Posted in Life, Stories

My Past Life… – Thankful and Blessed

Image

My very early childhood was unusual, to say the least.  My brothers, mother and I moved a LOT.  I’ve been told I was born with wheels on my butt.

My mother left and divorced my birth-father when I was very young.  My father was a timber-faller.  We lived quite modestly. 

Mom then married a man a that was a migrant worker.  As a family, we followed the fruit, picking as we went, to earn a living.  We lived in Picker’s Cabins or tents or the back of the station wagon.

This was in the early 1960’s.   Although many black people did this type of work, people don’t realize that in the 1960’s, a large percentage of the migrant workers were white families, just like mine.  Today, the migrant workers are mostly Hispanic.  The working conditions are no better today, in fact in some instances, they are worse.

Most of the Picker’s Cabins had no running water or electricity.  Women cooked on communal stoves or over open fires.  The toilets, if there were any, were few and in disgraceful disrepair.  In a lot of cases, there were only outhouses.

There were few laundry facilities.  Most of the time, clothing was washed by hand and hung to dry.

Image

In some of the cabins, the property owners provided bales of straw to use as bedding and insulation.  In some instances, you didn’t even get that.  The more generous ones provided crude bunk beds.  

I was lucky.  My mother and step-father were prepared.  We had a nice canvas tent and bedding or sleeping bags.

My mother became very adept at cooking over an open fire.  She was amazing!

Washing and sanitary conditions were a challenge.  The water came from a single faucet for all the workers in most instances.  Water had to be carried for washing, bathing or cooking.

I have 3 brothers; two older brothers and one younger one.  My brothers and I spent our days out in the fields with my parents.  We weren’t much help as far as the picking went, but my mother could keep an eye on us as she worked.

I can imagine the hardship on her with 4 children living in these conditions.  My younger brother was just a toddler at the time.

Image

The migrant workers were exploited at every turn.  Many were uneducated and illiterate.  In some instances, the workers would end up owing more money to the owner’s ‘store’ than they had earned; thus, keeping them working for little or nothing instead of moving on.

There was often times a “boss” on the farm that the workers reported to, depending on how large the farm was.  Sometimes the boss would skim off the top of the worker’s wages.  They would be quoted one price upon arrival at the farm, but when payday came, they were at the mercy of the boss.  If they complained, they were simply run off the farm.  This meant they were out of work.

There were many horrors that took place on these farms; anything from rapes, to murders and exploitation.  These people were at the mercy of the farmer.

I was fortunate.  This lifestyle didn’t last long.  I think we were on the road for a couple of years.  I was also lucky that I was so young.  It’s just the way life was; I knew no different.

This is a part of history that most Americans have forgotten or don’t know about.  This is a shameful, dark part of our own culture.

If you’d like to learn more about this time in American history, I invite you to watch this video. This video was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960.  It’s called “Harvest of Shame”.  See it HERE. While most of it is set in Florida and the east coast, I was on the west coast as a kid.  It is still an eye opener.  

*There was a followup video made of the 1960 version called “Harvest of Shame Revisited“.  This was made in 2010.  While the conditions and pay had improved, it is still a very hard way to live. You can see that video HERE.

**With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I felt that this post, originally from 2014, but modified here, was appropriate.  Although I had a rough start in life, (Another Life to me) I feel that it has shaped me into the person that I am today.  A person that I am grateful to be, with a life that I am so very blessed to have.  Thank you for joining me on this journey.  

Copyright (C) 2022 Penny Wilson 

Posted in Life, Stories, Uncategorized

Hardship for Mom

My mom was probably one of the most unusual people you would ever meet.  I’m sure a lot of people say that.  But let me just give you a sampling.

My mother is a complicated person to describe.  When I was a small child she had me believing in gnomes and fairies.  With her words, I could imagine a magical, beautiful world filled with wonder and enchantment.

