In West Africa, they build latrines by digging a square pit, six feet by six feet. They build an open-roofed wattle wall around it, lay wooden planks across the top of the pit and cover them with six inches of dirt, leaving a hole in the center. A fellow Peace Corps Volunteers went into one of these latrines early in her tour of duty. As she squatted, the floor gave way, rotted by decay and the ubiquitous termites, and she plunged ten feet, landing in years of accumulated human waste. Stunned from the fall, and horrified to be waist-deep in a sea of maggots and shit and unbelievable odor, she screamed.
The local villagers ran to help. The teacher was an important visitor to their village and their responsibility. Panicked, they raced into the jungle and cut a “bushrope,” a sinewy vine, ran back to the latrine and lowered it to her. They picked the first vine they came to, and it was weak. As she was halfway up, the vine broke, and she plunged backwards, this time head first. She almost drowned before they fished her out. She spent months in the hospital, returned to her post and finished her two years. But the ulcers from the infections turned into ugly red scars covering her arms, legs and face. I do not know if they ever faded.
This is what our descent into poverty was like—a sudden unexpected drop, and then when we were halfway out, another far more serious plummet—a small snap, and then a slow motion fall backward and a thick, filthy, impenetrable darkness closing over us.
The first collapse occurred long before I was born, caused by a load of tainted vegetables in tiny Broxton, Georgia and a set of complex and distant machinations by financiers and bureaucrats in New York and London.
My family are Scotch-Irish from South Carolina and Georgia. We came over during the great migrations of the 1700’s. Plausibly some came on the many prison ships that ferried English debtors to America, and then after the Revolution, to Australia. We owned two slaves and fought for the losing side in the War Between the States. Like most Southern families, somewhere along the way a few African genes dribbled in. The official explanation is a vague story about a great-great grandmother who was an Indian princess.
Both families were mostly tradesmen, and as was the custom of the day, occasional farmers. My father graduated from Elliot High School, first in his class of three. When he was six years old, his family encouraged him to smoke to keep him away from candy. It worked–for most of his life, my father was 6’1” and weighed 129 pounds. His father was a carpenter and house painter.
My mother’s family was marginally more aristocratic. My great-aunts and uncles were bankers and teachers, members of the upper crust of Broxton, Georgia, a small, town located a hundred miles north of Florida in the center of the state. In 1902, when my grandmother was six, a local mob lynched a black man, burned him, cut up the body and took pieces home as souvenirs.
My grandmother attended a year of college, very unusual for a young woman in that day and age. During her summer home after her freshman year, there was an influenza epidemic, and she and her sisters moved from house to house nursing the ill. One of the houses my grandmother visited was the Stones. One evening, the young giant of the family, Ive Stone, at six feet the largest man in the county, insisted he escort her home.
They fell in love and married. Her family was furious. The Stones were far beneath the Gibbs socially. They were uneducated, worked with their hands, and were known to take a drink from time to time. A Stone was not good enough for Leila Gibbs. (As a post-script, by relaxing her standards maybe my grandmother was not being romantic, but rather pragmatic. Two of her sisters never married. Both died in their nineties.) At any rate, it is unlikely my grandmother cared about her family’s disapproval. All her life, my grandmother was blessed with a self-assuredness that bordered on megalomania.
She and Ive were given some land by his family, built a house, and settled down to raise a family, popping out five children in quick succession. The only photograph from that time shows five very blond high-cheekboned children, standing in the swept dirt yard of a modest, unpainted wooden shack perched high off the ground on square brick pillars. Those children look a lot like my son. Standing to the side is my grandmother, a short, square-jawed unsmiling woman, starting to widen out around the hips. One leg is much larger than the other, the result of an erisyphelis infection, which caused the leg to swell to an enormous size, and stay that way the rest of her life.
Back then a local black man drove from house to house with his mule and wagon collecting table scraps into two big porcelain slop jars for his hogs. He carried additional metal containers in which he collected human waste from night jars. This he used to fertilize his garden, where he grew vegetables which he then resold to the town. Both practices are now illegal, for obvious and good reasons, but I remember seeing a slop wagon sometime in the late fifties. At any rate, in 1927 his produce set off a local typhoid epidemic, which my grandfather contracted and died. At least this is the story I remember. When I was told the story I wasn’t interested. Now that I am, there is no one left to tell it.
Two years later, the Great Depression hit, and the crippled young widow and her five children lost their land and home. The oldest child would have been twelve, the youngest five. Their position was desperate. They ate turnips, collards and mustard greens during the spring summer and fall; dried lima beans and cornbread made of lard, water and meal, during the winter. The children all worked and they wore hand me downs from neighbors. Little help came from either family. I don’t know if that’s because the families had nothing to give. My grandmother had a tongue like a bullwhip, and that may have played a part as well.
Survival was a closely run thing. At one point, my grandmother went into the local store and told the owner, “Sir, I don’t know what to do. You don’t give credit and I have no money. I don’t beg and I don’t steal, but my children are hungry. I am going to have to take those two loaves of bread, and you must do what you must. I am sorry to put you in this position, but I have no choice.” She eventually repaid him, but never got over the shame.
Of course, they were not alone. My mother told the story on one family, ignorant and dirt poor, who had a son in my mother’s class. The boy was the first in his family to learn to read and write. At a fifth grade assembly, he was to march to the front to receive some sort of recognition. His proud parents promised him a new pair of pants. The boy had always worn hand-me-down overalls and this was to be his first pair of pants. He excitedly told all his schoolmates. But although his parents scrimped and saved, they could not raise enough to buy a real pair of pants, although they did manage a bolt of cloth. So his mother, no seamstress and not very bright to begin with, laid the cloth on the bed, placed him on top of it, and cut out two pieces. She then tried to fashion the two pieces into a pair of trousers. He wore the result to the assembly, but instead of the triumphant march he’d undoubtedly dreamed of, it became a gauntlet as he passed through the laughter and jeers of the other children.
One study by the University of Chicago divided white America into seventeen groups based on race and ethnic background. The poorest and least well educated was the Southern Baptist or Scotch-Irish. Even when we move to high income geographies such as California, we still find ourselves at the bottom of the economic food chain. For white trash, poverty seems to be embedded in the genes.
My family’s climb out took us to Bishopville, South Carolina, where my father managed a local ice plant by day and studied accounting through a correspondence course. My mother made dresses for the local debutantes, and even had a gown make it to the Miss South Carolina pageant. And our fall backwards left us in Garlington Heights, a vicious little set of housing projects in Waycross, Georgia, my mother breathless from emphysema caused by years of smoking, arthritic and crippled from decades of working extra shifts at jobs ranging from burger joint waitress to cleaning crew at the local meatpacking plant, and seriously alcoholic. By that time, my father was gone and we were mostly dependent on food stamps, welfare and whatever my brother and I brought in from our paper routes and odd jobs.
I never understood my mother’s alcoholism, and was unable to feel sorry for her because I was too busy trying to cope with the effects of her disease on me. That sounds selfish, but I don’t think you can really understand what it is to be the child of a raging alcoholic unless you have lived it.
Living with an alcoholic is when you are ten and the phone rings. It is the small grocery down the street that sells beer, telling your grandmother to call a taxi and come get your mother, who is passed out in the back room on a pile of boxes. Later that year your mother has to “go away” for awhile, and a few weeks later a neighbor takes you to visit her at the state mental asylum where she is being treated for a combination of alcoholism and nervous exhaustion. It is when you come home from school one winter when you are twelve, and you and your younger brother and sister find your mother sprawled half dressed on the floor in a freezing house. The three of you try to wrestle her into bed, and fail, and settle for covering her with a blanket and lighting the kitchen stove to heat the house. It is one day in grammar school, when your father (temporarily reconciled to the family) has been given a new car by his boss, the first and only new car you’ve ever ridden in, and your mother drives to school to pick you up, plows into the back of the school bus in the main driveway and falls back on the seat snoring while someone calls the police.
