Tales of Mom (3): The Farm, the Chores, and Ma

By Trudy A. Martinez

When the rooster crows: “Cock-k-doodle-do Cock-k-doodle-do”. It is time to get up; it is time to dress; it is time for work. On the farm, the rooster is the alarm clock; it crows every morning at the crack of dawn just as the sun peeps over the horizon. Nellie normally doesn’t get up at this time, but now she is helping Ma; things are changing.

“Nellie, Nellie, get ya up. We gots’ work to do.” Ma calls out. She reaches over to Nellie lying in bed and shakes her slightly. “Nellie, Nellie, the cows are a waiting for us to milk ‘em.” Holding her finger to her lips Ma, whispers, “Sh-h, be quiet. Don’t want to wake everyone else.”

There is no time to dawdle. There is a lot to do around a farm, especially when there are so many children. Ma plans to teach Nellie to perform her new duties just as she taught her to do the chore of feeding the chickens and gathering their eggs when she was younger. She feels Nellie will learn quickly; her duties will be rewarding and challenging for her. It will be like going to school to be a homemaker. When you like what you do, it doesn’t seem like work, Ma feels learning to care for the farm animals will be fun for her.

“Ok, Ma. I’s comin’.” Nellie quickly rises from her bed, slips on her dress, and follows Ma to the barn.

The barn is behind the house. It isn’t a huge barn. It’s just big enough for one horse, and two cows, and Pa’s workshop. It never had a lick of paint. Its color can only be described as a weathered grey.

The pig’s pen is just to the left of the barn. There are two hogs (one male and one female) plus a dozen little, baby piglets in the pen. To the right of the barn, next to two huge pecan trees, is the chicken pen. Normally, the first thing Nellie does when she gets up is head to the chicken pen to feed the chickens. While they peck at the ground for the feed, she takes her basket and gathers the eggs for the breakfast meal. If there is an abundance of eggs, she puts them in another basket for sale.

This morning the chickens wait; they are no longer first on Nellie’s schedule. The cows come first now. Milking the cows is the reason Ma and Nellie rise early. The cows come first. And they come last.

Ma explains, “it is important Bitsy and Gertie get relieved of their milk first before we do the other chores ‘cause they get irritable if they has to wait.” Ma smiles and says, “Bout the same time every mornin’ and every evenin’ be milkin’ time. There is a special way to milk the cows.” She says as they open the barn door.

Ma walks over and grabs her milking stool and sits down next to Bitsy. She pats Bitsy gently and speaks softly to her, “It’s Okay, girl. It’s Okay”. She repeats calming her, and introducing her to Nellie.

“Come on, Nellie, you touch her. Her hide is soft; the hair part is a little prickly, not so much like humans.“ She tells, Nellie.

Ma talks to that cow just like she is talking to a person. “Okay, Bitsy, here we go. You be nice to Nellie when it’s her turn to try. ” She lays her head forward against the side of Bitsy’s body, reaches down and grabs the teats and milks her.

And the cow answers, “Moo, moo.”

“Pa be makin’ ya a stool just like mine. That way we both can milk at the same time. He be getting another pail too when he be in town, Nellie. Won’t that be nice?”

Nellie replies, “Um.”

It is exciting for Nellie learning to make things; it gives her a sense of accomplishment. Ma let her make butter this morning after milking the cows. She helps mom skim the cream from the top of the bucket. Then they put the skim cream in the churn,  “Just use quick up and down motions with the churning stick; it be thicken into butter in no time.”

A quick lesson on how to operate the hand churn and Nellie is making butter.

The cows give milk twice a day, once at the break of dawn and then again at early evening. Filling the bottles with milk after two pitchers full are set aside for the family for breakfast is Nellie’s job now. She makes ready for delivery to neighbors in need the milk in the bottles. Not everyone has a cow. Nor do they have laying chickens for that matter. Eggs are also put in baskets for delivery.

Immediately after breakfast, Nellie delivers milk, eggs, and butter to the neighbors who are in need. And she retrieves the empties (bottles and baskets) from the customer. She will wash and sterilize the bottles before they are used again.

Nellie ran out while Ma was fixing breakfast and fed the chickens and collected the eggs. She enjoys the labor at the farm. After breakfast will be time to slop the pigs. The pigs get all the meal scraps mixed in with their feed; they eat just about anything. Then it will be time to care for the garden. Ma has the garden set up right next to the water well, making it easier to care for the plants and watering.

