While we seek mirth and beauty
And music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent,
Their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more
~from “Hard Times Come Again No More” by Stephen Foster
Recently I was privileged to be a guest on Public Media Network’s Monday Night Live with host Keith Roe and frequent visitor Gloria Tiller of Kazoo Books.
During our talk, Keith drew a parallel between the hard times featured in Rick Bragg’s memoirs and the economic conditions our world is facing right now. He’s right. The books are timely. The Great Depression figures most prominently in Ava’s Man. A few months back, I heard from a woman who had just read Ava’s Man. She told me she was comforted, encouraged and inspired by how Charlie and Ava Bundrum took care of their family under such difficult and discouraging conditions. She said she hoped other people going through hard times now would have courage.
There was the time when Charlie was unable to work for weeks after being injured in his job as a roofer. Charlie, badly weakened from the fall he took, struggled to clear brush, or cut pulpwood, or would go door to door offering to dig wells. Or he would load boxcars by hand. Ava counted out pennies to buy needles and thread. She and the girls would sew if there was no cotton for them to pick. Sometimes the only food was cornbread.
The money ran out. It got so bad they had to sell the cow to pay rent. When the landlord came for the cow, she also wanted the morning’s milk, which Ava was keeping for the children. That episode of stinginess makes you alternately sad and angry.
“The woman tried to argue. Ava, desperate, might have given in, but she had seen so much of their already meager life shaved away that she just couldn’t take any more scraping on the bone that remained.
She turned and walked into the house and portioned out the milk for her children, and watched them as they drank it. The woman huffed a little, then took her cow and left. Ava crowed about that for seventy years.” (page 113)
Charlie did recuperate and continued to look for work wherever he could find it, anything to keep the family fed. As his health improved, Charlie would hunt and fish. Hardship and hunger were constant companions, but Charlie and Ava never gave up. They played music, they bore children. They sold their cow more than once. And they worked and worked.
The Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” was popular during the Civil War with folks in the North and South. Its plaintive melody and bittersweet feelings are just as applicable now.
Hard Times Come Again No More