It’s funny that for most of my life I had no idea that I was poor or lived in poverty. True, I was raised poor, married poor, had a slew a kids and so stayed poor. I budgeted every nickel. Now here’s the thing. My parents came from good families. Working stock. My grandfathers owned their own businesses. All had been through the Depression. Money was tight. Next along came World War II and my uncles and dad went into the military. We had coupons for every shortage–shoes, fabric, sugar, butter, gas. I had my first stick of gum after the War. Juicy Fruit. One pair of buckled sandals got us through summers, otherwise we went barefoot. A six-ounce Coca Cola was 6 cents and a treat.
When I was raising my kids there was no such thing as Food Stamps or Aid to Dependent Children or Disability. Never heard of it. My first job paid fifty cents an hour. My husband earned a dollar an hour. There was no such thing as credit cards. Or ATMs. We didn’t have checking accounts. We got our salary in cash in little brown envelopes. We fed, sheltered, and clothed our families on what we earned. We ate our meals at home, rode buses to church. We sometimes went to a matinee movie. 10 cents. For family entertainment we went on picnics, crabbing, and fishing.
Every single woman in my family, including me, darned socks, turned collars, replaced missing buttons on shirts and blouses, and often hand-stitched our own clothes. We put Christmas for our children on layaway at department stores. We went out into the country to pick black berries and wild plums to cook up jellies. During the War we couldn’t get out to the country. Farmers hooked up mules to wagons filled with garden produce and made the rounds in our communities well into the late Fifties. Until bylaws and restrictions were passed against it, we kept chickens and hung our wash on clotheslines.
A day trip to the movies with my granddaughter ended at an upmarket bakery. I bought 6 cupcakes…almost fainted at the price: $37. Won’t be doing that again–ever.
How things have changed in the fifty-some years since I raised my kids.
Rachel Cameron from The Sheriff's Woman knows a thing or two about being poor and raising children. She also prefers to lick her wounds and protect her children from gossip and shame in isolation on a small homestead in the Ozark Mountains. But life-long bachelor and ex-Marine Sheriff Garrett Stark has other ideas.
My gift to you, a little taste of living off the land and making do...
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“Are you still pretty, Mama?”
Startled, Rachel laughed, and in a brief blink of her eyes, shut out the propane-fueled stove, the steaming canner, and the disarray on the kitchen counters. Was she still pretty? Pffft. If it weren’t for Pond’s night crème lathered on each night like a second skin, she’d be as scaly as a fish.
Pete sniffed, offended. “Why are you laughing?”
Rachel turned and faced her nine-year-old son. Slim as a whippet and wiry, Pete’s nose was speckled with freckles, and it would be years before he grew into his ears. His shorts were dark around the waist with perspiration, and his shoulders bent with the weight of the basket of vegetables he had hauled from the garden. His solemn expression told her his question was no laughing matter.
“Why do you ask, Pete?”
“I was just thinking that if you’re still pretty, maybe—maybe you could find another daddy to take care of us.” He had a hesitant look about his narrow-pinched face that suggested he wanted to say more, but Rachel’s mouth fell open in astonishment and for a few seconds, she could not think of a mortal thing to say.
“Find another…? Oh, sweetheart, that’s not why people get married.”
Pete’s ears turned bright red. “I don’t see why not. It seems a good reason to me. I can’t do it all, Mama. I know you said I was the man of the family now, but I can’t do it by myself. If Daddy couldn’t…” His knotty little Adam’s apple bobbed. “I am so sick of tomatoes!”
Rachel grasped the back of a chair, her lungs constricted. If Daddy couldn’t… She felt a sharp stab of guilt and disloyalty of the heart. All those late-night arguments about work. Clive’s lack of it. Money. The lack of it. Arguments she didn’t want to remember and felt guilty about when she did.
“I never meant that you had to, Pete.” Rachel could not go on and look at her son at the same time. She turned back to the stove. “I only meant that we all have to pitch in to make a go of it—you, me, Caroline, and even Sara.”
“But you said I was the man in our family. I’m not a man, Mama. I’m just a little boy.”
Rachel’s throat went dry. Oh, she had gone about her grief, the children’s grief, all wrong. All these months, Pete must have been worrying, taking the weight of the world—their world anyway—on himself. All that brave talk to the children had been to talk herself into bravery. She wasn’t brave. She just didn’t know what to do. Pete had taken his father’s death hard. She had hoped to make him strong—make herself strong. Dear God, she had failed dismally.
