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This essay is from Frances Nail’s first book—Crow in the House, Wolf at the Door—available in print and

on CD. The audio version is read by the author and includes musical interludes by Nail’s granddaughter, fiddler Carrie Rodriguez.

Click on the arrow under the picture to begin listening.

Time: 8 minutes 35 seconds

My Mother’s Crow


    I lost my mother’s horseshoe the year before she died. It was lost when she had to move, at eighty-nine, to my sister’s house. They lived then in Lorenzo, Texas. One of her grandchildren moved into her house and built a new room on the back, ripping off the back door along with the horseshoe. I suppose it was taken away to a landfill and buried somewhere out there on that lonesome plain. Someone should have sung and prayed over it. Bury me not on the lone prairieee. Had I known it was gone, I would have been digging there until I found it. When she died I was too sad to miss it. It is still my great hope to find that horseshoe, though I’m not likely to dig for it, now. I’m too old. I might, though. I want my horseshoe. I am the only child left of my family and it is mine, wherever it is. I want to nail it over my door for good luck. Before it’s too late.

    My Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says it is lucky to pick up a horseshoe because it protects us from witches and evil. The reason, according to someone named John Aubrey, is that Mars (iron) is the enemy of Saturn (god of the witches). And horseshoes are nailed to the door open end up, so the luck won’t run out. Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, when asked about the one on his wall, said, “Of course, I don’t believe in it. But I understand it brings you luck whether you believe in it or not.”

    My brother Freddy found our horseshoe and brought it home. He nailed it, open end up, over the back door of our big old white house down on South Seventh Street, where we lived in Memphis, Texas. He said, “Now, Mama, if we should ever move, we will take this horseshoe with us and we will always have good luck.” Two years later, when he was fourteen, a baseball killed Freddy and then the Depression came and my daddy lost his drugstore and we lost our old white house. We moved a block away into a teensy-tiny stucco house. The horseshoe went with us.

    That house was a little house. If I remember it right, it had one bedroom. With Bob, John, and me still at home, we had beds all over, in the dining room, living room, and our books were crammed everywhere. It was chaos. Our big kitchen table where ten or twelve often had eaten was sold, along with our oak buffet from the dining room. But the round oak table and its chairs went into a little breakfast room.

    I was in junior high and had no sense at all when we suffered through this traumatic event, which must have nearly killed my mother. But to me it was an adventure. I loved it. I loved living in that tiny house on South Eighth Street with its red-brick road. I thought it was exciting to move from the only house I’d ever known to what I considered a different neighborhood. I loved the little breakfast room, which stuck out from the house with its three windowed walls and looked out across the neighborhood to a new view. Delightful to my small mind. What I actually saw, across a weedy vacant lot, was an old, beat-up house and the mulberry trees from which my mother once pulled me and gave me my first spanking for eating the berries. But that breakfast room was a place where I could escape the clutter and confusion that had taken us over. When I came home from school, I would take a sausage and biscuit, left from breakfast, with a cup of fresh coffee, which my ma always had in the afternoons, into the little room and I would eat and read. I was reading for the first time Great Expectations. To this day, even a whiff of sausage and coffee takes me to that pitiful little room that I thought so grand, and I am there again with Pip. And my great expectations.

    When spring came, we moved with our horseshoe to a larger house for the same rent. It had enough bedrooms for us, and a front porch. And so, we moved out, like the bearers on a safari or the refugees who walk down African roads with their possessions on their heads. Except that we had no talent for it. We half carried and almost dragged our stuff back to Seventh Street to the brown house right across the street from our old house. We could smell our lilacs and see our pear trees in bloom.

    In the backyard was a small house with just one room. For help, I guess, when there was some. It had a front porch and it was a private place, which teenagers have looked for since Adam and Eve. We put our excess books in there, and I spent all summer reading my grandfather’s medical books. He went to Tulane for a year and came back to Texas a doctor, with his license and this set of books. A freshman now in high school, about thirteen, I suddenly became extremely interested in the books. I read through them one by one with great interest in all things sexual. There were marvelous drawings of genitals and childbirth, the symptoms, cures, and causes of sexual diseases, and many other dreadful things, fully illustrated. Had there been any classes, then, on sexuality, I could have taught them, as far as the mechanics and consequences were concerned. Love was not mentioned in my grandfather’s books.

