An Apalachicola Family

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Editor’s note: The following is a story by Kermit Brown, a native Floridian whose mother’s ancestors came to North Florida in the late 1700s. His father’s people arrived in the 1840s.  Since his retirement from the Florida Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Florida History, he has written two memoirs about growing up at Indian Pass and in other small North Florida communities, “My Life in North Florida” and “Stories from North Florida.” Both are available at Downtown Books in Apalachicola. 

Occasionally, when I revisit Apalachicola and see the town’s million-dollar homes with fifty-thousand-dollar cars, and boats on trailers in their covered driveways, I’m reminded of a family that lived in one of those 19th-century homes long before someone poured a fortune into its rebuilding. I remember the family and the suppers I shared with them in 1950.
Those folks were as money poor as a family could be. They lived in three or four rooms on the first floor of the two-and-a-half story multi-room house. I never knew how they acquired it. They may have just been allowed to live there. I don’t know.
The father fished, mostly for mullet, to feed the family of six kids and their mother. He sold what he could but mullet was so cheap that he could not have made more than five dollars a day. Most of what he caught went to feed the six hungry kids and his hard-working wife. I never heard anything bad about him. He was friendly to me and I liked all the kids. One boy was my age. The other five kids were a little older and a little younger. The had all been born as close together as possible. He and the wife never had time to save any money before there was another hungry baby.
The children were barefooted and dressed in hand-me-down clothes. I never saw the father with shoes on. He was always barefooted with his pant legs rolled up. The wife went barefooted as well. She wore the same flowered print dress every day. They bought flour and chicken feed in cotton sacks with a floral print so she could make dresses for the girls and shirts for the boys. Everyday there were clothes hanging on the clothesline. She must have washed every day. There was always a baby in diapers. Although, at that time, it was common to let toddlers run around wearing only a shirt. That certainly saved on the number of diapers to wash, plus, if you fed the kid a lot of tomatoes you could have tomato plants coming up all over the place. The family had several old flea-covered dogs, a cat or two, and about half-a-dozen yard chickens following the toddlers and looking for tomato seeds.
The inside of the house was cluttered and dark. The interior walls were not painted and there were no electric lights. Anytime I was around at supper time, the father would say, “Stay and eat with us. We got plenty today and God will give us more tomorrow.” With God’s help, he was a good provider. I enjoyed eating with them. I always thought they had it good. I don’t think they owed anyone anything. They had plenty of seafood of all kinds. Occasionally, there was turtle soup as good as any restaurant could make. Sometimes the wife would make a rice pilau with a few marsh birds thrown in. It was okay. Sometimes a chicken that stopped laying would be on the menu. Salt pork and grits were cheap and she made a good gravy that went with everything. She made bread in an iron Dutch oven on coals outside. It was the job of the older girls to keep an eye on the bread. With the meal they often had greens and tomatoes. I like the greens but left the tomatoes for the others. I had seen their planting methods.
Since they did not have electric lights, supper was spread out before dark giving me time to eat a little and still get home in time for supper. It’s hard to fill up a growing boy. When everyone got seated at the table on an assortment of chairs, benches, and boxes the father would send someone to get the big old family Bible. He would put on his drug-store glasses and open the Bible at no particular place and point his finger at a verse. We would all bow our heads while he mumbled as his finger went from line to line. After he finished, he would give the Bible to the oldest girl, who was 13 or 14, and show her on what line he started and where he had stopped. Then, she read it aloud to us. She had trouble with unfamiliar words, of which there were many, in the books of the Old Testament.
Now, in 2020, when I see those million-dollar homes with the new cars, fast boats, and their owners standing around thinking they’ve seen-and-have everything, I wonder if they ever sat down to a grand supper and had the Bible read to them by a man who could not read or write. I think not.


Haiku
how loving they were
to have me share meals with them
when they had so little

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