Essay: When the Bums Came

Jun 5, 2015

Economists speculate about the extent of recovery from this country’s great recession.  Since 2008, many families have faced hard times, but Charlottesville writer Mary Alice Hostetter says things were tough for some folks when she was a child, growing up on her parents’ farm in Pennsylvania.  Sometimes proof of the nation’s economic troubles would arrive at the farmhouse door.

We called them bums and never considered the term insulting. They were the beggars who  wandered up to our farm, loping onto the porch and knocking on the door, usually at mealtime. They wore layers, even in summer, overcoats with the pockets bulging, sweaters and scarves—all they owned, I suppose.

“Ma’am, could I ask you for a bite to eat?” They’d look down at their dusty shoes.

My mother had them wait on the porch while she heaped food on “the bum plate,” the chipped one at the bottom of the stack. After they finished, the plate looked so clean you could hardly tell it had been used. But we washed it anyway. Thoroughly

Who were these men?

“Just folks who fell on hard times,” my mother said, but I didn’t know what she meant by hard times, not the ones that left you without food, needing to beg from farmers.

For me, hard times meant not being allowed to go to the swimming pool in the summer and having to help on the farm instead; not having a television and missing “American Bandstand; needing to wear long dresses and skirts when it was hot and my friends wore shorts. But my hard times were never about going without food. I knew we were poor, but, as near as I could tell, our food supply was never-ending. By fall the shelves in the cellar were lined with jars of every kind of canned fruit and vegetable you could think of, more than a hundred quarts of dill pickles alone, plus jellies and jams. We canned chow chow, catsup, peaches and green beans, applesauce, corn relish. The freezer in the garage, practically as big as a car, was filled to the top. If meat was running low, my father went to the livestock auction and bought another pig or another steer, and we butchered it and had more sausage and ham and roasts and scrapple and bacon than it seemed we could ever eat. There were potatoes in the root cellar, milk chilling in the milk house. And chickens just waiting to have their heads cut off.

“I don’t know if there are still bums who wander the roads and lanes of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, going from farm to farm, asking for food. And I don’t know if they are still farm women like my mother who, without question, welcome them and fill an extra plate with whatever they’re making for dinner. It seems unlikely.

From an upstairs window on a recent afternoon, I see a man I don’t recognize walking down our street. He comes to the door, knocks once, then again, louder. I wait until he walks away. Is he hungry? Looking for odd jobs? Collecting signatures or money for a cause? It doesn’t matter. The door is locked. I stay in the shadows where he can’t see me in case he looks back.

Mary Alice Hostetter is the author of The Measure of a Life: Diaries of a Mennonite Farm Wife.  She remembers and writes from her home in Charlottesville.