Growing Up in the Pine Woods of Alabama
This past Mother’s Day, I wanted to honor the woman that was my mother by collecting some of the pieces of her story that I remember and trying to flesh out the context that shaped her. In many ways, her life was the product of the culture that surrounded her. But there was also strength, resilience, compassion for others, and simple joy in everyday things. She profoundly impacted my life and how I move in the world. Unfortunately, it’s too late to truly get her perspective, but I wanted to write about what she shared through the years with thanks for her love and care.
Her name was Emma Mae, and in the Southern tradition, both names were used and almost run together. Her mother was Emma Isabell, but everybody just called her Emma, except my grandfather, George Washington Poe, who always called her “old woman.” I wish I had asked more questions about her earliest memories. Most of the stories she told were about family, and hard work.
My grandparents married in 1915 when Emma was twelve, and Poe was nineteen. I don’t know how they met, but the story goes that she was the only girl in her family and didn’t even know how to cook because her father was afraid she would ruin his supper. I do know they were both born in Washington County, Alabama. He was born in Wagar, and she in the Vinegar Bend community. I found a county record dated June 1917 where my grandfather was exempted from the World War I draft because he was already married with one child and claimed his stepfather as a dependent. I wonder which stepfather lived with them. There were step brothers and sisters from two other men besides my grandpa’s father. One step sister was the age of my grandparents’ first child.
In order to understand what that time and place was like I did some research about the part of Alabama where they lived. Named after America’s first president, Washington County was the first official Alabama county established in June 1800 and was home to the original state capital. Choctaw tribes had populated this land before White people arrived. However, by the 1830s, there were very few Choctaw people remaining in the county. Cotton was the big crop and plantations turned into sharecropping enterprises after the Civil War.
During the Great Depression farming declined so lumber and turpentine became the major job sources for everyone. The turpentine industry required intense labor to collect the pine sap and distill it into salable turpentine that was used for fuel and to make varnishes. The Great Migration of Black families moving out of the agricultural South to more industrial Northern and Mid-Western states had not really taken hold yet in this corner of Alabama.
My Mother Enters the Family
My mom was born in one of those turpentine camps called Hawthorne, in Washington County, Alabama, in 1932. Hawthorne wasn’t even an official town, just a community. I wonder if it was named for the Hawthorn family that owned a plantation in nearby Wilcox County. I’d love to find records that showed whether that family owned or leased the pine woods and ran the turpentine camp. From what my mom said, the camp consisted of a tiny church, grocery store, school, and two groups of rough cabins (one for White families and one for Black families) loosely grouped around the sap processing equipment. If some of the men weren’t married, they lived in barrack type cabins separated from the families. The landowner/lessor owned everything and workers paid rent for the cabins and bought supplies at the owner’s store.
I don’t know exactly what my grandpa’s job was in the camp, but he was White, so he probably didn’t do the heavy labor in the forest. Instead, that work was done by the “negroes” who lived in a separate group of shacks that were even less sturdy than my mom’s family’s. They would have had to tramp through the endless pine trees from sunrise to sundown, checking the sap buckets and dipping whatever had dripped out into larger containers to be hauled back to the camp. The White men were usually supervisors or ran the distilling equipment.
I don’t think they ever thought about how poor they were. Everyone around them lived the way the they did and only a few men ever left the camp to take the turpentine to market and return with supplies to be sold in the little store. There were eight children in my mom’s family; she was number seven. The oldest was a girl, Lola, who was born when my grandma was thirteen. She was followed by two brothers, another sister, and then another brother. Virgie, who was two years older than my mom, had Downs Syndrome. The baby sister, Shirley, was born when my mom was four. All the children wore overalls; they were sturdy, and it was easier to pass them down as children grew. Also, Alabama winters were mild, so shoes were rarely needed.
My mother described the cabin as having a dirt floor, and there was no electricity or indoor plumbing. She recalled a garden where she learned to pull weeds at an early age and her other job was to watch over Shirley and Virgie. Lola was sixteen when my mom was born, and she and the other older children did the heavy work. The girls would help my grandma wash clothes in large metal tubs and hang them out to dry on a line strung between trees. They had eggs that had to be gathered, chickens that had to be fed, their necks wrung, and feathers plucked so they could be fried up for dinner. Cooking and heat were provided by a wood stove. I’m sure the boys chopped the wood.
