Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Richness of Being Poor

This is a house I lived in as a child, along with my parents and five siblings. Although I realize it seems to be a bit on the sparse side, it had an accompanying feature which truly set it apart from most other houses: it had its own outhouse that all eight of us got to share. How quaint is that? (It’s quite quaint to look back it but not quite so quaint as actually using said outhouse. Trust me on that.)


So. Did I grow up poor?

That’s kind of a complicated question. If poor means not having a lot of money, then yes, I suppose I did.

But there are really very few times that I remember feeling poor. One of the rare moments was when I was about four and overheard my parents talking about needing some groceries and not being sure they had enough money to get everything that was on the list. (Feeding six kids is not a job for the faint of heart or the thin of wallet.)


After listening to them talk, I decided it was time for me to help. I ran and got a five dollar bill from Mom’s purse, cut it carefully in half and gave both pieces to her saying, “Now you have enough money, Mommy. I made some more for you.” (I couldn’t quite understand why that didn’t bring forth a huge sigh of relief!)

Mom has always been good at making something out of nothing. She could stretch a pound of hamburger so far you would think it had rubber bands woven throughout it. She could take a few forlorn potatoes and whip them up into a delicious dish that would miraculously feed eight (or more) people. Dad would always pray a blessing over our meals and I sometimes wonder if some surreptitious divine multiplying didn’t go on a time or two because we never once lacked for food.

What impresses me the most about Mom’s cooking is that she has rarely relied on recipes, her homemade bread being a good case in point. She made it two or three times a week and it was always a wonder to behold as she began to gather her ingredients. She’d open the fridge and stand there for a moment gazing upon the things she’d rescued from the family table over the past few days. After her brief perusal was finished, it was time to start the grabbing and tossing ceremony.

A driblet of leftover mashed potatoes? Into the bread.

A dab of Wheaties recovered from someone’s breakfast? Into the bread.

A dollop of uneaten Cream of Wheat? You guessed it.

We used to kid her that someone really needed to hide the dishwashing detergent when she was baking bread because we were afraid she might grab that as well.

But that bread was always delicious and always plentiful and when it was hot from the oven topped with a mountain of real butter that melted down into its soft, fluffy goodness? Well, who was poor then? Certainly not us!

Up until I was about thirteen years old, our family didn’t own a TV. I suppose to some that might be the undeniable proof that that were deprived; I mean, no child should have to grow up without a television. (Isn’t there a a law about that somewhere?)

Well, somehow we six kids managed to survive fairly well. Library books were free and they were plenteous and who needed a TV when The Happy Hollisters was close at hand?

(Much to my delight, I recently found an old Happy Hollisters book at a thrift store. I dearly loved those books.)


I owe so much of my love for learning, writing, and reading to the fact that we were deprived of television as a child.

Yes. Poor, poor us.

And books weren’t the only things that were plentiful. Music was, too! Mom played piano, Dad played guitar and they sang together beautifully. We kids grew up loving music, too; in fact, the house in the picture stands just one mile away from the cemetery where Dad is buried. Our whole family used to drive over to that old church (it was always unlocked) and mom would play the piano for me while I’d stand up in front of the scratched pews (peopled only by siblings) and sing my little heart out.

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And that’s why it was especially meaningful to me when my extended family gathered at that same country church after Dad’s funeral and Mom played that same old piano as we all sang.

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And after all those years, I also got the privilege of playing that dear piano myself. Music makes such good memories.

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The scarred pews were still peopled by my siblings—but this time they were joined by family and friends who had come to honor the person who had made sure that music ran like a lovely chord throughout our family.

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Later on, we were able to get our own piano at home, a battered upright which we rescued from a yard sale for a few dollars. At various times throughout the day, each of us might wander on over and take a turn banging on it happily while our dog howled along.

