HOW A FARM AND A FIDDLE BROUGHT ONE FAMILY THROUGH THE DEPRESSION
by Mike Lipstock
To this day I can't look at a green string bean without seeing my father bent over an old work table, weeping. It was 1935, the Depression, and he was a violin teacher who had lost most of his pupils. His old friends, Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, couldn't help him. The slim translucent fingers that created beautiful music had to find another way to make a living. Fortunately, he was as much a maestro with a hammer and saw as with the fiddle.
I can still remember the winter when I was 14. He was bringing home only $15 a week, worrying about the rent, always the first priority. Mom had to go back to work, and Dorothy, my older sister, ready to start college, became a packer at Macy's. The four of us doubled up, and we rented out two rooms to a couple of Russians who sold watches from their pushcarts.
Pop and I salvaged scraps of discarded lumber from construction yards, and he made small tables and bookcases, hiding the splits and knots with wide moulding and thick layers of paint. We held sales out in the streets, and though he sold some of the furniture, there was still not enough money for the four of us. Mama and Dorothy had to continue working. He grieved for his lost world. From day to day, I watched his great courage, and 50 years later, when my own life was on the line, I would close my eyes and see Papa battling for survival.
In desperation he sought out his rich brother, the schoolteacher, who lived so grandly on his salary from the City of New York. He lent my father the down payment, plus an extra hundred bucks, and damned if he didn't buy a foreclosed shack in upstate New York! Four hundred bucks, a hundred down, and a couple of rooms. But it also came with three cleared acres. All of this from a Strout realty catalog.
Mama asked but one question: "What do you know about farming?"
"Nothing, but I have the whole winter and a library to learn from."
The deed was done, and our house was now the repository for every seed catalog and Department of Agriculture booklet printed. He and I scrounged the pushcarts of Brownsville and Orchard Street for old hoes, picks, axes, and burlap bags to bring back the harvest. Our Russian boarders also brought us tools and ideas for "the farm." Only Mama and Dorothy had no enthusiasm about the task. But to me, my father was a hero; he was Daniel Boone setting out into the wilderness to build a new life. I worshipped him.
In June, when school was over, Papa and I went to see the three acres. The Strout man took us up the broken shale road, and a mile before the house, we had to get out and walk: Small trees had sprouted on the unused road and made it impassable. The house was old, broken-down, and simply worn out. The roof leaked, and the outhouse had been home to a family of woodchucks. The three acres of "cleared land" was a field strewn with boulders. The water came from a well 200 feet from the house, and we cooked over an outdoor pit we made of rocks. But we worked 18 hours a day and even started to talk about Mama coming up.
The turning point came when we met Wally Davis, a neighboring dairy farmer. To a 14-year-old, Wally looked about 100. But he had the same feelings for the land that my father had for a Brahms violin concerto. And he was sympathetic and knew we were flat broke. For four bucks, he said he'd bring over a team of horses, plow up the rocky acres and show us how to plant. We agreed and watched in wonder as he cut his furrows straight, releasing the rich soil from the beds of rock that had held it captive for ages. He cut chunks of eyes from potatoes and showed Papa how to plant them. This would be our bumper crop. For two weeks we broke our backs getting those potatoes under the earth-two acres-and another one for a garden to live on.
String beans! My father was crazy about planting them and building trellises to hold them in place. He had visions of radishes, plum tomatoes, vines of cucumber and eggplant. But, for now, all we had was seed. How would we live? It was then that Papa hired us out to Wally for three bucks apiece a week.
To save gas, we walked the two miles, and Wally put us out in the fields to load hay he had cut with his scythe. Clumps of the golden feed lay waiting for us-our labor-to haul them into the weathered old barn. We tossed the hay with identical left-handed swings, and Wally piled and stored it for winter feed. When you toss and throw for three hours, you forget about Mozart trios and awful marks in French. But we had six bucks a week coming in, and Wally always threw in a dozen eggs and a few extra as a bonus. We worked for him from Monday to Friday, but on weekends we worked in our garden. In time, we could see the green stubble of the potatoes coming up. The string beans had tendrils like octopus arms. Vines shot out in every direction, and it took rolls of twine to tame them. On Sundays Pop took me to the very heights of Nirvana-he taught me to drive his 1930 model A Ford. If my friends could see me now!
