by Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson
My daddy, according to my mama, is just a country boy who can do anything. Lonnie Sims (better known as Junior to his family) is a tall, lanky, black-haired man in his seventies who has retained the shyness and gentleness of another era. He's honest, hard working and sincere--the epitome of a southern gentleman without the affectations that seem to surround that genre. And contrary to popular belief, he does not color his hair. Just ask Mr. Hardy, Daddy's barber.
Telling stories about my daddy is difficult because he has always been somewhat reticent about sharing his past. Then again, maybe because Mama was such a talker, he just never had the chance. But the memories I have are because Daddy made a point of introducing my brother and me to a gentle, kind world where life and death and laughter and tears and play and work and fairness and injustice are mingled like a patchwork quilt that represents…life.
Daddy was born in a shotgun house south of Boyle, Mississippi, in the middle of a cotton field. I think a doctor finally got to the house, but my maternal grandmother was on hand for his birth as well. Daddy grew up poor, but then so did everyone else during the twenties, thirties and forties in the Mississippi Delta, so I doubt Daddy ever noticed. He wasn't the only child to take a molasses bucket to school with biscuits inside for lunch back then. The house in which he was born is gone now, but Daddy has a brick from the fireplace somewhere in his yard among all the other stones and bricks he has collected over the years from places he's lived or visited. I need to find out which one it is, for I'm sure he can point right to it.
Daddy is a sensitive man who can't stand to see anyone or anything in pain. That's why he gave up hunting. He just got to a point that he could no longer justify killing an animal. And don't let a stray animal cross his path! Daddy will find a way to feed it or house it whether it is a cat or a bird or a squirrel.
For years a squirrel set up residence in Daddy's back yard. And why not? It certainly didn't have to hunt for food because Daddy made sure there were always plenty of peanuts or pecans for the squirrel to eat. In fact, the dadgum thing got so attached to Daddy's meals that it knocked on the back door when it got ready for a snack. Then Daddy would crack a few pecans (without breaking them completely open), step on the back porch, and follow the creature into the back yard where he placed the nuts on the board that was nailed to a tree…a sort of dining table for squirrels, you might say.
Sometimes Daddy put a few cracked pecans on the picnic table in the back yard and let Squirrel find them. Finally, Daddy started hand-feeding Squirrel. He stopped that, though, when Squirrel bit him one day. Actually, it was not intentional at all on Squirrel's part, according to Daddy. It seems that a pecan fell out of Daddy's hand, and when he tried to catch it Squirrel thought Daddy was trying to take the nut back so he bit Daddy just to let him know that Indian givers were not tolerated in the small animal kingdom.
For several months--maybe even a year--before the death of my mother in 1996, a yellow cat tried to move in the backyard. Mama was determined that she had had all the animals she could stand for a lifetime and would take the broom to the cat every evening and shoo her out from under the car and down the driveway to the street. This ritual went on day after day after day with no real results. For some reason that cat wanted to live at 204 North Third Avenue. Hey, who wouldn’t? I'm sure word had gotten around about the accommodations there.
Well, within a few weeks after Mama died, there was Mama Kitty. And this time she brought a litter of kittens with her. Of course, Daddy couldn’t let her starve what with all those babies to feed. So he let her stay. The cat was a stray that had lived in the neighborhood for a while, but she wasn't too fond of people getting close to her. It took several weeks for Daddy to earn her trust. When the kittens were old enough, Daddy called the animal shelter and someone came to the house and picked them up. Daddy made a big show of pretending he wanted them to get the mama cat, too, but somehow she just couldn't be caught. At least not until several months later when she brought another litter of kittens to Daddy's back yard. This time when the folks from the animal shelter came to get the kittens, they got Mama Kitty, too. But just to neuter her. Daddy wanted her, but no more kittens.
That cat followed Daddy all over his postage stamp yard. If Daddy worked in the flowerbed in the back yard, Mama Kitty lounged on the picnic table watching. If Daddy worked in his shop, Mama Kitty sat in the doorway watching.
The worst finally happened. In late summer of 1997, just a little over a year after Mama Kitty took up residence, Daddy was working in the front yard. Mama Kitty was cooling in the shade of the monkey grass that divides Daddy's yard from his neighbor's to the south when she decided to cross the street. Mama Kitty was struck and killed by a car right in front of the house. When Daddy called to tell me, he swore he’d never get attached to another animal.
