Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Starving So I Could Live

I have been busy scanning and posting old photos as of late. I suppose this was somewhat prompted by the death of my Uncle Duane. His passing sent me into my parents old black and white photographs looking for pictures of the family together. My grandparents and all my uncles on my Dad's side are all gone now.

As I was scanning the last of the photos tonight it struck me. I was posting these primarily for my children so they could see the life I had as a child and so they could see their heritage. It will be a curiosity to them and little more. Except for their grandfather and grandmother, my mother and father, and except for my brother and sister, none of the people in those photos mean anything to them. They have never met them and have only heard a few stories. Very few. Kids these days don't sit still for stories from yesteryear. The sad truth is that there are only four people left in the entire world for whom these photos have any deep meaning: my father and mother, of course, myself, and my cousin Elizabeth Ann. That is it. They are not even significant to my brother and sister. I was eight when my sister was born. Twelve when my brother came along. My sister Margaret is was too young to remember any of this and by the time my brother Kyle was born my grandfather had died and we had moved away as had two of my Dad's brothers.

It was that thought that disturbed and upset me so much tonight. Those pictures that are so packed with meaning for me and my parents and Elizabeth have no meaning to anyone else. They cannot remember the love and warmth and laughter. They really cannot even imagine it.

I was truly blessed. We were all dirt poor but my family was so full of love and life and so filled with the joy of family that I never, ever, felt deprived. In fact the knowledge that we were poor never entered my mind. Many who lived on the coast of Maine in those days had little money. I never realized how poor we were until many years later. Love and family made all the difference. I had a great family. The herring chokers from Down East were all top drawer people. Finest kind.

Those who have followed my blogs over the years and those who have looked at the recent photos I have posted have heard reference made to the 'Town Farm' and probably wondered what it was.

I have explained that our old homes are known in my family by their place names or by who owned them before we did. "Jessie's Farm" thus named for some farmer named Jessie whom we purchased it from. The Town Farm got its name because it used to be the Town Farm. Go figure.

In the days before welfare the small towns in New England would purchase a working farm, usually a large Cape Cod with attached buildings and barns and working fields. It was stocked with all the animals and feed needed to sustain itself.

Those who were indigent, those who had no food or no place to live were sent to the town farm. In exchange for their work on the farm looking after orchards, fields, gardens and livestock, they were provided with free lodging and free food. Town Farms were commonly known as Poor Farms as well.
In time this custom was abandoned and the towns sold off their holdings. The Town Farm in Boothbay Harbor had been purchased by my grandfather, as an investment, I suppose, and eventually my father bought it from my grandfather. My Dad used to say he figured he would buy the Poor Farm as we were all going to wind up there anyway. For many years that looked like a prophecy come true.

One winter father was off work nearly all winter. He had been sick, in and out of hospital, and seemingly unable to stay well long enough to get back to work. He would sit at home all day with my mother. The two of them entertaining themselves by playing endless games of cribbage.

The Town Farm was one of four farms on a dead end road off a secondary back road in Boothbay Harbor. In the mornings I would walk the mile to the bus stop and where I would wait for the bus with Jay and Dwight Warren who lived in the next valley. Jay and Dwight often did not take the bus home at night for reasons I have since forgotten and on those nights, common in winter, George, the bus driver, would bend the rules and let me out of the bus at the top of the hill leading down into our valley and my home.

Winters on the coast of Maine can be brutal with deep snow and whistling wind and wicked cold. I was just a young pup maybe six or seven years old. It would be dark by the time I got out of school and would walk down that long hill in the darkness. The only lights came from an old street light with an incandescent lamp that just barely glowed and the outside light on our house that Mom of Dad would turn on. I would home in on that outside light and make my way down the hill and home.

The wood stove in the kitchen would always be thumping hot and I would strip off my snow gear and warm in front of it. Mom and Dad would ask me about my day at school and make small talk with me. Mom would then put dinner on the table for me. She always explained that she and Dad had eaten earlier and for whatever reason I accepted that without question. While I ate my dinner Mom and Dad would sit with me and talk with me. I was the center of their attention and they laughed and smiled and hugged me or tussled my hair. After dinner we would wash up my dishes and then play a game or watch television before it was time for me to go to bed for a good night's rest before school the next day.

Just a typical child's memory. But sometimes memory is a liar. Sometimes it never was like we remembered it. Oh, don't get me wrong. There is nothing really wrong with the way we remember things but what we remember is simply not the way things really were.

I was a teen before I learned the rest of the story, before my memory of that winter was filled in and then it was because I overheard a conversation I was never meant to hear.

You see, those nights my Mom and Dad told me they had eaten earlier? That was the lie. Most nights, most days they had not eaten at all. Nothing. All day. Remember? Dad was off work all winter. There was no welfare then. What food they had was given to me so I would not go hungry. What money they got from my grandparents or God knows where went to by me food while they went hungry. They mostly survived on cigarettes and coffee. The cigarettes recycled from butts and scrips and scraps of tobacco.

When there was just a bit extra money my Mom would get potatoes and corn and milk and make her and Dad a corn chowder and they would eat that. Stretching it out. Eating as little as possible. Day in and day out. Slowly starving themselves so I could eat.

So that is why my Dad hates corn chowder to this day. It has some pretty ugly memories for him.

And I marvel. I marvel at the love that parents have for their child that starving they can sit and watch their child eat the only food on the house. Sit and watch and in their hunger focus all their attention and love in that child.
Think about that the next time you sit down to dinner and think the meal you are eating is not up to your standard,

My siblings wonder sometimes about the bond my parents and I share, wonder why it is so different than the bond they share with the same parents. Partly it is that we had a life together for years where my siblings were simply not yet there. I remember people and places and events they do not. When my parents trip down memory lane I know what they are going, what they are talking about and what they are thinking. That is part of it. The other part of it is the knowledge I have of parents who slowly stared nearly to death one winter to keep me alive.

(Originally posted to Multiply November 13, 2008)

No comments:

Post a Comment