There were five children in our family as I was growing up-Bennie was 10 years older, Leonard eight years older, Oletha was six years younger and Lawrence Lee, nine years younger than I. We were poor but we never realized it.
Being poor meant that your family was on welfare. We never were. It meant going to bed hungry. We never did.
Mother baked eight loaves of bread every Friday "because we like homemade bread better than store bread". And Fridays were always special at our house because it was bread baking day. Before we left for school,
Mother had already started her bread. She would bring out a huge dishpan that was kept covered with a clean dish cloth on the pantry shelf all week. It was never used for anything other than mixing bread dough. We would watch as she gathered the ingredients, yeast milk, flour, etc. As we went out the door, she would be kneading a great lump of dough on the kitchen table.
We always hurried home on Friday evenings. We knew there would be fried bread waiting for us. I can still taste the long thin strips of bread, warm and fragrant, covered with caramelized brown sugar that had been sprinkled on while the bread was still piping hot out of the old iron skillet.
Later that evening several of my father's friends who worked with him at the taxi company would stop by to "lie and brag" about their exploits of the previous week. It was a noisy, wise cracking, group that made themselves at home in our kitchen., "Where's our favorite little girl?" would always bring me running from the bedroom to say goodnight and collect the penny candy I knew was hidden in someone's pocket. If Frances Bush was along, I could be assured it was root beer barrels, my very favorite.
To go with Mom's delicious bread, there was always a
pound of fresh churned butter. A local farmer delivered it each Friday afternoon to the taxi dispatch office. The drivers all chipped in their tips to pay for it. Mother cut thick slices of warm crusty bread and then slathered onto the golden rich sweet butter, along with homemade strawberry or blackberry jam.
In the fall there would be homemade apple butter that was cooked in a huge copper kettle over an open fire and spiced just right with oil of cinnamon. (Just a few drops of that oil flavored the whole vat of apple butter but it inor heaven forbid, your eyes.
Before the evening was over someone was bound to bring out a harmonica or a guitar and a songfest would begin. I always envied my older brothers because they could stay up to listen. My brother Leonard even learned to play the harmonica during these sessions.
Looking back, I'm not sure the songs were always suitable for impressionable young teenagers. There was one song that my brother Bennie taught me that caused quite an uproar when Mother heard me singing it. It was called, "The Lady in Red" and went something like this,
"Oh, the lady in red jumped in bed,
She covered up her head, and swore
I couldn't find her
but I know darn well she lied like he--, 'cause
I Jumped right in behind her."
Bennie washed dishes for a week and I was forbidden to ever sing the song again. It made such an impression that I still remember the lyrics after all these years.
Our family shopped at the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (the A & P Store as everyone affectionately called it) for our Eight O’clock coffee and other staples. We were thankful that we weren’t forced to buy our groceries at the Miner's Company Store.
Once I saw a boy at school try to pay for his milk at recess with a token and the teacher told him that he would have to bring a real nickel the next day. He insisted that he had a real nickel "But they always take these at the Company Store", he said as he started to cry. I was embarrassed for him because the teacher made it sound like he was trying to cheat the school. That evening when I asked my mother why Mike's nickel was different from mine, she explained.
"Mike's father works in the coal mine and he gets paid with script. That's special money that they can only use at a store the "Company” owns. This way the mine owners make a profit on everything miners buy. When there is no work at the mines, the families have to charge things and go into debt. Then when they go back to work, they owe so much to the Company store that they can't go anywhere else to buy anything." She added,” I'm sure glad your Daddy quit the mines before we got married. I'd hate to have to live in a company house and buy things at the Company Store."
My parents did not believe in buying on credit. (There were no plastic credit cards in those days.) If you couldn't pay cash for something, you just did without until you saved enough to buy it. When my friend’s mother got a washing machine with an automatic wringer, I just didn't understand why we couldn't have one too. I truly detested turning the handle on our heavy old hand-turned wringer washer while mother guided the sopping wet clothes through it. Each load of clothes was put through the wringer three times, once after the wash and once after each tub full of clean rinse water.
I surely must have made a pest of myself on the subject every week. "Why can't we just go down to Sears Roebuck and charge one? Then all we'd have to do is put the clothes through the electric wringer and they'd dry a lot faster too." I'd whine. "At least can we just buy some soap powder? I hate cutting those old yellow bars of Octagon soap into slivers." (This was so it would dissolve faster in the washing machine.)
