Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Mom’s Florida Hom
I spent many hours growing up listening to my dad talk about his experiences and adventures on the prairie and his years in the navy, but heard hardly a peep from my mom about her memories of being a kid in Florida. It wasn’t until she was in the nursing home, after Dad had passed, that she volunteered stories of her family.
Her parents had high hopes and prospects when they married. Those prospects had pretty much disappeared by the time Mom was born. Her dad was an itinerate Baptist minister, serving congregations when and where he was needed. Farming and working for the railroad had not been to his liking, so he chose the ministry and relegated his family to living on the bottom rung of the social-economic ladder in Florida.
Mom’s first memories centered around life’s basics; food, clothing and a place to live. Besides what they grew in their garden, they depended on the generosity of the church parishioners to provide them with beef, chicken and pork. There were times when a sack of corn or potatoes was what they had to prepare for Sunday dinner.
She laughed as she told of the trip to Jacksonville with her dad to buy her first new pair of shoes, a treat signifying she was entering high school. As they traveled the back roads north, they came upon a bull servicing a cow in the middle of the road. Since the road was blocked while this was going on, Mom and her dad sat in the car. Silent. When the coupling was over and the critters wandered off, grandpa started up the car and drove on, never saying a word. Mom, of course knew about the birds and the bees from listening to her older siblings and kids at school, but always chuckled at her dad’s missed opportunity to have that “talk” with her in the middle of the road.
Summers meant working in the garden, tending to a small flock of chickens, doing housework for well-to-do neighbors, and swimming. I should say, wading, because Mom never learned how to swim. The siblings would go back into the woods to a pond nestled among the pines, and one of the boys would throw a rock or a tree limb into the water, to stir up any snakes or gators that might be lurking. Once the all clear was given, the tire swing was untied from the stake and they would take turns swinging over the pond and dropping into the dark water. Whenever they would scare of a gator, they shied away from the pond for several days, always testing the water with a rock or limb, but not having the courage to jump in right away.
The war stopped Mom’s education. She didn’t finish high school until we kids were grown up and she was working as a secretary at the school. She and her sister moved to Jacksonville and went to work in a glove factory. Young and pretty, they met a lot of sailors on Saturday nights, two of them becoming their husbands. Dad was into his second hitch during the war, and promised Mom he would stay in Florida close to her family after he got out of the navy. Wrong. The prairies of South Dakota had too much of a hold on him, and they moved back to Harrold, Dad’s hometown. Mom had never seen a treeless prairie or snow before, so was more than a little intimidated by South Dakota. Her new family of brothers and sisters-ln-laws took her in and eased some of the homesickness she was struggling with. She never got over that homesickness, vowing many times over the years she would go back to Florida after we kids were grown and out of the house, but that never happened either. I asked her not long before she passed why she hadn’t gone back to Florida to live. Her answer was she wanted to be close to her kids and grandkids, she had no family left in Florida so “What the Hell, I guess South Dakota is home. The only thing I don’t like about it is the thought of being buried here. My feet get so cold!”
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