Musings of the Chronologically Challenged™ Fourth Generation
Tuesday, August 10, 2004
THE ROBERT YEARS
My Black Brother
As the Great Depression wound down in the Thirties, it wasn't just the economy and life styles of Americans that needed help. Our spirits needed rejuvenated also. Today "the poor" have cars, TVs, cell phones, and government aid that enables them to live at a higher standard than most of the population of the earth. The poor of the 1930s knew what real poverty was.
Case in point was my black brother, Robert. When I was about 18 months old, he came to live with my family (Daddy, Mother and I) because his mother could no longer feed and clothe him. In doing the very best that she could for the seven-year old little boy, his mother found a home for him with good people who she knew would take on another mouth to feed: My family.
Unlike too many other Americans, Daddy was lucky enough to be employed with a regular "salary" of $5.00 per week, on which he supported a wife and toddler. Robert's mother, Annie, approached my parents about taking in her little boy. She said he was smart and strong and could do simple chores that would be helpful to my mother. Daddy and Mother let their hearts be their guide in making the decision to temporarily adopt Robert. They had known Annie for a long time and knew her to be a decent person down on her luck, just like most everybody else in those days. And that is how I acquired a seven-year old black brother.
We lived in an apartment with a combination living room-bedroom, a large kitchen, and a bathroom. I can't remember the day Robert came to live with us, but over my lifetime Mother shared stories of the two years he was with us. My personal memories of Robert during those two years are mostly of being entertained by a sweet, smiling little boy. I can remember us on the floor playing with toys and I can get a memory flash of all of us having meals together. The rest of The Robert Years with my big brother was told to me by Mother.
Daddy acquired a cot for Robert, and Mother improvised a corner of the kitchen, screened off for privacy, as his bedroom. Mother said Robert was so tickled to have a bed of his own and enough food to eat that he never seemed to go through a "homesick" period. He adjusted almost overnight and so did we. He was very mannerly and well-behaved, thanks to Annie, and Mother said she never regretted the decision to share our home with him.
Robert arrived barefoot, with a small paper bag of clothes, so the second order of business, after preparing his sleeping quarters, was to take him shopping for shoes. His little cherub face actually beamed when he showed off his new shoes to Daddy when he got home from work. In fact, every small milestone of progress elicited pure joy in Robert. And HE was a joy to us. He was treated as my ready-made big brother from the day he came to live with us. Mother supervised his activities just as carefully as she did mine. Food, clean clothes, personal hygiene, and educational activities were always available to me and my brother. Mother read to both of us and built self-reliance and self-esteem in both of us. She was lavish with praise when we did well. And just as quickly pointed out our mistakes so we could learn by them.
Robert attended school every day. It was a segregated school, as were all schools of the day, but Mother made sure he arrived on time, with a good breakfast under his belt. She helped him with his homework and he proudly brought home his report cards. He was a good student and a good son and brother.
Daddy was a great father figure for Robert. As they worked together on various home projects and chores, Robert learned proficiency and pride in his work. Many folks raised their own chickens for food for the table, and Daddy kept a pen in our back yard. Care and feeding of the chickens became Robert's daily chore. He took this responsibiity very seriously for such a young lad. With Daddy as his taskmaster, Robert also learned to mend the wire fence and make sure the chickens didn't get out. Sometimes Mother would remind him to feed the chickens if he had lost track of time in his play. The first thing Daddy would ask him when he got home from work would be "Did you give the chickens feed and fresh water?" Robert always wanted to be able to answer "Yes sir" with a big grin in order to bask in Daddy's praise and approval. Daddy never had a biological son, but he was proud of Robert for the rest of his life.
In the small village of about 2,000 population, with everything within walking distance, everyone walked everywhere they went. The grocery store was a little over two blocks from where we lived and Robert would often run to the store to pick something up that Mother needed to finish cooking a meal. One day, right after Christmas, Mother asked him to go to the store and get a quart of milk. Robert had gotten a new pair of skates for Christmas and he wanted to skate to the grocery store, but Mother vetoed the idea. He begged to go to the store on his new skates. Mother told him no. Milk was only available in glass containers back then and Mother told him he may fall with the milk, cut himself, plus spill the milk. Robert pleaded. "I'll be real careful. I won't fall. I won't break the glass. Please. Please." Of course, Mother finally gave in and away he skated. It was only a little while before he was back, holding up the glass bottle of milk with pride, although his little knees and elbows were scraped and bloody. "Oh, Robert," she said, "how in the world did you get so badly hurt yet not break the milk?" Grinning through his tears, Robert replied "I didn't break the milk because I knew I was falling and I held it up high in the air." Whenever Mother would tell that story, and she remembered it forever, a wistfully sad smile would come to her lips as she recalled what a thoughtful and good son Robert was. She was proud of him too.
Robert lived with us for about two years. Although I was only three and a half when he went back to Annie, I have loving memories of my own in addition to all the "Robert stories" I heard for years and years to come.
When he graduated from high school he left our little village and went to Brooklyn to live with an older brother. There he was able to get a very good job (for the time) as an orderly in a hospital, where he worked and earned promotions until he retired. Sadly, he didn't live very long after retirement and did not get to "come back home" as he had planned.
During my growing up years, Robert would come to visit us from time to time and always called me "Little Sis." After I was married and had children of my own, when he came to town for a visit with his relatives he would stop by to see my parents and me too. On those visits he addressed my children as his "nephew and neice." He was a good, kind man and a wonderful big brother. The Robert Years was an inspiring chapter in my life.