Saturday, June 4, 2011

That was Then, This is Now

In the kitchen of the small house I grew up in, seven of us would sit around the table (there was no dining room in rural Backus) and eat our meals. Next to the door leading to the front porch was a porcelain sink set into a metal cabinet. Above it was a medicine cabinet that held aspirin and probably my mom's heart pills. I know it held aspirin because one afternoon my sister Jane and I decided to pretend we were nurses, while Mother took a nap in the next room. We took turns dispensing them, and by the time Mom woke up, we'd lost track of how many had been dispensed. Jane was slightly older and apparently could recall she'd only taken a couple. Having gone down with the requisite spoonful of sugar, my number was somewhat less knowable. Unfortunately, I was treated to the salt water solution technique. I was forced to drink it, which induced vomiting - into a cast iron fry pan. It was a harrowing experience. Pure hell comes to mind. Then she kept an eye on me. Not much else to do. Times were different then, especially for country folk. We didn't do much doctoring.

Next to the sink was a tall, or so it seemed at the time, singular wooden cabinet with a simple metal latch. Inside was the sugar container, a white porcelain pig with red kerchief. The creamer, if there ever was one, no longer existed. Next to that was the door to my parent's bedroom and then the cook stove. No, not an oven and range, a cook stove, wood-fired, one of those with a warming oven next to the wood box and a tall back, a lot of cast iron and what was once very shiny metal. The back held salt and pepper shakers. The salt and pepper shakers were wooden heads with painted faces and baker's caps and when you turned them over they cried. I don't know why, they just did, and it provided occasional bouts of entertainment when all other possibilities had been stretched thin.

There was an opening between the kitchen and the living room that had no function but probably passed for an architectural detail at one time. Hanging on the wall next to it was this small framed picture with a quote that surely must have been my mother's prayer. I have it hanging in my kitchen now. It has a lot of miles on it.

By the doorway going into the living room, (not leading to, going into), stood another cupboard. Then there was the table, a red and white metal rectangle covered with oilcloth, the kind you once bought from a roll in the back of the hardware store. The somewhat matching chairs were also white with red. I should remember, as I got my head stuck in between the back and the seat one hot summer day (Don't ask. Couldn't tell you). Hank, the neighbor man, was called to take the chair apart, but not wanting to call attention to myself, at the last minute I freed myself through sheer willpower. My ears burned and itched, but I was free. I was five years old at the time.

We always knew there would be a meal on the table. It may have had potatoes from the garden as a main course, but it was food. In the winter there was probably the dreaded venison. It took me a lot of years to realize that venison didn't always taste like meat gone bad. It's all in the cutting up of it, the preparation, if you will. When it's winter, with deer season long over, you cut it up fast and you freeze it even faster.

Sitting around this table could sometimes be a very pleasant experience. Banter and humor played a large part, as well as talk about politics, religion, and the possibility of  "flying saucers."  I didn't come by my interests randomly. My father sat on one end, I sat on his right, with my back to the windows that looked out at what passed for a garage and the field beyond. That field played a large role in our lives.

Other times, it was not so pleasant. If someone politely asked for something to be passed, I would remind them that they could reach it. More than occasionally, middle sister Chris would share an opinion, and the older siblings would tell her to go back to her cage. Squabbles broke out, feelings got hurt, and tears were shed. And not always between the siblings. Sometimes I sat numbly and waited for the storm to pass.

Those were the tough years, but we didn't talk about it. We were poor, but didn't know it. At least not in any way that caused damage to our souls. And, we were fortunate. It did not always remain so. My parents worked hard. Life improved. In those days it seemed easier to rise above your circumstances. In small towns, banks gave legitimate loans to legitimate people for legitimate reasons. That's how it was. It's not that way anymore. And it might never be again.

This Saturday morning, I am reminded of a poem I heard Bob Hicok read on PBS a few months ago. It still sits in the back of my mind, called forth now and then to remember that there are a lot of folks who are looking at life through another lens and it doesn't look promising. The poem was written in 2004, but like many poems there's a prescience about it that surely hasn't escaped Mr. Hicok.

"Calling him back from layoff"

I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I'm OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that's a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones


Painting: Andrew Wyeth   "Groundhog Day"


  1. Ain't it the truth, then and now, little did we know, then would be better than now, for so many reasons and for so many folks, too many.

  2. oh my gosh that is such a moving poem. timeless, like the timelessness of your own story that though it's bound by a certain era, is really about what it's like to live, about life not being easy.

    strong images in your descriptions, rich with meaning.

  3. Omigod, what a powerful poem. Yes, we always believed that each of us could live better (however we defined that) if we worked hard. The super-greedy super-rich have stolen that from our society, and we all pay the price.

  4. How well you remember the details of your childhood home! When I was growing up my dad was in the service, so we moved a lot. I can remember the layout of each house, but not the details. They were just houses

    We weren't poor in material things, but I think we may have been poor in spirit.

  5. This is a wonderful post.
    'We were poor but we didn't know it.'

    I only learned how poor we were when I went to the house of another child. In that house there was a sitting room, a whole room just for doing nothing in and not only did that room have a lamp hanging from the ceiling but it also had a standard lamp over an easy chair in the corner.

