Mom and Dad Create the World, Part I
My dad grew up on a farm in Manning, Iowa, America’s heartland (there picking up ideals of honesty, work, and duty that informed his life). He walked several miles to a one-room schoolhouse until eighth grade, when his father required him to quit school to work the farm. By the standards of the German immigrant society that surrounded them, children were expected to serve as unpaid workers for the family farm from the day they could hold a shovel or cook breakfast. Work was strictly divided by sex — cooking, housework, and “chores” (milking cows, feeding chickens) for the girls; farm hand, harvesting, planting, tilling, managing larger work and feeding animals for the boys. Mostly it was hand work. And hard work. Necessary work.
My mom was born in the post-bellum South into a proud and graceful society determinedly ignoring the worst parts of its roots. (See: Practically anything by Faulkner). The family on her mother’s side, was a ‘society’ family in Florida. Her father had been raised away from the deep South, part of the hardscrabble “Ritchie” clan that occupied homesteads throughout the Kentucky Hills near a little post office called Fisty, Kentucky (see: Jean Ritchie, for folk songs from that era and region). He had pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a Ph.D. — a “first” in his clan. He met and married a genteel Florida woman with an acid tongue and many talents – a teacher herself. The young couple moved across the South from Florida to Arkansas searching for stable employment, and bearing two daughters to start their family.
Then the Great Depression hit.
In spite of matriculating only to the eighth grade, my dad had loved reading. (Family history has him reading the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica in his twenties.) From the time he was a boy, encouraged by the books he voraciously consumed, he fantasized about the Mountain Men of legend, and was fascinated by photos of the wild natural landscapes and life of untamed Alaska. My dad was fourteen when the depression hit, and by age sixteen he’d left his family farm (driven by a father who would be considered abusive by today’s standards), and scrambled to make a living as a farmhand, trapper and living by his wits. By his early twenties, he was ready to execute a plan that he’d been nurturing for years. Partly to escape his tyrannical father’s attentions and the despair of the Great Depression, he “hopped the rails” to Alaska and leaving behind the farm forever. What better time to set about living his dream?
My mom also had a dream. She was a recognized prodigy as a young violinist. Her mother, fierce for her to get the training she needed, gloried when her daughter was finally accepted into a music conservatory in Cincinnati. The victory was short-lived — the Great Depression was just setting in, and beginning to take down people and institutions with it. The Great Depression hit when she was twelve. By her fifteenth year, mom’s music prodigy career had been put on hold. Her father’s dream of becoming a college professor had also collapsed and the family moved back to Kentucky, destined to live out the remainder of the Depression in a small, one-room shack surrounded by the poverty-stricken clan that had resided there since the 1800’s.
The Kentucky Hills were caught in a time-warp: no modern conveniences (a lot of homes were still sported back yard outhouses), Mom’s friends and the families she knew, were all related to her dad, and many lived a several mile hike up ‘the hollers,’ created by the little tributary streams that fed down the steep hillsides to Troublesome Creek. A natural tom-boy, Mom spent her days, when not practicing her violin or reading, exploring the natural life of the hills and streams. She remembered this time, in spite of the burdens of the Depression, as one of the happiest times in her life.
I did have an opportunity to visit the Kentucky Hills in the mid-sixties. By my mom’s account, it had hardly changed. Indeed, in spite of the romance of the hill country which burrowed its way into my budding literary aspirations, the way of life was already an anachronism — nearly unrecognizable from the affluence I grew up in. For better or worse we had cars, new homes and schools, employment choices, neighborhoods, telephones, protected childhoods, and were, with our parents, building a “postwar” world.
A brave new world it was.