The woman who loved chicken necks and backs is ninety-nine years old today. She is bedridden but cared for by her four daughters as only a daughter can. She is as warm, well-fed, clean, and safe as she has ever been in her long life. Yes, she is dying, but she is doing it with grace and peace. There are no chicken necks or backs in her life now because those hard, cruel days are past when heat and food for her and “my six little children” were luxuries.
She hemmed washcloths in Cannon Mills on the second shift. She did not want to be away from her children, but she needed the job. She hired women to watch them after school, and the best one of all was Mabel; the other ones were like her abusive husband, but she needed them more than they needed her meager coins. She rode a bus to and from Plant One and walked the block home in the dark after each shift, the dust from the unpaved road coating her shoes, but not her soul.
Deeply religious, she dressed her children each Sunday for Sunday School and, as it was called then, “Preaching.” The seven of them walked the mile to the church all the while watching cars as they roared past on Oakwood Avenue. The walking was hardest for the little ones because, to be safe, she made them walk on the soft shoulder that was often filled with tall grass and weeds. But, for the children, Sunday was a day of anticipation. It meant that she would fry a chicken when they got home and there would be lots of milk to drink. Or, she would let them walk to their paternal grandparent’s home if their father was going to be there. They could share in the food there, so they ate and saw their father while their mother rested at home.
But for the Sunday dinners when she fried a chicken for her children, she would put its neck and back in a pan of water and boil them. She admonished her children not to eat either because, she claimed, those were her favorite parts. They would divide the legs, wings, and other parts of the fried chicken and finish the gallon of milk along with the bowl of potatoes. She sat with them, gnawing on the boiled neck and back. She smiled and fed them the “Sunday dinner” as she encouraged them to drink the milk and eat all the mashed potatoes because “it’s good for you.” The rest of the day she rested until it was time to walk the long mile in the dark for Training Union at the church where she could not teach Sunday School because she was a divorced woman.
Her fortunes changed when she became the first single woman to be rented a mill house in the town. Unlike the little, green house that she and her children had been evicted from by her husband’s father, the mill house had a bathroom and three bedrooms and a proper living room and kitchen. And, it was two blocks from Plant One, so she could walk to and from work. The three older girls shared a front bedroom, she and the youngest girl shared the middle bedroom, and the two boys the back bedroom. Life was greatly improved, but still hard. Chicken necks and backs remained.
She worked. She prayed. She loved her Lord. She guided. She finally was allowed to teach Sunday School at her new church. She purchased her first car. She loved unconditionally, even her long-gone husband. Her six children married and the family grew to be twenty-one grandchildren, who grew into great grandchildren, and they all would come together on holidays, somehow fitting into her millhouse once more. But, her days are closing and on this one, on her ninety-ninth birth year, she lies in a hospital bed in the middle bedroom of her cherished mill house. Warm. Safe. Loved. Fed. Clean. The chicken necks and backs only a memory of how much she loved “my six little children.”