“I will be 94 years old on April 26. Isn’t that wonderful? My only problem is my eyes. It’s the reason I quit teaching when I was 85.
I grew up in Drew, Mississippi. My mother was 43 and my daddy was 56 when I was born. I was their only child, and I am sure they were the talk of Drew. Daddy used to say I was the engine and the caboose. We had the best time. Daddy was a hoot, and I was always by his side.
Daddy had a service station and a store on old Highway 49 in the ‘s-curve’ in Drew. Bookie worked and drove for Daddy. He taught me how to drive when I was 10 or 11, and I started driving our Chevrolet for my family. Daddy never learned how to drive, but he was the worst backseat driver.
Dad also farmed with Mr. Sage, but things got bad during the Depression. Dad got a job at Parchman State Penitentiary in 1940. I was 12 when we moved there, and I got to bring the stray dog I had taken in. He was white, with brown spots. The spot on his head looked like a club on a card, so I named him ACE.
We lived in Camp Five for two years, and there were kids up and down Parchman. We went to school together and had a lot of fun. We played hide and seek at night. I have a picture of a boy hanging upside down out of a tree. He was Bob Crook who later became a Mississippi senator.
Dad was an overseer of the men working in the field. Parchman Farm used to be self-supporting, and the farm made money for the state. All of the convicts had nicknames. There was an Indian nicknamed Wahoo. He was a trustee, a guard who carried a rifle. He went to the field with the long line – the stripes on his uniform ran up and down instead of around like other prisoners. Ace walked the field with Wahoo each day and returned to our house for the lunch break.
After lunch, they rang the metal triangle telling the convicts it was time to go back to the fields. Ace would run back to Wahoo. When Wahoo was about to be released from Parchman, he begged me to let him take ACE with him. I loved Ace dearly, but I knew those two were constant companions, and Ace had more loyalty to Wahoo. I finally agreed, but I was heartbroken.
Wahoo was set free in an ugly suit with $25, and he walked to Drew. That afternoon, we got a phone call saying that Wahoo and ACE were in the one-room jail in Drew. Wahoo left Parchman and immediately committed a robbery in broad daylight. He had been in prisons across the U.S. since he was a teenager. Prison was his home, and he didn’t know what to do in the free world. We bailed Ace out. By nightfall, Wahoo was back at Parchman and ACE was home with me.
My mother was miserable at Parchman. She didn’t like to drive, but sometimes she drove when I was in school. One day she drove Daddy to Drew and stopped to get gas. Dad had been telling her where to go and how to drive. She pulled into the station and hit the gas tank. It fell over and caught on fire. I was riding home on the school bus, but someone flagged it down, and I got off. Firemen were trying to put out the fire, and I thought Mother would drop dead from embarrassment. She told Daddy that she would never touch the steering wheel again. She never did. I drove back home. It was all Daddy’s fault because he was a horrible backseat driver and made mother nervous.
Charlie Brown was another Parchman trustee who wore straight up and down stripes. He drove a truck to the wholesale houses in Drew
As I was driving us back from Drew one afternoon with my seat propped up on a brick and an English grammar book, Dad was directing and Mama was holding court in the back seat. I looked in the rearview mirror and said, ‘Here comes Charlie Brown.’ He flew past us, and a car was chasing him. That car was beside me when the passenger pulled out a pistol and started shooting at Charlie Brown. I asked Daddy what I should do. He said, ‘Keep driving. Stay with the pursuit.’
Charlie Brown entered Parchman on two wheels, leaving the two men behind. We later learned that Charlie Brown had stopped to visit a lovely young wife, then her husband and his brother arrived. Charlie Brown got away, but he never got to drive back to the wholesale.
Colby was a tall, blonde inmate with brilliant blue eyes. He was past handsome, and the others called him Swede. He ran out of money while he was in medical school and drove a car for bank robbers to keep himself in school. Colby didn’t get out of the car, but he was still part of an armed robbery and received a life sentence. He filled in for the doctor at Parchman and even pulled my tooth. He received an indefinite suspension to serve in World War II.
Mother and I were listening to the radio on Sunday, December 7, 1941. They broke into the program to announce that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor. I was 13, and I remember looking at Mother and asking ‘Where is Pearl Harbor?’ I had never heard of it. I still have that radio.
The next day, we went into the auditorium at Drew High School. They brought in a big radio and we listened to President Roosevelt declare war. You could have heard a pin drop. A lot of those boys and the ones in nearby Cleveland went to war.
Lee Odom was one of those boys who enlisted in the Navy and went to war for two years. I met him at a football game after he returned home. I liked him from the moment I met him. When he proposed he said we would make a good team. He was right. I was 20 when we eloped in 1949.
Lee was a Delta farmer. I taught English and journalism and ran the student newspaper. My mother-in-law tried hard to mold me. She signed me up for the home demonstration club and the garden contest. Lee tilled the rows, we planted something, and I left it alone after that. The assistant county agent came out to grade my garden, but we couldn’t find it. I didn’t win.
Then my mother-in-law signed me up for the sewing contest and gave me her sewing machine. I bought the cutest material and pattern to make mother-daughter dresses, but I made a big mess sewing things that were never supposed to be together. My best friend was a beautiful seamstress so I got her to make the dresses for my entry. I crashed and burned in the garden contest, but I thought this was my chance to do better. They asked my friend to judge the sewing contest, and I crashed again. She was too honest, and I learned crime never pays.
My mother-in-law once told me, ‘You are the only person I have ever known who consistently does everything the hardest way possible.’ She was right, but I was always a teacher. I taught Sunday school, circles, and the Missionary Society. The older ladies came in the afternoon, and I just loved them.
Lee and I were married for 41 years. He was 65 years old when he died. I have lived almost 30 years without him and had to learn how to do things on my own.
I love poetry, and I started dabbling in it to express myself. I started with this poem about the Mississippi Delta.
“The Delta starts at the Peabody,”
David Cohn said years ago,
“And comes to an end in Vicksburg
on a street called Catfish Row.”
Those classic lines locate a place
That is real and unreal.a flavor, a taste,
Where red hills border the eastern side
Across from the Mississippi’s muddy tide.
Arrow-straight rows of cotton and beans
Frame serpentine rice levees in between,
Following twisting oxbow lakes
and dark and brooding cypress breaks.
There are willows drooping slender fronds
Fringing glistening catfish ponds.
Now a bold new crop is on the vine-
Fat, sweet grapes turning into wine.
Surely we are bound in unity
By pride so strong it’s a mystery.
This unique feeling so immense
It fosters a base of confidence,
Enabling us to understand
The contradictions of our land.
It seems a presence that will never die;
Listen, do you hear it passing by?
“Come winters that freeze and summers that swelter,
I will survive, I am the Mississippi Delta.”
I had a strange upbringing, didn’t I? It’s been a good life with ups and downs, but I am thankful for my family and the Delta.”
Mary Ann Odom
Here is a link to the audio of Mrs. Odom reciting her poem from memory. It is meant to be heard in her voice: https://vimeo.com/702484003.