The Joys Of Being Raised Poor
A Singer Sewing Machine
The joys of being what? I can hear it now, “Brother, being poor was no fun. It was a hardship.” And on and on the tales will go, but I ask everyone who has been through poverty, everyone who worked hard to get out of that poverty, what are the memories in your life that bring a smile? What are the stories you love to tell when you reminisce with someone else who went through a similar upbringing? You can be a millionaire, but nothing gives bragging rights like the hardships you endured on your way up the ladder of success. Sure, none of us wants to go back to those hard times, but they still make us smile and laugh when we tell their stories. And I remember some good times, too.
My Mother & Father - Where It All Began
Two Teenagers Fell In Love
My mother must have taken a vow of poverty when she married my father, because he was raised in the hills of Tennessee, poor and not well-educated, so he had nothing financially to give her. They definitely married for love, the kind that was blind. They didn’t think about how they would survive, they just knew that they could not live without each other. But there is something to be said about that kind of love, because those two set sail on an ocean of adventure, on a ship that took them away from where they were raised, and they started a life filled with no blue prints. All they had was a faith in each other, my father knowing that he had to provide for the woman he fell in love with, my mother knowing that she had to support him in every way possible, and the two of them were going to be a team that could and would make it all the way to the end. Funny how that worked out. Nowadays, parents are prone to tell their kids to look at the pedigree of the person they are dating, to check out their bank account, their job status, their family, even the car they drive. If my mother had done that, I wouldn’t be here.
My Mother With Connie & Sandra
My Father, The Preacher
At some point in their lives, my mother and father got married, found a place to live that didn’t include any in-laws, and eventually began a family. First came my eldest sister, Connie, then sometime later, my second eldest sister, Sandra was born. Then came Gill, then me, then Phillip, and many years later, the last one in line, Resa, our forever baby sister. While we were still very young, my mother’s mother died unexpectedly, so my mother’s sister, Nancy, came to live with us. She was one year older than my eldest sister, and she was, for all intents and purposes, just another sister. So, we were a big family. Maybe paying all of those bills to support all of those kids is what drove my father to religion, but he got saved in the Pentecostal way, felt called to preach, and started his first church in Liberty Grove, Maryland. That was back in the early fifties. We had a saying in those old churches back then - “I cut my eye teeth on the church pew.” It meant that we kids were carried to that church just as soon as we were out of the maternity ward, and since our parents were in church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, then again on Wednesday night, and seven days straight if we were in revival, when we Pentecostal preacher’s kids said we cut our eye teeth on the church pew, besides chewing on the hymnals, our first memories of chewing on things were pretty close to just that—the church pew. By the time I was old enough to see over the backs of the pews, I was expected to sit up and pay attention—Daddy was preaching. We kids learned at an early age what a snap of his fingers meant, and God help us if that “snap” came while he was in the pulpit! My father had special signals that we kids, like well-trained canine dogs have when they do search and rescue, recognized and responded to instantly. One snap of my father’s fingers, which sounded to us like miniature lightning and thunder, meant you were doing something wrong, and you had better “straighten up” real quick. How my father managed such a powerful, ear-piecing snap was something that physicists would have to analyze, but that snap was so sudden and attention-getting, that even the congregation snapped to attention when he did it. Of course, they would all then look at us preacher’s kids and knowingly smile. We didn’t smile, however, because we would look up from whatever derelict activity we were engaged in, called acting up, and the look on my father’s face, which would have stopped a hornet from stinging, let us know right then and there that we needed to find somebody else to blame it on. However, if my father snapped his fingers twice, then we knew that we had just hit the next level down in Dante’s Inferno, and there would be hell to pay when he got us home...if we were lucky enough for him to wait that long.
