by Letty Owings
My sister, about nine years older than I, used to say we had a happy childhood. When such statements are made, they cry for definition. Happiness? What is that? Is it different for each person? One day when I was visiting the LO Center (a residential treatment center for women) and chatting with a client, she told me she had a happy childhood. That was an amazing statement because the women at the center usually began their decent into hell early in life. When I questioned her about siblings she did not know how many she had. Other ordinary questions brought a similar lack of answers. I asked her why she described her childhood as “happy.” Her reply: “Nobody beat me.” Well, nobody beats me either, but I do not recall my childhood as happy. I particularly remember the summer of 1935 as a summer from hell, and hell can come alive from events other than relationships.
By 1935, the drought was in its third year. That meant no crops, no money for payments on the mortgaged farm, no jobs in the depressed economy. It was about as bad as it gets. Before the drought, my dad had built a barn with a roof that drained into a cistern that he dug. That building project was completed some years before the dry years and the dust storms came. It was supposed to eliminate water worries which it did until the rains stopped for three years. Then we had to rely on the well which had a bucket hung on a rope as the only means of drawing water. I remember snakes clinging to the walls as they searched for a cool spot as all humans and animals struggled to survive.
My brother was gone from home, working on a nothing job he hated. He resorted to working in the coal mines for fifty cents an hour. My sister was going on borrowed money to the local teachers’ college to get her one-year certificate to teach country school Girls from poor families had limited choices. They could be unqualified country school teachers or nurses or office workers or farm wives. Forget the secretary job for my sister or me because we had no way to learn to type. Forget nursing because we had no way to go to nurses’ training. That left teaching. Most rural schools, of which there were many in the era before consolidation, hired cheap teachers with as little as one year of college. In communities where many farmers considered quality education a useless waste of time, this mentality prevailed. It was ridiculous, of course. My sister and I were both caught in this bind and were terrible teachers during our first year. I still hope people who knew me then are merciful and forget and forgive my stupidity.
In the summer of 1935, I was the only one at home with my parents. A terrible thing happened. My mother came down with malaria fever. How in the world a malaria mosquito found a place to hatch during the dry summer, I can’t imagine. Mom was sick enough to die with a raging fever when Doc Martin came and diagnosed her illness. He gave her quinine and told us she had to have ice to cool her fever. We gave him a chicken for payment. Getting ice to cool Mom’s fever was not possible. We lived six miles from an ice plant, had no money to pay the dime it cost, and no way to keep it from melting in the raging heat. Dippings from the well had to do.
We had Mom in the yard on a pile of something or other. In fact, we all lived and slept outside except when we had to go in the house for some reason. Some nights the temperature stayed around a hundred degrees. How did we keep the chickens and ducks and geese and hogs and cows and horses alive? I do remember going with my father in the middle of the night to drive the horses three miles to the nearest creek so they could drink from the stream that ran nearly dry.
Crops began to grow again eventually, but it was too late for farmers who owed money as my dad did. They could never make enough to get ahead of the debt. In March of 1941, my dad came to where I was living during my senior year in high school. He told me he was giving up on the farm. He cried and I cried. We could not know that December 7 of that year, our world would turn upside down. Farm land would soar in price. It was too late for my dad. To this day I never saw the place again after my folks left it. I never drove by there again. How could I see the barn that Dad built or the tree where Mom lay in the shade and where our dogs Bunk and Mose slept with us outside in the heat of those terrible summers? As I have written before, I have an extreme case of “You can’t go home again.” Is the house still there? I do not know. Many farm houses are not. When the price of land went into the stratosphere, houses and trees and barns and flower gardens gave way to the bulldozers to put into production every last acre. I still know where I went to pick Mom the first spring beauties and boy butchers each year. I know where the blackberry and gooseberry vines grew and where the black walnuts fell. Many stories and memories of two people who exemplified all that was good and strong and unselfish and faithful to their family and their God.
Creative Commons photo courtesy of Robb North on flickr.