Mother finally lost patience with me. The next wash day when we emptied the clothes hampers, Mother and I went into the bathroom with our arms full of dirty clothes. Instead of putting them down the clothes chute as usual however, Mother pointed to the bathtub full of water and two old corrugated washboards, propped up beside it. "I thought we'd do the laundry this week like I used to do it," she said as she motioned me to get down on my knees beside the tub. By the time she showed me how to rub the clothes with the cake of soap and I’d scrubbed the third garment, my knuckles were so sore that I was happy to finish the laundry in our old washing machine. And I didn't even mind turning the wringer.
Years later when my father brought home our first truly automatic washer and drier, I remembered that day and Mother and I had a good laugh about it.
Maybe we never realized that we were poor because it was never discussed. We "made do" with what we had and were expected to help anyone that had less than we did. Most of our friends were in the same circumstances that we were and helped each other whenever they could.
Oletha and I wore "made-over" clothes because our friends would give us things their children had outgrown and we "couldn’t hurt their feelings by not accepting and using them." Oletha reminded me recently of the blue woolen suits Mother made from Daddy's old uniforms. They were the itchiest things imaginable but we sure were proud to wear them. We also had many things made from feed sacks. I remember going to help pick out chicken feed so we'd be sure to get matching sacks. All of Mother's aprons were made from feed sacks.
We went bare foot in the summer because it was good for our feet and we enjoyed it - not because we couldn't afford shoes. The shoes would be outgrown before school started anyway and we'd never have gotten our money's worth from them.
When it was time for Oletha and Lawrence Lee (they weren't Lee and Larry then as mother hated nicknames) to attend kindergarten at our church, Mother helped the teacher, Miss Vallo, one day each week in lieu of paying tuition. If I happened to have a day off from school, I’d go along to help. It was the custom for each child to bring something to share with the others at snack time. No matter how small the contribution, each child got a share - one apple + 15 children = mighty small pieces. But the lesson learned was a very graphic and valuable one.
Christmas was always special at our house. We never got expensive presents but we each got several small things and the excitement was just as great as if we had gotten the biggest doll or the best bike in town. I remember a year that I had my heart set on a beautiful Shirley Temple doll but “Santa couldn’t bring it to you because there is a sick little girl in the next town who wanted exactly the same doll as you do, and she needed it more,” my father explained.
Instead, each of my old dolls had gotten a new, handmade outfit. I was so pleased when I dressed them all up in their new clothes and lined them up on my bed. “Mother, Santa even brought a dress for Sally that matches my new one”. Life during the depression required a lot of imagination as well as hard work.
A big part of our Christmas fun was the getting ready for the big day. Our decorations were mostly made by us children. We strung lots of popcorn and made yards of paper chains. And there was always the Christmas Pageant when every boy and girl in the church got to take part. Mr. Kyle, the closest thing to a professional actor in our town, directed the play every year. He chose an appropriate script and assigned all the parts. Then rehearsals began. Every actor just knew that their costume was going to fall apart, or they would forget their lines, or my special fear, I’d trip and fall off the stage. The night of the big production would finally arrive and none of the expected catastrophes ever happened except for a forgotten line now and then.
The children who did not have a part in the play would either sing or recite a poem. My sister was always given the longest “reading” to perform. She remembered every word and knew just where to make the dramatic gestures. The audience never made her nervous. She was a professional! SHE TOOK ELOCUTION LESSONS! Every Saturday she had lessons at the Marshall School of Music and Drama where Mrs. Percy Scott taught the drama classes and her sister taught piano and voice to “the cultured young ladies in the community”. Oletha used to have to practice a new tongue twister every week. She’s go around the house, carefully enunciating such things as “My pet pigeon is prinking his pin feathers”, or Pick a primrose and put it on Pearl’s pin cushion”. I don’t know if she ever learned to work these gems into conversation or not but we sure were proud of her and those Christmas recitals.
Then there was the Christmas food. Fresh fruit was not ordinarily on Mother’s grocery list except at Christmas time. Then we always had special treats of oranges, grapes and bananas. Prices were very dear and I can just imagine how Mother rationalized their purchase.
Baking took days to complete. We had cookies made only for the Holidays; “popcorn balls” made from puffed rice cereal and melted marshmallows; homemade mincemeat pies and fruit cake made with Mother’s canned cherries and other goodies. But I always looked forward to the candy making.
