The Jones Girls, by Renee Roop
Description: The Jones Girls follows three sisters, Lydie, Alice, and Beth, as they grow up in a sharecropping family, working excruciatingly long hours in hot NC tobacco fields. Despite dealing with crippling poverty the sisters have a spirit that refuses to be broken. Their often hilarious adventures showcase a bond that is something to marvel at. As long as they have each other they can survive anything that’s thrown their way; from the alcoholism of their father, the sexism of the time, to a shocking diagnosis that’s given to them as they prepare to enter adulthood. If you’ve ever had a sister or a friend that made you come alive, that you would do anything for -then this book is a must read!
Lydie Jones stood as tall as she could on her tiptoes trying to see what her sister Beth was doing to the cat. The feline had viciously scratched the six year old ‘s hand and now it was going to regret the day it ever crossed her path. Lydie was only a year younger than Beth but she was very short for her age and was having a hard time seeing over the top of the barrel that Beth had placed the cat in. Finally she realized what was happening, the barrel was filled with water – Beth was going to drown the cat!
“Beth, no!” Lydie screamed, but it was too late – Beth was beyond reproach. Her eyes had a glazed over look about them and Lydie knew there was nothing she could do now. Beth had made up her mind and that cat was going to die. Lydie watched helplessly as Beth plunged the cat to the bottom of the barrel time and time again. Part of her wanted to cry out and try to save the animal but another, much bigger part did not want to cross Beth – after all she might be next!
Finally, Lydie realized it was over as Beth put the lid on the old rusted barrel. Beth was not a cruel person, she just never seemed to mesh well with animals of any kind. Regardless, she put enough bad karma in the air that day to forever dissuade cats from coming within ten miles of her. From then on, whenever she would encounter a cat, the poor animal would immediately turn and flee in the opposite direction. There was an elderly gentleman in town, Mr. King, who swore up and down that one day he saw a cat and Beth walking towards each other on Main Street and when the cat saw Beth he violently flung himself in front of oncoming traffic. Yes, Beth and cats did not mix as the entire species seemed to innately know that she had murdered one of their own. “The
great cat murder of 1957” as it came to be called, is still discussed with much controversy among those who’ve heard the tale in the dark recesses of southeastern Rockingham County.
North Carolina has beautiful summers. The sky seems to be bluer and the air seems to be purer than in all other lands. Seemingly endless tobacco plants cascade across red dirt fields. Every now and then an old wrinkled man who looks to be about eighty, can be seen in dark blue denim overalls sitting in an old rusted wrought iron chair beneath a cool shade tree because really, what else could be as soothing on a terribly hot summer day? Black-eyed Susan’s and Queen Anne’s Lace dot the roadside, beckoning to you to stop and pick from their bountiful bouquets. An old country store is like an oasis in the desert and the soda pop sold there is more refreshing than any in the entire world. It’s a feeling that North Carolina summers give you. It’s a bit hard to explain but its as if for three months life creaks into slow motion and the worries and cares of reality all seem to become less and less important. It is in this dream like state that I find myself now. My mother and I have journeyed south from our home in Virginia to this enchanted land of her youth.
I am not a North Carolinian by birth but through my mother’s eyes and stories I feel as though I have lived there my entire life. This trip of ours was not about leisure, well not in the since that we were merely coming down for a chat about everyone’s lives and whatnot. It was about grieving, about helping my mother to come to terms with what her life was and what it could be and maybe, just maybe attaining some much sought after peace.
We were on route to my Aunt Beth’s house but for some reason my mother was taking the scenic route. She turned her signal light on in front of the house, or rather shack, that she was born in which was still some twenty miles from my aunt’s house. It was a small two story red clapboard house with three tiny bedrooms upstairs and a living room and kitchen downstairs. Its current state was dire, the front porch was almost non-existent and the upstairs had sort of fallen so that the upstairs merged with the downstairs. As we pulled into the dusty driveway that led to her birth home I could not imagine how a family of five could have ever lived in such a place. An elderly frail looking black lady was walking toward us as we stepped out of our car.
“Can I help y’all,” she pleasantly said. “I’m Minnie Jenkins, I live in the white house just over the hill. I was on my way to the mailbox when I saw y’all drive up. We don’t get many new people around here.”
My eyes drifted to the aforementioned house “just over the hill”. It was huge, with big columns that streamed down onto a never-ending front porch.
