The Faces of Poverty: A Series
by Addie Greene, Ashland Resident
Poverty has many faces. One of them is Jessie, who lives in a three-room house with only one window, which is closed in winter to keep the light out and open in summer to let the flies in. Jessie gets around by sliding her short-legged chair across the floor and down the back steps on hot summer days.
This land—this is Georgia, where time always seems to move at a walk. Sometimes, when the muddy waters of the Chattahoochee stick to the river banks like flies to flypaper, it moves even more slowly. This land was the land of cotton and, after the boll weevil and George Washington Carver, the land of peanuts. Now it is the land of corn, cattle, and pines. For miles and miles the pulpwood stands, 80 percent of Stewart County planted in it, waiting to be made into paperboard. The people wait, too, as the forests swallow up the plowed land. Then they move to the city—to Columbus, Macon, Atlanta, Savannah. Their numbers have dwindled from 10,000 at the end of World War II to 7,000 in 1967 in Stewart County (6058 in 2010). It is the same in Early, Clay, Quitman, Randolph, and Chattahoochee counties.
In Randolph County Jessie, an old woman who does not know her age, lives with her son, Henry, at the edge of a fallow field. Their house is built of weathered, unpainted board and set on stone stilts three steps above the ground. When Cliffie Henderson, an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) home management aide, and I visited in February, frost was thick on the tufts of grass by the road’s edge and on the roof of the house. Cliffie climbed the rickety wooden steps first. She opened the front door, which led into the bedroom, the only one with a window, and called out to Jessie. We crossed the room quickly, for it was as cold as outdoors. Henry had opened wide the shutters of the glassless window to light our way, and it had been a long time since the ashless fireplace had heated the room. It was shut off from the living room, where a fire burned. Cliffie opened the door to the living room and called again to Jessie before we went in.
After being in the bright sunlight, I was blinded by the darkness inside. Then all the focus of the room grew out of the fireplace and hearth, where Jessie sat. At her feet was a dish of three-day-old milk with cinders in it that she had been drinking, and, at the other side of the hearth, a black skillet half-filled with hoecake, a hard bread made of corn meal and cooked over an open fire. Though the firelight was on it, Jessie’s face seemed to blend into the darkness of her surroundings as if she were trying to recede. Then she asked if I would like to sit by the fire.
Jessie said she had been crippled falling off a horse when she was a child. She spoke slowly, searching for words, her voice all tongue because she had no teeth. The great creases in her cheeks, sunken because there were no teeth to fill them, ran to her lips like so many lifelines. The hollowness made her thin nose seem even larger than it was.
Not expecting me, a stranger, to visit, Jessie had left her hair uncovered. It was done in wispy pigtails about three inches long all over her head. She seemed embarrassed by it and uncomfortable until she lifted her shawl from around her shoulders to cover her head.
As Jessie spoke of falling off the horse, her head bobbed from side to side, and she had little control over her motions. Her eyes had a vacant look. She would say a few words, then her voice would trail off, and she would not remember what she had been saying. Jessie took a pinch of snuff and lapsed into silence. She did not look up even when Henry shuffled into the room.
Henry has had to take care of his mother for years. He gets work during the farming season doing odd jobs, but the farmers employ him as much out of knowledge of his need as to satisfy their own, for Henry, like Jessie, is mentally retarded. In the winter, when there is no work, they have gotten along as best they could and through the kindness of neighbors, who allow him to cut firewood.
One of these neighbors is Cliffie Henderson, mother of eight, who took care of “her folks” long before there was a war on poverty. After greeting Jessie and asking her how she felt, Cliffie emptied the milk dish out the kitchen door and mixed fresh milk. She used a bottle of water she had brought and USDA dried milk. Cliffie worked in the kitchen, carrying the trash out and burying it, tidying, while I sat and talked with Jessie. After Cliffie had finished in the kitchen, she opened a can of peanut butter and gave Jessie a glob of it on a spoon.
Cliffie made the bed, working by the dim light from the fire and the open kitchen door. She beat the dust from the ragged, patched quilt and smoothed it over the bed. Jessie’s clothes she hung on a nail stuck into the bare four-by-fours behind the bed. Then Cliffie swept twigs, ashes, and dust from the board floor into the kitchen and out through the door. Then she went into the bedroom, which was Henry’s, to sweep. Cliffie’s last task was to check the food supply on the kitchen’s single shelf. It contained, besides the peanut butter and milk, flour, corn meal, rolled oats, and rice. There was no salt or pepper, no sugar, no plates or cups, no silverware except for the single spoon Cliffie had used to serve the peanut butter.
I wrote these words fifty years ago while working for the Columbus (Georgia) Ledger as my husband endured Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning. I think now of the intractable poverty of the rural south and compare it with urban homelessness today. Next, Pastor Chad McComas of the Set Free Christian Fellowship and executive director of Rogue Retreat, is working to establish Hope Village, a community of tiny houses, in Medford. Watch for additional articles in the near future.