Friday, May 24, 2013

Lessons from the poorhouse: The Hidden Art of Homemaking

We recently visited a museum in our area, one we'd never been to before although it's been there for years.  Small museums are typically housed in old mansions, or in school buildings; but this one's on the site of a former "House of Industry and Refuge."  The county poorhouse, in other words, and it functioned under that name until the 1940's.  It's a very solid-looking building, three stories high, with large grounds that originally held fruit trees and vegetable gardens.
Although there are other exhibits in the museum, like a log cabin simulation and a WWI trench, it's the blown-up photos and the in-your-face information about the building's history that seem to steep the whole place in unhappy memories.  As it says in the exhibit, once you were in this place, it was unlikely you'd ever be out.  The poorhouse wasn't an overnight shelter; it was a life sentence. (Occasionally young people, often children who had grown up there, were placed out as apprentices, but that didn't always work out, so they returned.)  The one thing that the "inmates" had in common, whether they were old or young, disabled or healthy, was that they had nowhere else to go.  Nobody wanted them. 

In 1992, PBS broadcast a series of programs called Millennium. One episode's title was taken from an African saying, "The Poor Man Shames Us All." In certain cultures (some more "primitive" than our own), there would have been no concept of allowing members of a community to be brought to such a point of desperation; people just took care of each other. In other words, the worst thing wasn't that there was a poorhouse; it was the fact that there had to be a poorhouse.  In some ways, the county administrators could boast that they were doing more than some other places to make sure that the poorest people were cared for...even having a poorhouse was considered something to be thankful for. Residents had a roof, clothing, food; oranges and hankies at Christmas. It was better than starving to death. But as Dickens said, "many would rather die."

Years later, the people who lived there have been reduced to a series of large, disturbing photo images on the walls of their "home"; is that so much different from their real-life existence?  Why are the faces in those photos so tortured and hopeless?  Was it just from years of poverty, added to mental illness or diseases such as TB, or was it not having anybody to really care for them (beyond each other or the few staff members who helped with their basic physical needs), and having no place to call their own?

The faces staring out from the walls must have been some of the most disconnected, splintered, lost souls of that generation.  Many of them had kind of flunked their life-management exam, and feeling like that is pretty depressing.  Others were there because loved ones had left or died; also depressing. That's a quick judgment, of course.  I don't know.  Maybe some of them were actually happy to have a permanent home, somewhere they felt safe.  Maybe some of them were Christians.  But the overall picture looked pretty grim to me, especially when you figure in the number of people who really needed more than just a home, needed psychiatric treatment, addictions counselling.  Maybe it wasn't so bad on a nice day if you were picking apples or something...but there's a lot of lostness about those photos.

What does that have to do with The Hidden Art of Homemaking?

Simple: all people need homes.  Homes should be part of blocks, neighbourhoods, communities, circles of people getting wider as you go on.  We need to create and preserve communities where people are not allowed to just disappear because there's nobody left to care.  But we start with homes.  Not necessarily two-parent-two-point-five-biological-children families; just places where people are reminded, through words and atmosphere, that their lives are important, and that they belong to the world.  It might be your own home; or it might be the "homey" atmosphere you help create in a classroom, a daycare, or a crisis centre.  Sometimes home can be a day place, even if you find a bed somewhere else.

So don't ever think that there's anything small or insignificant about making home places.

1 comment:

Cindy said...

This was a pertinent post to the chapter. I have always thought of poorhouses with some relief that at least people had that option but I suppose you are right that it may have been a hard option to take. It also makes me think of the homeless because very often in south Florida where I am visiting now and where my son works, homeless people demand to be homeless. I wonder if it is a philosophy problem. They are often people who do not want a home.

The history of poorhouses would make good reading, sad but interesting, at least.