Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

 
James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning


Something That Can't Be Taken Away

Mae (Holaday) Penn


I remember my life as a small child, living way out in the hills of Watonga. Our first home was a two-room dug-out on the side of the hill. One room had bunk beds around the room. Our mom and dad slept in the other room, which also served as our kitchen. One thing I remember best about those days, was the time a skunk got in one night and bit one of my brothers.

My little brother died in February of 1939. We cooked and kept the place warm with a wood-burning stove. My brother, Allen, was to keep wood cut and split. Norma and I were to stack the wood. One time, we tried to see who could get the biggest stack. I was in a hurry and reached to get the wood as Allen split it. As the ax came down, he saw my head just under it, and jerked the ax to miss my head. The ax hit all the fingers on my left hand. I can still see my mother running out to grab me up. She held my fingers together and wrapped them in rags, and off we went to the doctor’s office. I didn’t cry until the feeling came back into my hand. Doctors were able to save all the fingers but the middle one. When I cried for my finger, the doctor put it in a bottle and gave it to me. He also gave me money for candy. Going to the store for candy was the biggest treat I believe I ever had. My finger went everywhere with me.

In November of 1939, my mother became ill. She made Dad promise to keep us four girls together; we also had five older brothers. We buried Mother not long afterwards. I was 4 years old at the time. I remember one of my brothers holding me at the graveside.

With Mother’s insurance money, my uncle helped my dad build a two-room frame house for us. I was later told she was pregnant with her 13th child.

Dad had two different ladies to help take care of us, but never for long. For the most part, our five brothers took care of us. Soon it became impossible for Dad to keep us. Child Welfare gave Dad time to do something or we would be taken away.

Reverend Russell, pastor of Mother’s church, helped get us into the Baptist Home. About May 12, 1942, my three sisters and I entered the Baptist Children’s Home. My dad wouldn’t let me take my finger, I had to leave it behind.

My sister, Sue, lived in the big girls’ building. Norma had to stay with Lena and me, because we were so small. We lived in the converted chapel. Boys were on one side with Mrs. Edwards as housemother. Girls lived on the other side with Betty Bishop.

A new boy came while we were still in the chapel. His name was Jimmy Wright. We hit it off right away. I was always getting spanked for playing with him. Our friendship lasted into high school. I last saw him in late 1956. He died the next year. I missed him very much.

Construction was completed on the little girls’ and boys’ cottage and office building. Moving day was a very happy time for me. I still have a picture of me carrying my dolls into the front door. In the new building, we had new beds, each girl had her own closet, and we had a shoot to drop our dirty clothes that went to the laundry room. The bathroom was beautiful—it had two big bath tubs; we each had a place for our towel and toothbrush. I had never seen anything like it.

We also had a new housemother, Mrs. McCumber, who was like a grandmother to me. Mr. and Mrs. Roy Drummond worked in the kitchen. I remember on each girl’s birthday, Mrs. Drummond would ask what kind of cake the girl wanted. She never missed a birthday. Before coming to the home, I never knew what a birthday was, so it was a wonderful treat to have something special just for me.

Mrs. McCumber took a lot of interest in each of us. As I cried myself to sleep every night, she would stand by my bed until I went to sleep. It was comforting to know she was there.

Saturdays were work days for the older girls as they cleaned the building. After breakfast, we brushed our teeth, then we younger girls were sent outside until noon. The doors were locked while the cleaning was done. One of the older girls would leave the side door open, so we could sneak into the bathroom. We became pretty good at sneaking inside.

Also on Saturdays, Mrs. McCumber sewed and mended socks. I would stand by the sewing machine, and we talked as she treadled away on that sewing machine. One day as we were talking, the needle went through her finger. I was afraid I would be in big trouble. But she worked the needle loose, wrapped the garment she was sewing around her hand, and called me over to her. She picked me up, set me in her lap, put her arms around me and said, “Mae, you know you are all alone now. What you make of your life will be up to you. Life will be rough, like going down a road. When you come to a fork, you will have to decide which to take—one will be good and the other will be going the wrong way. Always remember God will be with you.” She said I should treat my body as if it was the temple of God. When blood began seeping through the garment, she hugged me, stood me on the floor, swatted me on the bottom and told me to go play, she had to take care of her hand. We had many good talks at that sewing machine.

When I quit crying myself to sleep, I knew she was just a step away. She always had time for all of us. She made the first great impression on my life, and I will always remember her.

  • Continued...

