I inherited my interest in writing from my mother who has written many things over the years. I think she might have enjoyed blogging, too, if the technology had been available in her earlier years.
This fall, I had the idea to write about her experience with integration while attending Little Rock Central because it was the 60th anniversary of that historical event that brought national attention to her high school. When I asked her about her memories of it, she reminded me of a little self-published book of her writings that she had given me years ago and suggested that I start there.
When I say “years ago,” the little book is dated 1996. I’ve moved five times since then so I was relieved to find it on my bookshelf where I thought it oughta be. Flipping through it, looking for her writing on the subject, I found it embedded within an essay called “Susie and Me.” I debated about taking an excerpt of that section, but then you’d be wondering who Susie was, plus Susie witnessed some other interesting events as well. I decided to share the whole essay in honor of my mother. I’ve had these little books she wrote for 22 years, and I have a new appreciation for them now. She was 54 when she wrote them and I’m 55 now, so that coincidence strikes me, too.
I hope you’ll enjoy “Susie and Me,” written by my mother, Melissa Holder Hinton. I’ve edited it just a little for brevity.
Susie and Me
I was ten and she was brand new. Susie appeared under the Christmas tree from Santa Claus in 1950.
However, I soon learned that while I was at school, my mother had spent hours cutting out the flesh-colored material and sewing the pieces together that became a life-size doll. She glued yellow yarn on the doll’s head, as well as stitching eye lashes and eye brows on her oval face. Her tiny nose made with small stitches stayed in place the entire time right above her turned up mouth.
A little short-sleeved dress which slightly showed her panties adorned her originally. The nubbins for her hands would be forced through the armholes of the dress while the feet would be guided through the leg holes of her panties. Susie was kept busy getting her clothes changed, eating imaginary food, and getting her tangled locks combed. During the day while I was at school, she would sit propped up against the bed pillows never moving an inch. Where I left her that morning she stayed in the same place until I got home. She did that for almost twenty years.
Looking back I now realize that Susie appeared soon after my new baby sister was born that October. Mother was using psychology at her best when she gave me a doll to play with while she took care of Mary Ellen. No jealousy of a new baby in the house was created because Susie occupied my time.
Susie watched me do silly things, fight with my sister Nancy, gain agility, and take care of my baby sister Mary Ellen. She gave witness of solitude to my growing-up years, watching my character being formed by outside influences as well as by inner guidance. Things I would not be proud for anyone else to know about my behavior, my thoughts, and words toward others, Susie will keep the secrets intended.
She heard the screaming when Mary Ellen got into some liquid cinnamon one day when no one was looking. It was popular when I was in grade school to soak toothpicks in the cinnamon oil and then suck on them until the taste was gone. Mary Ellen didn’t know anything about this fad but found out in a hurry how hot the pure cinnamon liquid could be. When I came running into the house, mother had Mary Ellen in the tub of water trying to wash the cinnamon from her face and body. I wasn’t allowed to buy cinnamon from the drug store after that. Somehow it had lost its taste any way after seeing the red blotches on my little sister.
If there was ever a time Susie would have said something it might have been during the times that Nancy and I would wash and dry dishes together. It was a time of laughter but mostly a time of fussing at each other. Just as I would get ready to pick up one of the clean dishes to dry, a hand dripping with soap suds would deposit another dish in the sink messing up all the others. We never did get this worked out to anyone’s satisfaction. Especially mother’s.
The duck and the two rabbits which lived in the backyard kept their distance from Susie. Their pen was next to the rock wall, and Susie stayed inside the house with her hands over her imaginary ears trying to block out the loud quacking. The last day any of us heard the duck was when two boys came and got the rabbits. We had grown tired of them and had decided to give them away. When the boys, however, started up the hill behind our house with rabbits in tow, the duck made such a racket that our father hollered at the top of his lungs “You boys have got to take this duck, too.” Intimidation worked!
Fortunately, when I got tired of carrying the leaves from our treeless front yard to the alley that ran along our backyard wall, Susie did not suffer from smoke inhalation from the fire that I started with one little match. It burned all those leaves up in a hurry and only scorched the rock wall and the ground. It shortened the job considerably, however.
The fried apricot pies that Nellie made us when mother and daddy went to Hot Springs for a weekend trip never touched Susie’s lips. That Monday, however, Susie overheard the telephone call that turned our household upside down. While my father was working on the construction site of St. Vincent’s Hospital in Little Rock, the floor of the make-shift elevator disappeared and my father fell five floors and then rolled into a ravine there on the construction site. Susie kept quiet while the family learned that both his legs had been broken, one in two places, along with a few ribs. Internal injuries miraculously were few but a three-month stay in the hospital was necessary. Workmen’s compensation paid our family $25 a week and there was no other income for our family of three children. His deep bass singing voice that had participated in the church choir and barber shop quartets was not heard very much after that accident.
