from The Evolution of Essie

by C.L. Phillips

Papa and the Letters

June 1, 1964

Dear Papa,

I think I killed the chicken. It was an accident, of course, but she may be dead all the same. You see, I was pretending to be the Maestro of a very large symphony on opening night at the Opera. I was conducting furiously, when I gave the prima donna (also me) her cue to take the audience up to the heavens with her silky smooth high notes. Just after twirling about the stage lamenting my lost love, I collapsed to the ground. I thought that part would make my sadness seem more believable…like an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. I did not see Miss Banty pecking around the yard and, in my grief, I landed right on top of her. We both made a loud squawking noise. I was so frightened that I ran away as fast as my legs would carry me. I could not bear to check and see if she was alive or dead. I fear, as I sit and write this to you, that she is out there being eaten by a hawk.

Momma will be angry with me for sure, and I am saddened to my depths. I will, from now on, have to make my grand performances a little less grand or, perhaps, find a stage that doesn’t allow chickens to be in my cast.

Remorsefully Yours,
Essie Grace

It’s been two years since Papa died. I was nine and at least three inches shorter. I know this to be true because when he died I climbed my favorite tree to cry. Back then I needed to use the old apple crate as a stepstool to help me reach the big limb, but now that I’m eleven (and a good deal taller) I can reach it on my own. Momma never did tell me how Papa died. “Lord called him home,” was all she’d ever say to me. She thinks children ought to be kept from most bad things for as long as they can. Mamaw disagrees with her, though, so when I want to know the truth of things I go see her. She told me Papa died of “the sugars,” which Mamaw says has sent many of our kin to an early grave. I’m not going to lie, I don’t know exactly what that means but, since I’m very fond of sugar, I’m worried that “the sugars” will come for me one day, too.

I miss Papa every day. He used to say to me, “Tell me what you know, Essie Grace.” I knew when he said those words he wanted to hear all about my day. He would sit and listen for as long as I could talk, and I’ll tell you now that is a very long time. I would tell him about my adventures in the woods and my conversations with the animals. I think he especially liked to hear about my tree friends. Momma said girls shouldn’t climb trees the way I do, but Papa would just give me a wink and a smile to let me know it was okay for me to climb.

Since Papa died, no one ever asks me to tell them what I know. I’ve tried to just tell them anyway but have found that most people aren’t very interested in the happenings of an eleven-year-old girl. Mamaw will sit and listen for a few minutes, but then she has to tend to things around the house. Momma just tells me I need to stop talking to animals and trees so much or I’ll never have “real” friends. I stopped trying to talk to Momma after that. That’s when I started writing my letters to Papa. In my imaginings, I can see his face peeking down through the clouds, looking over my shoulder as I write. I can see him smiling as he reads of all my wanderings, and it feels like he is with me. I’m sure Momma would call me silly for writing to Papa if she knew, but I think he would just give me a wink and a smile.

June 6, 1964

Dear Papa,

Good News! Miss Banty is alive! Momma said I scared that chicken something good, but otherwise she is fine. I did get a long talking to about “getting my head out of the clouds” though. I hear that a lot from people, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. Clouds are so beautiful way up there in the sky. Why wouldn’t I want to be up there with them? Plus, Preacher says you’re up there somewhere too but, between you and me, I’m not entirely sure if I believe him. Momma says the worst thing a girl like me can do is question the preacher…it may even be a sin…but I can’t help it. Sometimes I think I feel you nearby in the woods when I’m playing, so how can you be up in the sky, too? Still, I think it must be a wonderful thing to be a cloud. I do not think I’ll ever understand why grown-ups always want me out of such a beautiful place.

I miss you, Papa, and hope you are having a grand time wherever you are.

Essie Grace

Momma and Religion

Don’t let Jesus see your ugly bits.

That was Momma’s favorite saying when I was little. I’d grow up to learn that “ugly bits” was a rather large umbrella that covered everything from a girl’s body to the darkest of emotions. When I’d get angry she’d say, “Careful, Jesus is watching.” And if I showed too much joy with my Christmas presents, she’d remind me not to be prideful ’cause Jesus was watching. I’d eventually learn that all emotions and all pleasures had the potential to be ugly bits. In fact, every single thing about me could be an ugly bit if I wasn’t careful and, according to Momma, Jesus was always watching.