    The first thing I bought when I finally had a job and money and a house of my own was a standard lamp.

    How very different times were then.

  6. Linda S, Yes, it seems that those who are returning to a similar time in the choices they make don't necessarily have an easier time, going back to the land is very hard work, but it does promise soul expanding possibilities.

    Neighbor, It is a very moving and timeless poem, isn't it? My description, though set in the late '50's could describe the basic lives of many people even today. The hard part is being sold the bill of goods that told you anything was possible, until it wasn't.

    Nancy, I become almost numb with grief sometimes over what has happened and continues to happen, with no end in sight.

    Linda, I have an almost uncanny ability to actually See rooms, moment sin my life. How true are they? As true as anything else. I've spent my life locking these moments in, wanting to remember, and for what reason? Maybe to write it down someday. We were, early on, poor in material goods, but I believe rich in spirit. I think, I hope, it lingers....

    Friko, Thank You. I remember several friends homes where they seemed so rich, but looking back, they weren't. Not really. Certainly not happier. I can so relate to your lamp story.

  7. What a memory you have. Sticking your head in a chair. That must have been traumatic! When I get together with "kids" (use that word very lightly) I grew up with, we always say, "We didn't know we were poor because everyone was poor." Now there are re-runs of The Waltons and that was exactly our time. Everyone was poor without a government handout. I just can't think socialistically (is that a word?). I'm so thankful we had the choice and opportunity to dig our own way out, of course the aftermath of WW2 helped too. "Now" is light years away from how I grew up.

  8. I very much enjoyed reading took me back to a similar time. Are you sure we're not sisters? The only difference would have been the venison...instead since dad was a milkman...we had a constant stream of egg dishes. Funny I still enjoy eating eggs...would think I would have gotten sick of them. We sat 8 of us at a 48" round table...but at least we all sat at the table at the same time to share our meals. Today families seem hard pressed to find the time to connect for a meal...everyday....5 o'clock. I miss those days. Thank you for so beautifully bringing back to times remembered and cherished.

  9. precient. My sister Sarah got her head twisted in the metal rods in her baby bed. Neighbors and family freed her before she suffocated. After the ordeal, her curly hair was straight, never curled again.

    Those were hard scrapple times when, as you wrote, rich wasn't really rich, not by really rich standards. But I can't decide (and have given much thought to this) were times better then because I was a child and saw through a child's eyes? I didn't see my mother's unhappiness. I didn't see so much. The other question I give much thought to is, Would we as a country really have pulled ahead so fast without World War II? Now that my chapbook's in the chute, I'm going to blog a bit about the sharecropper system. Poor remained poor in the Old South until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Anyway, much food for thought, Teresa. Thank you!

  10. Manzi, It was one of those metal kitchen chairs with a space between the seat and back. My head fit okay going in... :) We did have the opportunity to dig our own way out. I wonder if it truly is still possible, or if people are just afraid or feel unable to do so. These are hard questions, but I think it's very different, as you stated, and options are limited.

    Karena, Well , we could be... anything is possible.... It's funny you mention eggs because I almost included a story about eggs in this. I think those shared meal times are missing in so many families now and they served a basic function that was of great value. Thank you, Karena.

    Kittie, So nice to hear from you and thank you for sharing your perspective on these basic, yet oh so important questions.

  11. Wonderful post, and you have a great memory of your youth. I never thought about being poor. My friend was wealthy, a huge house, a horse and took riding lessons. Both her folks worked and she was left alone much of the time. We played in her lilac bushes, this was our house. No one is poor or wealthy in a lilac bush. There was lots of opportunity for us back then and I was so optimistic. We did dig our way out, but we also weren't afraid of hard work or menial tasks. But, there were jobs!!! Now, there just arent a lot of jobs. Hundreds show up for an opening. Yeah, I agree with Kittie. WWII helped really helped the economy. Gosh isn't that awful???

  12. Whoa. That poem was definitely prescient, and it must speak to a whole lot of people today. The memories of your home are so brilliant and clear, they came alive for me. You are a very talented storyteller.

  13. I enjoyed the above comments as much as your post. And that poem was very touching. Thank you or as we say in Hawaii: Mahalo.

  14. Perhaps fewer people today have those memories, and far too few care to think about the question in the poem. How do we get all of that back!

  15. Hello Teresa:
    What a wonderful evocation of childhood. Although, from what you say, there was not a great deal of money over at the time, but instead your parents clearly created a home in which people rather than possessions mattered.

    One wonders where it all went wrong with so many families today who appear, or so it seems, to be completely disfunctional?

  16. TM Lynn, I have given some more thought also to the idea of WWII propelling us forward on many fronts, but to what end? It seems we were on the way to wonderful things, and for so many years we were. Somewhere along the way we lost ourselves, our better selves. It seems so, in hindsight, of course. Jobs are so scarce now. Many have been shipped overseas, and once people become downtrodden in their self-esteem, and joblessness goes on for a long time, it's not easy to pull your self up by the bootstraps. I love that your "house" was a lilac bush.

