By Sharon Thomas
A picture on my wall shows my grandparents, Virlie and Walter Petty, as the stylish young people they once were. He wears
a long-sleeved shirt with suspenders and his tie is tucked into his shirt. He is so tall that if he had held his arm out at
shoulder height, she could have walked under it. That is, she could have walked under his arm if she had taken off her hat.
The hat must have been eight or nine inches high and was obviously chosen to add to her height. Yes, he was tall, a little
over six feet, but she was unusually short. Officially, she was four feet, eleven inches, but she often said, "I'm five feet
tall if I stand on tiptoe." In the black-and-white photograph, she wears a dress with a large plaid pattern. I imagine it
as black with a white background, but it might have been shades of blue or green. Certainly it could not have been pink or
red. With her flaming red hair, Virlie never would have worn those colors. In the photograph, my grandparents' faces are expressionless.
The picture does not show the flash of anger that was often in Virlie's brown eyes, though she remained outwardly calm. It
also does not show the mischief in Walter's gray eyes as he plans his next practical joke, but he restlessly fingers the guywire
that holds up the tent they stand beside. I can easily imagine Walter Petty's long, thin fingers fiddling impatiently with
the wire and the photographer asking him if he can't please be still. If I wanted to falsify my heritage, I could scan that
photograph and delete the background, then place my grandparents in an elegant parlor. They would look right at home in a
formal setting, but at the time the photograph was taken, they were actually standing beside a tent that they occupied during
camp meeting. Virlie liked the Arbuckle Mountains. She felt more at home there than she did in the small town of Davis, Oklahoma,
where she and Walter lived with his parents and his two sickly sisters. Walter's father, Bud, had driven Virlie and Walter
up to the camp meeting site the morning the photograph was taken. Bud had helped Walter pitch the tent very early in the morning,
then he had driven the truck back to town. He couldn't let Walter keep it in the mountains. He had to have it to make deliveries
for the two grocery stores that he owned. Walter and Virlie were the first people to arrive at the camp meeting site. Walter
needed to be there to begin preparations for leading the singing. That's what he said, but it was a slight exaggeration. Actually,
Walter loved being in any crowd of people. He didn't want to miss a minute of the annual gathering for Christian fellowship.
Getting there early was fine with Virlie. She was glad to be away from her talkative mother-in-law, Betty, and those two girls
that Betty called her jewels, Ruby and Pearl. Soon after Bud drove the truck back down the mountainside, Walter walked to
the main road so he could greet arriving friends while Virlie dressed in the tent for the first church service at camp meeting.
She had worn a cotton house dress for the ride up in the truck, but once she was alone in the tent she began to change. She
dressed as carefully as she would have if she had been going to the yellow brick church in town. Knowing that she would be
dressing for a church service, Virlie had worn proper underwear and sturdy black shoes when she left home. Over her pantaloons
and vest, she put on a full petticoat, and the plaid dress. The taffeta skirt rustled into place, almost covering her shoes.
Last, Virlie pinned up her long red hair and topped it with that tall hat. A quick glance at herself in the mirror that Walter
had secured to the tent's center pole told her that she was ready to walk down to the road and stand with Walter, waiting
for everyone else to arrive. Turning away from the mirror with a sigh, Virlie wished there were something she could do about
her freckles. Washing her face in buttermilk hadn't helped at all. If only she had listened to Mama about wearing a sunbonnet
when she was growing up back in Tennessee. The thought of Mama brought tears to her eyes and she blinked them away determinedly.
She would not let Walter see how much she missed home. Living with her in-laws was hard, and Walter's jokes were a trial,
but he was the dearest, sweetest man on earth. The only man for Virlie. She smiled as she remembered the first day she had
seen Walter. She had been a child of twelve, walking down a backwoods path alone when a tall man appeared, riding a black
Virlie Mason slid along the dirt path like a skater, deliberately making two long smooth tracks with her bare feet and
allowing a pink sunbonnet to hang limply from her right hand. Mama would be mad, she knew, about the sunbonnet and about Virlie
deliberately getting her feet dirty. Oh, well. Virlie absolutely hated wearing sunbonnets and if she must wear one, did it
have to be pink? Several years after Daddy died, Mama was still wearing her black mourning dresses. Virlie sometimes thought
guiltily that Mama knew how good she looked in black. When Virlie grew up, she would wear black, too - even if she wasn't
in mourning - and maybe then she would be as pretty as Mama. She and Mama had the same gold-flecked red hair and pale skin.
