Monday, July 14, 2008


One thing about being poor is that it teaches you how to be poor. It teaches you how to stretch a pound of hamburger as my mother used to do, combine it with potatoes or any starchy ingredient and flavor the resultant mixture with a little tomato and onion, toss in a vegetable and serve it with anything else you have around. Mom served everything with biscuits and butter, golden biscuits hot from the woodstove oven.

It teaches you to wear an article of clothing until it resembles a rag, then take the limp garment, strip it of its buttons or zippers for future use, and demote it down to a mop rag. It teaches you to wear a pair of shoes until the stitching is loose and the sole is protected with a piece of cardboard, then when the weather turns warm, discard them entirely and run around barefoot, the warm sand oozing through your toes.

It teaches you to do without comforts in a way that our citizens would find difficult to do. Life continues on without radios, telephones, televisions, and all of the electronic equipment that seem so necessary today. Electric lights are great, but if the bill isn't paid, there are always lamps or candles. Bedtime is a little earlier, because darkness isn't conducive to reading a good book, but you awaken at the crack of dawn and you feel better because of it.

Mom got up every day of her life when dawn was peeking over the horizon. She stoked the fire in the living room, then went in to start a fire in the kitchen. Luckily, the coals were still hot from the fires of the night before. She would add the wood that had been chopped and carried in the day before and soon the kitchen was warm and toasty.

The children slept upstairs under the heavy quilts that Mom had patched together from the remnants of old clothes. The quilts were not beautiful, as many homemade quilts can be, but were fashioned from old pants and worn fabrics that were usually dull in color. What she lined those quilts with, I do not know, but they were as heavy as a load of cement and could keep you warm if the weather dipped below zero.

It was in trying to change his position in bed that Shippy's elbow went through the upstairs window. The window was right beside the bed and he had spent the night huddled under one of Mom's quilts, his nose sticking upward to provide oxygen for his chilly body. The quilt soon warmed him enough that the temperature was comfortable and snug, but his muscles complained of the heavy burden of that quilt and the fact that he couldn't change his position. So, with a mighty heave of his arms, he flung off the quilt and tried to move, but his elbow went through the window. It caused a mighty crash that brought Mom running up the stairs and the children awakened, startled by the commotion. Harry ran out of another bedroom, his long underwear clinging to his body. Shippy, his bed covered with shards of glass and his elbow bleeding profusely, tried to explain what had happened. It was a lively night at the farm.

It wasn't the only night that found us all clustered around in alarm. One night, Bud smelled smoke and arose from the bed where he was sleeping to find the house burning. The fire in the woodstove below in the living room had caused the upstairs stovepipe, the only warm spot in the entire upstairs, to start smoking and smoldering. The smoking spot was doused with water, but everyone slept with one eye open that night, wondering if the Farm would go up in flames.

Pop was so worried about all of this that he brought a ladder to my window, where it rested against the window sill and awaited emergency use. It was a homemade ladder and I don't know if it would have held together long enough for me to make a hasty exit, but it was my fire escape from that moment onward. The family had had a disastrous house fire in Illinois, before my birth, before we lived on the Farm. They had lost every possession they owned in this fire. We were a family with no mementos, no pictures of grandparents, no pictures of our parents when they were young. There were no treasures that my mother had gathered throughout the years. All of this, as well as any documents or certificates they may have had went up in flames. Pop had run up a creaking stairway and had come down through the fiery billows with Homer in his arms. All of the children were safe, but they had only the clothing they had worn to bed the night before.

Years later, I tried to get my passport, but it was refused. The reason, it was said, was because I had no proof of birth, and could have been born in Mexico or Canada. I had sent them the birth certificate that had been gotten for me when Hubert went into the Army and sent me an allotment, but the Passport office refused this, saying it was not enough proof because it was not gotten until I was fourteen years old, so I could have been born in another country.

After several letters back and forth, I asked them how I could prove that I was born in the U.S.A. They suggested that I send them a family Bible with the information written in it, or anything of that nature. I tried to explain that everything like this had been destroyed in a fire, but they were adamant. So I called my Congressman and talked to his Secretary. She suggested that I send away for a copy of the U.S. Census. I did this, and I sent the Census information to the Passport office. After another call from the Congressman, my Passport arrived in the mail.

When a fire destroys all that you own, life becomes a struggle for existence. The only Bible I have is one that I was given by Mom and it belonged to Aunt Sylvia before they carried her away to the mental home. At various spots in the Bible, where it says a husband should cleave to a wife, a handwritten note on the margin says, "Mine never did!"

I cherish that Bible, because it is one of the few items I have from my childhood. I also have a brooch my mother wore, a tiny piece of jewelry with an embedded rose. I also have one of Pop's pipes and a slab of wood torn from the wall of the Farm when it was destroyed. One of my sons went out to the Farm when it was being demolished and rescued that slab of wood. It is all that has survived of that fading old farmhouse where I spent my younger years.

Being poor teaches you a lot about conserving and making do, but you are never really poor if you have people around to share your life with you. As a child, I never considered myself poor. I thought all people lived exactly as we did, even though I remember visiting Dude and Chop's home one time and staring at their Christmas tree in wonder! I was overawed by the lights and the tinsel and the shiny ornaments hanging from that tree. I thought it must be the most wondrous sight any child could see.

So life is really a matter of comparisons. To me, as a child, that lighted tree was as thrilling as a view of the Taj Mahal. Wealthy folks might consider the French Riviera a beautiful place, but in my mind, that beautiful place was the apple orchard blooming in the Springtime. If we could just hang onto the sense of wonder that we all have as children, we would never grow into bitter, disgruntled adults, resentful of our lots in life. We wouldn't waste time with "What Ifs." We'd realize just how beautiful a Christmas tree can be and how lucky we are to see it.

Unfortunately, we grow up and face the responsibilities of adulthood. While I was a happy child on the Farm, my parents had the work and the worry. I can remember Mom talking to Pop in the next room from where I lay tucked in my bed. "I don't know," she said to Pop, "how you expect me to feed these kids with no food in the house!"

Once in a while, it is good to remember the days of your childhood, before the work and the worry rear their heads. I don't know how she did it, but Mom always managed to feed her kids, even when there was little food in the house, and the magic of the Farm and our life as a family gave me a host of beautiful memories that would last throughout my life.

Blogger Ellen Jaffe Jones said...

Hi Herma,
I wanted to write a comment on your Playtex Living Girdle entry, but my screen didn't offer a place to do that, like this most recent entry does.
I haven't read all your entries, but I gather you may have done some professional writing? The girdle piece left me rolling. I found it because I'm writing a book on trying to encourage more eating of fruits and veggies, and was writing my own memory of my mother trying to fit into a girdle. I googled Platex Living Girdle because I wasn't sure if the "Living" was really in the title. I remember the "Living" in other products. So I wanted to be sure I had the title right. That's how I found your blog. Anyway, I wanted to ask your permission please, to include an excerpt from your girdle description, and I didn't know any other way to contact you. Though my memory of watching my mom struggle with the thing is funny, your personal first-hand description is much better and a real hoot. I would give you credit, say where your from, or whatever you would want to include or not.
I am a former TV investigative reporter from St. Louis & Miami, turned media consultant. I teach healthy cooking classes in my free time, and after much encouragement from my students to write a book, I'm finally doing it. I'll send you a copy, if you like.
I think one of your entries said your writing days were over...I don't think so. Keep it up, and get on Huffington Post ;)

4:52 PM  

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