I spent the vast majority of my childhood living with my maternal grandmother. That’s why grandmothers figure so prominently in so many of my stories. The two-parent/nuclear family household isn’t how I was brought up, so when I write about those, they tend to be a bit dysfunctional. Anyhow, things were tight. My grandmother was on a fixed income, and even with us living in rural North Carolina, raising a kid was expensive.
She kept her jaw squared, though, and pinched pennies so we always looked like we were doing better than the bank account showed. I was one of those precocious kids who was curious about everything and wanted to do a bunch of extracurricular stuff. What little extra money there was went to expensive cheerleading sneakers and flute repairs (’cause I would naturally have the flute that would continuously need new pads) and books and piano lessons and so on.
Sometimes, when she knew the money just wasn’t going to be there and we needed food mid-month, she’d resort to the money-making schemes she knew from her Depression-era childhood. Specifically, field work.
When farmers had beans that were ready to be picked, they’d send out word to their “regulars” and put together a crew. Around those parts the crews were usually middle-aged and near-elderly black women who’d either retired or had family care duties that kept them from engaging in stable employment. The crew would show up at dawn and pick beans until lunchtime or until the rows were spent.
As very young children, my sister and I would just hang out at the field, sitting in the shade and playing until the picking was done. When we were a bit older, we’d help our grandmother fill bushels. I think at the time, the rate was around $7/bushel. If you were nimble, you could fill a couple in an hour. That was good money if all you got from Social Security in a month was $600.
When we got even older, my sister and I filled our own bushels and made money for school supplies and such.
This is generally not something we told people about. It’s not glamorous work, and there’s a certain stigma attached to working in the fields. (Ask any itinerant worker.) But, when times were tight, it put food on the table and pencils in our backpacks. We were lucky that the house and car was paid off, and because of that we appeared to be squarely middle class, when in truth we were struggling.
So, when you get to that sentence in Love by Premonition where Marcia off-handedly says she got sunburned picking beans, you’ll understand just how broke she is.
There’s a lot of me in Marcia. I’ll tell you just how much over time. I guess I’m at the age I’m just not ashamed of stuff anymore. Especially since i live 1,800 miles away now.