He never let me share his inner turmoil-a wife and daughter working to pay the rent.-that was the disgrace eating away at his soul.
We found a pond up in the woods, and with Wally's hooks and our tree limbs and cord, we dug worms and caught fish by the dozen. He boiled up a fish stew that I loved. For me, it was the summer of my life. The beans grew and grew, and soon we were eating them by the pound. That was when I found Papa crying his heart out. Exhausted after a day in the fields, all we could scrape up was a potful of green beans. Everything seemed to be closing in on him. He was crumbling.
"Mikey, we have nothing to eat!" he cried. "What have I done to you? What have I done to my family?" He wept for the family he no longer had. Mom had written, heartbroken, wanting to come up.
"What will she eat?" he asked. "Fish and string beans? The place isn't ready. We have no gas, the tires are bald. We work the fields all day. What will she do?" In his despair, he underestimated her strength and adoration.
I, a young boy, tried to console him. "Papa, she loves us, this is where she wants to be." He listened and kissed me. We were very close. Next morning he wrote her to come. She smothered us with kisses when we picked her up at the Cairo bus station.
A couple of bucks and she could make anything taste wonderful. In cooking, she was 50 years before her time. She had worked with Italians who taught her every pasta dish imaginable. With a few of our tomatoes, eggplants, and onions, she performed miracles.
She knew all about gardens and anything that grew. I remember a day when, hand in hand, we went into the woods and found a whole patch of wild rhubarb, wild celery, scallions, and a field of blackberries. With a couple of Wally's eggs, a little sugar, and some flour, she created wonderful berry pies.
She also made a new person out of Papa. I still worked full-time for Wally, but Pop came up only three days a week. He and Mama had the same energy level and were transforming the place into something livable.
Once, as we picked wild rhubarb together, she told me she was never going back. She had quit her job and would rather die then go home alone.
Late in August, Wally said to start picking the potatoes. They were ready. So was Mama. With a spade and a heft of the foot, we plunged our shovels into the loam and brought up a bountiful crop. Papa and I shook off the dirt and Mama stuffed the potatoes into hundreds of burlap bags. Then Pop made a deal with a wholesaler in Catskill who bought the whole lot. We were rich in 1935! The old man had found a way. We went home with a full tank of gas, me driving all the way!
Pop went back up there alone in November. It snowed a lot that year, and the roads were blocked. He had a wood-burning stove and enough canned stuff and macaroni to get by with. And what wonderful things he created inside of the house during those winter days. With the terrible fear of poverty almost abated, he looked forward to another successful season of planting. This time he brought up hundreds of Mason jars. That same Department of Agriculture was now teaching him new methods of selling his cash crop.
Wally came down in the snow with the team of horses and took Papa back up to the farm. They were great friends now, both working around the barns. Papa learned to milk cows and, through osmosis, was even starting to think like a farmer.
I went up every summer until I finished high school. By 1940 the place was transformed into a farm with a sparkling cottage complete with flowering shrubs, even a small lawn. But the jewel would always be the gigantic string-bean garden.
People had begun working again, and a little money was trickling in. Leave it to Papa-he found pupils in the small hamlets and combined his two great loves-fiddle and farm.
I went into the Army in 1942, and soon after, he wrote me that his dear friend Wally had passed away. How beautiful and sensitively he wrote about that old farmer he had learned to love.
Now, in my own old age, I think of Papa and marvel at his great courage. He was my ideal, my teacher, and my inspiration. If only I had one more chance to thank him for those potfuls of green beans.
About the author: Mike Lipstock is 73 years old and took up writing five years ago in retirement. His work has now appeared in 80 magazines and five anthologies. He is listed in the Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers.