Being Poor

Whether or not you have ever considered yourself poor, read this. I can directly relate to at least 30% of this list, and can completely empathize with most of it.

I am so lucky that my family somehow managed to get out of poverty.

I remember being maybe five or six years old, and someone at school having asked me if I was poor. I knew what ‘poor’ meant, but I also knew that I always had food to eat and toys to play with, and that we had a place to live. So one evening I asked my Mom, “Are we poor?”

She laughed and answered, “Yes!”

That was the first of many rude social awakenings for me.

I remember being given the Sears or JC Penney catalog “wish list” every Christmastime. I don’t remember Santa bringing me ever anything from the wish list — unless the Cabbage Patch Kids were in the wish list, which is possible, I suppose.

I remember the year I got a dollhouse as one of my presents — was it for my birthday, or for Christmas? I think it was my sixth birthday or so. It was used, repainted, furnished with second-hand doll furniture; I still have one of the rubber stamps that was a doll’s coffee table. There was also a weight set made of carefully crafted of grey-colored plastic Q-Tip rods, wrapped on the ends with tiny strips of duct tape for the actual weights. I remember thinking that was the best present ever.

As I was growing up, I lived with my Mom, my Memaw, and my Aunt Sammie (Mom’s half-sister). I shared a room with my Mom when I was little, and Sammie and Memaw shared a room. We moved around a few times, and sometimes Memaw would choose to sleep in the living room on the couch — permanently — instead of sharing a room with Sammie. Especially once my cousin Michael (Sammie’s son) was born.

Right after my Mom married my step-dad (when I was in middle school), he got laid off from his job as an auto mechanic. We spent the next two years on welfare while Tom worked at a gas station and went to school to get an Associates Degree in Soil and Water Conservation.

Things were OK, as far as I could tell, though. I don’t remember one Christmas from those two years that they were married, but I also don’t remember going without very often. I didn’t get the stylish clothes I wanted… but I didn’t have much of a sense of style, anyway. 🙂

My family used to get food from our church. The Mormons have Storehouses where us poor folks would put in orders for things like canned veggies, instant potatoes, oatmeal, and other non-perishables. We went there regularly for some time, and the good old Deseret brand groceries were probably a third to a half of our food supply.

When I was in high school, I was totally embarrassed to have anyone other than my very very close friends drop me off after band practice, or after hanging out at Arby’s. One time, my friend’s car started overheating, and she had to hang out at my apartment with a couple other band geeks while her car cooled off. I was humiliated at having her see the uncarpeted 1970s-looking linoleum throughout the apartment, the exposed furnace in the living room, the second-hand furniture, the painted cinder-block walls, the chain-pulls on all the light fixtures. I could tell she was kind of put off by the place, and was glad to leave once her car would start again.

My Mom went through a stupid amount of schooling to try to get a decent-paying job over the years. She got her GED when I was four or five, she got certified to be a Nursing Assistant when I was six or seven… then when I was in high school, she got another certificate in Microcomputer Accounting. She ended up working at a nursing home when I was little, then at various factories, then became a manager at McDonald’s, then was a housewife for two years, then finally ended up as a bartender while I was in high school. All the while, we were still on public assistance (read: welfare / food stamps).

When I went off to college, she got a job as an photographer, a profession she’s stayed with for ten years now, though she still makes less than I do per hour… which isn’t right.

During my Freshman year at college, I had a boyfriend who made fun of my ratty shoes. First off, I loved my beat-up Converse knock-offs in pink, green plaid, black, and white lace eyelets. Secondly… I had no idea when I’d be able to get new shoes. In retrospect, I wish I would have told him to just buy me a pair of shoes himself.

This isn’t a “woe is me” fest. This is me being amazed that my Mom and I managed to get out of the projects after I graduated high school, thanks to her photography gig. This is me being amazed that I managed to march three years of drum corps, finish college, and make a way for myself in middle-class society with this kind of history behind me.

So many people never make it out. I sometimes wonder about the neighbor girls back in the old ‘hood, whether they went to college or into the work force or whether they got knocked up and are starting the cycle on their own. I know of a couple who did the latter before they even graduated high school, actually.

I don’t really have some witty or powerful way to wrap this up. Suffice to say that being poor sucks ass, and I’m glad that all the members of my family made it out. Me, my Mom, and my Aunt are all doing fine in middle-class digs these days. It’s amazing. It’s cool.

I think maybe we’re lucky. Or maybe we made our own luck…?

2 thoughts on Being Poor

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  1. I remember food stamps and stuff from being young, and government cheese too. I remember my parents slept on this fold-out foam rubber mattress that doubled as our couch during the day. I also remember how we would whine to get the stuff we saw on TV, or in the store, and how my parents would sometimes look like they honestly wanted to but couldn’t.

    I remember that they loved each other then as they do now, and everything was ok because we had eachother.

    I’m not sure that *me* making it out had anything to do with me. I think it’s mostly because my parents made every sacrifice to see me in the right direction, including disciplining me. I’m not a dad, but I can only imagine the pain one experieces when disciplining a child for the first time.

    Here’s to parents who help us get through. Let’s hope we can do the same for our own children.