What's the hardest thing you've endured being poor?

I grew up the oldest of six children. My father was not prepared for poverty. He didn't grow up that way and had no idea how to do it. My mother on the other hand grew up as the second youngest in a mexican family of sixteen who had been migrant workers off and on since the depression years. She knew how to live poor, though she was not one of those that had had to survive those years. Therefore, poverty, as deep as ours wasn't really noticeable until I got old enough to realize what was going on. Probably around middle school age.

We lived in Michigan when I was very young. Every week these huge dump trucks would drive by our house carrying giant sugar beets. They're about the size of a child's head. The road was unpaved, so the ruts in the road would jounce the trucks and some of the beets would fall off the truck and they'd bound down into the dirt and down into the ditches on the sides. My mother would send my younger brother and I out running after the trucks to collect them into baskets. We'd get maybe a dozen or so each of those dirt colored things and drag the baskets back to the house. She'd set them aside in the pantry, beets were the vegetable of choice for the week. To this day I detest beets.

Meat was an unheard of delicacy in our house, for the kids, real meat that is. We learned how to get by on fried bologna, bone soup, spam, fatty ground beef, chicken hot dogs. I remember, one night, my dad sitting down to a meal of a thick red steak and potatoes, my siblings and I, smelling that from outside the house, come racing into the kitchen. Standing around the table, hands in our pockets....I say, "Mom where's ours?"...she sets a pot of goulash and a loaf of bread on the table. No meat. But that's how it was, dad had to work, we didn't.

A lot of families in our financial position chained their refrigerators. My mother didn't have to. We knew how quick and hard her hand was. We'd all worn the bruises. So when we got home from school, not a single one of us touched the refrigerator, whether she was home or not. She knew exactly what was in there, down to the ounce. We didn't raid the cupboards, she counted jars and cans on a daily basis. We ate when she said we could. That was it. We got one serving at supper, no more. If you didn't like it, you went hungry (hungrier). We learned how to eat fast, and guard our food from siblings. Brothers and sisters who ate faster would steal. But you better not let her see you, mind your manners kids.

I had my first job when I was ten years old. Cleaning house for retirees. I was very good at it. I made great money at it too. But, there was no keeping the money. I had to give all my money to my mother, and she gave me an allowance. I didn't get to keep my own money until I was sixteen. I moved out shortly after that.

I was never able to have decent clothing. She prided herself on being able to make clothes for us. She was pretty good at skirts and dresses. But she insisted on make "jeans". The worst things I've ever been forced to wear. I've never in my life been so embarrassed. Walking around in home made "jeans" and always someone else's clothing that almost never fit. Always looking like I could never be more than a ragdoll. I learned early how to mend with tiny straight stitches, how to tear down and remake clothes, how to mend socks on a light bulb, how to take in and take up, how to dart. Hand sewing everything to keep it worth wearing became a necessity. I still do it. I have now jeans, shirts, skirts and blouses that are as old as my kids because I just keep repairing.

The are good things about growing up poor. It prepares you for hard times once you leave home. Anything else is easy. You know how to make money and food stretch for weeks. Cooking on a dime is something that comes second nature. You're less picky about absolutely everything. There are things and situations that would drive other people crazy that you can just take in stride. IF you survive your childhood physically, mentally and emotionally healthy, you end up being one of the strongest people you will every know.


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