The Stratton Family of North Carolina
North Carolina, April 14, 1992
It wasn’t often that they could take the time for a special family day away from the house. John Mitchell was a self-employed contractor and worked every day he could; but today had been too inviting to resist the beckoning of warming weather after a long, cold winter. They had packed up the four kids and driven over to Freedom Park, a glorious series of smaller suburban play grounds, lawns, lake and trees that was set down like a jewel in the midst of Charlotte. The older kids played on all of the equipment, pumping their short legs until it seemed as if they would circle all the way around the upper bar of the swing sets. The younger kids preferred the merry-go-round set in sand. Papa pushed it just fast enough to elicit squeals without worrying Mama. Mama was moving slowly right now, her abdomen bulging with their soon to be born fifth child. She stroked the taut skin under her maternity blouse, feeling the mighty kicks and snuggling of the child she could not yet hold. They had stopped on the way to buy some treats, fruit juice and snacks from one of the small grocery stores that lined the streets near the Park. “Grape Juice!” shouted Ezekial. “G is for grape and for,” He looked around the playground and then glanced down at his belt, “and for gloves!” The family had brought warm clothes just in case it was too cool later in the afternoon. Starting out with jackets and gloves, the kids had shed these for just tee-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes. The litany of letters and words was a constant; the family had decided to home school their kids before any of them were born, reading the work of Claude Less in preparation. Dr. Less was the grandfather of the home schooling movement and had advised parents to make teaching fun. It should be relaxing, healing, inexpensive and low-stress. Such American icons as Tom Edison, Abe Lincoln and Christ had all been home schooled, Less advised. Daily studies with their parents and time spent at church defined their lives. This did not make them rich, but it yielded rich returns in other satisfactions. The kids did not often get store bought treats; large families, especially those whose parents are not wealthy, understand the need for thrift. But today it was almost spring. The buds were beginning to burst out of darkly stark branches, and the first greening of grasses had taken over the naked earth. Soon the Dogwoods would be erupting with glossy color and the petals would lie on the ground like confetti after a wedding. Little Manda, two and a half, had stopped to crouch down and smell one blossom, sticking her tiny nose into its depths and inhaling all the way down into her lungs. “Flower,” she had said, smiling up into her Mama’s eyes before running on to the next exciting discovery. The older kids, Charles and Ezekial, were running across the lawn, enjoying the feel of untrammeled space. Papa followed them at a trot, keeping them in sight. Charles had just turned nine and Ezekial seven. Sunny, nearly four and a half, kept pace with his Papa, laughing when he pretended Sunny was beating him. Tiring of the first playground, the family picked up and walked along to the next, this one close to the lake. Mama and Papa stationed themselves between the kids and the water, ignoring the stares of the few other people who walked by. They were used to that. Manda began climbing the sign. Mama watched, her concern showing in the posture of her body. Suddenly, Manda tottered on the top of the sign and fell, landing heavily on her back, striking her head. Mama was there in an instant. “Hey, Manda, does it hurt?” Manda looked up at her Mama, stretching out her arms for a hug. Rocked slowly and closely over the swollen belly of her mother, the tension drained out of her little body. Her mother gently touched the top of her head, feeling for any bump. There was none. Manda’s heavy braid seemed to have absorbed the fall. Mama would watch her anyway. Cautiously, Mama watched Manda as she shook off her fall and returned to play. They were walking along the lake when Mama felt the first contraction. She slowed just a bit, wondering. All of their children but Charles had been born at home. Mama was very familiar with the rising intensity of contractions, growing ever longer, harder and closer together until the cervix was fully dilated. Both she and her husband had studied medical textbooks and taken training. But as yet she could not be sure if this was the real thing or her body’s practice. Then, three contractions later, she was sure. Heading to the car the kids were excited. There would be another baby! Papa insisted on carrying everything, letting the kids help him take care of Mama. His eyes were alight with excitement and concern. He kissed Mama gently while tucking her into the car. The kids were settled into the living room with a brand new box of crayons and paper. A schedule for television had been negotiated. Usually their parents watched any permitted shows with them, although any television was rare and generally limited to educational specials. Today was a celebration. Today they would watch a Disney movie while their mother labored in her bedroom, the bed dressed in the