    We had a happy time in that house, poor as we were. My sister Lois had her second child there early one morning in the front bedroom. It was a festive occasion. We would have sat on that front porch and watched the world go by forever. But nothing was moving except us.

    We moved, once again in the spring. I don’t remember why, but I thought we were lucky to find the new house. It was two blocks from high school and had a fireplace. We had always wished for one. And when I stepped out onto the back stoop with a kitchen chair to hang the horseshoe, the backyard looked out on a pasture that rolled down, a mile or so, to a narrow road that ran by the golf course. The pasture was full of mesquite, just blooming out, and the ground was yellow with the wildflowers that cover the earth out there in the spring. The air was so clear then and the smell of it all, so heavenly.

    And next door lived bright, blue-eyed, blonde Muffet Merrill, a freckle-faced all-American girl, full of fun. The street lit up when she stepped out. Across the street was Jim Caveness, her opposite—dark and quiet, a solemn and courteous boy. He lived alone with his father in a big white house, much like the one we lost. He couldn’t remember his mother. Once or twice, after dark, Muffet and I went with Jim in his daddy’s car and bounced around on a pasture, shooting at jackrabbits with his .22 rifle. Thank God, we never hit one. Today, Muffet lights up Kansas City. Jim died young, like his mother, I suppose.

    In the fall I went out in the pasture and gathered mesquite for the fireplace. Mostly sticks. It’s a wonder we didn’t burn the house down. I doubt the fireplace had ever been cleaned. My sister Bob had a friend, Jake Webster, the zaniest boy alive. He loved to tease my mother. She had some wooden ashtrays and kept them on the hearth for decorations, not for use. Jake would throw one in the fire when she was tending it. She raked it out with the poker and chased him through the house, hitting at him while he ran, shrieking and dodging. He was a case. He always wore his hat, a private eye’s hat, pulled down over one eye in a rakish sort of way. He never took it off.

    Jake was sitting in our living room one Saturday morning, waiting for Bob and me to get up. Ma didn’t know he was in the house. The phone rang and she called to us, “Girls! Get up. The electrician is coming to fix your ceiling light.” We did not get up. When the electrician drove up, Jake ran into our room, which opened into the living room. He jumped across Bob and slid into bed between us, hat and all, and pulled the covers up to his chin. My mother met the electrician and said, “I cannot get those girls up. Just fix their light and ignore them.” He came in with his ladder, put it at the foot of our bed and climbed, eyes averted. He removed the fixture and as he started down, he glanced down to see Jake, snug in the middle, his hat pulled down over his ears, his crazy eyes shining and blinking. The man froze on his ladder, light fixture in hand, just as my mother came in with her broom. When she saw Jake, she began to hit us with that broom. Bob and I jumped out of bed and ran, but Jake dug in, pulling the covers over his head, howling and moaning. My mother beat the living daylights out of Jake, hitting him with the side of the broom. She finally stopped and turned to the electrician. “Mr. Osborne,” she asked, still aggravated, “do you need a cup of coffee?” “Yes ma’am,” he said with a straight face, “I do.”

    We had a lot of fun in that house. We had fun wherever we lived, never having learned the difference between comic and tragic. Though Freddy’s horseshoe didn’t bring us any luck with money, it brought us good times, if you think of good as happy. Hard times, stay away from my door. But it was there on Noel Street that we gave it up. We took our horseshoe and went, with all our belongings in the bed of one truck, like the Okies, though not to California. We went to Lubbock.

    And Lubbock is Lubbock. Or was—it’s all Republican now. But my luck improved slowly there. I went to college, married a good man, and moved to Houston. Ever after, I had new clothes, new cars, new houses, and I always paid my bills. Most fortunate. I have two daughters and a granddaughter, all bright and beautiful and full of love. Pure luck. I lived to be nearly old sitting on a porch looking out on beautiful, blue Lake Travis. At eighty, I got a new knee, and at eighty-one, a new son-in-law and grandson-in-law. What luck. And at eighty-five, I live not in a nursing home, but in in a condo in Austin, Texas. Downtown.
How lucky is that?

The Horseshoe

     an essay from The Way of It