As my hair changed styles, was getting longer and then shorter, Susie’s stayed the same. The floor furnace in the hallway was a great place for me to dry my hair when it was long. I would hold my head over the open-grated furnace with it getting too close on several occasions. The smell of singed hair would alert the whole house. A smoke alarm had yet to be invented or it certainly would have sounded.
Nancy and I shared a bedroom until our age and our fighting brought another arrangement. The imaginary line down the middle of the bed had been drawn several times with violation after violation occurring. The chalk line dividing the room in equal parts prevented access by either one of us to things that were on the other side. My side of the room was identifiable immediately with everything in its place. Clothes were hung in the closet instead of being draped over the end of the bed or thrown in the corner. One day Susie witnessed a part of my personality she would try to forget. It was the day that I literally moved my sister and all her things out of the room with a commotion that still reverberates in the ears of the family. Books, clothes, and everything else went down the hallway one after another, sliding in a fashion that was a sight to behold. When Susie saw my face red and my eyes blazing, she took cover.
When we moved from 1707 N. Hayes to a house on Linwood Court, Susie took the move easily. While I was doing my homework one Sunday night, mother came in and said, “You have just got to come see this young man who is on the Ed Sullivan Show. He has the most beautiful voice.” Susie and I declined the invitation, but from the other room we could hear Elvis Presley singing “Love Me Tender.”
Coming home from the first day of my senior year of high school, the stories and sights of the 101st Airborne were unbelievable. The President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower commanded Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus to integrate the Little Rock High School. The fully-uniformed soldiers guarded Little Rock Central forcing the State to abide by Federal integration laws. The tanks, the Red Cross trucks, all the soldiers with their bayonets fixed and standing every two feet around the four-block campus would create a vivid memory for life. While disruption and interruption were occurring during the day a school, it was comforting to return each day to find that Susie was secure and in her place on the bed.
During my senior year of high school, Susie may have been neglected, but she never indicated it. Activities in the Westover Hills Presbyterian youth group, the sorority meetings, Acappella Choir concerts and plays all kept me pretty busy. Chosen for the All-State Choir was a big honor and required extra practice sessions for our concert. But with the yearbook signing, ordering graduation invitations, getting our pictures made, and a new dress for the final event did not prepare me for what memory I still have of the graduation ceremony itself.
As the Little Rock Central High School class of 1958 filed in to take their place on the football field, the bright lights revealed the 101st Airborne guardsmen standing at the top of the stadium seating. One young man whose skin was a different color from the other 692 students needed protection during this special night. As the name of each graduate was called and they walked across the stage to receive their diploma, there would be an occasional clapping or cheering from family and friends. But when Earnest’s name was called, the stadium full of parents and participants grew quiet. We were witnessing history in the making as a black student was the first graduate of an all-white high school. It had been a rough year with soldiers walking the halls, helicopters landing on the practice field, the voices of drill sergeants being heard through the open school windows, and bomb threats requiring evacuation to the sidewalks surrounding the school.
The night of graduation few knew that the state government officials would close Little Rock Central the next school term. Private schools had popped up because of integration, and they would continue teaching those who had no other place to finish high school. Some moved to other cities and even other states to live with relatives while they finished their high school requirements. It would be interesting to know how many could not afford other options and had to drop out of school.
Susie watched mother and her mother, who we called Momhat, make my clothes that I would take when I entered the University of Arkansas the fall of 1958. Mother had sold encyclopedias to earn extra money and with help from money received from Momhat and my Aunt Polly and Aunt Florence, I was able to go on to school. There never was a question whether or not Susie would continue her schooling right along side of me. Automatically she was placed in the car the morning of our ride to Fayetteville.
While I worked as a part-time secretary for the Department of Chemical Engineering, Susie found that sitting on the bed in the dorm was not too different from the bed in Little Rock. Different students came by to say “Hello” to her, and she was soon included in study and “girl talk” sessions as well as marathon bridge games.
Susie and I graduated from the University of Arkansas in January 1962 earning a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Taking a job with Phillips Petroleum Company in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, was bringing me ever closer to meeting the man I would marry and spend an adventure of a lifetime. Approaching my marriage date, I decided I was too old to still have a doll. Susie went to live with someone else. I will always regret the decision that I made regarding the fate of my long-time companion.
I wish I had gotten to meet Susie, and we didn’t miss by much as I was born in May of 1963. My mom had a doll named Susie and I had a cat named Princess who was with me through a similar span of life. Maybe I need to write about what Princess witnessed. Nahhhh.