    There was a big willow tree down the hill behind the girls’ cottage. We spent many happy hours playing house under that tree. Mrs. Drummond would have us cut a branch from this tree for spankings. At first, we thought the young green ones were the best to get, but learned real quick the older ones didn’t hurt as bad.

    We had a little blonde-haired girl come to the Home. Her name was Nancy Sue Taylor. She would be our baby sister when we played house. One Sunday, her family came to visit. She cried and tried to hide. I was out back when she came running around the house. I hid her where I always hid playing Hide & Seek. No one was able to find her. She never told where she hid, but was punished for hiding. In a few weeks she was taken from the Home. I had had many fights from teasing about my missing finger, so my heart went out to Nancy.

    I moved into the big-girl building to live in the basement. That was a big change. We had to do our own house cleaning. We would warm the hard floor wax over heaters, then start waxing the hard-wood floors. To shine the floor, we would have several girls sit on an old quilt, then run up and down the halls, pulling the quilt. When polishing the stairs, they would go flying down the steps. Everyone in the building pitched in on this day. It wasn’t often we had to wax the floors, but we sure had fun the way we did it.

    When I was about 12 years old, I started watching the big girls play baseball. One day they were short a player, and Sue, my sister, pulled me out to play. You learned to play fast or got run over. I soon discovered I had one advantage—I could out-run them all. They always walked me they couldn’t pitch low enough for me. I crawled between legs and learned to slide. I started learning to pitch; I loved to play out-field; and I loved to run. I loved all sports.

    I also played basketball with the boys. Having a big sister had its advantages. The older boys were nice to me. They started teaching me to play basketball. I liked playing full court, so in girls’ basketball, I always fouled out.

    There were lots of games we girls played: Kick the Can, Red Rover (we played until Ruth Ann broke her arm twice while playing), Pop the Whip, Root the Peg, Salt and Pepper, and many others.

    We lost Mrs. Stump as housemother when I was 13 years old. I was sick at the time Mrs. Huffman, our new housemother, moved in. I can remember sitting on the front porch, sewing on doll clothes. I had been crying. She came out and sat beside me, put her arms around me and asked if she could help. I told her everything was okay. She told me if I ever needed anything, she was always there. She also helped me with my doll clothes; she let me use her needle and thread, as long as I returned them. Mrs. Huffman came into my life at a very difficult age, 13.

    I was running around with Wanda Williams. When we played ‘Hide & Seek,’ Wanda and I would go out on the front porch upstairs, crawl over the side and, holding on to the top rail, we would slowly lower ourselves down, then we would drop to the ground. One day as we were going over, we heard Naomi Lockhart run out, yelling, “I’m going to do what you girls are doing.” We yelled, “No,” but too late. Naomi went over the front porch, hit the steps below, then bounced on down into the basement. We were the first to reach her. She had a broken leg—she was lucky she didn’t break more. We told her you never drop down on concrete. We had to quit, for when someone was hurt, it was time to stop.

    Then we started hiding behind clothes in the closet. With our backs to the wall and feet on the other wall, we climbed up where we couldn’t be seen. Mrs. Huffman had a long talk with us. What one didn’t think of, the other one did.

    I remember a group of us decided to climb out of the window upstairs and go down in a bucket. We tied ropes together, then tied one end to the bucket and the other one to the bed rail. We lowered the larger girls first, until we were all down. As the girls held the bucket, Wanda climbed down the wall; I followed behind. Just as we got to the bottom, Mrs. Huffman stuck her head out and asked how we planned to come back in. We said, “Through the front door.” She said, “Here, you come in the way you leave.” Wanda and I managed to climb back up with the girls holding the bucket. One by one, we managed to bring each girl up in the bucket. Wanda wasn’t at the Home very long.

    I believe God brought Mrs. Huffman into my life for a good reason. She took the place of my mother. Never once did she not have the time when I wanted to talk. I began turning my life around.

    I remember one weekend Mrs. Huffman was off duty. Her daughter always picked her up. This weekend she drove back in a brand-new car. We all crawled inside, asking what she was going to do with a car, living in the Baptist Home. Buses were the only way we traveled. She replied each of us needed to know how to act when we went out into the world to live. On Friday nights, all the girls that weren’t baby-sitting, would get dressed to go out. We would go to the movies, or eat or maybe shopping. We had to have our own money, so we could learn how to handle it.