But sure enough, another cat came along. Daddy believes Kitty is an offspring of Mama Kitty's, and he could be right. At any rate, another stray animal found paradise on earth. This one has at least five different places to sleep outside (one especially designed with a light bulb to keep her warm in the winter) and the foot of Daddy's bed inside. She eats canned tuna and has a litter box. Kitty likes to go out very early in the mornings, so she jumps over Daddy’s chest until he wakes up and lets her out. Then he has to get up and let her in thirty minutes later or she will claw a hole in the screen on the sliding patio doors. Daddy loves her.
Then, that's Daddy. He loves…animals, children, family and friends. He finds pleasure in the simple things in life like watching the starlings that inhabit the gourd houses dangling from the metal pole soaring high above the backyard, and watering the Shasta daisies that multiply like rabbits in the flowerbed off the patio, and helping prepare the Fellowship Hall for Family Night Supper at First Baptist Church on Wednesday afternoons, and taking day trips to Jackson or Memphis or Helena with the senior adults on the church van, and working at the Bologna Arts Center at Delta State University taking tickets and seating people, "piddling" in his workshop and reading his Bible. The only thing missing is a pool table.
Daddy’s one passion (besides Mama) was pool. He learned to play when he was a young boy in the back room of Mr. Heslep's old green store at O'Reilly. He was very good. I think people who are mathematically inclined are just natural-born pool players. Anyway, Daddy even made a little spending money from time to time shooting pool. He would never shoot for money now, but at that time in his life he could have been another Minnesota Fats.
When I was in high school, Paul Braswell bought a pool table and installed it in the den of his house on McClain Avenue. I bragged to one of Paul's sons that my daddy could beat the pants off anybody at pool. Well, of course, Lewis Paul just had to find out if I knew what I was talking about so he invited Daddy over for a friendly game. Daddy said it had been so long since he played that he probably wouldn't know which end of the cue stick to chalk up, but the invitation was too enticing to resist. Finally Daddy relented. I don’t remember how many rounds were played or who won the first one, but I do remember that Lewis Paul never wanted to shoot pool with my daddy again after that. I guess shooting pool is like riding a bicycle, once you learn you never forget how to play.
Only one other game ever captured Daddy's attention for longer than a few hours and that was Rook. Mama and Daddy played the card game just about every weekend with their friends Carl and Dinks Thornton. Sometimes they let my brother and me watch, but most of the time it was so cutthroat that we were banned from the kitchen. It took a while for Mama to catch on to the game. She had never been allowed to play cards as a child (work of the Devil, you know), but Daddy being the man of the world he was had learned a lot of things during his years in the Navy. After many nights of practice Mama began to get it. And then the games began!
All four of them smoked at the time, so the little kitchen of ours looked like the back room of a saloon. Smoke curled around the ceiling and slithered into the living room giving the television an eerie far-away look. My brother and I sometimes sat by the open front door just to get a whiff of fresh air. But the laughter and good-natured ribbing from the four adults in the kitchen always pulled us back toward the swinging door between the living room and the kitchen. It was fun just listening to those four go at it!
If you know anything about the game of Rook you know that winning is not that easy. One must be able to keep track of what has been played, who played it, and what is left to play. Carl and Daddy always played against Mama and Dinks. And the later the hour got, the braver Carl became. At least twice during a night, Carl would "shoot the moon." Daddy would grin, Mama would groan, and Dinks would sigh. There was no way to beat the men.
My grandmother lived with us then, and she heartily disapproved of the card games. One night Granny, Dwayne and I went to bed while Mama and Daddy and their friends played on. The next morning I woke to hear Granny saying, "Gracious me. Are you still playing that card game? What in the world are you thinking?"
The card game ended and Mama cooked one of her famous breakfasts for one and all. Granny sulked for a while and mumbled about the Devil and his imps, but eventually she forgave the four for their sins. I don’t remember another all-nighter after that, though. I think Granny made her point.
And Daddy has made a few points of his own over the years. Love the Lord, love your neighbor, mind your own business, work hard, laugh loudly, and survive.
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Write Mississippi Delta native Lonnye Sue Sims Pearson at lspearson
And read more of Lonnye Sue’s stories:
Elvis--Forever and Ever
The Last Train
Hail To The Chief Drive-In
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