Down the Backroads: A Sense of Dignity Greater than Hunger Itself

Posted on Mar 12, 2018

 

Tim Thornberry 

I recently had the opportunity to attend a charitable event in which the proceeds were donated to help combat hunger in Kentucky. It was great to see so many people there who had an interest in trying to alleviate this terrible problem.

In listening to an array of speakers telling their personal accounts of how they became more aware of hunger issues, I was reminded of a story my mother told me years ago about her own experiences with being hungry as a child.

My mom grew up during the Great Depression in an area of Kentucky harder hit than most, if indeed there were some places suffering more than others in the mid-1930s.  My mom and her sister lived, for a time, with her grandparents; a kind, saintly lady and a man once known as the meanest man in his county.

Momma said she never knew him to be mean, he just looked a little scary. Nevertheless, other folks in that small town most likely felt as those my great-great grandfather was not a nice person. That was the reputation he had, which was probably a reason he couldn’t find what work there was in this small town.

In those days, jobs were hard to come by, as was a bounty of food unless one had the means to grow it, hunt it or buy it. My great grandparents, for many reasons, possessed little of those three abilities.

Often my mother and her younger sister were sent to school hungry and the free school lunch program was more than a decade away from being created.

The story she relayed to me, and one I will never forget, took place on a cool, damp morning in the fall of the year. She and my aunt made their way to school with empty stomachs, as they had done so many times before.

She knew there were other children in the school house who were suffering from the same lack of food, although it was rarely mentioned. Many people in those days, in that place, suffered from food insecurities.

About mid-way through the morning activities, a knock came at the school house door.  

Much to the surprise of the teacher, there stood in the doorway an old, lanky man with a long, scraggly white beard and haunting eyes, appearing more desperate than mean. In his hands he held an apple pie; a whole apple pie. The smell of the pastry captivated all those inside the room.

In listening to this story, it was apparent to me that my great-grandfather was concerned enough to do something; anything to feed those girls, at least on that particular day. My mom would learn later that he found an odd job, after she had left for school, cutting a load of wood for a neighbor that morning.  Many folks in those days worked on the barter system and food was often the wages; and his wage for the wood cutting was an apple pie.

The teacher called for my mom, knowing immediately who this defeated man was the moment she opened the door. Momma was horrified, she recalled; embarrassed at an age when the meaning of the word should not be known or felt.

She said it was the longest walk she had ever known. All eyes in the school room were on her as she made her way to the door. She could barely look him in the eyes but when she did, she saw the hurt and embarrassment he felt, too. He slowly handed her the pie and told her, in that rough voice of his, to share with her sister.

As he walked away, my mother returned to her seat feeling many emotions, all far stronger than the hunger in her stomach. The teacher, sensing the tension in the room, told the students to take a short recess.

After the room had emptied, my mother, in all her youth, in all her embarrassment, in all her hunger, walked to the trash can and threw away that apple pie that she, her sister and most of the classroom so badly wanted to devour.

I realize now, in recalling my mother’s words, that for many people facing the same lack-of-food issues, they still have a sense of dignity that is often greater than the hunger itself and, as my mother did that morning long ago, refuse a meal in order to keep their pride.

I would never know the many feelings that come with being hungry. As a child, we always had stocked pantries of food we had bought, raised or hunted. It was an obsession almost by my parents to make sure we were always properly fed.

In knowing the great efforts being made today in this state to combat hunger issues, I hope as individuals we always provide for those who need food and that one day it will no longer be a problem here or anywhere; as we travel down the backroads.