Get Your Copy Here!
Marcel Proust’s story of the madeleine in his masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, contains some of the loveliest, lines in all of literature. His words have expressed my own feelings. He understood how simple incidents can instantaniously transport one into one’s past.
The adult Proust sipped a spoonful of tea in which he has soaked a crumb of a madeleine, a shell-shaped cookie made in Brittany. He was filled with an ineffable sense of contentment. In an “ah-ha” moment that is famous in literature, he searched his mind until he remembered that his aunt used to serve him tea and madeleines:
An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses… And at once the visissitures of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory… I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy?
When from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered… the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment. Once I recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine… immediately the old grey house rose up like the scenery of a theater… and with the house the town, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took… all the flowers in our garden…and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solitity, sprang into being town and gardens alike from my cup of tea.
IN THE SILENCE OF THE HEART
– TRUE LOVE –
WRITTEN FOR MY VICKI-GIRL
PAST AND PRESENT
“The heart has its reasons which reason comprehendeth not.”Blaise Pascal – Thoughts
Is there a one of us, man, or woman, who did not have some inanimate object that had great import during our youths as confidant, comforter, and companion? One of my nephews, a “blanket-baby,” waited anxiously by the washer and dryer when Christine finally insisted on washing his tattered, grubby blanket. A great-nephew dragged a stuffed elephant wherever he went.
These objects became alive in a childhood realm that adults cannot re-enter or fully understand because children often do not talk about this special, private world that they create. Whatever communion existed between the child and the object of its love is lost with the passage of time. Thus, what follows is only an adult’s attempt to replicate a reality that might have been…
A few days before Christmas one year out neighbor, Mrs. Kent came trotting up the front walk of our house on Ritter Ave. She was brisk, plump, dainty and bright of eye. “Little girl come here,” she said to three-year-old Vicki. “Wrapped up in this paper is a very special doll that I made for you by hand. Know why she’s special? She has a candy heart that says, ‘True Love’ and she’ll always look right at you and smile at you even when nobody else in the whole wide world does.”
Vicki snatched the package and tore off the paper. Inside was a beautifully crafted Raggedy Ann. Clutching the doll tightly, she ran to the full-length mirror in the foyer where she always went to look at herself and her treasures. She held the doll so that their images were side-by-side. “Your name is ‘Lay-go-bye,” she solemnly announced. Whence came this name? Neither she nor we have ever known, and we aren’t sure of the proper spelling of it.
We chuckled as we listened to the dialogue that Vicki made up, assuming a squeaky, high-pitched voice for the doll. When we peeked around the doorway she was holding the doll in front of her face and gazing intently at it.
Many years later, we were to see her Billy-boy assume the same pose with his Raggedy Andy that I made for him, looking deeply into its eyes with a little smile playing on his lips as if he were receiving a silent message. His twin brothers reacted the same way whenever they managed to get their hands on Andy.
While I was finishing Billy’s Andy I was working at the polls at School 57. A solemn-faced little kindergartener came in with her mother and looked yearningly at Andy. “Would you like to hold Andy while your mother votes?” I asked. “Oh yes!” She exclaimed as a smile spread across her face that remained the whole time she was there.
Little did Bill and I know that a presence had come into our home that became nearly alive for us even though we were rational beings who knew full well that dolls neither talk nor eat nor love nor feel pain. Vicki endowed that doll with all of those capacities and more by investing it with such a lifelike reality.
Remembering the Vicki of that time and watching her three boys led me to conclude that there is an unspoken childhood language of love, of the heart, that has little to do with material reality and that transcends logic. Two dolls especially seem to have this unique capacity – the Teddy bear that was named after Theodore Roosevelt and Raggedy Ann whose face was created in 1914 by an Indianapolis Star cartoonist for his sick daughter. Perhaps the love of their creators is expressed in these dolls, rendering them totally attractive and universally loved.
IN THE SILENCE OF THE HEART
– CHATS WITH TEDDY-
Vicki introduced Lay-go-bye to my Teddy. “Lay-go this is Teddy. He belongs to my mommy. You sit here with him while I play.” Much of what follows is based on the rather faulty recollections of T. Bear who is, after all, at age seventy rather old for a bear. He is, he assures me in his gruff, rather scratchy voice that only I out of all the teeming millions am privileged to hear in my mind’s ear, not yet senile, but merely ripe.
