Benson: Americans have plenty to be thankful for
By William H. Benson
Rex Walls was a character. Brash, loud, full of opinions, and convinced that he knew all that needed knowing, he stormed his way through life.
When his daughter, Jeannette, then only 4, burned her stomach when cooking some hot dogs, Rex got into a shouting match with the doctor and then took her home. When attending Mass, Rex would shout blasphemous words at the priest, embarrassing his wife and four kids. He was able to talk himself into a job as an electrician anytime and anywhere, but he could never keep the job once the supervisor gave him instructions.
On the plus side, he was intelligent, a great reader, accomplished in math and science and technology, but on the negative side, he was an alcoholic, a womanizer and was paranoid, convinced the FBI was after him. He never paid his bills. When the landlord wanted the rent money, Rex would “skedaddle,” and move on. The family “had 27 addresses in five years.”
Rose Mary Walls was patient, calm, and nonchalant, despite her husband’s chaotic temperament. She treated her kids kindly; there were no rules and no punishments. On the negative side, she was a dreamer, who believed herself a great artist and novelist, but she was so oblivious to her kids’ needs that she refused to prepare meals. Her attitude was, “Why prepare a meal when it’s gone in 30 minutes, when a work of art will last forever?” So she painted all day and hoarded piles of junk.
One day Jeannette, then in elementary school, ate a stick of margarine, the only thing in the refrigerator. When Rose Mary asked her why, Jeanette explained, “because I was hungry, Mom.”
The family finally settled into a shack at 93 Little Hobart St. in Welch, W.Va., Rex’s hometown. There was no plumbing, other than a yellow bucket, and very little coal for the furnace, but there was an abundance of snakes, rats, cats, dogs and Rose Mary’s junk that piled up everywhere. Rex drank all the time and would disappear for days at a time. As the house deteriorated, so did the family.
At school, Jeannette was so hungry that she rooted in the garbage, eating what the other students had thrown away: a half-eaten apple, part of a sandwich or a pickle. She and her two sisters, Lori and Maureen, and her brother, Brian, were starving skinny urchins, but Rose Mary gained weight. One day they discovered why; they caught her eating a chocolate bar.
Once Lori graduated from high school, she bought a one-way ticket to New York City and escaped the family’s chaos, and Jeannette followed a year later. Once there, Jeannette found work and a room to rent, finished high school and graduated from Barnard College. She took a job as a column writer, and encouraged Brian and Maureen to also come to New York City.
Dad and Mom followed. The four kids tried to help their parents, but it was hopeless. Eventually, Rex and Rose Mary were homeless, squatters who lived in an abandoned building. One evening, Jeannette was driving to a party and saw her mom pulling food and junk out of a dumpster. Rex died at 59, after consuming “four packs of cigarettes and two quarts of booze since he was 13.”
In 2005, Jeanette published her book, “The Glass Castle,” a memoir of her life with Rex and Rose Mary, and today Jeanette and her husband live on acreage in Virginia. For Rose Mary, Jeanette built a cottage on her property, and there her mother lives with her dogs and cats. A reporter from the New York Times went to interview Rose Mary last spring, and came away appalled.
“The stench of cat urine was an almost-physical entity, pushing against the piles of garbage and crusted-over cat food in myriad dishes. One room was so filled with junk that it was impossible to enter. Rose Mary’s light blue T-shirt was heavily stained, as were her blue jeans. The filth, the stink, the boxes and the piles were like a force field separating her from the world.”
Jeannette commented, “That was nothing to the smell I grew up with.”
Hollywood wants to convert “The Glass Castle” into a movie, and “Jennifer Lawrence was recently announced to play Jeannette Walls.”
Several years ago, Jeannette invited her mom and siblings to celebrate Thanksgiving with her and her husband. When they were ready to gather at the table and eat, Brian looked at the dishes and said, “You know, it’s really not that hard to put food on the table if that’s what you decide to do.”
In America that is so evident. Supermarkets are everywhere, and jobs are plentiful, despite the economists’ grim announcements. Because we live in America, we have much to be thankful for.
Rex Walls was lost to alcohol and dissipation, and Rose Mary was lost to her unfulfilled dreams of artistic greatness and her hordes of junk, and so their kids were caught in their parent’s crossfire and forced to eat margarine and root around in a garbage pail.
Next Thursday, we will buy groceries, prepare a turkey, and celebrate Thanksgiving.
But only if that is what we decide to do.
Benson is a historian residing in Sterling, Colo., who writes a bi-weekly column for The Dickinson Press.