• MJ Rodriguez

Living Poor: The Island

Mom made Dad and the boys caps out of worn-out pants.

My family moved to Island 26 in the Mississippi River when my twin brother and I were about five. We started first grade in the fall when we were almost six, and were the only two in the first grade. The one-room school went from first grade through eighth grade with two or three students in each class. The teacher drove an old gray Packard car that we called the “Old Gray Goose”. My twin brother and I were her pets, and she would take us onto her lap and teach us to read. My brother George and a girl we called Jelly-Bean were the only second graders, and my brother Edward and a girl were the only third graders.  The school population sure had a boost when we moved there!

The Island was about three miles wide and five miles long.  We rode a ferry to and from the Island, and when the water was low, dirt was pushed up on either side and the ferry boat was used as a bridge until the water rose again.  We lived on the ‘foot’ of the Island, and the school and a store was at the ‘head’.  The best I can recall, Dad and probably other parents transported us to and from school, since it was quite a ways to walk. Sometimes Miss N__ picked us up or took us home in the Old Gray Goose. She drove the standard car with one foot on the clutch and the other foot on the gas, and we bumped and jerked all the way to school. We thought that was so funny!

The man who owned the Island lived in a big house next to the school with his family.  Some of his children attended school, but one son was too young, so he came over to play with us during recess.  Maybe because I was the only girl close to his age, or maybe because I was so adorable, he wanted to kiss me.  He chased me so that I was unable to play, and since I wasn’t interested in a courtship, I went into the school to tell on him.  Miss N__ had a solution to the problem: I should stay inside.  That was so unfair!  Later when his family came to our house, L__ chased me all around the gas tank.  I went inside to tell Mama, and she had a solution.  Stay inside!  I was so mad!

Mom, Dad, Sam and Gary with a load of strawberries

He misbehaved, and I was punished!  I hope it is not considered unforgiveness, but I have never forgotten the injustice done to me by these adults.

My dad took us there to truck patch, and the memories I have are of my parents and older siblings working in the fields picking strawberries, corn, and other crops including cotton. My twin and I were in charge of our two younger brothers, and we pulled them in a wagon across the rough and uneven rows.  It was tough work for a couple of 5 year-olds.  My youngest brother was born on the island.  Things were so different then than it is for kids today.  Even my older siblings did not know that Mom was pregnant until the baby was born.

One day Dad came to the house with a little pink pig which was born a runt.  “Sis,” he said to me, “you want to raise this little pig?”  Of course, I did!  I named her Oinky and made sure she had enough to eat and drink.  Soon she grew into a strong sow.  My ornery brothers would tease her until she became angry.  She then would chase them as they ran back and forth from the porch to the car, just out of reach.  One time she caught one and skinned him up pretty good!  The pig teasing stopped.

When we moved back to the mainland, Oinky was quite a pet.  In fact, she must have thought she was a family dog.  Once she accompanied Mom and Dad through the woods to visit the neighbors who owned hogs which ran among the trees eating acorns and roots.  When Oinky saw the neighboring hogs, she ran all the way back to the house where she remained under the porch the rest of the day.

I recall once when a family came to visit someone on the Island, and a teenage girl with them had a crush on my brother Alfred.  We went to the field to pick corn, and she tagged along.  The tractor driver pulled a trailer over two rows of corn, and pickers walked on either side of the trailer picking the mature corn and throwing it into the trailer.  Pickers also walked behind the wagon to pick the downed rows.  The visitor did not want to help pick, she just wanted to go along to flirt with my brother.  She decided to ride in the wagon rather than help, but this didn’t last long.  The pickers resented her lack of help, and the corn flew closer and closer to the rider, thudding hard on the sides of the trailer.  Before long, she decided to return to the safety of the house.  Being kids, we thought it was funny.

My siblings and I played freely around the place without a care or fear.  One time my brothers found an old doll and brought it to me.  The body was in tatters, but the doll’s rubber head was still good.  Mom removed the old body and made a new one, attaching it on the wooden neck that attached to the head.  She put a dress, a coat, shoes and a bonnet on the doll, and I named her Flossie. Her head turned, and her eyes closed and opened when I laid her down.  I took her to school even though she was almost as big as I was, and when my teacher first saw her sitting in the seat next to me, she commented that I had brought a friend to school.  I still have that doll! Of course, I’ve had to make a few new bodies for her through the years, but she is still pretty and I still cherish her.

The two years we spent on the Island was quite an experience for all of my family. Because of my age, my memories began there.  I have few and only vague memories of life before the Island.  Those times were fun and carefree for a family (at least for the children) that worked hard and played hard together.

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