And if you wanted to set a glass of milk on the piano? No one freaked out and went running for a coaster to protect the wood. Shoot, that old piano had been around the block a few times. It had the rich patina of many years, many sticky fingers, and many lives lived raucously in its presence. In fact, I’m quite sure it would have laughed its ivories right off at the absurd idea of coasters. It wasn’t like one of those prissy pianos set up for decorative effect in someone’s parlor, no siree. This was a working family’s piano. This was a piano that liked the noise and the chaos and the howling dogs and the spilled milk and the little bit of bread with butter that got smeared on its keys occasionally.

It was all good.

And how could anyone be poor when they had a piano? And music? And homemade bread? And books? It was impossible!

As I continued through my (TV-deprived) growing up years I learned about the art of being content. Just content. That’s all.

So we couldn’t buy fancy new sneakers for gym class? Did the old ones still work? Well then, I learned it was possible to be content with old shoes.

I also learned that I’d better count the money I earned on my paper route several times before spending even a penny of it. If I went into a store and saw something fabulous (a cheap ring, an inexpensive gadget), I would stand there and think about whether or not I could be content without that certain thing.

Many time I could.

And I learned that being content is a good thing. It’s a good gift. It is part of the richness of being poor.

(However, if someone happened to give me a matching bracelet/ring set for my birthday—well, I could be very content with that, too!)


I took so many of those lessons I learned as a child along with me when I married Steve. As newlyweds (I was only nineteen!), our master bedroom--and I use that term loosely--consisted of a decrepit, spongy bed whose non-magnificence was complemented by a line up of lovely brown grocery bags snaking across the tattered carpet. We thought it perfectly logical to store our clothes in grocery bags since we had no money for a dresser. I remember looking at those bags and laughing and saying, “Well, at least they all match!”

Contentment. It is a rich gift.

It’s amazing how often I hear financially secure couples say that the happiest times in their whole marriage were back when they were newlyweds and living on nothing. They’ll laugh about the things they had to do to make it through the week without running out of money and how they had to make do with odd items when they couldn’t afford something nicer. (Grocery bag dressers, anyone?)

Their eyes still sparkle even sixty years later as they talk fondly about the days when they were busy discovering together the richness of being poor.

Some couples who get married now might be tempted to think that they should instantly be at the same financial level as their mom and dad who worked hard for 35 years to be where they are. But if you were to get married and already have everything--well, where’s the fun in that? How are you ever going to get to experience any funny, dramatic “poor young couple” stories to regale your kids and grandkids with later as you all sit around the Thanksgiving dinner table?

Stories which might go something like this:

“Well, Nathan and Sarah, your mom and I were making just $50 a week at the church where I worked part time and I was also selling shoes on the side. One day I went into the bathroom and discovered we were out of toothpaste so I called out to your mom, “Honey, we need toothpaste.”

She was out in the kitchen making the grocery list and I could hear the frantic clattering of the calculator keys while she ran the numbers, subtracting the coupons, adding the tax, trying to find the bottom line. Finally she sighed and called out, ‘I’m sorry. We don’t have money for toothpaste this week. We’re going to have to get by with baking soda instead.’

And then? You’ll never guess! Five minutes later the mail man pulled up in front of our cramped and shabby apartment. When I went out to check the mail, I discovered that there was a sample size tube of toothpaste. That never happened before and has never happened since!”

Let me just say that stories like these, stories of adventurous, plucky poorness, make for such great telling and re-telling. Our kids have heard all of Steve’s and my stories, and they’ve also heard the stories from their grandparents on both sides. They have a keen appreciation for what life was like back then and because of that, an even keener appreciation for what they are blessed with today.

Nathan and Sarah are products of generations of people who lived through hard times, people who laughed, and played music, and read books and recycled Wheaties—people who did their best to model contentment, to celebrate simplicity, and to embrace the richness of being poor.


What about you? What’s your story? What lessons from childhood do you still hold on to today?

Some of you may have grown up with very little, like I did. Others of you may have grown up with plenty, and you learned your life’s important lessons from a whole different perspective.

I’d love to hear your story.

26 Had Something To Say (Just click here!):

Anonymous said...

