June Pair Kilpatrick


Inkwater Press

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Wasps in the Bedroom, Butter in the Well: Growing Up During the Great Depression

In 1934, the industrial town of Hopewell, Virginia, was riding out the Great Depression nicely. Near the confluence of its rivers sprawled the "silk" mill, busily turning out a desirable new fabric called rayon. But when strangers arrived, bent on unionizing the plant, violence ensued and a night raid destroyed the machinery and the town's livelihood with it. Eighteen hundred and fifty-eight coveted jobs—gone.

The child, only two, knew nothing of this disaster. But as her parents' Depression odyssey began, she noticed the moves and began to understand that they were somehow connected with her daddy's job, which kept changing. From house to house and town to town they moved—finally to the depths of the country, where the toilet was outdoors and the lamps were lighted with matches. Throughout the Depression, her little family, unlike many, had a roof over their heads—but sometimes wasps squeezed in through gaps in the siding and sometimes the butter had to be kept in the well. You will laugh and perhaps even get a little misty eyed as you enter this period between two great wars that tested America's citizens—toughening the weak and sometimes destroying the fainthearted.

The author's parents, who lived this story, were not fainthearted. Poor though they were, they were abundantly rich in all that really mattered.


Looking Forward, Looking Back

Sitting outside one summer day (in the outhouse to be perfectly honest, buying a little time from my chores), I was swatting at flies and pondering, as seven-year-olds sometimes do, the small and very ordinary world I lived in. While I sat idly, my small bottom resting over that carved wooden hole, I could hear the hens clucking as they pecked about for bugs in the grass and weeds, and I could hear our cow, Lulu, and Miss Ethel's cows lowing in the pasture nearby. Closer at hand, a large fly was buzzing about as if that small structure was his own private domain and I, not he, was the trespasser. He made a few arrogant orbits about my head and I swatted at him with a rolled-up newspaper, finally—triumphantly—dropping him to the floor. His legs moved weakly but I could tell he was a goner.

As I followed his declining movements and considered his brief life, I began wondering how long I (being human) might live and whether I might actually live long enough to see the year 2000. There was no pencil at hand (although there was certainly paper), so as I sat there I slowly subtracted in my head my birth year, 1932, from that awesome number, 2000, and determined after a few tries that I would be sixty-seven, almost sixty-eight! Why, that was my grandmother's age. Could I possibly live so long, as long as my grandmother had already lived? Would I have wrinkles and white hair pulled back in a bun as she did? Smooth as my skin was then and as brown my hair, I didn't think it likely, but even if the price was wrinkles and gray hair, what could be more exciting than to emerge into a new millennium (not that I knew that word yet), in a year that began with twenty, after nearly sixty-eight years of writing only dates that began with nineteen. How astonishing, not only that such a magical year could come but that I might be around to see it.

And now those sixty-eight years have passed, and more. By the grace of God, I have seen the turn of the century and reached an age I never dreamed possible, given the circumstances. Wrinkles have indeed marked my once-smooth skin, and strands of gray have lightened the brown. But as I look back to that first realization of such a possibility, all the intervening years—the years from then till now—scroll before my eyes like a video on fast forward but with surprising clarity. My family, our friends, the towns, the schools. All the little houses we lived in—twenty-one different dwellings by the time I was twenty-one years old—and I remember each of them except the first two. Each memory places itself neatly in the framework of whatever house we lived in at the time, so that the houses themselves become a convenient filing system, reminding me of the age I was when a given thing happened.

And so as I write down the story of my life, my family, and my times, not with pen or pencil or even a typewriter but on a computer, a question occurs to me: Who but my daughter, Rebecca, would be interested in my ordinary life, and maybe she already knows all she wants to know. After all, our history together has grown very long. I have no grandchildren with shared blood, and my two stepsons' four children, though certainly my own grandchildren in every sense but blood, could be forgiven if they had no interest in their Granny June Bug's early life. So most likely my story, my memories, will be only for myself. But that wouldn't be a waste. My family, sadly, is nearly gone. To be the last, or the last with a deep interest in those who went before, carries a certain responsibility. And so I set out on what promises to be a very long project to record my memories of a difficult era of our country's history and to offer a kind of immortality here on earth for those in my small sphere who struggled through those times and triumphed. I loved them and, for better or worse, they helped make me who I am.

Author Bio

JUNE PAIR KILPATRICK, a lifelong Virginian, spent much of her career as a writer and editor for nonprofit organizations in Richmond and Northern Virginia. For eight years she was consulting writer for the Business Council in Washington, DC. She and her husband, Fritz, live in Evergreen Farm, Haymarket, at the foot of Bull Run Mountain.

How To Order Wasps in the Bedroom, Butter in the Well: Growing Up During the Great Depression
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