Stories Our Mama Told Us

Winnie May Scott Upchurch, near Itasca, Texas circa 1910

| Murder and Runaway Mules | Music for a Moppet | A Cotton-Picking Love Story | The Hovel That Became a Mansion | The Crossing | The Home-Going of Mama’s Mother

Deep and dear memories of the “story-telling hours” that we spent at Mama’s knees, along with the many stories she told us from the earliest days of our childhood into our times of maturity, still have a home in the heads and hearts of her children. Her sons have a general memory of some, and Alice has a specific memory of most all, of those stories.

I have made a prolonged effort to recall and record a sampling of the stories that made such deep impressions on our minds in those long-ago times and still linger in our hearts today.

Riders of the Ku Klux Klan

Among Mama’s earliest memories, from the late-1890s and the early-1900s, were the ones of a large group of mounted Ku Klux Klan members that regularly rode through the Alvarado rural areas, leaving behind them a trail of fear and hatred and terror and burning crosses.

She told us of the nights she would lie in bed and hear the ominous sounds of the hooves of the approaching horses, their heavy breathing and snorting, the creaking of saddle leather, and the rattling and clanging of stirrups and bridle bits.

She remembered seeing the moonlight reflecting off the white hoods and robes that the Klan members wore, and the streamers of white cloth that flowed out behind them as they rode. She told us how she would pull the sheet and quilt up over her head, close her eyes, and put her fingers in her ears as she tried to shut out the sight and sounds that brought such fear and terror to her.

She was aware, even as a child, that after some of the Klan’s midnight rides, a man (mostly always a black man) would mysteriously disappear from the area and never again be seen or heard from, and that such disappearances were never seriously investigated by the law nor openly discussed by the rural people.

Murder and Runaway Mules

When Mama was still a young child, a condition existed and a tragedy transpired which remained in her memory for the remainder of her life.

On a neighboring farm, a deep resentment and belligerence existed between a father-in-law and his son-in-law. The father-in-law went one day into the field where his son-in-law was plowing with a four-mule team. The son-in-law killed his father-in-law with a singletree. The four-mule team, perhaps instinctively aroused and spooked by the aura of murder, broke loose from the plow and exploded into a runaway which passed by Mama’s childhood home.

Even in her declining years, Mama could still vividly describe the terror and panic that gripped her as she watched the runaway and hear the fear-ridden snorting and braying of the mules and the rattling and clanging of the harness and chains as the mules ran. Her childhood fears were deepened into indelible and unforgettable memories when the story of the murder became fully known in the community.

Music for a Moppet

In the beginning of Mama’s memories, Grandpa Scott rented a house and land from Mr. and Mrs. Truelove. Across her entire lifetime, Mama retained a special love for the Trueloves.

I never knew Mr. or Mrs. Truelove. They probably died before I was born. But Mama’s oft-spoken words of affection for them planted in my young mind an unconscious sense of kindness toward them. I loved them because my Mama loved them. And that’s the way I still think of them today.

Grandpa Scott spent his life as a sharecropper and day laborer. When Mama was still a child, Grandpa worked ini Mr. Truelove’s fields and asked that his daily wages be given to Mrs. Truelove to pay for music lessons for Mama. Since Mrs. Truelove had only an organ in her home, Mama’s music lessons were organ lessons. In later years, she applied what she had learned from her organ lessons in learning how to play the piano. And from those efforts, she emerged as a self-taught church and home pianist.

When I recall the inherent and natural talent she had in music, and the love she had for music, and the joy she received from music, and when I recall the joy that came to us as we listened to her play that piano at church and in our home, and when we listened to her sing and hum and laugh, and when the remember the movements of her lips and the expression in her eyes and the sound of her voice as she sang, I pause and breathe a benediction upon Grandpa Scott and Mr. and Mrs. Truelove for the special thing they did for my Mama when she was a child.

