Authors: Barbara Hathaway
This book is dedicated to my first cousins,
Mary Alice Bishop and Lyman Brandon,
and to the memory of their mother,
Copyright Â© 2012 by Barbara Hathaway
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Houghton Mifflin is an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hathaway, Barbara, 1944â
Letters to Missy Violet / by Barbara Hathaway.
Summary: While her friend Missy Violet, the town midwife, is away in Florida, eleven-year-old Viney concerns herself with ailing neighbors, schoolmates, and her irrepressible cousin Charles, who feels superior because he has been to Harlem in New York City.
1. African AmericansâJuvenile fiction. [1. African AmericansâFiction. 2. LettersâFiction. 3. Southern StatesâHistoryâ1865â1951âFiction.] I. Title.
DOC 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
It is August and school has already started. We have a new teacher, Miss Glover. She's nice-looking, brown and smooth like peanut butter, and wears her hair pulled back in a bun. She's not loud and bossy like Miss Battle, our old teacher. Miss Battle is mean and yelps like a yard dog. She makes you learn, though.
Miss Glover makes you learn, too, but she makes learning fun. She brings in lots of pictures and maps and books for us to look at. She'll even let you take some of them home if you promise to take good care of them and bring them back. A lot of the pictures are of places she's been to. And if she makes you read in front of the class and you miss a word or say it wrong or something, she won't shame you in front of everybody. She'll just call you up to her desk and help you with the words you said wrong. And no one else can hear what she says to you but you and her.
Another thing Miss Glover doesn't do: She won't give you a licking with the ruler. Miss Battle will give you a licking right in front of the whole class and then go tell your folks you been acting up in school. She'll even tell your grandma and your grandpa when she sees them in church on Sunday. Miss Glover would never do thatâshe believes children should be talked to. If any switching needs to be done, she says it ought to be done at home. She's always having to talk to my cousin Charles. Sometimes I think he cuts up just so Miss Glover will take him to the back of the room and talk to him. You should see his face when he's getting talked toâhis eyes get all dreamy-looking and he grins like a Cheshire cat.
Charles sits next to a real pretty girl named Winsome Blue. He's sweet on Winsome but he doesn't want my friend Arma Jean Pettegrue to know, because he's sweet on Arma Jean, too. He doesn't know how to act when both of them are in the same place at the same time. When Winsome is around he gets all silly and clumsy and starts dropping things on the floor. But when Arma Jean is around he gets all mannish and acts all biggity, strutting and talking that Harlem talk he learned while he was up in New York City this summer, like “Gimme some skin, man!” and “Dig that crazy jive!” I sure hate that he had to come back down here to Richmond County to go to school again this year. I wish his poor mama would get well so he could go back home.
But getting back to Miss Glover, most of the parents just love her and they all gather around her at church, except for Mister Waters, Cleveland Waters's daddy. Mister Waters says his boy don't need “all that book learnin' and coddlin'” Miss Glover trying to do. He asked Miss Glover, “What Cleveland need with so much book learnin' when the South ain't gonna let him be nothin' but a sharecropper?” He even comes to school and plucks Cleveland right out of the class whenever he wants him to work in the field. Too bad, because Cleveland likes school and catches on real quick, especially to things that have to do with numbers.
Miss Glover tried to talk to Mister Waters one day when he came to take Cleveland out of class. She spoke real nice to him but he got all loud and talked to her rough like he was trying to scare her. Told her she was “fillin' the children's heads with foolish notions, talkin' to them 'bout travelin' and such.” Then he said something that made all of us children feel ashamed. He asked Miss Glover if she really believed any of us colored children would grow up to be anything other than somebody's maid or farm hand. Miss Glover stood back and looked him straight in the eye and said, “My dear Mister Waters, you are looking at a colored child who grew up to be something other than a maid or a farm hand!” And Mister Waters couldn't say a word. But he took Cleveland out of the class anyway.
After they left, Miss Glover reminded us that there was nothing wrong with being a maid or a farm hand as long as you were honest and hard working. She said, “Education and good morals will lift the colored people up.” I hope we keep Miss Glover forever!
Just before school started Missy Violet had to go down to Tallahassee, Florida, to see about her sick brother, but she gave me his address and told me it was fine for me to write. Missy Violet and I are very good friends now. She says I'm her best helper girl because I helped her “catch babies” this summer. But Mama told me not to bother Missy Violet with letters while she was down in Tallahassee. Mama said, “Don't go tantalizin' the life out of Missy Violet with a lot of letters, worryin' her about things goin' on up here at home. She got enough on her mind takin' care of a sick brother.” And she shook her finger at me.
I told Mama that Missy Violet was expecting me to write and tell her all about school but Mama said, “No!” So I had to sneak and write a letter. I hated to disobey Mama, but I just had to tell Missy Violet about Miss Roula Olette! Miss Roula is Missy Violet's good friend and she is in a bad way. So I borrowed an envelope and a stamp from my big sister Savannah's stationery box and wrote the letter on a piece of paper I tore out of my composition book. I hope Savannah won't miss her envelope and her stamp. Now all I have to do is get the letter down to the post office window at the general store before Mama finds out about it.
