Go out in the yard and play!
What a charmed command that was. What a marvelous place to go the two Cox yards were -- our yard and Big Daddy’s and Nanny Cox’s. Start at the picnic table. Daddy built it from thick cypress planks. It served many purposes besides hosting family picnics and watermelon cuttings. To us kids one of its major purposes was to be homebase/jail in “Playing Out.”
Playing Out, the boys against the girls, summer evenings just as the lightning bugs came out. It seems like the boys almost always got to hide first and the girls usually consisted of just Eyssel and me. (Gwin Lee, Betsy, and Laviece being too old for that childish game as I remember.) The boys were, of course, Buddy, Jimbo, Johnny, Bill Franklin, and Buddy and Ricky Kraft. When the Harris cousins were there Robby, Bernice, and Caroline added to the forces. We girls would count to 100 on the picnic table and the boys would hide anywhere in the Cox yards. Remember where this “anywhere” could be? Anywhere in our yard was somewhat limited -- the shrubbery around the house was about it. But Big Daddy’s yard had nearly limitless possibilities. There were the two tree houses, one in the pecan tree and the other in the dogwood tree across the path. The dogwood trees along the street in front of Big Daddy’s house were good, too. Behind his house was a multitude of places. (We made sure to stay out of the garden!!) There was the garage, under the grape arbor behind the garage, my playhouse, the barn, with its accompanying chicken coops. Up in the magnolia tree was good too. What I mostly remember was chasing the boys around in the dark. Occasionally one of us girls would catch one of them. We’d have to take him back to the picnic table to jail. Then one of us would have to guard him and, of course, he’d always be tagged by another of the boys and set free. This went on ‘til we were called to come in for bath and bed. We girls were at a considerable disadvantage being outnumbered as we were. But that was the way it was. The boys would never have considered having a girl on their side and we girls wouldn’t have considered splitting up. I do remember one victorious night though. Sometime during the day we girls went into forbidden territory. We went up into the boys’ “clubhouse” which was over Big Daddy’s feed room in his garage. Girls were banned under pain of death from ascending that ladder nailed to the wall inside the garage. But we braved it that day and our discovery was worth the risk we had run. The boys had a trapdoor from the clubhouse down into the dark back room of the feed room! Many a time while playing out we girls had known the boys were up there. We had stationed ourselves at the bottom of the ladder and demanded that they come out, that they were caught. Then a few minutes later they’d come yelling and laughing by the garage, taunting us. We couldn’t figure it out! But of course they would quietly slip through the trapdoor, down into the back room of the feed room, and out the feed room window. They dared not use the door because the feed room was off limits. Besides Danny Boy’s feed, it contained Big Daddy’s fertilizers and garden poisons. It had never entered the consciousness of us girls that the boys would go in there. But victory was sweet that night. One of the other girls stood in the garage and called up to the boys to come out, that they were trapped. I, the heroine of the night, positioned myself outside the feed room window and caught every one of the boys as they came out of the window. The ones who were warned tried to escape down the ladder and were caught by my companion in the garage. It is my memory that after that victory we girls made some changes in the rules, the main one being that the boys and girls would take turns hiding first.
How many summers was it that we Played Out, three or four? The warm, lightning bug filled dark, the magnolia scent floating through the air, the squish of a fallen peach under foot as we ran under Big Daddy’s trees, the hay & manure smell down by the barn.
Back to the picnic table. All those wonderful picnic dinners. Remember the fan Daddy made from an old washing machine motor? It was so loud! But, to quote Daddy, “It blew the flies away!” Whenever we had a picnic we always went to Getty’s Ice Plant and got ice for the drinks. Daddy never neglected an opportunity to educate us, and we got a full story of how the plant worked, with an added bit about produce trucks coming from Faison and loading up with ice. I remember one time when I was quite young we made ice cream and Daddy explained why he added salt to the ice. (I think of his explanation to this day when I see salt trucks on the roads when icy weather is predicted.) We had some great meals on that picnic table and most of it from Big Daddy’s garden. In advance of the meal, we’d sit around the picnic table or in those deliciously cool green metal lawn chairs and prepare. There were what seemed endless sessions of shelling butter beans, snapping green beans, and shelling field peas. But I would freely volunteer to go into the coolness under Big Daddy and Nanny Cox’s bedroom and retrieve potatoes. Inside in the two Cox kitchens tomatoes were sliced, squash and okra were cut up. Nanny Cox never failed to make her grape tea, that delicious concoction of tea, grape and lemon juices. Always there was a bouquet of zinnias or marigolds on the table, compliments of the garden. The meals were good, the desserts were great but the crowning event was watermelon! The number of watermelons cut and consumed on that table! Always after a picnic dinner, often on a regular Sunday afternoon for no particular occasion, we’d have watermelon. The getting and eating of a watermelon was a production all its own. It seemed to me Daddy always had some stored in the cooler down at the store. “How many of you kids want to go down to get a watermelon?” The station wagon would fill up with Cox kids and others and off we’d go. What an indescribable sensation it was those hot summer days to step into the cooler at Cox Brothers and see two or three huge watermelons waiting for us. Back to the house bearing the precious load we’d go. “Red or green?” Big Daddy would call. Red!!!!” (with a few “Greens” from the boys) we’d respond. Then we would devour it down to the rind. There was competition involved. Who could eat the most, who could eat the fastest, who could spit a seed the farthest. The final steps were washing off the table with the hose and taking the rinds down to Danny Boy.