There is never a dull day on the farm, especially this one. There is always some project in progress depending on the time of year or another baby on the way.

When Ma has the baby boy, there is no keeping Nellie away from him. She cares for him as if he is her own. After Ma feeds him, she cradles him in her arms, burps him, swaying back and forth, as she hums a lullaby until he falls asleep.

Nellie harvests the Pecans in the fall; the twins are her little helpers by then and Nellie uses them to help pick up the pecans on the ground and she enlists their help in other projects too. In early spring (after the fear of frost), they assist Nellie in planting the new garden. To a child everything is wonderful; they enjoy learning and exploring, and digging.

In late summer, it is planting time again for some cool weather plants. Time passes quickly when you are busy and enjoying what you do.


Nellie is growing into a good looking little lady. Pa snaps this picture of her before church one Sunday. School doesn’t teach you how to sew and do the things that you do on a family farm. Nellie makes the dress she is wearing all by herself. Ma is proud of her; and it pleases her to see Nellie doing things for herself and it pleases her to see such good results of her sewing adventure.

Yes, sewing can be an adventure. There are so many things you can make at only a fraction of the cost of purchasing an already complete item. If you make a mistake, you have to rip it out and re-sew it. Sounds dull, but that’s not necessarily so. It is less expensive than purchasing an item from the store already finished; usually, you can only afford one finished item a year (if you are fortunate enough to have money for that purpose). If you save enough flour, sugar, or grain sacks, there is no cost, except your time.  On the farm, nothing goes to waste.

And taking care of the twins is rewarding. They grow fast. Nellie makes the twins dresses too. Sometimes it is difficult finding enough flour sacks with the same pattern on them. When she can, the twins get new matching dresses and Nellie sews them. And Nellie gets rewards of kisses and hugs for all her efforts.


Nellie relinquished the chore of feeding the chickens and gathering the eggs to the twins. They enjoy the adventure each morning. They love playing with the little chickens when they hatch from the fertile eggs. Dog keeps his eyes open and watches them play with the baby chickens. I think he is jealous of the attention they give to the other animals at the farm. Dog thinks he should be the one getting all the attention.


You may say, “A Nellie needs friends”. But she has the best friends possible because her friends are family too. Nellie’s friends (in addition to her siblings) are her cousins. Besides, the other type of friend comes and goes. Family is forever her own and she can rely on them for help when she needs it.

When Ma has the other two boys, she happily takes over the caring for them too.

As years pass by, both Ma and Pa agree she does her duty by them, and now that the children have aged, it is time for Nellie to seek a life of her own.




Tales from Mom (1), The Chicken Feathers

By Trudy A. Martinez

As darkness dissipates the rooster crows, Nellie Mae awakes. She raises her head from an overstuffed pillow, one she personally fills with chicken feathers in her earlier years. Ma said when she is only four, “Nellie, you is old enough to do the chores. Get the basket yonder and come with your mama.”

Tagging after Ma, she watches and learns to gather the eggs for the morning meal. Next to an egg, she discovers her first feather. It is different, not a typical chicken feather, consisting of a hard tube like quill; instead, the quill is underdeveloped and soft; and the feathery portion is white, light, and airy. Holding the feathery fluff up to admire its beauty, its shimmer and shine, it dances out of her hand into the cool morning breeze. Quickly, she seizes the airy fluff from its flight and stuffs it in her pinafore pocket, placing it later in her secret place.

Each day’s journey to the chicken pen produces more. Although her chores involve plucking feathers from the dinner chickens, per-snicker- y as she is, she expresses no interest in them; only the little ones she unveils with the eggs catch her fancy. Perhaps the disinterest in the plucked feathers is why it surprises Ma to learn of her collection.


(Nellie Mae is the light hair little girl standing next to Pa. Pa is sitting holding her younger brother (at that time). Behind Pa is Grandma Ida. Next are Nellie’s older sister and two other brothers. That is Ma sitting in the chair)

Ma is not snooping in Nellie Mae’s things as you might think; she is cleaning when, knocking over a box, feathers suddenly fly all over the room.

Watching Ma reaching to capture the tiny feathers as they take flight above her head and then float downward like snowflakes on a frosty winter morn is quite a sight. The thrust of her hand, like a burst of wind, sends the tiny feathers scurrying in the opposite direction as she attempts to snatch them from midair.