My Father Became A Preacher
Playing In Church
I remember one night vividly when my baby brother, Phillip, and I were running around the church while the congregation was praying. In those old Pentecostal churches, you didn’t sit at your seat and read a prayer. Nope. Everybody, with the exception of the “sinners,” went down to the altar and wailed out loud. The “sinners” were usually a bunch of rebellious teenagers who were forced to come to church by their parents, and they all sat in the back pews so that they could flirt with each other. We kids knew that the call to prayer around the altar was play time. We’d wait until the loud ruckus started, usually after about three Pentecostals got on their knees and started “talking to the Lord,” and the noise would be loud enough by then that we would be out of or seats visiting our neighbors. We also knew, if we were smart, when it was time to stop socializing and head back to safety. When the din up at the altar started to subside, and we would see different ones standing up and heading back up the aisle to their seats, it was time to scatter like cockroaches. Well, on this particular night, Phillip must have missed the train horn, because I, like a little angel, had already made it back to the promised land, that being the coveted aisle seat. For some unexplainable reason, we kids all loved to be able to sit in the very first seat in the aisle, I guess so that we could monitor traffic, but boy that was the place we wanted to sit. Since I had beat Phillip back to the cherished “first chair,” I wasn’t about to give it up. Then, horror of horrors, my father’s “kids-acting-up” radar must have gone off, and I saw him up there on the rostrum getting up from praying way ahead of schedule. If there was anything we kids knew, it was how long we had before Daddy finished praying. Like a parking meter, we knew how long to run the aisles, and when to skeedattle. I was perched in the prize seat, when Phillip decided to come back and claim it. I wasn’t budging, but I was sure looking, because up there at the front of the church, my father stood up before anyone else had. ..and there was Phillip swinging and smacking on me to get that seat back. I took one look at my father’s face and knew to play the martyr. I sat there allowing Phillip to bop the daylights out of me, and then, like an eagle catching a fish in a mountain stream, all I heard was a “swoosh,” and Phillip was gone. That one didn’t wait until we got home, and there wasn’t even a two-snap warning. Unfair! With the “two-snap” alert, Phillip could have at least crawled under the pew until the church members got done praying, thus stalling my father, and maybe buying time for him to forget the infraction.
My Grandfather's Watermelons
The Amenities Of An Old Country Church
That old church was a former one-room school house that sat on a hill in the little hamlet of Liberty Grove. Complete with a coal-fired stove in the basement that my father would stoke hours before church time, and a men’s and women’s set of outhouses, one of the amenities of this church was the dirt driveway that led up the hill to the church. If it was raining, people could count on having to back up on the road and get a running start to get past the mud and gullies. Many a time I would see the adult men out there pushing cars up that rutted muddy path, and come Saturday, we kids got to play while the men got out there with shovels and filled and levelled the driveway again. Those Saturdays gave us boys time to learn the best spots in the woods so that, rather than having to put up with those god-awful outhouses, we could run out to Mother Nature whenever she called. I remember one Halloween coming to church and the outhouses had been tipped over. No problem for us boys.
My Father In Front Of His First Church
With that many kids, my mother always had a “game” she played on the way home from evening services. She would call out, “Roll call!” She would then say our names one at a time, and we would holler back, “Here.” Sometimes we would joke and not answer, but she would then turn around and laugh when she saw that we were joking. But one night, she got to “Phillip,” and there was no answer. “Okay, Phillip, I know you’re back there.” But, after a few minutes of this, leading up to my sister’s looking in the floor board where us boys loved to curl up and sleep on the way home, one of them said, “Mama, he’s not here.” Of course, this led my mother to think that we were kidding around, but in short order, it was ascertained that Phillip was indeed not in the car. Panic hit my mother, and she ordered my father to turn the car around and head back to the church. I think my father was already in the process of doing that, but she still had to yell “Charge!” Sure enough, when we got back to the church, and my father unlocked the doors and went in, Phillip was busy cutting eye teeth on the back pew. He had curled up to sleep there, and that was where he still was, thankfully, asleep. I think if I had awakened in that dark church at that age, I would have gone out the window.
Being raised the son of a Pentecostal preacher in the fifties meant that we didn’t have a lot of money. Chicken was the cheapest meat to put on the table, and I think there must be a place in Heaven for all the chickens. There sure were a lot of them that gave their lives so that we could make it back to church the next week. The only thing cheaper than chicken was roadkill. Now there’s an art form that not too many people will admit to knowing, although I have one friend whose wife totally surprised me. I almost felt like I had found a long lost sister when she traded “roadkill” stories with me. We always knew what would be on the dinner table if the car swerved erratically and suddenly on the way to church. As we kids picked ourselves back up off the floor from the sudden deranged driving, the car would come to a screeching halt, my father would get out of the car, we would hear a thump on the bumper (making sure it was dead), the back door would open, and my father would toss Fluffy, the dead rabbit, at our feet...my early exposure to the joys of “car hunting.” At least he caught the squirrels with a shotgun, although it didn’t stop him from trying to get them with a car. My father gave a whole new meaning to “defensive driving” - the animals had no defense against his driving.