They both freckled easily but Mama kept her skin looking nice by always wearing a sunbonnet. Her bonnets were as somber as
her dresses, though they were sometimes gray or white instead of black. Mama made sunbonnets for the girls, Virlie, Cassie,
and Della, out of any bright-colored scrap of material she had. She wouldn't listen when Virlie told her that pink did not
go well with her red hair. Now Virlie glared at the pink sunbonnet, her small nose wrinkled in distaste. She would put the
hated thing back on before Mama saw her but now she began to whirl it around by its strings. She was thinking of the way her
brother Tom whirled his slingshot. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have the freedom of a boy? Tom let her play with the slingshot
sometimes when Mama wasn't looking and she was good with it. Oh, if only she could sling the hated bonnet into the woods and
"lose" it. No, Mama would just ask her why it hadn't been on her head and send her back to look for it. Virlie sighed and
let the sunbonnet strings hang limply at her side again. A horse snorting behind her scared Virlie and she ran. Who would
be on this backwoods path? Having had little experience with strangers, Virlie was afraid to face the person on the horse
alone. She ran for home, forgetting to put the sunbonnet on her head. Mama would know how to handle the stranger, whoever
it was. Curiosity won out over fright and Virlie turned her head to take a peek. In that one moment of not looking where she
was going, she stumped her toe on a tree limb that had fallen across the path. Holding both arms out for balance, like when
she was crossing the creek on widely spaced rocks, she kept herself from falling. In less than a minute, a tall man was looking
down at her. "You hurt, little gal?" he asked. "N-n-no," Virlie stammered, looking up into a pair of deep gray eyes while
ignoring the blood that oozed from the end of her big toe. "Live around here?" the man asked. Virlie simply nodded her head.
"Well, then, let me put you on Tony's back and take you home," the stranger said. Virlie backed away from the shiny black
animal. "Oh, you don't like horses. Well, look here now. Your toe is bleeding. You can't walk home in the dirt barefooted.
I'll just carry you to your Mama." When he picked Virlie up she did not resist. She felt surprisingly comfortable in the strong
arms of this stranger. He started down the path in long strides, his horse ambling along behind him. Soon Virlie had been
deposited on her own front porch and she watched as the tall man spoke to her mother. "Howdy, Ma'am. I'm Walter Petty," he
said. "I reckon you know who you are." Mama laughed out loud but Virlie covered her mouth and ducked her head so the stranger
wouldn't see her laugh. Had he really meant to be funny or was he a little touched in the head? "Rozellah Mason," Mama said,
no longer laughing. "Yes, and I know who you are, too. Your family owns the sawmill." "Yes, Ma'am. Me and Tony was just out
for a ride when we came across your little gal here with that hurt toe." "Much obliged," Mama said, and Walter Petty nodded
his head, mounted Tony, and rode away, waving a hand toward Virlie and the other children who had gathered curiously on the
porch. But he was back the next day. "Hello, Old Sore Toe," Walter said, noticing the white rag tied around Virlie's toe.
And that's what he called her every time he stopped by to see how she was doing. Virlie kept the rag on her toe much longer
than she needed to. Walter stopped by several more times "just to check on the little gal," he said. Once Virlie was playing
her guitar and singing play-party songs with Della and Cassie when Walter came. He listened as they sang "Skip to My Lou"
and "Weevily Wheat." Then he beckoned Rozellah Mason aside and as the children kept singing, he said to her. "That little
gal of yours has quite a voice. I lead a group that goes to singing contests and I sure do need an alto like her." After consulting
with her brother, the Widow Mason agreed to let young Virlie join Walter Petty's singing group. But only if Virlie's brother
Tom went along. It didn't matter to The Widow Mason or her brother Willie Wright that Tom was the only member of the family
who didn't have a decent singing voice. The second time Virlie and Tom were part of the group, Walter brought along a bushel
basket and handed it to Tom. "Here, you reckon you can carry a tune in this?" he asked. That was the first of many jokes Walter
Petty played on Tom Mason. And he told stories between songs at the singing gatherings - funny stories with some member of
the group the butt of the joke. Ocassionally, even Virlie was the subject of one of those stories. But she laughed along with
everyone else. Everyone knew Walter was making up tall tales. No longer "Old Sore Toe" to Walter Petty, Virlie was "My Alto"
from that time on. For her part, she always called him "Walter Petty." He certainly didn't act like a "mister" but she had
learned that he was twenty-two years old. Since she was still a few months shy of her thirteenth birthday, she felt obligated
to treat him with the respect due an adult. Just calling him "Walter" would never do. She noticed that others in the singing
group also called their leader by both of his names. It was as if he somehow deserved to be called by two names. No one just
Several months after Walter had begun to spend a lot of time at the Mason's house, Willie Wright heard
some disturbing talk in town. When Walter came to pick up Virlie and Tom for a singing, Willie and Rozellah confronted him
before he got out of his wagon. "Maybe you ought not to hang around here too much," Willie said. "People in town are saying
that you and 'the Widow Mason' are courting." "I'm sorry that there's gossip," Walter said. "Y'all know it ain't
true. But, well, the fact is I am interested in somebody here." In the background, standing with her brother and sisters on
the porch as the adults talked, Virlie held her breath. Could he possibly mean her? "I know she ain't near old enough for
courtin', but I'm gonna wait for that little red-headed gal of yours," Walter said. And he did wait for Virlie. While waiting,
he made a couple of trips to Oklahoma Territory. He went West first for the adventure of it, planning to settle down in Tennessee
when Virlie was old enough to marry. That was before all of his sisters contracted tuberculosis. After they got sick, the
doctor said that Pearl, Ruby, and the other sister, Ethel, would be better off in a dry climate. So the Petty family sold
the sawmill and all of them moved to Oklahoma together. Soon after Virlie's eighteenth birthday, Walter returned to Tennessee,
married her and took her to Oklahoma.
