Growing up Barefoot Memoirs of Connie Sweeney Murphy

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My mother tells me that in 1959, I was born in an old wooden house up a hollow not far from where I live now. The house had no electricity and was lighted by a coal oil lamp. Coal was dug from out of the side of the mountain for heat and cooking purposes. This was done by my father and brothers. Water was carried to our meager little house from a spring that ran from the mountain behind the house. A hole was dug at the bottom of the spring in order to collect the spring water into the hole so we could dip it out with a water dipper and bucket. It was late at night when my mother went into labor and one of my older brothers was sent to get the midwife but did not make it back in time. Mom says it only took one hour for me to appear into this world by the light of a lamp at a whopping 9 pounds and 10 ounces. I was her eighth child to be born and live. My mother had a few miscarriages between the births of her children.

When I was 4 months, my parents traded their land up in this hollow to another small house across the hill in another small community where there was electricity. It was a small two story home with two rooms downstairs and two upstairs. The bottom floor had concrete block walls and concrete floors. The upper floor was old slab lumber. It was very hard to heat and there was a coal stove downstairs with a stovepipe going up and through the roof.

Growing up in this small community was quite an experience. The winters were cold and harsh. The creek which ran in front of our house would freeze solid and ice cycles long enough to sword fight with would hang from our tar paper shingles. There were six of us children living in the home and four older siblings out and married with children of their own. Eventually we would take in two orphaned cousins also.

Most everyone in our small community was poor and hardly anyone knew there was anything different. So essentially we really didnâ??t know as children just how â??poorâ?? we were. There was very little work available for men unless they worked in the coal mines or on one of the government work programs. Dad worked for the CAP program which was called the Happy Pappy program by the community. I can remember waiting anxiously for dad to get home with his metal lunch box. He always managed to save a little something to eat for me or my younger brother Keith. Now that I think about it, he probably went hungry so we could have his little snack left at the end of the day. My father had his first heart attack at age 42. Mostly I remember him being very sick a lot. My Dad, even though ill, managed to make a little money on the side by trading knives on the courthouse wall in the county seat or taking neighbors to the store because they had no means of transportation. Our car was old and barely held together, but it did manage to go most of the time.

My mother never worked outside the home. She was always busy with the home and children. From daylight to dark working to keep us meals prepared and clothes clean to wear. Our meals mostly consisted of pinto beans, pinto bean cakes and potatoes of some variety. We had a few home canned vegetables if we were lucky that year. Our neighbors across the road had let us use a small parcel of land for growing vegetables. Mom and Dad would build a fire pit in our yard for the day and the canned beans would be placed in a large metal tub with rags around the jars to keep them from breaking. Once they had cooked in their jars for right amount time, they would be moved into the house to cool and wait for the canning lid to pop. This would indicate the seal had taken and the food was safe to store for the winter. Our land was small, mostly creek in the front and a steep hillside in the back. We had a small yard to the side that my mother or one of us kids swept faithfully daily if it was not raining. This kept out the grass and the rocks. The yard was our play ground. There was always an endless supply of dirt and rocks to play with and as we got older and the hills provided us with many adventures. The boys could go hunting for squirrel and rabbit and I went there to invent the home of my dreams. I would spend a large amount of time collecting moss for the carpet in the wall-less house. The area would just be defined by branches and stones placed a certain way. There was a large willow tree in our yard which played a large role in our lives other than shade. It was an excellent source of switches for those of us who misbehaved. In those days, a whipping was the way a child was disciplined and I was whipped with several different items. Once I was whipped with a commode brush because I didnâ??t want to wash the house down. The water had to be dipped from the creek for washing and rinsing. Another time I was whipped with a hot wheels race track for not doing as I was told. I donâ??t even remember what I did or did not do to get the whipping.

We would stay outside most days from daylight to dark. Our friends from down the road would come and play with us in the hills where we could build our playhouse and put in the carpet made of fresh green moss. Of course there were occasionally bugs to contend with in our new carpet. Our neighbors down the road had a clay bank on their hillside. Clay right there free for the taking. The items we could make from this were endless. Our dishes and pans for our playhouses were made from this natural clay bank. On this same hill was a strawberry patch to die for. All we had to do was go in the patch and pick them. Amazing as it was, not one of us was ever bitten by a snake up there. We saw a few though. We usually could not tell you what kind we had seen. It was just a good idea to run no matter what kind it was.

