For one brief moment, back in the 1960s, I thought just maybe my family was more interesting than my adolescent mind had believed. While on our way to visit my grandparents in Michigan, Mom pointed out the window and said, “Look, kids, that’s where I used to strip!”
I had always thought my family tree was as common as a scrub cedar. Oh, there may be a few assorted nuts hanging from its branches, but as far as I knew, there were no pirates, bigamists, or bank robbers to break up the monotony.
Family folklore has it that one of my ancestors was the illegitimate offspring of a traveling salesman who breezed through town and left her and two other young ladies “in a family way.” Other than that, our family tree could be represented best by one of those cheap artificial Christmas trees with the color-coded branches.
But, wow! Mom was a stripper? At last, gossip worthy enough to share with my adolescent friends back home!
But, no, it seems that in Michigan in the 1940s, stripping meant thinning the small apples off the trees in the local orchards.
Mom said that during World War II when all able-bodied men were overseas defending our country, farmers often hired women and children as laborers. In addition to the apple stripping, Mom spent one summer, when she was about 12, hoeing a neighbor’s cornfields. It was hot, boring, back-breaking work, for which she and the other laborers earned 12 and 1/2 cents an hour.
Sometimes when the boss was not around, the child laborers held amateur talent shows or put on impromptu plays in the fields. One day Mom turned her hoe upside down and pretended it was a microphone. As she belted out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in her best Judy Garland impression, she looked up to see her employer glaring his disapproval at this frivolous waste of his 12 and 1/2 cents. Caught in the act, Mom immediately turned her hoe around and got back to work.
Nearly 60 years later, that same farmer, now in his 90s, was residing in a nursing home. He was being cared for by a nurse who happened to be my aunt (Mom’s sister). She asked him if he remembered my mom, who had earned 12 and 1/2 cents an hour hoeing his corn fields. He remembered all right. After a moment’s thought, he gruffly said, “I overpaid your sister.”
That sixty-year-old grudge may have been all that was keeping him alive. He died soon after, still ticked off about his 12 and 1/2 cents.
Mom’s brief sojourn into apple stripping and corn hoeing taught her a few of the realities of farming in the pre-tractor and pre-combine days. As a “townie,” I had a tendency to romanticize farming. I think I had watched too many Hollywood versions. I had a mental picture of myself dressed in a starched gingham dress and a white pinafore, scattering corn to the chickens and later, dressed in a ruffled apron, baking pies from scratch.
Reality did not set in until I had read every book on American pioneer days I could get my hands on. Know what I found out? Pioneer farming was not gingham dresses and apple pies. It was droughts, floods, locusts, prairie fires, hail storms, blizzards, and back-breaking manual labor. Shoveling manure also played a prominent part.
In many of the books I read, it also meant giving birth on a rope bed with no anesthesia and no medical help as a hungry panther prowled on the sod roof looking for a way in, but that may have been written for dramatic effect. Mom said none of those things happened while she was stripping and hoeing.
Not only do I no longer romanticize farming, but I have a new respect for my teenaged mom, who was willing to hoe a penny-pinching, crabby farmer’s corn in the hot sun for 12 and 1/2 cents an hour.
My family may be scrub cedar in the family tree department, but scrub cedars are hardy and resilient and can survive just about anywhere, even in a Michigan apple orchard or a Depression-era cornfield.
Now hand me that hoe and turn it upside down. “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high”…Are you up there, Mom? I miss you.