Reach 102 years old, and the harmonica you play with eye-twinkling fun has to be evidence of your spirit. It is for Myrtle Barnett MacDonald Shepherd. Clear. Steady. Melodious. Out in the open.
Tiny and fragile, Mrs. Shepherd sort of disappears into the plush couch as she plays the second verse of a spunky rendition of "My Old Kentucky Home" on a small, silver harmonica. Her eyebrows are jumping with delight, her slippered foot tapping the beat. She's impish under a bloom of white hair, at home in her son's comfortable house.
As a girl she loved to run. "Oh, I was frisky and fast," she says with a Texan hoot tagged at the end. Then a switch.
"Poncho Villa," she says, suddenly, recalling Mexico's revolutionary figure.
Shepherd grew up on a ranch near Marfa in Presidio County, Texas. Villa's men slipped across the border to rustle cattle between 1915 and 1917. He had crossed the border in 1916 with his men and attacked Columbus, N.M., destroying part of the town and killing 17 people.
Because of this, Shepherd sometimes rode "fence line" with her father, Rial Barnett, to protect their cattle. She wore a six-shooter. "I always wore my gun," she says, in a crackly, strong voice as she moves easily from one story to another. Across the room, her youngest son, Lloyd, a lawyer, listens quietly and affectionately.
"I couldn't take care of myself without a gun," she says of those frontier days. "I wore it on my hip at the ranch, and put it in my purse when I went to town."
In context, Shepherd and her 11 brothers and sisters grew up in a rough, rural Texas landscape where law was slow, and you couldn't always count on a stranger to be a good neighbor, or a rattlesnake to slither away. And Villa's revolutionary intent kept the Southwest in tense readiness.
"One night a man was following me home from town," Shepherd says with a grin and a hoot. "He had no business following me home, so I shot near him. He stopped following me. You don't need to kill anybody. Just scare the daylights out of them."
In those days the Barnett ranch - first located in Coleman County south of Abilene, and later in Marfa - had no electricity or telephone, only a hand-cranked washing machine, and no indoor bathroom.
Shepherd's family life was "wonderful," with a father who always brought gifts back to his children from trips to Dallas.
She says he was a gifted man who could fix anything. Her mother worked night and day with 12 children in the house.
"Poppa built a privy under a big oak tree," Shepherd says. "Most people had an old shack, but Poppa's was beautiful with steps leading up to the door, a little hallway and rooms with different size seats for adults and little folks."
Sleeping arrangements were tight with 11 brothers and sisters. "My oldest sister and I slept together and took one of the babies to bed with us," says Shepherd. "The baby slept in the middle so it wouldn't fall out. He'd grow up, and then there would be another one. Oh, we loved each other, even when we fought, and we all took care of ourselves."
She remembers howling storms blowing across the flatlands in summer. "We were trained to run to the storm cellar," she says, "and I can see my father and brother holding onto a chain from the door to keep it from breaking open."
Eventually she became a schoolteacher for a few years in country schools, then went to San Marcos Teachers College in 1920. She met her first husband in Marfa, Texas, a saddle shop owner named John MacDonald.
"I liked him at first, but I didn't," she says with a low laugh. "You ever do that?" She looks at her guest as if everybody should understand such mixed feelings.
"He was nice looking and a very nice man," she goes on, "but my trouble was that I wanted more than one. One boyfriend wasn't enough. I liked lots of boys."
After her marriage she became the mother of two boys and a girl. Her oldest son called her "Boyte" (Boy-tee), a fond nickname that became permanent, and is used today by her children, six grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.
She saw two world wars come and go, plus the Korean and Vietnam Wars. "My brothers went to both world wars," she says, her face now serious. "I worried about them, and you just didn't want to do anything, and you didn't ask for anything when they were gone. The boys went away, and we had no fun whatever during the wars."
After 1942, she returned to teaching. She earned a master's degree in education and became a school administrator in San Antonio. Her first husband died in l952, and she married Walter Shepherd, a San Antonio physician, in 1963. "He was a lovely man," she says.
From her jampacked years of teaching, Shepherd shaped her approach to the classroom, marriage, and life. "You have to be honest and loving," she says, "and pass that on to everybody. It's hard to be honest at times, yes, but you have to watch yourself. You may have a hard streak in you at times, but be honest about it. Without honesty, you are no good for yourself or anybody else."
Does she believe in God?
"I certainly do," she says. "I believe that's why I have enjoyed life so much because I believe in Him so strongly. God is inside and outside of everything."
Any regrets? She pauses, looking at her thin hands with two wedding rings tied together on one finger. "Nothing especially," she says. "Things could have been better at times. I've had a good life and a great family. I just don't need anything else. I'm happy. I like to be happy, and there's nothing I'm ashamed of in my life."
She pauses a long time, her eyes searching for a connection or memory. Then she lifts the harmonica to her lips. In seconds the room is filled with a honky-tonk riff of "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and her foot taps to the beat.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society