My doll house did not have Barbie living in it, but elves.  The moving neon lights outside the stores at night were lit and powered by small beings (elves again?) inside that were throwing levers and turning knobs to make them move.  Every mushroom was an umbrella for a tiny fairy!

My mother could cook a gourmet meal over an open campfire and tuck us into bed that night snug and warm.  We may be living in a tent, but we felt safe and secure.  Mom made sure of that.

My mother raised 4 of us kids, mostly by herself.  She had no real education.  She graduated from high school and her chosen profession was waitressing.

My mother’s Picker was broke.  You know, the thing inside us that we use to “Pick” a mate.  Hers never did work right.  She married 5 times.  Badly.

We lived on commodities, pinto beans, peanut butter and pancakes.  One of my favorite meals to this day is fried potatoes, pinto beans and cornbread.  This was a meal we ate often.

With the wages my mother made, things were very tight.  There was NO extra money.  Mom would make light of it and we would have a pancake eating contest that night at dinner.  Because pancakes was all there was to eat.  If there was no money to buy bread, our school lunches would be a sandwich made on a homemade biscuit.

My mother would go hungry if it meant one of her kids could be fed.  There were times when she did just that.

One of my mother’s “Picks” was a man that picked fruit for a living.  So we followed the fruit.  Doing so meant that we would live where we could while traveling.  It might be a “picker’s cabin”, which was basically just a wooden structure to keep the rain off of you.  Or we might be living in a tent or sleeping on the ground.

If you ever want a real eye opener about this kind of lifestyle, you should watch the YouTube video called Harvest of Shame.   This was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E

This video is about an hour long.  You will be amazed and horrified at how these people were treated.   There is one man in the video that made the comment “we used to buy slaves, now we just rent them”.  He was referring to the migrant workers.

In this documentary, they show mostly black people, but in the 1960’s, more than 80% of the migrant workers in the US were white.  White families just like mine.

Despite the hardships of day to day living, I had no idea that we were “poor”.  I was a happy kid.  I was loved and cared for.

Looking back, my mom is the one that had the hardship, not us kids.

 

Posted in Life, Stories

Who Were You Dad?

In honor of Father’s Day, this is something I originally wrote back in 2014.  Happy Father’s Day to all of those Dads out there. 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

This is a question I often ask.  I never knew the man.

My mother married 5 times.  Badly.  I knew 2 step-fathers, neither of which I ever wanted to call “Dad”.

What I do know about my dad is very sketchy.  His name was Roy.  A name that was passed down to my little brother.  I have one old, faded, black & white photo of him standing beside my mother.  They were both so young in that picture.  My mother looking up into my father’s eyes.  You could tell just from that single picture that she adored him.  Roy was quite tall.  In the picture he was head & shoulders above my mother who was 5’7”.  So he must have been over 6’ tall. He’s looking down at her, his hair falling down over his forehead a little bit.

All I have regarding my father is information that was passed down to me by my mother and older brothers.

My dad was full blood German.  I guess I have (had) grandparents in Germany somewhere.

My dad was a timber faller and worked in the woods.  I have very vague memories of a 2 room cabin, with a wood cook stove in one room and a fire place in the room where we all had our beds.  The front yard was dirt and there was a tire swing tied to a limb of a big tree in that front yard.  In my mind’s eye, I can’t make out his face, but I have a misty/foggy memory of a slender man sitting on the side of a big bed looking down at me in this 2 room cabin.  I can see the fireplace behind him burning brightly.  I have been told by my brothers that yes, we were living with my father during the time of these vague memories.

Other than that, I have no real memories of this man.

My mother said that my dad was injured in the war (WWII?) and he had a steel plate in his head.  She said eventually the war and the injury got the best of him and he turned mean.  MY mother packed us up and left.

Mom tells me that she loved my dad very much and if it had not been for his injury, she would have stayed with him.

My older brothers confirm this story as well.  I guess he was a swell guy until he went nuts.

