The Rev. Neil O’Farrell’s reverie about honor and dignity.
There it sat in the middle of the kitchen table. It looked like a gallon paint can without a label. Instead there was a black, stern message imprinted on the outside of the silver can. This was a can of peanut butter, a commodity food distributed by the Department of Agriculture to poor people all over the country, including to the hungry poor in my little town in impoverished West Virginia. In no-nonsense lettering it said that the product was not to be traded, bartered, or sold.
There it sat, the lid pried off with a kitchen knife. It has been used to make a PB&J sandwich. It was such a regular item of my youth that I didn’t give it a second thought.
Dad was the town dentist, and we lived in a section of town that I learned only much later was called “snob knob” because it was high on a hillside, above where the big river in the valley flowed below. Train tracks were on the other side of the river. Through an anomaly of geographic acoustics that I’ve never undersood, even though the train was perhaps a mile away, I could hear it as if it were barreling through my bedroom.
Dad had accepted the peanut butter from a subsistence farming family whose children needed dental work. The welfare system wouldn’t pay for dental care. The farmers were too proud to take charity from Dad, even for the health of their children. He would allow you to pay whatever you could on your bill over the course of months. Some people wanted instead to barter what they had to pay their bill immediately. That is how the gallon can ended up on our kitchen table.
Dad knew if he refused, the children’s teeth wouldn’t be cared for. Bartering Department of Agriculture commodities was a way to achieve a noble end: the better health of children of an impoverished part of the poorest state in the U.S. It was also illegal.
Our family was privileged but not rich. It was hard to get rich in impoverished southern West Virginia fifty years ago. Dad took commodities, and fresh produce in the summer, in exchange for dental work. My mother drew the line on anything that had ever had a heartbeat, or we would have been eating venison, rabbits, squirrels, catfish, or who knows what.
We also slept under rag quilts. They were not the fancy quilts that you could see inexpensive shops. No, these were quilts made from fabric from the remnant barrel at G.C. Murphy on Main Street or salvaged from clothes sold for a quarter or a half dollar at a church rummage sale. One woman needing a set of dentures wanted to trade ten quilts for 100 dollars of Dad’s work. He said he would take only two. The info spread, and eventually, the whole family was sleeping under rag quilts.
Dad wanted us to know about the people we grew up with and the harshness of their lives. He wanted us, six kids, to know the honor of paying your way in life, and that didn’t always include money. That gallon can of peanut butter meant that one of Dad’s patients could look him in the eye when they saw on the street. That bartered peanut butter was so much more than a can of peanut butter. I can still taste it in my memory, almost more than the plastic bottle of Jiffy now sitting on the pantry shelf.
There are many lessons that good parents teach their children. After vacations away, we would return to the destitute, breathtakingly beautiful West Virginia valleys, the hollers, the river, the train, and snob knob. That was home. There were vital lessons to learn there.
It has always confounded me that while I was a child, I didn’t have as keen a sense of the dividing line between wealth and poverty as I do today. I’ve learned the truth through urban ministry that rural poverty can leave you with much more of your dignity intact that urban poverty, which can sap your humanity dry.
Dad made sure that we youngsters were eating just like the others in our shopworn town. The can of peanut butter on our table was like the same can on the tables of everyone in town that received commodities. We weren’t better because really we weren’t that much different. The peanut butter taught us that.
There was very little discussion about the can of peanut butter after an initial explanation. But the lesson was as rich as was the glide of the peanut butter across a piece of Wonder bread, accompanied by a glass of cold milk from a local dairy, delivered to the door every other day.
Those were the lessons that laid the foundation for me of the rest of my life, why it has always been easy to strike up a conversation with someone dressed in rags, with unkempt hair, and a ripe odor. We’re the same, you see. A paint can of peanut butter on so many tables in so many kitchens. Department of Agriculture commodities had precious dignity that taught lessons invaluable for a lifetime.
Could a good dad give a better lesson to a child?
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