I’ve mentioned before that we grew up in a family that was classified working poor. Both parents worked. There were three kids. And they made enough that we did not qualify for free lunches, but we did qualify for reduced lunches. And any free cheese or butter or other government subsidized stuff they gave out.
My parents did not have health insurance for several years – years that coincided with some of the worst ear infections that I had. When I was 6 and had tube put into them and adenoids removed, they didn’t have insurance. My parents paid that surgery off when I was 20. My mom paid about $5 a week on it because it was enough that the collections people couldn’t take her to court for non-payment.
My youngest brother and I were just recalling recently how in awe we have always been with my mom’s shopping skills. She did coupons at times, but she just knew the sales. There were some weeks she went to the store with $30 – and fed us for the whole week including lunches during the year my parents made a hair too much to qualify for reduced lunches.
My parents barely lived paycheck to paycheck. It was before credit cards were thrown at everyone, so if you didn’t have the money, you went into full negotiation mode. My mom was the master at knowing who she could float payments with if she needed to do it. And because my mom always got it paid off quickly, they would negotiate with her. She was an honest poor person. I had been to the dentist exactly 3 times by the time I was 21 because the family annual limit was such that they couldn’t afford check-ups and my parents dental work. Thankfully between fluoride in the water and brushing, my brothers and I never had dental issues. In fact, none of us had cavities until we were adults. We only started regular checkups with our doctors when we were required to have them for sports.
School years stressed my mom out. She saved for months leading up to it. Why? Because she knew that the budget couldn’t absorb that big hit. And when we started playing sports in high school, part time jobs were essential so that we could pay all of fees and such. There were rarely new school clothes. Shoes were the only new things we could count on, assuming we needed them. Replace sports shoes after so many miles of wear? Nope. I didn’t get a new pair of cleats until I bought them in college. I got them when I was in 8th grade. Running shoes were replaced annually. I never replaced my basketball shoes. And if anything weird showed up on our class lists, my mom would discuss them with the teacher. We did not live in an area where schools helped those who couldn’t afford it.
This was my childhood.
Do I remember this? Absolutely. It was stressful for my parents. Over the past few years, we have talked about how this impacted my parents. How much they wanted to give us the stuff other kids got – and how they felt guilty they could not. For us, we recall the stress more than the fact we didn’t get it. We hated seeing our parents that way. We remember that more than what we didn’t have.
But, as we tell them, while other kids got that stuff, most kids didn’t get this stuff:
- The hours of playing catch with their dad in the front yard. We did. And we had great conversations about the sport – but about life – and stories about his life – as we tossed that ball back and forth.
- The hours of keep away from my brother we played with the Nerf football. The tackling. The laughter.
- The game of “can we get Emmy to shoot soda from her nose” during a BBQ or Thanksgiving dinner. To this day, I will not drink a beverage at Thanksgiving – or at least in front of them as it is still a goal. And with my dad and my brother equally contributing to the humor, I’m pretty much screwed. Soda is the worst, by the way – but milk is not walk in the park either.
- The camping trips. While we couldn’t afford to fly anywhere, we went camping weekends and a week every summer. The hours around the camp fires. The breakfast of pancakes and coffee. The fun we would have feeding marshmallows to our black lab Black. Fishing for chipmunks with generic Cheetos tied to the end of the line. Swimming for hours as it turned dark. Blowing up rafts until we were lightheaded, then spending hours playing shark while someone was in it.
- The quick trips to the lake for a late night swim and doing spectacular diving catches in the water with the football. I was great at spectacular diving catches.
- The days during Christmas we would spend making Christmas cookies for our friends. We would turn on music, and everyone would help. I have frosted thousands of cookies in my life.
- The Friday nights playing board games or Uno. My parents would turn on music, we would pop popcorn using the air popper, and we would laugh and play and sing all night.
- My dad running between fields as he watched my brother and me play in our respective games at the same time. He was always there even when we thought he wasn’t. After he would tell us what a great job we did doing whatever proving it was on the edge of the field cheering us on even if we didn’t see him.
- Seeing my dad prove to us he could slam dunk a basketball (at 5’8″) or making half court shots over and over again. Playing horse was our favorite.
- Spending hours playing t-ball with a plastic bat and ball. My dad versus us. We had ghost runners we kept track of as well as worn lines in the yard to mark the bases – we played that much.
- Spending hours shooting baskets at the Armory as he worked or sometimes just so we could shoot baskets during the winter.
- Fishing together. You can’t call anything I did fishing, but I was forced to hold a pole.
- My dad coming to my college softball games driving 8 hours to seem me play in a 2hour game.
- Working in our gigantic garden.
- Taking the dog for walks in the wet land areas – and playing fetch with him until all of our arms were tired.
- Trips to the library with my mom where the check out rule was you could check out only as many books as you could carry home.
- Baking with my mom out of a cookbook she got on a field trip in high school. (She still has it and has instructions to find me a copy.) I laugh now when my 10 yr old wants to bake because we were allowed to cook for ourselves when I stayed home alone at her age. And we had a gas stove.
That is what I remember from my childhood. That is what I was left with. It wasn’t about money – it was about the time I got with my parents. Have their experiences influenced my own way of viewing money and stuff? Yes. I don’t buy a lot of new. I am cautious with it – even if I have it to spend. I give my kids time. We give our kid time. Stuff is used. Stuff is de-emphasized.
The rest is just stuff. Stuff comes and go – but memories, memories are what you take with you. They don’t get lost in a fire. They don’t get lost. They don’t get misplaced. And they don’t cost money.
Whenever my parents wish openly they could give us more as kids, this is what we remind them.
Because none of it, they have anything to be sorry about.