Poverty: A Cross You Can’t Put Down

It’s a cold and snowy day here in my corner of the Pacific Northwest. I woke up this morning to snow on the ground which isn’t a common thing here. It’s the kind of day where you want to cuddle on the couch with a blanket and a cup of something warm, to be sure.

As I waited with my kids at the bus stop, the wind started picking up, blowing the snow. I was the only parent at the stop this morning, so I fussed at Middlest’s classmate to put up her hood, the other girl to zip her coat all the way, and I gathered them around me in a circle, everyone’s chin tucked into their coats and scarves, with their backs to the wind.

And I thought how lucky all five of us were to be coming from a warm home, and on our way to another warm place. The wind bit at my face, the snow stung. But I knew that soon, it would be better.

Today is a terrible day to be homeless. Truthfully, there is no good day, but on days like this, it is deadly to be homeless. I hope the people I usually see at the intersections and in the parks have found ways of staying warm, of finding a meal.

I’ve never been homeless. But I understand all too well the many ways it is possible to become homeless in this country. I know mental illness. I know family dysfunction. I know abuse. And I know how poverty can happen with a phone call.

I remember when I realized I was poor. Being a farm kid in a rural area, it wasn’t until I was in upper elementary that I figured out my family wasn’t like everybody else’s. It’s a weird moment when you realize that other families don’t eat like you do, don’t live like you do. We had clothes, food, and what I considered the normal stuff of life. I never thought much about how my clothes came from Kmart, and we ate lots of beans and split pea soup, and never went to see movies or ate in restaurants. Those things were what rich people did. We were normal, as far as I was concerned.

And then one of my classmates, a town kid, got new shoes. They were from Nordstrom’s and had a bold white stripe against their dark navy blue fabric. She thought nothing of getting those shoes or casually answering another classmate’s inquiry over their cost, which was more than my mother had ever spent on any of my shoes.

Funny how a shoe can change everything.

Her shoes looked so sleek, so beautiful. So unlike my “Trax” from Kmart. In one moment, sitting there in my fourth grade classroom, all the dots aligned and I remember looking around at my classmates. It was like there were two sides to the story, our own version of the haves and the have nots. There were wealthy town kids, and not wealthy town kids. The same was true for the farm kids. Two groups regardless of where their homes were, and miles apart in what their lives were like.

It was soon after this that my parents told us one night at the dinner table that if we (my older sister and I) wanted to go to college, we’d need to work hard, get good grades, and get scholarships to pay for it.

And I knew, right then, that if I ever wanted to buy a pair of fancy, sleek shoes without having to save and scrimp, I would need to go to college. I would need to escape.

Back then, we were poor, but not impoverished. That changed when I was in the ninth grade. I grew up on a big farm, but it wasn’t a big enough farm and the debts and loans had added up over time. Then the bank called them due. One phone call and everything changed. Every last thing that could be, had to be sold. We lost it all but the land and the buildings. Those were technically my grandfather’s anyway.

I remember the numbing exhaustion of that winter, before the banker’s phone call. Of getting up on cold nights, cold as this morning, and helping my mom mix up formula for the baby lambs without mothers. Our herd of rambouilet sheep had gotten “white muscle disease” and every day meant more dead lambs, more dead ewes. Of my parents’ faces as things got worse and worse. I remember thinking things had to get better. And I remember the taste of beans.

After that phone call, and many calls after it, my parents moved my little sister and I back to Oregon and we lived off of the money I had saved over the years from showing pigs and steers in 4-H and FFA. My college money — my escape money. It took awhile but we seemed to get back on our feet. My dad got a job, my mom started smiling again, and we lived in a double-wide trailer house that was the nicest house I’d ever lived in.

Then that job fell through, and we moved again. Thus continued a series of events, each one more difficult to overcome than the one before.

For the first time in my life, I qualified for free lunch at school. Before I graduated from high school, I watched my mother’s face the first time she had to pay for beans with food stamps. Everyone worked, not to get ahead, but to get by. And I also worked to get out.