“I know you’re just a little boy, sweetie.” She waved a dishtowel toward the kitchen counter. “Look, we’ve canned thirty jars already. Why don’t you take that basket of tomatoes and feed them to your pig. He needs fattening if he’s to take a ribbon at the county fair in the fall. Besides, I don’t think I could slip the skin of another tomato if my life depended upon it. Take a break; go for a swim in the creek. Check your fish trap. Caroline’s down there already, isn’t she? And when this batch of canning is finished, Sara and I will come down to the creek, too.”
Pete’s gray eyes, so like his father’s, brightened. “You’re sure?”
“I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. I’m burnt to a crisp. I need a swim, and I’ll bring some sandwiches. We can have a picnic.”
Pete turned, but paused. “Are you sure about the tomatoes? We’ll have enough to eat this winter?”
Fighting the lump rising in her throat, Rachel realized that all the things she had said so easily, so glibly—comments about money, food, shelter, the future—Pete had taken to heart. “We’ll have enough. We have enough right now. It’s just we can’t splurge. Anyway, I’m going to teach this fall when school starts.”
“You got the contract! And you didn’t tell me?”
“No, no. Not yet, but it will come as soon as the school board meets. I’m certain of it.” Truthfully, she wasn’t. The disorientation of Clive’s death had overcome her sensible nature. She realized as soon as the bills started piling up that taking a leave of absence in the last quarter of the school year had not been a good decision. But Clive’s death left the children so confused and scattered, she felt they needed her more than she needed the job. Her decision had plunged them so close to poverty she could spit and not miss it.
Death always makes for changes, but she had not expected so much uncertainty. “Go on, Pete, scoot. The longer you keep chatting, the longer it’ll take me to get to that swim.”
Pete hesitated. “We’re not gonna have to eat him, are we?”
“Good heavens, no! Rootus is going to the county fair. Even if he doesn’t take a ribbon, somebody’ll buy him. That will fund the start of your college scholarship.”
“Is that how you got money for college?”
“I earned scholarships the hard way—with my brain.”
“Did Daddy go to college, too?”
Rachel bit the inside of her lip. “Some, but he was smart in other ways, like you.”
“I don’t feel smart.”
“You don’t feel intelligence. You know it.” Rachel flapped the limp dishtowel toward the sun-dappled creek. “Shoo.”
She listened to the thump-thump of the heavy basket as Pete dragged it down the rickety wooden porch steps. Tears threatened. She took several deep breaths, willing them away. Better, much better. For weeks after Clive’s death, she had cried, short gasping sobs at unexpected moments, burying her face in whatever was handy—a towel, a shirt, her elbow—anything to muffle the mewling to keep from alarming the children. Even after all these long months, she still sometimes felt like her heart was caving in.
Rachel glanced at Sara, napping on the bed in the alcove before stepping outside onto the porch. She savored the momentary solitude with the creaking old cabin at her back and the pine-clad mountains hugging the small clearing. She knew every inch of it because she had grown up in the shade of these mountains, played solitary games amidst the brambles, picked berries in season, fished with her father in the creek, and pegged clothes on the lines with her mother. Her parents had not been demonstrative, but Rachel knew without a doubt she had been well-loved. Yet, growing up, she yearned for something larger, greater, and the excitement of a world peopled with more than a snug cabin in a lonely forest.
You get ideas, Rachel thought. You get hopes and dreams, you save them up over your lifetime, and then reality slams you in the back until you’re breathless, gasping for air in a suddenly oxygen-depleted universe.
She had tossed and turned a hundred nights, trying to pinpoint exactly when her world had begun to crumble. She had asked herself which day, which hour, which minute, and which choice she made that caused her life to go so very wrong. Yet her mind seemed only to travel a long circle of jangled thoughts, trying to comprehend reality.
Her gaze shifted to the clearing. Reality was sparse grass, chickens pecking languidly beneath the mulberry tree—chickens bought only that spring as day-old chicks and still too young to produce a decent egg. Reality was the old blue Blazer with a flat tire. Reality was the ancient cabin, its porch unpainted, left corner leaning toward the encroaching gulch as it had for as long as she could remember.
The worst reality of all, though, was loneliness. The kind of loneliness that was buried bone-deep and meant a whole dream had ended. If it were not for the children, she would be lonely to despair. But she was lonely. It was just that with the children, she wasn’t alone being lonely.
The irony was she had spent her entire youth figuring ways to get away from this isolated cabin and the hardscrabble, constricted life it represented, not to mention the unending succession of dreary tasks. Yet here she was, back where she started, all because of one monumental misstep, or a dozen.
The path leading from the old cabin perched on the lonely bluff represented a treacherous path marked by a college scholarship, a teaching certificate, ten years of marriage, and then sudden death.