A 12-Gauge Shotgun, Or How Dinner Was "Purchased"
My father was a good shot with that old twelve-gauge shotgun. I remember that he took a day job with the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Each morning, before work, he would get up at the crack of dawn, take that old shotgun out into the woods, and he would routinely come back with at least six to twelve squirrels. We kids would get up later, and he would be long gone to work, but there on the floor next to the pantry would be all these dead squirrels, most of them with hickory nuts still in their paws. I always remember that, because their paws were up near their faces as they lay there on the floor, they looked like they had been praying just before my father dispatched them to the next realm. Who knows? Maybe that was the position they took when they saw my father...praying and grabbing their nuts! Nevertheless, there was dinner lying on the floor every morning of squirrel season. My mother would skillfully skin and clean those squirrels, fry them, make some squirrel gravy and a very large pan of biscuits, and along with any vegetables we had handy, that would be dinner. I remember one night, after having bitten into a piece of buckshot for the millionth time, saying to my father, “Daddy, couldn’t you shoot ’em with a punkin’ ball?” And his response was typical, “Be thankful for what you’ve got.” Maybe that was sage advice. I ate a lot of interesting animals over the years, and nowadays, when somebody has me for a dinner guest, and they apologize for the quality of their cooking, I’m secretly thinking, “Better than roadkill.” And they wonder why I’m so easy to please.
Head For The Woods, Boys!
We lived near a woods, and when I say “woods,” I don’t mean the little park down the street that most people call a woods. If you can see the other side, honey, that ain’t woods. No, the woodlands that began just a few hundred feet from our back door was the wonderland of wonderlands for my two brothers and me. We could wander for miles and miles, and it was always free entertainment. Climb a tree, make a bow and arrow out of a sapling, some arrows out of branches, jump in a creek, chase snakes, collect interesting rocks, there was always something new and exciting about heading out into the woods and just looking for what would be the next surprise. We were never bored with life in the woods. And my mother knew how to get us to go there, too. We boys knew the look she got when she was in a cleaning mood, and I don’t mean just washing dishes. My mother didn’t just clean, she “renewed.” She would start with the inside of the house and practically end up putting on a new roof. Rakes and wheelbarrows, I felt like an Israelite working for the pharaoh sometimes. And God help you if you complained. So, if we didn’t want to spend valuable woods time working around the house all day, we boys knew the ‘look,” gave each other the silent signal, and tried to make it to the woods before she could catch us. If we were lucky, we could get far enough gone that we were out of her “orbit,” and we could claim that we couldn’t hear her...good excuse when we finally came home. My mother was no fool. She knew how to go to the edge of that woods and holler. When she doubled down and went that far, if we were close enough to hear her, we knew the game was up, and like convicts smoked out of a burning barn, we came out with our hands up...and soon had rakes and shovels in them.
Our Playground Was The Woods
I Hated Liver
The house was always clean and tidy, inside and out. I once made the mistake of complaining to my mother that we were her “slave laborers.” I think she then said something about not cooking for me. Parents had a way back then of a superior “barter” system, an ace you hoped they wouldn’t play. I took a lot of her slaving in the kitchen for granted. My mother was a great cook. I guess she had to become a Svengali in the kitchen if she was going to keep all of us kids eating, although she could never make liver taste edible. I would rather have eaten shoe leather than eat that horrible stuff, and I always remember how lucky I was to have a pet dog who liked to sit under the table. On nights that my mother, for what ever reason she had decided to punish us, had cooked liver, my father would not allow us boys to leave that table until the liver was eaten, and the penalty of a leather belt meant that we may as well have had an electric fence put up around the table. We were going nowhere until the liver disappeared. And there is a place in Heaven for our pet dog, Lucky, because he saved my brothers and me many a time. As my father would keep coming back and checking on us, piece by sordid piece, that nasty liver was disappearing under the table. Ah, life’s little lessons. I think we learned ingenuity from this one.
