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Hard times, Moon Pies and never giving up

My mom's family has known hardship, but you never heard these Tennessee women complain.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 2, 2010 1:53PM
My Aunt Dot is dying. She’s 87 years old and has been taken to a South Jersey hospital with pneumonia. Since she suffers from emphysema and has had serious heart problems for years, she is probably reaching the end of her life.

Of course, that’s what they said when her older sister, my Aunt Elna, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in her 70s. She went through chemo and lived for a few more good years before developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Both of these women were older sisters to my mother. All three of them taught me a lot about frugality, and about life. A few important lessons: 

Grow your food.
One of my earliest memories is toddling through the enormous vegetable garden tended by Elna and Dot with help from a third sister, Bea, who has a developmental disability and has always lived at home. A lot of this food was canned or frozen because the family often worked seasonally in fields and factories -- what you grew in the summer was what you ate in the winter. I can’t garden where I currently live, but I glean fruit and preserve it in jars, as jams and in the freezer. When I think of a home of my own, I envision a southern exposure and an edible landscape.

Enough is as good as a feast.
I remember having lunch as a young adult in Elna’s half of the duplex that the aunts shared. On the menu that day were pinto beans and fried potatoes. It was what they could afford. It was enough.

Their meals weren’t always healthy, because a garden can stretch only so far. My mom recalled a lot of biscuits and white gravy, and Dot, who had a Southern girl’s sweet tooth, would have a Moon Pie and a Dr Pepper for lunch if she could get away with it. (She always made sure that we kids got Moon Pies, too -- and my mom always made sure that such things were desserts, not main courses.)

As an adult, I am not a picky eater. If my meals are nourishing, they don’t have to be elaborate. A corollary: As long as my clothes cover me decently, I don’t lose a lot of sleep over whether they bear the right designer labels.

Times harder than we could imagine

Family, first and always.
My parents had four kids in five years and no cash to spare. Dot, who had just one child, would step in to buy us cardigans or Easter clothes, or take us to the county fair for one ride each on the carousel and a snow cone afterward. Another early memory is being held in her arms to watch the Christmas parade in Bridgeton, N.J., and hearing her say, “Look! There’s Sainty Claus!”

When we were little, Dot would keep us for part of the day every Saturday, which is probably the only time my mom ever had to herself. And when another sister hooked up with a man who refused to accept her two toddlers, it was Dot who went and picked up the babies, bought them something to wear and filed the custody paperwork.

One child wound up being raised by his paternal grandfather and the other by my Aunt Elna, who was also bringing up my mom and two other sisters after their mother died. Since Dot lived next door, she was always there to help. Following their lead, I have always tried to assist people who need it, either with physical help or cash.

Work is a fact of life
. Sometimes the work is hard. Dot reminisced about “washing (dirty) diapers when I was so little they had to put the washtub on the floor.” (At one point, the family had five kids and grandkids in diapers at the same time.) As a girl she worked on farms during the Depression, earning 2 cents a bushel to pull and top carrots.

Two cents a bushel. A bushel of carrots weighs at least 50 pounds. Those were some hard damn times.

Dot and her siblings had to walk several miles just to get to these jobs, and the workdays could be 12 hours long. After walking home, they’d have to carry water if the cistern and rain barrels were dry. The stream from which they drew water was 2 miles from their family's Tennessee cabin.
When I said I couldn’t imagine how they stood up under all that, she shrugged. “We’re part Indian,” Dot said. “Indians don’t quit.” I guess that explains why after the family moved north she would work all week in a factory but spend weekends doing field work to help keep the family going.

The difficult years in my own life seem tame by comparison, but I have never been afraid to work. Or to get my hands dirty; as a single mom I did all our laundry by hand for 16 months, including my daughter’s diapers.

Deal with what life sends your way. Never give up.
As evidenced by the above, my extended family’s story could make Job seem like a big ol’ whiner. They have lived with poverty, a lack of education (one uncle died unable to read), illegitimacy, unemployment, multiple divorces, alcoholism, physical abuse, numerous health problems (and no health insurance -- people in my family tend to die of heart attacks or colon or stomach cancer).

To outsiders it might sound like one big country-western song. They might be tempted to write us off as ignorant rednecks. But my mom’s sisters are good people. They are kind people. They are always there for those in need, they share such as they have, and they treasure photos of grandkids, nieces, nephews, and cousins upon cousins upon cousins. I don’t have a clear idea how many of us there are.

I want to hear that voice again
The hard times teach us how to savor the good times. They also teach us how to hold on until those good times materialize. My upbringing is the reason that I have been able to get by on very little money.

For the past few years I’ve been sending Dot a check every time I get paid. Whenever I visit she always frets a little: “Now, don’t you send that if it means you run short.” I tell her that I’m doing fine. “Well, I sure do thank you, then,” she’ll reply. She uses the money for expenses not covered by Medicare.
Dot always asks, “How’s our girl?” That’s a reference to my daughter, Abby; the three aunts provided child care for Abby during much of her first year of life. I paid the going rate (at that time, $25 a week) but I bet they would have done it for free because they were nuts about her.

As I write this I can hear “How’s our girl?” as clearly as if Dot were in the room with me. It’s a Tennessee-twangy voice, raspy from years of smoking (she finally quit, too late), and it conveys so much warmth that I want to cry. I wish I could sit in her living room and hear that voice again. I’m praying that I will.

If I don’t? I’ll go forward with what the women in my life have taught me, and honor their memories by trying to be as kind and giving as they were. And I won’t ever worry about running short because I know how to cook pinto beans, with or without fried potatoes.

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