O Sister, Where Art Thou?

In the early forties, eight inmates of the Goree prison unit formed one of the first all-female country and western acts in the country, capturing the hearts of millions of radio listeners. Then they nearly all vanished forever.

SHE WAS SITTING IN HER wheelchair in the dayroom, staring at a television that flickered soundlessly in a corner. She didn’t turn her head when I said her name.

“Mrs. McDaniel?” I asked.

“Honey, that’s Mrs. Mozelle Cash,” said a woman sitting with two other women on a couch against the wall. It was last November, just after lunch at the Briarcliff nursing home in Tyler, and the residents were visiting for a few minutes before heading off to their rooms to take their afternoon naps.

“I was looking for Mozelle McDaniel,” I said. “At least that’s what her name used to be.”

“Mozelle McDaniel?” said the woman on the couch. “Who?”

“The Mozelle who used to sing,” I said.

Slowly, the woman watching television moved her head. With a wrinkled hand she tugged at the wheel of her wheelchair and turned to face me. She was thin, painfully thin, her arms like blue-veined Tinkertoys. “I don’t know what she’ll say to you,” said an attendant who happened to be walking by. “She goes in and out. She’s got some senility, you know.”

“I’ve been looking for you for a long, long time,” I quietly said to the woman, handing her some flowers I had bought on my way into town. Then, from my briefcase, I pulled a faded black and white photograph of a group of eight young women, taken in the year 1940. In the photograph, the women are dressed in light tan shirts, brown Western-style skirts, and white cowboy boots, with brown bandannas tied around their necks. They look as lovely as actresses, their skin like porcelain, their hair spilling out in ringlets from beneath white cowboy hats.

For several seconds the 83-year-old woman said nothing. She squinted as if to get the photo in focus. “Mozelle, are you all right?” asked another of the ladies on the couch. But she wasn’t paying her friends any attention. She began to point at each of the young women in the photograph.

“What you got there?” said one of the women, lifting herself with the help of her walker to get a better look at the photograph. “Is that you, Mozelle, in that cowgirl outfit? Why are you girls dressed up that way?”

Mozelle’s eyes remained glued to the photo. For a few moments, I assumed her mind was adrift, lost in a long-ago world. But then she stirred in her chair, and she turned her pale, watery eyes toward her friend.

“We just did a little singing,” she finally said. “That’s all we did, a little singing.”

ACTUALLY, THEY WERE

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