Strange Forms In Fatback
I suppose dinner around the table was where my mother and father wanted to enjoy the relaxation of the moment. I cannot count the times I heard such phrases as, “Children are to be seen and not heard,” and “Let the food stop your mouths.” Talk about endearing. You can bet there was no joking at our table. God help us if we got the giggles. All my father had to do was touch the tip of his belt with one finger while giving us “the stare,” and we instantly knew, face in the plate and throttle down. So it really came as a pleasant surprise one night when my two cousins, sons of my father’s brother, Mickey, were over for dinner. There was the usual pinto beans being passed around, and typical of southern cooking, it was seasoned with a slab of fat back that was cooked in with it. Keep in mind that my father was a deeply religious and abiding Fundamentalist Christian, so cussing never happened in that household, and even some words that we might find silly now were verboten then. We didn’t even say “Darn it!” And there was my cousin Ronnie looking at the piece of fat back with the most awestruck look, frozen in motion with the dipper in his hand, and he looked up at my father and announced loudly, “Golleeee! Uncle Sonny, there’s a tit on there!” I stole a look at my father, waiting to see the Wrath of Khan, and he was already laughing uncontrollably. I guess there was dispensation for those outside the faith.
Mama knew how to make ends meet...put your kids to work. I used to think that, if she could have harnessed us to a plow, she would have had another acre of garden. As it was, we planted an acre and a half of vegetables every year, and that meant a lot of tilling the soil, raking the clods down, making the furrows for each type of seed, planting each variety of seed by hand to just the right depth, watering and weeding (Lord, the weeding!), then faithfully harvesting during the season and canning hundreds of quarts of produce to help us make it through the winter months ahead. Did I mention I hate canning! If you had two eyes and two hands, summer meant snapping beans by the bushel, blanching the skins off tomatoes fresh out of boiling water, and being thankful that she couldn’t can squirrels. I was always glad when some of the other church ladies would come over and sit around the kitchen table with Mama, yacking away while they mindlessly snapped millions of beans. I wanted to snap tree branches, and if I knew those ladies were going to help with canning, I knew my brothers and I could wile my mother into letting us run out into the woods and escape. We knew not to come back till the sun was setting...give those ladies time to put the lids on the jars. Funny how my mother had us boys figured out better than we knew. If she wanted us out of the house, all she had to say was, “If you all stick around, I’m going to put you to work.” She’d be talking to the air after that one.
Sandra, Connie & Nancy
Frozen Pants At Breakfast
My mother had to feed and clothe with what little money there was, so we not only grew our own food in that huge garden, even made almost all the bread we ate, my mother had an old, foot-pedaled Singer sewing machine, and many shirts that my brothers and I wore were made while we watched. My mother looked like Rumpelstiltskin sitting there with raw fabric on one hand, and a shirt coming out of the other side of all of it. My mother tried to stay out of the stores, so that old sewing machine was her first line of defense. While some corner cutting was appreciated, some wasn’t. There were three bedrooms upstairs, actually two bedrooms and one large open area. Boys must be deemed the more resilient of the sexes, so Mama and Daddy had a bedroom, the girls had a bedroom, and we boys had a large open area...our bedroom. While we boys may not have needed any privacy, because that we never had, the bedrooms that my parents and my sisters slept in had vents in the floor. At night, when they would all go to bed, they could open the vents and allow the heat from downstairs to warm their rooms, but, there were no vents like that in that large open space we boys called our bedroom. So, in the winter, typical of young boys, when we went to bed, we would throw our pants on the floor. In the morning, those same pants would be frozen literally as stiff as wooden planks. We would have to go downstairs, light the oven and stick our pants inside the oven for a minute or two, bring them out before they caught on fire, punch them and beat on them to break them down, put them back into the open oven, let them heat, and repeat this process until they had thawed sufficiently to be able to get into them. What a three-ring circus our kitchen was each school morning as my sisters tried to get ready for school with a bunch of boys running around punching the daylights out of their frozen pants while hogging the stove. There would be pants in the oven while my sisters were trying to cook homemade pancakes on the top. Everything from scratch, no mixes, if we were going to eat, we were taught how to make it. We used King Syrup, and we never had it right out of the can. No, Mama taught us how to thin that with water, bring it to a boil, and use that instead. A can of King Syrup with this many kids had to do double duty, and if we could have grown our own wheat and ground it to make the flour, I know my mother would have done that, too. We bought eggs from a Polish woman who had an egg farm there in the country, one step between owning our own chickens, like we had done when I was much younger, and the luxury of buying them from the grocery store.
