By Alexe van Beuren
In the last sixty years, the world – and Mississippi – has changed a lot. When I meet with Willie Mae Turner, she tells me about a childhood that few today experience.
Born in Yalobusha County near Billy’s Creek in 1937, Willie Mae’s world shifted when she was eleven years old. Her mother, after only four months of illness, died of breast cancer.
Willie Mae was already accustomed to hard work. “I was picking cotton when I was six years old,” she tells me as we sit in the air-conditioned living room of her comfortable home. “I’d put it in my father’s bag.”
While everyone had to work hard, Willie Mae remembers her life under her mother’s care as a time of plenty. A prolific gardener, her mother had also raised chickens and sold chickens and eggs door to door. “She’d make sixteen dollars and think she did pretty good,” Willie Mae tells me. “We always had enough food.”
But after her mother’s death, Willie Mae says, “we got down to having no food at all.” She recalls digging up turnips from the field and eating them three times a day; later, she and her brother would take corn to the mill for meal, and that would be their food. “There was no welfare,” she says. “No food stamps.”
Her father, who struggled with vision problems, began selling off the livestock that had helped keep the family fed. He sold the hogs, the mules, and most of the cows– though Willie Mae recalls milking the remaining cow with her brother and drinking the fresh milk before they’d even returned to the house.
The family turned to sharecropping, but never did very well because “Daddy would work other people’s fields for cash money, even though he had his own cotton needing tending.” The family’s downturn in fortunes affected the children’s education as well.
“We’d get ready to go to school, and Dad would say, ‘you’re not going to school today.’” Willie Mae shakes her head. “He wouldn’t tell us the night before. He’d wait until the school bus was there.”
“Were you doing worse than other families?” I ask, and Willie Mae nods.
“I didn’t know any other girls who were plowing mules,” she says.
Despite her personal obstacles, Willie Mae graduated from Davidson High School at age twenty-one in 1958. She married, had six children, and divorced when her youngest child was one year old. For the next twenty-odd years, Willie Mae worked at Big Yank and raised her children (along with a step-son “who’s like my own”) as a single parent.
“I started off at Big Yank for forty-nine dollars a week in 1965,” Willie Mae says. “But we made it.”
Now that Willie Mae is retired, her children are the ones taking care of her – and in style. Sheila, a math specialist in Tampa, Florida, has lived all over the world with her career military husband, and Willie Mae has traveled every place they have been.
“My son-in-law has been in the army for twenty-four years,” Willie Mae says. “And everywhere they’re stationed, I had to wear a coat.”
As she shows me a scrapbook full of foreign money and airplane tickets, Willie Mae tells me that she has boarded a plane 36 times. Her favorite place in the world? Tampa, where her daughter currently lives; “we went down there in December. There was snow here, but there, the sun was shining; people were cutting grass and in the swimming pools – in December.”
When I ask her least favorite place, Willie Mae replies without hesitation, “Prague and Czechoslovakia. Everybody stared at us so hard,” and besides – “the countryside is dark, and some of the towns were lit with lamplight. It was very scary to me.”
Besides her daughters Sheila in Tampa and Shanta in Texas, Willie Mae’s other children live and work in Tupelo, Oxford, and Water Valley. “People don’t know how my children help me,” Willie Mae says, pointing out the floor that her children plan to replace with ceramic tile and telling me about their intercession last month when her air conditioning broke.
When she is not traveling and visiting with her family, Willie Mae spends her time refinishing furniture, gardening, helping people from her church, and writing.
“I love to write,” Willie Mae says, adding that she had wanted to become a teacher before circumstances got in the way. She tends to write poems about global issues, especially war; “Who Were They?” is a poem about September 11th, while she wrote “Bush,” and “Troops” while her son Demarc served in Desert Storm.
With the encouragement of her children, Willie Mae has also written her autobiography. Leaning forward from her chair to touch her hand to the two spiral notebooks, she says, “I think my life would make a good movie. Probably like ‘The Color Purple.’”
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