Monday, December 5, 2011

The Truth Is This ...

I grew up poor. 

I am sure my mother would be appalled to hear me say that. Our family was big on not speaking the truth, for a whole host of reasons, all of them beginning with fear. There was the fear of getting hit with a belt, fear of hurting someone's feelings, fear of what the neighbors, the priest, or Child Protection Services might think, say or do.

As soon as humanly possible, I moved away, changed my name and never went back. It's been many years since I was afraid of anything or anyone, so I guess there's that good that came out of it all. As for everyone else, well, by now they're mostly dead, senile, in prison or too beaten down by their own lives to have time for reading anything I might write. The few exceptions are like me, trying to forget the past, thanking their lucky stars as they go forward in life, with the mantra, "What's important isn't where you started out in life, but where you ended up."

The truth is this ....

I grew up in a small Midwestern town in a house my parents bought for $9,000. Even back then, even living east of nowhere, that amount of money didn't buy you much. In fact, when it rained, water leaked through the roof, into the attic, made holes in the bedroom ceiling and dripped right down into the pans at the foot of my bed. Mentioning it would just cause a new round of screaming about how demanding, lazy and ungrateful we children were and more bitter recriminations between my parents about whose fault it was that we couldn't afford a house where the water didn't come in during every thunderstorm. By the end of our first summer there, when I was nine, I'd learned to just go downstairs, haul a pan out from under the sink and stick it in the right spot in the room to catch the water as it fell.

The other reason our house was so cheap, besides the holes in the roof, lack of air conditioning that made it over 100 degrees in the summer and undesirable location is that someone had died in it. The previous owner had committed suicide, shot himself to death in the basement. When we moved in there were still bloodstains on the floor and they stayed there for years.  I think no one ever got the energy or the motivation to try to clean them up. After a while, like so many other things, we got used to them.

We didn't just scrimp when it came to housing. Finding enough to feed a growing family was always a challenge. Years after we had moved in, when Child Protection Services finally entered the picture, the social worker of the month described it well. He said,
"I could see your father giving your mother $30 and telling her to go to the store and buy a week's worth of groceries when he knew damn well that it cost $50 for enough groceries to feed a family that size, and telling her not to come home without them."
Every week we went to the Wonder store - yes, Wonder Bread, builds strong bodies twelve ways. We'd buy day-old bread, Hostess cupcakes near their expiration date and anything else that was half price. If the bread was really stale, my sister and I got the task of tearing it into little pieces so that my mother could mix it up with milk, sugar, raisins and cinnamon for bread pudding. Actually, my mother's bread pudding was fabulous. I've had bread pudding twice this month, in restaurants where my work took me around the country, neither could hold a candle to my mom's, so it wasn't a completely dismal picture growing up. The truth is, though, that the bright spots were far out-shadowed by everything else.

There aren't many good parts about growing up in poverty. Most of my clothes came from Goodwill. Anything new, whether it was a toy, a shirt or even a loaf of bread, it was almost always out of reach.

I hear politicians and ministers preach about the poverty of spirit. I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean, but I can tell you what was hardest on our spirit, and that was being told on a daily, hourly and sometimes minute by minute basis that the reason we could not have that shirt or toy or juice is because it was STUPID and we were  STUPID to want it.  Kool-Aid was just as good as the Hawaiian Punch advertised on TV and cost one-tenth as much and we only wanted the latter because we were too stupid to see that we were pawns of the advertisers and sheep that followed what our friends wanted. THEIR parents were either stupid themselves or just weak and gave in to their children's whining.

WE didn't drink Hawaiian Punch or pay for new Levi's jeans when perfectly good ones were for sale for $3 at Goodwill because we were smarter. We didn't waste money ordering books from the book order at school because books were available for free at the public library. We didn't buy new clothes, we ate old bread and produce because we were superior, smarter, less susceptible to brainwashing from Madison Avenue. We were better.

My father said that and he may even have believed it himself, but I knew the truth.

We were poor.

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