The Seed and the Story: Jo McDougall’s Daddy’s Money: A Memoir of Farm and Family

The Seed and the Story is a weekly column published in the Post Dispatch, and syndicated in the Courier, exploring folklife, sustainability, oral history, storytelling, human rights,and community in Yell County (and surrounding areas), Arkansas.

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Set in Dewitt, Arkansas in the 1940s-1960s, Jo McDougall’s 2011 memoir, Daddy’s Money: A Memoir of Farm and Family is a loosely woven narrative of life growing up on a Delta rice farm. Amid transcribed letters from family members, haunting images of a decaying home place, and painfully honest discussions of the legal battle and subsequent rift with her sister over inheritance, McDougall searches for her childhood story. Carving a channel throughout the narrative is the uncertainty of farm life and her family’s deep connection to the land. Chronology gives way to a more accurate representation of how we truly live with the past as McDougall moves back and forth between childhood memories and adult realizations, tacking larger discussions of loss and the slowly unfolding realization of “how quickly time devours.”

McDougal is best known for her poetry, including her sparse and brilliant collection, Towns Facing Railroads. She approaches this memoir with the same studied economy of words: everything is measured, budgeted, rationed. She makes little distinction between the land and the people, acknowledging their interdependence at every turn. Take this paragraph for example:

If it rains within the week, I’ll have new clothes to enter the third grade, and Dad will admire them. If not, I’ll hear my parents arguing into the night. It never occurs to either of them, I suppose, to pursue another way of making a living. They are beholden to the spreading sunsets of this forever landscape, to the smells of water irrigating a dry field, to the color of rice at harvest, like burnt butter. They are beholden to the dirt.”

While her parents’ livelihood may have been precarious, they were, by far, wealthier than many of the nearby farmers, and most certainly better off than the itinerate workers who populated McDougall’s childhood imagination and helped her father make a crop each season. Amid a war and surrounded by much poverty, McDougall’s family led a comparatively economically stable life. Her parents lived with the worry and insecurity of farming, but she and her sister occupied an extended innocence. Yet this is not quite a book of nostalgia. As the book sways between tidbits of the present day—­her daughter’s cancer, her husband losing his own family farm— to shadowy recollections of childhood, the book coalesces around a pilgrimage, of sorts, she and her family make to the farm some years after her mother and father’s death. As they walk through the remains, “on something like an archeological dig into the everyday life of our ancestors,” she recognizes that this is the “place, the cauldron,” that made her who she is.  Yet to her children and grandchildren the farm is “a crusted yard and a house with dead windows.”

McDougall takes the crusted yard, the dead windows, even the story of her rift with her sister, and turns it into a collective story about living daily with the land and the stories that populate our childhood. She confirms, with her own story, that we are forever engulfed, consciously or not, by the stories of our ancestors. Circling back to the touchstone images from her childhood, such as her horse Daisy, near the end of book she articulates how seamlessly childhood intersects with the our current lives, stating: “I find every horse is Daisy, every fedora my father’s, every teddy bear the Bookhouse bear, who nightly said his prayers. In a nanosecond the past and present brush, moving on.”

To order this and other books by McDougall, visit the University of Arkansas Press here.   To learn more about Jo McDougal, visit her webpage here.