I have read your site for a LONG time. This is one of the best posts you have ever written. What a treasure to be able to share such a "rich" life you have led. Thank you for sharing!
Rachael J.

Anonymous said...

Bec, I still would have used and insisted on coasters on the piano, patina or not! (And you of all people know this to be true!)

Great post. Guideposts anyone?

Love, Steve

lesley said...

When I was little, I grew up with everything. Everything. Every material thing. Of course, I didn't know that. I thought every child had a truck pull up and deposit many, many items from FAO Schwartz in their yard. I thought all children had 13 different bathing suits every summer. I thought all children had senators or doctors as fathers. I knew nothing else. No one ever talked about our wealth, it just was. Like the sky was blue.

So, in choosing my future, I gave no thought to 'what' I would have. My focus was on the kind of dad I wanted for my children. Because my dad was not around much. He was not the kind of dad upon whose lap you sat. He was intimidating to me. He worked a lot. He loved his work, he was brilliant, but not good at family stuff.
So I wanted a 'Little House on the Prarie' family for my children. I didn't care about not having much money, I wanted a more simple life for them. Basic. Loving, lots of lap sitting :)
And so that's my life with my children. Simple, sweet with lots of meaningful conversations. I don't have a lot of things or much money and I don't care, because that's not what matters, to me.

Unknown said...

I read your post everyday, but loved this one so much. I don't remember your outhouse, but I sure do remember grandmas. I have so many memories at grandmas house in Blackriver Falls. The outhouse, taking a bath in a big metal tub in the kitchen. I remember being so happy when they put in the indoor bathroom. You had a very 'rich' life as a child but not in ways the world would call 'rich'.

Kyna Petersen said...

Loved your post!

I grew up middle class and had most anything I really wanted. One thing that stands out from your post was that we had a TV, but I didn't watch it much and I loved music and books too. I have many wonderful memories of dancing around in my room pretending to be Annie and I spent hours reading! Wonderful memories.

My favorite part of your post was talking about newly wed stories. My husband and I totally ran out of money twice during our first few years of marriage and we were so stressed and down to our last can of tuna fish. Both times we were getting ready to call parents for help (which we really didn't want to do) when both times we got checks in the mail!

One time it was from one my father's good friends who had moved far away and he didn't get to come to the wedding so he just decided a few months later to send a check for a wedding present! Perfect timing!

Another was from my mother-in-law who had paid for Dale's brother David's tux for our wedding and we didn't even know it, so after his wedding about a year after ours she sent Dale a check for his tux for David's wedding. It arrived just in time and we certainly never expected it, but it fed us until the next payday!

God is so good!

beckym said...

well i dont have many childhood stories...but i do know how to use things for things they aren' our living room as we speak is our tv on a dresser and in the drawers movies and video games,lol. in my bedroom a bookcase with mine and my fiancées' clothes....though the boys have a dresser for theirs,lol.
my family did camp every summer when i was real young but my dad really let drinking run his life and as i grew up i began to hate him for took his passing a few years ago to really learn things and feel bad for my ill feeling towards him. his reasons for drinking weren't terrible, my mom and dad lost thier first child a boy, what man doesnt want thier first child to be a son, he went thur veitnam, lost his first wife to a younger man even though he was only 18, and eventually added to the list that his family just didnt care about him. and well i couldn't blame him,i didnt hate him i hated his drinking and couldnt support that. i told him that maybe a month before he passed from cancer.

Bec said...

I gave a life to a young man of 11 last weekend. He hadn't been in the car for more than a few minutes before he proceeded to tell me that his father had bought his mum a necklace that had cost $30,000 for her birthday and 'how good was that'. He then rattled off how much the new renovations were going to cost etc. etc. It was all about money and how good it was.

I spent some time just gently telling him it wasn't how much something cost in money terms but the love with which it was given, how much it cost meant nothing. I think it fell on deaf ears on his behalf but my daughter nodded and agreed wholeheartedly.

Whilst we are not poor, not by a long shot, we do live week to week and don't have a lot of 'things' but boy are we rich in all the things that are truly important!!!