    I can remember Mrs. Huffman walking from 63rd and Penn to 63rd and Western to a small store so we could buy snacks. Sometimes we went alone. She gave more of herself than was required by her job. Her respect for me taught me to respect others. She taught me so much, I can never give her enough credit for all she did in influencing my life.

    When I worked in the laundry, my job was ironing the boys’ white shirts. One week of that and I asked to be able to work in the little girls’ cottage. I worked in the kitchen with little Pat Williams. Mrs. Drummond was our supervisor. I learned to cook—it was sure better than ironing all those white shirts. Little Pat ran away from the Home with her brother to live with their dad. Billie Jo Parks moved in with me. We worked well together. I was always making the cornbread, using no recipe. Billie Jo decided she could make it just as good. So I turned it over to her. When she took the cornbread out of the oven, it was so hard you couldn’t break it. I took a hammer and nails and nailed it to the wall. I put my house up for sale last year, and asked Billie Jo (now a Realtor) to sell it for me. We had a lot of laughs about that cornbread hanging on the wall.

    In my sophomore year, they started building a new cottage for the older girls, down close to the swimming pool. Mrs. Huffman was to be by herself in the building. She asked if I would run the kitchen for her. I agreed. Billie Jo moved with me. Mrs. Huffman taught us how to plan menus and how to order food for a week. It wasn’t long before Billie Jo and I were running the kitchen and dining room by ourselves.

    Many nights after we finished cleaning up, I would knock on Mrs. Huffman’s door. We would visit for hours; I never remember an instance when she didn’t take time for me. I know her understanding and caring helped make me what I am today. Mrs. Huffman defended and supported me when I needed help. I respected her for that.

    My interest in sewing started back with Mrs. McCumber, but I give Mrs. Huffman full credit for my ability to sew. In my senior year, I won the Home-Maker Award, thanks to her encouragement.

    Mrs. Edith Stinson was another big influence on my life. Her office door was always open to me. She knew I enjoyed sewing. Many times she would take me to the room where fabric was kept and let me pick out pieces I wanted to use. She continued to do this, even after I left the home.

    Mom & Pop Maxey’s home was also open to us as we grew older. I can remember on Halloween, Mrs. Maxey had goodies sitting all around. We would hang out, listen to music and visit.

    Mr. & Mrs. Drummond were also nice to me. Years later I discovered they had considered adopting me. But my dad had stated we were to be kept together. I would never have left my sister as we were very close. Before Lena and I were old enough to work for extra money, Mrs. Drummond would buy our year books.

    Sue, Norma, Lena and I owe everything to the Baptist Home. It wasn’t a Children’s Home, it was our home, and we had many brothers and sisters there. How many other kids had enough brothers and sisters to have a basketball game, or a swimming pool? We always had good food on the table, while many others went hungry; we had the nicest clothes anyone could ask for. We’re most grateful for the good religious training we had. I would never have made it without my faith and belief in God.

    I was baptized at the age of 16 by Bro. Carlton during a revival at Immanuel Baptist Church. We all have good memories of the fellowships we had in the evenings after worship services.

    Every year, I attended Falls Creek (mostly to keep from having to do the work at home), but always had a good time.

    Now that I have been on my own so many years, I can look back and say, “Well done!” to all those that had such an important part in my life. I’ve done all I could to raise my two children the way in which I was—in the Christian faith. I’ve been a mother, Cub Scout and Girl Scout leader, home-room mother, taught Sunday mornings, Sunday nights and on Wednesday nights, baseball coach and their friend.

    From the dug-out to the Baptist Home to my life now—I give credit to God, who took four little girls and found them a wonderful home where they could be loved and cared for. God has taken me through two near-death experiences, and I was aware of His Presence at those times.

    I am now divorced after many unhappy years, and have moved to Las Vegas for health reasons. Each day is a challenge here. I have been offered the opportunity to run a flower shop, rent-free. When it gets going good, they will make a profit from what I sell. I helped these people when they needed help, now they want to help me. Today, I like myself and pray others will like me. I believe if you give respect, you will receive it.

    I write this in memory of Mrs. McCumber, Mrs. Irene Huffman, Mrs. Edith Stinson, and Mr. & Mrs. Drummond. Those we can still say thanks to are Mom and Pop Maxey and Mr. & Mrs. Judson Cook. I am speaking for my sisters, Sue, Norma, and Lena and myself. They all gave us something that can never be taken away—a good life, a good future, and most of all, faith and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.

    I know I have left much with my grandchildren. They have learned what love is and how to respect others.

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