During the winter months we usually only saw our friends at school. If the snows were very bad, school was called off and all the kids stayed home. This would usually make parents crazy. For us it meant we could bundle up and go outside for skating on the creek and sword fighting with the ice cycles. This lasted until one of us fell through the ice and nearly froze to death. The creek we skated on was never very deep so it was not a matter of drowning, it was just chilling bone cold water that would soak through what clothes we had on and our one pair of shoes would take a long time to dry. This I knew from experience, but ice skating and falling was surely one of the most fun things to do in the middle of winter. It was at that time Mom would declare it was time to come in the house because we would all surely die of pneumonia. By this time we had used up all the ice cycle swords anyhow. My older brothers were allowed a little more freedom and could skate on the road even after dark. I was always a little jealous of the fact they were allowed this privilege. My mother once told me she wished I had been born a boy and there were times I wished I had also.

Eventually we managed somehow to get a small wooden kitchen built onto the side of our house. I have no clue where the wood came from. All I know is this took up part of our yard which was our playground, but did allow a little more spare room for us to eat in. The wood used to build this small addition appeared to be used, apparently had been a torn down building from another part of the community. It included a small side porch which had to become part of our play area. We could take a run and go and jump way out into the yard hoping that one of us would eventually gain flight. Our little brother Ronnie had an incident where he fell off the side porch and cut his hand really bad with a glass he was holding at that time. It was after this we always had metal cups or glasses to drink from. Those things could not be destroyed. They lasted forever. I remember as if it was yesterday. They came in different colors and they could be dropped, thrown or stomped and they always survived. No more cuts from broken glasses. Seems like after the small kitchen and porch was built on our playground was never as much fun ever again. .

I never knew how mom and dad managed to get clothes for all of us. I am sure they were hand me downs from neighbors and some distant family members possibly. We had been on welfare programs and received commodity foods since I could remember due to dadâ??s illness at a very young age. Commodity foods were items like cheese, rice, peanut butter and canned foods handed out periodically in Inez for those who qualified. Dad had only gone to the 1st grade and could only sign his name. I had gone to adult night school with him a few times until he learned to write his name. I felt special getting to be a part of this with him. I can remember sitting in the large classroom with all the adults there. The desk seemed really large at that time. I can’t remember anything about the teacher that would have been in front of the classroom teaching adults who had never learned to read or write. I don’t think I even knew this about my dad until I attended night class with him. The most I remember about the night school was a great sadness that my dad would miss a lot in life by not being able to read and write. I really don’t think he viewed illiteracy as a handicap, just a part of life. Dad must have been a really intelligent person since he managed to shop, exchange money, and drive without the luxury of reading anything the signs said. I can’t remember there being any problem getting where we needed to be. Mom had gone to the eighth grade which allowed her the privilege of reading and writing. We always looked forward to first of the month because this when the food stamps came in and for a few brief days there would be sugar and cream for homemade candy and syrup for popcorn balls. We usually had fried chicken on Sunday. Mom would catch the chicken, wring its neck, scorch its feathers off with hot water, pluck it, then cook it. We looked forward to this. Only now would one realize how much work it was when all we have to do is go to the store and buy the chicken. Our ration of food stamps never seemed to last for the month. Luckily there were a couple of small town stores who would extend credit to people to buy food and get them through the month until the first of the month rolled around again.

I remember being barefooted most every summer. A lot of the children I grew up with saved their shoes for special occasions like church or a funeral if we were lucky enough to have some to save. So during the summer it was not unusual to see small children running around barefoot and usually in very few clothes. The summers were very hot. There was no air conditioning in homes or schools. A fan was a luxury item for our neighborhood. One childhood memory that stands out distinctly for me was when for some reason I had rated a new pair of white cloth tennis shoes in the summer. I had stayed all night with my older brother Dallas and his family up in Happy Holler. Mom and Dad had come to pick me up and informed me I had a new pair of shoes in the car. The road leading up the hollow to my brotherâ??s house was so bad a car could not be taken up the hill. Once I received the news about the shoes I went running out the hollow and down the hill which was a dirt road with the top speed of a very happy young girl. On the way down, I stumped my big toe and tore off the toe nail to the point that I could not wear the new shoes for two to three weeks. They were nice to look at, though, until my foot healed.

