When I was in second grade we moved to Maine from California. It was the middle of December and I remember thinking I’d never seen skies that gray before. The house we were moving into had been an old bakery in the 1800s. My mom was on her hands and knees scraping dirt off the floor with a cap from my sister’s baby food jar. The ceiling was leaking. There was an old cat who came with the house and he greeted me with a dead mouse.
I remember having to stuff old clothes in a hole in the floor and we were always being reminded to close the door to a room in the back of the house. My father cut down trees from the forest and my sisters and I were in charge of bringing wood in and placing it by our three wood stoves. Damn, I hated doing all of these things but it was how we stayed warm.
While my friends at school would bring in Oreos and Ruffles, I always had homemade baked goods. Even the bread that peanut butter was spread on was homemade. Same for the jelly. I always felt embarrassed because everyone asked me why my bread was so big.
Instead of ordering Dominos, we had homemade pizza. We raised chickens, we had a garden, and my sisters and I knew how to skin a deer and bait a fishing hook during our first few years of elementary school.
We lived like this not because my parents loved and enjoyed these hobbies. It was because we were poor. There were six of us in the family and one military salary.
I wasn’t aware that we were poor though. I mean, I knew my friends would come back from school breaks with new clothes and shoes and I always had hand me downs. I was jealous and envied their material things but I wasn’t old enough to connect the dots and realize I didn’t have new Nike sneakers after Christmas break because my parents couldn’t afford to get us all a pair.
I knew that the homemade Cabbage Patch kids my mother created for people were so so my parents could afford Christmas gifts, and I’d sneak food I wasn’t supposed to because we were only allowed limited quantities of everything and I was really hungry.
But, I didn’t feel poor.
My sisters and I never went without the things we really needed. We spent hours playing outside on our swing my dad made for us out of an old tire and the stove we made out of a large rock in our yard.
We didn’t have plastic dishes so we used leaves as plates and sticks as forks and mashed up apples from our apple tree and made applesauce. We played kickball and would play in our water hole, pretending we were fishing.
On Saturday nights, we’d all have a bath and watch Star Search while my dad made pizza. If we were lucky there’d be enough ingredients left over for him to make more dough and he’d fry it into donuts.
Big holiday gifts were shared so we all had to learn to get along if we wanted to play with them which we did. We shared rooms and never went to sleep alone. We learned how to cook and clean when we were young and when we all left home, there wasn’t much we didn’t know how to do.
When we were teenagers, we all got jobs as soon as we could so we’d have our own money to buy clothes, shoes, and go to the movies with our friends. By the time I’d graduated college, I was able to list lots of skills on my resume. As it turned out, being poor served me well.
I feel lucky that I am able to give my kids a life I didn’t have but more than that, I am thankful for the childhood I did have. I wouldn’t be the same person without those experiences and I truly believe they shaped our childhood, for the better.