The old bear came back from a snooze when he became aware of a change in his rather dull existence…
“Who the “H” are you? I’ve never seen such a peculiar thing in all my life! Fly-away red hair and those awful red-and-white stockings! And do I see bloomers? Slap me, Aunt Mable!”
“Don’t swear, and it’s extremely vulgar to comment on a lady’s unmentionables! And speaking of appearances, have the moths been at you? And you’re very thin – lost some of your stuffing have you?”
“Well, aren’t we the hoity-toity one! Harumph! What I want to know is how you can talk; none of the kid’s other creatures talk.”
“I can because I have a candy heart – so there! My heart speaks directly to my mistress’s heart!”
“Hmph! Times have certainly changed! In my day we didn’t need any props. All we had to do was to be loved and to be faithful. Let me tell you, I am true blue, and I’ve been through some rough times.”
“Oh do be quiet. Being played with by young mistress all day has left me absolutely exhausted.”
“Missy, you’ve got a lot to learn!”
Then the old bear and newly-created doll napped peacefully together until dinnertime when Vicki held the doll on her lap. There was a changed in mealtime negotiations: “Here, Lay-go, you eat these peas. I don’t like ‘em… You don’t like ‘em either? Lay-go and I are not eating these peas!” “I don’t care whether or not Lay-go-bye eats those peas, but you’re sitting here until they are gone.” “What if we eat more basgetti instead?” “Eat the peas!” “Oh, all right!”
Then Bill carried them “up the wooden hill,” as the Clarke’s say; and the doll watched the nightly routine: bath, book read by Mom and a
midnight snack provided by Dad. Later we looked in and smiled when we saw the sleeping child lying with the doll stretched across her throat – as she was to sleep for many years to come.
Everywhere Vicki went, Lay-go-bye went: to the library, to the sledding hill at Ellenberger, to Dr. Jones and the Dentist, to the store and to Grandmother’s house. Lay-go provided comfort after Vicki had ear surgery by lying across Vicki’s throat. She sat on the couch while Vicki opened Christmas presents. “Don’t worry Lay-go. I’ll never love another doll as much as I love you!” She had such reality that when Vicki fell and banged up her knee, she ignored her own pain and sobbed, “Oh poor Lay-go.”
One night, dreadful shrieks came from Vicki’s room. Bill and I ran to her room as in the Madeleine story that Vicki loved: “In the middle of the night, as if fearing some disaster, Miss Clavell ran – faster, faster”
Lay-go had a split from neck to crotch, and her stuffing was coming out. “Oh my! Appendicitis,” said quick witted Bill. We Must operate immediately!” I said, “Don’t cry, honey. She won’t feel a thing.” Fine stitchery has never been my forte, let alone at 3:00 A.M. while being supervised by an anxious child.
That was the first of several operations as the doll began to wear out. Lay-go also got new shoes and stocking and a face-lift during which we cut around her nearly worn-out face that had become begrimed and scarred and glued a backing to it. We didn’t do a hair transplant, although much cuddling had worn her yarn hair down to the nubbins.
Following an ear surgery, Mrs. Cougill who worked at Community Hospital gave Vicki a hand puppet with blue eyes and rosy cheeks and dressed in pink who was promptly named “Pink Dollbaby.” Lay-go, according to Teddy told me, using his most “important” tone, was extremely jealous:
“and furthermore, she cannot talk – just stares at one with that insipid look on her face – the painted huzzy!”
“Hussy. Be careful, Toots, or you may even frown and crack your face – heh, heh!”
“Shu-up, you silly old bear. I always wear my best smile, no matter what.”
IN THE SILENCE OF THE HEART
Lay-go shared many adventures with Vicki such as backpacking in the Tetons while traveling inside of Vicki’s belt. She went whitewater rafting on the Snake but was kept in the oarsman’s chest. “Obviously, this doll is worth a lot, and we wouldn’t want her to be washed overboard. She’ll be safe there even if the raft turns over.” Which it nearly did! She visited Scouts Rest, Buffalo Bill’s ranch in Nebraska. She loved sunning by Uncle Rick’s pool in California. She even looked over the Grand Canyon. Teddy later told me that she told him that she had been “terrible frightened…” “It’s such an enormous place, and young Mistress and me so small.”
Time turned upon itself while the seasons of Vicki’s growing up marched on: First came school, and the doll sat on Vicki’s bed all day, one leg thrown jauntily over the other. Then came the teenage years. Change was unremitting. I still saw the doll lying across Vicki’s throat at night; and I wondered what tragedies and triumphs had been whispered to her.