I experienced religion at a very early age. Children were not spared from the sermons on mountain which included “dinner on the ground”. This meant all the community who wished to attend the regular scheduled graveyard meetings of families, could attend and get dinner. Lots of folks brought covered dishes and the food was great. Most of us kids would wonder away from the preaching and wooden benches to find other ways to pass the time until we could eat our dinner after all the preachers who wanted to preach that day had gotten their turn. Funerals were much different when I was a child also. It seemed every time someone in the community died, families would load up all their children and whoever might be living with them at that time and go visit the dead. This would be at a neighbors house with a coffin and dead body laid out for viewing. Of course everyone had to make a least one trip to the coffin in order to be polite and this included children of all ages. I learned to pray a very young age. I just wasn’t quite sure who I was praying to. I just knew that I suppose to if I did not want to end up in the coffin and worse than that end up in everlasting hell fire and brimstone.

At Christmas time we would have a small Christmas tree on a coffee table and gifts would be delivered to our house by strangers with our names on the packages. Sometimes they were for the right child and the right size. At any rate we were very pleased to get them. I guess we were on a list for people to buy us gifts who more financially stable than we were. I never knew who sent the gifts to us. Mom and Dad would always try to stick a little something under the tree for us also. We never expected anything from them; we knew they gave us all they could under the circumstances. Although we were very poor and had very little, there was a feeling of security and safeness. We never ever went to bed hungry. Not that I can remember.

We had our share of what we thought at that time were tragic events. The youngest of our family, Ronnie, while in his walker stuck both his hands to the coals stove and had severe burns which required dressings and doctor appointments for a while. We had state Medicaid, so our doctor bills were covered. The next to youngest brother, Keith, fell off a twenty five pound lard can and fractured his arm pretty bad which required a cast for several weeks. The older boys were always coming in with gashes, cuts and bruises from falls out of trees, being drug down the bottom by the pony or getting hit in the head with a rock from a hidden neighbor child. All of these were just part of everyday life in our household.

Occasionally I had a few run ins myself. I rolled all the way down the hill behind the neighborâ??s house because everyone else was doing it and sliced my leg open. Dad was right on that. He put pressure on it for what seemed to be long time and a bandage and I didnâ??t even have to have stitches. I do still have the scar though.

By the age of eight or nine, I would go to another brother (Mason) and his familyâ??s house to stay all night and baby sit sometimes for them. It happened to be in the same holler I was born in. It was a long dirt road with a creek running across the road about mid way up and had berries hanging off the vines along the way up the road when they were in season. There was now electricity up this holler. I loved going up there to stay over and visit. Even though my family had moved out when I was only four months old, I felt a certain connection to this place. When I was up there, it was like the rest of the world ceased to exist. The water still had to be gotten from the spring in the mountain that my mother had told me about many times. The water was always cold and fresh. The berries hanging from the vines were the sweetest and juiciest berries one could ever want to eat. I think my brother would have appreciated more picking for canning and less eating, but he never said anything to us. The creek clear and clean made an excellent swimming hole for all us kids during the summer time. It was just right, under a cool shade of trees and not so deep as to worry about drowning. Barefooted didnâ??t matter up here because the water and landscape were just right for no shoes.

Our neighbors down the road from us at Beauty with the clay bank on their mountain always had a hog killing every fall. There was a huge rock protruding in the middle of their yard with a slant on it just right for playing on in the summer and slaughtering a hog in the fall. The adults would kill the hog before the children got there to watch the slaughter. The hog was placed on the rock and split wide open very carefully not to cut the intestines or organs that would damage the meat. The organs and intestines were removed while we children stood back in amazement at the sight taking place before us. The adults explained each part to us as it was removed if we wanted to know what the part was and of course I wanted to know. I found it very remarkable to see the insides of an animal that have been living earlier that day and would now provide food for this family through the winter. I never remember being afraid or disgusted at the site of the yearly procedure. It was just a part of life. Sometimes our family would be lucky enough to part of the pork to cook with potatoes. We usually got the head or the feet, but it was enough to flavor the potatoes really good with some cornbread on the side.

Bathing and toileting was quite an adventure in our home. We had no bathroom or running water until I was about 12 years old. Mom would heat water on the coal stove and poor it into a number four wash tub for bathing. I was the only girl left at home with a group of boys, so I got to go first and then the boys would take a dip after me. Our toileting was done in an outhouse built away from the house which was usually a small wooden building with a makeshift door. Inside would be a bench with two holes leading to big hole underneath that had been hand dug by Dad or some of the boys. Once this was full, the toilet had to be moved to a new location and this hole filled in. There were always some interesting creatures in our outhouse. Usually spiders, lizards and an occasional snake could be seen.