special, soft old sheets that were used when she birthed. Papa would be too busy to read to them. Charles and Ezekial took turns carrying in slivers of ice and water, taking special care not to spill. Papa thanked them. Grandma had been called as soon as they came home and began baking a birthday cake to be served when the new brother or sister was welcomed. She hoped that this time she would finish it in time. Helen Mitchell’s labors were never very short, but Grandma would want to frost the cake with her special topping and decorate it. The kids started winding down soon after the Disney movie ended. Manda was rubbing her eyes when Charles tucked her in her little bed, just like Papa had told him to. The kids went to sleep hearing their parent’s voices. They sounded soft and loving but tired. It was close to dawn before the new baby made her appearance. “I think we should call her Leah,” Mama was looking down into the tiny budlike face of her new daughter, umbilicus still attached but nursing heartily. Mother and baby cuddled in close, a circle of love that reprised the long history of humanity since before history began. “Leah.” Mama pressed a kiss on the light brown forehead. “That is a perfect name for perfect little girl.” Papa, hearing his own Mama arriving with the cake, leaned down, kissing Mama’s ear and cheek. “You are the best. I love you.” His pale hand brushed the dark skin of her face. It had been a long labor and watching his wife and new child from the door for just a moment, John Mitchell’s heart swelled with love and pride. They were everything and he was a very, very lucky man to have them.
Charlotte, North Carolina-January 30, 2001
Helen woke up late that morning. The kids were all still sleeping. There were ten of them now, all happy and doing well. Having ten children was a lot of work but it was truly its own reward. They were poor, especially now that John had suffered the reverses that had forced them to move to a smaller house. A year ago the skip loader he had rented to do a big job opening up a new tract of land for the building of houses had been stolen. He had left it there on a Thursday night and when he returned at dawn the next morning it was simply gone. He had hardly been able to believe it. Walking around, looking at the place it had stood, he had felt frozen in shock.
The aftermath had been ugly. He had finished the job on time and alone but he had hauled every single block for the foundation work on his own back. He had made a promise to the owner and would not renege. A real man lives his word. Helen had been worried. He came home at nearly midnight every night, having worked under the glare of lights he took out and placed so he could see. It had helped some. The children had really felt it. For them the best time of the day was when Da-Da came home. One of them would look for him and as soon as his old truck drew into the long dirt driveway they were all out there, clamoring for a game. He rarely disappointed them. Sides were chosen and the teams took up their positions. Depending on the time of the year they played basketball, baseball or kick ball. It didn’t matter to any of them what game; it mattered that they were together. The littlest ones would watch from the sidelines, looking forward to the time when they, too, could play. Mama loved watching, if she had time. There was a lot to do around the house with ten kids, even though they all tried to help. Meals were fun. Helen and John had decided early on that in accordance with the principles of home schooling they would try to make everything fun and interesting. While they had little money, they possessed enormous intelligence and imagination. They had been forced to move to a far smaller house when the skip loader was stolen. Living in part of it, they were fixing up the other half. The deal they had made with the owner would, hopefully, in a year or so, enable them to recover from the losses and continue to build towards their dream. John was going to build them a house. They had been planning and hoping on this wish for years now. Having a big house in the country with a lot of land for the kids to roam and explore was a dream worth having. Every few days they would pile in the old car and go looking at houses, trying to decide what they all wanted their ‘house’ to look like. Marlow wanted a bay window in his room. Ezekial wanted it to be white with siding. And so it went down the line, with each child excited about something. House looking was enjoyed, discussed, leading on to other subjects. No matter where you start you can lead the learning on to many other things. They talked about the House sometimes when Mama was making them their lunch; their very favorite was tuna fish salad sandwiches, lavishly supplemented with pickle relish and accompanied with chips and fresh squeezed lemonade. They all helped assemble the places and silverware and napkins for a picnic on the take outside in the back yard. They all helped with clean up, too.
From GREED The NeoConning of America by Melinda Pillsbury-Foster
In 2004 Greed, the book, used the story of the Strattons in a fictional treatment which, however, followed accurately the story as it had developed to that time. Those parts of the book are reproduced here.