Hard Times Growing Up

Photograph of poor children in Georgia
Not everyone had an ideal childhood. For some there was poverty, uncertainty and a parent who drank too much. While these left deep emotional scars on some that persisted into adulthood, there were others who overcame their early impoverishment and became well adjusted and successful adults. Here are the memories and reflections of three, two journalists and a teacher who remember not only the pains of childhood, but also the strengths that it gave them.

All over but the shoutin'      All Over but the Shoutin' / Rick Bragg
"This is not an important book... Anyone could tell it, anyone who had a momma who went eighteen years without a new dress so that her sons could have school clothes, who picked cotton in other people's fields and ironed other people's clothes and cleaned the mess in other people's houses, so that her children didn't have to live on welfare alone, so that one of them could climb up her backbone and escape the poverty and hopelessness that ringed them, free and clean."

“My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place where gray mists hid the tops of low deep-green mountains, where redbone and bluetick hounds dashed through the pines as they chased possums in the sacks of old men in frayed overalls, where old women in bonnets dipped Burton snuff and hummed “Faded Love and Winter Roses as they shelled purple hulls, canned peaches and made biscuits too good for this world.”

Angela's ashes      Angela's Ashes: a Memoir / Frank McCourt
“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone."

"When I look back at my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version…”

The glass castle      The Glass Castle: a Memoir / Jeannette Walls
“I was on fire."

"It’s my earliest memory. I was three years old, and we were living in a trailer park in a southern Arizona town whose name I never knew. I was standing on a chair in front of the stove, wearing a pink dress my grandmother had bought for me. Pink was my favorite color. The dress’s skirt stuck out like a tutu, and I liked to spin around in front of the mirror, thinking I looked like a ballerina. But at that moment, I was wearing the dress to cook hot dogs, watching them swell and bob in boiling water as the late-morning sunlight filtered in through the trailer’s small kitchenette window."

"I could hear Mom in the next room singing while she worked on one of her paintings. … I felt a blaze of heat on my right side. I turned to see where it was coming from and realized that my dress was on fire.”

Jeannette screamed and her mother ran into the room and smothered the flames with a blanket. Then a neighbor gave them a fast ride to the hospital where she received skin grafts. At the hospital the nurses wanted to know what a three-year-old was doing cooking hot dogs.

“’Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told them, ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’ Two nurses looked at each other, and one of them wrote something down on a clipboard. I asked what was wrong. Nothing, they said, nothing.”