While I dedicate my blog to discussions about access to justice and pro bono, I occasionally write about poverty experiences. I find it difficult to identify solutions to poverty law issues without giving consideration to the context.
One’s sense of justice develops early in childhood. In our youth, we were gunshot quick to shout, “No fair!” Out of class, our mathematical abilities were razor sharp as we counted and double checked others’ game scores to clamp down on the cheating we were sure was happening.
My older sister and I grew up in a small railroad town in northern West Virginia where our lives played out within a narrow strip of land held close between a steep ridge of the Allegheny foothills and the moody, wide Ohio River. As we slept at night the trains lumbered and moaned into the rail yard that lay just beyond the baseball field north of our block. In the mornings, our father would come home powdered in brake dust and smelling of kerosene and grease from a night’s work inspecting hopper cars and locomotives.
He would remove his work boots upon entering the house. He did not want to track footprints through the house.
Immediately, he would set about making a breakfast of hot tea and toast for my sister and me before arousing us at seven for school. I recall his unabashed but hushed cursing as he moved dishes from sink to table. I don’t know that I ever discerned the object of his scorn, but it served well as our alarm clock. He was a man of very few words, and with the subtraction of the words goddamn and hell, the paucity was quite remarkable.
In late afternoons, after a dinner of boiled meat and potatoes, we would settle down to do the homework assigned by Sister Assumpta Marie or Sister Mary Anthony. With his brown paper sack of library books at the side of his chair, and his quart of Iron City beer, he would pass the evening reading history and geography books and all the classics– and doing difficult crossword puzzles. A Smothers Brothers episode would rattle a comment or two from him on the brothers’ politics and their questionable lineage.
He came to disavow the war, and heaped praises upon Johnson and Nixon. He was a dues-paying member of the International Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, a Democrat, and a high school dropout at the age of sixteen.
I smile when I remember one of the funniest memories I have of my father. My mother had baked a cake. After she placed a piece of the cake on my father’s plate, he commented rather loudly, “Dammit, Sarah, I said small, not infinitesimal!”
As a child, I wondered who he was. I heard from adults around me that he had been expelled from public elementary school, and that upon being enrolled at the local parochial school, he was put back a year; that his parents, in their meager circumstance, set the scene for his years as a street kid. He had a mutt he loved. He tried twice unsuccessfully to enlist for service in World War II, once rejected due to his young age, and then last when it was discovered he had a leg about a half inch shorter than the other. I recall he wore a corrective shoe.
I wondered who he might have become. I wondered what kept him and his family poor. I marveled that his impoverished childhood and lack of education did not keep him from being one of the best-read people I have ever known.
Years passed. Our old two-story shotgun house was falling down around us. My sister had left home to attend a Catholic, Jesuit college- the first of all the family and relatives to go beyond high school. And while, in our poverty and emptiness, I missed her greatly, the time I would otherwise have spent laughing in her company I expended in planning my departure and gathering the requisite courage. I discovered from my mother that my father had always assumed I would also work for the railroad.
At the end of his life, I gathered up the pieces in his room and closet. He acquired few possessions in his eighty-four years. In death, as in life, he said little. I imagined more than one way to arrange the dozen or so relics he left behind in drawers and on a desk to create contrasting vignettes: 1950s-era Metropolitan Opera House Club albums, a framed picture of his mother whose death shaded the birth of his son, a vulgate version of the Bible, B&O Railroad papers, a dozen or so neckties I handed down to him, underwear, socks, worn shoes and news clippings of JFK, Pope John XXIII, and the First Baptist Church of Wheeling. The thousand books he had read while sitting in front of the television had been borrowed and returned years before.
Justice and fair play echo in playground shouts and laughter. I imagine that my father only peered though the playground fence, that what he saw for others, he could not have himself.
I can’t be certain. My father left no footprints.