« Edward - Act 3, Scene 2 | Main | Away With Worry »

Born With a Rusty Spoon: Episode 25

...I once pointed to the shadow it made sticking in every direction. "Look, Reita," I said, my voice taunting. "Your head looks like a porcupine."

Reita turned, saw her odd prickly shadow and she began to cry. Her tears made me ashamed, and I never teased her about her hair again...

Bertie Stroup Marah continues her unmissable story of a hard upbringing.

To buy a copy of Bertie's wonderful book please visit
To see some of her pictures click on

In spite of all this, I never once regretted coming back home to my family. Phyllis was four and Reita three and both were nearly inseparable. It was my job to watch them. One afternoon, not long after the destruction of my dishes, toys and candy, they decided to make mud pies, a favorite past time.

They were out behind the house, ankle-deep in mud, "baking" pies and smearing their little bodies with mud "frosting."

Reita wound up with a good amount in her hair. Phyllis decided the best way to deal with her sister's dried mud was to make it disappear. She found a pair of scissors and reassured Reita, "I'll fix it, Weita, I'll make it all gone." She cut Reita's hair in chunks down to the scalp.

Our teasing caused Reita to be aware and self conscious of her thin straggly hair. We had no idea the cause of it was probably due to poor nutrition. I once pointed to the shadow it made sticking in every direction. "Look, Reita," I said, my voice taunting. "Your head looks like a porcupine."

Reita turned, saw her odd prickly shadow and she began to cry. Her tears made me ashamed, and I never teased her about her hair again.

On occasion Phyllis helped Reita with her hair problem by hanging Mama's cotton panties on her head to simulate hair; unfortunately, the panties weren't always fresh from the drawer. Mama didn't mind as long as they were entertaining themselves.

When I rejoined the family, I had to get used to the increased responsibility that was heaped upon me. Mama felt an obligation to help P.G. earn money to support us even when it required her to take jobs usually reserved for men. Our parents hired on at a little sawmill that was about three miles from the house, so during the work day, my brothers and I were expected to watch after Phyllis and Reita.

Mama did the cooking when she was at home, but when she was at the sawmill I was expected to get supper started. Because of our poverty we had few ingredients to work with, and Mama was forced to serve her family basic fare. She never had the chance to experiment with new and varied dishes. As a result, cooking was not something Mama learned to enjoy. Rather, it was undertaken for the sole purpose of filling the stomachs of five kids and two adults. Exciting our appetites was not a consideration, and I cannot recall any of our hungry pack being picky or fussy about food. We understood there were no options and—table manners be damned—eagerly consumed whatever was placed in front of us. I cannot remember actually going hungry although we rarely experienced much variety in our meals.

Our diets consisted primarily of pinto beans, although, on occasion, we were lucky enough to have lima beans or black-eyed peas for variety.
Another main staple was potatoes—usually fried; sometimes with onions added. Some years Mama canned corn, tomatoes, apples and jellies. The fruit and jellies never lasted more than one season. In the interest of time and ease, Mama rarely made yeast bread but rather baked quicker and easier biscuits or corn bread.

We couldn't afford beef except for an occasional bit of hamburger. We raised some pigs but our primary meat supply was venison, mostly from deer killed out of season. Some people ate poached eggs; we ate poached venison and were damned glad to have it.

Sometimes we were lucky enough to buy whole milk from people who owned cows. Otherwise we made do with canned milk diluted with water. Our potatoes, beans and onions were kept in burlap sacks in the corner of the kitchen.

Added to the difficulty of cooking with so little for so many, the old house where we lived had no electricity, running water, or fuel other than wood. Because we had no refrigerator, perishable items were kept in a window cooler that sat outside the kitchen window. It was a large box with a metal bottom that held a couple gallons of cool water. During the day, we placed dampened burlap sacks over the cooling box so that any breeze could penetrate the wet sacks and cool the contents. The box opened into the kitchen; when we wanted to take out milk or meat, we simply pushed aside the small curtain or screen that served as a door.

The kitchen had a cabinet for dishes and a small counter for preparing food. There was an equally small wash stand, a pan for washing and a communal towel that hung from a nail. We shared a dipper to scoop drinking water from a bucket. We sat on benches and stools around an oblong wooden table. Our eating utensils were stored in a can, set in the center of the table, alongside salt and pepper shakers. At meal times, each family member chose his or her preferred utensil. My brothers and I usually picked knives and forks while Phyllis and Reita were allowed only spoons. My previous lectures on table manners did nothing to alter this procedure.

I cooked on a wood stove with help from my brothers who chopped the wood and started the fire in the firebox. Maintaining an even temperature in a woodstove was difficult at best, it required turning the damper, and letting the fire burn down, or adding wood for more heat. To keep the food from burning, we moved the cooking pots around on top of the stove. It was a full time job, demanding the sleight of hand of a shell game con artist. Keeping a close eye on the oven's food was a must because there was no temperature control.

Our potable water was hauled in barrels with bungs for siphoning from the sawmill well. Open-topped barrels were placed strategically under the eaves of the house to catch rainwater runoff from the roof. This water was used for washing dishes and bathing.


Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.