Shame and guilt were Momma’s most trusted babysitters and, as I was to discover, they were two of the most cared for heirlooms the women in our family possessed. We were taught to keep them wrapped up in the prettiest cross-stitched hanky we owned and kept carefully tucked away in the top drawer with our unmentionables. Every once in a while, I would catch a glimpse of Momma’s and I’ve learned, most times the hard way, that it’s best for everyone if I never let on that I saw.

Momma named me Esther Grace because she says it’s a good solid Bible name. No one but Momma calls me Esther, though. To everyone else I’m just plain Essie. I don’t know who started that, but it has always irritated Momma to have my given name shortened. Secretly I’m glad of it, since I don’t feel like an Esther. As I see it, a person ought to be called on the outside what they feel on the inside. I once decided to name a stray cat that came around our house. I called him Tom because Mamaw said he was an “ol’ tom cat.” He’d run away from me every time I called him, though, so I figured he didn’t like that name much. I started calling him “Butter” because he was a golden yellow color and reminded me of a stick of butter when he laid long-ways on the sidewalk the way cats like to do. He seemed to like his new name, too, since he would come to me from then on. I suppose he didn’t feel like a Tom any more than I feel like an Esther.

June 15, 1964


Butter got into Momma’s garden and lay on her broccoli plants, flattening them something good. Momma threatened to call the animal truck if he gets in her garden again. I tried to explain to her that he didn’t set out to be mischievous, it’s just in his blood…like questions are in mine, and “the sugars” were in yours. She doesn’t seem to care much about him, though, so I am just going to do my best to keep him and Momma away from each other from now on.

I think Butter is just misunderstood is all, but we can’t be too careful where Momma is concerned. You understand, don’t you Papa?

Essie Grace

“Esther Grace, do you have your music for church this morning?” Momma hollered from the kitchen. I could smell her green beans, creamed corn, and collards cooking all the way upstairs. It’s really not as strange an early morning smell as you would think, for a Southern household I mean. “Yes, ma’am. It’s by the door with my Bible.” Momma was prepping her food for church today, and her beans, corn, and collards are some of my favorite things about this day. She cooks the green beans in an old cast iron pot with some bacon so they’re good and greasy. The creamed corn is cooked with bacon grease, too. “Bacon makes it all better,” Papa used to say, and I think he must be right about that because every lady I know cooks with it.

I’ve been singing in church since I was three years old, but no matter how many times I’ve sung, Momma still gives me the very same speech before we head out to Sunday service. Remember who gave you that voice, Esther, and who can take it away. You are a vessel and an instrument of God Almighty. You are nothing without him. Use it for his glory or not at all.

Pride is a favorite topic of Momma’s. “Pride goes before a fall, Esther,” her chin nearing her chest and brow furrowed like she’s just smelled something rotten. It is clear she means for me to take this pride thing seriously; though I am never sure just what she’s aiming to teach me since she also says, “I am a proud church-going woman,” with her chin high in the air and eyebrows raised for emphasis. It is all very confusing to me, so I just nod my head in agreement.

I’ve learned not to question Momma out loud if I can help it, since it tends to make her angry and uncomfortable. Honestly, I don’t know if I believe any of that stuff. I just like to sing because it makes me happy and I’m pretty good at it. I just don’t dare tell Momma that.

Preacher and The Church

“Why do you always look like you’re up to something, Essie?” Preacher asks me the same question every time he sees me, even though I’m rarely ever up to something. It makes me wonder if he knows something I don’t…like his god is whispering in his ear about me, or maybe he’s clairvoyant in the way I’ve heard tell the old woman reading cards is down at the farmer’s market. I get paranoid that maybe I’m going to be up to something and I just don’t know it yet.

He’s a big man, the preacher, standing just over six feet and weighing somewhere around 300 pounds. Momma says that’s because of all the church families that invite him over to Sunday dinner. This makes sense to me because I’ve seen how the church ladies cook. Today is “Singing Sunday,” which means everybody brings their Sunday dinner here to the fellowship hall and we share it. After morning service and after the big eatin’, we go back into the church for a singing service. I’m not much for church but, since I like to sing, this is my favorite service. I don’t like that it goes all day, but it’s the only time I get to eat as much banana pudding as I want without getting fussed at. If you ever want to know where to find the best banana pudding in the whole world, then you should go to a Baptist church on a Singing Sunday. There are puddings as far as the eye can see and, in all my church-going days, we have never once run out.

