Humble beginnings teach lifelong lessons of gratitude

George Brown
My family moved six times before I started first grade and seven more by the time I graduated from high school.

Mom and my Stepdad were gypsies of sorts, barely holding body and soul together as we moved from one country shack to the next, like boll weevils looking for a home.

As I recall, our frequent moves were not to skip out on the rent, although I think that happened a time or two. Mostly, Mom just had a recurring itch to move and when the itch struck there was no resting until we had found a new place to live.

Despite the instability, moving to a new place was always an adventure. While Mom and Dad unpacked our meager possessions, we kids would launch an exploratory expedition of the countryside surrounding our new home. Like Lewis and Clark in their pursuit of a northwest passage, we would spend days trekking over, around, and through the woods, creeks, and fields of our new territory. We would name interesting spots along the way, as we mapped the terrain in our minds to return another day. We were respectful trespassers but in truth we regarded the new territory as ours to roam.

Each place where we lived was given a name; usually the last name of the landlord or some identifying characteristic – names like the Red Brick, Leply’s, Bell’s, Ball’s Crossing, the Ridge, Dow and Roy’s, New Lex, Stringfellow’s, the Brokaw Road, and so on.

To this day all of my childhood memories are categorized and filed in my mind under the names of the places where we lived. My earliest memories are filed under “the Red Brick”, where we lived when I turned three. I had just been returned to Mom and my new Stepdad from the foster home where I had lived for the previous two years, while my older brothers and sister lived in the children’s home. I will save the story and circumstances of that period of my life for another time.

Of all the places we called home, Dow and Roy’s was, beyond all doubt, most deserving of the moniker, shack. Dow and Roy Bouchard were two of Mom and Dad’s bar buddies. Mom had managed to retrieve (kidnap would be more accurate) my three older brothers from the care of our Father’s relatives while he was serving overseas in the military. She had us all together, but feeding and clothing six kids between the ages of 6 and 16 spelled poverty with a capital P, which helps explain why Dow and Roy allowed us to be squatters in the one-room shack they owned along the Licking River in Newark, Ohio during the summer of 1952.

Roy and Dow’s shack stood in a field at the end of Elizabeth Street between the Owens Corning glass factory and the levy that keeps the Licking River within its banks. My guess is we lived there rent free, and rightly so because in earlier days the shack had served as a chicken coop. It had been scrubbed clean and wired for electricity to accommodate the most humble of human occupants.

Dow and Roy’s shack measured about 12 by 15 feet. It had no windows, but some ventilation could be achieved by opening the top half of the Dutch doors at each end. Whatever furniture we may have had must have been sold before the move, which was just as well because the shack afforded only enough room for the bare essentials. These included an electric range, a refrigerator, an old kitchen cabinet, and a dinette set. Mom and Dad’s double bed stood in one corner and we three younger kids slept on mats in the opposite corner. My three older brothers were lucky because they got to sleep in the bunkhouse, which was actually an old shed in which Dad was able to squeeze a cot and set of bunk beds.

We had no running water but a kind neighbor took pity on us and allowed my older brothers to fill three or four water buckets at their house each day. The buckets of water were placed on the counter of the kitchen cabinet. A dipper hung from one bucket for drinking water. The second bucket was reserved for cooking, and the others were used for washing dishes, and faces and hands. Except for swimming in the river, I can’t remember taking a bath that summer.

Living in town provided little opportunity to explore, but we quickly became friends with the other kids in the neighborhood, most of whom were only slightly less poor than us, and we would spend hours playing tag, hopscotch, hind-n-seek, and other games.

As pictures of me taken that summer reveal, I could have passed as the ragamuffin poster child. The bottoms of my feet were tough and black from running barefooted. A change of trousers and a T-shirt would last for a week, or maybe two; and streaks of sweat would run down my neck from playing all day in the hot sun. A cool wipe down with a wash cloth at bedtime was always refreshing.

Mom and Dad planted a small garden of tomatoes, beans, and corn, but memories of being hungry that summer still linger in my mind. I remember on one occasion sneaking a couple of green tomatoes out of the garden and taking them into the outhouse to eat.

There are many more stories I could share about the adventures of my childhood. Perhaps I’ll do so in future columns. For now I can tell you this. Unlike those humorous columns about the perils of organizing Yvonne’s kitchen cabinets or using my backpack to save myself or my brother-in-law from some tragedy, this story of my youth is entirely true. Yes, times were difficult, but those humble beginnings taught me lifelong lessons of simplicity and gratitude, for which I remain thankful to this day.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.