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