Saturday, 14 December 2013

The Lessons of Growing Up Poor

One of the greatest lessons a parent can teach a child is how to be poor.
The ability to navigate the treacherous waters of poverty is not a skill that is easy to acquire, especially in this day and age.
A lot of people our age (late middle age to baby boomer) heard about the Dirty Thirties and how our parents and their parents had to scrape by, with one potato to feed the family. (Insert eye rolls here.) There were no jobs back then, we were told, so people did pretty much anything they could: take in laundry, barter for services or dig ditches.
My grandfather was the master of this. He was a mechanic, a barber and a farmer, and a bit of a hoarder, who kept a treasure trove of riches in our attic, curiosities, Needful Things, that were given to him by people who could not afford to get their cars fixed. As a kid, I had a whole room full of weird and useless stuff to keep me entertained, including a Victrola which I loved to windup to play my favorite Patti Page records.
We didn't have a lot growing up and had to live with my grandparents until they stopped living themselves. I wore hand-me-downs from better off rellies who had good jobs at the GM plant in St. Catharines. I didn't have a lot of toys, either, so I used to make my own. I remember having the most fun pretending I was a circus performer, twirling about in the fruit trees and using an old oil drum to roll about like a circus bear. One year, Gramps made me a pair of stilts out of left over wood from whatever project he was working on so I teetered around the field performing for my pet dog, Penny.
There were many lessons to be learned on the farm.
Granny Crown showed me how to make preserves, rice pudding and stews that lasted for ever. Gramps taught me how to make saurkraut by putting stinky cabbage under the floor boards.
After the grandparents died, my mom moved us to the city, into a two bedroom apartment, and the challenges were different. I was a teenager, a very demanding teenager who was determined not to be embarrassed by our lifestyle.
Vera was in an awful place in her own life. She worked shift work making sweaters for rich people in a sweat shop for minimum wage to feed, clothe and house us kids, but she could stretch a dollar like a pro. My cousin Butch found her a car for fifty bucks and she ran that until it ran no more and we became bus people. We didn't kvetch about it. It was just the way it was.
We were pretty poor living with Gramps, but now we were dirt poor.
That meant if you wanted something, you'd better get a job to pay for it. I babysat for every penny, and my brothers found good farm jobs that helped put them through university. Thankfully, the government helped out, and we were all able to go to university with loans and grants.
Because we were poor all our life, it was simply a lifestyle, a way from getting from Point A to Point B. Our journey was a little slower and more laborious than richer folks, but we managed.
The adults taught us how to make our own fun.
They were very adept at knowing how to pinch the pennies so they could buy a box of beer on the weekend and pay for smokes. If they didn't have enough money at the end of the month, they rolled their own.
We had a black and white television but it didn't matter because we never knew anything else. I didn't get my first good television until I was on my own at 23.

We learned some lessons about being poor from our parents.
Too bad they didn't take.
I lost most of my "living poverty" skills after I left home. For the first decade, I made money and spent it like there was no tomorrow. Trips to Europe, fancy clothes, SUVs in the driveway. Even when I became a single parent, I lived as if I still had money until I didn't.
Over the past ten years, I've had to relearn my poverty skills again. The good jobs we once had disappeared on us. I've worked at piece work in the ghetto that is freelance writing. Scott went from having a high paying television job to being a car salesman.
We scrape by from month to month, and have added tenants in the basement to help make ends meet.
Sometimes it's hard to pay the utility bills, so we've had to take out pay-day loans.
And two weeks ago, we lost our good car and we're having trouble getting anyone to loan us money to buy another one. Fifty dollar cars are hard to come by these days. I've heard all the good ones are being shipped overseas.
Anyway, we're back to taking the bus and making soup and even doing a little bartering for services.
I don't feel too bad about. I guess I was always meant to be poor. Rich, or at least well-off was for other people.
And I know that many people our age are in the same boat. We were brought up in the land of possibilities where we could do anything, even go to the moon. Too bad nobody told us they were cancelling the space program.
We believed that a good education would be a "ticket" only to discover that everybody had a ticket so we all had to get in line. We thought our good jobs would last forever, that a pension would help us retire, and that marriage would keep us safe.
What a bunch of ninnies.
If my upbringing taught me anything, it was to hope for the best and expect the worst.
Maybe I still had a bit of my mother in me, so I have always expected the worst. But I had no idea what "the worst" was.
Even our highly educated kids can't get jobs and are still living in the basement.
As for us, we're no longer middle class, we're the rock bottom remainders, too old to get retrained, too young to rely on pensions to keep the lights on.
That's why I'm so glad for the guerilla training I got from my mom and her parents.
They taught me to use my self-reliance and creativity after everyone else had turned off the light, thinking that hope had left the building. They taught me to suck it up in the face of adversity. And they taught me to never let the kids see you cry.



 

No comments:

Post a Comment