PS Give Sir Snowy a kiss from Sydney xxx

Anonymous said...

Hi Becky
My dad was a letter carrier and we often went without. Of course, we only had 2 children in our family, but it is all relative. We lived in NY and our house was always the smallest, but mom was always home when I walked in the door after school. If I ever needed anything, my parents went without. We rarely went on vacation, but when we did, it was spectacular. You get the picture!!! I would not trade it for anything in the world.

Vicky Elder said...

Ahhh...the memories of the The Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew - my favorites from the local library! I grew up without a tv, also. Each week we would walk down the alley to my grandparents home so we could watch Lawrence Welk. Then we got to play a few games of cards and then come home. Those were the good ole days for sure. Actually, we don't have tv now either. We choose to spend our time otherwise! Loved your post!

Chris P. said...

Becky,this is so wonderful.
It's a beautifully written memoir with a timely message.
Why don't you include it in one of those books you could write?!

Nancy(bratt) said...

I have to chime in here too saying, this is one of the best posts you've done. One of my favorites. I too, grew up poor. We had four kids with a struggling mother. At one time, she worked three jobs and we lived in our old Ford Mustang. All five of us. I knew no different. Sure we would spend a night or two with friend, but our home wasin that car. I remember feeling so crowded, and on the nights I couldnt sleep, Mom would turn on the radio. I get them as a memory flash when I hear car music at night. It takes me back to the time we all resided inthat small white car.
At one time we lived with my cousin and her four children and my other cousin in a 2 bedroom home. We would use our oven as a heater. Mom still worked 3 jobs. Did I grow up poor too? Ohyes, but I knew no different, and still grew up ok. I dont know what its like to feel comfortable. I only know what its like to pray wemake it month to month. And God always sees to it, that we somehow always JUST make it every month and nothig more. I dont live in a ritzy house, its a single wide trailer with 4people. But Icouldnt imagine being happier than where I live right now. My stepmom and Dad reside in a lovely lovely condo. And when I visit, I find that I miss my little 4 person trailer. I miss my room and my family that reside in it.
You know Becky, you are an inspiration, because I too grew up rich. I had more love from my family than many do in a life time. I was blessed, am blessed as I face my bleak future, and I will always view my Mom as my angel. God was good to me.
Love and hugs(thanks for sharing such a lovely post)

Unknown said...

I grew up with just my mom and sister and grandparents. Even though we didn't have money we had each other and my mom did what she could to make sure we had a fun childhood. My favorite memories are of her helping us make a fort with the dining room table, chairs and blankets and then sleeping in it with us. Another time she saved up and surprised us by letting us stay home from school and took us to the next big town to go shopping and eat at a restaurant (that was VERY rare). Our birthdays were always a big deal and for our golden birthdays we each got to invite all the girls in our class over for a sleepover...all at our tiny 1 bedroom house. The memories of the joy and fun we had far outway the times we knew she was exhausted working all night and having 2 girls to watch all day, knowing why our phone or electricity didn't work at odd times, wondering why we couldn't get clothes like our friends.
Now that I am a parent I can't imagine raising 2 kids by myself on one income that wasn't very much. I have learned a lot from my childhood...good times or bad times..they are all learning experiances that I will hold dear forever.

Nancy(bratt) said...

I just want to say this has been a wonderfull subject. I have had a wonderful time reading everyones stories andit makes me feel like this is a place full of friends. You madethis a wonderful place Becky and I hope that never changes. It does my heart wonders to read that we were not alone in how my family grew up. It's like everyone feels the same way. What mattered was not a big house or a bunch of money. But what *did* matter was who we grew up wth and the love we remember in them.
God bless

Anonymous said...

This might be my favorite post ever. The picture of you is adorable, too.

