The Old House that Farming Built
It’s been sixteen years since I last laid eyes on it, but I can still remember every detail of old the old blockhouse my Granny and Pa lived in. It was, and always will be, a lasting symbol of the struggles and triumphs of a life built despite the staggering odds stacked against those trying to live, poor in the south.
From the concrete floors that were sometimes covered in thin linoleum or carpet remnants, the step down into the kitchen/dining room that was the lifeforce of the home, the steps back up to the creaking wood addition of three small bedrooms, and finally the steps down the bathroom that still seemed like a foreign concept to so many. The house was old and worn, pieced together, and a clear sign of struggle, but every time I stepped inside I felt the comfort and love of home. A home that finds itself empty entirely too early, a victim of the power that poverty holds, even on those that try desperately to get out from under its thumb.
When you look at the census records of the family, back until the late 1700s, you see a common theme — they are farm hands/farm laborers, most cannot read or write, and only once every few generations are their ones lucky enough to own a little piece of land or an old farm shack. My third great-grandfather was even listed as a “Pauper.” When times got rough, at the start of WWII, the family migrated from Alabama to Florida, and wouldn’t make it back until sometime in the seventies. Before that though, it would be rough.
My dad grew up in a one-bedroom farm shack in the heart of Ocoee, Florida with his parents and four siblings. It was still standing when I was younger, it broke my heart every time we drove by and he would tell tales of his childhood.
“The cracks were so big between boards of the walls you could see light shining through if we were burning a candle. The cold rushed in the winter and there was nothing we could do.”
He didn’t have what one would coin a “normal” childhood today. If you were old enough to work in the fields all day or at the packing house, you worked. If not, you were at home taking care of a sibling and cooking the meals. I’m sure that’s why dad and oldest aunt have such a close bond now. While their parents and older brother traveled up north to follow the farm work and some sort of income, she was at home working and caring for him, and their two younger siblings.
They didn’t get an education, and the only skills they were taught were those manual labor, mostly farm work. I’m not sure how they managed to put back enough money in those thirty years to go back to Alabama and buy that home, my guess is just overwhelming will. They made it back and bought that house I so fondly remember, situated on 40 acres of mostly farmland. One would think the grip of poverty had escaped them at this point, but it was easy to see from the outside looking in.
Sun up to sun down was still spent laboring. If not on their own farm, which supplied most of the food they consumed, it was at another, or working in a construction trade, such as paving or ditch digging. Every penny earned, was a penny needed, and banks weren’t to be trusted. My granny kept their funds in a small cloth pouch, safety-pinned to the inside of her dress or housecoat.
Apparently, they took to other means of making money too, as you can see from my great-grandmother’s time served for possession of a moonshine still. I’m told she was a feisty one.
Modern conveniences weren’t a priority to them. The house never had central heat or air. Just a big wood stove in the living room and box fans. I remember when my dad got a window AC unit to help keep them cool in the summer and my Granny made such a fuss about it. It was too much, he shouldn’t have spent the money. In reality, while you could see the pure joy on her face on those rare days when they did put it to use, the extra cost tacked onto the power bill was what was “too much.”
The family had become rigidly frugal out of necessity, and it was that frugality that leads to a serious lack of healthcare. Doctors were only seen in the case of Emergencies, and a long line of health issues that included heart disease, high cholesterol, strokes, and the intestinal infection that eventually killed my granny, could have all been slowed, if not prevented altogether had they been able to afford regular doctor visits. By the time they were old enough to qualify for medical assistance, the damage had been done.
That money was spent on items like deep freezers, to house the meat they slaughtered that would feed them all year. On the upkeep of a tractor that provided food that would be canned or sold. On kerosene to heat the bathroom in the winter, only for if needed to shower of course. You weren’t to waste heat just to go to the bathroom.
Speaking of the bathroom and luxury items, toilet paper was just that for a long time. So much so, up until his death, my Pa still used corn cobs left after shucking the corn for animal feed, to clean up after going to the bathroom. I couldn't wrap my head around it as a child, growing up lower-middle class in the ’80s, but now it is a profound reminder of their struggles. I will always have fond memories of that house and the love that always filled it, but every vivid memory I have is now haunted by the knowledge I’ve gained as an adult, and I wish I could go back and make it better for them.
Luckily for me, our family struggled our way through, living in our own version of farm shack for years, to not only make it past the poverty line but to the comfort of being able to actively seek medical care and to not worry about whether keeping cool is going to break us this month. Not everyone caught in the power cycle of poverty is so lucky though. Children in low-income families are still falling through the cracks of the education system, and many are still forsaking basic wellness to make sure they have power the next day.
The next time you see an old beat-up house, barely hanging on, pause and think about how it got there. The sacrifices made for a family to call that house a home. Then look close to home and see what you can do to help break the cycle of poverty and give everyone the fair chance they deserve to live a life that doesn’t make them prioritize one essential over another just to survive.