Thinking back on good times
Mother, may I go out to swim?
Yes, my darling daughter:
Hang your clothes on a hickory limb
And don’t go near the water.
It wasn’t sister Ruth but her brother Bill who asked the question that afternoon about 70 years ago to which Mother replied, And don’t go near the water!
It was summer. The one-room, four-grade Cherry Valley School was closed, and Ruth and I were bored. In the midst of the Great Depression, there weren’t many toys to play with, so the thought of fishing at Art Ide’s pond crossed our minds.
I was the oldest, so it was decided that I would be the one to go into the kitchen to seek permission. Mother was too busy taking care of her housekeeping chores and baby sister Lorna to take us fishing, as she quickly reminded me.
It wasn’t just Don’t go fishing; it was also Don’t go near the water. She put it even more emphatically. “Go back outdoors and play with Ruth and stay in the yard!”
Well, you know how such things go. Not long thereafter, Ruth and I were trudging along the road toward Ide’s Pond. We knew the path well, for we had walked by the pond a half-mile distant from the house many times to go to school, which was yet another quarter-mile away.
We had rigged a pair of fishing poles from saplings; our line was string saved from packages from the store in the village. For hooks we had open safety pins. I recall us digging worms in the chicken yard.
I recall something else on that day in New England. It was the look on Mother’s face as she came down the road with determined strides not long after we put worms on our safety pins. She had in her hand something akin to a fishing pole, but it was too light for catching horned pout and there was no string or hook. It was a switch.
Though Mother didn’t believe in corporal punishment, the switch was used more than the fishing poles that afternoon. Not excessively, but enough to discourage us from ever again slipping away from the house to do things like going fishing.
I recall the day well, especially Mother’s determined look and the switch used more to make a point than to hurt. It was a few more years before I ever went fishing unsupervised again. I don’t recall Ruth ever fishing again until several years ago when I took her on a headboat when she visited us from her Rhode Island home.
As Mother’s Day approaches and my mother has been gone for over 30 years, I think of Mother and her tending her flock when hard times were more than being denied a personal cell phone or the latest computer game.
I think of Mother with so much to do: the kids, the meals, the laundry in a big wash tub, the house, the vegetable garden, the worrying and who knows what else yet finding time to entertain what she called “my tribe.” Our father was always at work. He ran a one-man auto repair shop a few villages away and worked long hours seven days a week to make ends meet.
It really wasn’t that the garage business was bad. People had broken jalopies but little if any money to pay. Anything that had an engine, our father could fix, but he wasn’t as adept at bookkeeping and business. His garage was littered with IOUs from patrons who couldn’t pay. But Daddy couldn’t say no. He kept them mobile, kept a roof over our heads in a small bungalow we owned and provided ample food for the table. Not all kids could say that much back in the dismal early- and mid-’30s.
As many of my generation say, we were poor but didn’t know it. That’s because just about everyone was poor. People adults really counted pennies. Ten of them bought a can of beans, a loaf of bread, a quart of milk. So never mind seeing moving pictures (also at 10 cents) in the small movie house in the village where Burton’s Garage fixed flivvers.
Somehow, Mother found time to entertain her brood. We played musical chairs and ring around the rosy, and she hand-cranked the old gramophone for music to accompany the games or to teach us to dance though with me her efforts were wasted.
The real fun came in the evening when we’d gather around the piano and Mother would work the keys and sing. She had taken only a few piano lessons as a girl, but she had the gift of being able to play a piece of music well from memory after hearing it once or twice. Her voice was good enough that she sang in programs at the Grange.
She maintained a good sense of humor, lightening our days by telling us jokes or perhaps reciting poetry she had learned as a child. How she had time, to this day I don’t know, but the Burton kids never suffered depression during the Great Depression though we sometimes thought ourselves mistreated when dispatched to weed the garden or baby-sit younger siblings while Mother cooked or laundered or swept.
She taught us to love and appreciate cats, later dogs, and all her children have since adopted enough pets to open a zoo. But back then, the dogs and cats had to make do with table scraps. I never saw canned or packaged pet food in the house until I returned from the Navy at 19. Nor a telephone, indoor plumbing, central heat, a vacuum cleaner, 100-watt light bulbs or so many other things taken for granted today.
Mother always reminded us we had more than many around us, and not infrequently those who had less were enriched by Mother’s generosity. I’ll not forget telling her about the woodchopper and his wife who lived next to us in an unheated converted roadside vegetable stand: no windows, little furniture and no plumbing. It was Saturday evening, and between them they had one can of beans to share.
I was dispatched to their makeshift quarters with a tin of tuna and a half loaf of bread, probably intended for us the next day. But Mother’s philosophy was that everyone should live at least as well as we did. Somehow we managed until the Great Depression was over and good times were here again.
When I think back to when times weren’t so good across our country, like so many others in my generation, I think of an uncomplaining country woman who not only held her fold together but also made life interesting and enjoyable for five kids who never realized they were poor.
Joseph Stefano wrote A boy’s best friend is his mother. Might I add, it also holds for girls. This Mother’s Day, that’s something not to forget … whether one has to look back to mothers long gone or those still tending their flocks. Enough said.
Editor’s note: Bill Burton says he’s had enough of being under the weather when he ought to be out fishing or at his desk writing. We, too, are counting the days. Meanwhile, you’ll find his Mother’s Day column from 2002 worth rereading.