Papa loved banana pudding almost as much as I love it. He would take me around the pudding table and say, “Essie Grace, the art to a good Southern pudding is a perfect cookie to banana ratio…and meringue, none of this Cool Whip stuff on top, no ma’am.” We would both laugh as he’d scoop up a spoonful and examine it closely before putting it on his plate. I knew he was playing around just for me, but the church ladies never thought it was as funny as we did. Apparently, openly comparing women’s puddings is frowned upon in church circles, so Momma says. Even so, in honor of Papa, I still circle the table and carefully hold the spoonful up and examine it before I put it on my plate.

I miss Papa a lot on Singing Sunday. He’d love to hear Mr. George play “I’ll Fly Away” on the banjo. “Some bright mornin’ when this life is over, / I’ll fly away,” Papa’d bob his head and sing in his deep man voice. I’d bob my head, too, and try to harmonize with him as best I could. Momma just sat, still as a stone, singing softly and telling me to “settle down” when I got to tapping and doing anything that too closely resembled dancing. Momma cared an awful lot about what other church people thought about us for some reason.

Looking over at Momma today, she seems to be somewhere else…like she doesn’t want to be here. I don’t think she likes Singing Sunday anymore. I think it makes her sad for all the reasons it makes me glad.

June 28, 1964

Dear Papa,

Today was our favorite Sunday of the month! I’ll admit, it didn’t start out great because Preacher said I looked like I was up to something again. I really do hate it when he says that to me. I think it’s a rude question, quite frankly, and doesn’t seem a proper way to greet somebody. I’m not sure why grown-ups think it’s okay to be rude to kids and expect so much more of us in return. Momma always looks at me like I’m guilty, and I feel like I am even if I’m not. I just think it’s mighty rude of him is all, and I don’t mind saying so. I am convinced that Preacher doesn’t like me, and I am not so sure I care for him much either.

You should have seen the food today, Papa. The church ladies seemed particularly proud of themselves, more so than usual I mean. Since next week is July the Fourth and the weather is so nice, they had all the tables set up out under the trees in the churchyard, which made me way happier than being inside a stuffy old building. There was fried chicken for days. Momma made my favorites like she does every time. Jeremy Ferguson and his friends got into trouble for taking the potlikker out of the collards and putting it into glasses and acting like it was shots of alcohol. Mr. Conley said it was just as much a sin to pretend to drink alcohol as it was to actually drink it. Jeremy said that couldn’t possibly be true and they all had to go see Preacher. I don’t know exactly what came of it, but his little sister Sarah Beth told me he got in double the trouble because he questioned the Bible.

I had two helpings of pudding today, Papa, but I have to tell you a secret that I’ve been hiding from you my whole eleven years. I do not like meringue. Today, for the first time, I ate the pudding with the Cool Whip. I know how you feel about it, but I just think the way meringue feels in my mouth is gross. I can never tell Mamaw this secret because she makes hers with the meringue. I will eat hers when she makes it so I don’t hurt her feelings, but on Singing Sundays when no one is looking, I will eat the one I like.

I felt you around today, Papa, and I sang extra loud for you. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard you singing “I’ll Fly Away” with me and it made me happy. Momma was really sad, though. She didn’t tell me to settle down once when I was bobbing and tapping. It’s so strange how thinking of you today made me so happy and yet it made Momma so sad.

If you aren’t already, could you please visit her like you do me? You know, like how I heard you singing with me today, or how I talk with you in the woods and feel you walking beside me. I think maybe that would make her feel better. Thanks, Papa.

Miss you tons,

Essie Grace

Crystal Phillips is an aspiring children’s writer who would rather chat with trees and crows than people. Her pet chameleon, Jax, keeps her company while she writes. Though he is more inclined to simply sit there judging her progress with his crazy googly eyes, she is occasionally given his stamp of approval. Her current writing goal is to finish Essie’s story, which was begun here in the Great Smokies Writing for Children class.

About The Evolution of Essie—This is a middle grade book about a young girl’s struggle to be herself within her oppressive fundamentalist household, when being herself seems to go against everything she is being taught.