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  • Mj Pettengill

The Other Side of the Table


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As a social historian, much of my concentration is on social welfare development and reform in the nineteenth century. For those who are familiar with my work, I am the author of the ongoing historical fiction series, Etched in Granite. The series is written in the form of social narrative and currently consists of three books; but, that’s not what this is about.

Not really.

    I have covered this in some of my lectures, memoir, and essay writing. It is about how nothing happens by accident. Please excuse the cliche, but there is no other way to express this.

    When I literally stumbled across The 298—anonymous paupers buried in the Carroll County Farm Cemetery—everything changed. I had returned to college and was about to begin my culminating semester. I won’t get into the details, but the nineteenth-century county poor farm and the process of identifying them was my thesis.

    Something unexpected occurred during that time. I was a practicing musician and on the faculty of a music school. My schedule also included facilitating Civil War-era programs for Historical Societies. I was raising my three teenagers, and we were doing okay.

    It seemed as if everything was lined up just so when I tumbled from my secure place in the world and into poverty. All of this was going on while doing my research and writing about the “Poor Farm.”

    The music school employment was not enough, and I was looking for work. It finally broke apart, and I was unemployed. I had never been in such a vulnerable place before. At the time, it was frightening. I did not want my children to know about this fear, this feeling of hopelessness. The parts of my life that were coming unraveled were the things that I never believed would come into question. However, they did.

    At this time, instead of responding the way many others would, I found myself diving deep into previous studies, such as theology and psychology. I coped with this raw truth by burying myself in ancient texts. Oh yes, I got a job cleaning cabins and anything else that I could find. And I had to go to the state for assistance. That was extremely difficult and humbling.

    I am not going to expand on that here and now, but I learned a great deal about our current welfare system. I received assistance for a time but was determined to rise up from the depths of my nightmare.

    I did everything that I could for my children, as mothers often do. I continued to get them to their music lessons, driver’s ed, and whatever else they needed. I sold everything that was not nailed down. I did not want them to suffer. One of the lowest points was when my vehicle was repossessed. I can say that I know what that’s like. Strange, but I do.

    I ended up getting a decent job. I got back on my feet. My kids went to college, conservatory, and one is an active member of the Seabees. They are better than fine. At times it was a very wild ride; but, we did it. I am proud of them.

    Where am I going with this? Well, in time, I realized that everything needed to fall apart in order for me to skillfully put it back together again. It was vital for me to experience poverty, struggle, ending up in unforeseeable circumstances without a safety net. My work would be and is authentic and more powerful because I know hunger. I understand the fierce protectiveness of a mother when she has everything to lose. This is when we redefine what we are made of. This is when we discover our roots and how deeply they dig into the rich earth beneath us.

    It was challenging to stand in line, fill out forms, answer questions, to prove that, “Yes, I have lost it all. I am reduced to coming here to prove that I am worthy of a lift, just until I rise up again.”

    All of this while spending hours, days, weeks, and months finding the lost souls of the Poor Farm from the 1870s and giving them back their identities and voices through simple acknowledgment and reclamation. The more stories and people I unearthed, the more were waiting for their time to come up for clearing. Intellectually, I could write about them. Artistically, I could capture them, but it was by living in their shadows, that I could bring truth to the page. Am I saying that truth only comes by way of suffering? Of course not, but, in this case, it helps.

    I had a few options. I could grow stronger, or I could break. I was no longer safe, no longer in my element. I could have fallen away and lost all of our stories, or I could choose to go deeper, avoid becoming trapped, and find my way back.

   I sat in the midst of The 298. I sat with myself, sifting through skeletons of what was both then and now. It was up to me to piece it together, bringing in light, making us whole. Little by little, breath by breath, it came back. I could not abandon them any more than I could abandon myself.

    It was hard. My father, who I had always gone to, was dying. My mother was afraid. It was up to me to trust that what I had dreamed was real and that in the darkest day of winter, within the stormiest night, that I would find the horizon, where the air was still.

    As time marched on, I continued with my higher-education, earning my MFA in Creative Writing. All of my children were out in the world. I was working and writing. I have always liked to work with others. I facilitated journaling and poetry writing classes for female inmates at the Carroll County Department of Corrections, the same site as the County Farm in the series, near where the monument was placed.

    Now, three books later, I decided that I must invest more time helping those in need. I recently began working in a food pantry. It is where I am meant to be. 

     Today, a woman recipient looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you very much,” as any of us would do. Only, I did not feel as if “I” had done anything personally that should not be expected. We must reach out to each other. I could not merely say, “You’re welcome.” Instead, I said, “I’m glad to see you here.”

    When I was doing my initial research about the County Farm, I was taken aback by the cultural, historical, and intergenerational collective shame and fear. This drove me harder. I have read in history books (from my own town) about the County Farm, how shameful it was and how the town spared their residents from being incarcerated there. That speaks volumes.

    So, for me, volunteering here is powerful, the least I can do. I am keenly aware of the shame of some of those who need assistance. Although I have never been to a food pantry for support, I have asked for help. I have been lost and broken. Being on the other side of the table is very different. 

    I am going to be writing about how to get the word out to those who are in need. I believe that there is a new group of individuals and families who are not accustomed to the system and are unaware of their resources. 

    With the current tariff situation in place, there is actually a surplus of food that must be distributed. No one should be hungry. Call your local town office to find out where the food pantry is located in your community. Reach out to your friends, families, and neighbors if you think that they are in need.



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