Leaving the farm, for an 11-year-old girl who was accustomed to leaving the house at will and roaming the pastures and fields in the company of a pair of vigilant collie dogs, was not an easy transition. After the one-room schoolhouse, the new school was huge and strange. There were more children in my classroom than had been in our entire school in the country. And they were all strangers!
But I was a child and was malleable as children are known to be. I could endure the strange looks as the other girls looked carefully over my home-made and hand-me-down clothes since I had become accustomed to that. And, I soon developed my own life around the constraints of living so closely with other people.
It was much less easy for my poor mother. Burdened with a dying husband who suffered from extended periods of severe pneumonia and chronic severe coughing, she had no help except for what the children could provide. Granted, she had running water and the old wood-fired cook stove was replaced by a "modern" gas range. The washing machine was now powered by electricity instead a gasoline engine, but the clothes still had to be hung on the lines outdoors.
Our father had up taken residence in the downstairs bedroom and demanded many trips a day to provide for his needs. Yet, somehow mother managed, and the meals always appeared on the old kitchen table at the right time.
Mother found a neighbor who came and plowed the garden which the boys then worked with rakes and shovels to create arable soil so she could plant the garden, and she continued with the unending work schedule that she had known all her life.
Father's condition continued to deteriorate but Mother found that a doctor who lived in the neighborhood would look in on him and guide her in his care. Eventually, the doctor began providing medications in order to keep Father sedated in his moments of forgetful delusion. Then he started asking to be paid and Mother had no money! I recall going with her to talk to a man about "getting on the county," which is what welfare was called in those days. There was a "county farm," but it was only for old folks who worked in large gardens and cared for animals in return for their "keep," but there was no accommodation for families with children.
We walked downtown to the "land office" where we were ushered into a back office occupied by a man the likes of which I had never seen. He was grossly fat, wearing a white shirt and three-piece brown suit with the vest stretched tightly across his opulent belly and decorated with a shiny gold watch chain. This man acted as if it were his own money for which we were begging. I could sense Mother's humiliation but she bore up under his condemning gaze and he finally agreed to provide a few dollars to pay the doctor so that he would continue to assist in Father's care. But we were to meet that man again!
Yet, there were incidents when the medications were insufficient. I remember being awakened in the middle of one night to the sound of a loud ruckus taking place downstairs. I crept cautiously down the stairs with visions of robbers and thieves invading us. As I opened the stair door and peeked out, the panorama spread before me was even worse than I expected.
There was Father, in the middle of a delusion, standing at the front door, struggling to open it. (I had never known that Mother had previously locked the door with a key in case of just such an event.) Three of the boys were trying to help her control him when she asked, "What were you trying to do?"
His response was firm and commanding. "I'm going to run up and down the street naked and show the neighbors what a crazy man can do!"
This was the state of the family when the next crisis fell. My youngest brother, then no more than 16, came home with a bad stomach ache which grew worse all night and required Mother to sit with him throughout the night to soothe him when the pain grew unbearable. The next morning, she called our neighbor/doctor who came by for an examination and declared that it was severely inflamed appendicitis, and he required emergency surgery.
Mother put on her Sunday hat and we once again walked downtown to apply for country assistance. The fat man listened very briefly before explaining that he could not pay for the work to be done in the hospital which was "only" 20 miles away and would require payment. However, they could pay for transportation to Kansas City where the State charity hospital was located.
We went home and Mother dressed my brother and had another brother drive the old car to take them to the local train station. They got the invalid onto the train and then she was on her own. They traveled 60 miles to the east where there was a railroad junction and she had to take a taxi through that town to the other station to wait for the Kansas City train. There was still almost 100 miles to go, with stops at every little town along the way. Other passengers helped her by keeping her supplied with damp cloths with which to soothe his fever until the destination was reached the next morning.
I have no idea how this little lady was able to help this tall, gangly, helpless adolescent from the train to a taxi but they were brought to the admitting room of the hospital. A brief examination by an intern preceded a quick trip to surgery where they found a ruptured appendix with inflammation spread throughout his internal organs, all due to the delay in getting him to treatment. Mother received the news that her son would live but recuperation would be slow, beginning with a two-week stay in the hospital.
But this was in "the days before." There was certainly no Ronald McDonald House and she had no money. She didn't question it, but she spent that two weeks sitting in a chair in a ward full of ailing teen-aged boys, ministering to them as needed until the nurses would arrive to attend to them. At last the two weeks were up and she was given instructions for home care and he was released. She had saved the last bit of cash that the fat man had given her, called a taxi, and repeated the return trip in the same way.
With the hindsight of many years, I can only imagine the strength it took for this aging farm lady to embark on such an ordeal. She, who had at times spent multiple years without ever seeing a town, much less a large city, finding the courage to begin such a trying hegira, not only alone, but with the life of one of her offspring hanging in the balance. But she got home, safely, and with her remaining brood around her. And -- she changed Father's bed and did the laundry before she went to bed!
This is the life that those who complain so loudly about "wasteful government spending" would impose on yet another generation of American citizens so that they can play the part of the fat man and make sure that nobody who suffers misfortune ever gets quite what they need. Returning to "the days before" would not only be wrong; it would be both criminal and sinful.
To read Part 1 of In The Days Before, go here
This writer is eighty years old and has spent a half century working with handicapped and deprived people and advocating on their behalf while caring for her own workung-class family. She spends her "Sunset Years" in writing and struggling with The (more...