When I look back at the one class picture my mom had from that time, there were no Black faces in them. I wonder if the Black children even went to school or if the schools were just separate. My mom never talked about how the Black and White families lived together in the community. However, I know the tiny church was only attended by White families. Singing was her favorite part of church and I remember her singing hymns even as she did housework.
My mom never talked much about what it was like moving in second or third grade to Baldwin County, Alabama. A house was built in a different patch of pine woods outside Fairhope. I don’t know the details of how my grandpa could afford to buy land, but with a few cows, chickens, and a garden they got by. At some point they planted pecan trees in one of the pastures and the kids picked them up in the fall. My grandpa worked the pine forest and sold the sap for turpentine.
When World War II started, the oldest boy, William, was twenty-one and wanted to join up but couldn’t pass the entrance exam. So instead, he went to work at one of the civilian infrastructure projects in support of the war effort. Another brother, Leo, was 18 and went to work in one of the shipyards in Mobile across the bay.
Eating together was a big deal. My grandpa always sat at the left end of the dining room table and was served first. Grandma never sat down to eat, constantly moving back and forth to the kitchen for plates of biscuits and other food. Mixing molasses and butter was a perfect spread for a warm biscuit. As the years past, sliced white bread from the store was also served. Grandpa called it “wasp nest” because it collapsed in your mouth and tasted to him like paper. My grandpa also wouldn’t eat the fantastic fried chicken my grandmother made. He said even the smell of the chicken cooking reminded him of all the chicken soup he had to make for his younger siblings and mother as they recuperated from yellow fever when he was a teenager.
As my mom’s older brothers and sisters got married, they each received two acres of land from my grandpa and built their own houses across the dirt road or on the other side of the pecan grove from the main house. Living so close together, everybody knew everybody else’s business. There was a story about how the wife of one of the brothers’ was caught pouring buckets of water on the floor at the back of their little house and sweeping the “river” out the front door. It was a good thing they didn’t have much furniture. My mother described life as a lot of “messin’ and gommin'” going on all the time, especially as the grandchildren started coming along.
My mom’s social world was small. In high school, she was involved in Future Homemakers of America and Beta Club. The family attended a small church. After my mom died, my uncle shared that there here had been a boyfriend that everyone thought she would marry. But graduation came and that didn’t happen. Apparently, the guy got engaged to a prosperous farmer’s daughter.
Her high school counselor had asked her about college, but there was no money for that. The choices for jobs and available boys was limited so she considered joining the military.
I don’t remember my mom ever saying why she choose the Navy. Maybe it was the spiffy uniform, or they paid the best, or the boot camp requirements weren’t that hard for women at the time. She did talk about having to know how to swim but that wasn’t a problem since she had been swimming in the creek behind their house for years. There were deep spots that were even good for diving out of the tree platform the brothers had built.
Looking back at the pictures of my grandma in her Sunday dress and my twenty-year-old mother in her uniform the morning she left, my mom looks so self-assured and happy. Grandma was so proud. Mom had never been away from home, but had loaded everything she owned into a military issue trunk that had her name stenciled on the side and got on the Greyhound bus headed for Norfolk, Virginia. It was March 1952.
There are so many things I wish I could go back in time and ask my mom and grandparents about.
In that small poor community in the Washington County pine woods, did the racist rules of that time period apply or did at least the women and children understand they were all in the same situation and needed one another?
I wonder if there were stills that made something other than just turpentine. What was it like for my grandma to have barely entered puberty and be married off knowing nothing about housekeeping? Was marriage even her own choice? What was it like to raise a Down Syndrome child in that time when there were no therapies or support programs to help her learn to her greatest potential.
Was there more to my mother’s decision to join the Navy? Was she excited or terrified to see the world outside Alabama? I think it was probably a little of both.
Reflecting on my mother’s life is part of my ongoing work of understanding who I am, and how I was formed so that I can stay awake and not just act reflexively. As an only child, I was very close to my mother. She had an inner strength that many people probably never saw because she cared so much for other people. She had a strong work ethic and always gave people the benefit of the doubt. I hope my journey of remembering encourages others to consider such a journey in their own lives.