August 14, 1929
Dear Missy Violet,
I just had to write and tell you about poor Miss Roula. I think she is gone sick in the head. She won't eat anything except oatmeal and squash and goes wandering around in the cemetery in her housecoat! I think she's acting that way because her snooty ol' daughter Amabelle came down here from New York City and made her stop taking the boneset tonic you gave her for her tired blood and poor circulation. I know Miss Roula has some because you sent Charles and me over to her house with a great big jar full before you went away. Mama told her daughter about the tonic but Amabelle claims she can't find it.
Missy Violet, I don't like Amabelle one bit. She looks at people down the side of her nose like she thinks she's superior. Charles doesn't like her eitherâhe calls her “astorperious.” That's a word he picked up up in Harlem this summer. He says it means “stuck up.” Something about Amabelle reminds me of my classmate Margie Poole. I bet Margie will be just like her when she grows up, all snooty and superior-acting. Both of them are know-it-alls. I won't forget how Margie laughed at me because I thought babies came out of a tree stump.
I can tell Amabelle thinks she's good-looking, and she does have all that pretty black hair hanging down her back, but to me she's not as pretty as Miss Roula is. She looks like an ol' yellow pumpkin to me. She's talking about taking Miss Roula back up north with her to live. Poor Miss Roula doesn't know anybody up north. Amabelle hardly lets her have visitors now. Like the other day when Mister Johnnie Browne stopped by to see how Miss Roula was doing, Amabelle looked him up and down, wrinkled her nose, and said, “You need to do somethin' about that rash all over your face and arms before you go visitin' folks.” Hurt Mister Johnnie's feelings something awful. He came over to the house with water in his eyes, telling Mama and Papa about what happened.
Charles says he's gonna put a cow patty in Amabelle's car. I hope he does.
Missy Violet, I also have some good news. We have a new teacher at school. Her name is Miss Glover and she is a fine teacher. I look forward to going to school every day now. Even Charles gets up and gets ready in the morning without giving Mama any trouble. You will like Miss Glover because she encourages us to read. You always do that, Missy Violet. You always say, “Read, children, read!” Well, we are doing lots of reading now. Miss Glover brings the newspaper to class every day and we all have to take turns reading from it. Maybe you will get to meet her when you come home. She attends church every third Sunday.
That's all for now, except that the ax handle fell on Papa's foot while he was working in the woodshed and now Mama's making him stay off it. When it happened I was at home and ran with Mama to the woodshed when Papa hollered for help. When I saw how his foot was bleeding I remembered what you taught me about bloody wounds and told Mama not to wipe the blood off, but to tie it up in its own blood because that would start the healing right away. Later, when we got Papa back to the house, Mama cleaned the wound and bandaged it up. And we put cayenne liniment on it every day just the way you did for Mister Cook when he cut his foot on the tractor. Papa and Mama were surprised that I knew how to make cayenne liniment and how to take care of wounds. I was glad I remembered what you had taught me.
Papa is complaining about having to stay put all the time, but he makes sure that one of the boys goes down to your house every day to feed your dog, Duke, and milk the cow.
Please write to me and tell me what to do about Miss Roula, and say hello to your brother for me.
I sure wish we could find that boneset tonic.
From your best helper girl,
A Letter from Missy Violet
Uh-oh! Mama found out I wrote to Missy Violet. The letter came on a Saturday. Usually Savannah or one of the boys takes in the mail on Saturday, but that Saturday Mama brought in the mail. “Look, Viney, here's a letter for you from Missy Violet,” she said with a smile on her face.
Both of my ears started to ring. I didn't want Mama to see that letter. I snatched the letter out of Mama's hand and tried to walk away real fast. I shouldn't have done that, because Mama is as quick as a rattlesnake. She snatched the letter right back, her smile turned to a frown.
“You wrote to Missy Violet and told her about Miss Roula, didn't you,” Mama said in that voice she uses when one of us kids does something she doesn't like behind her back. Then she made me go into the parlor and read the letter out loud in front of her and Papa.
August 25, 1929
Hope this letter finds you and the family doing fine. Brother is coming along slowly, but I pray that with God's help, he will be back on his feet soon. It was so good to hear from you, Viney. Your penmanship is very neat; it is a pleasure to read.
So you met Amabelle. I know her very well, from the day she was born. You see, I attended her birthâthat's how long her mother and I have been friends. I'm sorry you don't like her, but she is not so bad. She doesn't think she is superior. She just likes things done a certain way. She has always been like that. She's particular, that's all. Even when she was a little girl she was very neat and careful with her things. She is the same way about her mama. She really is a good daughter, and I believe if she could find the boneset tonic she would give it to Roula.