I visited Aunt Treva yesterday. Since the driveway was empty, I called the house phone to ensure someone was inside. A caregiver answered and opened the door for me. All of Aunt Treva’s helpers know that I am "Louise, Aunt Treva’s niece" because I am a regular visitor. Visiting Aunt Treva has been a constant in the ebb and flow of my adult life since she returned to Arkansas in 1971 from her travels around the world as a naval officer’s wife.
Treva Lucille Owens was the sister just younger than Daddy Mondell Walter Owens, one of seven memorable sisters and one unforgettable brother born to Lillie Sophrona Smith Owens and George Andrew Owens of Waldron, from approximately 1907-28. Upon my arrival as one of the many Owens cousins, only four siblings remained in the Waldron area, four having relocated to Texas, Oklahoma and California, while Aunt Treva honored the "whither thou goest, I will go" life of her husband.
My maternal grandmother’s (Mama Vick) immediate family was small, consisting of her daughter, my Mother Melba, my Daddy Mondell, my Sister Patsy, myself, and her son, Milton and wife Hattie Lee, whose two children Mary Jo and Steven, did not arrive until I was 10. Not surprisingly, Mama Vick’s family gatherings were pleasantly subdued, five adults and two young girls — advised to be on their best behavior seated by design on either side of
Mother — gathered around Mama’s green speckled-with-white Formica-top table with aluminum, rounded pipe legs. Adults passed bowl after bowl of Mama’s delicious homegrown and canned, bacon-greased, boiled-down vegetables; platters of ham, roast beef or fried chicken; and slices of chocolate cake with black walnuts and raisins or warm from-scratch cream pie with towering meringue, browned to perfection. Adults ate and told stories, delightful stories embellished as only Daddy and Aunt Hattie Lee could. The sisters ate and listened respectfully, permitted to laugh when appropriate but not in their usual raucous manner.
On the other hand, as described above, my paternal grandmother’s (Mama Owens) family was large. Papa Owens died when I was three months old, leaving in the house Mama Owens and her mother Jane Cunningham Smith (95), her second daughter, spinster Elsie Marie, Mary Elizabeth Allen (Aunt Lizzy), and my great-grandfather’s nephew’s long-term widow, who rented a couple of rooms in Mama Owens’ house. Mama Owens was quiet and soft-spoken, speaking volumes with her sweet smile, gentle ways and unassuming manner of performing essential household tasks. I can’t imagine that she had ever had much opportunity to speak unnecessarily, while competing with nine children for a chance to squeeze a word in edgewise.
Now, as you imagine, the Owens home of my childhood was somber most of the time. Great-grandmother Jane oversaw activities from her wooden rocker, looking over her wire-rimmed spectacles, dozing periodically, and reaching out her cane to playfully tap one of us children as we stealthy crept past. Although Aunt Elsie humored her nieces and nephews, her manner was stern and I favored her with my instinctive pleasing, compliant conduct. She did not allow shouting or running in the house and often suggested a quiet Sunday afternoon stroll up the lane beside the woods.
With seven daughters to dress, Mama Owens became an accomplished seamstress, designing and cutting a dress "according to cloth." As often described by aunts, this simply meant the size of the cloth determined the design of the garment. The pattern came from Mama’s mind as she studied the cloth. Mama recycled buttons, which she kept in a box near the sewing machine. The only activity (game or toy?) I remember while visiting Mama Owens was stringing buttons. She took down the button box, threaded a needle with coarse thread, secured one button at the end to prevent buttons from slipping off the thread, and showed us how to stick the needle through the hole one button at a time.
Aunt Lizzie, Mama Owens’ renter, was and remains mysterious to Sister Patsy and me. I recall that she preferred sitting in her kitchen, originally a screened porch, near the water well, with its long cylindrical bucket and rope, in the middle of the room. Dressed in a long, black dress, often under a long, black cape with a hood covering her head and black, high-heeled, tie slippers, she looked for all the world like the Wicked Witch of the West. Nevertheless, even though framed in snuff, her smile was inviting and Patsy and I eagerly visited her side of the house to hear her stories and laughter.
Although most of my family’s visits to Mama Owens’ house were subdued, the occasions when the aunts came home were quite the opposite. Uncle Buel, who lived in Waldron during my early childhood, provided four cousins. Patsy and I added two more to the grandchildren count, and the daughters contributed 13, giving Mama Owens a total of 19 grandchildren. Patsy and I delighted in our 17 first cousins. Although all 19 never visited at once. Patsy and I were often joined by enough to raise quite a ruckus — plenty to send Aunt Elsie up to her attic room for refuge.
I have no personal recollection of Papa George Owens; however, I learned a great deal about him from what others said — and did not say — about him. A handsome young man with piercing black eyes and well-defined, thin lips, Papa was of small stature, looking nothing like a laborer; however, with a growing family, he proved himself to be that very thing, a hard-working farmer.
As did many farmers during the first half of the 20th century, Papa became a sharecropper. Any time the aunts, Uncle Buel and Daddy got together, someone mentioned this fact. I remember Daddy often saying, "We lived on the artesian well place east of town when I started first grade. Grades attended in shifts, and I walked by myself to school after lunch as the older children walked home." Aunt Treva would say, "We loved living on the Brashier place near many of our friends," or, "The house was nicer on the Piles place."
When the aunts visited Scott County, I enjoyed riding with them to visit places Papa farmed. Listening to their stories assured me that sharecropping during The Great Depression was hard, that every child worked with Papa in the field, hoeing corn, chopping cotton, baling hay and feeding chickens, cattle and hogs.
As I was getting up to leave yesterday, Aunt Treva said, "Louise, I have been thinking about something you once asked me — why Papa Owens did not buy his own land, why he remained a sharecropper." She paused; I listened. She continued, "We had a good life as sharecroppers. We always had our own milk, pork, chicken, vegetables and a barn full of corn for the livestock. We had everything we needed. Mama made our clothes, we had lots of good neighbors, and we walked to church with friends. Papa worked hard. He was a good farmer because he liked to farm."
I think my question spurred Aunt Treva to reflect on her life of 97 ½ years as a sharecropper’s daughter, and she declared it good. She had family, food, friends, neighbors, education, work and faith community — everything she needed.
Think I will examine my own life. My visits with Aunt Treva throughout my life have revealed trustworthy standards for evaluating and determining a life well lived. Do you agree?
Louise Owens Finney is a retired secondary teacher and part-time minister in Fort Smith. She can be reached at LouiseOFinney@gmail.com.