Dear Friends of LOFC,
Since our last newsletter, LOFC, along with Friends of Lexington Preservation (FOLP) enjoyed a most successful fundraiser featuring Mississippi sports legends and former college quarterbacks Jake Gibbs and Glynn Griffing of Ole Miss and Rockey Felker and Matt Wyatt of Mississippi State, along with noted sportswriter and commentator Rick Cleveland. Despite a forecast of inclement weather, the event attracted more than 160 attendees from all over the state, including notable guests: University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce, Holmes Community College President Jim Haffey, Copiah-Lincoln Junior College President Jane Hulon Sims, Senator Lydia Chassaniol, Mayor Robin McCrory of Lexington, Mayor Pam Lee of Carrollton, Mayor Ken Strachan of North Carrollton, and Mayor Tim Kyle of Kosciusko. It was also an opportunity for former Lexington residents to return to their Lexington roots and renew friendships with childhood friends. For this reason alone, it was an enormous success for the sheer fun and enjoyment it provided.
Nonetheless, the goal of a fundraiser is obviously to raise funds, and with that in mind, the event met its goal of raising much needed funds toward the restoration of the Lundy House by FLOP and for LOFC to correct certain erosion issues at the cemetery. After expenses, each organizations will net almost $15,000 from the generous sponsors, ticket sales and the very lively auction. The centerpiece of the auction was a baseball signed by Don Larsen and Yogi Berra dated October 8, 1956 – the day that Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history. Jake Gibbs donated the ball from his personal sports collection, and after energetic bidding, it went for a significant amount.
And speaking of inclement weather, it was only after the event concluded that the skies opened with pounding rain and hail, along with raging eighty-mile-an-hour winds hitting Lexington and the surrounds. Those returning to their homes in Lexington found downed trees and power outages, while those of us making return journeys to our homes in other parts of the state had to detour certain highways and navigate downed trees along the way. It was quite a day!
Turning our attention to our featured guest writer, I am delighted to introduce Sibyl McRae Child. As a child I was fascinated that Sibyl spent half of her year in Lexington and the other in Cuba, a place of exotic interest to me. To this day, I can still see Sibyl diving off the board at the Lexington Country Club executing the most perfect high dive that I had ever seen. Like everything that Sibyl did, she excelled at it. Therefore, I am enormously grateful to Sibyl for sharing her story of her life and that of her family in Cuba pre-Castro days. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did.
How could a young girl be so lucky? To grow up in a small Mississippi town in the 40’s and 50’s was a little bit of Heaven. Lexington at that time was a place where the telephone operator (no dial phones) knew where your mother was in case you needed her, where the service station owner would fill your car with gas even if you did not have the money (because he knew he could collect from your father), where the gentleman who worked at the drug store would send you free comic books when you were off at camp, where you could walk to school (but didn’t), where you played outside all day with your neighborhood friends until you got called in for supper, and where all of your friends had parents who were friends of your parents. To tell the truth, I feel sorry for everyone who did not get to experience that kind of childhood.
The unusual thing about my childhood is that I spent several months every year in another small town, in a different country, whose natives spoke a different language, and it was equally idyllic. You see, my father, Murrell McRae, native Lexingtonian, spent his career working not in the States but in Cuba. Daddy attended L.S.U. to study chemical engineering with an emphasis on sugar production, the growing of sugar cane being a major industry in Louisiana at that time (early 1920’s). After he finished, he began working for a publicly traded American company with a Spanish name, Punta Alegre Sugar Company of New York, whose properties were all on the island of Cuba and not in Louisiana. His lifelong career with that company did not end until the summer of 1960, but more about that later.
Daddy had already been working in Cuba several years when he married my mother, Mildred Rainwater, also of Lexington, in October of 1929, soon after she had graduated from M.S.C.W. They left immediately after the wedding for Cuba, honeymooning in Havana first, before the long train ride down to the absolute other end of the island to a sugar mill town called San German, his Cuban hometown. After six months, when they returned to Lexington, my mom was six months pregnant with my brother John Murrell, who was born in August of 1930! (I will refrain from any sassy remarks!)
Daddy’s job at that time was “Chief of Fabrication,” (his responsibility being to turn the cane into sugar). The company planted only one crop a year, so he only had to be in Cuba for six months at a time. Mama’s first year there, they lived in The American Club, so Mama never had to plan a meal, grocery shop, or cook – the Club served three delicious meals a day. Just like in Lexington, the men came home for lunch. Of course, Daddy spent most of the day at the mill. One of my fondest childhood memories is a mental picture of my father leaving for work, dressed in beautifully laundered and pristinely ironed and starched white pants and shirt with a bowtie. When he was not at work, he and Mama played golf and bridge, socializing with the other American couples who worked for the company.
The next year, when they returned with a six-month-old baby boy, the company provided them with a house with servants who cooked, cleaned, laundered, and maintained the yard. (I will not be including any of Mama’s recipes – you can guess why.) Our cook, named Manuel, was Chinese but obviously had adopted the Spanish name when he arrived in Cuba. Manuel was Daddy’s cook in San German, so when Daddy and Mama moved to Baragua, Manuel wanted to come with them. He lived in our house, with a room and bath behind the kitchen. He always kept a large jar of freshly baked cookies for my friends and me. When he was not busy, he loved sitting on the back porch, watching us play outside. Although he was quite old, he and I were big pals. Every Sunday for lunch he prepared Arroz con Pollo (CLICK HERE FOR THE RECIPE), the most typical Cuban dish. My best Cuban friend, Tania, with whom I keep in touch, always cooks it for us when we visit her in Florida. Black beans and rice, known as Moros y Cristianos (CLICK HERE FOR THE RECIPE) in Spanish or Moors and Christians in English, was also a favorite recipe of Manuel’s.
Cuba is a beautiful country. The people exude a generosity and love of life that is contagious. A common expression is “mi casa es tu casa,” my house is your house. The opportunity to experience another culture and to learn another language as a child has been invaluable to me. Today, people frequently ask me if I want to go back to visit Cuba now that it has become possible to travel there. I do not. It is no longer the country where I grew up. None of my friends are still there. They have all managed, often by the hardest, to immigrate to the U.S. In fact, it took my best friend Tania ten years to escape Cuba. Those who remain have no freedom. But, just as one part of this lucky girl’s heart will always be in Lexington, the other part of my heart will remain in Cuba forever.
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