As a child I used to fantasize about finding my father.  But another part of me didn’t want to see the ugly side of him.  What if he was in a nut house somewhere?  Or what if he was homeless?

If the steel plate in his head was that detrimental for him, would he even remember my mother or me?

These are questions I really didn’t want the answer to.

Now as an adult, I still let myself drift there once in a while; wondering who this man was.  What did his voice sound like?  Did I inherit any of his mannerisms?  Did he have a German accent?  Did I get my love of reading from him?  Did he smoke, drink, or like pizza?  These are things I will never know.

With the internet, you would think there would be avenues for me find him, or what may have happened to him.  But I simply don’t have enough information.  I don’t know his middle name, his hair or eye color, his birthday or even how old he might be.  My mother and father were never legally married.  So I don’t have that information either.  I’m pretty much stuck with what little information I have.

I would like to have ONE conversation with my dad.  Just one.  If he were coherent that is.  I would ask a million questions!  I would probably drive the man crazy!  More than anything, I would want to hear his voice.  To hear the inflection in his words.  I would want to take his hand, hold it; feel the warmth of his touch.  Had those hands ever touched his daughter with love?

In many ways I was very lucky growing up.  My mother loved me and my brothers and that is something I have never questioned.  Some people don’t have even that.  But I guess there has always been that piece of me that was empty and unanswered.

I think this is one of the perils of getting older.  We start looking back more than we look ahead.  I don’t think I quite do that…yet.  But I do find myself questioning my past more and more.

Copyright (C) Penny Wilson

Posted in Life, Stories

Biscuit Sandwich

brown-paper-lunch-bag-5079804

Lunchtime was always a time of trepidation for me.  Where would I sit?  Would that mean girl Ellen be there today?  Could I possibly ignore the stares and snickers?

I walked to the door of the cafeteria with my little brown paper sack.  We could never afford to BUY our lunch.  My shoulders were hunched.  It’s like I was trying to disappear inside my own skin.  I didn’t see Ellen, so I walked in looking for Nancy, my best friend.  There she was at a table by herself in the far corner.

I got in line to get my little carton of milk.  We couldn’t afford to have hot lunches, but mom always made sure we had the 10 cents for milk.  I was behind a big kid.  I was in the 6th grade. I’m guessing this kid was held back a grade or two.  He was as big as a house.

I was pushed from behind by a couple of boys cutting up in line.  It was not meant intentionally, but it pushed me square into the back of the giant ahead of me.  His knees buckled during the push and he almost fell to the floor.

He quickly spun around and barked a loud “HEY!!” at me.  I cringed and muttered an apology.  It was Dan.  Dan was the biggest, ugliest and meanest kid at Ben Franklin Elementary.  Dan gave me a little shove and said “Well, just watch it!”

I was able to get through the line and get my milk without any further incidents.

I hurried to cross the busy room and sat across the table from Nancy.  She was just finishing her little box of milk with a slurping sound as I joined her.  Our lunch times over lapped by only about 15 minutes, so I didn’t get to spend much time with my friend.

“Hi Nancy” I said, quietly.  She said “Hi Penny. What’s wrong?”

“Did you see Dan push me?  I thought he was going to kill me!”

“No I didn’t!” Nancy exclaimed.  “What happened?”

So I recounted the story to her.  I may have embellished just a little bit for drama.

Nancy and I had met the year before.  We were both outcasts.  Nancy’s family wasn’t any better off financially than mine was.  We both wore hand-me-downs.  We were made fun of because of our clothes, or our brown paper bag lunches.  Nancy wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world.  She wasn’t ugly, just plain.  Me, I had a big chip out of one of my front teeth.  This resulted in name calling like, “Snaggle Tooth”.

So Nancy and I were kindred spirits.  We bonded together out of self-defense.  Best friends.

Nancy shook her head.  “When is someone going to cut him down to size?”

“That’s the problem!” I said.  “He’s just too darned big!”

