Author: Betty Tucker
Betty Tucker came of age in Belle Glade, Florida, infamous for its poverty and violence (e.g., see the Wikipedia entry and the 2006 documentary One Percent). Her childhood was one of debilitating poverty, borne of racism: exploitive migrant labor, multiple rapes and other abuse, chronic illness among her family and acquaintances … the list is long and bitter. Betty survived not only by sheer hard work but also by nurturing a nascent belief that she deserved better. She moved to California, earned her college degree, and raised a family. Then, in 1997, she began a long and eventually successful search for the twin girls she had given up for adoption thirty years earlier. Fear, insecurity, sexual abuse, want, neglect: This memoir will look beyond the description of these difficulties in the author’s life to examine how they stifled her ability to shape her own life, how she acquired the tools she needed to take more control of her life, and what impact her choices, both intentional and unintentional, had on her life and those of her children.
I purchased the ebook version because I wanted to start reading it right away. Upon opening it, I only intended to read a couple of pages, but found I couldn’t put it down. This is an empowering memoir! The chronological structure enhances the author’s narrative style.
Initially, Betty and her six siblings, along with their mother (a light brown-skinned woman with hazel eyes) and father, lived in a three-room house–two rooms and a kitchen with a wood stove, a well in the back yard and an outhouse. Back then, the lack of running water, electricity or indoor toilet was considered “functional poor,” coupled with the fact that they sometimes ran out of food. As dire as this sounds, Betty’s family was actually one of the fortunate families because her father had a steady job at the mill where he worked from sun up to sun down.
When Betty was nine, the mill burned down and her family began a life as migrant workers. They left their three-room house in Alabama and traveled to New York in a large truck, similar to a large U-Haul truck but much larger, along with a lot of other families to pick mostly beans and occasionally strawberries. Everyone had to work to support the family. Betty babysat her two younger siblings along with a neighbor’s children while the rest of her family worked. Having spent my formative years in Florida among migrant workers and laborers, alike, I was struck by the authenticity of the setting and the characters. I either knew of someone like Betty’s family members or had observed them from a distance. Betty’s narrative style, like she was talking to a friend, took me back in time as I experienced her world of hard work with only a few pleasures.
Each one of the characters are distinct and memorable. For instance, “Ma always appeared to be satisfied with making babies which she did like it was biscuits: whenever they were born, her job was complete.” The actual care of the baby was then turned over to one of Betty’s older sisters. This and the way Betty and another sibling were treated led me to suspect that her mother was narcissistic. My suspicions were confirmed when Betty described her mother’s relationship with her children, “Ask not what I can do for you. It’s what you can do for me.” It was difficult reading about the beatings which Betty described as “torture… At some point during the beating, I’d feel no pain: my body had exhausted all the signals it could sent to my brain to register any feeling. But ma did not stop.” When the bean season in New York was over, Betty’s family returned to Belle Glade to work in the sugar cane fields. After the sugar cane season was over, they moved back to New York to pick beans again. This went on for a couple of years.
When Betty was eleven, she started playing Pitty Pat (cards) at the Card Club Shack an establishment for males. She learned to play by putting her ear to the wall and listening to the games on the other side of the wall. When she started playing, no one stopped her. When she won, which was often, she presented her winnings to her mother just for the touch of her mother’s hand when her mother took the money from her. She wanted to “feel human, so I could know that life was real.” Reading this reminded me of the protagonist in Toni Morrison’s God Bless the Child who went out of her way to feel her mother’s touch because it was so rare for her mother to touch her.
Betty’s father, weary of the migrant life, secures steady work in Bell Glade. Shortly thereafter, Betty’s mother leaves her father for another man and Betty’s and all her siblings, except her sister Johnnie, return to New York to continue doing migrant work. A short time later, Betty joins her sister Johnnie to live with her father who was still grappling with his wife’s infidelity. School was Betty’s escape and she excelled at it. At one point, she was the only one of her siblings in school. “Life is about choices,” Betty writes. Reading Betty’s story, I couldn’t help but admire her determination to rise above her circumstances to live a better life, even though she had to make some really tough choices in order to do that. Even though Betty began in a dire situation, she didn’t stay there. Like the old saying goes, It’s not where you start, it’s where you end.
I absolutely loved this book! If you like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you’ll love this book.