On the other hand, she could not discount the dear old homestead was now a refuge, never mind the unending chores. Moreover, things could be worse. They had been worse. When she and the children lived in Hickory Grove, every time she left home she had to grit her teeth against thoughts she knew were behind the open faces of her neighbors’ scarce words of sympathy. In the teacher’s lounge, it had been awful. Her colleagues kept their distance as if Clive’s manner of death were catching.
She hugged herself, suffering a moment of quiet ferocity until the canner began to steam and hiss. A small sob escaped as she emerged from her thoughts. She spent every hour of every day surviving. She would make it somehow. She wasn’t afraid of hard work, she wasn’t afraid of life—not for herself—even if their lives were confined to forty acres of soaring pine and an old cabin that was little more than a shabby sentinel of the mountain’s privacy.
Her children were another matter. The crushing feeling of having total responsibility for their wellbeing, today and forever, scared her witless right through to her bones.
Swimming was a misnomer because the creek was shallow, water only coming up to Rachel’s knees. Sitting on the pebble and sandy bottom, she leaned back on her elbows, allowing the clear cold flow to brush the back of her neck. It felt wonderful, and all the tension that kept her muscles and nerves in knots ebbed, carried downstream to deeper pools swirling around Pete’s fish traps.
Where the sun found passage through the overhead foliage of a chokecherry tree, it shimmered on the creek’s rippling surface, revealing small shoals of silvery minnows that darted into shadows. Rachel wore an old blouse tied beneath her breasts and shorts that billowed with the current. She laughed as a tiny hover of minnows tried to take refuge inside her shorts against the sun and current. She slapped the water and the minnows darted away, following one of Pete’s twig boats downstream.
She studied her children’s faces. Pete’s was free of tension—thank goodness—and spicy-natured seven-year-old Caroline seemed never to worry at all, but looked at life askance with the cynical honesty of youth.
The sound of Sara’s silvery giggles caught Rachel’s attention. Sara was four, a cherub with short stubby legs, an areole of dark curls framing her round innocent face, and huge saucer eyes that watched and absorbed all she saw.
Sara communicated to trees, to flowers, to vegetables in the garden, to the chickens, to her dolls, but she seldom spoke to another human being. Rachel was heartsick that her youngest refused to talk until last year when she heard Sara singing, forming words in a small, soft pure voice. All the doctors who examined Sara insisted she would talk when she was ready. Ready? Doctors didn’t listen. Not once had she been able to prise a word from Sara, not even mama. Rachel often wondered if separation anxiety traumatized her daughter. Sara went into childcare at three months old, which was all the leave Rachel could ill afford from teaching. Sara was oft times distant in her own little world, and this disturbed Rachel, too. She tried coaxing Sara into her watery lap.
“Sara wants to look for seashells,” said Pete.
“There aren’t any shells here, only rocks and pebbles.” Caroline flounced words as she did her silky brown curls, which were as airy as dandelion fluff unless tamed by braids and barrettes. “You find shells at the beach where there’s an ocean, and in fossils.”
“Sara is pretending she’s at the ocean,” answered Pete, ignoring Caroline’s precociousness and all her hints at intelligence.
Caroline made connections about things at the speed of light, which was another worry for Rachel. She desperately wanted to encourage Caroline and had done until their lives collapsed. Now practicality ruled and Rachel found herself so bone-tired at the end of the day that questions such as, Why don’t all trees have the same leaf? Or, How fast does the earth spin? Or, Where does gravity come from? Why don’t we fall off and fly into space? fell by the wayside.
Rachel slanted a look at Pete. He interpreted Sara’s tilts of her head or expressions as if they shared a secret language.
Caroline dipped water with an old tin cup, splashing it on her shoulders and next, trying to scoop minnows. “Do you think we’ll ever go to the beach, Mama? On vacation?” Caroline never put her head under water. “You can’t breathe under water. If your head was supposed to go under, you’d have gills like a fish,” she said the first time Pete encouraged her to explore the bottom of the creek.
“Don’t be stupid, Caroline,” scoffed Pete. “Vacations cost money.”
“Don’t talk to your sister that way,” said Rachel. “And, yes, we will go to the beach.”
“No. I just hope.” Rachel avoided promising anything these days. Promises were traps.
“Company comin’,” announced Pete.
They all watched as gray dust furled skyward, marking a vehicle’s progress on the one-lane switchback road that led into their yard from the highway. Rachel recognized the cruiser and its driver. A dull ache rose in the back of her throat. She had once respected the man. Now, she didn’t.
“Up to the porch, on the double. Pete, take Sara. I left towels on the railing.”
The car braked to a stop under the grand old mulberry tree, scattering the pullets pecking like fiends as it dropped ripened berries. Rachel reached the porch behind the racing youngsters.