I opened my paper bag and looked inside.  I pulled out something wrapped in wax paper.  Setting the waxed paper bundle on the table, I started unwrapping it.  I recognized what was inside before I even had it completely unwrapped and my heart sank.

There were times when there was no money for bread, so mom would make up a batch of biscuits and that’s what we had our sandwiches made on.  Biscuits.  Today was one of those days.  I looked back inside my lunch bag to see if there was anything else that might be a little more promising.  At the bottom of the bag was an apple.  I sighed.

Nancy looked over at me as I peered between the layers of biscuit.  Peanut butter.  Nancy knew how I felt.  She had been there one day when Ellen had started teasing me over my biscuit sandwich.  Several other kids joined in.  It was a pretty tough day.

I pulled out the apple and tossed the biscuit sandwich back in, looking around quickly to see if anyone had seen my pathetic lunch.  No one had.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

I started eating my apple.  Nancy handed me an oatmeal cookie she hadn’t eaten.  “Here, eat this.  I need to go; I’m going to be late for class.”  “Thanks Nancy.” I said.  And off she went.

I sat there trying to make myself invisible for the rest of my lunch period.

Posted in Life, Stories

Past lives…

Image

My very early childhood was unusual, to say the least.  My brothers, mother and I moved a LOT.  I’ve been told I was born with wheels on my butt.

After my mother left my father, she was married to a man for a few years that was a migrant worker.  As a family, we followed the fruit, picking as we went, to earn a living.  We lived in Picker’s Cabins or tents or the back of the station wagon.

This was in the early 1960’s.   Most people don’t realize that in the 1960’s, 83% of the migrant workers were white families, just like mine.  Today, the migrant workers are mostly Hispanic.  The working conditions are no better today, in fact in some instances, they are worse.

Most of the Picker’s Cabins had no running water or electricity.  Women cooked on communal stoves or over open fires.  The toilets, if there were any, were few and in disgraceful disrepair.  In a lot of cases, there were only outhouses.

There were few laundry facilities.  Most of the time, clothing was washed by hand and hung to dry.

Image

In some of the cabins, the property owners were generous enough to provide bales of straw to use as bedding and insulation.  In some instances, you didn’t even get that.

I was lucky.  My mother and step-father were prepared.  We had a nice canvas tent and bedding or sleeping bags.

My mother became very adept at cooking over an open fire.  She was amazing!

Washing and sanitary conditions were a challenge.  The water came from a single faucet for all the workers in most instances.  Water had to be carried for washing, bathing or cooking.

I have 3 brothers; two older brothers and one younger one.  My brothers and I spent our days out in the fields with my parents.  We weren’t much help as far as the picking went, but my mother could keep an eye on us as she worked.

I can imagine the hardship on her with 4 children living in these conditions.  My younger brother was just a toddler at the time.

Image

The migrant workers were exploited at every turn.  Most were uneducated and illiterate.  In some instances, the workers would end up owing more money to the owner’s ‘store” than they had earned; thus keeping them working for little or nothing instead of moving on.

There was often times a “boss” on the farm that the workers reported to, depending on how large the farm was.  Sometimes the boss would skim off the top of the worker’s wages.  They would be quoted one price upon arrival at the farm, but when payday came, they were at the mercy of the boss.  If they complained, they were simply run off the farm.  This meant they were out of work.

There were many horrors that took place on these farms; anything from rapes, to murders and exploitation.  These people were at the mercy of the farmer.

I was fortunate.  This lifestyle didn’t last long.  I think we were on the road for a couple of years.  My mother gathered up us kids and left.  I was lucky that I was so young.  It’s just the way life was; I knew no different.

This is a part of history that most Americans have forgotten or don’t know about.  This is a shameful, dark part of our own culture.

If you’d like to learn more about this time in history, I invite you to watch this video. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL0DJzQFqq8

This video was broadcast on Thanksgiving Day in 1960.  It’s called “Harvest of Shame”.  While most of it is set in Florida, I was on the west coast as a kid.  It is still an eye opener.