Catching a few, she vies to put them back; unfortunately, each time she raises the lid as many feathers leave as are put in. Ma, growing weary of the process, leaves the room, snatches an empty flour sack, and yells for Nellie’s help; and they both stuff all the feathers into the flower print sack. A piece of that sack survives in a quilt Nellie later makes.

Tales from Mom (2), The Quilt Nellie Makes

Posted on July 10, 2014

By Trudy A. Martinez

The very same quilt Nellie makes, now tattered and worn, that adorns her bed has a stitched piece of the flower sack that once held her secret stash of feathers. Ma shares many secret ways, as part of her Indian heritage, of remembering the past down to minute details. She adopts quilt making as a means of preserving for later recall of one’s own history. Nellie did the same. The survival of the flower patch in her quilt is a testament to that.

Her hand touches the patch as she pulls back the quilt, raises herself slowly from her reclining posture, and brings herself to a sitting position at the edge of the bed. “Nev’r nuff”, she utters as her fingers stroke the patchwork. More years than she cares to remember pass since she hand-stitches the pieces together; the once bright and colorful colors, now are fading; but the memory each patch holds are still bright and clear as they rise with the sun every morning, reminding her of her youth, her loves, her sorrow.

Nellie Mae only went to fifth or sixth grade; she no longer remembers which it is, fifth or sixth.

Then every day is miserable for her, coming home with tears streaming down her chubby cheeks and a group of children following her, laughing and teasing and asking, “What the matter? Your cat got your tongue. Are you going to be a clown when the circus comes to town? With that hair, you will surely make everyone laugh. You’ll fit right in.” They always say something about her.

Her hair, in addition to the usual, is a subject they just cannot resist this morning.

You see, Ma broke the regular bowl she sets on her head to guide the scissors when she cuts her hair. This morning the bowl is much smaller. As a result, Nellie’s hair is so different from the norm, she not only catches her classmates’ eye but also their criticism. Teasing her is a pastime they all seem to enjoy.


(Nellie Mae is the girl in the back row (circled in red) with the above the ear short hair –cut. The picture is of the last year she attends school.)

A mounting uneasiness encompasses Nellie during this encounter. Her dread of the situation brought about by her peer’s, increasing violent reaction, sets her heart a pounding.

As they poke at her with twigs and sticks, the sound of each beat of her heart echoes then ricochet off the walls of her chest, sending out a desperate cry for help like a drum beating out a message in the deepest, darkest jungle.

She feels like a lamb led to the slaughter. Inwardly, she prays in silence even though all the time she wants to cry out, “Those of you who is without faults cast the first stone.”

She wonders as she watches the oldest boy reach down to pick up a dirt ball if he can read her thoughts. At first, he pretends to throw the dirt, causing her to flinch. Then when the others see how she reacts, they follow the older boys lead, picking up a handful of dirt stones and pretending to throw them at her; and then changing directions, they hurl them in the air like a band of jugglers.

Nevertheless, when they discover their combine attempt fails to budge her as they try to rile her enough to holler at them so they can laugh at her some more, they throw the stones. Their attack and their teasing convince her to remain silent.

Ma and Pa told her, “A child should be seen and not heard”. However, their meaning and Nellie’s interpretation of the statement under her circumstance differs. She justifies her silence through her representation of those wise words, allowing herself to keep away from what she does not wish to endure.

At home, it is another matter altogether. She makes distinguishable noises that are easy to discern by family members. Even so, she does not say much if she says anything at all. Her eyes do most of the talking. Of course, her facial expressions and body language make it clear and understandable her meaning.

With the combination of communicating methods operating together as a unit, she begs Pa to let her stay home and help Ma instead of going to school because the other children, even the teacher, show her no mercy, and she just wants to die because of it.

Ma being sickly, her older sister taking a job at the mill to help out the family financially and not able to help Ma as much, and there being nine children (including Nellie) to feed and care for, and Ma being about to have another helps to convince Pa.


(Nellie is in the back row between her older brothers. In front is her older sister, holding one of the twin girls, a younger brother, her Ma, holding the other twin, their dog, and Pa)

There is always something for her to do; and whining not her nature, she never complains. She loves taking care of her little twin baby sisters and dressing them and putting pretty ribbons in their hair.