The small boy trudged through the snow with his light, yet cumbersome basket. The basket, a bushel basket, was nearly as large as the boy, thin strips of wood held together with rusty staples, well worn and oft used. He dare not let the basket touch the ground for this possession was essential to his family. Inside the basket was a clean tablecloth that must not get wet.
Little Frankie hurried along as the cold seeped through the cardboard in the bottom of his shoes. The holes in his shoes had grown so large that, if not for the cardboard, he might as well be barefoot. Even so, it was never long before the cardboard was wet and cold. Newspapers covered his chest to help keep the wind from blowing through the thin jacket. There was never money enough to clothe 6 children, nor keep growing children in decent shoes. Frankie always wore hand me downs, grateful for the charity of other people and the Salvation Army. He knew no other life than this.
Frankie continued on in his quest while he thought back to last week when his little sister fainted in school. He knew and his sister knew that she passed out from hunger, but they would not tell of their hardships. It was just a fact of life for them. His sister’s teacher must have suspected what little Edie’s pride would not reveal because the teacher gave Edie the soup she had brought for her own lunch. Frankie’s Pa drank his paycheck again, giving not one penny to his Ma to feed the many children. But, Frankie had figured out a way for them to eat. Yes, Frankie was more of a man at 10 years old than his father would ever be. Frankie quit school in the 4th grade to help feed the family that his Pa would not support. His Ma worked in a factory for pennies and her meager pay would never be enough to pay the rent, feed and clothe all the children. So, when his Pa went down to the tavern, Frankie hit the streets of NY with his shoe shine kit. “A nickel a shine” he would call out to men who worked in the fancy jobs in the city. Frankie was such an optimistic and happy little guy that were it not for his tattered clothes, one would not be aware of his plight. But, it was that very sunshiny personality that allowed Frankie to make enough nickels to help feed his family.
After each shoe shine, Frankie carefully buried the nickel in the shoe wax, then smoothed it over. One time his Pa had caught him right after a shoe shine and beat him on the street for the nickel so that he could get one more drink. Frankie was a quick learner…that didn’t happen again. His nickels remained buried in his shoe wax while he turned his pockets inside out when his Pa demanded his shoe shine money. In secret, he dug nickels out of the wax to give his Ma. His Pa never knew, for this transpired when his Pa was no where around, which, by the way, was almost always.
Frankie picked up his step when he saw there was already a short line in front of the neighborhood bakery. For the sake of his family, he had to be close to the front of the line. Their very lives depended upon the charity of the bakery owner.
The Baker looked out the window to see if the small boy was there yet. News travels fast in their neighborhood. The plight of this child’s family was well known. He was saddened to know that there are men in the world who reproduce without feeling an ounce of love or responsibility towards their wives or offspring. The Baker could not even comprehend how a man would neglect and abuse his own family. The Baker always baked more bread and rolls than he could sell in a day. That was his way to help those who needed some help. Then at the end of the day, right at closing time, women and children lined up in the street to purchase the greatly discounted, leftover bakery goods. When it was Frankie’s turn, the Baker would wink and pat him on the head after he filled that bushel basket to the brim for only one nickel. Then he watched the determined little boy carefully cover the bread and rolls before trudging away in the snowy street to return to a cold water flat that was much too small to house such a large family.
The Baker must have said a prayer for that family. No doubt, God heard his prayer...
Prologue: This is a true story. Little Frankie was my own Father. My Dad’s childhood was more difficult than most can believe, yet, he made a promise to himself that he would survive and make a better life for himself and his family. He made one more promise to himself that his own children would never suffer a childhood like his. And…we did not. I remember one time when I came home from school, I announced that I was hungry as I headed for the kitchen. Daddy looked at me and he said “Baby, you have never been hungry”. My Dad kept his long ago promise to himself that his children would never suffer… My sisters and I were blessed to have a Dad like him. I wish every child could have a father like mine, but, unfortunately, there will always be men like his own Pa.
My final comment is this: I have no patience for anybody who blames their childhood for their sorry ways. In my opinion, that is just an excuse to continue down the path that they already know and, further, lack the gumption to change their lives. If you had known my Dad, all you would have seen was a happy man who loved and cared for his family. His intelligence and wisdom belied the fact of his 4th grade education. He read constantly in his spare time, always seeking, ever learning. He always worked and supported us. We were never cold, hungry or homeless. We were never beaten…ever.
We are who we believe we are….. My Dad knew that fact as far back as childhood. I was always proud of my Dad, but I don’t think I was ever prouder than I was my senior year of high school. Early in the school year, my Dad said that no child of his would graduate high school before him. He went to night school and obtained his high school diploma before my last semester of high school! No one need wonder where my sisters and I got our drive and ambition. We had the best role model possible!
I dedicate this piece to the memory of my Dad, Frank Owens, who lived, loved and laughed in spite of a brutal childhood. His legacy lives on through those who loved him. Rest in peace, Daddy. 9/1/28 – 2/14/04