Wednesday, October 21, 2009

California Cousins-A Tale of the Fifties

Growing up on the South Plains of Texas in the forties and fifties might have been the best thing that happened to me. No place on earth had such down-to-earth people, American values, and Golden Rule principles. My family thrived on the flat-as-a-pancake landscape, the dry clean air, and the friendship of neighbors who shared our hopes and dreams. Why, we thought we had the best there was, the lifestyle probably everyone in the United States wished they enjoyed.

That was in third grade, before the cousins from California came to visit.

Mother talked to us one night at the supper table. “Girls,” she said, “we’re having company next week.”

We sat up straight in our chairs, and with wide eyes, asked, “Who?”

“Your California cousins.”

The idea of visitors all the way from California seemed about the most exciting event we could imagine. Someone might as well have told us that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were visiting, we were that thrilled. My little sister and I anticipated the arrival of Carrie and Donny with great enthusiasm. We talked and planned the games we would play and the sights we would show them.

A week later, a big, blue Cadillac pulled onto the packed earth driveway and parked behind our ancient black Ford. All four doors opened. We squealed, hollered, and ran out the door. Mother hurried, too, taking care to remove her apron, and smooth her curly black hair away from her face.

Our aunt stepped out, untied her headscarf, fluffed her tight curls, and looked around. Then—I swear—she lit a cigarette. Right there by the side porch. Mother hurried to her. “Sharon! It’s you! I’m so happy to see you.”

Right then, we knew the cousins would be different.

Donny stepped out of one back door, then Carrie came out the other. They stood and looked around as if they’d landed on Mars.

I walked up to them, and said, “Hidey, y’all. I’m Cissy and this is Jeannie. We’re your cousins.”

Donny squinted his eyes, sneered, and said, “Hidey? Y’all? You some kind of hillbilly?”

Well, this visit just got off to a rocky start.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Y’all isn’t a word. Don’t you know that?”

“Well, what should I say when I mean you all?”



This conversation went back and forth, until my slow brain understood that ‘you’ meant one…or more. Donny explained, “Or you could say ‘you guys.’”

“You’re wearing boy’s pants,” Carrie said. She looked at my blue jeans with the hems rolled into thick cuffs, my plaid shirt tucked in, and a belt cinched around my ten-year-old non-existent waist.

Carrie wore a pink dress with hardly any top. Shoulder straps held it up, and the short skirt had a ruffle around the hem. I wondered if I should run in and change clothes, except all of my dresses had complete tops and puffed sleeves.

Since it was late in the day, all we accomplished was to stare at each other as the adults carried in suitcases, pillows, and paper bags. Then all of us squeezed around the small table to have our supper.

The California cousins looked at the big bowl of black-eyed peas cooked with ham-hock, the cornbread, and the sliced onions. Donny exclaimed, “I will not eat cow food. What else do you have?”

My sister and I looked at each other. Neither of us knew black-eyed peas were food for cows, and here, we’d eaten them our entire lives.

“Eat your dinner, Donny,” his father said sternly.

Dinner? This was supper. I guessed our uncle didn’t know what time it was, since he’d been riding in a car for three days with nothing to do but drive.

My sister and I had to give up our narrow bed we shared and sleep on a pallet of quilts in the front room, crammed between the end of the divan and the wall. There were people all over the house. I heard a lot of griping and bellyaching before everyone finally fell asleep.

The next morning, Saturday, Daddy took our uncle out in the old black Ford to show him the town, the cotton crops, and the oil fields. I heard Daddy tell Mother they’d be gone the entire day, and not wait supper on them.

At the breakfast table, we ate Cheerios. Donny poured cereal level with the top of his bowl, and his mother didn’t say a word. When he added milk, he had to lean over and cup his hand and wrist around the edge of the bowl to keep the oats from spilling over. When he finished half his cereal, he began to talk. And talk, and talk. After many minutes, his mother calmly and sweetly said, “Donny, sweetie? More eating and less talking, please.”

Donny cracked up. He told her in a loud voice, “More talking and less eating, Mom!”

Mom. We’d never heard the word. The odd part was that Donny wasn’t scolded or anything. His “mom” just smiled and said to Mother, “He has a genius I.Q.”

My head was spinning with all the new information.

After breakfast, my sister and I put on dresses so we’d look as good as Carrie. Our hair was not the same, though. She asked, “Why is your hair so short?”

“Mother cuts it this way,” I informed her, “and gives us permanents.”

Carrie sniffed and turned up her nose. “My hair is fashioned like Shirley Temple’s. Mom takes me to the beauty parlor to have it done up.”

My sister and I looked at each other and shrugged. I made a mental note to talk Mother into never cutting my hair again, and taking me to a beauty parlor to have my hair “done up.”

Our mothers shooed us out the side door onto the dirt driveway between the houses. “Go play,” they said, as they poured more coffee, opened a big box of photographs, and set out the fingernail polish.

We took our cousins to the back yard that had no grass, just powdery, South Plains dirt. In the back corner, we had a low metal shed meant to be a garage, but it was too small for a car. It had become a storage shed and a playhouse.

“What do y’all…uh, you guys…want to play?” I asked hopefully.

While the cousins pondered, my friend Jack who lived next to us slammed out his back door and ran over. “Hey! Cissy! Wanna play cowboys and Indians?”

Well, I was in a dilemma. I’d put on a dress this morning, but now, Jack wanted to play our favorite game. While I thought on the matter, he suggested another game.

“We could play Superman. I’ll go get my towel!”

Off he ran to his house. When he emerged, he had a towel tied around his neck like a cape, and he carried his Red Ryder BB gun, too.

“Jack,” I said, “my daddy told you not to bring your BB gun into our yard. You know you could shoot somebody’s eye out, and you might even kill a person if a BB went into the heart.”

“It don’t have no BB’s in it, Cissy. I’ll just pretend it’s loaded.”

“Well, okay. I guess that’ll be all right,” I conceded.

The morning wore on. My sister and I tried to entertain our cousins, but they showed little to no interest. After a while, the five of us wandered about the dusty yard, trying to work up some enthusiasm for a game. My sister went to the porch and sat down with her elbows propped on her knees and her chin on her fists. Carrie sat on the swing and pushed herself back and forth, listlessly. I was mortified our cousins were bored and unhappy. I was afraid they’d never want to come to Texas again.

While I was cogitating, Jack leaned a ladder on the side of the shed. He announced he was Superman, and he was going to fly off the roof of the low shed. I ran to the ladder. “No! No, Jack, you’ll break a leg!”

“Well, okay,” he said and climbed back down.

He picked up his gun and hoisted it to his shoulder. “Pow! Pow, pow, pow!” he yelled, pulling the trigger each time, thinking there were no BB’s in there.

All of a sudden, I felt something hit my shin, and it began to sting. I looked down, and blood ran down my leg. The California cousins ran over and dropped to their knees to stare at my wound. I felt paralyzed with the pain, but I didn’t scream or cry. So, I sat down in the dirt and studied the purple lump in my shin. Jeannie ran over and squatted down to look. Jack stood over me and said, “Golly, bum! I shot ya, Cissy!”

He looked like he was about to cry, so I said, “It’s not that bad, Jack.”

Donny stood there, looking at my leg and the Red Ryder. “Let me see that gun,” he told Jack.

“Uh-uh,” Jack said, holding the gun close to his side. “Nobody can touch my Red Ryder.”

“Give it to me,” Donny insisted, and when Jack shook his head, Donny grabbed the gun and ran, laughing and laughing, like a lunatic, my mother might say.

After a few minutes of running around and chasing the other, Jack and Donny stopped. Both were huffing and puffing, out of breath.

I sat on the back stoop, with my little sister standing there, not knowing what to do, about to cry.

Donny walked up to Jack and said, “You want this BB gun? Then, take it, you yellow-bellied coward.”

In the blink of an eye, Jack grabbed the gun, ran to the shed, and climbed the ladder to the low roof. My sister, Carrie, and Donny ran over and stood in a little huddle, looking up, wondering what Jack would do. I limped to the group and stared at Jack.

Jack walked to the edge of the roof, looked down, and announced, “I’m gonna fly!”

And he jumped off. Instead of flying like he intended, he fell with a “whump” onto the hard-packed earth.

He lay there on his back with his eyes closed.

Donny dropped to his knees. “Jack! Jack! Wake up, buddy! Are you hurt? Are you dead? Get up, now!”

Jack sat up, moved his head from side to side, looked at Donny, and said with a grin, “Gosh darn. That hurt.”

Donny began to laugh and slapped Jack on the back. “You’re a real hero, a real, live Superman! Damnation, if you aren’t something.”

If I recalled correctly, ‘damnation” was a curse word.

At the end of the week, the California cousins packed up, ready to go home. Jeannie and I hovered near the car, almost in tears. Carrie hung out the window, saying, “Bye, now! Come to see us in California! We’ll all go to the beach!”

Donny asked his dad, “Can we come back next year?”

My sister and I stood in the driveway as the blue Cadillac pulled out onto the street, and sped away.

Jeannie asked, “Cissy, what’s a beach?”

I shrugged. “I dunno, but I can’t imagine what they do in California for fun.”