Teddy attempted to console: “I know, old girl, I know. My mistress was just the same. We are meant to serve only as long as we are needed, and then others take our place. But never you fear. All you have to do is to be here and to be loyal and true blue. I wait here patiently. Even though she rarely picks me up or talks to me, she smiles. I have been with her through all her times. I was here during the happy days when Young Mistress came to us. I was here when Eldest Mistress, the one who bore my mistress, died, and my mistress was so sad… Yes, our place is to be here always and wait for their smiles.
“Oh, shu-up, silly old bear.”
“You’ll see, Toots, you’ll see – but you must learn it for yourself.”
Vicki married and moved away, and Lay-go-bye was stored in a shed with other possessions. Bill saw her leg sticking out, rescued her, and brought her home.
“Well, hallo, old girl! I see you’ve come back. That’s just bully because it’s been boring around here. What’s happened to your hair? There’s a bunch of it gone. What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? Oh well, I’ll just take a little nap.”
I borrowed a pattern from my friend, Phyllis Otto, made new clothes for Lay-go and replaced her stuffing – a real labor of love as I’m no seamstress. I put her with Teddy and set Pink Dollbaby on her lap. “Not a happy arrangement,” Teddy told me. “She’s quit talking, but I know she doesn’t like it.” Vicki said, “I’ll leave Lay-go with you for a while. She’s so fragile that I’m afraid the boys might tear her up.”
I made an Andy for Billy when he said he had bad dreams. “Then you need someone to chase away the monsters,” I said. I found a box of candy hearts at a convenience store. I told Billy, “This is Andy. He will always smile at you and be with you when you have bad dreams. He has a candy heart.” I also inserted a new heart in Lay-go-bye’s chest and told Bill, “Now Lay-go will be whole again!”
She said to Teddy, “You’re still hear I see.”
“Hallo? Why, you’re talking again. Over the sulks, are you?”
“Oh, I’ve had the most dreadful time, and the mice got part of my hair.” “Oh well old girl, I don’t care how you look!”
Then came the identical twins Christopher Blue and Tony Red who were dressed in those colors so their parents could tell them apart. When they were three the whir of the sewing machine was heard. Old Teddy was rudely awakened by a flood of questions: “Where are we? Who’s that skinny old relic with the brown fur? Who’s that ugly redhead and that pink thing? Where’s our masters?”
“What in the world?” said Teddy. “Oh lordy-day!” there on the couch sat two Andy’s, but they didn’t stay long!
“Thank goodness those raucous, ill-mannered brats are gone!” “You bet your boots, Toots.”
Teddy, Lay-go and Pink Dollbaby sat quietly together for a couple of years. One Christmas, after Vicki had had a hard year, I put Lay-go-bye in a box that I left under Vicki’s tree. It was time for the old doll with the True-Love heart to return to her mistress.
Vicki called. “Oh Mom…” she said in a quivery voice. “That’s the best Christmas gift I ever had.” I replied Lay-go-bye came at Christmastime, and I thought this was the time for her to come home.”
I still have Teddy and kiss him on the nose sometimes. Also, Billy’s Andy is living with us. He is minus an arm. Teddy says he lost it when the three boys were scuffling and Billy swung Andy by it – whap, whap, whap!
ALL PATHS LEAD TO THE SUN
Unable to sleep, I finally got up at 4:30, made a cup of coffee and went to my computer. There were e-mails to read, lists to make and writing to do. I knew that events to come would put me behind. My last sister, Christine, had taken a turn for the worse following emergency surgery.
I was heading down the hall to take a shower when the telephone rang: “The doctors said to call the family.” I threw on some clothes and rushed out.
Whether I sped up or slowed down, I hit every red light. Why is it that when you’re in a hurry inanimate objects become the enemies of your urgent need? At least I’d been able to find my purse and car keys without losing precious moments. “I must hurry; I must hurry!” Impatiently I’d wait for a green light. “Change, dammit, change!”
My frustration level eased whe I keft the Indianapolis strip malls behind and crossed the Hancock Co. line. Every house, barn and woods along Road 40 is familiar to me. It’s a path back to where I came from.
There was little traffic, and I could virtually drive on autopilot so that my interior monologue was free to run: “I could have been a better sister.” I tried to bargain. You know what I mean, don’t you? “I’d be more attentave, call more and visit more often… Oh God, how good I’ll be in the future if only…!”
