Camden, Arkansas

Camden, Arkansas

by Jean Kearns, 1991

My father was a Paper Mill Man. From the time he became old enough to pursue a career, he worked for paper companies. Both Daddy and Uncle Jewel began working at the paper mill in Bogalusa as young men, and Uncle Jewel worked there until he retired. But Daddy was offered work with Southern Kraft Paper Company in Camden, Arkansas, and after he and Mama had been married for about five years, they and their two little girls left Bogalusa and all of their relatives to begin a life of their own a long distance from any other family.

On October 16, 1931, in the middle of the Great Depression, I was born in Camden. I was the third daughter of Ethel and “Ezzie” Hennesy. My parents named me Annie Jean after my maternal grandmother, Annie Knight Simmons, but I was always called Jeannie by my parents, siblings and friends. Even though I hated the name Annie, I’ve always been glad I was her namesake.

As I was growing up, I loved to hear my mother tell about what a pretty little baby I was, with lots of black hair. She and her family said that I should have belonged to George, her brother who died, that I looked so much like him. (I was talking to my Uncle Jim a few months ago and he repeated this after all these years.) Mom would gell about the Sears Healthy Baby Contest in which I was entered and won 1st Place. She has said many times, “I almost didn’t take you downtown for the contest, because I thought they would think you were too old (I was in my second year), but I did, and you won!” A few years ago when I was visiting them, Mom went to the trunk, retrieved the bronze medal which had been presented to her, and gave it to me.

It is difficult to remember many things about my early years before I began school. I’ve been told about things I did until it is as though I remember them happening, for instance, my fear of my new baby brother, James Leon Hennesy, Grandpa Hennesy’s namesake, when Mom brought him home from the hospital. Though he is the apple of her eye now, a handsome minister nad college president, Mom admits that he really was an ugly baby with very large ears, and she can understand how a three year old could have been afraid of him.

Mom reports that she cried when she say my brother the first time, not because of his physical appearance, but because he was a boy. She was the oldest of a Louisiana farm family with five very rough and tough younger brothers. Her mother was ill much of the time, and it fell my mother’s responsibility to take care of the children, do the housework, sew for the whole family, and with any time left she did outdoor farm work. Her life was a hard one, but the worst of all memories were her bad brothers who even as adults caused the family grief. Because of these memories, she said she never wanted to have boys. Her sons, whom we call Buddy, made up for all the problems her brothers inflicted upon her.

I do remember going to church and being held by Mama. I felt secure and comfortable as she would hold me in her lap and I would snuggle up against her. She was so busy at home with four children that there was little time to hold us, even though much love was expressed in our home by actions. I looked forward to going to church as a child and one of the reasons, I suppose, is because it was a special time to be with my mother. Church and religious training was a very important part of our lives. I cannot remember when I didn’t know about and love Jesus. And, I can remember the great fear I had of God. They seemed so different to me–Jesus was the one who loved the little children and went about healing and doing good, and God was the one I heard about who was so severe in punishment to those who disobeyed him.

There was not great display of affection to the children, but Mom and Dad spent their lives acting out their love to us, i.e., Mom made it a point to cook our favorite dishes often, to make us beautiful little dresses, and to see that we never had to work like she did, almost to the extreme of spoiling us. One of my few memories at home as a pre-schooler is Daddy holding me in his lap in a big rocking chair and reading the Sunday “funnies” to me. He was a gentle man in every way, and still is. He called me his little “Black Eyes.” As a child I somehow thought I was Daddy’s favorite. I know now this was not so, but what a nice feeling for a child to have!

There was no kindergarten program at Fairvew Schoool, and I began first grade at five years of age. I walked to school with my two older sisters who were very protective of me. I always had the secure feeling that they loved me and were proud of me. Mrs. Hamilton was the sought-after first grade teacher. What relief I felt when I arrived at school to discover that I was in her room. She was a very sweet, soft-spoken white haired woman. My sisters and their friends had issued warnings about Miss Pledger, the other first grade teacher. Her reputation of severity preceded her, and she definitely looked the part. She was tall, slender, had dark black hair, sharp features, and commanded the utmost respect of all students at school.