A strange look fell on my mother’s face for a moment before turning into a sweet little smile as she spoke, “Mrs. Jenkins, I don’t know if you remember me but my name is Lydie Cummings, well when you knew me it was Lydie Jones. Anyway, I was born in this little house here and I kind of wanted to walk around, if that’s all right. I haven’t been here in years. Oh, excuse my manners, this young lady beside me is my daughter Renee.”
“Good lord child! Oh course I remember you, you’re one of the little Jones’ girls! Y’all used to run wild all over the place and I used to bake y’all cookies. Do you remember that? Child, you take as long as you want and you come up to the house and see me before you leave, you hear me?”
“Yes ma’am I’ll do that. Thank you,” mom said as she hugged Mrs. Jenkins. After she left, mom and I started to examine the remains of the little house before us.
“The Jones’ girls,” mom said suddenly for no apparent reason.
“Huh?” I inarticulately replied while eying the landscape for any signs that there may be snakes present of which my fear is great.
“The Jones’ girls,” she repeated. “That’s what people used to call my sisters and I when we were growing up. We hated it! As if we were some indefinable blob and not three separate completely different individuals.” My mother was the youngest of three girls and she needn’t worry about them being grouped together because any one who ever encountered any of the girls for even a second forever realized that they were three very individualistic forces to be reckoned with.
“The Jones’ girls,” I laughed. “Sounds like a gang to me. You know mom, one thing I’ve never asked,” I said grinning. “Who’s cat was it that you and Beth offed? Did it belong to your family?”
“No, to tell you the truth I think it was Mrs. Jenkins,” she remarked. And with that we both burst out laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Mom continued on, “And that spot right there on the hill…that’s where I got one of the worst spankings of my life.”
“How can you remember every patch of land where all these events took place?” I marveled.
“You always remember your home. You go back to it in your mind for the rest of your life,” she replied.
Maybe it was because they were so close in age but as children Lydie and Beth were inseparable. They did everything together and had this chemistry and internal language that no one outside them could even begin to understand. Their older sister Alice, was five years older than Beth so she was always a little too reserved and mature to really understand the younger siblings’ connection and besides she had other things on her mind – boys.
Farming was the family’s occupation, in particular tobacco farming and even then it didn’t bring about a lot of money. They were always just barely scraping by. However, Maggie Jones worked hard so that her children didn’t have to go without the things that other children their age acquired and she succeeded at this more times than not. She was a proud old-fashioned southern lady who had morals and beliefs about the way people should treat one another, traits that she desperately tried to pass onto her offspring. She had a slim build and stood only about five-foot-two. Her hair fell in delicate dark brown ringlets about her shoulders and her eyes were an amazing swirl of green and brown that illuminated her entire face. But her real beauty came from within. There was a glow about her that radiated all that she truly was – love, grace, and just plain honest goodness. She would do anything for those that she loved.
The undisputed head of the Jones’ household was Noel. A tall, skinny fellow that always wore a fedora when outside the house. He was a man of strictness. He did not show emotion to his children and expected them to be perfectly behaved and well mannered at all times. This is not to say that Noel did not love his children – he did greatly, it’s just that he knew what kind of a world awaited them upon adulthood and if they could survive him then he figured that they could survive just about anything that life threw their way.
Little Lydie adored Saturdays. She looked forward to them all week long for on Saturdays she and Beth would accompany Mama into the bustling nest of activity known as the town of Reidon. It was a tiny, tiny spot on a map as were most towns in that particular area of North Carolina. It was made up of only two or three streets, composed primarily of various small clothing shops, a drugstore, barbershop, and the odd hardware store but to Lydie it may as well have been the equivalent of New York City. Mama always gave Lydie and Beth a quarter each that they were to spend on anything they desired. She would then leave the girls to their shopping while she attended to hers. Beth usually went to a small corner hole that called itself a bookstore, always searching out the newest action adventure tales while Lydie most always had other plans for her twenty-five cents.
Lydie’s store of choice was Carolina Drug. Sometimes she would buy paper dolls or a toy tea set with her money but mostly she indulged in her favorite acquisition of all – grilled cheese sandwiches. The drugstore had a long white counter on the left side of the store with tall stools placed in front of it. Behind the counter stood a small metallic grill. Lydie, who was still very tiny for her six years, with great effort, hoisted herself onto one of the stools at the counter. A short, slightly chubby lady with a mountain of teased brown hair and thick black-framed glasses that sat on the tip of her nose, momentarily stopped what she was doing behind the counter to face the small girl.
“You want a grilled cheese don’t ya honey?” the lady sweetly asked.
