Grace, dignity in midst of poverty define Wise County couple

Stephen Igo • Dec 16, 2018 at 8:00 AM

TACOMA — Grace and dignity in the midst of poverty are defining characteristics of 58-year-old Jake and 45-year-old Michele, as fine and hospitable a couple as anyone could hope to meet anywhere, not to mention the rest of their friendly family that includes a pair of incredibly sweet dogs (Chance and Brewster), a cat, a rooster called Romeo “and his two ladies,” a pair of chickens that Jake proclaims with pride lay 14 eggs a week.

A lifelong produce farmer who sold his vegetables at flea and/or farmers markets, with a particular affinity for raising tomatoes, Jake went to the big produce farms in Florida every winter to work those fields for many years, returning to the homeplace in Tacoma each spring to raise and sell his own produce locally.

Michele, meanwhile, worked as a certified nursing assistant until this past July, when their hardworking lives took an unexpected turn straight into poverty. Due to other health issues, Jake’s left leg had to be amputated from about the knee down, and Michele had to quit her CNA job in order to take care of Jake, who has yet to get a decent handle on getting around on his prosthetic leg.

Their only income now is Jake’s disability check. A “buddy” drops by to cut firewood for their main source of heat, a coal/wood stove that, by the way, is in sore need of a fresh supply of coal to back up the firewood. That same pal enlisted a few others to build a ramp so Jake could get in and out of the trailer, otherwise the couple is essentially at the mercy of winter winds and potential Good Samaritans.

Michele said it’s an irony that she can’t work as a CNA any longer because officialdom has decided Jake isn’t eligible for a CNA.

“I guess they figure his wife is a CNA, so he’s already got one,” she said. “He’s just now getting so he is just starting to learn how to get on with his prosthetic leg. I have a time getting him up. It’s gotten hard on my back. They say he’s not eligible for personal care. But maybe one day when he gets to be back on getting around on his own some, I can get back to work.”

On top of all else, there is no running water. Jake figures the vinyl hose that draws water from a well has split and needs to be replaced. Michele must go outside to the well to fill water jugs with what little the hose will provide, which she described as little more than a trickle about the size of her little finger.

“We just need a lot of stuff fixed,” Michele said. “I don’t know where to begin. We need a couple of doors (both covered with blankets in an effort to keep the heat in and the cold out). I’ve got to figure out how to get a shower for him. He can’t get in and out of the bathtub, and I just can’t help him do that. It seems like one hardship after another, but you do what you’ve got to do. He’s so depressed right now that he can’t do what he used to.”

Jake did break into momentary tears a time or two while attempting to describe what it’s like to get a handle on a predicament he never saw coming. Yet, he would quickly rally by saying, “I believe what God meant to be is what’s to be.”

Jake’s eyes brighten like Christmas tree lights, however, when Michele turns the conversation to his lifelong love of farming.

“He can tell you all you’d ever want to know about farming,” she said, and Jake proceeded to do just that. Especially tomatoes. The man is a hands-on, seat-of-the-pants expert when it comes to tomatoes. Virginia Tech’s Agriculture Extension Service would be well-served by making Jake a part-time tomato farming agent.

Jake has a smattering of tiny, dried tomatoes on a window sill that comprises his seed crop for the next growing season. From just those few he says he can get nigh on two dozen plants per each red nubbin. That’s followed by his secrets to growing robust tomato plants. Really robust.

“I set a plant next to (an old house on the property) that went 20 feet tall,” Jake said. “I’ve told people I picked tomatoes while standing on the roof of a house, and they don’t believe me. But it’s true.”

And then he covers his eyes to hide another brief bout of silent tears.

“He’s been through a lot since July,” Michele said. “I just wish somebody would say, ‘You two have been through a lot this year. Let me help you.’ Do you know of anybody who can help us with gravel? We sure do need a load of gravel, too, now that I’m thinking of all else. Well, any kind of help we can get right now would sorely be appreciated.”

The Times News Rescue Fund aims to provide some of the region’s neediest residents with extra food for Christmas. The fund is dependent on the generosity of Times News readers, and no gift is too small. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the Times-News Rescue Fund, 701 Lynn Garden Drive, Kingsport, TN, 37660.