Garrett Stark emerged from the county vehicle and unfolded his long rope-muscled body. His shoulders tested the fabric of his short-sleeved khaki shirt. Years of duty in the Marines had etched his face, but rather than detracting, the etching enhanced his features. He was a man comfortable and confident in his body. Rachel didn’t like him for that, either. Worse, she didn’t like herself for noticing what she didn’t like about him. She halted on a small rise of earth, a rostrum from which to address the man, though it by no means gave her height over him. “You’re not welcome here, Garrett. Get off my land.”
He studied her gravely for a moment. Rachel suspected his gaze included a measure of sexual candor.
“Didn’t think I would be, but I like to know what’s going on with folks in my county.”
“Your county? You’re a legend in your own mind and so stuffed with conceit I could eat it with a spoon.”
“It’s just a figure of speech, Rachel.” He leaned against his cruiser, pulled a cigar from his shirt pocket, peeled the cellophane from it, bit the end off with sharp white teeth, lit it, and drew heavily until there was gray ash at the tip. Rachel waited, eyes downcast, a veritable cache of angst. It was Garrett’s show, and she would not give him the homage he no doubt expected.
When she lifted her chin, he was studying the ash at the end of the cigar. “Heard you and the children had moved back to your old homestead and nobody’d seen you in town. Just thought I’d—”
“I know what you heard.” She gave him a look that could melt skin. “You heard our house went into foreclosure. You know I held yard sales every weekend until I had nothing left to sell. You know because you drove by every single weekend. I saw you. You don’t have to pretend to be nice about it. Being nice somehow doesn’t suit you.”
He was so comfortable leaning against the car, all male hoodoo and knowing it. What drew people to elect him sheriff was something intangible, beyond his practiced charisma and favorite son status. He made people believe in doing the right thing. Years in the Marines had taught him to carry his six-foot frame board straight, with a lazy hipshot walk that every woman in Hickory Grove watched openly or surreptitiously, depending upon marital status. Rachel had once been among them. Now she wanted to scratch his eyes out. She didn’t have enough nail to do any damage, but the thought made her feel better.
“Yep, that’s what I heard. I checked at the bank and found it was true. Never knew anyone to call me nice. I like it, though.”
“Nice is the last thing I’d call you. Wanna hear the first?”
He laughed. It was a good rich sound. “Not in front of the kids.”
Rachel lowered her voice so it would not carry to the porch where her children hung on the railing like starlings ready for flight. “What do you want, Garrett? Why can’t you stay out of my life?”
“You moved out here to protect the kids from talk, Rachel. I get that. Come on back to town, where you have good friends. Nobody holds Clive against you. I’ll help you find a decent place. If any of the town folk gives you any lip, tell me and I’ll put a stop to it.”
“I don’t have any good friends and I don’t want your help. We’re managing just fine.” She watched derision flicker across his features and noted the exact moment his gaze took her in from head to toe, lingering where it should not. She knew her wet clothes clung to her, but there was nothing she could do about it.
“Listen, hon, I didn’t come out here to pick a fight with you. I guess the reason you haven’t been in town is that flat on the Blazer. I’ll change it for you and be on my way.”
“No! Don’t touch my car. I don’t want you to do anything for me. I don’t want you to be able to assuage your conscience.”
She watched a vein throb in his temple, saw his light-colored eyes probe in a way that made her heart pump hard. Okay. He had a presence that demanded attention, but not her attention. Anger whipped across his face. He lowered the volume of his voice, but not its force.
“Still looking at Clive Cameron through rose-colored glasses, are you? I didn’t kill him. He killed himself. The sooner you face that, the sooner you’ll get on with your life instead of hibernating out here in the woods. I’ll change that tire now.”
“I despise you, Garrett. You’ve left me with nothing. You left my children fatherless, and you’re getting away with it. I despise you from the very depths of my soul.”
“I know you do. I don’t like it, but I’m not in a popularity contest. You need help and that’s what I’m here to offer. It’s part of my job.” He waved to the children before striding to the old SUV. He reached into the car and pressed the button that unlatched the back gate. Garrett stared at the debris found in the back of every mother’s car—discarded toys, a deflated basketball, storybooks, a sock doll Caroline had made in Brownie Scouts—all of which he brushed aside before hauling out the spare tire.
Filled with a seething frustration, Rachel watched for several seconds, then spun off the mound of earth and stalked to the porch. “All of you, in the house and into dry clothes.”
“Maybe I can help Sheriff Stark fix the tire,” Pete suggested.
Rachel resisted the urge to scream. “No, sweetie, he doesn’t need any help. Change clothes. Caroline, be a darling and help Sara.” There was enough rigid authority in Rachel’s tone that, for once, the children didn’t balk. READ MORE