Freak Show

Yesterday I attended the monthly meeting of the book club about which I have written before. The club consists of seven or eight very intelligent women who love to read and take the discussion very seriously. The book we discussed is one that I have read three times now, a wonderful novel called These is My Words, by Nancy E. Turner. The novel is about a young woman who travels in the mid-19th century with her family from the New Mexico Territory to Texas, and then back to the Arizona Territory where they settle.

Prior to the meeting, we were asked to bring any stories we had about our family histories, particularly if any history included tales about traveling across the country to settle in a completely new place. There were some fascinating stories about ancestors who lived through the Dust Bowl or who spent their formative years living in a sod house in western Nebraska.

One of the more interesting stories was from a woman who heralded from Indiana. One of her great uncles — a man she never knew — was over seven feet tall and weighed over 500 pounds. Originally, he was a farmer. He was spotted by either Barnum or Bailey and invited to join the circus as the Tall Man. He did so, and spent the rest of his days as a member of what was then called the freak show. She passed around a photo of her great uncle standing next to Mrs. Tom Thumb, the little woman who was married to the famous Tom Thumb, also of Barnum and Bailey fame.

While her story was probably the most unique, there was a consistent theme running through the histories these women shared of their ancestors. Life was HARD. But no one complained. Everyone did what they needed to do to rear their children and make a living. We all agreed that we don’t think we could manage as successfully as our ancestors.

I thought about that as I walked back to our apartment. It’s true that if you took any one of us our of our current life and plopped us into 1880 Arizona Territory, we wouldn’t make it past the first scorpion sighting. But those men and women didn’t live the pampered lives with which we are blessed. If they were from farming stock, they likely worked the farm in some capacity from the time they could walk. Families were often very large, and imagine the number of cloth diapers that were being washed and hung to dry because NO ELECTRIC WASHER AND DRYER. My mother always said her family didn’t suffer as much as others during the Great Depression because they lived on a farm and could survive on what they grew. Still, imagine the look on my face when my mother would put down a sandwich made from homemade white bread and a fresh tomato. It sounds good once in a while on a hot day, but about the fifth day that it was handed to me, I would likely throw a fit.

Our ancestors didn’t throw fits. They did what they needed to do to survive.

It’s easy to take our lives for granted, isn’t it?