By Carole Hemingway
I didn’t grow up in a consumer-driven society filled with technology, fancy restaurants, or fancy cars. I was shaped by a place not more than 152 miles from where I live now in Pennsylvania, a small dot on the map called Bear Creek. The country life held such a fierce hold over my heart that I never wanted to leave.
How many children today were born on a kitchen table, in a house with no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, who came into the world with candles burning, flickering a soft welcome? My own birth, I imagine, was almost chapel-like, simple. I was delivered into that simple world by our priest, Father McAndrew. This dear man brought my mother and I gifts of food on the holidays and even gave us rides in his bi-plane; sadly, he was killed in a plane crash in later years, but I will always remember his kindness.
Growing up, everything was not available in quantity, but quality? We had plenty. I was born and raised on a dairy farm, and I knew I had it all for the first eight years of my life. My mother told me bedtime stories that she never read from a book; they were deeply ingrained in my psyche. My swimming pool was down the road, the Lehigh River, in a clearing of stones and boulders, one resembled a giant chair worn by time where I’d sit and feel like a postage stamp while my mother washed my hair in the cold, sparkling water that rushed toward me. It was indeed a unique way of life. No TV and I was barefoot most of the time. Shoes were simple then, basic. I connected with the earth by walking barefoot, laying in the grass, looking up at the night sky and feeling small in such a vast universe.
I never asked where my clothes came from; all I knew was that I was warm in winter and cool in summer. I never had a bathing suit; no one could see me except the family of deer who wandered through the carpeted ferns in the forest on a daily basis. There was a steady, dependable happiness associated with that kind of daily living called my lifestyle. There was no excess. Everything we had was used until it fell apart.
Though I was conceived under a bridge in Central Park, New York, my mother insisted she give birth to me in the farmhouse she grew up in. To her, it mattered that I was a Pennsylvania baby.
My grandmother lived with us and took care of me while Mother worked in a defense plant during the war, as six months after I was born there was Pearl Harbor. What did I know of war? I was sheltered, nurtured, loved, and cared for. Who else had a walk-in fireplace that also served as an oven? Saturday night baths by candlelight made me a hard core romantic.
The peace and quiet to reflect on my young life — it doesn’t get any better than that. Falling asleep to the sound of owls, awakened by a cranky rooster. Simplicity crept into my life, along with happiness and joy.
My grandmother talked in soft-spoken whispers. She came from a Hungarian background and sang to me in her native tongue, soothing, predictable. She preserved fruit and other interesting food specialties — self-reliance introduced itself into my life. I found it all so profoundly exciting, exhilarating, in fact. I was living a simple life and loving it. If I had it to do over, would I? You bet. The rewards were beautiful — gratitude lived sweet in my heart. These were the little things in life: meaningful conversations, lots of love, laughter, a roof over my head, which I never took for granted, the ability to learn to cook like my mother who did without a Martha Stewart kitchen. She sewed most of my clothes, as did my grandmother.
Memories gave me my sense of self-worth, not things. When I think of my childhood, the memories that stand out are that I got to go hiking almost every day, ride my own horse that used to come up to the front porch railing and wait for me to climb aboard — no saddle, bareback was fine with me and with him. Connecting with nature, the fresh air was good for my lungs — I nearly died a couple of times from having weak lungs. Mother dressed me, bundled me up in winter to sleep in the outdoors so I could breathe. I never smoked because of the sacrifices she made to help me grow up strong. Fortunately, I outgrew pneumonia spells living in all that fresh air, the civilized air pockets of my youth.
In many ways, Mother lived life on her own terms, in her pursuit of happiness. Distancing us from society to have the ability to think for ourselves without traffic noise. I can’t even imagine what that or life on the streets was like. A life lived slowly is a childhood well lived. My mother gave me these gifts that cost nothing and made me who I am today. Had I lived in the city, I would have had none of that. I learned how to slow down, breathe in life, and exhale happiness. I learned a lot about patience, which I needed when I grew up. Spending time in silence is what made me want to be a writer; it did wonders for restoring my soul and giving me time to develop my own persona, a more intelligent version of self-taught schooling.
I have found that changing addresses can be fun and adventurous, as long as I can have simplicity. I have traveled and found simplicity, the kind that makes me incredibly happy. I found it in Bear Creek and have carried Bear Creek with me everywhere. That slice of heaven has brought me, in my heart, more happiness than can be imagined. I had everything I needed.
Carole Hemingway is an internationally regarded author, speaker, and historical writer. She is writing three books about Gettysburg.