Lisa L said...

awesome post becky. i grew up in a family that was very poor. my dad was a tuberculosis doctor in papua new guinea...(extremely low wages..)and my mum was a physical therapist who worked, unpaid, to start the first PT clinic for physically handicapped kids in new guinea (only using funds from an american donor..) she then went on to work with leprosy patients doing pre and post tendon transplant surgeries...we were literally, hand to mouth, in terms of survival.she also worked at night at the local newspaper being a proof reader. because? mum? she was the bomb with the english language. in fact, if she knew i was typing this in lower case? she'd probably have a linguistic fit! :) and hit me *hard* over the head :)
our gift? the public library. i read, and read, and read.. and that is how we kids educated ourselves.

Erin Crispin said...

This was a lovely written post. What a challenge to all of us with children to give them not material blessings, but the blessing of family time together. I think your post beautifully illustrated the most special moments of my childhood: family time together. We had money growing up, but ti wasn't the "stuff" that made the memories, but the people together. Thanks again for a wonderful reminder to invest into the little hearts what will last for eternity.

All the best,
Erin (came here form the BlogHer ads)

Anonymous said...

I love this post. I read it yesterday and never commented. I got distracted looking at old photos from my childhood!
I loved The Happy Hollisters. Also the Boxcar Children. Fond memories of those books. Jill-FL

Lisa Abraham said...

What a beautiful narrative on simplicity and happiness in a world where "more" seems to be the goal. Sometimes I question if my own children even realize the blessings we have. I was married young also and we both worked in restaurants while going to college. We had a tip jar on the counter where we would put the night's cash. We were helped many times in bizzare ways by God when we needed it most. For example, one particulary lean month when we didn't have enough in that jar to pay our rent and everything else, we received a check in the mail for a credit card that we had supposedly overpaid?! Anyway, those days were hard sometimes but I most remember the joy and excitement of beginning a life together with someone I loved and still do! Perhaps the pervading feeling I have when reaading your entry is how entirely thankful I should feel always to my savior! Thank you Becky again for a wonderful, thought provoking, memory inducing post! Have a wonderful day!

Guerrina said...

The Happy Hollisters????? This is the first time I've heard anyone else ever read them!!!!! I loved them...even tried to start a detective club with some cousins LOL! If we were poor growing up, I didn't know it. We didn't have money for braces, sailing lessons, tennis lessons, etc. like a lot of my friends' families did, but we sure knew how to have fun without! I grew up in what is still a skated for hours and days at a time...hooked on reading...learned to use a sewing machine & a typwriter while still in grammar school...(and YES I did walk a mile each way to school (K-6)even in blizzards)...had B&W TV, but spent more time outside than watching TV inside, Disney showed a movie early on Sunday nights long before cable...I love my childhood...never knew we were lacking, because we weren't in all that mattered!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post that makes us all thankful for our experiences! I remember when we were first married and my parents had come to visit but were at my brothers about 200 miles away and we had planned a family weekend together. The only problem was we had no gas money to get there and I hated to borrow. I ended up asking my Dad if we could borrow some money, he quickly said sure, how much do you need, I said 75 to a hundred dollars, he responded very casually with 75 hundred dollars, what are your plans? I had hated to ask and was near tears anyways as I quickly explained what I said. My Dad willing to help us out at any expense was pure love.

Anonymous said...

Someone just commented on Sunday night Disney movies, that was a popcorn family event in our house every Sunday. Oh the memories!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the beautiful stories of your childhood. My mother grew up during the Depression and always told stories of great struggles as she was one of 13 children. They raised their own food so they always had something to eat, but sometimes no shoes and their dresses were made out of old curtains.

So Mom always made sure we were well fed and clothed. However, when I married, we were VERY poor moneywise. We sort of "eloped" and I even gave up my car since I could not afford the payments. My husband had just come back from Vietnam and was totally unsettled. We lived with friends for the first few months after marriage and finally got a small apartment when my husband found a job. We could not afford to turn on the gas for the stove, so we cooked out of an electric skillet...really not so bad. We could not afford a refrigerator; so thankfully it was winter and we lived where it was really cold, so we put our milk, etc. in a cooler on the back porch. Nine months after we got married, our son was born. We had to borrow a car to get to the hospital.