At an intellectual level, I recognize the disease for what it was. Sober, my mother was a complex, bright, and wonderfully creative woman. My friends would come over from school to watch her draw pictures of Indians, and neighbors would come out on their porches to listen to her sing torch songs in her beautiful, soaring voice. She loved us more than anyone else ever could. Without her confidence, love, wit and teaching, my brother and I might never have escaped the cycle of poverty at all. (My younger sister did not make it and died in her twenties.)
I do not love my mother less for her disease, and I am sympathetic, because she paid a higher price than did we. But I am simply not a good enough person not to view it selfishly. When I was fifteen, my father left for good, and the pain was sharp, but it went away. My mother’s alcoholism was a dull, constant ache.
When I was twenty, I nervously brought home my first serious girlfriend. I drove her around Waycross in a car borrowed from a friend. We returned to the apartment to find my mother standing glassy-eyed and lockjawed in the door. She was normally gentle and gracious, but few drops of alcohol transformed her into a mean, slit-eyed drunk. I walked up the steps, and for the only time in my life, touched a woman in anger. Without speaking, I grasped each arm, lifted her off her feet, and holding her out in front of me carried her through the apartment to her room. I closed the door and returned to the porch, where Diane and I sat beside each other, not touching or speaking. I stared straight ahead while scalding hot tears ran down my face.
She watched me sideways and I could tell she was afraid. It was the only time in my life anyone has ever really been afraid of me. The next day my mother complained about the bruises on her arms. I remembered my anger of the day before, and reckoned she was lucky to still be alive.
Of course, the real question is which caused which. Did my mother’s alcoholism cause our poverty, or did our poverty cause her alcoholism? Both, perhaps, but certainly the fear that is created by poverty aggravated her drinking. I remember trips to the grocery store where she would pull the cart over to the side and add up the items to make sure she wouldn’t be turned away at the register. When I was eight I left my winter jacket at the playground and it was gone when we went back to look for it. She sat at the kitchen table that night weeping, staring at the $30 food money, and trying to figure out what store might sell her one on credit, or which neighbor might have one that we could borrow. I remember the family dog my mother loved and we abandoned in the driveway of the rental house when we moved to the projects, an open bag of cheap dog food sitting beside the back steps. I remember the time the washing machine broke and the repair man estimated three hours to repair it, and seven hours later was still there, shaking his head, I remember the fear in Mama’s eyes as she girded her courage to tell him she would not be able to pay him “all at once.” The poor are economic hemophiliacs, and they live every second of every day with the fear that a single scratch can be fatal.
A piano is, in the final event, an instrument of violence. Its strings are stretched tautly and then rapped with hammers until they scream in protest. When laced together in a certain order by practiced hands, these sounds become music. All of us have similar mechanics. Our emotions are stretched side by side tightly, and all it takes is one careless hand on the keyboard for the hammers to fall. I am always surprised when a well meaning acquaintance probes me about my life and I panic, desperate to keep those fingers away from the keyboard.
I used to deflect the conversation, changing the subject so they wouldn’t know that my father drove a fuel truck, my mother never finished high school and I grew up in the projects. I got very good at it. But I don’t do that anymore, in part because every time I deny my past I later feel embarrassed and hate myself and in part because I think it might do my upper middle-class friends some good to know that there are poor people who look and sound just like them.
But I never volunteer my past, and I do not go into detail. And I must not be all that proud of it, because an expensive porcelain implant hides the gap where I had a tooth taken out when I was sixteen because it cost $14 to pull a tooth and $25 to fill it.
I’ve learned to live with my scars, but I never forget they’re there.
Categories: Personal Narrative