A Cotton-Picking Love Story

In the late summer of 1910, as the cotton-picking season began in central Texas, Grandpa Scott brought his five children to Hill County to live in a tent and pick cotton as they moved from field to field. It was during this time that Mama and Papa first met. Mama has just turned 16, and Papa was nearing, or had just turned, 24. They met when Papa, by happenstance, appeared to pick cotton in the same field in which Mama and her family were picking.

When the cotton-picking season ended, Grandpa Scott took his children back to their home near Alvarado, and Papa went back to his home ande regular farm work, but they somehow managed to stay in touch with one another across the next few months. One evidence that they stayed in touch is in a postal card that Papa wrote to Mama shortly before Christmas in 1910. In her later years, Mama gave this card to Alice. The card began: “Dear Winnie, I take my pen in hand …”

The best evidence that they stayed in touch is in the fact that they were married on January 1, 1911, and in the fact that “in sickness and in health, in poverty and in wealth, in the good that brightened their days, in the bad that darkened their ways, and forsaking all others,” they clove only unto one another for 61 years, 6 months, and 7 days, and were finally parted only by death.

The Hovel That Became a Mansion

For several months after their marriage, Papa and Mama lived in the family home where Mama, as a 16-year-old bride, was the object of resentment and jealousy, and was mentally and vocally abused by everyone in the family except Papa.

The family of William Henry Upchurch, c. 1910
The family into which she married. Papa is on the right.

Located a few hundred yards from the main house was a small building which across the years had been used for the storage of hay and grain and various other items. In his spare time, Papa cleared and cleaned and patched the little building and, with the barest minimum of household furnishings, he and Mama moved into their first home.

Again and again in the years of our youth and adolescence and adulthood, with a smile on her face and a warm light in her eyes, Mama would tell us that those were the happiest times she had ever known in her 16 years of life. She would describe the joy of living in their own home, the joy of lying on their corn-shuck mattress and looking up through the holes in the roof to see the beauty of the moon and stars and night skies, and the joy with which they thanked God for such a happy place in which to live.

The Crossing

Mama also often shared her still-vivid memories of another frightening and extremely dangerous experience through which she passed as a young mother.

In the spring of 1914, when Harry was slightly past two years old and Howard was about six months old, and when Mama was only 19 years old, she took Harry and Howard to visit her parents in their rural home near Alvarado. When her visit was completely, Grandpa Scott, in a mule-drawn wagon, was taking Mama and her children to the depot in Alvarado to catch the train for her return trip to Itasca.

Heavy spring rains had flooded the streams between Grandpa’s house and the depot. They came to a creek that had widely overflowed its banks, and whose current was a raging torrent. Grandpa left Mama and the children on the bank and drove mules and wagon into the creek to see if a crossing was possible. With the mules swimming, and the wagon only slightly unstable, Grandpa safely crossed and recrossed the flooded stream.

With Mama and the children again in the wagon with him, Grandpa drove into the raging water. Halfway across, one of the swimming mules floundered and panicked, the other mule went berserk, the surging waters spilled over the wagon and Grandpa and Mama and the children, and faint hopes of survival remained in her heart.

Then, miraculously, the panicked mules regained their footing, the wagon wheels found sand and gravel, the raging waters shallowed and subsided, and “The Crossing” was safely completed.

The Home-Going of Mama’s Mother

From the early times of Mama’s childhood, her mother was wan and weak and increasingly sick. She died in 1915, when Mama was 21 years old. Of all the stories that Mama ever told us, this one, about the miracle-touched death of her mother, is high on the list of stories that most moved us in childhood, and that we best remember in adulthood.

One day, after many bedridden years of the ever-worsening physical ravages and incoherence and mental deterioration of what was then vaguely diagnosed as Pellagra, Grandma Scott sat up in her bed and, with mental clarity and rational intelligence and physical coordination and a voice that was strong and clear, sang all three verses of “Jesus, Savior, Pilot Me”.

She then leaned back against the wall, sang no other song, spoke no other word, showed no other sign of animation, and quietly died about an hour later.

Hal Upchurch, 1995

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