When I was growing up, my family was of modest means. In my hometown, most people fit into one of two categories: well-off or poor. The well-off owned businesses or were in upper management at the cotton mill or a spread house or carpet factory. Those who were poor were laborers in those establishments…the working poor.
And then there were others who didn’t even have one of those low-paying jobs. They were the very, very poor.
The knowledge of this wide social divide was impressed upon me when I was in elementary school. A group of well-to-do girls decided, for some reason, that I had suddenly become acceptable, and they would allow me to be part of their group. Even though my clothes were homemade. Even though I had none of the amazing possessions they sported.
One day at recess, when the group gathered on the playground, a girl, who was obviously, heart-breakingly poor, caught their attention. She was dirty, her hair uncombed, her clothes raggedy. And she played all alone.
The well-off girls pointed at her and made fun of her. What they were doing made me uncomfortable, so I backed away and stood at the fringe of the group, not sure what, if anything I could do.
That night, I told Mama about it. She stopped what she was doing and faced me, with fire dancing in her blue eyes. She said, “Don’t just play with those who have nice clothes and already have lots of friends. Tomorrow, you go and be nice to that girl. You play with her. When someone doesn’t have a friend, you be their friend.”
And so I did.
What Mama said sunk deep, set my attitudes and has guided a lot of my decision-making through the years. And, I’m beginning to realize, it has influenced my writing.
I don’t usually write about the rich, the powerful. And in several of my novels, the main character, like Ailean MacLachlainn of High on a Mountain, is poor and has a hard life. Most of my characters are ordinary folks who face tough situations.
But though downtrodden, they are not beaten. They face their circumstances with courage and determination.
Take, for instance, Fallon McKniere, of On Berryhill Road. Fallon endured heartbreak when she was six. Her father died, and it was thought that he committed suicide because he’d embezzled money from the Navy. When she couldn’t take the ridicule, couldn’t take being ostracized any longer, she dropped out of school.
She works in a convenience store and has little hope of ever doing better. She makes so little money that she often goes hungry. But she has courage, a strong moral ethic and does her best to take care of herself and her mentally-unbalanced mother. And though she has been treated unkindly, she responds to others with kindness.
Fallon is someone I admire, someone I’d be honored to have as a friend. Like the little girl Mama told me to befriend so many years ago.
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