Friday, August 22, 2008

Midwestern Memories

Recently I noticed a title on a bestseller list – Little Heathens:Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression. Since my in-laws Whitie and Becky also lived on an Iowa farm during the Depression I was intrigued. They were older than the author, a young married couple in their twenties rather than children. But the Depression hit them hard. My father-in-law, who had a degree in chemistry, lost his job in a lab when he developed pleurisy due to the lab's poor ventilation system. This was long before OSHA and state disability insurance, so they had to do whatever they could to make ends meet. They returned to Becky's father's farm in Olin, Iowa. We recently found a Household Allowance ledger that Whitie kept during that time. The ledger for May 1933 shows that they earned $14.61 from selling eggs and cream and spent $4.29 on groceries (most of what they ate came from the farm). The Depression left its mark on them for their rest of their lives. They were warm and generous people, but they were definitely thrifty.

Mildred Armstrong Kalish's experiences were even more difficult. She was five years old, the third of four children, when her maternal grandfather banished her father from their lives. His transgression? Even now, 70 years later, she doesn't know. But it left her mother in a precarious position. Kalish's grandparents owned four farms, but they were “land poor”, struggling to pay the taxes and keep the farms running. So Mildred and her family lived and worked from May through December on one of these farms. In January they moved in with their grandparents in the small town of Garrison, since the cold weather made it too difficult to walk to the rural school. In both households the mottoes were the same – “Willful waste makes woeful want” and “If you're looking for a helping hand you'll find one at the end of your arm”.

Kalish's grandparents were “hearty handshake” Methodists, meaning that they didn't consider it appropriate to show affection by hugging, kissing or even touching. When a departing guest exclaimed “Thanks for a great evening. Oh, I do so love you folks”, Kalish's grandmother remarked after the door closed “Well, we like her, too. But there's no need to say so”. They firmly believed in building character in their grandchildren through religion and hard work. But if you think this is a memoir in which the author bemoans her cold harsh childhood you are mistaken. Kalish's memories are not only clear as a bell, they are infused with affection and joy.

She has fond memories of her winters in Garrison but her most powerful stories are about her summers on the farm. There were countless chores and very little money, but her affection for “the high blue sky” of Iowa, for all the sights and smells that filled her childhood days, is present on every page. Not that she gushes – that would be totally out of character. In fact her prose style is ... prosaic – as matter-of-fact and practical as she is. She includes household hints (most involve vinegar, salt, peroxide or baking soda) and recipes for everything from corn oysters to carrot marmalade. Perhaps her most poetic musing concerns...bacon fat. In comparing her own experience to Proust's reminiscence on the madeleine she says that “the closest I come to Proust's experience is the joy that comes over me when I conjure up the taste of a sandwich made of homemade bread spread with smoked bacon drippings, topped with the thinnest slices of crisp red radishes freshly harvested from the garden, and sprinkled over with coarse salt”.

Much of her farm life was spent outdoors, so there are many stories about the farm animals, the vegetable garden, nut gathering, haying, even the hanging out the wash. All these stories are told in her practical Iowan prose, but you can't help but be touched by her description of “the dearest deep-down freshness of a crab apple tree in full bloom”, or the “pagan pleasure” she took in inhaling “the sweet fragrance emanating form the clean body of a colt, calf, lamb, puppy or kitten that had been sleeping on the grass and warmed by the sun”.

Kalish admits at the end of the book that not everyone who experienced a childhood like hers has such happy memories, including her own sister, who refused to discuss their lives in the thirties. But I recently reread my father-in-law's memoir, hand-written near the end of his life. Like Kalish he describes their depression era life in practical language, without a hint of self pity or pessimism. I think he and Becky would have enjoyed this book.

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