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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 12

...Jessie and Willie got a pet pig from Nona Calkins in exchange for crawling into the narrow space beneath her house to drag out a wild house cat.

Jessie, who viewed most people with suspicion, later said accusingly, "The old bat just wanted to see me and Willie get bit and scratched. And she didn't want that runt pig anyway." The wild house cat battle was soon forgotten, and we all loved the little runt pig we named "Jenks."...

Bertie Stroup Marah continues her wonderfully detailed and uplifting life story.

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One time we were treated to a Christmas program at the little church in Sacramento. Oren Peck was an old bachelor who never drove a car but instead rode his horse everywhere he went. Because he was a big jolly man with a beard, he was asked to play Santa Claus following the program. At its conclusion, everyone remained seated in excited anticipation of "Santa Claus" who was to emerge from the tiny closet-sized back room.

Old Oren Peck must have been struggling with his Santa suit in the dark when he fell over some old boards and boxes of junk. The audience was startled to hear a tremendous clatter and thud as Oren hit the floor. Instead of the expected "Ho, ho, ho," what we heard was a loud, "Goddamned son of a bitch," followed by a low groan of pain.

We all sat wide-eyed unable to suppress our laughter. Some parents clamped their hands over their children's ears. Oren finally limped into the room, tears trickling down his plump cheeks. He greeted us with a weak, "Ho, ho, ho."

I'm sure many kids had their image of Santa Claus shattered or considerably altered that night. As for me, at six years old, my older brothers had already dismantled my belief in him. By mutual agreement Oren never played Santa again.

When I was seven, the job at the sawmill ended. P.G. went to work for the Calkins family who had a vegetable farm and a small sawmill. He helped them with their cabbage harvest and cut logs that he skidded off the hillside to the sawmill using a big gray work horse. We got awfully tired of eating all that cabbage P.G. brought home from the fields. It took years for us to learn to like it again.

We moved into a two-room log cabin on the Calkins property. My folks slept in the smaller room. The larger one served as the kitchen and another bedroom: where my brothers and I slept opposite the wood cook stove and table. For light, we had one coal oil lamp, which sat on the table. Willie showed us how to make "shadow animals" by holding his hands in different positions as the buttery lamp light cast shapes onto the cabin wall. A trick he learned from P.G.

It was in this snug log cabin that Mama announced, "We are going to have another baby." I was still getting used to having Phyllis around but took the news in stride.

Early on September 17, 1946, the day Reita was born, I was sent to stay with Francis Calkins, a teenager who made up a story about Reita's origin that I knew was untrue. She said with the utmost sincerity, "Bertie, your folks found a baby in a cave, brought her home and named her Reita Kay."

I liked the attention Frances paid me, and didn't want to risk alienating her by challenging her story. With wide eyes I nodded and said, "Oh, that's wonderful."

I knew that once again, Doc Shields, had helped Mama deliver to us another little sister. Although I didn't know the mechanics of making a baby, I knew they weren't found in caves.

Mama was only twenty-seven years old and had five children; the last two were born only fourteen months apart. She was worn down. Caring for her family was made even harder by our harsh living conditions and no modern conveniences such as running water and electricity.

For the first few weeks Reita cried a lot. Finally, Mama discovered there were not enough nutrients in her breast milk and Reita was crying from hunger. So she had to put Reita on a bottle. The bottles we used were not regular baby bottles. They were beer bottles with nipples stretched over the tops. We used a funnel to pour the whole cow milk into the bottles.

Part of the reason we used beer bottles was that when a baby bottle became empty, Phyllis would break hers by hurling it to the floor. Because we didn't have extra money to buy bottles to keep up with the breakage, mama decided to use empty beer bottles. They were free and certainly plentiful at our house. Mama gave up on weaning Phyllis from the bottle because she was too close in age to Reita. Phyllis would sneak up to where Reita lay nursing her bottle, patting her and whispering, "kitty, kitty" then she would ease the bottle from Reita's lips and plop the bottle into her own baby mouth. Because she was only fourteen months old when Reita was born, Phyllis had little time to be the baby of the family. She didn't get the attention she needed and deserved.

"You kids take Phyllis out to play with you," Mama would instruct. "But be sure she doesn't get hurt."

