TO PERRY: PLENTIFUL DEPRESSION YEARS
When my father closed his machine shop in Kaplan and we moved to Perry, no one told me that it was because of the Depression. I didn't even know what a depression was! I know now that it was a matter of survival for my family. It is possible that Mr. O'Brien let us live in his little house on the bayou rent-free, just so he'd have someone to keep up the place. No one ever told me. And no one ever told me that I should feel deprived. My parents and brothers and sisters did not treat me differently because I was blind in one eye (from a childhood accident that I barely remember), so I never felt sorry for myself.
I was proud to be the one to pick the figs for Mom to make into preserves. I was proud to be the one to gather dewberries and wild blackberries for her to make jams and jellies and sometimes a berry cobbler. I was proud to be the one to grind the coffee beans that Mom had parched on the wood-burning stove in a cast iron skillet. And these had to be freshly ground each time she wanted to make a pot of coffee.
I did know that some schoolmates wore clothes that were different from those I wore. Theirs were store-bought, and I wore my older brother's cut-off overalls with a shirt he had outgrown. (But do you know what cut-offs sell for today? I was fashionable long before my time and did not even know it!) If anything, I felt sorry for these schoolmates because they didn't have an older brother. My first bra was made of demity, hand-sewn by my big sister, Dee. No body else had such a nice big sister! My Dad built a beautiful little pirogue and painted it dove gray. This was my birthday gift from him when I turned 13. What other girl had a dad who could build a pirogue?
I was never told that I should feel sorry for myself, so I went merrily along, making the best grades in school, reading the most books, writing the best essays, and helping friends with their school work.
My reddish blonde hair turned more red and my freckles multiplied each summer from playing in the sun, and I was healthy as Mr. Elie's pony frolicking in the pasture across the bayou. Of course, Mom insisted that we each have a purgative in the Spring, to "clean us out." And, boy, did it ever! But keeping us healthy was Mom's job, you see, and she was just doing her job.
Dad's "workshop" was in the shade of a big hickory nut tree on the west side of the house. This is where he built boats to order and constructed irrigation pumps for the rice farmers. I still have his little account book, and I know that some of the farmers who became very rich after these lean years, never paid him all they owed him. Others, having no cash, paid for his work with sacks of rice or sweet potatoes when they harvested their crop, and fresh beef and pork when they slaughtered animals for their family. One farmer who had a little syrup mill brought us several gallons of cane syrup each year.
I remember times when our supper was freshly cooked rice and fig preserves and fresh milk. There were times when our noon dinner was sweet potatoes cooked three different ways, or a fish courtbouillion served with rice. But we never went hungry and we never applied for welfare. (That would have been a disgrace!)
Grandpa always made a garden, so most of the time we had fresh vegetables. And it was Grandpa who milked the cow that furnished our fresh milk. Mom always had her little "bas court" so that we ate lots of chicken and almost always had fresh eggs.
I picked pecans "on half" for Mrs. Hartman who had at least a dozen big pecan trees, but was unable to pick the pecans herself. My half of the pickings I brought home to Mom for her to use to make pies or fudge or divinity or sugar-coated pecans. The hickory nuts I picked were cracked in Dad's vise out under the hickory nut tree and brought in to Mom in a pan and she picked out the meat with a crochet hook. Mom liked to use these instead of pecans in her divinity.
I learned to pick a squirrel out of a tree with a .22 rifle and thought of myself as a big game hunter. Grandpa taught me to skin those squirrels and sometimes we had pot-roasted squirrel and sweet potatoes for supper. I remember the first time I shot at a squirrel up in that old hickory nut tree - I missed the squirrel, but cut the branch he was sitting on, and he fell to the ground and broke his neck, poor little thing!
The money that Dad did collect was used to buy necessities like sugar and green coffee beans at Mr. George Smith's grocery store.
If someone had told me that we were poor, or that I was underprivileged or disadvantaged, I'd have said, "What's that?"
Copyright © 2001 Aline T. Meaux, Abbeville, LA
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