The town of Butterfield can be found, if you’re not distracted by cows or a giant chicken processing plant, just off Highway 37 in Barry County, down in the southwest corner of Missouri, almost too close to Branson, and a long way from being described as thriving. It’s seen better days, and worse ones, and is in a period now where it’s difficult to tell if its future is looking up or down. Most of the folks who live there like it that way.
But the Butterfield that exists in these stories and essays is not that town. It is, rather, the town upon which this one was built, and exists now only in my imagination, and the imaginations of those who, like me, once lived there and are living still. And that’s a smaller population than once lived there or lives there now.
The original town was laid out in the mid-1800s by representatives of a Scottish land development company. Developers hoping to make it a major railroad stop and perhaps proclaim it the county seat were disappointed in both pursuits. Still, it once hosted a bank, a hotel, a cafe, two grocery stores, a feed store, a shoe store, an apartment house and a strawberry association packing shed. The cafe was about the last to go. But in my time there as a child, the town was still intact. My two aunts, Neva and Juanita, had a grocery store in the old bank building and had an apartment where they both lived with Neva’s son, Charlie. Charlie’s dad, Roose Johnson, was killed in a car accident when Charlie was five. I never knew him because I was born when Charlie was nine. My mother and I lived across the tracks at the old hotel, that was owned by my great aunt Laura. She lived there too until she died in 1945. I was sitting on her lap when she died. After that, my mother went to California, where my father was in the brig for having come home when my birth was imminent. They frown on that when you’re in the Navy and there’s a war going on. I stayed with my two aunts and my grandmother until they returned. My earliest memories are of lying in that crib watching the glowing cinders fall through the grate of the coal stove at the back of the room. I had the run of the store and I’m told I had to be restrained when I attempted to give every child that came in the store a candy bar. I was also told my aunts took such loving care of that infant me that my cheeks became chapped from my grandmother’s attempts to scrub off the lipstick, for they kissed me every time they passed. When my grandmother threw up her hands and ordered them to stop, they responded by kissing the bottoms of my feet instead. I attribute every ounce of faith, charity and kindness in my being, as well as my lifelong love of women’s energy, to that early infusion of overflowing affection. It has shaped me more than any other life experience, save only the deaths of my parents. But that story is for later.
Both my mother and my father were from large, disorderly families that were always coming and going and were tangled together in a number of offhand ways, such as the odd relationship between my father’s father and Charlie’s father’s sister, causing my dad and his sister Louise to evict said grandfather from his wife’s house and send him packing. He and Margaret moved to western Kansas where he had a long career as sheriff. Margaret’s two sisters, Flossie and Shug stayed around, and Shug, who looked like a tall, muscular lesbian version of my mother, used to come by and visit to see if Neva, her sister-in-law and brother’s widow, needed any help. Then there was Granny’s family, the very straight-laced Fergusons, who came by now and then to see how she was managing, and Daddy’s brothers and sisters, to hear news of him, and it was all very hard to keep track of. My great uncle Tom Ferguson, granny’s brother, would assist in my care by taking me with him to auctions where he worked as clerk, and he would teach me the words to songs and have me sing them for the people at the auction. I have never experienced stage fright, and for that I blame Tom.
Then Tom died, my mother and dad came home from the coast, and we started out on that traditional Ozarks life path of going out to find work to make enough money to come home on. I traveled with them until the eighth grade, when, after nine schools in seven years, I declared I wanted to go to school in just one place. So they sent me home to live with my grandmother in the old hotel that Aunt Laura had left to my mother, and I returned to Butterfield. Nearly all the stories I tell have their genesis in that town and the people who raised me and gave me eyes to forever see the world around me in light of the world where I began. I hope you enjoy the ones you find in here.