“Yep,” Lydie replied as she handed the lady her quarter.
A short while later the lady placed a piping hot runny grilled cheese and a small glass of cold milk before Lydie. The lovely sandwich enveloped all her senses as she eagerly devoured it. It had the creamiest, most satisfying taste of anything that Lydie had ever placed in her mouth. She stifled a giggle at the thought of Beth wasting her money on such frivolous pursuits as adventure books when she herself could be experiencing the wonder and absolute perfection that was this most delectable of foods.
After the spell had broken and the sandwich was no more, Lydie placed her napkin on the counter and hopped off her stool, barely sticking the landing in the process. She walked down the street to Eakes Supermarket where Mama would be waiting. Lydie loved the feeling of freedom that Saturdays brought. She could mingle on the sidewalks with the ladies in their white gloves and hats and the dapper gentlemen in their suits and ties as if she herself were their equal in every respect. As she wound her way down the street like some princess in a fairytale her bubble was soon burst when reality beckoned to her from a storefront. She looked up to see Mama’s beautiful face smiling at her.
“Did you have a good time Lydie?” she asked.
“Yes ma’am I had a great time. I got a grilled cheese!” Lydie proudly announced.
“You mean you got another stinking grilled cheese?” Beth disapproving sneered as she skipped up to where Lydie and Mama were standing. “I got a new book and I can’t wait to go home and read it!”
Lydie stuck out her tongue at Beth when she was sure Mama’s back was turned. Beth could poke fun all she wanted but Lydie held a little nugget of happiness within her that no one could take away. It was just a brief moment but it was enough to make the upcoming week that was sure to be full of chores, school, and other maladies sublimely more bearable.
The next day Lydie stood by the big wide front window in the living room and watched as the ancient barely still yellow church bus made its way up their dusty gravel driveway.
“Bus is here!” Lydie called out to Mama and her two sisters who were still preparing themselves for this Sunday’s services.
“Don’t yell Lydie,” Mama said walking into the living room. “Alice is helping Beth fix her dress – a button popped off.”
The Jones Family was not overly religious, that is in comparison to most families in their particular part of the country. North Carolina was after all, one of the first loops on the Bible belt and most residents lived their lives adhering to its strict fire and brimstone pull. Mama had taken the girls to a church on a pretty regular basis their entire lives, though the denomination had changed from Methodist to Baptist and back again. Mama held her spirituality more on the inside than out and was more prone to believing that your relationship with god was your business and yours alone. She got easily fed up with supposed Christian individuals who were more into passing judgment and looking down on others rather than accepting any guidance on how to conduct their own lives cause apparently their own lives were perfect. If churches were handing out membership based on morally superior individuals then the pews would indeed be bare and the future of religion in this country would sorely be in jeopardy. This hypocrisy is what kept Mama from attending church more than she did.
“All right girls, let’s go,” Mama said firmly as she held open the front door for them. One by one, they all piled into the creaky old bus. Papa didn’t attend church. He had never set foot inside of one that Lydie knew of. Like a lot of men his age, Papa left the spiritual needs of the family to the women. He spent his Sunday’s riding the roads, stopping at Hopper’s Store to talk to the ever growing group of men that hung around the soda machines gossiping, and basically just enjoying a day of rest.
Mama shared a seat with Alice while Lydie and Beth sat down across the aisle from them. The bus was never crowded and today there were only two other individuals on board. A young and very blonde couple sat in the very last seat in the back of the bus.
Lydie was watching the scenery go by outside her window and was very much trying to ignore Beth who was making grotesque faces of all sorts in Lydie’s direction. Lydie refused to take the bait. She knew that Beth just wanted her to react so Mama could see this and thus punish her. Besides, she usually got in enough trouble in church without Beth’s help.
Just them Mama turned to the girls and spoke, “Lydie, when we get inside the church you had better not start that sniffing!”
This was the trouble that Lydie had been thinking of. Whenever she was inside the church, seated in a pew, a strange need would encase her entire body – the need to sniff. She couldn’t seem to help herself or be able to stop. After each sniff she would stick her tongue out and then she would feel the overpowering urge for another sniff. She was an addict! Thank heavens it was something as minute as snot and not heroin.
This habit, however essential it was to Lydie’s sanity, drove Mama crazy.
“No ma’am, I won’t start. I promise,” Lydie very earnestly replied as she looked down at her green pleated wool skirt that had suffered almost as many maladies in church as she had.
The Jones Girls, by Renee Roop