There are many things which can prevent six-year-old girls from falling asleep at night; monsters under the bed, thunderstorms and of course the first day of school. Retha, a six-year-old girl living on a spot of land in Southwest Missouri called Coy, couldn’t sleep that warm September night and wondered why the darkness seemed to linger so long. Why wouldn’t daybreak make its appearance so she could jump from bed and get ready for her first day of school at the Anderson Elementary School?
Retha, her three brothers and her mother had come to live with Retha’s grandmother, Alma Robinson, and great aunt, Vesta in the small brown sided house in July of that year. Tragedy came in pairs for the family that summer as within weeks both Retha’s father and grandfather passed away. Her grandmother once told her that she knew her husband would die as it was prophesized by the change in the rooster’s crowing. A train accident took the then family of five’s husband, father and provider leaving Retha’s mother, Leona, to care for the children.
The house on Patterson Creek Road in Coy was owned by William Frank Talley, known to everyone as Frank, who had for some time allowed the family to live there rent free. Mr. Talley owned several milk cows and, with no expectation of compensation, milk for the family was left at the house each day. The small home had a living room with a wood burning fireplace which was the only thing that kept the cold winter night’s air from entering the home. The kitchen had a wood-burning stove where grandma cooked the meals for the always hungry kids.
An addition had been added to the rear of the house creating a long narrow room with bedrooms on opposite ends. Retha, Grandma Robinson and great aunt Vesta slumbered together in a full sized bed at one end of the addition while mom and the three boys slept in a bed at the opposite end.
Everyone living in the small house with brown colored siding, and without exception, had chores. Retha and her brother Roger were tasked with, among other things, bringing water into the home from a well located behind the house. The well had a hand pump and neither the cold of winter nor heat of summer could deter Retha and her one year older brother from their chore.
As Retha moved the well’s pump handle up and down on that warm September morning the anticipation was almost more than she could stand. The six-year-old had waited for that day, that start of school day, for so very long. The inquisitive little girl loved to read and relished the chance to learn about the world that existed outside of Coy.
That normally heavy bucket of water seemed unusually light that morning and the pace of her walk was extraordinarily swift as she walked through the back door. Retha tugged at her hair as she placed the bucket near the kitchen sink. She preferred that her brunette hair remain straight but her mother had decided that she would receive a perm in anticipation of the start of school. No matter how many tugs Retha gave to the hair it just wouldn’t straighten out.
“Here, put this dress on,” Leona said as she held out a beautiful black calico dress. “Your cousin Hazel spent a lot of time making this especially for you and just for the first day of school” Retha didn’t say a word but thought to herself that the dress had to be the most beautiful one ever worn by a first grader; even a first grader with curly hair.
As Retha reached for the dress, her mother again spoke. “After you get it on put those boots on.” Boots, what boots could her mother be talking about? Retha must have given her mother a look of confusion, “those boots over there,” she said while pointing to the corner of the bedroom.
Suddenly the overwhelming anticipation Retha once felt transformed into a feeling of dread as she saw them; those tall, horrendous looking cowboy boots. Had Leona forgotten about the black and white saddle shoes that would look so perfect with that calico dress?
“I want to wear these shoes,” Retha said as she reached for, then held up for all to see, the saddle shoes. “No, you’re going to wear the boots and I don’t want to hear any more about it. Retha Ann, go outside and cut me a switch and make it a long one. Hurry up, and don’t you dare bring me a short switch.” Leona called the little girl with the quivering lips and reddened eyes “Retha Ann” when she was annoyed with her and, as all the Deaver children knew, the cutting of a switch was the prelude to a spanking.
Retha’s mother, Leona was a country girl at heart. She loved the songs of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Gene Autry and she was fond of wearing western themed attire; she was particularly fond of cowboy boots; boots just like the ones she wanted Retha to wear. The little girl, now in tears, didn’t share her mother’s affinity for the cowboy look, in fact, she hated it.
Retha put the dress on and slowly squeezed each foot into a boot while all the while hoping the sounds of her crying would garner some sympathy and convince her mother to change her mind about both the boots and the switch. It appeared that Leona was going to maintain her position on both matters and nothing could change her mind.
Retha gave a glance in the direction of grandma, possibly to look for support or even an ally. “Leona,” the old woman said as she maneuvered the ever-present pinch of W.E. Garrett White Snuff which was firmly entrenched in her cheek, “why are you making her wear those old cowboy boots, and don’t give her a whipping right before her first day of school.”
Just when it appeared that Leona might reverse her opinions about the boots and the cutting of a switch the sound of a vehicle’s brakes could be heard. The sound was coming from the road outside the home and could be caused by only one thing, the school bus. “That’s the bus. It’s too late to change your shoes so you better get going or the school bus will leave without you.”
Retha walked through the doorway leading to the front yard as her mother held the screen door open. “See you later and be good,” her mother said. Retha didn’t respond as she was still mad over the forced wearing of the boots. As the young girl wiped the tears from her cheeks she could see that yellow school bus stopped just beyond the stone wall that separated the home’s front yard from Patterson Creek Road.
“Why are you crying, don’t you want to go to school?” Kenny Roark the bus driver asked. “My mother made me wear these ugly cowboy boots,” Retha answered. “Well, I think they look just fine. Here, sit with me I’ve got a job for you. See this handle, well when I tell you to, turn it so the stop sign will come out. Will you do that for me?” “Ok,” Retha replied.
Once Retha arrived at the Anderson Elementary School any and all thought of the boots vanished. There were other first graders, books and, oh yes, her teacher Mrs. Pauline Mitchell. Retha couldn’t wait to start learning and she wanted to know what words were nestled between the covers of all those books.
That first year of school passed far too quickly in Retha’s mind. Mrs. Mitchell played the song, “Ten Little Indians” on the piano, Retha was always the first to raise her hand when a volunteer was sought to read a passage from one of those many books and there was so much to learn.
Retha liked her classmates while one, a six-year-old named Ray, was smitten with the cute little girl. Ray gave Retha his mother’s diamond wedding ring and said, “I want to marry you.” When Leona saw the ring and heard the account of how it came into Retha’s possession she arranged for its immediate return.
Although Retha wore the calico dress many times that year, she never again wore the cowboy boots. She wondered why her mother no longer insisted that she wear them, perhaps Grandma Robinson had softened her but she never dared to ask why her mother had a change of heart.
The second year of school came and Retha and her brother Roger once again rode the yellow school bus driven by Kenny Roark. As the bus made its way down Patterson Creek Road the then second grader gave Roger a nudge. “Hey, you see those two little boys?” Roger looked through the window, “Yeah,” he replied as the image of two twin boys waiting for the bus came into focus. “Well, someday I’m going to marry one of them.”
Retha is now grown and works for the McDonald County Library in Southwest City. She is the branch manager and loves her job and the comforting idea that as she walks down each aisle she is surrounded by all of those wonderful, wonderful books. There is something about the library that captivates her. Maybe it’s the quiet and tranquility, the volumes of unread ideas and thoughts or maybe it’s the smell, yes the odor of the pages of printed paper.
Retha married Ronnie Mitchell and they will celebrate their 40th anniversary on the 28th day of September this year. Ronnie and his twin brother Donnie rode with Retha on the yellow bus to the Anderson Elementary School but he only later learned of her claim that she would someday become his wife.
Retha has on only one occasion slid her toes into a pair of cowboy boots and that was on her very first day of school.