My first year at school was successful, but since I had been warned of what might happen if I had been placed in Miss Pledger’s class, and since I was now a veteran, I felt it my duty to warn my next door neighbor of the “perils of Pledger” which I took joy in doing all summer. But, alas, my first day of second grade was not nearly as happy as the year before. I was called into Mrs. Hamilton’s room to face not only Mrs. Hamilton and the little girl’s mother but also Miss Pledger. It seems I had been to successful in my warnings and the girl was afraid to come to school. I left that room with feelings of fright and guilt over what I had done. I suppose this is the first time that I realized how things I did can affect someone else.

Most of my childhood was filled with happy, unhurried, unstructured activities. We were allowed freedom to roam. We didn’t live on a farm, but our home was three miles from town, which seemed a very long way at the time. My father purchased a large amount of land when our home was built, and the four of us children became acquainted with most of it. Buddy and I, along with Billy and Ruth Edwards and Patsy Cross, would build whole villages out of pine straw on the lots next door to us. We could play house, store, etc., all day long.

We played family games, too. Daddy would set up the croquet game or the badminton net and we would all play to our hearts’ content. There were indoor games we enjoyed, Big Business, a forerunner of Monopoly, being one of them. Chinese checkers, dominoes, checkers, and the card game “Authors” were played often, but Mama would not allow a deck of cards in our home because that would have been gambling, she thought. We really didn’t miss them since there were so many other things to do and we could go down the street to Patsy’s and play cards. Mom didn’t mind our doing that, she just did not want them in her home.

There were chinquapin trees in the meadow behind our house and we would go far from home, it seemed, to pick chinquapins. They were so delicious–worth all the effort it took to peel the sticky burr cover off before shelling and eating the nut. And, the fruit trees in the orchard offered many a morning’s venture as we climbed tree after tree to get the apples, pears, or peaches, whatever was in season. We would spend time in our garden, our bare feet feeling the coolness of the freshly plowed earth, as we followed closely behind Old Nelson on plowing days. Nelson helped with garden and lawn work as long as we lived in Arkansas. I’ve wondered why we addressed him as Old Nelson and the woman who helped Mom with housework and laundry as Old Mary. I’m sure they were not old, but perhaps that was the way of the South during those days. I just remember that we loved them, and obeyed them when they spoke as readily as we did our parents. When my parents left us in Mary’s care, there was never any question as to who was in charge!

Discipline was a part of our lives, but it was never harsh. I know mom spanked me a few times, but I don’t remember any of her spankings. I can’t even remember her scolding me, but she must have. I will always remember my Daddy spanking me and my sister one day, and I think the reason for the spanking is why I will never forget it. We had some very good Italian neighbors, the Serio family. Their two girls were near the same age of my two sisters. They were very poor, I remember, but they were very sharing. Mrs. Serio baked bread once a week, and the neighborhood children would make it a point to be in the vicinity of her back door sometime that day, waiting for her to come to the door and break bread with us. It was Mrs. Serio who comforted me in her arms as my mother drove me to the doctor when I had broken my arm. She was a kind woman.

All of this to say that we had a feeling of camaraderie with the Serios, they were our neighbors and our friends.

Why my sister, Lee, made the suggestion she did to me that day is still a puzzle. I’ve never asked her. When we saw Little Sister (that’s what we called her) coming down the road to the house, Lea, who has never seemed to have a mean bone in her body, said, “Jeannie, when Little Sister comes up, let’s don’t say anything to her, let’s just mock the way she talks.” I must have done this, because the next thing I knew our oldest sister, Lola, had gone to tell Daddy and we were called to the garage where were spanked thoroughly and told that we were never again to ridicule people for the way they talked or the way they did anything different from us. What a valuable lesson–even though at the time I was suffering physically and doubly humiliated that Daddy had punished me.

Music was an important part of our lives. We all studied piano, played woodwind instruments, and my two sisters played stringed instruments. I never felt forced to “take lessons” as some children do, but neither did I take the matter too seriously. I enjoyed playing the piano and clarinet, and still do, but never excelled at either, as did my sisters. It was not unusal for us to sing around the piano as Lola or Lea played, and on Saturday nights we all sat in the living room and listened to the Hit Parade. Lola would usually have her friend, Virginia Beard, come over to listen with us, and we would sing together the familiar songs.

Next section, The Move to Mobile, Alabama
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