Editor’s note: J. L. Strickland is a retired textile worker from east Alabama who has spent his life in what the locals know as the “valley.” It straddles the Alabama-Georgia line and for generations was home to numerous mills were cotton was turned into cloth. Strickland is a master story teller and from time to time sends along one of his pieces. Here is one that is especially appropriate at this season.
“Growing up in a cotton-mill village, I knew families that struggled. However, I didn’t know anyone not fed, clothed and sheltered. While some came close at times, I never knew anyone actually destitute. As a rule, mill hands took care of their own.
But I well remember the first time I witnessed abject poverty. The first Christmas I worked in the mill, the third shift Weave Room employees made up money for a family on hard times. Mill hands did this on a regular basis. Love offerings, they called them.
(Textile hourly and piece-rate employees were traditionally the lowest paid workers in America. While some might have had bigger wallets, there were none with bigger hearts.)
The workers asked Mr. Grady, an older, respected loom fixer in the weave shed, to deliver the love offering to the family. I doffed cloth on Mr. Grady’s section, and he asked me to ride with him. The memory comes back to me every Christmas.
These unfortunates lived across the “Hooch” (Chattahoochee River) in a sagging, three-room shack with peeling paint. The husband, wearing faded overalls and his hair uncombed, opened the door, eying us suspiciously. He brightened when Mr. Grady explained our visit and handed the wary man the plump Christmas card containing the money. He invited us inside only after Mr. Grady asked if we could step in out of the cold.
Their old-fashioned wood-burning cook stove had warmed the tiny kitchen to almost an uncomfortable temperature. The family sat around the beat-up table, eating sliced bread smeared with jelly. If they had anything to drink, it wasn’t visible.
It was quickly apparent both the fellow and his wife were “slow,” as they used to say. They had three freckled-faced, ill-clothed children, all very young. But the kicker was the baby. Their baby, wrapped in blanket scraps and old towels, slept in a cardboard box behind the wood-burning stove. We didn’t know the infant was there until it started crying. What I took as the storage box for the stove wood turned out to be a makeshift cardboard baby crib.
After the baby started bawling, the woman lifted it out of the box. I noticed that she kept furtively glancing at the money in her husband’s hand. He had removed the wad of bills from inside the Christmas card, but he hadn’t counted it.
Finally, the woman said shyly, “Is there enough money there to buy the baby some milk?”
When the husband told her to hush about that, the woman, irritated now, said more aggressively, “Well, you know she ain’t had a bottle since we run out of milk yes’ diddy. She can’t keepa just dranking water.”
Mr. Grady and I just looked at each other. As if to answer our puzzlement, the woman offered, “She can’t suck my milk. Hit don’t agree with her.”
Being just sixteen, I wasn’t accustomed to hearing this sort of candor about adult matters. Especially female matters.
Mr. Grady assured the wife that they had more than enough money to buy milk – as well as food and maybe some presents for the other kids. (If I remember correctly, the love offering came to about $150. A pretty good amount in 1956.)
The woman gave a wan smile and said, ” There’ll be enough if somebody I know don’t spend it all on whiskey.”
The husband snapped, “You need to shut up!”
Mr. Grady, a small, but confident fellow, said sharply to the husband, “I ‘speck you better get that baby some milk before you do anything else.” The husband glared at Mr. Grady, but didn’t reply.
When we left, the fellow followed us out and jumped in his old truck. He headed toward Lagrange. I couldn’t say what he bought with the money.
On our way back to town, Mr. Grady said he was gonna get his Masonic group to buy a few presents for those kids.
I don’t remember now whether he did or not. I’m not sure we ever discussed it again.
I wish I had a warm, happy ending for this story, but I don’t know what happened to these people. When I drove out that way a few months later, the house was empty. I never saw them again.
The little shack stayed empty for years, finally completely collapsing in on itself. In time, wild roses completely covered the rubble. It was quite picturesque in the spring. Finally, the owner burned the wreckage.
But that little yuletide trip opened my eyes to the terrible circumstances in which some people find themselves. Sometimes it’s their fault, sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw. Lady Luck can be a cold, indifferent benefactor. In time, I learned that, too.”