Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Joyce Elliott, teacher and legislator
Joyce Elliott was 5 years old when she and her mother and two sisters got off the bus from Kalamazoo, Mich., in front of what would be her new home on Hwy. 9 south of Willisville, Ark. The yard was swept dirt; no grass grew there.
“I remember getting off the bus. … It was a dirt road. There was dust everywhere. I remember thinking, ‘I will never be clean again.’ ”
Elliott’s mother had separated from her father; now they were moving in with Elliott’s grandparents. The house had four rooms. None of the four was a bathroom; there was an outhouse out back.
“My grandmother didn’t seem too excited,” Elliott said. There were already three grandchildren living there; their mother was a migrant worker off in Ohio. In the coming years, her mother added three more children to the home.
“I remember this place as a place I wanted to get away from. Warm and fuzzy memories? Au contraire,” said Elliott.
Elliott, 55, whose term in the state House of Representatives expires in January, left Willisville in 1969 when she went off to college at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia. She returns from time to time to visit her mother, Edna Elliott.
At Thanskgiving, Elliott pulled off the highway at the site of her childhood home — the highway is now paved and renumbered as Hwy. 371 — expecting to see nothing but pine trees. But a swath of pine-needles suggested the old driveway, and she decided to follow it into the woods to see if she could find the well that was in back of the house. It was there; a concrete tube with a rusted tin roof. The water from the 85-foot well was so good and cold, Elliott said, that everyone around liked to come to drink from it. Then, all around her, in the woods, emerged the remains of her house. The concrete steps that had gone to the back door. The chimney, now just bricks in a heap; sandstone piers that marked the outline of the house. The smokehouse, made of upright wooden planks and the scene for community hog-killings, still stood. Her face lit up when she saw through the brambles the sturdy “storm pit,” a concrete-walled cellar to which the family and friends retreated during high winds.
Elliott remembers lying on a blanket in the sun on top of the storm pit and reading. She remembers her grandmother sweeping the front yard with a broom made from dogwood branches, and that there were always people coming through; “It was very liquid.” She remembers that at some point her grandfather was institutionalized, and thinking of a house that at one time sheltered 13 people, she guesses she could see why.
Elliott read the Shreveport Times, novels from the bookmobile, magazines discarded by the family her mother cleaned house for. Because she read so much, “I knew that there were people who had their own bedrooms,” she said. That ignorance is bliss is true, she said. She wasn’t ignorant.
Elliott remembers the clapboard house as “porous,” those home fires burning in the fireplace doing little to warm it. A country store across the street smelled “of sorghum and salt meat.” She was the only child in the neighborhood who dared fetch the fishing worms dropping from the catalpa tree by the store. Her bravery gained her the advantage once when she and her sister argued over who got to wear a skirt they shared to a dance. When the sister laid the skirt on the bed, Elliott put a catalpa worm on the skirt. Elliott won.
There was never enough panty hose to go around, she mused.
Integration had only just come to Nevada County when Elliott was a student. After a year of going to Willisville High, most black kids returned to the all-black Oak Grove High. Elliott did not. She was one of three or four black students in her class who continued at Willisville. Her habit of speaking her mind earned her some name-calling, made her the target of thrown erasers.
Willisville wouldn’t let her play basketball as she had at Oak Grove. “They said ‘the uniform doesn’t fit you,’ ” she said. The following year, after they’d lost their seniors, they changed their mind.
After graduating from SAU (where she couldn’t get a basketball scholarship because only boys did, which she said “solidified” her feminist leanings), Elliott became a teacher. The heckled black girl at Willisville High eventually became president of the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers, and later, during her legislative career just ended, the chair of the House Education Committee.
Elliott looked around the piney woods that have grown up to hide the place she grew up in.
“You know, I had the woods to play in, a lake,” what some might consider an ideal childhood. “But I just couldn’t wait to leave.”
It put her in mind of Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man,” Elliott said. She recited the lines:
“Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in.”
— Leslie Newell Peacock