    DJan, Thank you. It must be so difficult, for so many... MILLIONS of people are unemployed....

    gigi, Mahalo, it has a nice soft sound to it.

    Montucky, Thanks for visiting. I'm not sure how we get it back. as a nation, we seem to be moving farther away from it. Individuals have to make other choices, choices that might not be easy, but will ultimately lead to a better way of life.

    Jane and Lance, As Manzanita also stated in her comments, so many were in a similar state that we didn't feel we were an anomaly, we were the norm. There does seem to be a lot of dysfunction. I think it was always there, to varying degrees, but with the loss of shared meals and the advent of so many electronic gadgets, starting with television, much of real value was lost. Having rules and regulations around family life seems to have been lost.

  17. Your post tugged at my heart today, Sunday, Teresa. What vivid recollections you have of your family home; the stove, the salt and pepper shakers, your poor mom, surely in fear with nothing else to do but watch after your playful dosing of aspirin. It was, indeed, a different time that evokes my own childhood so well. There was always hope.

    What a powerful poem and one that is timely still. Thank you for sharing it here.

  18. Teresa, what a moving memory of your childhood. I'm sorry, but I couldn't help laughing, when you told about your head in the chair. I was also in trouble sometimes, not my head in the chair, but other things that might have been dangerous, but someone must have hold his hand over us. Also in the story about the medicine you took. Poor you! My brother was worse. Almost in trouble every day. He got lost all the time and I had to find him!

    I often wonder how my parents succeded in how we felt our childhood was happy and carefree. It was during the war, and although my country was spared, there was sabotage and shooting episodes, air-raids and a terrible catastrophe at the harbour nearby, it was not allowed to go out in the evening and so on. My cousin, who lived by us, was a resister, who took part in the sabotage. I didn't know what he was doing then. I was never afraid, I felt safe in my home.

    Thank you for sharing that wonderful story and the poem, Teresa.

  19. We also crowded into the kitchen until a few kids left the nest and my parebnts opened up a wall going to a bedroom. No matter what was being served we always ate together and if a friend wanted to join my mom always would"put another potatoe in the pot".

  20. Teresa,
    the poem is lovely and very poignant...but your memories are even stronger! I don't recall being poor, although we were since my dad drank his earnings away but we just were what we were; there was no evaluating it or thinking about it.
    Very powerful post ~

  21. Penny, Yes, there was always hope, And my parents didn't allow the problems that seemed inherent in our lives, to touch our lives in a fearful way. My mom took almost a daily nap. She had some heart problems, but I also think she had some depression and life was not easy. All we knew was that Mom took naps back then.

    Grethe, It's a funny story really, I don't mind at all if you laugh about it. Kids do the darnedest things, don't they? You wonder how our parents got through all the crazy childhood things we did. "I was never afraid, I felt safe in my home." Exactly. Isn't it wonderful, that we were able to feel that way and that our parents provided that for us? I don't think kids feel as safe today.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I always Love hearing from you.

    Steve, Those shared meals were such a big part of our lives in the early years. Things changed later, but at that time, it was a mainstay.

    Tracy, I like what you've said here: "we just were what we were; there was no evaluating it or thinking about it." I think it's a better approach to life, overall. Thank you so much for your thoughts around this post.

  22. ~A brilliant piece of poetry Teresa, I can totally understand why it struck chords in many minds. I've really enjoyed reading and catching up with the writing you have posted during my absence, your writing is very evocative!
    I just wanted to say too, a big thank you for visiting and for your words they truly touched my heart.

    Hugs, Jane

  23. Jane, How nice to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to read my posts and for your kind words. and a hug for you, as well. T

  24. Cletis, In our brief email exchange this am, I like your statement about all being part of the whole. No matter how one is raised, when or what manner, we all have common ground. I'm glad to know we shared a similar supper table.

  25. What a powerful post Teresa. Love the line, 'We were poor but we didn't know it.'

    That really struck a chord.

  26. Bluestocking Mum, I'm so glad you dropped by today. Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. It's very appreciated.

  27. Teresa -- this is a great post. I liked the compare and contrast threads that ran through it. Your childhood and the tough times yet safety of the home against the unemployed man in the poem that was not safe and the emotional toll that was expressed through his tears. I could go on. You led me down the path of your post to the emotional ending -- what a multi-faceted path it was -- thanks -- barbara

  28. Barbara, What a nice New Year's gift, that you found this post and commented. I'm so glad. Thank you for the nice thoughts in response to it.

  29. A wonderful post,TE. Do you realize what an excellent writer you are? You are.
    Reading all the comments added to the post so bountifully. There is nothing left for me to say. The others said exactly much of what was on the tip of my tongue. This post evoked many memories of my own childhood and worthy of a telling sometime. Much of our past is lost from the not-telling. To look back on the late 40s - late 50s and compare to today...inconprehensible We had the best of things, I conclude today.
    Fabulous post and poem. Thank you for sharing with me.

  30. Perhaps you'd enjoy telling your own stories, Sissy. I'm sure many would love to read them. It's a good journey, going "back" to recall all that brought me to Here.

    Thank you. I'm so glad you found this post and enjoyed it.