Sometimes, when I was a child growing up in a one-parent family on the edge of a small town in the Piedmont of Virginia, my mother would remark to someone when I was around, “She’s all I have.”
Ruth Lichliter Stringfellow wasn’t complaining but stating a fact, for I was all she had. She, of course, held that position for me. My father Frank had died as a result of tuberculosis in a Great Depression winter before I could remember him. And because I had been born when my mother was 39 after a childless decade of marriage, I had no siblings.
So for 19 years I had my mother, who – proudly independent of family – supported the two of us entirely on the proceeds of a three-acre poultry farm where she did all the work herself. Except for the few thousand dollars – remember this was 1930s – obtained from selling another egg farm she and my ailing father had operated in a nearby county – she began our independence when I was 2. Aid to Dependent Children came later with the New Deal.
We were vastly helped, as she often said, by several good neighbors. One, a kindly man of retirement age, ran a family painting and paper-hanging business with his son.
“Mr. Jim” was also a carpenter good enough to erect over the next eight years four poultry houses each holding 700 baby chicks their owner raised to the age of 10 weeks. Then a truck from the Washington area arrived one fall or spring morning loaded with empty open crates. The now-grown chicks were hauled off, and Mama was paid for the flock. A good portion of the cash then went to the town feed and anthracite coal store to pay off the bills for the two most essential needs.
Mama paid “Mr. Jim” and his son 35 cents an hour for their labors. Later in the decade, a water line from town was brought out to our hillside neighborhood to serve a WW II factory. This made indoor plumbing and new bathrooms and kitchens possible for the ample frame houses. For this major construction, twin carpenter neighbors, considered more skilled, got 45 cents an hour. Those were common 1930s prices that I was old enough to remember.
Being an “only” in a semi-rural world in hard times had many advantages. Though a high school graduate from a Presbyterian Shenandoah Valley town who began teaching at 18 on leaving home, Ruth loved books and the limited history and literature then offered in the public school. She bought children’s stories for me, and my generous aunts, uncles and adult cousins on both sides of my family sent good ones for my summer birthday and at Christmas. A widowed aunt made me dresses and another, wintering in Richmond, sent me new ones for school.
Because I was born so late in my generation and was fatherless, I was blessed in love and such material toys and clothes as could be afforded by clergy, teacher and writer folk spending carefully themselves.
My mother read to me nightly before bed, even adult historical novels after I had finally graduated to my own at 10 with “Gone With the Wind.”
Religion was important for I had been baptized just before my father’s death into the denomination in which a grandfather, two uncles and later a cousin had been ordained. My mother’s best friend was my Sunday school teacher for several years. My mother’s values, however, were those of education, hard work and the Providence of God. They are mine still.
It all changed when as a high school honor graduate I went off to Richmond Professional Institute in the big city at 17 and Mama and her elderly fox terrier and cats were alone. Though her task had been accomplished of rearing me on her own almost to the age of independence, fatal loneliness overcame her in my first year away. Until then, the damage done by rheumatic heart disease had been hidden through 15 years of carrying water and feed, pushing a lawn mower and splitting wood to keep us warm.
Her health began to fail as she adjusted to my falling in love with a WW II combat veteran with serious mental health issues. A heart attack claimed her life within a week of her 59th birthday.
She would never see the man to whom I’d be married for 57 years and share a career, nor her three grandchildren and even a granddaughter born almost on her birthday 99 years later and now engaged in teaching children.
A loving God has rewarded Ruth. That’s a reason I believe.