Friday, April 29, 2011

Charity on Hold

©2011, Linda Goodman

In March, while telling stories at the Tales of the Lonesome Pine Bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, I came across a copy of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times, a book of first person stories about life during the Great Depression. One of the stories was about a father who refused to take charity, even refusing to let his wife accept milk for their baby. The baby died of starvation.

That story brought back long buried memories to me. I was born in St Paul, Virginia, a coal mining town in the Appalachian Mountains, in 1952. People who know how my family lived say that I was born into “abject poverty.” My father was a licensed electrician, but there was no work; actually there was work but no one had money to pay for it. My family of six lived in a rented one room shack. Daddy got $30 a month disability from the Veterans Administration. He hunted, fished, and planted a garden to put food on the table.

My parents felt that it was all right to do charitable works for others, but they were too proud to take charity themselves. That is why we children were never allowed to go meet the Santa Train at Christmas time. That is way we never accepted help from Save the Children.

When I read the story in Hard Times, I wondered what my father would have done in the same situation. Would he have accepted charity if it meant the difference between life and death for one of his children? I mused on this for several days, not liking the feeling that I was wrong about my father; that he was perhaps not as wise and reasonable as I had always believed.

Finally, a story that my mother had once told me came to my mind. When I was five years old, I was sick and there was no money for a doctor. Momma treated me herself with home remedies, but after a day or two I became incoherent, babbling on about strange hallucinations of giant cats and rabid dogs. I actually remember parts of this, the strange dreams and my mother’s frantic ministrations.

The February air was bone cold and there was snow on the ground. My father put on his tattered overcoat and walked to town to get a doctor. I do not know how many miles he had to walk, but my mother said he was gone for hours. The doctor he found drove my father back to our home and diagnosed me with pneumonia. He gave me a shot of penicillin (I sure remember that!) and my parents some tablets to give me later. He said I was near death, and he hoped that I would recover.

My father offered the doctor a smoked ham that had been given to us by his brother, but the doctor refused to take it. My father then offered some of the fruits my mother had canned. The doctors said not to worry about it. “Just pay me when you can,” he told my father. Then he left.

As poor as we were, my father had vowed that he would never leave the mountains. He had lived with the land all of his life and would not live apart from it.

After Dr. Cox left our home that day, however, my father made the decision to apply for a job at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia. He did so as soon as I hit the road to recovery. Six weeks later, he was called to come to Portsmouth for an examination. He was offered a job immediately. It was his first steady job. He was fifty years old.

The first thing he did when he got his first paycheck was to pay Dr. Cox’s bill. He did that even before setting aside money to bring our family to the city. Dr. Cox was astounded. He sent back a letter thanking my father and saying that he was the first person who promised to pay him later who ever actually did so.

That memory comforts me. It makes me realize that my father valued his family’s well-being above his pride. He would not accept straight-out charity, but he could live with accepting charity on hold.