I’ve been thinking about these things since the other day when my sister, Wendy, published a blog post about growing up in poverty and how it changes a person. She lived in a harder version of poverty than I did because I’m ten years older than her. I guess I was also ten years closer to escaping than she was.

By the time things got really bad, I was in college. Of course, that was just a different kind of bad because then I was an “adult” and I had to find ways of balancing my need to escape that life and the guilt I felt for having left them.

One year, it was nearly Christmas like now, and my mom called. I didn’t have a phone, so she’d called my friend across the hall and I remember standing there, at the end of her bed and hearing my mom cry on the phone. My mom never cried. Never. And yet, there she was, crying and telling me that she had twenty dollars and that’s all.

“And I need to buy your brother milk. I don’t have any milk for his bottle,” she sobbed into the phone. I cried with her, sinking down to sit on my neighbor’s cold linoleum floor. I remember winding the cord around my finger and then pulling it smooth. Over and over, giving my hands something to do while we cried together.

I didn’t know what to do then to truly fix things, and I still don’t. Because even though my parents got through that time, that time got through them too. Each time the phone rang with a new disaster, the disasters didn’t really ever end for them or my siblings at home.

Being poor, really poor, makes you look at the world differently. It makes it hard to be an optimist, to believe that things will work out because poverty tells the ugly truth — that sometimes things don’t work out. And those truths ultimately turn into a different kind of truth…when little boys and girls grow up believing that there is no way to escape, that they don’t deserve shoes or a warm coat or a home to call their own, they are unlikely to escape either their poverty or their feelings of unworthiness.

Being poor becomes a cross that cannot be put down. Instead, like a tree with a chain left around it too long, growing up poor becomes something that is so much a part of you, squeezing and crushing you, that you don’t even know its still there, even if you’ve escaped.

I may be a well-educated member of the middle class today, but those feelings of panic and fear are still with me.  I still hold my breath when the cashier rings up my groceries. I still worry about how I’ll keep my kids safe, how I will help them when they need help. When my husband’s jobs have been in jeopardy or lost, I’ve laid in bed terrified I would lose my home, lose my kids, lose myself. I’ve spent months having panic attacks just getting the mail and seeing bills among the circulars.

Because I know just how easily it can all change. And then you are the one without a warm jacket or home to protect you on a cold and snowy morning, like this one.

If you are able this winter season, please give to which ever local agencies you feel can do the most good. I believe in food pantries which feed people while helping them retain their dignity. And I also believe in supporting shelters that help give people a bed to sleep on instead of the street.

6 thoughts on “Poverty: A Cross You Can’t Put Down

  1. I always thought of my family as “middle class” if I thought about it at all, until a “friend” at school explained the differences in class to me – he being “upper merchant class”, me solidly “lower working-class”. I was never on food stamps until the last ten years as my health has gone a bit wonky (“The rich stay healthy, the sick stay(or get) poor” – God, Part II, U2). Funny, how things work out sometimes.

    Thanks for this, good share, good observations.

    • I never fully appreciated how much it affected me until a few years ago when I was in a class that dealt with poverty. And then, I’ve recently been thinking quite a bit about it, both how it affects me personally and how it impacts us nationally. If only this was an easy thing to fix.

  2. Beautiful and heartbreaking. I will share this with my S.O. so he understands better why I worry when he does not.

    • That sensation that you can’t take in a decent breath, that if the wind blows just so and then you’ll fly apart into a thousand pieces…I know it too well.

      I’m sorry you do too.

  3. Oh wow, this is an amazing piece. I was the daughter of an entrepreneur who was ill-suited to working for anybody but himself (a trait I inherited). We had constant boom and bust cycles that ended once and for all in the failure of the family business and bankruptcy. And so yeah, I worry, too. But, oh, the scene where you mother calls you and says she has no money for your brother’s milk–shattering.

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