Lumpy Milk

Sandra Campbell’s story as told to Carrie Bradshaw

There are two things I love most in the world: reading and crafting. Well, I love my family, too, of course, but these are different. These are not only my escape, but also my outlet. I’ve used reading and crafts to give back to the world in a way that I know how. I didn’t have an easy upbringing—between hiding in closets, an empty stomach, and shoes with holes, I had a few obstacles. But with reading and crafting, I was able to use my love of learning to make my life, and others, just a little bit more colorful.

We moved around a lot when I was little. The first home I remember is my grandpa’s house. It was my dad’s dad’s house, and we were staying with him because my dad didn’t believe he should have to take care of us kids, that that was a woman’s job. (And it’s not like we could afford our own house, either.) Grandpa Grove was one of the kindest men I’ve ever known, and so he stepped up to help look after us. The house had one bedroom and eight people—Grandpa Grove, Mom, Dad, and us five kids. Richard was six, I was four, Bert was three, and the twins were one.

At one point while we lived there, all five of us had the German measles. I don’t remember much about that time. I do remember that all five of us slept in Grandpa’s bed while we were sick. He helped mom take care of us. I’m sure we were in isolation from the rest of the world.

When I was five, we moved into the Mayfield Addition house. I have two memories while living in this house. First—the snake. It was my fifth birthday. Dad was mowing the lawn and ran over a garden snake. Richard picked it up and threw it right at me. It landed on my shoulder. I screamed and screamed. I’ve been afraid of snakes ever since.

My other memory from the Mayfield house was the closet. That’s really all I remember of the house itself. Mom would hide us kids in there any time a debt collector came around. There was a steady rotation of them—electric, water, milk. I remember hiding quietly while the Omar man stood outside. Omar sold bread. We couldn’t even afford to pay the breadman. It must have been a big closet if all five of us fit.

When I was six, we moved to the shotgun house. The entire house was three rooms– living room, kitchen, and one bedroom. There was an outhouse in the backyard. Mom and Dad slept on the couch in the living room. Us five kids shared the bunk bed; the two boys got the top bunk and us three girls slept in the bottom bunk.

I remember Christmas while we lived in that house. Two police officers showed up at our door. I was so scared. We didn’t know why they were there, but then they revealed a basket full of toys, and we each got to pick one. I picked a set of Christmas cards I could color. I was so proud of being able to give out beautiful cards that year that I had colored myself.

That Christmas, we went to my mom’s family to celebrate. There on the table was a basket of food for us. The families had all gathered up and got us food. They also bought presents for each of us kids. Dad hated it. His pride was too much. He never joined us for Christmas at my mom’s family after that.

When I was seven, we finally bought our first house. It was technically two chicken coops with a makeshift room connecting them, but it was home, and it was ours. With six rooms, it was the biggest house we’d ever lived in. There was a kitchen, living room, bathroom, and three bedrooms (one for Mom and Dad, one for the boys, and one for us girls). We all lived in that house together until they kicked me out at sixteen for getting pregnant.

If you couldn’t already tell, we didn’t have much of anything growing up. Dad worked less than he did. He had a ninth-grade education, so when he did have a job, it was at a factory. His paychecks were small to say the least, and what little money he did make went towards gambling and beer. (He always said it was his money.) Whatever was left over after that was used for food and bills. There was never enough left over.

I remember when he’d take all of us kids over to his buddy’s house. We’d go over there while he gambled. It was the three men, the three wives, us five kids, Marian’s five kids, and Bud’s three kids. They’d give us a loaf of bread and a package of bologna to split between the sixteen of us, and that was our meal for the day while the men played cards. And really, the bologna was if we were lucky that day. We could not interrupt them to say that we were still hungry.

That wasn’t the only time food was scarce. I remember one time, Dad took us kids to my mom’s house for the day. Mom had run off with some man for about a week, so my grandma watched us while he was at work. He woke us up early and fed us an egg. He waited about thirty minutes or so and fed us another egg. Another thirty minutes, and he gave us grits. When we arrived at my grandma’s house, he told her that we had already had our three meals for the day, so there was no need to feed us.

Once a month, we’d get commodity food boxes. It was always the best time of the month. We could have a full sandwich each. We’d have fried potatoes, gravy, ham—all in one meal! Even with all that food, though, we did still have to split it. For example, the box often came with six pork chops. Dad would get two pork chops just for himself, and the other four Mom split between her and the five kids. As we got older and were growing bigger, Dad still got his two pork chops.

Even with Dad taking the majority of the food box, it was still the most exciting day of the month every time it arrived. We’d get blocks of cheese, rice, grits, canned ham, lard. There was often oatmeal in the boxes, but I hated oatmeal. Always have. So, when I’d wake up early to cook breakfast for my siblings, I’d make them oatmeal and me a bowl of grits. The box also always came with powdered milk. Mom never could figure out how to make it. It was always full of lumps. Lumpy milk or not, it was food.

Food wasn’t the only scarce item around our house. We often didn’t have transportation or proper clothing. Dad was too proud to ever ask for help. If the factory closed or he got laid off, he’d walk to the unemployment office. Even in the dead of winter, he would not ask someone for a ride. So, he’d put on a sweater (we didn’t have money for a coat) and walk there. I remember he came back with frostbite on his ears.

Of course, us kids also suffered without proper clothes. There were several times when I had put holes in my shoes. I remember having to cut out cardboard and stick them in my shoes so that I could still walk to school that morning.

That being said, one of my brightest memories is due to clothes. For picture day, Mom made us a pretty skirt. It crisscrossed in the back and came around in the front. I think it had a white background with yellow flowers; I can kind of remember the picture. The skirt was for me and my sister, Bert. I was in the third grade, and Bert would have been in first. I wore it to school first while Bert stayed home. Then, at lunchtime, I ran home and switched clothes with Bert so that she could wear it for her pictures.

I was so proud of that skirt. For one, Mom had made it. She took the time to make us something special, which was not often. The skirt was new and beautiful. It didn’t look like all of the raggedy clothes we usually had to wear. This was special.

The skirt wasn’t the only thing that made me love school. I just loved learning, and I loved reading. Anyone that knows me now knows that I love to read. I read about a book a day. But I wasn’t always like that. You see, growing up, I was not allowed to read for enjoyment. We could read for school, but that was it. I still remember one evening, I was sitting in the living room with a book in my hands. My dad asked me what the hell I had and demanded I throw it out.

Education was not valued in my home. My dad had a ninth-grade education, and my mom had an eighth-grade education. None of my siblings really saw any value in school, but I did. When Bert and I started school together, a week into it, the teachers had me take a few tests. I aced every one of them and was immediately sent on to first grade. (Bert did not pass first grade the first time.) Even when I got pregnant at sixteen and was not allowed to attend normal school, I attended night school and earned my high school diploma.

I think I value education and learning because I wanted to make something of myself. I wanted to be a better person. And I think that shows now. My passion is teaching. I have taught crafts for years and all over the country—well, at least Indiana and Florida. I’ve taught painting, crochet, knitting, cake decorating, sewing, quilting, plastic canvas, macrame, woodwork . . . You name it, I taught it.

I think it’s safe to say that I had a hard childhood. But I did not let that stop me. If anything, it pushed me. It pushed me to be better and to make the world a better place, even if that simply meant teaching someone a simple hand stitch.

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