Mom always kept our clothes clean as few as they were. She used a wringer type of washer. This is the type where she would carry water to the washer, let them wash; put them manually through a wringer (which was 2 rollers that squeezed the water out of the clothes). Then she would carry water to the tub set up for rinsing the clothes and once again send them through the wringer to get the water out and then hang them on a clothes line to dry. This worked pretty well unless it was winter, then clothes had a tendency to freeze into ice which presented a whole new set of problems. Usually wet clothes were strung all over the house in order to dry. The wringer washer was forbidden for use by children or careless adults. I had heard my share of horror stories where someone had their hair sucked into the rollers and found dead or their scalp pulled right off their head. Needless to say, I wanted nothing to do with laundry.

I grew up pretty much a tomboy. I had three older brothers living at home and two younger brothers. This did not include the two male cousins who had been orphaned and also lived with us for awhile. My mother had little time to teach me feminine behavior, so I picked up what I could from my peers at school by watching them. I climbed trees, went squirrel hunting and rode ponies like my brothers. Iâ??m not so sure they were real happy with having to teach me a girl how to do things that boys were doing. Usually every time I begged to be taught how to do something, I was nearly killed in the process. When I asked to learn to ride a bike they took to the top of a bank pointed me toward the creek and sent me down the bank. I of course went into the creek, but did learn to ride the bike and eventually learned how to use the brakes. I begged to ride the pony that one of my older brothers (Carlos JR) obtained in some time of trade somewhere. He was a cute little black and white fellow and looked quite harmless. He and another brother(Granville) lifted me upon to the back of the pony without a saddle of course and slapped it on the behind. This was a ride I would not soon forget. The pony took off at full speed down the bottom from our house. I slid to the underside

of the pony while holding on for dear life. All I could see was the underside of the pony. Eventually the pony came to a stop and I never ask for that favor again. I guess they had a way of getting me out of their hair for a while.

We also had neighbors across the road that I often played with. They had four daughters, which was great for me. They must have had a lot more money than us because they had real Christmas presents from their own parents and Santa Claus. Mary Jane and I decided we were going to be models when we grew up. We knew we had what it took if only given the chance. They also had a color television and received three channels on it. This was the first color television I had ever seen. I had no idea how beautiful people on television could look in color. In my home we had one small television that was black and white. We got one channel when the weather was good and the wire going up the mountain to the antenna was not covered with brush or trees. It was my brothers’ jobs to work the line after a rain or storm and clear the branches so we could at least see the evening news and Wild Kingdom. My youngest brother Keith had his first experience with a black racer snake doing this one year. He had walked the line and cleared the branches. These snakes love a good run as my brother would find out that day. He ran down the hill and snake stayed after him. That was probably the fastest he ever got off that hill. Later he would learn that if he had stepped aside the snake would have passed him up.

Our family outings usually didn’t cost anything, but that wasn’t unusual in our community. One of Dadâ??s favorite things to do when he had a few quarters was to say â??Letâ??s take a ride and get an ice creamâ??. This was just for me, my two younger brothers and Mom and Dad. That was the best ice cream I ever tasted. For the whole family we would fix a picnic of whatever food we had in the house, make a big jug of Kool Aid and go to the lake in the next county for the day for swimming and fishing. We would find a picnic area or spread a homemade quilt and then we kids would jump in the water with old inner tubes that had been patched and no longer usable for car tires. These would keep us afloat. We would come home in the back of a pick up truck usually all sun burned and exhausted, but feeling privileged we had experienced such a wonderful day of fun. Surely we were blessed. I am not sure where the truck or the gas money came from to make these trips.

During the summer of 1970, I would soon learn that nothing in our lives had prepared us for what was about to happen. We had always been poor apparently; we had injuries, Dadâ??s illnesses, and financial hardships and always seemed to come through. It was July and school was out for the summer. Several of the smaller children, including my youngest brother Ronnie who was five, had been out playing and came in the house through the side kitchen door and reported they had seen an angel. The adults never took them seriously and told them to go back out to play thinking it must their imagination. A few days later birds flew down our stove pipe and all through our house which had never happened before. Once again no one thought anything of this. About a week later our family decided to take another picnic trip to the local pond in our county. We packed a lunch, took fishing gear and even our neighbors across the street were allowed to go with us which never happens. The day was wonderful. We had great time fishing, eating and skimming rocks. Little did we know this would be our last great outing all together?