Phyllis wasn't a problem for us kids. She was easily entertained. But because Mama was busy with Reita and P.G. was putting in so many hours at work, Phyllis must have felt unimportant. There was just not enough attention to go around. Phyllis seemed overly solemn. Pictures of her early in life, more often than not, depict an unsmiling child who inherited Mama's beauty and temperament.

My brothers and I spent much of our time outside, engineering in the earth bank on the hillside behind the Calkins cabin. We "drove" our homemade wooden trucks on our newly constructed "roads."

"Bertie, don't step on that road," Jessie would order, "Willie and I just made it." Not wanting to upset them, I would gingerly step over the tiny ruts.

Jessie and Willie got a pet pig from Nona Calkins in exchange for crawling into the narrow space beneath her house to drag out a wild house cat.

Jessie, who viewed most people with suspicion, later said accusingly, "The old bat just wanted to see me and Willie get bit and scratched. And she didn't want that runt pig anyway." The wild house cat battle was soon forgotten, and we all loved the little runt pig we named "Jenks."

Jenks played alongside of us, rooting the ground and grunting contentedly, as we drove our homemade trucks, and constructed shelters from tree limbs covered with pine needles. The only one who didn't like Jenks was our year-old sister, Phyllis, who toddled around on chubby little legs trying to avoid it. When she had a biscuit or other food in her hand she would hold it above her head to keep it out of our pig's reach. If she ever squatted down, however, she was fair game: Jenks would charge and root our wobbly sister over, seizing the food from her fat little fists, leaving her crying in the dirt.

We only lived in the cabin a few months when we were told we would have to move to the Snyder Sawmill where P.G. was now going to work. Tom Donaghe, a friend of our folks, came over to move our meager possessions in his old truck. Willie caught Jenks, and was about to put the squirming pig in the truck when P.G. gave us the news: "We can't take that pig with us, so Tom's gonna take him home."

We hugged Jenks goodbye, assuming that Tom understood he was a beloved pet and would keep him for us. We later learned that Tom butchered him. We cried and cried and could never stand the sight of Tom Donaghe after that; his long nose just seemed to grow longer.

P.G. went to work for the Snyder Brothers lumber mill, which was the largest industry around Weed, and we moved into yet another sawmill shack. This one had three rooms, and like the others in which we had lived had no indoor plumbing or electricity. Our water was hauled from the sawmill well in barrels and then siphoned into buckets as needed. At night, we used a kerosene lamp for light. When we woke in the mornings, we could see daylight through cracks in the siding. On very chilly winter mornings, while we were getting ready for school, snow would sometimes accumulate on the rough pine floors.

Moving from one dirty shack to another must have been difficult for Mama, but she never showed her disappointment. She just kept trying to make a home for us regardless of our dilapidated surroundings.

Just help me unpack the pots and pans," she would say, as she dug through cardboard boxes for our foodstuffs. We can't eat 'til I get a fire goin' and somethin' to cook on."

Her courage, the pungency of the wood fire, and the smell of hot biscuits and potatoes filled us with warmth and the sense that everything would turn out all right.

Just keeping us fed and our clothes washed was a full time job for Mama. She had to scrub our clothes on a rub board in a tub. She would always warn us, "You change those school clothes when you get home from school, or you won't have anything to wear tomorrow." Willie, Jessie and I rode the bus to school. No fuss was made over our grades so I don't recall if they were good or bad.

Mama was a steady image of strength, and our love for her grew as did our trust because she portrayed an image of strength. The hard life she led, coupled with her unyielding resolution, molded a woman who would not back away from any challenge. She never started trouble, but when it came her way, she faced it head on. She always said, "I'm just as mean as I have to be." And she was.

Mama detested gossips, liars, thieves, flirts and pretentious people. Murderers never made her list because she thought some people deserved to be killed—especially those who beat their own mothers or hurt little kids. She believed people should pay for their actions. She did not think the law should be involved in most situations; rather, that the individuals involved should settle their own differences. Without legal intervention.
She said more than once, "Only a cowardly son of a bitch has to call the law. All that does is make a lot of lawyers rich."

Mama's rules were simple. Although we heard plenty of profanity, we were not allowed to use it. We saw people drink but were not allowed to sample. Same with smoking. She would not tolerate lies, thievery, or deceit. She taught us to be proud, not arrogant, and forbid us to make fun of those less fortunate.


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