Article that was published in August/September edition of "The Maryland Cracker Barrel" Magazine.
Robert L. Saunders
A short essay of my life in Tommytown
Try to remember any little village with its small collection of limestone and wood frame homes all nestled together, fronting a single gravel road and you have found the hamlet Tommytown.
Like other small rural villages here in Washington County; Rohrersville, Brownsville, and Big Pool with their serene and comforting lime-green beauty that seemed to welcome a stranger to spend time enjoying their splendor, Tommytown gave you the same down-to-earth feeling.
Located four miles northwest of Sharpsburg, Tommytown was destined to be my boyhood home. In 1954, at the age of nine, I arrived there with my six brothers and two sisters. Like steps on a ladder, our ages ran from 17 down to the age of one.
The year was 1957, and the early morning sun reigned that day over the small hamlet of Tommytown. Even though it was secluded from the outside world, the cluster of five homes was alive that morning with bustling activity.
In its own little niche near the end of Tommytown sat our home. Forget any picturesque notion of a quaint cottage with a neat lawn and white picket fence that would invite a visitor to walk around and peer into the windows. Our home was beaten down by years of neglect. Its grey clapboard siding begged for paint, and the shape of its crooked chimney, resembled more of a brick “S” curve than that of a vertical stack.
It would suffice to say that we were known within the hamlet as “poor folks.” This is not to infer that the other inhabitants living in Tommytown were accustomed to living in luxury. They were serious in their pursuit of earning another day’s pay. Earning a day’s pay to these people meant severe hard work.
Most made their living outdoors. Some worked as carpenters, some toiled the land, and some shoveled coal into sacks for home delivery. All of it was back-breaking work. There were no smooth hands that had never felt a fresh blister here -- only rough hands with hard, thick calluses.
Our financial circumstances dictated that we were to live several levels below our neighbors’ meager incomes. Not to dwell on our level of sheer poverty conditions, I would just rather state that our norm was a lot of oatmeal, pasta, and hand-me-down clothes. Our only water supply came from a hand-pumped well located outside next to an old carriage barn. If there ever was a chore that was ripe for igniting an argument between my brothers, it was deciding on “whose turn it was to pump the well.” Oh yes, lest I forget, the outhouse was busy.
However, our home did have one gemstone that stood out above all the rest of the homes in Tommytown. It was alive with the clattering, humming, and laughing sound of voices! The unique sound of my young brothers’ and sisters’ innocent voices ripped through the air and made our home come alive with the aura of youth.
If by accident you had just happened to stop by our home, your first impression would be a scattering of organized, confused “bunch of kids.” But if you had listened closely you would find that you have been greeted with a feeling that you had found the meaning of youth.
And our mother, Ruby -- what type of woman could endure the rigors of raising nine children while living and dealing with the every day hardships of poverty? What type of woman, you might ask, would struggle on a daily basis to provide the basic needs of decent food, clothing, and shelter for her children? Was she a saint? When I look back, yes, she was a saint, but to my brothers and sisters growing up, she was just Mom.
Not much of a dignified title for a mother, but to us she commanded all the respect, love, and loyalty we could bring forth. To us she never seemed depressed, had a lovely sense of humor, and steered clear of showing any favoritism. Even through we were poor, I cannot remember any hint of squalor or debased living conditions that is usually associated with poverty.
Despite living in poverty, my mother nurtured a strong sense of family values in us; respect for elders, kindness to one another, and obedience to her requests were just some of the values that she felt would root us against the storms of life. Any attempt by a child to challenge her authority or to disregard one of her values meant punishment for that child. The consequence was swift; for a boy it was three swats on the rear end with a switch; for a girl it was the loss of privileges and additional chores. Even though our mother constantly performed a balancing act between love and judgment, her influence on us was strong, and we felt a close and trusting relationship with her. Heaven knows how many times we came to her arms whenever she would call out, “Come to Mother and give me a big hug!”
And our father -- what was his role in the lives of our mother and nine children? For many years, the answer to this question was a constant wonderment to my brothers and sisters. Our mother never shared her problems with us. If she had complaints about our father, she kept them privately to herself. Sometimes she would let some piece of information about him slip, but it was not much to form an opinion of him.
I am inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the horrible conditions he allowed both my mother and my siblings to endure -- conditions which he could have chosen to correct had he been willing to share his good wages and not been so unkind. In memory, life seemed to be saying to me, “Here is an unfortunate example of a father that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until you make the real thing come along.”
In our world, sibling rivalry was next to non-existent; it wasn’t an issue. Considering the age differences between the seven boys; the youngest three and oldest 15, one would expect they would not want to play with one another.
One would also expect a continual rivalry that would result in fighting, arguing, backbiting, and just plain being nasty to another. Even though every brother had differences in attitudes, beliefs, tastes and opinions, we had a common bond that held us together. Our bond was survival and suffering within our own unsolicited environment. Survival to us meant, by default, discovering our world through experiences, observations, and challenges on our own. Relying on one another to keep a devoted eye out for each other’s welfare through one hardship after another had built a solid foundation of appreciation for another brother’s sorrow, pain.
What a joy it was for my brothers and me to spend almost every waking moment outside. It was our favorite place to be. We not only loved the outdoors, we appreciated it endlessly, every day of the year. Outside we could shield ourselves from the hardships of living in poverty. Here, we could pretend and force ourselves to block out memories of that punishment inflicted on our body by our father.
Being outside gave us time to live out our special dream of pretending to be a cowboy. In our dream world as cowboys, we rose above our handicaps and became new boys. We were now grown men riding on Palomino horses with new cowboy suits. Being the eldest within our little posse, I had the distinction of wearing a bright tin star on my shirt that read: SHERIFF. Our imagination told us that we were out West, riding a real horse on the dirt street of a Western town.
This brief account of my memories of Tommytown and a few personal episodes prior to my reaching adolescence are my humble attempt to relate a wonderful time in my life. It has always been difficult for me as a writer to balance my literary standards with the personal pain of reliving the unpleasant circumstances of poverty and the absenteeism of a loving father. But Tommytown with its vast playground of fields and trees gave me a chance to experience that wonderful time in life -- youth. What an extraordinary trip.
Should you have further interest in a mother’s struggle and the fascinating adventures of her children, the stories I have woven in my novels, “Tommytown” and “The Boys from Tommytown” will captivate your curiosity.