THE SALVATION of JAN and KURT by Nancy Gustafson
Memoirabilia Podcast #12
The Salvation of Jan and Kurt was originally printed in A Cup of Comfort for Inspiration (Adams Media: 2003). Memoirabilia is grateful for the opportunity to re-publish this beautiful memoir here. This podcast is a a bit longer than our usual podcasts but it wasn’t possible to split it in two without sacrificing its essence. So enjoy listening, or if you prefer to read online, the full transcript is below.
Lucy Hobbs had recently lost her husband and now, in her seventies, found herself living on a Social Security pittance inadequate to sustain her basic expenses. She could have moved in with her daughter in Galveston, but she wasn’t ready for that yet. Surely, she was still needed somewhere!
The advertisement posted on the bulletin board at Stanton’s General Store in Alvin, Texas, seemed the perfect answer: “Widower needs housekeeper to cook, clean, and take care of two boys, ten and five years old—room, board, and a small salary.”
The door of the ramshackle farmhouse opened, and Mrs. Hobbs introduced herself to a family in a desperate situation. The father, Gus, had lost his wife to cancer in 1943, when Jan Arthur was six years old and Kurt Rolf was only one. A few days before his wife’s death, Gus’ father, a seaman with Gulf Oil, had been killed when his oil tanker collided with a ship. Gus’ mother had moved in with him and helped care for his boys; but just one year later, she had died of cancer. Shortly after his mother’s death, Gus discovered he had colon cancer and subsequently had a colostomy. By the time Lucy Hobbs stepped through their doorway in 1947, Gus had begun to crumble, along with the family finances and the house.
Mrs. Hobbs, gray-haired and grandmotherly plump, peered at Jan and Kurt through round wire-rim glasses that perched on her nose like a small silver bird. The boys were sunburned, bare-chested, and barefoot. From their heads to their toes, they were ragged, skinny, and mosquito-bitten. She knew immediately that she was needed there and took the job.
The unruly boys had driven off every other housekeeper their father had hired. Some of them left in tears after enduring only one day of Jan’s deliberate defiance and disobedience. The boys were often left alone and hungry, subsisting on jelly sandwiches. They were uncivilized barbarians—that is, until Lucy Hobbs came into their lives.
The moment Mrs. Hobbs finished moving her few possessions into the drafty farmhouse, Jan began his usual tactics. He pedaled his bike down the driveway and onto the shell road that led to town, several miles from their farm on a busy highway. Mrs. Hobbs lumbered diagonally across the uncut yard, cockleburs and nettles nipping at her ankles, caught his handlebars and told him not to leave the farm.
“You’re not my mother, and I don’t have to mind you,” Jan spit out angrily.
With surprising strength, she dragged him into the house and plopped him down on a chair. She emphatically told the boys, “I will not put up with any disobedience. If you want homemade biscuits and gravy for dinner, you’d better behave for the rest of the day!” The salvation of Jan and Kurt had begun.
Armed with only the force of her willpower and the promise of regular meals, Mrs. Hobbs brought stability to the boys’ chaotic lives. She began the transformation process by insisting on cleanliness and good manners. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” she told them. She assigned chores to Jan and Kurt and insisted they do a good job. “Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” was an adage the boys heard often.
She took them shopping at Stanton’s General Store, where they picked out patterned chicken feed sacks, and then she bargained with them, “I’ll make shirts for you out of the sacks you pick, but you have to take good care of the chickens.” She made sure that the boys fed and watered the chickens, kept the nest boxes filled with clean hay, and gathered the eggs daily. Their reward was new shirts for school and bacon and eggs for breakfast.
Mrs. Hobbs used Tom Sawyer’s tactics to get the boys to plant a garden. “I’d plant it myself, but I want you boys to have some of the fun. And won’t you be proud of yourselves when you see those nice straight rows of vegetables sprouting up. And just think how delicious they’ll taste.” She encouraged them through the preparation and planting, and when the dog days of the project came around, she required they keep the garden weeded and watered. Their reward was a lesson in perseverance and fresh vegetables for dinner: beans, corn, squash, and tomatoes.
