Written by an 85-year-old woman who clearly makes the best of whatever comes her way, "Little Heathens" lifts the heart and clears the head. I'm going to keep my own copy and buy another for my Aunt Faye, who along with my mother and their six siblings, experienced a childhood similar to that depicted in the book.
I remember the remnants of that life from my own youth: Working the huge victory garden, making candy and soap, canning vegetables, boiling water for baths, struggling with the wringer washer.
Yes, it was a life of intensely hard work for the author and her family. Her father having been banished by her grandfather when she was only five years old, Mildred Kalish, her mother and her three siblings lived on one of the family's subsistence farms in Iowa. They struggled to survive, surrounded by oodles of cousins, aunts, uncles -- and Grandma and Grandpa. One of their many mottos was, "Use it up; wear it out, make it do, do without."
The simple story of the life of a sock is instructive. First it is worn by the oldest child. When it develops a hole at the toe, the toe is cut off and sewn shut for use by the next youngest -- and on down the line. The heel must be frequently darned. When the baby is finished with it, the cuff is cut off and sewn into the sleeve of a coat for a buffer against the cold. When that wears out, the sock is cut into squares and put into the box for shining shoes, or it may end up attached to the mop.
These folks recycled out of sheer necessity.
The family called themselves "hearty-handshake Methodists." They didn't like to let personal emotions show, so they shook hands instead of hugging. Much of their social life centered around the church and the school.
Kalish's story about a box social is hilarious. As a matter of fact, much of the memoir is funny. But it is also inspiring in a curious sort of way. Though the work was hard, the fun was really fun.
"Little Heathens" is full of food -- delicious, old-fashioned, fresh food. Kalish includes many of her favorite recipes. And she lists the home remedies they used as medicines, as they never went to a doctor unless it was a matter of life and death.
She is truly thankful for her childhood, for the lessons it taught her and for her memories.
Sally Fiedler is a well-known Buffalo poet and teacher.
Little Heathens:Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
By Mildred Armstrong Kalish
Bantam, 304 pages, $22