Daylight was coming. I’m a connoisseur of sunrises, and this one was glorious. Pink clouds floated in the pale, ice-blue vault of the eastern sky, and just above the horizon stood the sun like a giant orange, casting a fiery glow onto the clouds immediately surrounding it. As it leisurely and majestically rose higher, it turned to a burnished gold and accordingly changed the tints of the cloud-canvas upon which it was painting.
The sun spoke: “I was here long before you and shall be here for eternity. Why are you hurrying? All your lists are of little import; and your haste will have no effect whatsoever on the outcome, nor will your feeble attempts at bargains. Do not fret about your petty shortcomings… Love cannot be toted up in an account book or measured like so much flour or sugar. Leave eternity to eternity. Be at peace and savor this special beauty that I am revealing to you. You will never again see me rise exactly like this.”
The sun’s message was that of the book of Ecclesiastes written by Solomon:
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about into the north; it whirleth about continually and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
Relieved of the angst that had been propelling me, I slowed down and settled down and began to prepare myself to deal with the terrible rent that Christine’s passing would tear in the fabric of my life. More than a sister, she was my best friend.
Her eight children and I, their last aunt, were as close as chicks in a nest that day when the time came to turn off the machines. After everyone had left I went back and sat quietly with her for the last time.
I realized the final lesson that the sun had to impart was that Christine’s story is unending. It will continue like the sun’s risings and settings through all of the generations to come of which she is the ancestress. She has returned to the source of the wind and rivers as is one with the sun.
SOMEONE LOST, SOMEONE FOUND
Lincolin Steffens told his father that if he didn’t get a pony for Christmas, he didn’t want anything and was devastated when he found neither pony nor gifts. When the pony finally arrived in the afternoon the sudden change from misery to joy was almost unbearable.
The day of Christine’s funeral was a multi-layered mix of grief, poignant memories and fresh beginnings. Nostalgia followed me wherever I went: the mortuary on Main St. where so many of my people had lain… the service in the church where I went as a girl… Glen Cove with my relatives’ graves and the hill down which the forty-something Christine and I used to coast on our bicycles, holding our feet in theair and crying “Whee!” I was overwhelmed with grief and a sense of finality and loss that nothing could heal.
Then came a total shift in the physical and emotional landscapes that was a transistion from shade to sunshine. Vicki had come down from Angola and wanted to go up to Clinton Co. and do some genealogical sleuthing about my mother’s pioneer ancestors who settled a secotion of land when there were still Indians present. I wanted to put if off, but I’ve learned from bitter experience that carpe diem – seize the day – is excellend advice.
Bill, Vicki and I rushed back to Indianapolis, changed clothes and headed North. During that and subsequent trips, I made discoveries about my daughter and myself when we journeyed together back into the days of our forebears.
I saw a Vicki whom I hadn’t known before when we went to Frankfort Library for the librarians’ assistance in finding the cemetery. Listening to their conversation, I learned that Vicki is a knowledgeable avid enthusiast
about the esoterica of genealogical research. She rhapsodizes over the arcane details of dusty old census tracks and wills, saying that it’s like reading a good mystery.
We went to the cemetery out on the highway south of Michigantown where my maternal grandmothers people are buried. During the summer, its fresh air is redonlent with the scent of wild colver. It is a quiet, country place, and this sense of peace is enhanced by my devout great-grandmother’s tombstone that reads, “Asleep in Jesus.”
Then we drove a few miles to the Old Home Place, the True North, of my mother’s people who spoke of it with a deep reverence and sense of rootedness. The house and its round barn, the first built in Clinton Co., are gone, but up on a wooded knoll above Wildcat Creek we could see old tombstones.
We scrambled over a rickety gate and walked up the rutted, grassy lane. They were all there, the ancient ones, about whom my mother told the stories that had been passed down to her. Some of the untended tombstones are tilting, blackend and illegible; others have fallen over or are sinking into the ground.
Vicki was in a state of genealogical rapture. “Oh look!” she chortled. “There’s James Kelly!”
I sat on a tombstone and thought about this spot that overlooks the fields carved out of the forest by my ancestors nearly two hundred years ago. Slowly, the soothing hush and gentle light of the gloaming hour of the day descended upon me and brought me a sense of being in an oasis of tranquility in a hurtful, hectic world.
As I mused about this, my people’s Home Place, I felt a renewed sense of connectedness both with those from whom I sprang and with my daughter as I watched her forge her own connection with our people and find her place in this story with no ending.
Vicki and I had often been like two fractious mares who are hitched together and sometimes give each other little nips or kicks. On this day we began to develop a deeper understanding out of which would come a new relationship.
“Goodbye, Old Ones,” I whispered as we turned to leave. I realized that it was time to leave the past behind.
HOT ON THE TRAIL
Tenacity, thy name is Vicki! If I were to devise a coat of arms for my daughter, it would consist of an inquiring eye examining some musty, dusty, antique tome of old deeds or wills about distant ancestors and have a tilting tombstone for its background.
Nothing stops a genealogical sleuth who’s hot on the trail! The second time we went to the cemetery on the Old Home Place, she took a saw with her and cut down a small tree so that she could better see an inscription on a tombstone. I said, “They might object to your cutting down a tree!” She replied, “I have every right to tend my family’s graves.
I suggested postponing another visit because rain was forecast. “Come Hell or high water, we’re going back to Clinton Co. tomorrow!” Intrepid adventurers, we set out under a cloudy sky and drove along gravel roads in search of another old country cemetery – one of many that were established on farms during the 1800’s. The Frankfort librarians had given us a map showing all of the old cememteries in Clinton Co. and lists of those buried in them.
Unable to find it, we knocked on the door of a rundown farmhouse. A hippy-looking guy with wild fly-away hair who was as disheveled as his ramschackle house gave us directions.
“Eek!” I thought as we left the road and drove along a narrow lane. “Here’s a scenario for a Hitchcock movie!” Picture this: The day is dark and gloomy, and the sky presages rain. Two women stop at a spooky farmhouse miles from anywhere and get directions from a shabby man to an old, abandoned cemetery.
They drive along a rutted lane under an archway formed by walnut trees. At the end there’s a clearing in the woods where ancient tombstones tilt and crumble. Only the occasional squawk of a jay, the moan of the wind in the trees or the thump of a falling walnut interrupts the onimous silence. The sky is darkening…
Me and my imagination! Actually, the man was most courteous and well-spoken in spite of his rough appearance and told how he had played there when he was a boy. “Unfortunatly the acid rain these days is causing the marble stones to deteriorate rapidly,” he said.
We hit genealogical gold when we found a large monument for one of my relatives that proclaimed that he was a veteran of the American Revolution and served in the Shenandoah regiment. “Wow!” I said. “Do you suppose he might even have know George Washington or Thomas Jefferson?”
Vicki clicked busily away with her camera and used aluminum foil to get an impression of the stone as it was too damp a day to do rubbings. She said, “Let’s come back on a nice day and make rubbings.” “Great! We’ll bring a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine and drink a libation to the Old Ones,” I responded.
Some might find it macabre or disrespectful to picnic near their graves and drink a toast to one’s ancestors. However, I am filled with a sense of comfort and belonging when I visit these places.
Our forebears came to Indiana by oxcart, cleared the land and built log cabins. I think about the lives of my ancestresses. An old census tract said that one of the Kelly women bore fourteen children. “Goodness!” I said. “Yeah but a lot of their babies died,” Vicki responded.
They deserve many toasts! It was intrepid people like them who built this country, established enduring values of fortitude and hard work and formed the unique American character that caused this nation to prosper.
LEST I FORGET
Monterrey is Steinbeck country. John Steinbeck grew up in nearby Salinas. He won the Nobel Prize for literature for a body of writing that included Cannery Row about the sardine canneries of Monterrey and The Grapes of Wrath that became a wonderful movie starring Henry Fonda.
Time was when he was not admired. The Grapes of Wrath was one of the most popular novels of its era and, also, one of the most reviled. It was pronounced “obscene in the extreme” and was banned in schools and libraries and burned in the county where the mythical Joad family ended up because of its depiction of the conditions under which the migratory farm workers lived. A brave librarian, Gretchen Knief, heroically risked losing her job by fighting the ban. She said, “Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”
The Grapes of Wrath depicts the lives of the farmers, the “Okies” and others, who migrated from Oklahoma to California during the horrendous Dust Bowl that extended from America’s Great Plains to Canada during the 1930’s.
The land of the Great Plains had been fertile because tall grasses protected the soil until it was deep-plowed by farmers who didn’t have modern farming techniques. Then years of drought and strong winds during the 1930’s desiccated the topsoil so that it blew away in clouds that could be seen all the way to New York City. Dirt fell like snow in Chicago.
It wasn’t just the Okies who lost their homes and their livelihood and became migrants. America was hit with the double whammy of drought and the Great Depression. It’s hard for later generations to imagine that era’s despair and grinding poverty.
My family would sit at the round oak table after dinner and reminisce about the bad old days. They talked about whether it was worse to be hungry or to be cold and said that being cold was worse. My father was the Manager of Moore’s Greenhouse in Rushville, Indiana, when the Depression hit. People don’t buy flowers when they have no money. The greenhouse went bust, and my parents lost their little home on Road 3 and became tenant farmers. Daddy pushed the plow, and my brother served as the horse. My brother had one shirt to wear to school, and my three sisters each had one dress that my mother washed and ironed every day.
Daddy was too proud to go on relief, so they didn’t have enough to eat. I was just a toddler, but one of my earliest memories is of crying because
I was hungry. They gleaned coal along the railroad tracks. One time my brother, Earl, made a dollar and went to buy food. My sisters were ecstatic, anticipating chocoloate and good things. They were crushed when he brought in a fifty pound sack of rice.
My angel mother told about the many people who knocked on the door, asking for food. She related a poignant story about an elderly couple who were trying to ride a bicycle-built-for-two across the country. The lady was holding an umbrella over her head to ward off the August sun. “M’am we-uns’ is so hungry. Can you spare a little sumpin’ to eat?” Mother said, “I gave them what I had – sandwiches made of stale bread and bacon grease – us having no butter. They were so hungrey that they gobbled them up on the spot. I’ve often wondered what became of those poor old folks… Jesus said, ‘Feed my poor!’ never forget that.”
KINGS OF THE ROAD
Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let, fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets.
I ain’t got no cigarettes.
Ah, but hours of pushin’ a broom
I’m a man of means by no means –
King of the RoadRoger Miller – “King of the Road”
When I was a girl during the 1940’s and 50’s we lived near the Big Four Railroad on the west side of Knightstown. Hoboes frequently knocked on our door during the summer. These men were like migratory birds, heading South in the winder and summering up North. Perhaps they’d stay briefly in one spot until the restless urge would hit them, and they’d move on. We called them all tramps, but a tramp worked only when absolutely necessary; a hobo tried to work.
After the Civil War out-of-work, penniless soldiers started hitching rides on trains. Walter Ballard left home during the Depression because there was no food and no work at home. He said, “I loved that life. It’ll get in your blood. You’re not going anywhere. You don’t care – you just ride.” Art Linkletter, Louis l’Amour, Burl Ives, H. L. Hunt, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas were hoboes.
There was a subculture of hoboes who had their own lingo and traveled the length and breadth of America with only a bundle of a few possessions and a skillet called a “banjo.” Hopping on moving trains and living in “jungles” was dangerous. Railroad guards, called “bulls,” beat and sometimes killed them. Sometimes they rode on the couplings between the cars or even lay flat on top of cars. It wasn’t unusual for them to lose an arm or a leg. Sometimes they “caught the westbound” – meaning they died.
The word was probably passed along that my parents would feed them. They’d knock on the back screen door: “M’am, can you spare a little sumpin’ to eat?” If they arrived when we were having our noon dinner, they sat out on the back step and ate whatever we were having. Other times the menu was two fried egg sandwiches, a piece of pie and a glass of milk. “M’am, this is the best pie I ever ate!” After Mother went to work when I was a teenager, I fed them.
We didn’t learn the names of these anonymous men, where they were from or the stories of their lives. Al was the exception. He ate in the kitchen with us. He was around fifity years old, well spoken, clean, courteous and a raconteur of fascinating stories.
Ann Steiger, a member of our church, knew him and said that his brother was the Resident of a univeristy. Al never offered to work, considering that his companionship was payment enough. One day Mother asked him to rake the yard. We never saw him again. “That deadbeat!” she said.
That was a more innocent time when we rarely locked our doors during the day. Sometimes I was home alone when a tramp came. Never, not once, did any of those men misbehave or make me fearful. These days if a man knocked on my door and asked for food, I’d most likely feed him – but I’d lock the door while I fetched the grub!
Invariably, after a man left, my deeply religious little mother would quote scripture: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and opens the door, I will come in and sup with him and he with me.” Then she’d add meditatively, “You never know, do you? That man may have been Christ knocking.”