Big Daddy on Danny Boy, what a memorable picture! Every Sunday afternoon the weather allowed, Big Daddy and Uncle Hedley, on his mare Gypsy, would go riding. When Big Daddy got back it was our turn. Every child who was in the vicinity when he returned eagerly lined up at the loading spot, the wisteria arbor in his side yard. He would hoist us up either singularly, a double, or in the case of Bernice, Caroline, and me, a triple. Around both Cox yards Big Daddy would lead the long suffering Danny Boy. After each one had ridden, Big Daddy would let one of us give Danny Boy a treat of sugar cubes. It was then I learned the proper way to hand feed a horse, with your hand flat. Then down to the barn we would tag behind Big Daddy and Danny Boy. Big Daddy would take off the saddle and brush Danny Boy from nose to tail, head to foot. I loved to brush his mane but was afraid to brush his tail. He had been known to kick! Danny Boy was watered and fed and allowed to retreat to the dark coolness of the barn or the freedom of the pasture.
The barn was another wonderful place to play for us kids. We weren’t allowed in Danny Boy’s quarters, but we did play in the ever empty loft. Best of all at the barn was the “shoot de shoot.” I must have been a very small girl when Daddy put that up because the memory is so distant, but it is clear, a major event. Remember how it worked? The greased wire cable was mounted above a loft window of the barn. The other end was attached to the clothesline pole. I suppose it was about 30 feet long with an incline of maybe 30 degrees. On the cable was a pipe long enough to securely grasp with both hands. To ride the shoot de shoot you’d sit in the barn window, legs hanging on the outside, push off, (or, in my case, get pushed off my first few times by one of the boys) and delight in the exhilarating shoot down to the ground. Before running back to the barn for your next turn you’d shoot the pipe up to the next kid sitting in the window. Then up those steep steps to the end of the line for your next ride.
As I got older, into adolescence, my favorite place in the yard was the magnolia tree. What a perfect climbing tree it was. When we were little, Big Daddy or Daddy obligingly put a ladder against the trunk up to the first limbs. As I remember the boys never used the “sissy” ladder; they caught hold of a low hanging branch and scrambled up to the trunk. I never did this because Nanny Cox really didn’t like it and scolded anyone she saw doing it. I knew I was grown tall indeed when I could jump and reach the lowest branch and go up from there. Do you remember the layout of that tree? Branches perfectly spaced for climbing up to the “V”-ing out of the crown at about roof level of Big Daddy’s house. It was all easy and safe until just below that branching out of the crown. To get up into that multibranched V was a stretch. To grasp the next branch up you had to jump and, for a moment, be touching neither branch below or above . I climbed to that point but not up into the crowning V many times. The time I made that jump, of a few inches, high up in the magnolia, was a personal rite of passage. After that it became my own place. As a young teenager I used to sit up there and read or dream or fume or hide as needed. By that time the girls had all gone off to college and the older boys took little interest in me or the magnolia. I felt quite private and alone there. From there through the branches you could see the picnic table, you were right beside Big Daddy’s house and could see the comings and goings of our house. You could see a lot of the yards -- down to the barn, my old playhouse, the garden, the peach trees, the strawberry beds, Danny Boy’s pasture.
One of the last big family dinners I remember at the picnic table was Big Daddy’s 80th birthday party. Big Daddy is sitting there. There’s Nanny Oliver and Mother and Daddy. Aunt Frank, Uncle Allen and Aunt Everette are there. Uncle Bob and Aunt Gerry are there. There’s Aunt Dena. All of us seven kids are there, the Harris and Cox cousins are around the picnic table. Big Daddy’s grandchildren are all teenagers or young adults. We had a wonderful dinner complete with summer vegetables and watermelon at the end.
And now, Daddy, your 80th birthday is here. When you and Mother decided to settle down in Mt. Olive and build a house next door to your father and mother, you gave a wonderful gift to your children. We not only had you and Mother, we had Nana Oliver, Big Daddy, Nanny Cox, and Mabel as well. We were the center of attention when first and second cousins visited grandparents on both sides of the family. The picnic table was homebase in our games and the seven Cox kids and you and Mother were homebase to the whole of our extended family. Thanks Daddy for giving us our childhood in the Cox family and its two yards.
Mary Wooten Cox Smith