Part III: We left off here:
“The problem was the house. Now, the house becomes a main character in this real life story.”
If I were writing a book about my dad and his family (which I’m not), I could develop this “main character”, the house, beyond the details I’ve been given. I’m thinking of houses as characters in literature.
I think of the professor’s house in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Or, there’s 221B Baker Street in London, the “home” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creates for his character, Sherlock Holmes. Last summer, my first daughter visited a place in London, a museum, actually designed to match Doyle’s descriptions of Holme’s apartment!
Edna Ferber creates a house and a farm (a mansion and a 1,000 acre plantation reduced to 300 acres over two plus centuries), and they become like main characters in her sweeping saga, American Beauty. I just re-read this novel which I read decades ago as a young, high school English teacher.
My family and the two houses (two?) and one farm entrusted to Jason and Helen don’t begin to compare to Ferber’s creations. And fortunately, my family members, as unique as they are, would not be classified (I hope!) as such colorful characters as Ferber crafted. Yet, in my own family story, I can read between the lines, connect some dots, and make some tentative interpretations.
My cousins, my sister, and I were stunned to learn recently the source of the farm on which Jason and Helen had built their new house. We’ve heard of the house since childhood. But Grandmother never said that the farm on which the house was built was her inheritance from her mother. From her mother’s first marriage. Ahh! We all sighed. (We could have known this years ago, if we would have read Dad’s journal that had been stashed away or if we had asked him more questions while he was with us!) This information shed light on the Grandma we knew.
The farm. The first house. The second house.
In this journal, Dad describes the original house on the farm as “an ancient house” that was “shed-like”. A new house was needed. A new house was built, and with it came a mortgage. Did Helen’s parents help with this project? Her father, George Baughman, had built the big, beautiful house in which he and Francis Freelove lived, near their farm.
The Thomas family might have helped also. Jason’s father, Daniel Driver Thomas, was a pastor, teacher, and poet who also had some manual skills. I want to say that he also had practical skills, but there is practicality to pastoring and teaching and maybe even writing! Anyway, Daniel Driver Thomas was also a painter. The families wanted the young couple to succeed, so most likely they were involved, but I do not know. I do not know if either sets of parents helped with the work or investment, but they young couple took on debt to build a new home not long after they were married.
The new house, located over a half mile off the “pike” (main road) down a mud road, had a wide and welcoming front porch and a “nice, concrete slab rear porch”. It had both a full basement and second floor bedrooms. Dad wrote that he had his own bedroom and his two sisters shared another room.
Interestingly, Dad includes more detail about the basement than the rest of the house. The basement had a large furnace, a room for coal and wood fuel, and his mother’s wash room. He notes that his mom spent much time in the basement where she had a gasoline, motor powered washing machine. Gasoline powered! I never heard of such a washer! A gasoline powered ringer washer that was vented through a basement window! A coal oil stove was placed nearby for heating the water. And Helen had her ironing board there with her cast iron irons.
What work to wash and care for clothing! But Dad adds, “Life was very plain. We just had necessary clothes only.” Who could keep up with more than that?
Upstairs in the kitchen, the house had a wood stove. There was no indoor plumbing. An outhouse was situated behind the house. They grew and preserved much of their own food. They did not have big machines as farmers do today. Marion writes, “We shocked corn and wheat during my childhood years.” Marion continues, “We were always at home together. Work and church were our lives.” Multiple times he explains that they worked seven days a week, taking Sunday morning off to go to church, but not taking the whole day off.
Unlike his mother, Marion had few toys. He played with clothes pins, thread spools, and round, rolled oats boxes for toys. One of Helen’s memories of Marion as a toddler was of him playing with her clothes pins, pretending they were people, and exclaiming, “Were’d he go, my po pin?” “I fine it!”
Marion writes warmly of his father and his love of working by his side — on the farm and riding into town when his dad delivered their produce such as pumpkins and apples, and to sell eggs and milk from their animals. They raised cows, pigs, and chickens. In their basement, they stocked food supplies for the winter.
But no matter how dedicated they were to the farm and its demanding, daily labor, Jason was not able to keep up with the mounting debts. After ten years of hard work, creditors took them to court. Marion went with his parents to the hearings and heard the court’s decision.
The farm would be taken. The farm was taken. The farm that Helen’s mother had inherited from her first husband which she had entrusted to her young daughter and son-in-law. The farm was no longer in the family. And the house on the farm. What sunk them was the debt from the house they had toiled to build, the house in which their family memories were formed. Lost to creditors in 1928, the foreclosure was before the financial crash of 1929, so the blame may not be the crash. How frightening to move from personal tragedy into a national (even world-wide) disaster — what would become known as The Great Depression.
How did the family handle this? Where did they go? Marion gives some details and clues in his journal.
In the novel, American Beauty, the Oakes farm is to be kept in the family at any cost. It is the focus, a main character. Some may see it as an idol. But in the end, it is the house and farm that give purpose and drive to the human characters.
Purpose and drive. What drove Jason and Helen Thomas? And Marion Thomas?
Marion writes, “As a small boy, I loved just living on our farm. But then when I was ten years old, we lost the farm to creditors. From then on life was very serious. The deep depression came. We worked seven days a week to live. Our family of five was a good, working group! We had enough to eat and wear, and a home, so we were okay”, adding that they had “our church and good Pastor Anglemyer!”
They moved, Marion continues, ” into a very small house next to Grandpa and Grandma Baughman’s lovely home, where I spent lots of time.” They lived here from 1928-1931.
Dad describes the loss of the farm and house as “great sorrow to all” but also writes, “My parents were so good to us three kids. Home was a haven.” He writes this on the same page that he writes about the loss of the farm. Home was a haven. What home? He means wherever his family lived: the spacious, new farm house with the big basement and the upstairs bedrooms or the “very small house” next to the Baughman grandparents. So, the Thomas drive was not centered in or dependent upon the inheritance, the farm, the house, and their aspirational, farming goals.
This journal consistently pictures a motivation based upon family loyalty and teamwork, buttressed by spiritual strength in Christ, fed by faithfulness to their country church and neighbors. Their social life was centered in church activities.
It is interesting to note that from an adult perspective, one can sense a sadness in both Jason and Helen, but from a child’s perspective, one sees family laughter and love. Marion describes his dad’s sense of humor in the way Jason told stories about his horses and their personalities. Marion loved to be by his father’s side, working together with him. He felt secure in his mother’s faithful cooking and cleaning and fussing over the family. Marion observed no bitterness within his family. Marion’s admiration for his parents, grandparents, and siblings permeates the pages of this journal.
Can this example inspire us to face our heartaches head on — burdening God with our burdens — so that we may walk in simpler trust and faith? In so doing, maybe we won’t tend to hold blame over each other. Maybe we won’t become so grouchy, taking out our frustrations on each other. Maybe we’ll hold on tight to family love and loyalty. We are a team, so let’s comfort each other.
I ended my last post and began this one claiming, “The problem was the house.” But the house was not the problem. Like many main characters, the house became the lesson.
Karen, keep this adventure coming! So enjoyed the narrative skills with your dad’s house(s)! What a legacy of bedrock values–family-loyalty, local church-commitment, and God-dependency.