First we made the caramels that took so much time and patience to make that we only made them once a year. The recipe called for the milk, corn syrup and sugar mixture to be cooked for an hour, while “stirring constantly”. Then it was poured into a buttered pan to cool. This took at least another hour before it could be cut into bite size pieces and each one wrapped in wax paper. If you cooked it too long the candy might be so hard that it had to be broken with a knife and hammer. It was still good eating, no matter how long it took to soften in your mouth. My sister and I took the wrapping seriously and made sure the ends of the paper was tightly twisted. Lawrence Lee however was more interested in the tasting part and usually disappeared about the time he started feeling queasy from so much sampling.
Finally came the time for my favorite-fudge. Mother was famous for her peanut butter fudge. She would stir up a batch at various times during the year; when there was a celebration; when someone needed cheering up; or just because it felt to her like a “fudge night”. I loved to watch her stir the rich chocolate and let it fall from her spoon back into the kettle. As the candy became too thick to stir I would stick my finger into the stream – never mind the calories! Mother would, as I expected, crack the back of my hand with the spoon but I’d end up with a good sampling. Delicious! When the candy cooled, it was cut and stored in an air tight tin box and hidden away to be a special treat. None of the other kids in the family seemed as interested as I was in the actual process of fudge making . They were interested in licking the pan and eating the finished product.
I tried many times to duplicate Mother’s fudge over the years but never succeeded. I don’t know how many times I’d go to her, nearly in tears, “It just won’t work! This time I ended up with chocolate syrup!” She would patiently repeat the recipe and the step-by-step directions. “But I did it just like that and it didn’t work! Why can’t I make good fudge like you do?”
Years passed. Our family was devastated by the loss of my brother Leonard who was a Navy jet pilot in World War II. . Mother and Daddy left West Virginia and moved to Arizona thinking that the warmer climate would be good for my father’s health.
Bennie married and began his own family. I married and had a daughter. Oletha graduated from the University of Arizona and began teaching. Lawrence Lee married and went into construction work.
I still had the old fudge recipe and periodically tried to produce even a poor facsimile of fudge I so fondly remembered. I could duplicate her caramels, do a passable job with seafoam but I couldn’t make good fudge! It became a standing joke between Mother and me. “Well I tried again last night. This time I got a plate full of chocolate sugar”, I’d tell her on the phone.
Then Mother became seriously ill. She was diagnosed as having an inoperable brain tumor. We were all devastated but Mother’s fighting spirit remained. After all nearly five years previously she had survived breast cancer. We hoped for the best. After five months in the hospital and use of experimental drugs, she was able to return home. She even garnered enough strength to come back to WV to spend some time with me and to visit her 94 year old father. It was a bittersweet time for all of us. Mother was paralyzed on her right side and was compelled to wear a full leg brace in order to walk.
Even though she was in pain, one evening she decided that it felt like a “fudge night”. I got out a heavy aluminum pan and added the 4 cups of sugar, 2 heaping tablespoons full of cocoa and a large can of Carnation milk her recipe called for. She watched every move I made and instructed me in every step. “Watch how it boils up around the sides of the pan and then shrinks back into the pot as it cooks down. Now, test a little bit on a couple of ice cubes. Does it make a soft ball yet? Now taste it. How does it feel on your tongue? It should have some substance to it and not just dissolve away. OK, now set the pan in the sink full of ice water AND DON’T TOUCH THE PAN UNTIL IT COOLS!. When you can comfortably hold your hand on the bottom of the pan, it’s cool enough to begin stirring.”
When the pan finally cooled to her satisfaction, Mother asked me to set the pan on a low table in front of her wheelchair. She added two heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter and, with her left hand, she began to stir the rich chocolate mixture until it became too thick and creamy to fall from the spoon in ribbons of rich chocolate. I stuck my finger into the stream of fudge as it fell into the pan, realizing this was probably the last time I would ever have this opportunity. Mother, as I hoped, cracked the back of my fingers with the spoon and as I licked my fingers, tears well up in my eyes. Delicious! Swallowing a lump in my throat along with the candy I asked, “Now why can’t I do that?”
She looked at me with tears in her own eyes and said, “Don’t worry, honey, you won’t have any trouble making fudge when I’m gone, I promise”.
A few days later, she and my father made their final trip west across the country together. Two months later she was gone.
It was nearly a year before I could bring myself to test her promise to me. But one night, it just felt like a fudge night, so I tried. I succeeded! My mother’s promise has held true for all these years. I’ve never again made chocolate syrup or chocolate sugar.
These things then were MY inheritance – the lessons my parents taught me about life; the values I developed – love – my memories and MOTHER’S FUDGE!