Addressing a rally in Colorado, Romney spoke a great deal about his humble birth on a farm on the outskirts of Memphis; about wheat farming; and about his parents, Rufus and Maybelle Romney, and their struggle to provide for six hungry children as they toiled away at low-paying, menial jobs.
“As you all know, I didn’t grow up with much in the way of wealth,” Romney said of his upbringing in an impoverished neighborhood in North Memphis. “Back then, we didn’t live in much more than a shack on the wrong side of the train tracks, and Mama and Daddy had three jobs apiece to keep us all fed. It fell on me of course to take care of the young ones, of which a few, God bless, are no longer with us.”
“Ann and I, we know what it’s like to grow up with nothing, to wonder where your next meal is coming from, to have to choose between putting food on the table or coal in the fireplace,” continued Romney, speaking of what he called his wife’s “rough childhood” in Mobile, AL, where she was raised by a single mother. “Brother, we know that pang of hunger and hopelessness all too well.”
Speaking for the greater part of an hour, Romney said he was particularly shaped by his father Rufus Romney, a strapping young man with “tattered shoes like Swiss cheese” who left early each day to work in the wheat fields outside Memphis. Returning at night with a tired look in his eyes, Romney said his father would gather his children around the table to share a can of tomato soup and dream of one day living in a “big house on a hill,” a dream Romney said later inspired him to pursue a career in business.
At the same time, the former Massachusetts governor claimed his mother, Maybelle, would go off every morning in her crisp white uniform to work for the wealthy families “over in Chickasaw Gardens.”
“After Mama wiped the sleep from our eyes and smoothed our hair, she would go off to the big mansion, bring home scraps,” said Romney, pausing as his voice filled with emotion. “Every day it was something new—a big yellow potato, sweet saltwater taffy, a creamy stick of butter. Sometimes Ms. Hartley would send home a bag of groceries too, and boy, that day never came too soon.”
The founder and former CEO of Bain Capital said that while times were tough, the children were often blessed with unexpected gifts from considerate neighbors, like small wooden toys or ruby red apples. But even when the day was not so bright, Romney said proudly, they were always grateful for what they had.
“Drugs took my brother Jimmy way too soon. Vietnam took Tommy. But even after Daddy left, we never complained,” Romney told the crowd. “In our hardscrabble Memphis neighborhood, that’s just what life was. For us, it was the little things that mattered: sitting on the porch, Grandpappy playing his fiddle, Mama making buckwheat cakes in the kitchen. Simple as it was, it was all we knew, and all we needed.”
Romney then produced a harmonica from his hip pocket and played a stirring, lonesome melody.