From the book about Northeast Iowa

Growing Up Poor But Happy

Submitted by Ramona (Aschbrenner) Reinke of Tripoli, Iowa

Born 1939


        My eldest brother “Junior” and I attended a one-room country school that was located west and south of Sumner. One particular memory was in 1944 when I was in the first grade. We had to help out in the war effort by collecting milkweed pods to make flotation devices. There were 12 of us students and our teacher, Miss Kadera. We gathered 25 big onion/potato sacks full, mostly from along the nearby railroad tracks.

      On one of the farms, we lived on, a couple of my siblings and I were playing outside when we spotted a rattlesnake along the base of the outhouse. Of course, we ran screaming to Mom. She didn’t think twice about what to do. She grabbed a hoe, and in short order, she took care of that snake.

      The outhouse was our refuge from having to help with washing and drying the dishes. As soon as we finished the meal, it was a race to see who could leave the table first and get out to the outhouse. Someone would always be following in the rear with a broom to do some smacking. Of course, there was no getting out of taking your turn. If you got out of it for one meal you might get stuck doing ‘em the next two meals.

      The ‘ole Sears-Roebuck catalog was a mainstay in the outhouse. One soon learned that the dull pages “worked” better than the shiny glossy pages. In those days, catalogs came frequently and you didn’t have to pay for them. My sister Phyllis and I would cut new paper dolls out of the catalogs. We spent hours playing with paper dolls.

      Money was short in our family and if we “got to go downtown” once a month, it was a real treat. There were six siblings along with myself in my family. For that reason, when Dad was going to go downtown, he might take one of us along. On this particular Saturday I got a quarter to spend, which was a lot back then. I bought a sack of bulk chocolate stars. I did not want to share, so I ate them all, every last one of them. I got a tummy ache and diarrhea so bad; I won’t even touch chocolate stars today. The tummy ache wasn’t bad enough though to resort to a dose of castor oil. I got well quick when Dad and Mom mentioned that I was so awful. I keep part of an old bottle of it today to remind me of what sick really was.

      When we still lived on the farm, there were only five of us siblings, I was second oldest. Dad would mix up swill in barrels to slop the hogs. One day I decided to see what would happen if I poured kerosene in. I didn’t notice any difference, but luckily, Dad saw the oily film floating on top. He lined the four older ones up from oldest to youngest and methodically asked each of us. “Did you put something in the swill?” Dad did this several times because each time each of us said, “No.” Finally, Dad said, “I will give a nickel to the one who admits to doing it.” Boy. A nickel was a lot of money back then, especially to a young kid. Yet I stood my ground and said “No.” To my amazement, my younger brother, Duane admitted to doing it. We both got spanked—me for doing it (Dad knew all along I did it) and Duane for lying.

      Sunday nights were fun. Mom and Dad and all of us kids would play board games and/or cards. This would usually follow Mom’s piano playing and the kids singing along to the songs we knew. A lot of times, Mom sang along as she played. It was always popcorn night too, popped the old-fashioned way. Dad would end the evening having his raw onion sandwich. Poor Mom!

      Fall was a fun time for our family. We would take an annual trip up around the Mississippi River. Mom would always pack a picnic dinner, including her delicious, crusty, fried chicken. We would stop at one of the parks along the river to eat. Also, there would always be an afternoon set aside for the whole family to go hickory nutting. We would go either to the woods on Pinhook Road or to the Nuss Woods East of Sumner.

      I looked forward to Thanksgiving and Christmas. Dad or Mom would drive to Sumner to get Grandma Amanda Seehase to spend the holidays with us. She had such a calming spirit in our household of nine. She would busy herself by darning many, many socks, overalls and/or picking out the hickory nuts that Dad had cracked open with a hammer. With a family of nine, sleeping spaces were at a premium, so Grandma would share my bed.

      Little did she know when she was getting ready for bed and “thought” I was sleeping, I was actually peeking. The rituals she went through! My goodness! When she let her hair down, I could not believe how long and silky her gray hair was. She always had it in a tight little bun in back. Then there was her corset or girdle. I never saw so many hooks and eyes—and she undid them ALL in the dark. When she finally got to the last one, I swear her body fell down to her knees. The next step in her getting ready for bed is still hard for me to believe today. She had this big jar of Vicks VapoRub. She opened it up, stuck her forefinger way down in the jar then stuck the same finger way down her throat till she gagged, swabbing her throat. Oh my, she stunk so bad of Vicks! However, we were both healthy through the holidays! Finally, Grandma was ready to crawl into bed. Her final step was lying on her back, her fingers clasped together on her chest as she softly prayed a short prayer in German.

      A staple sandwich we often carried to school for lunch in our Karo syrup bucket was a lard sandwich sprinkled with sugar. By today’s standards we were poor, probably would be considered poverty level. However, we never knew it. Our family was HAPPY!

      Seeing our first television programs was like watching silent movies. Our neighbors (in town by then) were able to afford a television set long before we could. They had a big picture window, so on Saturday nights my siblings and I could be found lined up in front of their window watching “The Hit Parade.” It was the oval design screen and in black and white.

      In our house, we gathered around our radio to listen to our favorite programs. They included “Pepper Young’s Family,” “Larry and Mary Noble,” “Stella Dallas,” and other soap operas. In the evening we might be listening to a Western like “The Lone Ranger,” “Roy Rogers and Dale Evans,” or “HopAlong Cassidy,” and other shows maybe comedies like “The Great Gildersleeve” or “Fibber McGee and Molly” and possibly even a mystery like “Inner Sanctum.”

      After supper, every evening none of us left the table until Dad read devotions. He used this big green book with Jesus knocking at the door. He used it every night, day after day, year after year. We never tired of it and Dad still read devotions out of “Portals of Prayer” till he died.

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