“No better choices.” How a pet pig’s fate shaped East Texas native Brenda McWilliams

Hello, my name is Brenda, and I have lived my life in an within 30 miles of Tyler, Texas. Just a bit of an East Texas country girl living with my family, literally and figuratively, on the wrong side of the tracks in North Kilgore. Our first house was a three-room shotgun house with no indoor plumbing.

Now, if you don’t know what a shotgun house is, just try to imagine three small square rooms placed one behind the other. You walk in the front door and you wave to the folks on the back porch. That’s a shotgun house. My brother, sister, and I slept in a room that was wall-to-wall trundle beds. My daddy did a lot of hunting and fishing. Not for sport, mind you, but to put food on the table. We had venison, fish, rabbit, dove, quail, and squirrel. Now, I know squirrel is a rodent. But my mama would fry it up in that pressure cooker. And it was mighty good and tender eating.

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams Brenda, age four, in the back of her daddy’s pickup with sister Sandy, age five.

We spent most of our family holidays at the camp house on the Sabine River bottom near Beckville and Tatum, so Daddy could do his hunting and fishing. One July 4th fishing trip when I was 10 proved a bit more adventuresome than usual.

The landowner had a bunch of domestic hogs that he allowed to roam free in the river bottom. And one of the old sows had recently given birth to a large litter of little pigs. I delighted in chasing those little pigs. I WANTED one of those little pigs.

So I asked the landowner, “Mr. Harvey, can I have one of those pigs?”

He replied in his slow, thick, southern drawl, “Well girl, if you can catch one of the damn things you can have it. Just don’t let that old mama sow get after ya.”

Photograph courtesy of Brenda McWilliams. Brenda, age 17, with her daddy, mama and brother, Rudd, summer, 1967.

I put my plan into motion. One afternoon, the old Mama sow bedded down her litter under a huge oak tree at the edge of the camp house clearing and just left them. I got on all fours and crawled under the low brush. Inching my way forward, I reach out and grab the first little pig I come to and I back out of the bushes, and I turn and hightail it to the campground with my prize in my outstretched arms.

I heard Mama yell, “She’s got one of those pigs!”

My heart was pounding, and my little pig woke up and started raising a ruckus just as I bounded up the camp house steps.

When Daddy came in from taking up the trot lines, all he could say was, “Well, I’ll be. What are you going to do with the thing? You’ll have to take care of it, I’m not going to mess with it.”

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams. Brenda, age nine, Christmas 1959.

I had my little pig. Catching Harvey — I named him after the landowner — was huge for me. You see, I was a small, quiet, shy, compliant, even fearful, little girl. I was often teased about that and many times — many times — felt left out and alone. So snatching Harvey that day was my badge of courage, my claim to fame.

I took Harvey home. I fed him powdered milk from a baby bottle. I bathed and powdered and perfumed him every day. He was the best-smelling pig ever. And he slept in a sweet potato crate in the kitchen next to our bedroom. The rest of the summer Harvey was my constant companion and playmate. He followed me around like I was his mama. Harvey was all mine, at a time when most everything else in our family — toys, clothes, the bedroom — were either hand-me-downs or shared. Well, Harvey grew.

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams. Brenda, age nine, with her mama in a watermelon patch, June 1960.

Mama says, “Out. Out of the house! He’s too big to be in the house.”

So we moved Harvey to an outside pen.

I still played with him every afternoon after school. And on his diet of table scraps and a little corn, he grew. Harvey grew into a handsome, Hampshire hog.

Some months later, one evening, my Daddy went with me to feed Harvey. Now, that was something Daddy never, ever did.

As we stood there watching Harvey, Daddy dropped his hand to my shoulder and said, “We’ve got to do something with Harvey.”

“What do you mean ‘do’?”

“Well, if we keep him much longer, he won’t be good for anything but an old pet and we can’t afford to feed him forever.”

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams. Brenda’s pet pig, Harvey, grown too large to stay inside in a sweet potato crate.

My chest tightened and my eyes stung, and I stood staring straight ahead trying not to blink, so the tears would not run down my face. Because I had some idea what Daddy’s “do something” meant. Daddy kept talking.

“It’s time, Brenda. We can either sell him and someone else will butcher and eat him or we can do it ourselves. He’s yours, and it’s up to you.”

Now Daddy spoke matter-of-factly. There was no harshness or no teasing in his voice, and no other options either. As a matter of fact, I felt some sympathy from Daddy that evening. But for Daddy, Harvey’s fate was sealed. I spent the next couple of days scratching Harvey’s back, crying, and saying goodbye.

I made my decision. I told Daddy in my strongest yet trembling voice, “If anybody’s going to eat Harvey it will be us, not some strangers.”

You see, Harvey was mine, and maybe I thought I was helping Daddy put food on the table.

Well, Saturday morning came and I helped Daddy load Harvey in the trailer and watched them drive off. This time, the tears were rolling down my face.

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams.
Brenda’s fifth grade school portrait, Eastview Elementary School, Kilgore, TX.

The first time my mother put a Harvey meal on the table, my sister Sandy just gawked at me and said, “How can you eat Harvey?” And my constant response was “Because he’s mine and I didn’t want anyone else doing it.”

I managed to eat the Harvey meals, steeling myself against the sadness and the loneliness that I felt inside. Harvey was a big deal for this East Texas country girl at the time. He gave me what I needed: a sense of courage, recognition, ownership and responsibility. In giving Harvey up, I learned a lesson from my Daddy that has stayed with me through the years and has served me well. Through a divorce, through multiple eye surgeries and impaired vision, and through coming out and striving to live an authentic life as a gay woman in East Texas.

Photo courtesy of Brenda McWilliams. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, Christmas, 2019.

That lesson was: there are circumstances in our life where there are no good answers. There are no better choices. We simply have to move forward in the most reasonable manner available to us, and that’s what I did. And you know, I had no idea of the growing up that I was in for the day I made Harvey my pig.

Brenda McWilliams is retired after nearly 40 years in education and counseling. When not traveling she fills her days with community, charitable, and civic work; photography; writing and blogging at Pilgrim Seeker Heretic; reading, babysitting grandchildren, and visiting with friends. She enjoys walking at Rose Rudman or hiking at Tyler State Park. Brenda and her spouse, Lou Anne Smoot, the author of Out: A Courageous Woman’s Journey, have six children and seven grandchildren between them.

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