Good Ole King Syrup
Self-reliance, we didn’t know that this was what it was called. Other kids went to the store and bought things, like fancy kites in the March kite-flying season. Not us. No, my father knew a better way. He taught us to take dried plant stems that were light and strong, make a cross, bind them with cotton twine, ring it around the edges with that same twine, then tie that off. Then, he taught us to lay that frame on an old newspaper, cut around the edges, then make a paste out of flour and water and seal those edges over the string frame. Out of my mother’s rag bag, we would get some old fabric and tear it into strips, making the perfect kite tail. Once that was tied on, we attached the cord, and out to the field we went. Strangely enough, my father knew how to make every kind of kite imaginable, octagon kites, box kites, and I learned from that how to use my imagination to design some pretty interesting kites. When my friends crashed and destroyed their store-bought kites, they were devastated, but when one of mine went down, I just ran home and made another one. In minutes, I was back out in the field with them, flying another homemade gem. I’ve learned that some things are replaceable.
I Still Remember
I remember my grandmother giving us home baked cookies for Christmas, along with a flashlight and some batteries. I sat up till late that night, shining the light under the covers so my parents wouldn’t make me put it away. It was magical. I remember walking those old country roads selling booties that the Lady’s Willing Workers had sewn for a fund raiser at our church. I would knock on the doors, some little old lady would open the door, and there I stood, a little boy holding a pair of booties cleverly made from wash clothes, elastic and yarn, and I would ask, “Would you like to buy some booties?” What a clever ploy, send the kids out to sell. Who could resist? Funny how I have worked as a sales consultant successfully for many years. Wonder if there was a connection? I remember being given a model airplane for Christmas, but we were too poor to have the glue that went with it, so I would entertain myself by putting together as many parts as I could hold and imagining what the rest would look like if I could just have glued them permanently. Maybe that helped me with the graphic design work that I would do many years later as an adult. I remember my brother Phillip and I wanting to go up that old country road trick-or-treating one year, and we got some old dresses, stuffed pillows under them to look fat, covered our faces with charcoal and tied scarves over our heads to look like Aunt Jemima. Is this where all of those award-winning costume designs came from years later when I produced stage shows? I remember working as a busboy after school at nights and spending nearly an entire paycheck on my first pair of quality dress shoes. I was so embarrassed by the price, I couldn’t tell my mother how much they cost, such were the lessons of frugality that I had learned after all those years. I remember that my mother had all of us kids sing in the car all the way to and from church. We learned so many songs, we learned so many parts, and we became a touring singing gospel family. We would be called on by various churches to sing as a group, as a trio, as soloists, and looking back on all of it, I wonder if my mother had actually been doing that to keep us kids from acting up while in the car. Whatever her reasons, I went on to sing in the school choir, to sing as a soloist at my university, and after graduation, I went on to sing at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and perform as an actor/singer for PBS-TV, as well as a recording artist.
We Did Okay
My Aunt Nancy & Her Husband James
We Ended Up Pretty Good
My father furthered his education, and eventually worked his way up to the highest civilian position available at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, becoming Chief Administrator of Developments and Proofs. My mother never lost her undying love for my father, and together, they started churches and pastored for fifty years. My aunt, Nancy, more like a sister, went on to become very successful in real estate and married a wonderful man named James. They built a beautiful home in Maine, and are enjoying the best of life. My eldest sister, Connie, married a wonderful man named Bob, had a big family, and like my father, her husband became a preacher, too. Together, they pastored for many years until his eventual death a few years ago. My second eldest sister, Sandra, became a skilled and gifted painter, and will soon retire from many years as a professional in a hospital in New England. She is going to begin to spend more time painting now. My older brother, Gill, became a highly gifted decoy carver, and his carvings have sold in auctions for thousands of dollars. My baby brother, Phillip, sadly died when he was only thirty, and I often wonder what he would have done with that awesome talent he had for playing the saxophone. My mother never got over that hurt, but thankfully she had my father by her side through it all. And when my father started making more money, becoming successful, wouldn’t you know that it was time for us older kids to leave the nest and seek our own fortunes. But along came the last one of the bunch, my baby sister, Resa. Daddy spoiled her, because now he could, and we all loved him for it. Resa went on to become a professional with a city government, built a lovely home, and I often thought that she should be a fashion decorator. There’s still life ahead, who knows? All those life lessons that my mother and father instilled in us...hard work, watching our money, doing without so much but making so much out of so little. We created more fun out of a ride in a wheelbarrow than some people today get out of going to the movies. We learned to appreciate what we had, and even though we didn’t have much, we somehow found ways to give to others. Homemade fun, homemade clothes, homemade foods and homemade lessons that are still teaching me things today. A few years ago, my father died, and my mother was stricken with Alzheimer’s. Today, there isn’t much I can do to thank her for some of the greatest lessons she gave us kids, but if she could understand, I would tell her, “I’m still singing, Mama.”