Celia Yeary


ALL MY HOPES AND DREAMS-a Texas Historical
eBook: The Wild Rose Press
Print: The Wild Rose Press print-store, or


  1. Dear Celia, you may have lived in Texas while I grew up in Kentucky but our worlds parallel so closely. Hidey was is my vocabulary too! And how I can relate to the realization that my family was one of the "have-nots" of the material world. When I get an email telling me you have another story up on your blog, I always drop whatever else I'm doing and go to read it immediately. It always touoches my heartstrings. I have many short stories of my own childhood and I hope you consider sending yours out someplace. Some of mine have been published but not in the Internet. I'm going to send them out here one of these days and hope you will send yours, too.
    Again, I loved this story.

  2. Thank you, Linda--you've made my day. I might think everyone was financially-challenged in those days, but in high school,only one girl could afford braces and she drove a pink Thunderbird convertible to school! Of course, all the football players adored her. Ugh. I'll look around for places to send stories--but no one can have them for free! I want money!Celia

  3. Glorious! Celia, I love these stories of yours, a world a million trillion miles away from my own childhood. I agree - get money for 'em!
    I'm now going to say 'golly, bum,' for the rest of the day, y'all!
    Loved this. :)

    Jane x

  4. Hi Celia,
    What a fun story. Fortunately for me all of my cousins were as poor as we were and from the same area so our dialect and games were the same.

    I hope your week with your cousins got better and you found some fun activites to enjoy together. I bet before the week was over your cousin was borrowing some of your pants.

    Thanks for sharing. You know I love all things from the past.

  5. Hi Celia,
    I love your tale about the California cousins. Isn't that just the way when you meet somebody new? That whole awkwardness and searching for common ground? I hope you have no lasting scar from the BB incident.

  6. JANE--you always make me laugh and feel good.If I could just write stuff like this and get paid for it, I've give up novel writing and all the time and turmoil that goes with it. I like "instant gratification," and I get that when I sell one of these little stories. So, far I sold two and made 500 bucks on each--and they took about a hour to write.

  7. LINDA--I knew this would be familiar to you! Yes, I'd love to get money for all of my little stories. They are fun to write! Celia

  8. MAGGIE--no scar, just funny memories, all good. I really don't have any bad memories from my childhood, even though we weren't exactly rich. thanks for stopping by--Celia

  9. Celia, amazing how close and yet so different they were. Wonderful storytelling of what happened, Sweetie. Rich in characters and experiences. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed this post.


  10. Thanks, Steph--our California cousins--we had more than these two--usually found ways to make us feel like hicks, which we probably were!But during the fews times we were together as children, we had great fun.

  11. Divan, now that's a word I haven't heard in a long time. Thanks for the memories. You should put all of these into a book of memoirs.


  12. hi Celia, what a hoot. But...I am from California, born, raised, true and through, and I can promise I would have loved to visit Texas cousins and NOT thought you hicks LOL. I can almost see this as a movie, e.g. The Christmas Story.


  13. LIANA--thanks for reading it. Yes, divan--we don't use that anymore, but I have a 88 year-old-aunt who still invites me to have a seat on her "divan." Celia

  14. TANYA--oh, yes, the Christmas Story! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Our family drove to Californa when I was 8--I have a post--July 15--about our first drive out there from Texas. (photo of the 1940 car we traveled in.) All of Mother's family lived out there, and she begged Daddy for us to move there, too. Daddy hated all her family, and said he need a whole state to himself. But he did take her to visit.Thanks--Celia

  15. Celia, I was captivated as always. I adore your stories. But I have to wonder what happened when your mother found out your neighbor shot you in the leg!

    A note: if you plan to sell any of them, you don't want them online or many publications will consider them published already. I hate to say that because I'd hate to not be able to read them, but it's something to consider.

  16. LORAINE--that hadn't occurred to me, because I know nothing aobut copyrights. Celia

  17. LOL I grew in the country, so I'm sure your California cousins would've thought we were country bumpkins.

    Good story, Celia.

  18. Oh, Celia, your stories always just sweep me away. Wow...

    This particular one is so good it makes me realize you truly should select a couple of dozen and put out a memoir of sorts. Usually, that's not something I would recommend because most people think their childhood was fascinating and it truly isn't to anyone but them. *grin*

    But both you and Linda LaRoque share tales that if I skimmed the first couple of pages in a book, I'd buy it immediately. Really. That good.

    Thanks again for a Great Read!

    --Chiron O'Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  19. CHIRON-my dear friend. How kind you are. Honeslty? I' rather wirte this schmaltzy stuff than anything! Maybe on eday when I'm old, uh, I mean older, I might consider such a thing. Thanks a million--

  20. Was the BB stuck in your leg? Ouch, you were so brave.
    Love the way you wrote this. You got enough for memoirs?