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On the Book Shelf- Russell Baker

alec vanderboom

“Growing Up” is a light, enjoyable autobiography by a local writer who grew up in the nearby Virginia Mountains and later moved to Baltimore, Maryland. Baker’s life was a journey from the Victorian Era into the Modern Age. He was born in the 1920s to poor tenant farmers. His early childhood was similar to life in the pre-Civil War South. After his father’s early death, his mother spends time with various relatives and finally moves into a home of her own in Baltimore, Maryland.

Baker’s wife Mimi grows up in an orphanage. (I’ll leave it to you to find out her surprising relationship with the Catholic Church.) Mimi has a tense relationship with her mother-in-law that begins at their initial meeting at an extended family Sunday dinner. Mimi’s off to a bad start with the five things that signal to Mama Baker that she is not a “good girl”—Mimi lives alone, she has no family, she wears a lot of make-up, she bleaches her hair and she entertains men in her room. Forty-five years later Russell asks his wife this question while outside his mother’s nursing home room.

“Remember the first time you came over here for Sunday dinner?” I asked Mimi.
“What I remember about your mother’s house is how clean and happy it felt, and what a warm feeling there was with all those people there who were related to each other.” (pg. 343)

What a lovely quote about the importance of mothering straight from the mouth of an orphan. She notices immediately that the home is clean, happy & has warm family relationships. This is my inspiring goal for the week as I attempt to set this in order after a week of house guests.

This book is also a remarkable chronicle of life during the Great Depression. The Depression alters life for the Barker family profoundly. As a widow of less than forty-eight hours, Mrs. Baker faces the agonizing choice of giving away her youngest, ten month old daughter to her childless brother-in-law to raise. Her pain in that section of the book was so profound, I had to walk away from the story for a while. (Jon’s Dad was an identical twin who was “given away” at age one to his paternal grandparents to be raised after his father’s death. My father-in-law’s pain at being sent away while his brother was “kept” made Jon & I think for a long time that the twin brothers were raised many miles apart instead of less than 100 yards away.)

Mrs. Baker moves her two remaining children age 5 and age 3 into her brother’s home in New Jersey. She moves in thinking that she’ll need to stay only three months until she finds a job and can afford an apartment on her own. Instead, since this is 1931, there are no jobs to be found, even for a woman who has some college education. She ends up staying with her family for the next six years. The family doesn’t actually start to head out of poverty until she marries a railroad brakemen nearly ten years later.

Even after the marriage, college seems an impossible dream for Barker as a bookish, high school senior.

“The idea of becoming a railroad brakeman entertained me for a while that winter. Any job prospect would have interested me then. I was becoming embarrassed about being one of the few boys in the class with no plans for the future. The editors of the high-school yearbook circulated a questionnaire among the members of the senior class asking each student to reveal his career ambition. I could hardly put down “To be a writer.” That would have made me look silly. Boys of the Depression generation were expected to have their hearts set on money-making work. To reply: “Ambition: None” was unthinkable. You were supposed to have had your eye on a high goal from the day you left knee pants. Boy’s who hadn’t yet decided on a specific career usually replied that their ambition was “to be a success.” That was alright. The Depression had made materialists of us all; almost everybody wanted “to be a success.” (pg. 241)

This quote helped me to understand my maternal grandfather better who started college in 1933. We’ve had many clashes about career goals during my many years of post-secondary school. I pursued fun topics like “Modern Greek Literature,” while he wanted me to study something more practical. My decision to pursue a $30,000 job after incurring $90,000 in graduate school debt left him so infuriated that refused to co-sign for my Sallie-Mae educational loans for the first time in seven years. I spent the first eight weeks of my last year in law school with no money for tuition or living expense until my Dad was able to track down another co-signer.

So we’ve had bad blood in the past about my belief that the fundamental purpose of education is far beyond finding “money-making work.” This quote helped me find more empathy towards him. The Depression era was unique and left a lasting mark on my grandfather. It should be no surprise then that he is still clashing over career goals with his granddaughter seventy years later.