Sheila Arnold was born and raised in rural West Tennessee into a hard-working tenant farming family. A retired educator, she earned degrees from Union University in Jackson, TN and from the University of Memphis. She now lives in Jackson, TN with her husband, Bobby and their dog, Louie. She is the mother of two and grandmother to six. She is an avid supporter of local artists and an advocate for improving the livability of her community and the literacy and educational opportunities for locals.
The Sunny Side
She stoked the fire in the woodstove and tucked the baby into bed beside her, careful to not wake the two older boys. They would have extra homework tomorrow because they skipped school today. Morning would be here soon and the cow would have to be milked before the boys awoke—something he would always have done for her. “Close your eyes…get to sleep…keep on the sunny side….”
She had been relieved that she didn’t cry until the bus was out of sight. She had promised herself that Jack wouldn’t see her tears. After all, he was the one really making the sacrifice. Every Saturday for weeks, the five of them, Della, Jack and their three boys had made the trip to town and with dread and anticipation to check the board at the courthouse. The conscription list that Ms. Inez prepared each week seemed like a hungry wolf that had devoured nearly every man in Gordon County. Jack’s name, miraculously had not appeared and she assumed that it was because he was a father of three young boys. But when she assured him that his name would be published on the next list, Ms. Inez seemed especially distressed. By that point in the war, most every inductee was sent straight into the infantry and directly to a battlefield. The list of local men who either didn’t come home or came home with injuries was growing. That Saturday night, Jack and Della stayed up nearly until dawn, talking, crying, holding onto each other. They went to Ebenezer Church Sunday morning and prayed hard. Then, on Monday morning, he went into town alone and voluntarily enlisted in the Navy.
The next few days were busy. Jack furiously cut and stacked wood, hoping to have a woodpile big enough to get through the winter. He talked to all of his neighbors asking them to look after Della and the boys. He butchered and dressed a hog and hung the meat in the smokehouse. He made certain that Della had plenty of shells for both the shotgun and the .22 rifle he kept hanging on the wall. He walked the two older boys to and from school each day talking to them about being men while he was gone. And he whispered promises into his baby son’s ear that he would be back.
That Tuesday morning, the sky was overcast and there was enough of a chill to promise that winter was coming. The boys and Della all dressed in their best clothes. Della made biscuits, fried some sausage and eggs and made a pot of coffee. She attempted to keep the mood light. She turned on the Motorola radio and hummed through the static to the familiar tunes. Just as Jack came in from milking, the opening chords of “Keep on the Sunny Side” blared. She scooped up the baby, pranced around the kitchen to the cadence of the song, singing loudly. Jack grabbed her free hand, twirled her around the kitchen, tickled the two older boys, and joined in. The middle boy giggled uncontrollably, but the oldest just solemnly stared at his sausage and eggs. Jack flopped down in his chair at the end of the table and devoured his breakfast. Letting out a satisfied sigh, he remarked that he knew there wouldn’t be any meal at basic training that would compare, so he had better take some with him. The sunny mood shifted subtly as Della wrapped up the left over sausage and biscuits and put them in his knapsack for his long bus ride.
She didn’t remember much about their ride to town. She, Jack and all three boys piled into Mr. Clift’s car and rode to the courthouse where there was a bus waiting. She and the boys got out of the back seat of the car. Jack held the baby on his shoulder, then gently handed him back to her. She expertly shifted him onto her left hip and focused all of her attention on making sure the other two boys stayed close and minded their manners. One last kiss. One last hug. One last touch. Big smile. Don’t let him see me cry. The two older boys gave their dad hugs and wiped their eyes on his shoulder. Then, just they had practiced, they gave their dad a perfect military salute.
Jack hesitantly boarded the bus bound for Mobile where he would train before being shipped off to who knows where. He chose a seat by a window so that he could imprint the faces of his family firmly in his mind. Enemies were to the east and enemies were to the west. He had no idea which direction he would be sent. He only knew that he had never been out of Tennessee.
She stood in that same spot on the court square until the bus was out of sight. And yet she held her tears.
The ride home was twice as long as the ride to town. The house was twice as dark. Twice as quiet. The boys stayed outside. The sky stayed gray. The air stayed cool. The breakfast dishes still needed washing. She heated up a pan of water and began the chore. It wasn’t until she scraped the leftover crumbs from Jack’s plate that the tears began. A guttural, animal-like wail from her soul arose but stopped just short of her throat. She feared that if this wail ever escaped her lips, it might never stop and that it would overcome and consume them all. She could hear the laughter of her two older boys playing in the yard, chasing each other and wrestling in the dirt.
She finished the dishes, dried them all and put them away, even though that was the boys’ chore. She called the boys in, had them each bring in a few sticks of firewood, made them wash up and get into the bed. “Tomorrow’s another day, sweet boys.”
She settled into the rocking chair with her baby on her shoulder, she sang and rocked in ¾ time,
“Well there’s a dark and a troubled side of life.
There’s a bright and a sunny side too.
But if you meet with the darkness and strife,
The sunny side we also may view.
Let us greet with a song of hope each day.
Though the moments be cloudy or fair.
Let us trust in our Saviour always,
To keep us, every one, in His care.
Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side,
Keep on the sunny side of life.
It will help us every day, it will brighten all the way,
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life.
If we’ll keep on the sunny side of life”
When the baby’s breathing was steady and slow, she gently tucked him into her bed in the spot that belonged to Jack. She wrote a note to her older sons’ teacher to let her know why they had missed school today. She added a log to the woodstove, checked on the two older boys before crawling into her bed that seemed far too big. “Morning’s coming,” she told herself. “Close your eyes….”