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Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 18

...A month or two later, Mama bartered better living quarters for us. In exchange for cleaning house for an elderly couple named Kates, we were allowed to live in the garage behind their house...

Popular artist Bertie Stroup Marah continues her compulsively readable account of a tough upbringing.

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We camped on the banks of the Rio Grande River and caught fish to supplement our food supply. That fall we ate mostly potatoes and beans and finished off the home canned corn and apple butter we had brought with us. By the first of December 1946, we ran out of money to buy butter and milk for the potatoes and we relied on chili powder for flavoring. We also used it to spice up our pinto beans.

My folks did not hide their concern over money so we worried in unison with them over our future. We never complained though because we knew it would do no good. When we weren't in school Willie and Jessie spent a lot of time trying to catch fish and I just stayed around the tent trying to help Mama with my sisters. On frosty mornings the steam from the area's hot springs would rise up like fog. P.G. visited those bathhouses for medicinal reasons; the rest of us went just to bathe.

After P.G. began to feel better he looked for work but there were no jobs to be had and he could find no steady employment. He did contribute some dollars for the family by hauling scrap iron with his brother-in-law. But we were desperately short of cash, so Mama took a job at a local nightclub rolling dice in illegal gambling games. Slot machines in New Mexico had long been outlawed but the gambling spirit could not be legislated. Those folks who liked the games enjoyed the thrill of challenging the law. The dice games were held in a smoky room behind the bar. An advanced warning system allowed the patrons to exit quickly into the alley. P.G. also earned a few bucks from the bar owner for standing guard at the door to watch for the law while the dice games were in progress. Mama always hated gambling; I expect her experience in Hot Springs may have had a lot to do with that.

A month or two later, Mama bartered better living quarters for us. In exchange for cleaning house for an elderly couple named Kates, we were allowed to live in the garage behind their house.

We older kids were responsible for caring for Phyllis and Reita while Mama was at work. We fed them supper, washed them and put them to bed. Willie, as the oldest, had most of the responsibility, which he accepted without complaint. We loved and respected him so much that we rarely questioned his supervision.

The time in Hot Springs brings back embarrassing and shameful memories. Things happened then that are today still painful to recall. We didn't realize until we moved away from Weed to Hot Springs, which was
much more prosperous, that compared to the way others lived, we were really very poor.

Our parents believed that being poor was never an excuse for thievery and lying, and strictly enforced this belief with severe discipline. I reminded myself of this when I was tempted to take something that wasn't mine. The only time I ignored this rule was in Hot Springs.

I was in the second grade and my school was several blocks from where we lived and in a different direction from where the boys went to school so I walked by myself. The neighborhoods where I walked were modest but I was still envious of those who lived in real houses. On my way home from school I stopped many times to peer through the window of a small one-room grocery store. This was my hungriest time of day. I could see the groceries neatly lined up on the shelves, and near the old fashioned cash register with its ornate brass metal leaves and flowers, sat the colorful boxes of candy, peanuts, and gum. Just looking made my mouth water. I finally got bold enough to step inside the store a couple days in a row—just to look.

A little old man, wearing gold-rimmed spectacles balanced on the end of his nose, peered across the counter and startled me by asking if I wanted anything, I flinched and ducked my head. "No, thank you, I don't have any money today," I said, then hurried out the door.

I am not sure when I decided to steal; the idea had probably been growing in the back of my mind for a few days. I had no practice at being a thief so I was unable to conceive a good plan for stealing. I just knew I wanted one of those candy bars. The third day, as I stood eyeballing the candy, a lady came into the store and said to the old man, "Would you mind getting me some of that bologna and a pound of longhorn cheese?"

"Yes, ma'am," the old man said, wiping his hands on his white butcher's apron. He adjusted his glasses, and walked behind the meat case to slice the meat and cheese. I seized my opportunity! I grabbed a Hershey bar and slipped it into my coat pocket.

My heart pounded and my face turned hot as I forced myself to walk, not run, to the door and down the street. About a block from the store I could hold back no longer and began to run as fast as I could until I felt a stitch in my side. When I stopped running and spun around, I was startled to find I was not being followed. My stomach churned. I no longer craved the candy but knew I could not take it home. I had to get rid of it. So instead of savoring tiny bites as I had dreamed, I quickly stuffed the whole thing in my mouth. I could not bear to look at the evidence of my crime.

It did not taste nearly as good as I had imagined. My stomach felt a little queasy and my feet dragged as I slowly walked the rest of the way home. That evening I watched the faces of my family as we were eating our supper of potatoes and beans. I wondered if I looked different to them now that I had become a criminal.

From that day on, every time I heard my mama say, "I despise a liar and a thief," I would cringe and say to myself, if you only knew. I couldn't bring myself to tell her until I was grown and we were recalling our rough time in Hot Springs. It was only then that I told her about the stolen candy bar. The sadness in her eyes spoke volumes. She responded in a quiet voice with no trace of condemnation, "I am so sorry about that."


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