See this house?
Forty years ago I lived there, along with my parents and five siblings.
Although I realize the house seems to be a bit on the sparse side, it did sport one unique feature that set it apart from most other houses. It had its own outhouse. How quaint is that? (It’s quite quaint to look back on it, but not quite so quaint as actually using said outhouse. Trust me on that.)
So. Did I grow up poor?
That’s a complicated question. If poor means not having a lot of money, then yes, I suppose I did. But there are very few times that I remember feeling poor.
One of those rare moments was when I was about four years old and overheard my parents’ conversation talk about not having quite enough money for that week’s groceries. (Feeding six kids is not a job for the faint of heart or the thin of wallet.)
I finally decided the time had come for me to intervene. I ran and retrieved 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 my act of brilliance didn’t elicit an appreciative exclamation of relief.)
Fortunately, Mom was good at creating meals from limited ingredients. She could stretch a pound of hamburger so far you would think it had rubber bands woven throughout. She could take a few forlorn potatoes and whip them up into a delicious dish that would miraculously feed eight people. Dad always prayed 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.
Not only was Mom gifted at stretching ingredients, she was also good at cooking without a recipe. When she made her weekly batch of bread, I’d watch her stand in front of the fridge and gaze briefly at the items she’d rescued from the supper table throughout the week. And then the official Grab and Toss Ceremony would begin.
A driblet of leftover mashed potatoes? Into the bread.
A dollop of uneaten Cream of Wheat? Into the bread.
A dab of Wheaties recovered from someone’s breakfast? You guessed it.
We used to kid her that we should probably hide the dish washing detergent when she was baking, just in case she got the urge to grab that as well.
But her 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 fourteen years old, our family didn’t own a television. I suppose to some people, that might have been undeniable proof that we were deprived because no child should have to survive without a television. Right?
Well, somehow we six kids managed. Library books were free and they were plenteous and who needed a TV when The Happy Hollisters was close at hand?
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.
Books and bread weren’t the only gifts that were woven throughout my childhood. Music was, too.
Mom played piano, Dad played guitar and they harmonized together beautifully. Although at first we didn’t have a piano of our own, we did have access to one in a small country church about a mile from our house. Since the church was always kept unlocked, the eight of us would often drive over there after supper so that Mom could play the old hymns she loved. I would listen to her for a few minutes and then go and stand in front of the scratched pews (peopled only by siblings) and sing my small heart out as she accompanied me.
And that’s why it was especially meaningful to me that after Dad’s funeral three years ago, my extended family all gathered at that very same country church from my childhood. Mom played the same old piano and accompanied us all as we joined hearts and voices to sing, What A Friend We Have In Jesus.
And after all those years, I sat down and played that dear old piano myself. I cried and sang and played music written by memories.
On that day of my dad’s Home going, the scarred pews were still peopled by my siblings—but this time the siblings were joined by other family members and friends who had come to honor the person who had made sure that music ran like a lovely chord throughout our family’s history.
Although I was thankful for that dear, borrowed church piano, I was absolutely thrilled when we were finally able to buy a piano of our own–a battered but unbowed instrument that we rescued from a yard sale for a few measly bucks. We rammed it into a corner near an overflowing bookcase and at various times throughout the day, different ones of us would wander over and bang out a tune or two while our hound howled along.
That beloved piano of ours was older than dirt and covered with a rich patina of many years, many sticky fingers and many lives lived raucously in its presence. And if you wanted to set a glass of milk on it? No one freaked out and went running for a coaster to protect the wood. In fact, I’m quite sure it would have laughed its ivories right off at the very idea of a coaster being set upon its person.
This instrument wasn’t like one of those prissy parlor pianos. No sirree, 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 bits of bread with butter that occasionally got smeared on its keys.
And how could anyone possibly be poor when they had such a piano? And music? And homemade bread? And books? It was incomprehensible.
As I continued through my piano-enriched, TV-deprived, book-blessed growing up years, I learned a lot about being content. And I learned that being content is a good thing. It’s a good gift. It is part of the richness of being poor.
I brought those childhood lessons with me when I got married. As a nineteen-year old newlywed, the bedroom I shared with my new husband consisted of a spongy bed whose non-magnificence was complemented by a line up of brown grocery bags snaking its way across the ratty carpet. Since we had no money with which to buy a dresser, we thought it perfectly logical to store our clothes in grocery bags. I remember looking at those bags and laughing and saying, “Well, at least they all match!”
Contentment. It is an especially rich gift when one is poor.
I have often heard financially secure couples say that the happiest time in their marriage was back when they were newly married and living on nothing. They laugh about the things they had to do to survive, 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 after sixty years, as they talk fondly about the days when they were busy discovering together the richness of being poor.
There are some young couples who erroneously believe that they should instantly be at the same financial level as their parents. But if they were to get married and already have everything–well, where’s the fun in that? How would they ever be able to collect any funny, dramatic poor young couple stories with which to regale their children as they sit around the table at Thanksgiving?
Our kids have heard all of Steve’s and my stories; they’ve also heard stories from both sets of grandparents.They have a keen appreciation for what life was like back then and because of that, they have an even stronger appreciation for what they are blessed with today.
Our son and daughter are the products of generations of people who lived through hard times, people who read books, played music, and recycled Wheaties. They are the products of people who modeled contentment, celebrated simplicity, and joyously embraced the richness of being poor.