the result of the hard work of many, many Exchangites through the years. Although I am no longer officially involved with the child abuse prevention efforts, I still strongly support this work.
Congratulations, Bettye! We really enjoyed your story. Now, tell us a little about yourself.
Q. What would you want our readers to know about you?
R.I grew up in a wonderful time and place in our history. North Mississippi today is a retiree’s paradise, with a temperate climate, a beautiful geography, and the most courteous and graceful citizens to be found anywhere. This was not necessarily the case, however, when I was growing up in the last days of the Great Depression. These are the memories I have—of people who were poor but didn’t know it, who were uneducated but not necessarily ignorant, and who took each day as it came--and survived.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
R.My writing is primarily geared to childhood memories, a recording, if you will, of families and events I observed while growing up in rural Lafayette County, Mississippi.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
R. In my opinion, the most important element of a good story is to keep the reader interested in what you have to say.
Q.How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
R. My writing, primarily, is based on actual plots and characters with places and names sometimes changed. My personal approach is to decide which story or whose story I want to tell. I then sit down to the keyboard, pretend I am telling the story to a friend, and write it down exactly as I would narrate it. If we are observant, there is a good story in every person and every event in life.
Q.What do you do to unwind and relax?
R. My days consist of the usual non-productive time of a retiree! For years I worked in high-stress positions and performed volunteer work with the Exchange Club and Child Abuse Prevention Centers. Now I sleep late, drink coffee, write at my computer, go out to lunch, and do exactly as I please when I please. I am lazy, and life is wonderful!
Q.What inspires you? Who inspires you?
R. I am inspired by the young people of today. I am inspired by my two granddaughters, both of whom are in college. We are not giving our young people credit—they are better looking, more intelligent, more inspired, and more motivated than any of us were at their age. I think our future is in good hands. Let’s give them credit for who they are and what they do.
Q.Are you working on any projects right now?
R. Today I will finish painting a bedroom. Seriously, though, I spend a couple of hours each day at the computer recording bits and pieces of my personal memories. Who knows? Someday, I may put the pieces together into a book for my granddaughters….
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
R. The most frustrating thing about writing is not finishing a piece nor having it published—the most rewarding thing about writing is actually putting a memory on paper to become a permanent record of a person or event that might otherwise be completely forgotten. I think that the moment writing becomes frustrating is the time to stop writing. Period.
Q.If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
R. Why do you want to write? WHAT do you want to write? If you decide you want to write a story, first think about the story you want to tell. Think about it, and think about it some more. Get the whole idea laid out in your mind. A noted writer once said that he had written several books but just had not yet put them on paper. This is very true. Know exactly what you want to say—from the beginning to the end—before you start. Then sit down, pretend to tell the story to another person, and put it on paper exactly as you would tell the story. Don’t let a blank page frighten you—just start writing--it’ll work.
Galloway, Bettye H.; “In Comparison”, Anthology of College and University Poetry, The Ellyn Press, Westwood, CA, 1962.
Galloway, Bettye H., Ed., “Personnel Policies and Procedures: A Handbook for Faculty and Staff”, The University of Mississippi Press, University, MS 1967.
Galloway, Bettye H.; “How to Set Up a Policies and Procedures Manual”, Journal of the College and University Personnel Association, How-to Series, 1971.
Galloway, Bettye H.; “How to Set Up a Clerical Classification System”, Journal of the College and University Personnel Association, How-to Series, 1971.
Galloway, Bettye H., “A Modest Man: the Exchange Club of Oxford, Miss., Honors a Quiet Hero”, The Exchangite, Official Publication of the National Exchange Club, January/February, 1997.
Galloway, Bettye H., “Locks of Love”, Exchange Today, Official Publication of the National Exchange Club, November/December, 2003.
Galloway, Bettye H., “Peaceful Night in Oxford”, Oxford So & So, Oxford, MS, Vol 3, No. 3, 2008.
Galloway, Bettye H., “Working Shares”, Oxford So & So, Oxford, MS., Vol 3, No. 4, 2008.
Galloway, Bettye H., “Working Shares”, Long Story Short: An E-Zine for Writers, October, 2008.
Galloway, Bettye H., “Friends?”, Long Story Short: An E-Zine for Writers, October, 2008.
Galloway, Bettye H., “The Last of His Kind”, Oxford So & So, Oxford, MS, Vol 3, No. 5, 2008
Galloway, Bettye H., “Close-Knit Family”, Oxford So & So, Oxford, MS Vol 3, No. 6, 2008.
Galloway, Bettye H. “The Last of His Kind”, Yesterday’s Memories, September, 2008, p. 18.
Galloway, Bettye H. “The Last of His Kind”, Tombigbee Country, October #105, p. 97.