Virlie pulled up the tent flap and stepped outside. She had a choice to make. She could walk down a gentle slope directly
to the road, as she knew Walter had done, or she could take a winding path that began a few yards to the left of the tent.
On the slope, she would be walking right through tall grass and black-eyed Susans. "Black-eyed Virlies," Walter had teased,
the first time they walked together through a field full of those flowers. And back in Tennessee, he had said that her dark
brown eyes were like the pansies in his mother's garden.. Her heart fluttered a little and suddenly she wanted very much to
be with her husband. She began to walk through the grass and flowers. The path would take too long, she thought, and anyway,
there was the choice between possibly having grass seeds cling to her shoes and skirt and definitely getting them dusty on
the path. Virlie had gone only a few steps when a rustling noise made her walk faster. She tried to think what kind of animal
might be in the grass behind her. Could it be a coyote? She had seen those ugly, shaggy beasts slinking across a field and
she had heard their horrible howl. She hoped there were none up here in the mountains. Probably the animal following her was
just a small rabbit or squirrel that would not hurt her. Yes, more than likely that was the case, but Virlie was not sure.
After taking a few more steps, Virlie stopped, hoping some little critter would run past her. After that happened, she would
laugh at herself about being such a scaredy-cat, but she would not tell Walter about it. Virlie was not quite brave enough
to look back and see what was behind her, but she picked up her courage as well as her skirts and walked on at a slower pace.
As she walked, she remembered that Walter had told her a story about a goat that lived in these mountains. It often chased
people and butted them down, Walter had said. What if the animal behind her was that awful old goat? Thoroughly frightened
now, Virlie began to run and pray at the same time. "Oh, Lord, help me. Save me from that beast." She ran right into Walter's
arms without seeing him. "Whoa up there," he said. "What's wrong?" Virlie buried her head in Walter's shirtfront, comforted
by the smell of the starch that she herself had put there before she ironed the shirt to perfection. Too frightened to speak,
she did not answer his question. Walter picked his tiny wife up and set her on a large rock as easily as he would have placed
a doll on a shelf. "What's wrong?" he asked again. Virlie gulped as if she could swallow down her fear now that she was safe
with Walter. "That old goat," she said, "it was chasing me." Walter looked back at the grass and flowers Virlie had just run
through. "I don't see anything," he said. As he spoke, his hand accidentally brushed Virlie's skirt, causing the taffeta to
make its whispering sound. He started to laugh. Exasperated, Virlie waved both hands in the air. She had been in real danger.
Why couldn't that man she married ever be serious? Walter picked up a fold of Virlie's skirt in both hands and rubbed it.
That was it! The rustling noise had been her own skirt trailing in the tall weeds. Virlie buried her head in Walter's shirtfront
again. This time she was not comforted. How could she have been so foolish? Oh, and how would she hold back the tears when
Walter told everyone the story of Virlie and the goat? She knew he would tell it. This would be different from those stories
he told at the singing gatherings back in Henry County, Tennessee. Everyone had known those were made-up stories. This had
really happened and was too good a story for Walter to keep to himself. How would she ever hold her head up again?
do not know if Walter told that story immediately, that day at camp meeting. I do know that Virlie somehow found the courage
to hold her head up. In the photograph taken that day, she holds her chin high and looks straight into the camera. Very soon,
the two fashionable young people shown in the picture existed only as an image on photographic paper. Walter and Virlie became
Mama and Daddy to two little red- headed girls, each of them named after a grandmother. My Mama was Rozellah Pearl, having
also inherited the name of one of the jewel sisters. Aunt Betty was Betty Ruth. I don't know where the "Ruth" came from. When
Rozellah and Betty grew up, between them they had nine children. Virlie and Walter were then known as Granny and Grandpa to
all of us and many of our friends. Walter himself called Virlie "Granny" sometimes and he named a stray yellow cat "Granny
Cat." Granny had a large benign tumor in her stomach that made her look perpetually pregnant. She could not wear ordinary
clothing but made maternity smocks for herself. "Don't swallow those seeds," Grandpa would say when the assembled cousins
ate watermelon. "You might start looking like your Granny." "Look how old your Granny is," Grandpa often said, showing us
the calendar. "She was the first white child born in North America." In the little white square for August 18th, the calendar
did indeed say, "First white child born in North America." We knew Granny's birthday was the eighteenth of August but any
of us who had learned to read could see that the date 1587 was given on the calendar. Our Granny could not be over three hundred
years old! Most of the time Granny was patient with Grandpa, putting up with such shenanigans as naming the cat "Granny",
and showing her birthday on the calendar. At such times, she only waved her hands a little behind his back, as if she were
drying nail polish, but one of his jokes made her really angry. That was the one where he rubbed together any two pieces of
paper or fabric that made a noise. Some child always asked what he was doing, and he chuckled as he answered, "Oh, I'm just
trying to get your Granny's Goat."
FAMILY MEMBER WALTER PETTY
FAMILY MEMBER VIRLIE MASON PETTY