Friday, November 16, 2007

A penny's worth of beans...

I am a middle child, first son of Lynda's second husband, properly named Wilbur Earl but called Bill all his life. The connotations of this birth position are many but it is mentioned here with one purpose: to illustrate the fact that I was, all my life, also the son of an older-than-average mother, one who could actually claim to have lived through the Depression. And, oh did she!

Lynda's first husband, Jack, was killed in the War, and left her with a three year old son, my brother Stephen, and a daughter, my sister Anne, not due for three months. Technically, they are in fact my half-siblings, but I have never thought of them as anything other than my brother and sister. When you are young, such distinctions are meaningless, and when you are older, if you have a good relationship with your siblings, as I hope I do, the distinction is of even less significance because of all we have shared over the years. This relationship that we have in common is much more than a mother, it is a lifetime of memories with still more to come. What was significant, though, especially when I was young because it was so unavoidable, was the difference in our ages. Stephen in thirteen years older than I; Anne is ten.

The other unavoidable consequence of having a mother born in 1917 was, as I've said, the fact that she had lived through the Depression. That the one with the capital 'D'. Now, for the generation ahead of me, or, even half a generation, in the case of my older siblings, this situation may have been considered normal, as they were indeed only one memory away from that terrible time.

But for me, having a mother would could not just recall being poor (as we certainly were still), but desperately so, was a condition that made my situation unique, or at lest it felt that way to me, sitting at the dinner table, staring down that last horrible pile of cold and nasty rutabagas with the admonition that I would not be relieved of my self-imposed nightmare until they were all consumed because once, a long time ago...

"When I was a girl," the story began. It always began the same way, of course, because it was the kind of story that you really only needed to hear once to remember, but it was trotted out at so many opportunities that I actually had it memorized long before I memorized the first three lines of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address (fifth grade).

"Four score and seven..." No wait, wrong memorization...

"We were so poor that my Mother used to give me a nickel to go down to the store. 'Gladys', she would say' 'Go down to the general store and get us a penny's worth of beans, a penny's worth of rice, a penny's worth of fatback, six eggs and and quart of milk.' And that would have to last us, sometimes, for a couple of days."

"I used to dream of the day," Lynda would also often recall, "When I would have two dresses in my closet."

And, dream she did. She also realized her dream and much more. She did indeed get the two dresses when she went to work, and managed to clothe her mother and sister Anita as well. Work was the means to the end, and the end for Lynda was an escape from poverty.

Certainly, though I may make light of it, and often did through the years--a luxury made possible by that work--the grinding poverty that Lynda was born into is not easily escaped, even by those with iron wills such as Lynda. She gave up a lot, beginning with her formal education, to not only break out of poverty, but to ensure that her family, including her mother, whom she supported for twenty years or more, would not be poor and would not face the possibility of sliding back into poverty while she had anything to do about it.

Lynda's philosophy of life is one I have inherited: "Get up, make your bed and go to work". This ethic was born in the crucible that was terrible want, and not just for the many useless perceived needs invented by consumerism, but for the basic necessities that would make the difference between going to bed hungry or full.

I never went to bed hungry.

Often, I ate more rutabagas and perhaps chicken a la king that I wanted to (like a bite) but I was never hungry. Not really hungry. And I even know what that feels like, but I didn't get the opportunity until I went away to college--that is definitely another story. Suffice it to say that I do know now what Lynda was protecting me from then by forcing me to clean my plate. I am glad to have had a childhood free from the kind of existential fears that she had to face. Hunger was just one of those fears, and doubtless, not even the worst.

I didn't force my children to eat everything prepared for them, but I certainly saw to it that they never went hungry. The preparation of and sharing of food is a key component of the legacy that Lynda has given me, for I will never forget that food was at one time a scarce commodity for many, even a luxury for some. That nickel has gone a long way, after all.

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