As I write these things now, it brings back many old memories. I never regretted the "poor" times because I learned so much from them. We are now living the normal middle class life with 2 cars and a home that is almost paid for (after 40 years of marriage). I guess we are more comfortable, whatever that means, but realize we are happy with or without "things" and money.

A said...

Thank you SO MUCH for sharing. I grew up in North Dakota. My parents would say we can not afford this or that but maybe next payday. I believed I grew up living from paycheck to paycheck. I started babysitting at age ten. I learned very fast to really think about each purchase. Do I really need that shirt or jeans? I spent this many hours of babysitting to be able to purchase this. How much do I really want or need this item? After I was in my middle twenties I learned they lived on a small income and invested the rest but none in the stock market. Today at sixty-five and seventy-one they do not have to worry about money but are still VERY thrifty and careful with each purchase. I am so so thankful for how I was raised. When I first married at twenty to an active duty Air Force soldier he made less then eight hundred fifty dollars. We had rent, car payment, and debt he had brought into the marriage. Today we have four boys, homeschool, and still llive on a tight budget. We have many medical bills as well. Thank again for sharing!

Caroline said...

I always love your posts, but I also must say that this is one of my favorites. First of all I'm only seventeen, so I don't know entirely that much about our money issues and things, but I know that my family has never been rich. When I was little I lived in the Bronx where all of my friends lived in apartments, but then when I was 7 we moved to a fairly wealthy suburb in Connecticut (where I'm still living right now). Suddenly, I found that all of my new friends lived in mansions and had bedrooms bigger than the entire first floor of my house. I didn't understand why everybody else had a huge house while I had to live in the one condominium complex in town. Until about sixth grade, I was somewhat resentlful about this, but overall I was happy. As a little kid there were so many places in our condo complex for me and my sister to play, and I still sometimes refer to it as my "kingdom."

I always knew that we were never rich, but we were also never poor. We never went hungry and we got plenty of new clothes when school started each year. Around the time I was 13, I know that things got worse for us, which I learned by listening to my parents conversations. (Secretly, of course. I had already worked out how to listen to conversations in any room through the heating vents. :) ) However, I didn't realize how bad our situation has gotten over the past year until I had to help my parents fill out financial aid forms, as I will beginning college next year. I know that we don't have a lot of money right now, but I also know that everything will be okay eventually. I also have always been rich with love from my family and hope to bring all the lessons I've learned into my own family someday in the future. :)

Anonymous said...

This is so uncanny, but I was born and grew up in North Dakota, too!

My dad left our family when I was 12 and my little sister was 9. I've seen him twice since then. Prior to that, he hadn't been around much, so my mom had effectively raised us alone. My mom makes only about $8000 per year, so we were poor, but I rarely felt deprived.

Now, as an adult, I look back on the sacrifices my mom made and am so profoundly grateful to her. There were nights that she "wasn't hungry" at dinnertime so that my sister and I would have enough to eat. She did without so that my sister and I would be spared at least some of the burden of poverty.

My mom instilled in me a love of knowledge. When I was small, she'd spend hours reading to me every day, letting me choose the same books over and over. Even now, when I go home for a visit, she's excited to look at the stars through a telescope with me or show off the latest addition to her rock collection.

Even when things were at their worst immediately after my parents' divorce, my mom maintained a dry sense of humor that made it easier to cope with our circumstances. Sometimes, when something bad happened, we'd just look at each other and laugh at the absurdity of it all.

My mom isn't perfect. She has substance abuse issues and sometimes makes mistakes. Human shortcomings aside, however, she made me who I am today, and I will be grateful forever.

We may not have had a lot of stuff, but we always had each other.


Ann Martin said...

I can remember when Jim and I first got married that many weeks I would tell him "Don't write a check this week as we don't have any money in the bank." God has blessed us! We still have mismatched furniture because I never cared about having it all matching so we just bought pieces as we could afford and from used furniture store sometimes and sometimes new pieces.