She asked them to chop down the weeds in the yard and make a path for her to the clothesline. “I just can’t stand thrashing through these weeds to get to the clothesline. I’m afraid I can’t do the washing anymore if you boys don’t chop me a path.” When they complained that they didn’t have a lawnmower, she recited one of her favorite principles, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and insisted they do the job with a hoe. Their reward was a yard they could run across without getting stickers in their bare feet and line-dried clothes and linens.
Mrs. Hobbs kept clean sheets on the bed the boys shared. At first, they rebelled at going to sleep at a decent hour; but she insisted, telling them, “Pretend you’re going to Mary White’s party.” Then she tucked them in and made sure they said their prayers. It didn’t take long for them to figure out that Mary White’s party was a good night’s rest between clean white sheets.
The farmhouse was not insulated. It was cooled by fans in the hot Gulf Coast summers, and warmed in the winter by a Dearborn butane space heater located in the kitchen. Tin can lids were tacked over holes in the floor to keep warm air inside and to keep cold wind and mice outside.
During the intensely hot summer afternoons, Mrs. Hobbs called the boys into the house. “You boys come in here and rest awhile before that sun turns you into lobsters.” At first they rebelled, but they soon enjoyed resting and listening to the radio: the King of Swing, Bob Wills and the Light Crust Doughboys from Burris Mills, out of Fort Worth.
On frigid winter mornings, Mrs. Hobbs lit the Dearborn and started breakfast before she woke the boys. Drawn by the smell of bacon frying, they shivered all the way to the kitchen, the only warm room in the house, where they dressed for school.
Lucy Hobbs was not opposed to using dessert as an incentive to good manners, hard work, and compliance with her rules. When they had accomplished a particularly obnoxious task, such as cleaning out the pig pen or chopping weeds with the hoe, she would treat them to homemade doughnuts rolled in sugar or their favorite, rice pudding.
With the structure of regular meals and bedtimes, Jan and Kurt began to blossom. They were occasionally tempted to defy Mrs. Hobbs and go skinny-dipping in snake-ridden rice canals, but drawn by the delicious smell of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy wafting through the kitchen window, they resisted the urge to run away.
The boys’ father continued his downward spiral, drinking more and more heavily, coming home less and less often. Mrs. Hobbs and the boys were often stuck in the country, miles from town, with no transportation. Gus was no longer able to pay her, but Mrs. Hobbs stayed on in spite of having to use her Social Security check to buy butane and food. She was petrified at what would happen to Jan and Kurt if she left. When they told her they were afraid she would leave, she reassured them: “God gave me a mission to save you boys, and I’m going to stay as long as I can.”
But after five years with them, her health and eyesight began to fail. In spite of her fears, she couldn’t keep up with the job of raising them. Mrs. Hobbs told them many times that she would have to leave soon. At first Jan and Kurt panicked and begged her to stay. But after having heard her expressing her need to leave over and over, they no longer took it seriously. One day while the boys were at school, she packed everything she owned into one suitcase and went to live with her daughter in Galveston. Now in her eighties, she had given all she had to give. She had no way of knowing the great loss they experienced at her leaving or the traumas they endured without her presence in their home.
Several years later, her daughter brought her to Alvin to see Jan and Kurt. She was growing deaf and nearly blind. They were happy to see her; but as teenage boys, they were not adept at expressing tender emotions. She never told them she loved them, but she did. They never told her they loved her, but they did.
Lucy Hobbs could not have realized how well she had accomplished her mission. Her lessons had soaked into their souls, and they grew like oak trees, strong and beautiful. Although she never knew the result of her sacrifices, I have benefited from them. I married Jan.
On a frosty December dawn, I flick a switch, and the house begins to warm; another switch, and the coffee perks. I sit at the kitchen table and watch the outline of bare oak branches appear as the first gray strokes of light brush across the black sky. My prayer for the soul of Lucy Hobbs rises with the steam from my coffee. If she were here today I would tell her about a family that she never knew belonged to her. I would spread before her a meal of her own making: the meat and potatoes of our lives—a marriage of more than forty years, four children, and eight grandchildren. I would see to her comfort, cover her shoulders with a warm shawl, keep her coffee cup filled to the brim. And at last, reward her with the rice pudding of words not said to her in time: They love you. You are the mother they remember.
Like this story? You can enjoy more of Nancy Gustafson’s writing in PODCAST #7: BEFORE THE BOAT BEGAN TO SINK