A few days after this outing trip, my parents decided to go visit my brother and his family. It was later in the afternoon after hot sun had cooled a bit. I did not want to go and had gone across the road to the neighborâ??s house to watch the bulldozer working the yard across from our house. I had not been there long when I heard tires squeal and a loud thump. I looked up in the air to see the limp body of my youngest brother Ronnie flying through the air. I then heard screaming. I ran across the road toward my house where everything was at this time in total chaos. Most of it is still a blur for me. I saw my Dad down the road where my little brother would have landed from the impact of the vehicle. I immediately ran down the road to see my brother and my Dad. I knew my brother was hurt but death was not a big concept for an eleven year old. I do not know where my eight year brother who had been standing beside him was at this time. I looked down at my brother and all I could see were his eyes big and wide open and his body mangled. My Dad with tears told me to go back to the house. I do not remember what I did when I got there. Everyone was crying and screaming.

At some point that evening I learned that my brother was dead. My Dad had held him in his lap all the way to funeral home. I donâ??t know who drove him, maybe a deputy or someone. EMS was not a big item at that time. They did not take my Dad and his beloved son to the hospital. He was already dead. They took him to the funeral home where my Dad had to hand his baby to the coroner forever gone from us. Dad returned home empty handed with a bloody shirt on and began looking for a gun to kill the man who had hit his child. Someone took the gun and subdued my father to keep him from committing murder. My mother was distraught. She was screaming and crying. She asks me why I was not watching my youngest brother. It took a few days for me to learn even why my brothers were across the road. My parents had planned on visiting my brother and the youngest boys crossed the road to wait on mom and dad. At some point they decided to come back across the road to the house. That is when the five year old stepped out in front of the station wagon that would end his short life.

Being the poor family that we were, it was cheaper to keep my little brother and his coffin in our house for the wake and funeral. We had to wait for an older brother Randall to get flown home from Germany. He was in the army. Our house was full of people, some neighbors, and some strangers. Many people brought food and stayed up all night. For five long days my little brotherâ??s dead body lay in our house. Finally it was over. The funeral was done and we buried our little brother up on the hill. Family and friends threw dirt over his little coffin while most of us screamed and cried during the process.

My parents were grief stricken, all of us knew a fear and insecurity we had never known. No one was able to help the other. I donâ??t think my parents hardly knew they had other children during their grief. No one could hold us. No one could make this better. All the neighbors and strange people had left and gone back to their lives. But I felt we had essentially died as a family the same day my brother died. We had some new company in our home, but only the three of us who had seen the death were aware of the sounds and events taking place in our home. We would hear footsteps upstairs; a womanâ??s voice would sometimes hum a tune late in the night. Birds would fly up to our windows and peck to get in until dad ran them away again and again or killed them. I no longer felt safe and secure in my home and never would again. The reality of death at age eleven had taken a toll on me. If a five year could suddenly be dead, then anyone could.

Summer moved along slowly with lots tears, blaming and anger. There was anger between mom and dad. I also believe there was anger directed at us children. No one received psychological counseling in those days. We had to just get a stiff upper chin and take it. School started back in the fall and we were expected by the school and the family to resume activities as before. I did on the outside, but could not recover on the inside. I had terrible headaches and stomach aches. I was diagnosed with an ulcer which required I eat baby food through the whole 6th grade year. Distance had developed between me and my brothers, although I continued to feel very protective of my youngest brother who was now nine years old. He had changed and become very introverted. He never spoke much and he would not even answer the phone.

Oh yes by the way, my parents received fifteen hundred dollars for the loss of their baby child and we got a bathroom and a phone. We would have gladly taken our brother back.

I became a cheerleader in the eighth grade thanks to a very good middle school teacher and cheerleader sponsor. She picked me up for practice and took me home afterword. She also bought my cheerleader shoes. There should be more people in the world like her who want to make a difference in someoneâ??s life that otherwise would not have had a chance. I went to work when I was twelve the very next summer. This was my first job. I was so young, I was paid out of a miscellaneous fund. Thereafter I worked every school year and every summer on school programs. This was to help at home and to buy school clothes. It is almost sad to say my summers were never barefoot again. Many times I wished to go back to the barefoot summers and carefree childhood that I lost at age eleven.

Many years have gone by since my childhood experiences. They made me who I am today. I have learned many things about life and a lot of them I learned early. Most days I feel good about who I have become. I treat people around me the way I would like to be treated. I still deal with a few phobias and have overcome a lot of them. I take one day at a time and try to live life as if this might be the last day I have or someone I love might have.

2 thoughts on “Growing up Barefoot Memoirs of Connie Sweeney Murphy

  • December 4, 2009 at 9:49 am
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    loved your story wil tell others to read it,touches your heart especially when your family too will print this if I can and sent it to sheila to read’
    love ya
    Karen

  • December 16, 2009 at 9:43 am
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    love your story i to lived in the fortgay area in 70s on millcreek went to thompson school

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