"One day the door opened and the young woman walked through it with you in her arms, saying, 'Let's say goodbye now. Can you say "goodbye," Sadie Lee?' She set you on the floor of the porch and, instead of saying goodbye, you began to weep inconsolably after us. Distraught, your face a crimson mask of sorrow, you crept to the end of the porch and cried out for us. With Mildred holding my hand, I kept turning back to look upon you . . . ."
After walking several hundred feet, Pearl's legs buckled. She fell to the ground, crying out, "My baby!" Ocie grabbed his wife as she fell, and the two of them wept. The elder brothers, James and Robert, stood quietly and waited.
None of them ever saw Sadie Lee again. On Jan. 18, 1938, in Gunnison, Miss., Pearl Powell, already weakened by a miscarriage, died of pneumonia. She was buried, in a coffin Ocie built for her, in an unmarked grave alongside a levee. Mildred, James and Robert would soon leave Mississippi with Ocie, while David was left in the care of a family living nearby.
Seven years later, in a moment of sober reflection, Ocie would admit to his youngest son that he felt responsible for his wife's passing. As they grew older, Ocie and David would often talk together, but rarely of the hard times. Ocie avoided the subject, and David wouldn't press.
"He never returned to particulars," Mr. Powell remembers. "He would return to grievances about this individual or that individual, but never talked about his wife, never talked about Sadie Lee. I'm sure that was more from the effort of forgetting, of wanting to forget, than from a lack of compassion. The sense I've always had, even while he was beating me for the short period of time we lived together [after Pearl's death] was that of a deeply compassionate individual.
"He was drunk," adds Mr. Powell, who says he harbors no bitter feelings toward his father. "But there was a humanity that I felt."
Some 35 years after his mother's death, David would visit the site of her grave and realize that, given the passing years and the changing course of the river, Pearl's body had probably long since washed out to sea.
In all but the most technical sense, the Powells ceased to be a family on the day their mother died.
In the two years immediately following Pearl's death, David would be shuttled between no fewer than six "homes" before settling in at the Corsicana State Home, about 50 miles northeast of Waco, Texas, in August 1940. There, for the last time, he was reunited with his brothers and sister, who had been deposited there by Ocie just a few months after leaving Mississippi.
They would remain together less than five months. And they would never all be together in the same place again.
The only surviving picture of the four Powell children was taken in autumn 1940, during that brief stay at Corsicana. Mildred, 15, stands stiffly off to one side, her flowered dress covered partially by a dark overcoat. On the other side stands Robert, 13, his gaze wandering outside the frame, hands shoved inside his pockets. Next to him stands James, 12, dressed in coveralls, his arms at his side.
And between him and Mildred stands 6-year-old David, trying to squeeze his way into the picture, like any younger brother would. His eyes are cast downward, and he's holding his sister's hand.
Although he was absent much of the time, Ocie maintained a strong grip on his children, often deciding -- for no apparent reason -- to move them from one temporary "home" to another. Sometimes, they would live as wards of the state. At other times, they would stay with relatives, or with friendly strangers who would effectively become foster parents.
Robert and James grew to fear their father, Mr. Powell says. Mildred tried to go with the flow, secure in the knowledge that she would soon be old enough to make her own life.
In 1942, while living with Ocie's sister and brother-in-law near Highlands, Texas, the two older boys ran away. Both ended up lying about their ages so they could enlist in the armed forces during World War II.
Mildred moved in with a family in nearby Bullard, Texas. Although she would spend occasional periods at Corsicana, generally visiting on weekends, she was soon old enough to strike out on her own.
In 1944, she married Bill Green, a native Marylander and member of the Army Air Corps she had met at a post exchange near Biloxi, Miss. In late 1945, the couple moved to Lonaconing, in Western Maryland, where Mr. Green found work as a baker.