I spent the weekend at my in-laws’ home in the Berkshires, celebrating the Fourth of July. Joining us for dinner was Elysha’s grandmother, my daughter’s great-grandmother, who is 87-years old and sharp as a tack. Nana still drives, does not wear any kind of prescription eyewear, attends classes at her local college in Florida, and was still dating just a couple of years ago. She is always great for engaging conversation, captivating storytelling and good humor. In fact, the character of Edith in my second book, Unexpectedly, Milo, was initially modeled after her, though the real-life version of Edith is much more lively and amusing than her literary counterpart.
In the midst of our dinner table discussion, Nana told me about a game that she had played with friends a couple of Independence Days ago called "How Poor Were You?" Players were challenged to provide evidence as to the extent of their poverty at some previous point in their life, and accolades were given to those who could prove themselves to have been the most poverty-stricken.
The game would not have worked well this weekend, as I suspect that Nana (who grew up during the Great Depression) and I were the only people present to ever feel the real sting of real poverty, but it sounded like a fun game just the same.
But Nana said something to me in the midst of this discussion that I understood fully, and something that I do not think those who have not experienced poverty could ever truly understand. She said, “We were poor, but there were times when it was fun to be poor. You had to be really creative to survive, and to even eat, and there’s a certain joy in that.”
I couldn’t agree more.
So in the spirit of "How Poor Were You?" I thought I’d try out a few of my more cogent arguments here.
I was poor three times in my life.
- From birth until the age fifteen, when I began working forty hour work weeks in addition to high school in order to take care of myself.
- For the two years immediately after high school (ages 18-20) when I was living with friends in an apartment in Attleboro, Massachusetts.
- From from the ages of 22-24, when my life took a desperate turn for the worse.
From these three times impoverished periods in my life come my attempts to prove my poverty:
From kindergarten through high school, I was eligible to receive free breakfast and free lunch from our school system, and during the summers, I also received free lunch from the park service. I can recall enormous blocks of WIC (Women, Infants and Children) cheese being delivered free-of-charge to my home for much of my childhood, and there were days, and perhaps weeks, when this cheese made up a good portion of my diet.
I received my first pair of snow boots at the age of eight after many New England winters spent in tennis shoes.
After high school my roommate and I were so poor that we could not afford to turn on the heat in the winter. We would eat boxes of elbow macaroni (5 for $1) and sit under blankets together on the couch, huddled to keep one another warm while we watched The Simpsons on an ancient television set atop an old baby-changing table. The apartment was so cold that the pipes burst in the bathroom and we could routinely see our own breath.
After being homeless for almost two weeks and living in my car, I was taken in by a family of Jehovah Witnesses who allowed me to share a converted pantry off the kitchen with a guy named Rick and their pet goat. I did this for almost two years.
I like to think that these challenging times in my life helped to make me the person and the writer that I am today. The constant, almost daily struggle, the need for persistence and perseverance, and the opportunity to experience a varied range of the human condition, from hunger and near homelessness to relative success and accomplishment, have equipped me with a vast storehouse of memories, experience and understanding from which I can draw.
Sometimes I feel sorry for the people who were born into relative comfort and ease.
Nana was right: Being poor can be fun.
Anyone else experience poverty in their lifetime?
If so, want to play "How Poor Were You"?