I grew up in a two bedroom farmhouse with seven brothers and sisters (after the sixth child was born, we added on and had three bedrooms—yippee!). For a while I slept on a couch in a room we called ‘the middle room’. So maybe it had four bedrooms, but my room was a thoroughfare, which may explain my insomnia.
My dad was a dairy farmer. My mom was a stay at home mom, who later went to work when my youngest brother was about four.
Simply put, we were poor. Dirt poor. But maybe poor isn’t the right word. We had no money. Zero money. But we were never hungry. We weren’t stuffed exactly, but not hungry either. Mom and Grandma (who lived two miles away) both gardened. We had chickens and milk cows. So we didn’t go without food. We wore hand-me-downs and the neighbors gave us old clothes. My grandma always had us over for a delicious Sunday dinner, the old fashioned kind of meal with roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy and plenty of everything. But Grandma was working on the farm, too, she was kind of the boss of the operation.
We were born, eight kids, in eleven years.
We played outside winter and summer. Where are you going to play inside in a house that tiny? Climbing haystacks and running through the woods, swinging on a rope in the hay mow, riding horses, sledding. We had one horse and one bike for eight kids. I always had a roommate (except for those blissful years in the ‘middle room’. At one point there were four girls in one small bedroom. But it didn’t matter because we weren’t ever in there except to sleep.
No air conditioning. Come to that, very little heat. We had two oil burning stoves for the whole house. We had a bathroom in our unheated, rodent infested basement. EEK!
Our bathtub was a tin tub mom would haul in from the small entry room every Saturday night.
You know, we weren’t that different from a lot of people, honestly. We had a neighbor that still had an outhouse until about the time I was full grown.
I remember my dad coming home from an auction once with four beds. That must’ve been when we added on. He’d bought four beds for five dollars. Five dollars TOTAL, not five dollars each.
We went to a one room country school house. I started first grade with four classmates, by the time I graduated from eighth grade and got to go to town for high school, I was alone in my grade.
I give you this back ground because there was nothing about our growing up years that was ‘enriched’ in the way people think of it today. No passes to the Children’s Museum. No children’s theater. No travel.
No Sesame Street. But my parents were special people. Different people in some really wonderful and hard to describe ways.
My dad read to us, doing all the voices, making it funny. He made us help around the farm, including milking cows. Dairy farming…now there’s a hard way to make a living!
We went to the library constantly and checked out stacks of books. Reading was a fundamental part of our lives. Church was every Sunday, no exceptions.
My parents were mild mannered, though mom could scold for a fact. But they were mostly so kind to us. They had a knack for acting like they were so lucky to have us. Can you image what a rabble we were? All those kids in that tiny house with no money? But I remember Mom smiling at me one time and saying, “The man who marries you is going to be so lucky.”
But one thing my parents have that was different, besides their kindness was their education. They’d met at college and married. I think my family grew up with this sort of … mythology about education. Dad left the farm because he unexpectedly got a scholarship at his high school graduation. Before that, he was planning to stay home and farm. When the scholarship money wasn’t enough, he enlisted in ROTC. Both of these things changed the direction of his life for a time—though he ended up back on the farm eventually. And during his college years he met my mom.
They both really believed in education. They never asked us IF we were going to college, they asked us WHERE we were going to college.
So out of this tiny house, overflowing with children, came my family of whom I am very proud.
Between us we have eight Bachelor’s degrees, four Masters Degrees, three doctoral degrees and one published author, me.
This is just a little glimpse into the fires that forged me. Education, books, enforced togetherness, kindness, love and faith.
I tried to raise my own kids the same way. And I try to include respect for those things in my books.
I’ve got a new book coming in August titled Out of Control, with a heroine who has educated herself mainly out of loneliness. And now here she is with this wonderful love for the natural world, and ambition to tell about it, and all she really gets to do is care for her young stepsister and cook stew. And now it looks like she’s going to be a rancher’s wife and the rancher thinks she needs to stop exploring the fascinating cavern she’s found and help him build up the ranch.
It’s made Julia very cranky. But she’s also begun to learn about love, and begun to see what’s really important in life.
Visit Mary at her web site to learn more about her books!